Discovering the Island of Cuba: Havana and Beyond

Since 1962, U.S. citizens have had to admire Cuba from afar and dream of what obscurities lie on the mysterious island. However, now that the embargo has been lifted, we can enjoy the flavorful treats of Havana and even the delicacies that rest beyond the country’s capital city. With the assortment of things to get into, Havana will keep you moving from the beaches to the astonishing culture. Although the destination is new (to us) it marvels in a history all its own. Beyond Havana, travelers can enjoy the surf on the eastern side of the island at Guantanamo where the waves are biggest between September and December, scuba dive in the warm see-through waters of Jardines de la Reina or cycle your way across the vast countryside to embark on mountainous sensations, seaside coves and villages untouched by time.

GETTING THERE:
Many Americans fly directly from Miami to Cuba, but another option for Americans flying to Havana is to depart from Cancun, Mexico. Havana-bound travelers can purchase non-stop airline tickets through multiple carriers including American Airlines from Miami and Interjet from Cancun for approximately $100-150 USD each way depending on the date of purchase and travel. A visa is required to gain entry into Havana but the process is simple; both the Miami International and Cancun Airport sells visas for $20 USD and only require a short form to be filled out. However, there may be a lengthy line so give yourself enough time before your flight takes off.  

THINGS TO DO IN HAVANA:
While deciding what to do may be overwhelming in a land rich with history, culture and outdoor goings-on, Havana Vintage Car Tours makes it easy to get around in style. Classic American cars will pick you up and take you to your custom-made itinerary so you can ride in style (without the stress) as your driver leads the way. For a less fussy and less expensive classic car experience, for $30 Cuban dollars (CUC) drivers will swoop patrons waiting outside National or Park Central Hotel to be carted around the city. Bicycle taxis are also a great option but make sure to negotiate a price before hopping on for the ride.

Malecón is a seaside town stretching eight kilometers from the opening of Havana Harbor in Old Town to the neighborhood of Vedado. Best known as a meeting place for lovers, artists and tourists, this harbor boasts the most picturesque sunset views. For the art lover in you, visit Taller-Estudio Jose Fuster Art Galore or more accurately referred to by locals as Fusterlandia. Stroll through the neighborhood that Fuster himself fashioned after moving to Cuba 30 years ago. Each house and road weaving in and out of Fusterlandia has been intentionally sculptured and colorfully remodeled bringing to light the vibrant soul behind Fuster’s vision. For a mix of culture and religion, wander through one of the most pious constructions on Earth, Necropolis Cristobal Colon. The cemetery was declared a National Monument in ‘87 and has since become one of the most visited structures in Cuba. Espiritu Santo Church is the oldest standing church in Havana dating back to 1632 and it is believed that runaway enslaved people were hidden inside the structure. The three-story church’s  interior shows some remodeled, yet, historical features throughout. Plaza Vieja, which translates to Old Square, is lined with 18th-century Cuban architecture staring down upon the centrally-placed fountain instituted in 1796. The square calls people of various cultural backgrounds to marvel at the intricate details and rich history of the construction.

After you’ve soaked yourself in the richness of Cuban culture and updated your historical knowledge of architectural wonders; go soak up the sun on the many beaches and outdoor activities keeping Cubans and tourists busy seven days a week. Playas de Estes and Santa Maria del Mar battle for the title of best Havana beach locale; visit both and decide for yourself. Many locals boast that the only true way to see Havana is by cycling through it. Cuba Ruta Bikes offer a variety of tours that allow cyclers to weave their way in and out of the narrow streets and sandy beachside walkways. It is likely you’ll adopt a new hobby of kiteboarding or varadiving as both are popular daytime happenings in the capital city.

WHERE TO EAT IN HAVANA:
Look to El Cocinero for adaptive international recipes with a Cuban twist. Their stylish spaces give off a sense of minimalist modernity as you dine on dishes such as Thai chicken satay alongside the famed Spanish dish papas bravas. El Cocinero has four distinct interior rooms to choose from – terrace, garden, bar and main dining room – while the exterior is just as unique. When en route to El Coc, just look for the smokestack. 

With a distinct atmosphere, the San Cristobal Panoramic Restaurant housed in the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, offers stunning nighttime views of Old Havana. Via the terrace, San Cristobal overlooks the historic colonial architecture of this aging city all the while fresh dishes from the Caribbean overtake your palate. 

The dripping light fixtures, fresh flowers and large windows make Bella Habana noticeably elegant. Gourmet Cuban food is the delight of this treasure, offering twists and turns to the traditional dishes. However, international cuisine has also inspired this establishment as Italian, seafood and Spanish/Basque is also served. Breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner are served into the late evening at this cash-only spot, closing at midnight Monday through Sunday. 

It’s all about location with this 19th-century La Habanera Printing House in Old Town Havana, balancing the restored La Imprenta. The high ceilings, sporadically placed pillars, wooden tables and brick bar give the restaurant a rustic yet industrial personality. Most acclaimed for their brunch and dinner options, their offerings include tapas, sandwiches and meat skewers prepared on a charcoal grill.

Located in the neighborhood of Vedado, Los Naranjos is an upscale, yet, reasonably priced establishment. The two-story house-turned-restaurant strings baccarat chandeliers while allowing natural light to flood the dining room through the floor to ceiling windows. The restaurant has only 10 tables, so claim yours by making a reservation ahead of time. Key dishes include Lobster Tail in Pink Sauce and the Vaca Frita. Pair your meal with a mojito or glass of sangria as there is a consistent buzz that they are the best in town. You are likely to find owner Alexia Naranjos making rounds to each table thanking guests for their business. It’s an all-around classy experience.

No need to rush as you feast at Paladar Doña Eutimia. In fact, owner Leticia encourages diners to linger in the relaxing atmosphere despite the line out the door. The amiable and warm restaurant is small in space although they make up for the shortcoming in big offerings, both on and off the plate. The main dining room dimly lights the atmosphere making it perfect to get intimate over a traditional Cuban meal of Ramal or Ropa Vieja. In the bar, you will find plush sofas with regulars sipping their drink of choice, either caffeinated or alcoholic while jamming to modern musical blends.

You will enter a time capsule upon walking through the doorways of Café Laurent. The ‘50s décor inspires feelings of nostalgia while the chic bohemian additions enliven the place. The veiled gem is not easily found but definitely worth the search. The rooftop dining patio paints a colorful canvas of Havana. The combination of class and luxury is showcased in the cuisine and the service while splatters of Cuban personality can be seen on the walls.

WHERE TO DRINK IN HAVANA:
Fabric de Arte Cubano (F.A.C.) is a beautiful merger of the arts, mouthwatering drinks and non-stop grooving. The museum by day and club by night welcomes hordes of people any time; however, if you go before 9 p.m. (or on a weekday) you are likely to skip over the trail of roisterers. There is a cover charge of $2 CUC (equivalent to $2 US dollars) and all drinks are put on a card to be paid at the end of your partying. The live music, DJs and over 20 bars make this club ideal for night owls who can hang until the wee hours of the morning.

It’s show time at El Gato Tuerto known for their Cuban entertainment. The connection between drinkers and performers is palpable and the libations being poured are tasty and simple. It is typical to have a mixed crowd of both middle-aged tourists and young locals on any given night. Shows go until late and a small cover charge is required to gain entrance and totally worth it! Although there is music scheduled nightly, the best shows are typically Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

El Chanchullero de Tapas is a hip hole in the wall with only four tables, a few stools and a small bar. The setting makes it that much more exclusive as it is known to pull in only those who can find it. The tiny bar surrounded by brick and wood will quickly become your go-to spot offering classics such as Cuba libre (cocktail with rum and cola) and mojitos while keeping it simple with canned national cerveza options of Cristal and Bucanero that can all be enjoyed alongside delicious tapas. 

Many visitors often try to avoid the swarm of tourists taking over certain establishments. Don’t expect to avoid travelers at El Floridita in Old Town Havana; do, however, expect to enjoy the history of this well-to-do bar. El Floridita not only boasts some of the finest rum-mixed cocktails but is also home to one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite spots. When you get hungry you won’t find any traditional bar snacks of peanuts and chips, instead, plantains are scattered about for all to enjoy. Yes, it’s touristy and it’s worth it!

La Bodeguita del Medio was built in ‘42 and has consistently been a draw for famous poets and politicians since its conception. Salvador Allende, poet Pablo Neruda and artist Josignacio are a few of the individuals who have made this bar a staple. With graffiti encouraged throughout and music inspiring dance, the bar is hopping with good vibes.

Espacios Havana is a fine blend of merrymaking and contemporary sophistication. The veranda is plentiful while the inside has carved out various rooms to inhabit and small bars to attend throughout the Miramar location. The service is spectacular and the drinks are terrific. Although not consistent, live music has a tendency of popping up unannounced and pleasantly surprising the partygoers looking to extend the fun into the night.

WHERE TO STAY IN HAVANA:
The ultimate of all Havana hotels would be the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana. As the very first 5-star hotel in the city, the Manzana has several first-class amenities that are unique to the city including the Evocación Tobacco Lounge where puff on a real Cuban cigar in one hand with a glass of fine Cuban rum in the other. The Constante Bar is another priority where fresh-made daiquiris are the go-to, while the rooftop terrace lounge, El Surtidor, invites you for a swim amongst the colonial architecture of Old Havana.

The stylish Hotel Saratoga was built in 1879 and most recently reopened its doors in ‘05. Whether it’s their supreme luxury or the rooftop pool overlooking Capitolio, Central Park and Prado, since the re-opening, this Cuban hotel has pulled in A-listers like Beyoncé. Named after the Cuban all-girls orchestra band that performed at the hotel in the ‘30s, Anacaona is an upscale restaurant on the grounds that offers exquisite Cuban and international fare designed by chef Mario Berutti. The Mezzanine Bar has a wet bar for guests to meet and drink with out-of-towners and locals. At sunset, take your Cuba Libre to-go and climb up to the rooftop pool where the scene is magical.

Hotel Palacio del Marqués de San Felipe y Santiago de Bejucal is dubbed the perfect location in Old Town Havana. Across from the Havana waterfront, the Basilica, the rows of restaurants and busy parks, this boutique hotel is ideally placed for travelers to get where they’re going on foot. The 18th-century loveliness introduces modern amenities but reiterates the historical presence throughout the atmosphere. Ceremoniously set up every morning, breakfast is served with an overflow of ripe produce and creative arrangements attracting early birds (breakfast ends at 11 a.m.). Being a scarce commodity in Cuba, internet access is like gold, which is why in-room wifi availability is such a selling point at this establishment; however, it does come at a small fee.

Located in the Vedado district, Meliá Cohiba Cuba is a high-rise five-star indulgence that has gained a reputable name as one of the most modern buildings in the region since opening in ‘94. Just steps away from the sand, guests can choose to lounge by the ocean or opt to get sun-drenched by the pool. The location is prime and the nightly floor shows put on in the ‘50s themed Habana Café is a crowd pleaser for night owls. And the piano bar offers crafted drinks and smooth entertainment while the lobby bar is open for your drinking pleasure 24 hours a day.

Hotel Santa Isabel Havana is found in the impeccable Plaza de Armas neighborhood welcoming guests from all around to enjoy their colonial refinement and contemporary amenities. A piece of Habaguanex Hotels, the organization donates a significant portion of the profits generated by the various hotels to rescue Havana’s historical heritage. Perhaps one of the most notable features that influence the 19th-century colonial façade is the antique marble staircase leading the way to luxurious suites.

WHERE TO GO BEYOND HAVANA:
Cuba’s former capital city, Santiago de Cuba, is located in the southern region of the island and is bursting with history for those wanting to soak it all up. However, please note the big city comes with steady hustlers so be on your toes when visiting. For an experience of slow-paced beauty, Trinidad in the west is so intimate you will hear the local bread man hollering prices at sunrise as he meanders the cobblestone streets with fresh loaves. Horses walk the paths and life seems to stand still in the one-of-a-kind village. While there, order a few rounds of canchánchara, a Cuban drink made from raw rum, honey and fresh lemon or lime. Word has it, they are best made in Trinidad.

WHERE TO STAY BEYOND HAVANA:
Get off the Havana grid and journey to Royalton Cayo Santa Maria where the island vibe is a way of life. The 18 and over all-inclusive resort gives a Caribbean spice to the guests and promotes the awakening of senses and rejuvenates the mind, body and soul. If you are coming from Havana, renting a car will be the most convenient, yet most expensive option. Car Rental Cuba and Transtur are great rental and car hire options. It is a 4.5-hour drive heading east, mainly frequenting the Autopista National highway with scenic splashes of diverse land along the way. You also have the option to book a flight directly into Santa Clara International airport from Havana (approximately 12 kilometers from your destination).

Part of Melina Cuba hotel group, Paradisus Rio de Oro Resort & Spa is an eco-resort designed to enhance one’s well-being and promote a healthful experience inside and out. What’s more, the all-inclusive resort is located within the Bahia de Naranjo National Park on the northern coast of Holguín. It is a beachfront location with views of coral reef below and access to botanical gardens and spa treatments. The multi-layered extensive pools are a visual attraction and physical indulgence among guests. Located nearly 800 kilometers from Havana, the best option is to book a flight into Frank País International Airport. From there, it is a 71-kilometer trek best traveled by car.

Yes, time seems to have stood still in this Cuban time pod, yet various safety and cultural tips remain. As for those Cuban cigars we all strive to smuggle back home, no need to hide the rolled tobacco in incomprehensible places; US Customs now allows up to $100 worth of Cuban cigars to be transported back in to the States.