by Mary Ann DeSantis
Getting to Cuba is not as easy as just booking a hotel and hopping on a Havana-bound jet out of Miami International — at least not yet. General tourism is still prohibited, but the number of organized people-to-people educational exchanges (see Sidebar Before You Go) has exploded since the United States and Cuban governments began restoring diplomatic relations.
Travel rules are changing rapidly, but one thing will remain the same: four centuries of history, art and culture. People-to-people exchanges are geared to your interests and tastes, so here are suggestions to make your trip as meaningful as possible.
For the Cultural Aficionado
Nothing defines Cuban culture better than cars, cigars and rum. Get an overview of Havana with a two-hour guided tour in a vintage American car, often called a “tank” by the Cubans. Tours run about $50 per person, and you’ll hear some great stories from drivers who most likely inherited their cars from fathers or grandfathers.
Several cigar factories offer strictly controlled guided tours, and access is impossible without a Cuban guide. Currently no photography is allowed inside the factories, and just like at many American attractions, tours finish up in the gift shop. Visiting the Havana Club Rum Foundation Museum is a much easier process and quite educational. You’ll learn about spilling a “drop for the saints” as well as which vintage is best for a Cuban-inspired cocktail.
WHERE TO STAY: Hotel Nacional de Cuba is a landmark that towers above Havana’s famed Malecón thoroughfare. Opened in 1930, the Nacional has always attracted the rich and famous, and today’s celebrities (including recent visits by Kevin Costner and Paris Hilton) still enjoy the peaceful view overlooking the coastline. hotelnacionaldecuba.com
WHERE TO EAT: La Casa Restaurante, a family owned paladar, was a dream come true for the Robaina family when it opened in 1995. La Casa’s black beans and rice are exceptional, most likely because they are prepared under the watchful eye of manager Alejandro Robaina’s 95-year-old grandmother, María Sánchez. restaurantelacasacuba.com
For the Literary Set
Cubans revere author Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Havana in the 1940s and 1950s, and his old stomping grounds have become shrines, especially in the fishing village of Cojimar. Before you visit the town where The Old Man and the Sea was set, follow the novelist’s footsteps in Havana, starting at the outdoor book market in Plaza de Armas. Head over to the Floridita for its famous daiquiri, supposedly Hemingway’s drink of choice. A life-size statue of the novelist is permanently seated at the always crowded bar. Take a tour to his former home in Finca Vigia, just outside Havana, that is now a well-maintained museum.
WHERE TO STAY: Located on the pedestrian street of Calle Obispo, Ambos Mundos Hotel is part hotel, part Hemingway Museum. Room #511 remains as Hemingway left it — complete with his Nobel Prize displayed. He wrote three books here and ran up quite a bar tab (a framed copy hangs near the Nobel Prize). hotelambosmundos-cuba.com
WHERE TO EAT: For a breathtaking view of Old Havana, head to the Rooftop Terrace Café at the Ambos Mundos. You’ll be rewarded with a great mojito, Cuba’s welcome drink. The café is a cool respite for a light lunch or snack.
For the Arts Lover
Cuba has a colorful and important history that began centuries before Fidel Castro established a revolutionary socialist state. Havana is a melting pot for all kinds of art, architecture and music, especially around the historic plazas, many of which have been restored with the help of UNESCO. To fully appreciate Cuba’s artistic influences, visit the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts). Covering five floors, the museum houses the world’s largest collection of Cuban artwork and also masterpieces by Goya, Murillo, Monet and others. bellasartes.cult.cu
WHERE TO STAY: Hotel Raquel (Hebrew for innocent) is a cultural depository where different styles of art find shelter along with the guests. Built in 1908, Hotel Raquel is a beautiful example of baroque and art nouveau architecture in the heart of Old Havana. The lobby reveals poignant references to Jewish culture and is filled with biblical-themed paintings by contemporary Cuban artists. The elegant Jardin del Eden restaurant serves kosher Jewish cuisine. hotelraquel-cuba.com
WHERE TO EAT: La California, a privately owned paladar in the Columbus neighborhood, features a gigantic mural by painter and sculpture Jesus Nodarse on the wall adjoining his small gallery. The young artist says newly established relations with the United States are “the beginning of everything.” La California serves generous portions of Cuban specialties. lahabana.com/guide/la-california/
Before You Go
U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba need a valid passport, a Cuban visa referred to as a “tourist card,” and a license from the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which offers 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba. As of press time, general tourism was not one of those categories. Most travelers visit through a people-to-people educational exchange license, which requires a planned itinerary and direct personal contact with the Cuban people.
All travelers to Cuba, including religious workers, should contact the Cuban Interests Section in Washington to determine the appropriate type of license required for their purpose of travel. Access for many Cuban sites is by appointment and requires a local guide; in addition, hotel rooms are scarce and are sometimes available only to licensed groups. Therefore, it is easier to plan your trip through an OFAC-licensed agency, which can help you secure the appropriate license and plan an itinerary of interest to you.
For more information about traveling to Cuba, see travel.state.gov.
Mary Ann DeSantis is a freelance writer in Lady Lake. She visited Cuba in May on a people-to-people exchange that focused on the arts and education.