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Cuba Libre

By Hendrik Coetzee
Posted On Sep 19, 2016
Cuba Libre

As Americans make their first excursions to Cuba, mysteries unfold and pleasures abound.

The Pearl of the Antilles. This has long been the nickname of Cuba, that palm-tree laden island nation seemingly frozen in the Fifties. But since December 17, 2014, when U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro began mending diplomatic relations between these two decades-estranged countries, Cuba has become the most sought-after precious gem of the western travel world.

Like a flower emerging between cracks in the concrete, Havana, Cuba, is showing new signs of life in and around its weathered but colorful buildings. A trendy Paul & Shark clothing boutique on a tourist-packed street in Plaza Vieja; a new, luxurious day spa unfurling an awning on a bustling street; a pop-up restaurant in an entrepreneur’s two-room apartment—all signs that change is certainly afoot in Ciudad de los Columns.

The city’s old, faded charm and vibrant culture are still gracefully in tact, though. While inevitable cultural shifts may take time to germinate, now’s the time to experience the oft-touted time warp that’s alive and strutting on the streets of Old Havana.

Archipelago Allure

Part of the chain of islands known as the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean Sea, Cuba has had a long tug-and-pull relationship with its neighbor 90 scant miles to the north. Since January 1959, this island nation has remained under tight control of the socialist Castro regime, where the average citizen earns between $15 and $60 a month. But the winds of change are blowing in a southerly direction and kicking up an entrepreneurial spirit in Cuban citizens, who gained the right to operate once-impossible side businesses with a new nominal tax rate. New eateries, art galleries, cigar co-operatives, antique street fairs, and art markets now blossom all over Havana, infusing a burst of pride in creative cultural identity in its residents, as well as much-needed tourist dollars in their pockets.

Cuba is high on my bucket list, so when the chance to take a three-day visit presented itself, I dug out my best guayabera and leapt at the opportunity. From the second I set foot on this island of 11.2 million, my imagination was rewarded starting with the parade of storied vintage Buicks, Chevys, Fords, and Cadillacs still on the road thanks to the fortitude and ingenuity of Cuban mechanics. Driving into Havana from the airport, I saw their gliding pageantry painted in the colors of the Caribbean.

Although the most cost-effective way to get around here is to stick to more modern hotel taxis, many of these vintage vehicles are now used as cars-for-hire, and it’s not unusual to see a bridal couple whisk past, honking and waving madly at cheering lookers-on. They are indeed a great way to see the city (especially the convertibles if you can nab one), their plush leather seats and ample legroom transporting you to the bygone era of Carmen Miranda. For the slightly more adventurous, you can also go for the full-on throwback to turn-of-the-last-century Teddy Roosevelt days and take a tour in a yellow tuk tuk, with its requisite fearless driver steering you through the sights and sounds of this fascinating city.

But I found Havana best experienced on foot, not the least of which to take in the full-on musical narrative that attacks the senses in the most lovely and lyrical fashion. Walk down cobblestone streets between crumbling Art Deco and Cuban Baroque buildings, while the notes of a piano lesson hover above you in the air. Step into a lively plaza and you are apt to run into shimmying dancers on stilts, enticing you to sway your hips to their rousing rhythm. Stop at a street vender selling chiviricos (fried dough) from a wooden tray, and find yourself chewing to the rhythm of a tune plucked from a worn, acoustic guitar strummed from the sidewalk. Music, it seems, is everywhere in Cuba, and you shouldn’t be surprised if you are constantly moving in time  here to the gentle pat-pat of an Afro-Cuban bongo beat.

Come, Beba, y Sea Feliz

If you’ve heard that food in Havana is less than palate-pleasing, this rumor is far from the truth. Competition from hot new entrepreneurial eateries is forcing staid, older spots to raise their standards or fall by the wayside. I found no better example of this in an enterprising young chef named Vladimir, whom I chanced upon while strolling around Old Havana. He had recently opened his new restaurant, Somos Cuba (San Ignacio 202, Havana), in the living room of his small two-roomed apartment on the second floor of a dilapidated building. With the passionate fervor of a preacher, he explained plans for his budding culinary empire, while serving what he called a true Cuban sandwich, thick with slices of juicy pork, chicken, sautéed onions, peppers, and a savory, piquant sauce. At another new spot to the east of the city, Casa Grande has been open just a few months and offered a haunting plate of slow-cooked pork ribs in a lime-soy marinade that are among the best I’ve ever had. Another meal found me seated at La Imprenta, a government-run restaurant off of bustling Calle Mercaderes. Situated in an old printing house with tables inspired by vintage printing presses, traditional, abundant dishes like lobster on rice were inexpensive and delicious.

In this birthplace of the daiquiri (at El Floridita, Ernest Hemingway’s hangout and a must-visit), blossoming, too, is the bar and cocktail scene, with a new mixology-must opening up each week. A popular boite called Cuba Pasion is festooned in sleek décor that would hold up well next to any trendy Miami spot. Here, minty mojitos and Cuban caipirinhas are undeniably spot-on. They were so great that it inspired me to go on a wonderfully muddled hunt for the best Cuban mojito, which lead me to the drink’s birthplace, La Bodeguita del Medio. But the best one in all was found at La Factoria in Plaza Vieja, which also runs the country’s original microbrewery.

If sipping is secondary to great views, though, the bar with the best vista is the terrace at Hotel Nacional de Cuba. It’s an ideal place to enjoy a cocktail and a cigar, with Havana’s sweeping, wave-lapped coastline in the distance and a Cuban band that beckons you to abandon your chair for the dance floor.

The music continues to flow across the island all the way to the famed Tropicana nightclub, opened in 1939. Set in lush tropical gardens with imported chandeliers and marble arches, the magnitude of this Vegas-style cabaret performance is something to behold. Waves of sequined singers and scantily clad dancers gyrate to the beat of assorted musical ensembles scattered around the tropical open-air theater. I headed the advice of my concierge and had my hotel book my seats so I could get up close and hip-swayingly personal with the incredible performance. And with the well-known international success of the Ry Cooder-produced album and documentary, The Buena Vista Social Club, I knew I could not miss a performance of this legendary group, whose energetic singers and dancers lured me to the stage for the show’s party-like finale.

Wrapped Up

If cigars are a particular thrill for you, make a point of visiting a factory where they’re produced. There are 40 in Cuba that make 100 million cigars a year. Most are off-limits, but four are open to tourists on a regular basis. I visited the Partagas factory in its new location in central Havana. I bought a ticket to visit them from my hotel (a mandatory procedure), and was cautioned to give my taxi driver explicit details of its address, as it’s hard to find. It was  well-worth the trek, however. The hour-long Partagas tour demonstrates first how the workers, sitting in several rows of desks in what appears strikingly similar to  a colonial school room, hand-roll the inside of the cigar and then how they apply the wrapping leaf. Meanwhile, the tour guide imparts various nuggets of trivia (the darkness of the wrapper does not determine the strength of the cigar and only provides 10 percent of flavor; the flavorless syrup used to hold the cigar together is imported from Canada).

The Partagas factory has over 200 employees, each rolling about 140 cigars a day—an envied skill that not everyone possesses. Out of all the applicants to become cigar rollers, only 10 percent make it through the program with the necessary skills. More often than not, those who make it through have a family member in the trade before them. Tobacco, indeed, seems to enter the blood in more ways than inhaling its smoke.

Revolution to Revelation

With its filigree porticos, stirring art, and resplendent courtyards, Cuba is indeed beautiful—even if it is in a wounded sort of way. She’s a dignified lady, maybe a little worse for wear but with a soul that responds to the symphony of the land in a most visceral manner. Yes, there are economic and social problems in Cuba, but the people here are upbeat about the future economic relations with the U.S.

“We know we’re not perfect but we are hopeful of the future and welcome American investment,” said a Cuban resident I encountered. I was as entranced by Cuba’s still in-tact post-revolutionary charm as I hoped I’d be and, cigar in pocket, felt hopeful for the future here, too. Like the sweet, luscious mangoes that sway from trees across the island, it seems Cuba and all it has to offer is ripe for the picking.

How to Get to Cuba with an American Passport

General U.S. tourism is still off-limits to Cuba, but with the recent relaxation in travel restrictions it has become possible to visit. There are 12 travel licenses to apply under including family, professional, educational, and religious (go to newyou.com for the full list). You do not need specific permission anymore, but rather a signed affidavit that you can apply for under one of these licenses.

The travel grouP who provided my visa and necessary travel documents was American Tours International in Los Angeles, California, under the expert advice of sales manager Kristin Martin ([email protected]). If you manage to secure a travel license be sure to bring cash (preferably euros, if you don’t want to incur the 13 percent exchange tax on the dollar for Cuban CUC). It is very unlikely your debit and credit cards will work at this moment. Also mobile phone signals are nearly non-existent, and WiFi is limited to some hotels in the lobby.

The hotels in Havana are becoming increasingly modern, with more underway to meet future demand. Many people are traveling to Cuba now, so book well in advance. With the help of Naz Mostowfi, travel advisor for the Holiday Place ([email protected]), I stayed at NH Capri Hotel located in central Havana, one of the newest luxury hotels with spectacular views from the rooftop pool and bar (and a daily hot shower is assured—yes, this can be an issue at other accommodations). Down the road, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba is full of charm and history. A beautiful hotel in which to stay in Old Havana is Hotel Raquel, with its soaring marble columns, stained glass roof, and poignant references to Jewish culture on the walls. Bookings to all entertainment venues and tours mentioned here must be made through your hotel concierge.