My friend JC Perez, author of “Heisting the Beard”, is the author of this post. Cuban born, U.S. raised and Caribbean cultured, he is a true Caribbean gem and once again we are lucky to have him. Enjoy this story of Havana, Cuba.
As Jimmy Buffett so eloquently put it, “Havana Day Dreaming”, well you don’t have to dream about it anymore, it has become a destination favored by more and more travelers every year. Its isolation makes it alluring, and when you arrive, you’ll find that somehow you have stepped back in time. The old Spanish Colonial buildings and the hoard of pre Revolutionary sights are fascinating. The one thing you will notice right away, and the theme that runs throughout Cuba, is all the pre 1960’s American Cars. Chevys, Fords, Dodges, Cadillac’s, they’re all there for you to marvel at or tour Havana in. From the minute you arrive your visual senses will be attacked with beauty and wonder, just keep in mind that you have just stepped back into 1959 and you are no longer in 2010. The good thing is, the beaches are still as beautiful, there’s wonderful accommodations for tourists, the food is great, and the Mojitos never stop flowing, ahhh, those wonderful Mojitos.
Havana is a breath taking place no matter how you view it; it’s a place of wonderment and incredible contrasts, from wonderful beaches and historic hotels to the old buildings hanging on to an era gone by. If you are a normal traveler and prefer your stays filled with beaches, good food, plenty of cerveza and quaint drinking holes with the best Salsa music you’ll ever hear, then you’ll never have to leave the city area, and all your pleasures will be met.
I don’t usually recommend places, but the “Hotel Nacional” is a must even if you don’t stay there. The “Nacional” is a favorite with many people for a few different reasons. Number one is great accommodations with its nostalgic allure of the past. Good food, good drink, and if you’re into it, an excellent Cabaret show at the Parisien that will make you think of Vegas in the old days. This place has history, built on a hill in 1930 to mimic the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach it has a beautiful view of Havana bay, Havana proper, and the old sea wall winding to the center of town, and out into the Straits of Florida. On the infamous side, the Nacional is where Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano planned and ran the underworld for years until Castro spoiled their plans. Walk through the Café, order a Mojito, and check out the old pictures on the walls, you’ll be amazed and amused; Eva Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Errol Flynn, and the list goes on and on, I told you that you were going back in time.
If you’re into Hemingway, visit his old house, “Finca Vigia” just south of the city, or “Hotel Ambos Mundos” where he wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, me I prefer the other Hemingway trail, the one where he drank his Daiquiris, and his Mojitos. Everyone in Havana new Papa Hemingway, not only for his writing and celebrity, but also for his huge appetite for consuming Daiquiris and Mojitos all over town and brawling with anyone who disagreed with anything he said. His love of Cuba, drinking, and brawling, made him a hero and friend to all in Havana. Go to the seaside town of Cojimar just east of Havana and see the setting for his book “The Old Man and the Sea”, and I say this because last I heard, the old man himself, “Gregorio Fuentes”, the one Hemingway patterned the book after is still alive. He was Papas guide for 30 years, and loves to have his picture taken with tourists and answer questions about Papa.
Back to the “Cuba Libre”, Daiquiri, and Mojito trail followed by everyone in Havana, and they don’t necessarily follow Papas footsteps, in Havana you can make your own trail. I’ll give you a couple you might want to check out.
Go to the “El Floridita” for a Daiquiri or two and enjoy them in nice surroundings at a quaint bar with Hemingway memorabilia, ask for his special mix and they’ll whip it up for you. Prices are sane and a lot better than most if not all of the Caribbean. It’s on Calle Empadrado, # 206, can’t miss it. For your Mojito go to Monserrate and Obispo Street to “La Bodeguita del Medio”, it’s in the middle of old Havana and it’s a little grittier, but the atmosphere is wonderful with old pictures on the wall, and it’s easy to picture a raucous Papa Hemingway slinging them back and challenging any takers to a fight. The Mojito made its claim to fame here, and they make hundreds upon hundreds every day, and they are wonderfully refreshing. Make your own path through old Havana and discover your own favorite little watering hole or club. Speaking of Clubs, there are many throughout old Havana with good food, drinks, and great salsa music. There’s a neat little club on Calle O between 17 and 19 street called “El Gato Tuerto”, “The One Eyed Cat”. It’s a small place with good food and drink and the best Salsa on the Island, Some of the best Salsa musicians that travel the world playing big concerts play here impromptu on a regular basis, you’ll like this little nook.
When you’re done with your night on the town, stroll the old sea wall “El Malecon”, on the way back to your Hotel, and enjoy the beautiful view of the Florida straits in the moonlight as the wave’s crash over the wall creating a wonderful sea mist that arouses the senses of your inner islander. Don’t be afraid to walk around Havana at any time, Cuba is without a doubt the safest place in the Caribbean, if not the world. As a tourist, traveler, you are the proverbial goose that lays golden eggs to the Cuban Government, messing with foreigners is a no no there, and heavily punished, believe me when I tell you that you are safe in Cuba.
Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about the beach, and when in Cuba there’s only one to speak of, “Varadero”. You’ll find beaches around Havana, but if you’re willing to take a trip of 80 miles or so east of the city you’ll find what is arguably the most beautiful beach in the Caribbean, “Varadero”. A spit of a peninsula 20 kilometers long, jutting out into the Straits of Florida with endless white sand beaches reaching out into the blue Caribbean waters. It is the closest thing to South Beach in the Caribbean that you will find. Beautiful hotels, clubs, wonderful food and service, but it all comes at a price. You won’t get much local flavor here, but the place is gorgeous.
I hope I was able to give you a little taste of what is definitely an intriguing, beautiful, and complex place; I call it the “Forbidden Isle” (To Americans). Hopefully that will soon change.
A friend of mine, Randy Wayne White, a prolific writer and New York times best seller for his critically acclaimed book “Sanibel Flats” has set up a Cuban connection for when relations normalize between the US and Cuba. Randy has done a lot of work in Cuba with the Grand Masons Lodge in many charitable areas including working with needed children. With some friends in Cuba he has set up a guide service from arrival to departure with qualified professionals and trusted people. Feel free to read about it on Randy’s web-site at www.docfordssanibel.com, check it out, it’s a nice site, it’s also on Facebook, or write him at firstname.lastname@example.org with the word Cuba in the subject line, and ask him all the questions you want, he’ll get back to you.
See you in Paradise.
I want to thank JC Perez for another great story about the real Caribbean and the real Cuba.
Over and out from somewhere south,