Havana offers us a glimpse into its past, the present and possibilities for the future! Last week, along with four seasoned travelers, I journeyed to this city – full of museums, architectural wonders, artists studios, galleries, valleys and urban landscapes to whisper, “I missed you – I’m back” for a second time!
Our first five days were enjoyed in Havana …..
A quick 48 minute flight from Miami lands us in Havana, the capital city and major port in Cuba. Yes, it was a longer wait for our luggage than the flight itself. Of course, if you pack a carry on luggage – then, it is a non-issue. Tai Vasquez and Gustavo Terry, our guide and driver while in this city steeped in a time capsule, met us at the José Martí International Airport. First stop, a CADECA ( a change bureau) to exchange US dollars or Euros into CUPs. Cash is king in Cuba. For now, Americans can’t use credit cards or debit cards to pay for goods and services while visiting the island. The Cuban Peso (CUP) is the national Cuban currency, used primarily by the locals. The exchange rate fluctuates, but is typically around 25CUP per $1USD.
Recommendation: Only exchange a small sum of money into CUPs during your stay on the island. CADECAs can be found throughout Havana and Vinales for exchanges during your stay, so you have no worries. Second destination, the spirits store to purchase a few bottles of wine and Cuban rum. Spirit selection is better in Havana, so you may want to purchase in the city before traveling to other provinces.
Next stop, our home-away-from-home for five days, the Hostel Mariby. This beautiful mini-mansion dates back to 1906, and has all the charm one could dream of finding in Havana. If only, the walls could speak to us, the stories they would tell! The Mariby offers the total package: ambience, hospitality, location, and everything one could need on a visit to Havana. Cuban history is all around us…just a 10 minute drive to the center of Havana. More importantly, the staff at the Mariby are welcoming, kind and top-notch professionals. So happy to return and see everyone, again. By the way my favorite spot at the Hostel Mariby is the veranda. Good conversation, good wine and new friends!
WiFi in Cuba
When visiting Cuba be mindful that WiFi connectivity is not promised, however, there will be hotspots throughout the city. Their connection is slower than what you experience at home so patience is a virtue. ETESCA Hotspots do not give you free access to the web. It is the destination to purchase an access card for one hour of Internet access (1CUP for one hour). So, if connectivity is important, there is a way to do so.
After settling in to our home and enjoying lunch and mojitos, Tai and Terry took us on a walking tour of the Plaza de San Francisco (built in 16th century taking its name from the Franciscan convent built there), Plaza Vieja (old square), Plaza Armas (weapons square) in Central Havana. Dinner was enjoyed at the Hostal Mariby that evening. A good first day had by all.
After breakfast, Tai Vasquez, our guide gave us a tour of Central Havana culminating with a stroll on the Prado Promenade. The Prado is located between Centro Habana and Old Havana, featuring eight statues with figures of lions, made of bronze that guarded the promenade during a time in history that Havana was the most important town of Spain in the New World.
Today, the Promenade, a meeting spot, is home to artists and vendors showcasing their goods to the Cuban people and those that visit Havana. It is also the best location in Havana for a Sunday stroll. The architecture speaks to you.
Three blocks from the Mariby is a wonderful restaurant http://medhavana.com/ (Mediterraineo Havana). This paladar became our go-to-venue for two evenings. Food is delicious, price is reasonable and service, excellent. And, yes, on my first trip to Havana, we discovered this gem and continue to return.
Agenda: National Theater, Belles Artes Museum, Presidential Palace, Capitolo and Gran Teatro de La Habana.
Driving the streets of the city, one sees the crumbling buildings and dilapidated streets, yet one always see their majesty. My favorite destination was the Gran Teatro de La Habana. Designed by a Belgian architect, Paul Belau and the U.S. firm of Purdy and Henderson Engineers, this theatre initially served as a community-social center. Architecture is impressive and the building was totally renovated in 2015. Prima Ballerina, Alicia Alonso, age 97, danced until age 75 and directs performances today.
Hemingway’s House & Finca Vigia – Hemingway’s Cuba retreat, Finca Vigia consist of 15 acres with a farmhouse. The prolific writer lived in the house from 1939 to 1960 and paid $12,500 for the property.
Fusterlandia -Cuban artist José Fuster converted his neighborhood into an art project featuring murals, plastic art and design – brought economic vitality to the neighborhood as a result. Street art exhibit and easy to access on drive to Vinales, Cuba.
Lunch at La Guarida:
Frame captured by Lyn Goodin at La Guarida Restaurant, Havana, Cuba. This Paladar is deemed to be the most elegant one of its kind in the city. Lyn captured a history lesson in this photo. Fidel’s name in red font on the wall. My red Italian made shoes playing off the red font on the wall – that if the walls could speak – would tell us secrets and stories of the past and the present. The missing head of the statue on the column begs so many questions. Architecture of the building is captured in this magnificent photo, the old walls of Havana giving us a glimpse into the past, the elegance of the curved banister, and the iron lattice work speaking to a bygone era of the glory days of Havana.
Fact: this photo was not staged, nor did i know it was being taken! Yet, a comparative analysis using this photo on free market economy vs. communism would make for a thoughtful exam essay.
Napolionic Museum (Museo Napolionico) houses one of the most important collections from the 18th and 19th centuries preserved in the Western hemisphere. Museum was an intimate space with a guided tour (in English) and breathtaking views from the rooftop. https://www.napoleon.org/en/magazine/places/museo-napoleonico-cuba-2/
Artechef – World Association of Chefs Society – Cooking class and lunch. Classic Cuban Mojitos and Ropa Vieja.
One of our colleagues went fly fishing for the day. We enjoyed the day visiting the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. This museum showcases Cuban art collections from the colonial times up to contemporary generations. Then, we toured the Colon Cemetery for Christoper Columbus – one of the most remarkable cemeteries in the world. “Colón was named after Christopher Columbus and designed by a Madrid-educated Galician architect by the name of Calixto Arellano de Loira y Cardoso. Built around a central chapel that was loosely modeled after the Florence Cathedral (aka “Il Duomo”), the 150-acre cemetery is laid out in a grid of main central avenues and smaller side streets. As planned by Loira, the layout organizes the occupants of the cemetery according to their rank and social status, with the wealthy and well-connected occupying prominent spots on main thoroughfares while more lowly individuals (such as the condemned, victims of epidemics, and “pagans”) are relegated to the “suburbs.”
Last, but certainly not least, was our private art tour with Jose Antonio, a renowned Cuban artist in his studio. Jose and Claudia are talented artists, that we are honored to know and support their endeavors.
After breakfast, we departed Havana and drove approximately 2.5 hours to the western province of Pinar del Rio. Our destination: Vinales Valley. Named a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its natural beauty, mountain ranges and traditional style farming that produces crops, the natural beauty of the valley takes your breath away. Oxen pull carts, horses are the primary means of transportation, and the fields of tobacco and coffee are ubiquitous.
Our first stop was the Almuzero Guajiro “Finca Ecologica “El Paraiso”, a fantastic organic farm in the valley. Lunch was served outside on the outside terrace. Surrounded by nature, we enjoyed one of the best meals during our week stay in Cuba!
Started our last day in Cuba on horseback, with Pinto, my beautiful horse for the morning. Descending the rugged hills on the trail, we became one with the valley. Stopped by a family farm to learn more about their way of life, coffee farming and enjoyed the best Pina Colada ever!! Purchased some Cuban coffee to take home, too.
The Cuban people are kind, hard-working, hospitable entrepreneurs that welcomed me back to their home, again. For that kindness, I am eternally grateful.
This incredible journey to Havana and Vinales, Cuba was custom designed by Annie Collins, Travel Architect. www.freedomtravelllc.com.
Contact Annie at http://freedomtravelllc.com/contact-us/
Cinefuegos next time? Only in Cuba!!!
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Categories: Travel Tags: #cuba #oldhavana #vinales #vinalesvalley #UNESCO #oldandnew, #fusterland #museums #Napoleonicmuseum #JoseAntonio #ClaudiaAntonio #Nationaltheater #Fincavigia #Fincaecologica, #horseback #coffee #tobacco #hemingway, #medhavana