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March 2015

Plaza de Armas

On our second morning in Havana, we met with a representative of the city's Historian Office who talked about their efforts to preserve the architectural and cultural heritage of the area. She then took us on an walking tour of the 18th century plazas of Old Havana.

Plaza de Armas sign
Street signs from a tile factory in Portugal

Plaza de Armas, which dates back to the 1600s, is lined with cobblestone streets, Baroque buildings, and lots of tropical vegetation.

Calle Obispo
Calle Obispo
Plaza de Armas
Secondhand book market in Plaza de Armas
Bird Bath
Bird bath, Plaza de Armas

There's also a huge second hand book market with newspapers, magazines, and books from the 1940s and 1950s. Lots of Revolutionary materials, as you can imagine.

Book Market
Book market, Plaza de Armas

Book Market2

Used Books, Plaza de Armas

The buildings around the square are beautiful examples of Spanish Colonial design, like the Hotel Santa Isabel, with its mediopunto windows -  half moon, stained glass created in the 18th century to protect houses from the glare of the tropical sun.

Hotel Santa Isabel

And El Templete, the spot where the city of San Cristobal de La Habana was founded in 1599. Inside are 3 large canvases by Jean-Baptiste Vermay depicting scenes from the history of Havana.

El Templete
El Templete, original site of the city of Havana.
Bronze pineapples - Queen of the tropical fruit - at El Templete

Transportation options are queued up on the square: take your pick from horse drawn carriages or classic cars.

Horse and carriage
Horse drawn carriage, Plaza de Armas
The Malecon
Classic cars along the Malecon

Like most tourist areas, there were also lots of entrepreneurial people looking to make a fast peso: people dressed in traditional Cuban and Colonial garb who charge 2-3 Cuban Convertible Pesos for a photo (of course I did it!), men anxious to create pen and ink drawings of you on the spot, and many musical performers.

Street Performers
Just one of the girls.
Street Artist
Drawing your portrait...for a price.
King Fernando VII
Woman in Colonial garb, in front of Statue of King Fernando VII

Another curiosity in the square: Calle O'Reilly, marking where an Irish-born, Spanish military officer came ashore in Havana:

Calle O'Reilly
Calle O'Reilly
Calle O'Reilly2
"Two Island Peoples in the Same Sea of Struggle and Hope: Cuba and Ireland"

But my favorite sighting this day was the dogs lolling about in the sunshine. There are tons of stray dogs in Cuba (and sadly, I heard rabies is a problem), and while many of them are in tough shape, the ones around the Plaza de Armas looked content.

Sleeping Beauty
Sleeping Beauty

The reason is that some museums in Havana have taken it upon themselves to shelter the stray dogs, like this lucky fellow who's name tag reads, "My name is Aparicio. I live in the Museo de Orfebreria, and I have been neutered!"

Aparicio, outside the Museo de Orfebreria

I'll leave you with one more classic car picture...because there are tons to share :)

Classic Car

Cafe Laurent

People keep asking, "how was the food in Cuba?"

To be honest, I had low expectations going in, having heard about its state run restaurants, limited food supply, and ration system under Communist rule. But I was pleasantly surprised - if not by the meal preparation itself, then by the burgeoning private dining industry via the country's paladares.

Paladar is the Portuguese and Spanish word for "palate" and is the designation for the privately run Cuban restaurants - usually out of peoples' homes. They've been around for years, but weren't legalized until the 1990s, when the Cuban economic downturn resulting from the fall of the USSR led the government to open up the country to international tourism and allow paladares to operate.

Initially, the businesses were limited to 12 guests at a time, and could not serve certain dishes like beef and lobster (over which the government had a monopoly). But the rules have been relaxed in recent years, and while many paladars are still small, family run businesses in the home, others operate like more traditional restaurants with professional food service staff and full menus.  Raul Castro's economic reform program started in late 2010 has spawned a wave of new paladares around the country.

Our first dinner in Havana was at Cafe Laurent, a paladar in the Vedado district serving Spanish-Basque cuisine. Its chef has worked in Spain and Argentina, and The Guardian named it one of the top 10 paladares in Havana.

Cafe Laurent

The restaurant offers indoor/outdoor dining in a modern penthouse above a 5-story apartment building; there's no sign out front, just a greeter at street level who ushers you into an old elevator, or points out the stairs. The inside dining room is brightly lit, with white furnishings and fixtures, and 1950s-era newsprint on the back wall.

Cafe Laurent2

We got to sit outside on the terrace, which was wonderful, given the cold weather I had left behind (and sadly, returned to) in Boston. It also afforded us a sunset view of Havana:

View from Cafe Laurent

As is custom in Cuba, they started us off with a complimentary mojito (white rum, sugar, lime juice, sparkling water, and mint), followed by bread, a creamy vegetable soup (also common here - and we had pumpkin soup on more than one occasion, too!), shared appetizers like tuna carpaccio, a main course of grilled mahi mahi with rice and vegetables, and ice cream for dessert.

Ice cream appeared more than once on the trip, too. When I asked why there isn't more flan made available (which I love, and which you normally see in Spanish cultures), I learned that eggs are too hard to come by. The staple foods that appeared again and again included: papaya, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, yucca, plantains, potatoes, beets, chicken and pork. Plus coffee and rum. There were other things, but these items were in heavy rotation, and quality varied depending on the location. From my limited experience, the paladares had more interesting, better-prepared meals than the state run restaurants. But neither produced the flavors - or used the spices and seasonings - you may be accustomed to with other cuisines.

I'll talk more about the ration system, and highlight additional paladares, in future posts.


Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes y Memorial Granma

On our first afternoon in Cuba, we visited the National Fine Arts Museum in central Havana where the former director of the museum, Moraima Clavijo, guided us through its modern section. The museum is divided into two parts - the Palacio de Bellas Artes, which is dedicated exclusively to Cuban art, and the Palacio del Centro Asturiano which includes a more universal collection.

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

You can see that this museum has a more contemporary exterior; while it was originally founded in 1913, it occupied multiple different places before settling into a Rationalist building with geometric lines built in 1954. Havana has done a nice job integrating modern buildings into the Colonial landscape by using glass facades which reflect the more historic buildings nearby. Here's a view of the Hotel Sevilla next door, from inside the museum.

Hotel Sevilla
Hotel Sevilla

There is a huge art community in Havana, and the Palacio de Bellas Artes hosts an expansive collection of pieces ranging from the Colonial period to contemporary Cuba. Moraima provided a nice overview of the different styles and key artists, speaking in Spanish while our Cuban guide Lazaro translated everything into English. My favorite pieces were those by René Portocarrero (1912-1985), a Cuban art school dropout who went on to create brightly colored Baroque pieces, and actually had is first show in New York City back in 1945 (his artwork is in the permanent collection at MoMA). I didn't take pictures inside the museum, but here's a sample from the Christie's website to give you an idea:

Rene portocarrero
Paisaje de La Habana by Rene Portocarrero; image courtesy of Christie's

And here is a sculpture made of coffee pots from the museum courtyard, the work of renowned Cuban artist Roberto Fabelo (there's a great interview with him from a showing of his work in Long Beach, CA last year here).

Roberto Fabelo
Coffee pot sculpture by Roberto Fabelo

There is another glass pavilion in front of the museum - the Granma Memorial which houses the yacht used to transport 82 fighters of the Cuban Revolution (including Fidel & Raul Castro, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos) from Mexico to Cuba in November 1956 in order to overthrow the regime of Fulgencio Batista.

Granma Memorial
The Granma Memorial

It also includes vehicles from the Bay of Pigs (1961) and the remains of an American spy plane shot down in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis.

Granma Memorial2
A plane flown during the Bay of Pigs invasion

Lastly, for a bit of "lighter" history: right down the street from the museum is Sloppy Joe's, a favorite hangout of Ernest Hemingway's known for its drinks, its less-than-hygienic environment, and its messy ropa vieja ("old clothes") sandwich made of shredded meat in a tomato based sauce.

Sloppy Joes
Sloppy Joe's Bar

It was founded by a Spanish barman named Jose Garcia who had worked in bars in New Orleans, Miami, and ultimately, Havana. Because the establishment was a mess, he earned the name "Sloppy Joe." Here's a fun excerpt from a 1923 issue of New York World:

Joe sells either by the bottle or by the drink anything there is, or has been discovered, to tickle the palate of men. The furnishings of the place are about as up-to-date as those of a Tenth Avenue delicatessen shop, but he gives the biggest drink of the best liquor for the least money - or so it is said by visitors - and has a reputation as a cocktail mixer that extends from New Orleans to Demerara...

Over the years, the bar hosted celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Nat King Cole, John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and Ted Williams. It was also featured in Graham Green's Our Man in Havana

Sloppy Joes2

In 1959, after the triumph the Cuban Revolution, Sloppy Joe' s Bar was shut down; it reopened again in 2013 after being closed for 48 years.

Il Divino Restaurante

I had a window seat for the short (1-hour) charter flight between Miami and Havana, which afforded me great views of the turquoise water and vast green farmland as we came in over Cuba.

Cuba Aerial
Aerial shot over Cuba

Even after we'd touched down and were heading into Havana, it was much greener than I'd imagined. All farmland, really, or brush growing on either side of the road, on which you'd periodically pass cows, goats, and chickens.

Cows along the road

People gather and walk freely on the shoulder of the road, and cars - not people - have the right of way. You see all manner of transportation - the ubiquitous classic cars, plus bikes, horses, horse-drawn carriages, and tractors...

Cars and Horses
Sharing the road

...and lots of socialist propaganda on billboards and buildings, featuring Che Guevara, Fidel and Raul Castro, and former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez

Che Guevara
Revolutionary hero Che Guevara
Fidel y Chavez
Castro and Chavez: BFFs

Our first stop was Il Divino, a beautiful paladar (more on these private restaurants in a later post) that uses ingredients from its own garden.

Il Divino
Il Divino Restaurante

They welcomed us with rum drinks and we sat in wooden glide chairs under a thatched roof, open air bar with beautiful tiled floors and tables while a traditional Cuban band performed.


Havana Club Rum
The famous Havana Club Rum

Out back are rows of carefully tended vegetables and greens, towering Cuban pear trees with clusters of magenta flowers and ruby pears, banana plants, avocado bushes, and a handful of hammocks strung between the trees.

Il Divino's organic garden
Cuban pear
Beautiful Cuban pears
An orchid
A hammock in the Il Divino garden, over fallen flower petals from the Cuban pear tree
Another hammock (and a crazy tree) in the Il Divino garden

There were also carved wooden parrots in the trees, and lanterns strung about - beer bottles with their bottoms removed and light bulbs inside.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch on the terrace - my selection included salad, fried chick peas (excellent), lasagna (in a white sauce with meat, diced onion, and an egg inside!), and home made pineapple ice cream with a cortadito (Cuban espresso).

Dining Room
The terrace at Il Divino


Cortadito (Cuban espresso)

A black cat meandered through the property, too, crying out for a bite of food. 

Feed me!

This place was fantastic; what a great start to our trip!

The Chef at Il Divino, bidding us adieu

Viva la Revolución

Smithsonian Journeys sent along a lot of pre-trip information to provide cultural context and set expectations for our travel to Cuba. The highlights:

  • Cuba is still very much a Communist country
  • There is significant poverty there
  • Use caution with the water, not because it is contaminated but because it contains different bacteria that may upset our stomachs 
  • Bring cash only, as US credit and bank cards are not accepted (still true as of this writing, although expected to change in the near term); even if the bank cards worked, ATMs run out of cash fairly regularly. I actually converted my US dollars to Canadian before arriving in Cuba, since they charge a 10% fee to exchange US currency thanks to the embargo.
  • Be prepared to keep the aforementioned travel journal, documenting your experiences and reactions to the people-to-people exchange

They also provided an extensive reading list including a mix of fiction, memoir, travelogues, history and art books. Two that I read before the trip:

Telex from cubaTelex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner, a historical fiction piece that follows the lives of American executives living and working in the town of Preston, named after Andrew W. Preston, a co-founder of the United Fruit Company (the present-day Chiquita Corporation) and centered around the sugar cane processing center located there. 

It highlights the sharp social disparities between the white collar Americans and working class Cubans which ultimately drove Fidel Castro and his rebels to overthrow the US backed Fulgencio Batista regime in hopes of establishing greater equality. Famous figures from history including Batista, Raul & Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and even Ernest Hemingway figure prominently in the story, along with a host of rich characters that really give you a sense of the social and economic dynamics of the time.

An excerpt:

"This town, Castro said, was the location of his own childhood dreams, this very place where they  were gathered. Off-limits, and American, it was the site where his imagination had been ignited, and roamed. Freely, he said, but in the freedom of dreams. The town of Preston was make-believe in its distance from his life just a few kilometers away, in Birán, make-believe in its luminosity, its impossibility. But real in its control, its ownership of everything and everyone. 'Off limits and American,' he repeated, 'But of course...we Cubans were invited to cut the cane.'"

Following the Cuban Revolution in 1958, United Fruit withdrew and the Cuban government renamed the town "Guatemala" to symbolize solidarity with its Caribbean neighbor.

Cuba diariesCuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana by Isadora Tattlin, the American wife of a European energy consultant posted to Havana in the 1990's. She documented her experience there, but disguised the identity of herself and those around her, since criticism of the government or its leaders was punishable by imprisonment of up to 30 years (still generally the case, from what I can gather).  Her story is fascinating, if sad, as she describes the conditions under which most Cubans were living: lacking the most basic necessities like soap and toilet paper. Traveling with her through various towns outside Havana, you learn what it was really like to live in post-revolutionary Cuba, amidst splendor and squalor.

Based on my experiences last week, I think her words still hold true. Restoration is happening, but very slowly. There are some Colonial buildings that have been lovingly refurbished, right next to others that are literally crumbling. And while I didn't witness any begging in Havana, we did have people asking for soap in Cienfuegos. And women in the markets of Trinidad were anxious to barter - their hand-crafted goods in exchange for lipstick or other cosmetics. Toilet paper is particularly hard to come by...in most rest rooms there is an attendant collecting 25 cents for a few squares of paper (best advised to bring your own!). But more on material goods in a later post. For now, it may be helpful to provide a very brief overview of the history that led to this state of affairs:

Spaniards took over the island of Cuba soon after Columbus discovered it in 1492. There was a very small native population of Siboney Indians living there at the time which was subsequently enslaved and forced to work for the Spanish colonialists, along with many more slaves brought over from Africa throughout the 1500s. The United States got involved when the Cubans wanted to throw off Colonial rule in the 1800s, but really had their eye on annexation. There was a seemingly revolving door of Cuban leaders during this time, while the US continued to invest in Cuban businesses and infrastructure. In 1901, the US signed a perpetual lease for the property at Guantánamo, to be used as a coal refueling station and naval base. The dictator Fulgencio Batista came on the scene later, with a populist vision inspired by FDR's New Deal. He was friendly with the US and favorable to their business interests in Cuba (which included a large casino/mob presence by the 1940s), and the US ultimately backed Batista when he overthrew the Cuban government - further fueling Castro's anger toward his neighbors to the north. In fact, I read that for years after 1959 the US paid Cuba $4K for its annual lease of Guantánamo, and Castro refused to cash the check. A whole string of important events happened post 1959 - The Bay of Pigs, the US trade embargo, and more (some of which I'll touch on in later posts), including Cuba's increasing reliance on the Soviet Union as an economic partner. With the fall of the Soviet Union in the 80s, Cuba suffered a serious economic blow that paved the way to its current state.

We had a panel discussion in Miami the night before our flight to Havana, to shed additional light on the current state of cultural affairs. The speakers:

  • Franklin Knight, a History professor at Johns Hopkins University and the Cuba expert that would be traveling with us on the trip
  • Dr Lillian Manzor, a Modern Languages professor at University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences, born in Cuba but left as a child when her parents fled in the 60s
  • Alexander Correa, a 1st generation Cuban-American whose parents came to the States during Lyndon Johnson's Freedom Flights, which brought 300K refugees from Cuba to Miami from 1965-1973. It led to the creation of Little Havana in Miami.

The group talked about how Cuba is transitioning from Communist to Socialist. Admittedly, I didn't really know the difference until now (summarized here from a longer explanation on Diffen.com):

Communism vs socialism
It became clear that Cuba is an island of contradictions: egalitarian in its rhetoric but very much divided between the "haves" and the "have-nots." It's 500 years old, but still searching for its voice. It's a very young country - 60% of Cubans were born after the Revolution - and there's only one official paper (Granma), but its citizens are pretty well informed: they can hear about two thousand different American and Canadian radio stations, access the Internet, and bring back TVs from Miami (as well as "El Paquete" - a weekly USB drive loaded up with American shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother, as well as all the US commercials that come along with them, that is very popular among university students).

You'll see this dichotomy in upcoming posts.

Gran Teatro Nacional de la Habana
Gran Teatro Nacional de la Habana
A building in ruins along the Malecon, Havana



Descubra Cuba

I am back from a wonderful, educational, inspirational, eye-opening trip to Cuba and have so many stories to share. But first, the back story:

When investigating vacation options in the Fall of 2013, I had settled on a Smithsonian Journeys tour to Cuba. The island was somewhat shrouded in mystery [to me, having been born after the Cuban Revolution and subject to a US trade embargo for as long as I've been around], but seemed fascinating specifically because of that history. My only frame of reference: History classes from many, many years ago; Desi Arnaz/Ricky Ricardo; the Elian Gonzalez affair of the early 90's; and the TV drama Magic City more recently.

The Smithsonian Journeys trip was particularly appealing to me as it was designed to engage travelers in Smithsonian's mission: "the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Plus, payment for the tour supports Smithsonian's 19 museums (all free to the public), the National Zoo, and its 9 research centers.

But then Lulu's health went into rapid decline, and I had to forgo the trip.

Fast forward one year, and travel to Cuba became a hot topic, thanks to President Obama's efforts to improve relations between our countries. When I tried to book the same January trip I was eying the year before, it was sold out. And the March one was, too. But I put my name on a wait list, and was thrilled to learn that someone else had dropped out. I was going to Cuba!

Despite recent advancements, travel to Cuba is still highly regulated for all U.S. residents, and travelers must qualify for one of 12 designated categories of travel granted by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. Smithsonian is able to operate under a "people-to-people" license which stipulates that travel requires a full-time schedule of meaningful interaction with Cubans that cannot include free time or recreation.

In addition, individual travelers are required to keep a journal of interactions with Cubans and to provide written accounts of these interactions for up to five years after his/her return to the U.S.

Commercial flights between the US and Cuba are still prohibited; tours such as these are via charter like the World Atlantic flight I took, below. But authorized travelers are now permitted to bring back to the U.S. up to $400 worth of goods (with alcohol and tobacco products limited to $100 of the $400). Under the previous regulations, this was not permitted. There is still no limit on the amount of artwork or informational materials you can purchase and bring back into the U.S. 

World Atlantic

So I embarked on the one-week Discover Cuba: It's People and Culture tour, designed to enhance both countries' mutual understanding and promote educational exchange between our societies. This wasn't about the Cuban government, or its politics, but rather its people. The 11 million living on an island about the size of Pennsylvania, only 90 miles from the U.S. but worlds away culturally.

We traveled to three cities on our trip - Havana, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad - which I'll shed some light on in subsequent posts. 


And if you're planning your own trip to Cuba, I highly recommend the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Cuba, which is chock full of history, points of interest, street maps and other survival tips for navigating the "Pearl of the Antilles."