Much has changed since that first visit in 1999. In that year, Cuba was still suffering a kind of emotional withdrawal, a result of the Soviet Union's collapse which denied Cuba the economic and cultural support it had enjoyed since the early 1960s.
Sixteen years later in 2015, there were dramatic changes. Colonial buildings were being renovated into luxury hotels and retail spaces. Cruise ships docked in the harbor and U.S. airlines announced nonstop service from many American cities. Encouraging those efforts, the Obama administration signaled a desire to move away from the isolationist policies that had shunted Cuba's growth.
On the street, when people asked me where I was from and I responded that I was from the U.S., they responded with smiles and shows of great friendship. One man even lifted his t-shirt to show me a tattoo of the Statue of Liberty on his chest. He said proudly, "I love America."
In 2018, the situation is still a great improvement from 1999, but, under a different administration and under pressure from politicians like Florida's Marco Rubio, restrictions on travel by U.S. citizens has slowed tourism and dampened the economy.
When I was asked on this trip where I was from, in response to my saying I was from the U.S., there were no exclamations of joy, only the pitchman's line about wanting to offer me a good deal on a ride in a period American car or recommendations about where I could buy cigars.
12 Reasons to Travel to Havana and 10 Tips When You Get There
The flight from Miami to Havana took less than an hour. After we checked in to the elegant Hotel Nacional, a classic hotel that opened in 1930.
We wasted no time and left the hotel so we could start experiencing Havana. We walked to the Malecón, the iconic seawall that protects the city from the ocean. Two fishermen talked as they held fishing lines in the water.
A group of middle school students in uniforms crossed the street to watch the surf hit the concrete and stone wall and spray into the air.
We had a friendly conversation with the barmen. The flags hanging from the ceiling were from just about every country on the planet, except for the United States. The bar was run by Cubans who had fought in the Angolan conflict. At that time they were Fidel Castro's point-of-the-spear, pursuing Communism's interests through out the Third World.
Now that is all in the past, remembered largely in the flags hanging from the ceiling and the photographs of armed soldiers on the walls.
If you book your travel on a group tour, you can choose one that focuses on your interests. You can tour historic Havana, churches, cigar factories, artists’ studios, art galleries, museums, nightclubs and restaurants, UNESCO heritage sites or beaches outside of Havana to lounge or go scuba diving.
In the old city (La Habana Vieja), you will walk the narrow streets to buy souvenirs from narrow stalls tucked into old buildings, look at the work of local artists and search for Ernest Hemingway’s haunts so you can belly up to the bar and order mojitos and daiquiris like Papa did. You’ll be tempted to buy a hand-rolled Cuban cigar from one of the old women in white who are everywhere in the old city. But you have heard that the women who always have fat cigars in their clinched teeth do not sell quality cigars so you seek out the Partagas cigar factory (Calle Industria No. 520, Centro Habana) and watch cigars being hand-rolled.
To experience the city as locals do, walk into the central city. There you will see the effects of the embargo.
Here the streets are potholed and the buildings continue to suffer the ravages of nature and the lack of building materials to make much-needed repairs.
The big questions about Cuba are, when will the embargo end and how will that change the country? Commercial ties will certainly lead to commercial development.
East Germany, China and Vietnam were all transformed when they transitioned from Communist to Capitalist economies. But those countries were variations on a theme. Prosperous China and Vietnam are still controlled societies with human rights issues, where as East Germany has been absorbed into Democratic West German.
Change could be gradual or rapid depending on how the Cuban government manages the transition. Once the embargo is lifted by Congress, U.S. banks will set up relationships inside Cuba. That will mean U.S. credit cards will be accepted. American corporations as varied as McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, the Gap, Disney, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Hilton, Ritz-Carleton and Starwood will look to find opportunities in Cuba.
The narrow street has closet sized curio shops selling refrigerator magnets celebrating Havana’s cigars, cars and women, small mass-produced art works, stuffed dolls, marionettes, t-shirts with a photograph of Ernesto "Che" Guevara and much much more.
Go with the flow and walk with the mass of people eating elote (corn on the cob on a stick), sticky pastries and small Cuban sandwiches. If you are lucky there will be music. Serenading bands set up on street corners, hoping for a donation. One day when I walked among the crowds, a colorful group of performers danced in the middle of the street on five-foot tall stilts.
Dressed in Mardi Gras-styled multi-colored outfits, they would have been at home in New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro. Some of the men and women played instruments, the others smiled and shimmied, reaching out to children on their parents’ shoulders or to couples standing, arms around each other, enjoying the impromptu celebration of all things Cuban.
Take a leisurely stroll on the walkway through the lawn facing the Malecón and the beautiful water beyond. The historical markers detail the time when America and Cuba faced one another canons blazing and soldiers dying under a hot sun. On a blue sky day, when the water sparkles and delicate white clouds float overhead, it is difficult to imagine such violent events happening, but they did happen and it is important to remember that history as the two countries look to reconnect in a more constructive way.
f you are a romantic, you will want to ride around Havana in one of those cars that evoke sex and glamour. But they are not cheap.
Held together by bailing wire, duct tape and Cuban ingenuity, those cars with dulled paint and thread-bare seats are the workhorses of the city, transporting people and goods for a few pesos a trip.
Begin your tour on the top floor with pre-Colonial paintings by Cubans and Europeans who saw in the lush landscape an untamed beauty. As you walk around each floor, you will progress in time, exploring the vision of Cuba as aesthetic styles changed. Politics will become a topic as well as gender politics. The collection includes paintings and sculptures.
Occasionally there are exhibits by non-Cubans like the English photographer, Peter Turnley whose show we saw in 2015.
There are so many excellent works on display, you will have your favorites and I had mine. I especially enjoyed the mid-century work of Mariano Rodríguez (1912-1990) whose sensuous paintings utilized many styles, the brilliant and satirical cartoonist Rafael Blanco (1885-1955) who attacked the pretensions of the upper classes and politicians.
The lively complex would be at home in Brooklyn, Paris or London. An artists’ collective originally subsidized by the government, Fábrica is an affordably priced gathering spot for young people, artists and visitors.
Open from 8:00 PM-3:00 AM Thursday-Sunday, you will want to come early so you can view the art in the galleries before the crowds flood into the building and the throbbing music overwhelms conversation.
By design much of the art has political undertones. On our visit in 2016, some of the paintings, sculptures and photographs are overtly political like Fernando Rodríguez’s 2012 “Suprematismo (Rojo sobre Negro)” with two hundred toy-sized red bulls mounting black cows next to a video loop of a speech by Fidel Castro.
A word of advice. You will tell your friends to hold on to the tickets they were given when they entered. Instead of paying for food and drinks in the café and bar, each person’s ticket is marked. When you leave, your bill is totaled. You will patiently explain to your friends that if they lose their tickets, they cannot leave without paying a substantial fee.
Many are the work of talented artists who make the city their gallery. Your feet will be your guide as you wander the main boulevards and off-the-beaten-path streets.
Some of the best art I saw was on the wooden walls surrounding construction sites, like the murals outside the under renovation Museo Nacional de la Música (on Aguiar and Avenida Belgica).
Much of what I saw might be gone before you visit Havana. But not the art at Salvador Gonzáles Escalona’s Callejón de Hamel, a collection of sculptures and murals in a pedestrian walkway.
The images are Afro-Cuban, with a heavy dose of Santería images. Everyday objects—bathtubs, tires, pots, pans, stones, bathroom sinks and wrought iron fences—are incorporated into wildly painted collages, sculptures and the walls of buildings.
Children have art classes under the shaded patio and musicians gather to play and ask for donations. A paladar serves food and drinks. Artists sell their paintings in small galleries, some reached by descending twisting staircases into basement showrooms.
The restaurant and bar have taken over the entire third floor. The intimate dining rooms are decorated with antiques and beautiful paintings. The food is excellent, as good as any meal you would enjoy in a 5-Star European hotel, with prices to match.
Ivan Chef Justo is cluttered in a cozy, fun way and the food is delicious. You will especially enjoy the roast pork and the sauce served with the lobster. Both Ivan and Justo had been Fidel Castro’s chefs at moments in their careers.
They have opened a cafe on the bottom floor which is open for lunch and dinner.
In the space next to Fábrica, El Cocinero on the second floor has the open, modern feeling of an upscale restaurant you enjoy visiting in New York, Miami or Los Angeles. Brightly colored paintings hang on the walls inside and outside a sprawling deck is shaded by tall tropical plants. Serving a European menu, the food is well-prepared and platted in a way that makes what you are about to eat as fetching as the art on the walls.
You may be seated in the second floor dining room or on the rooftop terrace with a bar. In either case, you will certainly want to visit the third floor for a drink and to make the final climb up the spiral metal staircase to the deck with a view of the city.
Jacqueline Fumero Café is a block east of the Museum of the Revolution on a narrow street. The restaurant has a large Italian menu with service outside on a patio. On a sunny, cool day, you will definitely want to eat outside.
Like many cities, Havana is learning to exploit its rooftops. Go on a roof-top bar-crawl and start at the Saratoga Hotel, move on to the Hotel Ambos Mundos (corner of Calles Obispo and Mercaderes) and go upstairs above El Cocinero to the roof-top bar and enjoy a drink (the piña coladas are creamy-delicious!) before going next door for dancing, art and films at Fábrica.
A must-stop is El Del Frente ("the one in front"), sister roof-top bar to the well-established bar O'Reilly303. The drinks and food are good. The charming roof-top bar has a great collection of neon and a view of the night-sky. With a large group, you can gather around a long table, share plates of well-made food and sample the excellent selection of cocktails.
El Del Frente, 303 O'Reilly, Habana Vieja, +53 78630206.
Walk around the city and you will meet the other citizens of Havana. Dogs and cats are everywhere and they all look well-fed. Sleeping peacefully on the side walk in front of an art gallery or sitting at the entrance to a small shop, the dogs came in all colors and sizes.
Cats with thick, clean coats watched people walking to restaurants and in and out of curio shops. Their unhurried manner suggesting they had owners who love them.
During the day, fishermen stand on the wall, casting their lines into the surf, hoping to bring back the evening’s meal. At night hundreds of young Cubans gather along the seawall to play music, talk, flirt, gossip and go online at the WiFi hotspots called telepuntos.
Both the electronic news display and the flags are gone, but the flag poles are very much in evidence as is the Embassy. Inaugurated by Secretary John Kerry in August, 2015, the Embassy is a physical sign that normalization between the two countries has begun in earnest.
Turn off roaming when you arrive in Havana.
To navigate the city, you can purchase a paper map, usually available for sale in most hotels. We took advantage of the Havana map downloadable at no cost from maps.me. Remarkably, even though your phone is not roaming, the downloadable map knows where you are and, like Google maps in the U.S., will direct you to walk, drive or take public transportation from where you are to where you want to go.
When I bought a painting from the Almost Famous Gallery, besides the authorization, the artist Dennys Santos Diaz stamped the back of the canvas with his seal. At the airport, there is a special desk where you must show the documentation before you can board your plane. When you enter the United States, you may be asked to show the authorization and a bill of sale.