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Holiday in Havana

posted Friday February 12th, 2016


I’m barely back, but it already seems like a rum-soaked dream — seven days and nights in Cuba, a breathtaking, heartbreaking, gorgeous, crumbling, humbling place. An incredible trip.

As our 40th birthdays approached, my best-friend-from-second-grade Amy (I know, it’s confusing) suggested we go on a trip to celebrate.

That was almost 10 years ago. We never went anywhere.

With 50 staring us down, we decided to get busy — and head south. Tourism is at a fevered pitch in Havana, as mending relations with the U.S. threaten to bring capitalism — and hoards of Americans — to Cuba. So far, so good: Upon our arrival in Havana in January, there wasn’t a Starbucks in sight, and while the city bustled, it was hardly too late to experience the real thing — the 40s and 50s-cars (“American car!” as the cab drivers bragged, beautifully preserved on the outside and not-quite-so on the inside), the gorgeously crumbling architecture and, sadly, some pretty intense poverty and deprivation.


Without getting too confusing, there are currently two ways for a typical American to get to Cuba: enter through Mexico or Canada; or join an educational tour. We did the latter, hooking up with the amazing Tom Miller, a Tucson-based writer best known in this case for “Trading with the Enemy,” a book he wrote in the early 1990s after spending 18 months traveling Cuba, getting to know it in a way few (if any) Americans were able to do at the time.

To be honest, I cringed at the idea of an organized tour (most of the 21 people on our tour — I wouldn’t go on one bigger — also self-identified as “non organized-tour-people”) but I was so glad we took that route. Tom has been returning to Cuba for years, his connections are unrivaled, and his line-up for Literary Havana was pitch perfect. I wanted to pinch myself — every day I thought, “Did Tom crawl in my head and plan this trip just for me?”

We visited a synagogue, talked to a documentary filmmaker, watched a theater troupe practice, toured Muraleando, a non-profit devoted to arts instruction for underprivileged kids — and so on. We sipped wine over lunch while poets read, wandered around Barrio Chino (Havana has a Chinatown!), checked out Hemingway’s bathroom (great shower curtain) and hung out by his empty pool. We also saw a remarkable contemporary dance troupe called Danza Espiral that we all agreed was one of the best we’d seen anywhere. It was awesome.


IMG_7440An important caveat, key in surviving an organized tour: Heads turned the other way when Amy and I went rogue, which happened a few times. We skipped the art museum tour and spent a day wandering around Old Havana, studying the latest Fodor’s, hitting up coffee shops, an outdoor antiques market, and an incredible print studio/gallery. After an entire week (no kidding) of nagging the hotel concierge, scored tickets to the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. We also took in a show at the Tropicana — kitschy, hilarious, and (consider yourself warned) pricey.

(One place we didn’t get to, either on our own or with the group, because it was closed was the national art school. It’s on my list for a return visit. Another: Fabrica de Arte Cubano — a giant disco/art gallery/so-much-more that was also closed.)

Our group met up in Miami (there’s a great hotel in the airport — I highly recommend it) and took a charter to Havana. We waited an hour to deplane when we got there, and when we left Cuba, that plane was delayed by several hours. But by then, we were accustomed to waiting. A week of Cuba — businesses unexpectedly closed, electricity inexplicably off, the poet your group was supposed to meet up with MIA — was charming. A few more days and I would have gone bonkers.

While in Havana, we stayed at Hotel Nacional de Cuba. It is old, giant, picturesque and a little decrepit unless you are on the sixth floor, reserved for dignitaries and other VIPs. The patio is elegant, overlooking the water, and as in most places in Havana, there’s usually live music. The bartenders were kind enough to warn me about the quality of the tequila when I tried to order a margaria. I settled into a week of rum and don’t ever need to drink another mojito, though there was one pina colada at a rest stop (of all places) that I’ll never forget.

A block from our hotel is Hotel Capri, recently refurbished and once a mob favorite. Parque Central in Old Havana also comes highly recommended.

We spent three nights in Havana, then headed for the coast, to a port town called Matanzas and then Varadero. Matanzas is definitely off the beaten path — and worth the trip. We stopped by a book-making studio called Ediciones Vigía and watched artists piece together incredibly intricate, beautiful poetry books with a rare commodity, paper. From there it was on to the Pharmaceutical Museum – a perfectly preserved, extravagant Nineteenth Century pharmacy once owned and operated by a Dr. Triolet.


We stayed in Varadero, a beach town known for huge, all-inclusive resorts. We stayed at one. I don’t recommend that — I would have preferred to poke around the tiny town or score digs at the Xanadu Dupont Mansion. (Even if you don’t say at the mansion, stop by  – no one will mind and there are killer views.) Either way, the beach was stunning, truly “seafoam green” and, as the water stretched to the horizon, varying shades that empty your Crayola box as you try to describe them.

The restaurant scene is surprisingly good. In 2011 the government made way for paladares, restaurants run out of private homes, and the results can be stunning. The cuisine is mixed (some meals were forgettable, others not — and for not-great reasons) but so is the decor and setting — and for that, you’ll be grateful. Some of our favorites included Atelier, Decameron and Fontana. At Decameron, for example, we enjoyed a wall full of cuckoo clocks and amazing lemon meringue pie for dessert.


Don’t expect to find super souvenirs. We didn’t. There’s just not a lot of merch in Cuba. (Except for cigars, you won’t have any problems there.) Related: You’ll hear that gifts are appreciated, and while everyone we met in Cuba was extremely cordial, I got the feeling that cash would have been preferred to the costume jewelry I’d been urged to bring. You do want to bring your own over the counter medications (particularly Imodium and Pepto Bismol) and plan to leave some behind. That’s definitely appreciated. You might also want to pack some snacks; bottled water is everywhere but we didn’t see so much as a Pringle till we got to the airport on our last day.

I don’t feel like I’ve even begun to tell the story. If you’re going to Cuba or thinking about going, message me. We’ll talk.

Also: I posted more photos on Instragram. My account is @amysilverman.


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Tags: Filed under: travel by Amysilverman

One Response to “Holiday in Havana”

  1. Wonderful travelogue of a place that I intend to visit. Thanks for your vibrant descriptions….

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