Cuba Uncovered: An explorer’s guide

Tourists ride a vintage convertible while touring Old Havana in Cuba. Tourist buses are seen lined up along the Malecon in Havana. Tourists ride a vintage convertible while touring Old Havana in Cuba. Tourist buses are seen lined up along the Malecon in Havana. AL DIAZ – adiaz@miamiherald.com

Considering a trip to Cuba?

Be sure to peruse through this guide for the most up-to-date information on planning the trip, things to do and destinations across the island. Obtain useful tips on exploring Cuban culture, cuisine, entertainment, history and the arts.

Whether your visit is for personal enrichment, people-to-people exchanges or a prospect for future business, this guide will help you obtain a better understanding of the nation and its people.

PLANNING

With the thaw between the U.S. and Cuba, traveling to the island has become far easier — and legal — for many Americans. Though pure tourism is still prohibited, traveling for cultural, educational and people-to-people purposes is now as simple as booking a flight and filling out a form attesting that your trip qualifies.

Also important is securing a visa and booking a flight. Havana Air is now offering online reservations. But many more airlines are expected to soon follow suit. Chartered flights are also available through longtime enterprises such as ABC Charters and Marazul.

Hotel rooms may be one of Cuba’s scarcest commodities; all are either government-owned or built with foreign minority partners, and many are often sold out. But there are an increasing number of rooms available in the form of a casa particular, which can be booked via several online sites, including Airbnb, at what, in U.S. terms, is a bargain: $30-$70 per night for a clean, simple air-conditioned room with private bath. For another $5 per person, many offer breakfast of fruits, bread, coffee and eggs.
THINGS TO DO

The tales of Havana being a Paris in the tropics, is no myth. The standard hourlong city tour in a classic convertible takes in wide boulevards, domed government halls, rainforest-like parks and a vast marbled cemetery rivaling any in Latin America. Palaces-turned-hotels and colonial plazas are glorious still, often restored thanks to UNESCO efforts. Private mid-century modern homes in artist-centric neighborhoods convey a breezy grace.

Havana is an art town, and discovering it should be part of the mission. A guided walking tour will lead you through several Old Havana galleries, the 50-year-old Taller Experimental de Grafica cooperative, where master members create the engravings from which they will print; and the Cuban art wing of the national art museum. For a new experience, visit Havana’s Art Factory or La Fabrica del Arte Cubano.
More can be discovered on our own in places such as Calle Empedrado that are as much hangouts as galleries. Many artists keep their gallery hours in their homes, which allows for conversations about art and life with magic realists, contemporary sculptors and photographers.

Cuisine can vary greatly in taste and price. But we have some tips on where to eat, drink and socialize in Havana. Beer choices are limited but there are two national cervezas that will become very familiar. And, of course, can’t leave Cuba without imbibing in the country’s so-called rum magic.

DESTINATIONS

In old Havana, the nightly flamenco show at the club La Tableau is just a few steps from a Buena Vista Social Club-style dinner club; in Plaza Vieja, tourists down frothy beer served in five-foot-high towers. Vintage taxis handed down from father to son gleam with polish — though some are still held together with wire and bubble gum.

The historic Hotel Nacional, less shiny than in the decades when mobsters and Hollywood stars filled its bars, still offers the same seductive view across the Malecón and the sea beyond. Dinner at a rooftop paladar offers delightful entrees that come with an expansive view of the city. Music is a staple at most every bar.

For nightlife, check out Playa, a municipality within Havana province, is now considered ground zero for the hip private lounge club craze sweeping the capital.

Beyond Havana, the long road to Cuba’s south is lined with loamy fields, some filled with bounty, others left fallow. Cienfuegos is a pastel fantasy, its central plaza guarded by stone lions and rimmed by gracious domes and an opera house.

Further down the road, colonial Trinidad shines with touristic prosperity. By day, cowboys, tractors and locals carry eggs fresh off the finca roll past shops with handmade sweaters, a massage studio and welcoming restaurants. At night, the stone streets seem to vibrate with visitors strolling from their dinners in crystal-laden homes-turned-restaurants through waves of samba and salsa spilling from clubs and plazas.

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