“When you can hop on a JetBlue flight NYC to Havana for about $200 I understand the temptation to just wing it. But if you want the most from your Cuba trip, you need someone who can walk you through the tricky parts of Cuba travel and connect you with what’s worthwhile,” says our Cuba expert Maryana.
We’ve seen her demystify how the visas work (how to get one, where to get one, and what the twelve categories mean) and ensure accommodation bookings are firm despite unreliable Wi-Fi and spotty communication (we’ve heard plenty of double-booking horror stories to know this is a fine skill). She’s meticulous when it comes to unearthing the best: a favorite driver who knows every inch of the city, private apartments on the edge of Havana’s coveted up-and-coming neighborhoods (the iconic hotels are great for a cocktail but you may not be happy staying there—she’ll explain why), a walking map to those authentic habanos (the counterfeits are a dime a dozen and can cost you more than the real deal).
In the rapidly changing landscape of Cuba travel, here’s what Maryana wants every visitor to know about Cuba travel right now—from Havana’s only microbrewery to a brand new showcase for the country’s premiere ballet.
A BETTER SLEEP
Private homes are Havana’s breakout stars
“There are a few hotels everyone wants to step foot in—the cache of some of these grand dames are palpable. I say go for a drink, see the tragic beauty of grand mosaic tiles, Art Deco staircases, and stained glass past their heyday. But when you’re choosing where to sleep, these weathered beauties don’t have all of the comforts and amenities most travelers are hoping for,” Maryana confides.
Maryana has made it her mission to offer a better alternative. What she’s finding are private homes which overshadow any of the standard hospitality options. “These private homes, luxury lofts and apartments are rooted in Cuban culture—some are filled with the owner’s private collections of contemporary Cuban art, others look across the Malécon to the water, some have outdoor balconies, some personal pools. They have morning maid service and prepared breakfasts so you have the full treatment,” Maryana explains.
If you’re wed to hotels, Cuba will be getting a few new additions in 2017: Starwood Luxury Collection is refurbishing three properties including the Hotel Inglaterra in Havana, there is talk of a new Kempinski hotel, and the Four Points by Sheraton which opened last year is said to see improvements in the next year.
YES, YOU CAN SHOP IN CUBA
A legendary perfumery, unexpected boutiques, authentic habanos
You likely don’t think of Cuba as a shopping destination. Goods haven’t moved freely between Cuba and the US for decades and with its communist history, shopping isn’t a leisure activity the way it is in other countries. Yet contrary to this, arts and crafts are a vibrant part of Cuban everyday life which means there are some spectacular finds. During her visits Maryana has uncovered some favorite spots that showcase the beautiful goods being made. Here’s her short list:
Clandestina “I was surprised to come across a few really sweet little boutiques during my last visit. Boutiques are something really new for Cuba,” Maryana tells us. “My favorite was Clandestina. They sell shirts and screen-printed tote bags with Cuban phrases and city maps, woven hats, some little knickknacks for the home—things that make great gifts. The shop has a kind of pop-art aesthetic which is unique for Havana.”
Habana 1791 “I was so taken by this little perfume shop in Old Havana. As the name suggests, it’s been open since 1791. Visiting is an experience: it’s housed in an 18th-century mansion with gorgeous original stained glass. All of the fragrances are handcrafted. When you’ve selected the one you want, you can choose the bottle you want it packaged in. There are some lovely ones made by local artists. If you can’t find the scent that is right for you, you can commission your own signature scent. The alchemist doesn’t take the job lightly and will sit with you to find a blend that blends with your natural scent and brings out personality notes.”
Arts & Crafts Market “The Arts & Crafts Market is no secret, but I make a point to go every time I’m in Havana and walk the perimeter,” says Maryana. “This is where you’ll find the paintings, real contemporary art” she continues. “You may see familiar scenes, such as the colorful cars and facades or the Malécon, but each version is genuinely unique. You can tell the artist cares about the work they’ve made and what you take home with you is the only one out there.”
Habanos Cuba’s most coveted keepsake are the habanos, authentic hand-rolled cigars. “Here’s the thing,” warns Maryana, “every direction you look you’ll see someone hawking habanos or convincing you to stop in their cigar co-op. Fair warning: the majority of these street cigars are counterfeit and can cost you the same amount or more as the real deal. To get the real ones you need to go to the government emporiums. I have a favorite stockist I can share with those who are serious connoisseurs.”
Brand new and newly uncovered
Havana’s arts and music are as vibrant as ever with young artists exploring a post-détente coming of age, a photo studio showcasing local talent, and a newly finished grand theater showcasing Cuba’s phenomenal ballet and contemporary performance arts. Here’s what Maryana is most excited about for Cuba travel in 2017:
Meet an artist “The art scene in Cuba is really approachable, almost neighborly. It’s a small enough and open enough community that even as a visitor you can meet phenomenal talent. It’s not as easy as just showing up and knocking on the door, but I’ve arranged for clients to stop by artist galleries and have private chats with the artists many times. If you know the right person, it’s possible. It’s fascinating to hear how they approach their work with limited resources.”
Fototeca Hail all photographers! “Havana’s street scenes are unmatchable,” says Maryana. “Phototeca is a photo gallery which houses some of Cuba’s most important contemporary talent. It’s the perfect end point to a photo walking tour.”
Ballet at the brand-new Grand Theater “I’ve been a fan of Irene Rodriguez’s renowned flamenco dance troupe for a long time, as well as the many Afro-Cuban ensembles. Now I have another dance experience to add to my favorites: this year Havana’s Grand Theater opened its doors, and I’m totally won over by the first class Cuban ballet in this gorgeous space.”
TEDxHabana “I can’t spill all the details on this yet, but Havana is slated to host a TEDx series in November,” Maryana says with a big smile. Very exciting! If you’re interested in going, get in touch. Tickets are hard to come by and very limited.
Go inside a classic car restorer’s workshop “Taking a taxi ride in a classic car is a no-brainer while you’re in Havana,” says Maryana. For the true aficionados she can take that up a notch and get you behind the closed doors of a classic car restorers’ workshop. You’ll see the love that goes into keeping these beasts on the road and an eye-opening collection.
HOW TO EAT WELL
The food is good
Rice and beans may be the staple of your meals in Cuba, but don’t write off Cuban fare just yet. Think you don’t like flan or piña coladas? Wait until you taste them in Cuba. The flan is weightless and the piña coladas are light, refreshing and made entirely from fresh local ingredients. You’ll rethink what you thought they were. (Warning: it’s possible you won’t want to eat them anywhere but Cuba!) With an influx of visitors, Havana’s chefs are getting more daring with international ingredients and inventive recipes.
A soviet-inspired, nostalgia-laced meal at Nazdarovie For decades Cubans went abroad to study in the Soviet Union. When they returned to Cuba, those Russian sights, sounds, smells and tastes seemed permanently in their pasts. Then came Nazdarovie, Havana’s first Soviet restaurant. Its owner says not a week goes by when someone doesn’t come in and cry to have the chance to experience the flavors of their past once again. For Absolute’s Maryana, a Ukrainian Native, it felt almost surreal to be eating foods of her childhood in Cuba.
A craft beer in Havana Think Cuba and you’ll probably think mojitos. Havana’s one and only microbrewery, located beside the Arts & Crafts Market, challenges this assumption. “My perfect afternoon is spent strolling through the Arts & Crafts Market before stopping in the microbrewery.”
A farm-grown, home-cooked meal in the country Food doesn’t get better than the farm-to-table bounty you’ll be served on an organic farm in the Viñales Valley. You’ll begin with a vegetable stew cooked entirely using thick-cut vegetables from the farm. Save some room! By the end of the meal every inch of the huge country table will be covered with heaping dishes you’ll want to dive into! “If you don’t have a day to make this trip, you can do a fantastic organic farm experience an hour outside the city,” Maryana tells us.
Explore outside Havana’s perimeters
“When the Cuba travel restrictions were first eased, most Cuba trips were heavily focused on Havana. Now travelers are hungry to see more,” says Maryana. “Smaller towns beyond Havana, especially in the South, have become completely accessible.” JetBlue and American Airlines plus several other familiar carriers operate routes several times a day to Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and a handful of other small cities. There are multi-lane highways that make road travel to desirable stops like Trinidad smooth and just a couple-hour drive. Two must-dos for Cuba travel are Cienfuegos and Trinidad.
Cienfuegos About a three-hour drive from Havana, Cienfuegos is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The harbor town has strong French colonial influences and makes a perfect stop on your way to Trinidad.
Trinidad An hour and a half from Cienfuegos, Trinidad is another UNESCO World Heritage site. In contrast to Cienfuegos, the architecture and cobblestone streets have a distinct Spanish-colonial influence. Trinidad’s nightlife is unbeatable and the town is surrounded by beautiful mountains and sugar mills and plantations.
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