Jan17

On Visiting Havana, Cuba

{Wearing: Top: Forever 21. Shorts: AG from Calypso St. Barth. Shoes: c/o Tarbay. Sunnies: c/o Christian Roth.

All Photographs by Jorge Camaraza}

As I was standing in line at the bar on New Years Eve, a stranger approached me and asked, “Why Havana?” I look at her and said, “I’ve lived in Miami for 16 years. Some of my favorite people are Cuban. I wanted to see where they came from.”

“You,” I said?

“I came here because it was on a must-see list for New Year’s,” she said.

Whatever your reason, Havana is well worth the trip.

I’ve wanted to see it for a long time now, this mysterious island just 90 miles from Miami’s shores. This controversial place, trapped in a bubble, so enigmatic and steeped in history. Sure, the vintage cars seem alluring, but it’s truly the culture that was the purpose for the trip, for me anyway. Going with my Cuban-American boyfriend, whose parents came from said island, well, I knew it would turn this from a trip into a story.

If you’re lucky enough to live in Miami, Cuba is only a 45-minute flight. There were several things we learned upon touching down: First, that vintage car you booked on the internet back in Miami, it doesn’t exist. You’ll need to call Amex and reverse those charges, stat. And don’t feel bad, you weren’t the only one. There’s a whole line of you who booked probably the same car who now have no ride from the airport. Luckily, we had our guide to help us catch a cab. A guide is also a good idea.

We opted to stay at Melia Cohiba, but next time around we’ll definitely go with an Air B&B option, as the hotel was more expensive than it was nice, which isn’t to say it wasn’t clean. It was. It was just very pricey for what it was. We also went for NYE, which seemed to affect the price of a lot of things.

The most important piece of info I can share with anyone traveling to Cuba is this: Be sure to bring cash. Credit cards are not accepted anywhere in Cuba. They won’t work in the ATM machines either. If you don’t bring enough cash to cover your entire trip, you won’t be able to get any more. I can’t stress this enough. My other top tip: Unplug. Your phone won’t work. And despite wi-fi stickers on nearly every restaurant window, there is no connection to the world wide web, except for the hotel’s business center, where you have to pay by the minute. So, let go. Step back in time. It’s so easy to get lost in Cuba—no internet, no phone. The truth is, you won’t know what is happening in the world. You are completely shut off from it. And that is both good and alarming.

Your first stop should be the Malecon, the seawall that stretches for five miles across Havana’s coast. Seeing it via vintage convertible is, well, lovely, but keep in mind it will run you anywhere from $50 to $150 an hour. Jorge was the one who pointed out that most cities build their hotels on the water, obstructing the view of the ocean from the road. But not here. It’s one of the things that makes Havana so beautiful. As we cruised down to Old Havana, ocean on one side, gloriously beautiful architecture peppered with worn down Deco-esque colors on the other, I could see where Miami drew its inspiration. It was then that Jorge turned to me and said, “I can only image how beautiful Havana was back when my mother lived here.”

Old Havana is stunning, despite its various states of decay. There’s something about that destruction that reminds you Havana is trapped in a time capsule. Those chunks of missing walls and chipped-away paint remind you of how beautiful it was. It’s as if they highlight what’s left of the beauty, but it also reminds you that here, this is how it is. And as much as you want to change it, restore it, it doesn’t work like that. And while it’s picturesque, there’s a part of it that’s sad, melancholy.

That sadness, however, does not live within the people. Their spirit is a vibrancy that nothing can dull. It’s as though kindness is part of the local flavor. In fact, the most beautiful thing about Cuba isn’t the architecture, nor the cars, it’s the immeasurable kindness of the people.

As we wondered around Old Havana, this is just one of the things I noticed. Another is how cavernous Havana is. When given an address for a restaurant, you’ll double take your final destination. By stumbling inside a decaying building, where drying laundry flaps in the breeze, you’ll find winding metal and marble staircases that lead up and up and up to restaurants you’d gladly give five stars to back home. By just looking at the outside, you’d never know what wonders lie ahead. We found several of the most divine restaurants this way, like La Guarida, where the menu will give you a history lesson on the first and only Cuban movie ever nominated for an Academy Award. You won’t realize it upon walking in, but the laundry downstairs drying on the line is actually the linens from the restaurant upstairs. And though its done that way out of necessity, there’s something romantic about it. Here, things aren’t rushed. They happen when they happen. Though celebrities like Beyonce have eaten here, La Guarida would still be well beyond notable had they not. La Fontana in the Miramar district, another noteworthy spot, was the first high-end restaurant in Havana and is decorated with fountains, koi ponds and stained glass. It, too, is worth stopping into. Have soup at both. Trust me. And while wondering around, don’t be afraid to try street food. My friend Courtney found Japanese crepes, called Crepe Sayu, smack in the middle of Old Town. She’s read about them online and then found them when she noticed a Japanese flag flying above an apartment in the middle of town. The owner sells them out of a kitchen window. Be sure to order the lemonade, which is served in a glass. In the same way laundry dries on lines, utensils and dishes are real ones, not ones that find their way to the bottom of trash cans. But then again, that’s the way things worked back in the bygone era Cuba seems to be living in. Speaking of drinks, have a daiquri (or seven—they go down easily) at La Floridita. It, too, feels like stepping back in time, something the live music accentuates. Hemingway also used to drink here, which makes it an official stop on my ongoing tour of his life.

 

 

{Wearing: Romper: Touch Dolls. Shoes: Tarbay. Bracelet: See by Chloe from Fly Boutique.}

Since you are a tourist, be one. I wandered into Hotel Nacional de Cuba with the sole intention of traditional tourist. It’s beautiful. It’s preserved. It’s the opposite of Old Havana. It will remind you what Cuba must have been like so many years ago when parents and grandparents left. It was here I purchased a post card to send back home. “Can I mail this to the U.S.?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I could. But I was able to. I was also handed a flamingo stamp covered in bottled glue. Self-adhesive stamps aren’t part of the local culture. And something as simple as that is just one of the many things we as Americans take for granted.

If you want to catch a show while you’re in Havana, skip the one you think you should go to because everyone else does. See the one at the Nacional instead. It tells a version of the history of Cuba and its music. oh, the music. The costumes are fantastic. It’s truly beautiful. And you might just learn something. In all honestly, we never expected to make it through the whole show, but we did. It was that good.

 

In addition to my post card, we snatched up newspapers, old Cuban license plates and art. It’s that last one that will really inspire you. Especially if you see it at Fabrica de Arte de Cubano. I was blown away by not just the beauty and innovation of the building, but the art as well. The place has a night-clubby vibe, so you’ll go there to look at art, dance, drink and repeat. Make sure to find the adorable cubby hole that serves as the boutique. Next door, the restaurant El Cocinero, is equally beautiful. You’ll need a reservation, though. And be sure to have a drink on the rooftop. I snuck in and saw the place, but it was booked solid. It’s one of those things I’ve left to come back to on my next trip.

Wander around. Cuba is safe. It feels safe. It wants to be explored. The people want you to explore it. For the four days I was there that is exactly what I did. And it was spectacular. There are several things I learned while I was there: First, I appreciate being an American. The freedom I have is something I’ve never realized before. It took wandering around in a Cuban bookstore that is “curated,” with what is allowed to be read to realize the simple freedoms I was given at birth. As we cruised down the Malecon in a pink convertible with it’s top down, a Cuban flag on the antenna waving in the wind, it was Jorge who snapped a pic of me and then showed it to me, saying, “The next time you see this picture, remember how free, how truly free you were in communist Cuba.”

It’s funny I had to be there to realize any of that. But even there in communist Cuba, where rights aren’t something you are born with or even inherit, Jorge realized something, too. I saw it in his eyes, his smile. The way the people connected with him, asking him if Cuba was where he was from and then claiming him as their own as he said he was born in America to Cuban parents. Though he never said it, I could tell he was in the arms of his motherland. And he was letting her embrace him as much as he was embracing her. He’d gotten back to his roots, where his people began. And he found himself there in the architecture, the food, the art, the music and the people. In a way, he was home. And in a very bold way I realized where my home was, too.

Cuba is a place I know we will go back to again and again. And not just because it’s so close to home. Because there’s something special about it that makes it different from the other little islands surrounding it. I don’t know what it is, but I’m willing to go back again to try and place my finger on it.

{Wearing: Shirt: Gap. Jeans: Blank NYC from Blush. Shoes: BCBG.}

{Wearing: Dress and Bracelet: Touch Dolls. Shoes: Steve Madden.}