Return to Cuba: Everything and nothing has changed

I thought of publishing my commentary on this article by Kevin Spear posted initially on the Orlando Sentinel on Jul 14, 2019, as I believe it misses some nuances about the country. But, overall, I think it is an accurate depiction of how Cuba (I should say Cubans and in particular Cuban entrepreneurs) are coping with the impact of the most recent Trump administration travel restrictions. I think you to judge for yourself and make your conclusion.

At the end of the article, it clarifies that travel to Cuba from the US remains legal under multiple categories, including Support for the Cuban People. The exchange of ideas amongst our two countries enriches the lives of both Cubans and Americans.

Hidden Gems of Havana - 5/5 series

This is the last part of my top five "do not miss" hidden gems of Havana for when you are ready to experience the magic of my city.  Boris Masip - My Amigo in Cuba

If Old Havana is the soul of the city, then it is widely believed that Vedado is the heart of Havana. Now housing some of the most of-the-moment paladares in La Habana, Vedado (which means “forbidden” or “private” in Spanish) not only has an illustrious history – but, like the country itself, is experiencing a true renaissance.

Historically speaking, Vedado was a densely wooded military area that was developed as a defensive zone for any attacks on the much-beloved, Habana Vieja. In the 1850’s, civilians began to populate and in turn, created a neighborhood with spacious parks and Parisian-style double-width boulevards. In pre-revolutionary times, Vedado was home to swanky sugar barons and their majestic mansions. For years mobsters combed Vedado.  The infamous Meyer Lansky, who arguably built Las Vegas, was a fixture. As was Santo Traficante and his prized Hotel Capri (the first hotel to have a rooftop swimming pool in Havana). Casinos and nightclubs were mainstays – as well as Havana’s famously decadent entertainment areas at the base of La Rampa (Calle 23). One of the city’s most famous hotels, Hotel Habana Libre (formerly the Havana Hilton), is also woven in to the DNA of Vedado and Cuba’s history. In January 1959, Fidel Castro and his army of rebels occupied the 24th floor of the newly constructed hotel. There they established the first headquarters for the government of the then new Revolution.

Today, Vedado is more known for restaurants than rebels. In the past few years, Havana has seen nightlife and culinary creations that rival any major city in the world – and a lot of them are here in Vedado. Fabrica de Arte is truly a unique experience and you would be hard pressed to find an equivalent anywhere. Art gallery-cum-restaurant-cum-nightclub-cum-cinema, FAC (as known to the locals, if you want to be in-the-know) is a must-stop and one-stop. You can truly spend the night here and feel like you barely made a dent.

Some of the other treasures in Vedado: La Chansonnier is one the most chic restaurants on the planet. This palatial paladare has stunning décor, great local art – and damn good food. Café Laurent must have the most charming views of the city. A culinary delight, make certain you hold out for the terrace. Pasillo and King Bar are some of Havana’s favorite watering holes where locals and visitors mingle and mix alike.

In a city that was once gastro-challenged, Havana is now leading the charge, and change. And a lot of these experiences are here in the newly transformed Vedado. We haven’t even begun to talk about the other notable paladares or the important art galleries that have cropped up as of late or the nightclubs where you will want to salsa and rhumba and cha cha cha the night away. We will have to save all of those gems for another time. In the meanwhile, Vedado is waiting and beckoning. As we like to say at My Amigo in Cuba – “Experience it now, so you are the one telling the story.”

Almendares Park – a forgotten jewel in Havana

A few days ago friends visiting New York City asked me to accompany them for a walk in Central Park. Unexpectedly, that walk brought back memories, of me as a kid, visiting Havana's Almendares Park (officially now part of Gran Parque Metropolitano). To be clear, the park and the eponymous rivers have seen better days. And yet we usually do not hesitate to show it to our concierge travel clients, who are open to authentic experiences and want to gain real insights into the Cuba of today. After all, the park is one of the largest - yet lesser known - urban parks in the world; totaling approximately 1,730 acres - for context, NYC Central Park is 843 acres.

Little known facts about the Almendares Park:

  • The park was the brainchild of Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier, a French landscape architect/city planner, who lived/worked in Havana in the 1920's - a glory time for the city.  Yes, this is the landscape architect that created the Eiffel Tower’s Champs-de-Mars gardens and the Parc de la Ciutadella in Barcelona. For the park, he collaborated with Cuban architects like Pedro Martínez Inclán.  They aimed to contribute to the rapid modernization that the city was experiencing but maintain a green corridor along the Almendares river. From the grandiose plan, the only surviving piece is the Havana Forest, at the entrance of which the park is situated. 
  • If you have been researching Havana - or have visited Havana - you have seen Forestier’s better-known work in Cuba, such as.:
    • the Grand Escalinata (staircase) of the University of Havana,
    • the Paseo del Prado (site of the Chanel fashion show), and
    • Parque Central (the Kempinski Hotel is across the street). 

With the deterioration of the park, it became best known as a place for illicit liaisons and Santeria ritualism. But the park is experiencing a renaissance. The Amphitheater is coming alive with a series of weekend events; the lush forest favorite spot for model shoots and wedding photos; and travelers strolling amidst the giant trees and curtain of green is becoming a common sight.

If you travel to Cuba from New York or any other US origination, make sure you ask your Cuba specialist travel agency to place it in your itinerary and provide tips on what to look for while there.  Even better, attend one of the Coachella-like events that happen there on the weekends. 

Going to Cuba? Make your trip memorable by opting to stay at a Casa Particular

It is not breaking news that - for the most part - in Cuba, the hotel offering and services are not at par with other Caribbean islands, Mexico or South America. Yet, that doesn’t discourage travelers from visiting, because the country’s mystique, culture, and charm make it a more alluring destination than most of its "natural" competitors.

As it always happens, local entrepreneurs have turned a problem into an opportunity, and we have seen the proliferation of private bed & breakfast/inns called Casas Particulares (“casas”).  Said casas are increasingly becoming the hospitality of choice for many Americans who travel to Cuba from NYC and other US cities.   To date, inexpensive casas mostly dominate the market; but travel concierge services (this is a shameless plug for our service) and specialized travel agents can help you find the ones who cater to more seasoned and discerning travelers. 

As you plan your trip, please consider our argument in favor of the casas option:

  1. Yes, some hotels meet international standards, and there are more on the way, but in general, most seem conceived with the business, not the leisure traveler in mind.  Some of these luxury hotels look more like North American corporate office buildings rather than hotels in a tropical destination. On the flip side, ingenious locals have developed casas that are not only beautiful, but they also have avoided the mistake of imitating foreign destinations. In fact, taking inspiration from tropical modernism movement, they are developing a very Cuban aesthetic. After all, if you want a place that looks like a Mexican casita or an NYC loft wouldn’t you instead go to Mexico or NYC?
  2. We admit that in the last five years service in the hotels have improved tenfold. But, Casas still maintain their edge on this front also. The market rewards owners that perfect the art of hosting. To the point that today the best tours to  Cuba from the US almost invariably include this at some end for their most discerning clients.  It also helps with the compliance with the US travel regulations.  I will say that going to Cuba and not experiencing true Cuban hospitality is a complete miss.
  3. For the time being, casas also offer a better value for money, and there are no additional taxes, and no hidden fees. Unless you are traveling to all-inclusive very mass tourist areas, Cuba is not an inexpensive destination. For the price of a hotel room at Kempinski or Saratoga, you can find casas with higher aesthetical standards and better service for less money.  Not to mention that by staying at a casa, you contribute to the local economy and foster the efforts of local entrepreneurs.
  4. If you have dietary restrictions, based on religion, health or personal preference, not uncommon among us citizens, your travel concierge most likely will be able to accommodate them working with the best casas.   But it is a high task when staying at a hotel

Some hotels may give you a room with an incredible view (and I admit that usually, I’m willing to pay a premium for that) but I’m a traveler, not a tourist.  Visiting Cuba and staying at a casa plays into the romance of the past but also on a trend that the world is embracing of more intimate and personal experiences. These casas are what makes Cuba so great - and no hotel comes even close to delivering this experience.

Hidden Gems of Havana - 4/5 series

This is part four of five in my "do not miss" recommendation series of hidden gems of Havana for when you are ready to experience the magic of my city.    Boris Masip - My Amigo in Cuba

Barrio Cayo Hueso (Key West)

Cayo Hueso is the quintessential Cuban-American neighborhood. It was originally named Arranburu but was renamed by Cuban returnees, from South Florida, as they resettled into the area and shaped it to suit their newly acquired tastes. Starting in 1857, economic crisis and political unrest drove a large number of Cuban workers, cigar factory owners, and other entrepreneurs to migrate to Florida. After the war of 1898, as the economy prospered and the political situation stabilized, the working class returnees migrated to this area. The biggest landmarks in the area are undoubtedly the Maceo Park across from the Malecon Avenue and the Hermanos Amejeiras Hospital (the tallest building in the neighborhood and an important hospital in the country).

Although the architecture of the area is predominantly Neoclassical; walking the area is a dream for architecture buffs who will also delight in the beautiful examples of Art Nouveau, and Art Deco - and all the detailed iron work of the buildings in the area. The barrio was also famous for being a hotbed of leftist political activity. In 1951, it elected Fidel Castro Ruiz as a representative to Congress and was home to some of the people who accompanied him in his failed attempt to overtake the Moncada garrison in Santiago de Cuba in 1953.

Culinary aficionados take note. Cayo Hueso is where you will find La Guarida restaurant, (Concordia #418). This restaurant is emblematic of the paladar movement in Cuba. Maybe because it was the setting of the movie “Strawberry and Chocolate”; maybe because it captures the decaying grandeur of the city as few other places do; but most likely, because the kitchen is making some of the best Cuban food dishes you can have anywhere in the world.  La Guarida is a favorite of tourists and locals. Suffice to say, that you may have seen the images of Madonna dancing on tables in its bar area as she celebrated her 50th birthday. Advanced reservations are a must.

San Cristobal, (San Rafael #469).  There must be something in Cayo Hueso, as the owners of this paladar also found success and fame with this area. Some may surmise that San Cristobal, the patron saint of Havana, has given them their blessing. The food is superb and they have perfected something that in Cuba at times is a challenge – good service. Pay attention to the furniture and you will recognize American furniture from the early part of the 20th century. In Cuba, we called the style Republica. The walls are decked in old black and white personal pics that will make you feel as if you are visiting the house of your old maid aunt who safeguards the collective memories of the family. President Obama eschewed some big official affair and went for dinner there. To everyone’s surprise, his daughter Melia was the family translator that night. Hopefully, the Presidential seal of approval is enough of an endorsement to lure you there. Again, advanced reservations are a must.

Hidden Gems of Havana - 3/5 series

This is part three of five in my "do not miss" recommendation series of hidden gems of Havana for when you are ready to experience the magic of my city.   

Barrio Colon

Colon is the last of the areas of Centro Habana that I am inviting you to explore.  

Also, anchored by the Malecon on its northern boundary, it goes south to Zanja where it turns into Barrio Chino.  In years past this was the biggest "red light district" in Havana. The housing stock in the area is not as grand as in Cayo Hueso, and it is difficult to navigate at times because it does not follow a perfect grid pattern. BUT, this is the most iconic stretch of the Malecon.  The buildings facing the Malecon are under renovation both by the government and local entrepreneurs, and a luxury hotel will be opening at some point in 2018(most likely 2019), on the corner of San Lazaro and Paseo Marti - commonly known as Paseo del Prado.  

One thing that I particularly like about the area is an intangible, that in Cuba, you cannot take for granted.  For the most part, the area does not have any issues with water shortages or the power supply.  Which, is a good thing for the patrons and owners of the B&Bs and paladars in this area.  

One of those places is Casa Abel, (San Lazaro # 319).  Casa Abel is both a restaurant and a cigar lounge.  Probably the best private cigar lounge in the country.  But most people go for the food. In fact, I would say that most people stumble into the place by chance.  Located on the second floor of a building, on a route that most take just to get to El Prado when the Malecon is rough or congested.  The restaurant is beautiful, and the prices are pocket-friendly.  I don't think it is a stretch to say that as the area develops this will be a hard-to-get-into place. So try it while you can.

Lastly, also on San Lazaro Street, you will find the gallery & workshop Babalu-Aye (the name in Santeria of Saint Lazarus).  It represents several artists and has the studio of artist Ludmila Lopez, who focuses primarily on printmaking and engraving.  Hers is serious art that at times takes a fun twist. For example, Liudmila's work uses women shoes as a recurrent theme and years ago produced a "bicy-taxi" in the shape of a red slipper.  But make no mistakes, she is no Cinderella.   Her work has been exhibited at galleries in Cuba, Spain, Austria and the United States among others.  Enjoy exploring this eclectic area of Havana.