Top Ten Cuba

Cuba has been in the news these past few days following an announcement from the Trump White House that U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba will be rolled back to pre-Obama levels. This saddens me, although I should clarify that Cuba was never fully open to Americans, anyway. For one thing, American credit and debit cards still do not work in Cuba. For another thing, travel requires a reciprocal visa and is supposed to fall into one of 12 categories (click here for more information, and check back often, as policies are subject to change).

This is all too bad. Cuba is not our enemy, and nor is its leader, Raúl Castro, who took over for his more notorious brother roughly ten years ago. But Raúl has promised to step down in 2018, so who knows what the future brings?

I love Cuba, and it takes at least two hands to count off the number of things I like about the country. Below, after much nostalgic deliberation, is my Cuba top ten:

1) Old HavanaI have already blogged at length about how enchanting I found the old quarter of Havana to be. As such, it cannot end up anywhere except in the top spot on this list. In Habana Vieja, Spanish colonial churches front atmospheric plazas that feature pigeon-dotted fountains and elegant buildings that once served as pre-Batista-era palaces, prisons, and hotels. The narrow streets, often devoid of cars, are prime zones for people watching, as it is here that local kids kick around soccer balls while their fathers tinker with motorcycle engines, their mothers hang laundry from overhead balconies, their grandfathers smoke cigars and play dominoes, and their grandmothers peel fruit while having seemingly forgotten to remove the rollers from their hair. Much of Habana Vieja has been restored to pristine, pre-Revolution condition, but – and this is where additional, considerable charm can also be found – just as much is still left “in flux.” For every gorgeous exterior façade, there is another one that is falling apart, or that has yet to be scrubbed of its graffiti (Fidel Castro and Che Guevara street art more often than not). I wanted to see Havana before it changed. Bass-ackwards Trump politics notwithstanding, now is the perfect time to go. Pro tip: walk everywhere. The neighborhood is safe, even after dark, and you’ll simply see more on foot than from the back of a taxi…even if that taxi is a classic Chevrolet convertible.

2) The peopleLike many other travelers, I seldom think of “the people” as being my main driver for visiting a particular country…but like those same travelers, I almost always find myself citing interactions with locals as being one of the best parts of the trip. Cuba is no exception in this regard. My conversations usually went something like this: Local: “Where are you from?” Me: “Los Estados Unidos.” Local: “America! Welcome to Cuba. Where in America?” Me: “Tennessee. Local: “Ah, Tennessee. I have cousin in Miami. I hope one day to visit.” Me: “Miami’s nice.” Local: “Here in Cuba, Obama’s negotiations with our government have already made travel between our countries easier. I only hope that your country can one day lift the trade embargo.” Me: “I hope so, too. But as they say in Latin America…” Local, finishing my sentence: “Poco a poco.” In Havana and Santiago, these conversations occasionally progressed to a solicitation for me to buy cigars, but they just as often were innocuous enough. And that beaming, contagious Cuban smile was always part of the exchange. Pro tip: stay in a casa particular for unparalleled local hospitality.

3) Colonial fortresses of HavanaNo fewer than four stone fortresses protect the entrance to Havana’s harbor. Combined, they are a UNESCO Heritage Site, and have enough canons and ramparts to satisfy even the most demanding maritime history buff. Castillo de los Real Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Army) sits adjacent to the Plaza de Armas in Habana Vieja. This castle, which includes a maritime museum and a tower that you can climb, is arguably the most accessible of the lot. Northwest of here, where Habana Vieja meets Habana Centro, the diminutive Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta (Castle of Our Savior at the Tip; sounds funny, no?) marks the starting point of a drive along Havana’s malecón. Directly across the water is my favorite, Castillo de los Tres Santos (Castle of the Three Saints), noteworthy for its lighthouse and panoramic views. Access is via ferry, and the pleasant stroll from the ferry passes several other points of interest, including the Fortaleza de San Carlos (Fort of St. Charles), the largest fortress of its kind in the Americas. It is inside this fort that you can visit Che Guevara’s Havana strategic headquarters, and end the day by attending the nightly cañonazo ceremony, during which local soldiers, dressed in 18th-century military garb, re-enact the firing of a cannonball into Havana’s harbor.

4) The foodSampling local cuisine is one of the pleasures of international travel, and Cuba is no exception in this regard. Do you like fish? Pork? Rice and beans? Tropical fruit? If the answer is “yes”…go to Cuba! Do you enjoy listening to live music while you eat? If the answer is “yes”…go to Cuba! Do you savor a big breakfast, with heaping portions of eggs, bread, and fresh fruit? If the answer is “yes”…go to Cuba! Do you like dining with locals, eating food cooked by them, in their casa particulares? If the answer is “yes”…go to Cuba! I could keep going, but in general, I found Cuban food – as well as generic “international” food such as grilled chicken and spaghetti, served by locals – to be exceptional. Despite the trade embargo, which limits the variety of available ingredients, what Cuba does have is always fresh. Preservatives? No such thing! The rum drinks in Cuba deserve special mention, too. Have a mojito, a Cuba libre, or a Cubanito and drink like Ernest Hemingway at El Floridita, Sloppy Joe’s, or El Bodegon del Miedo, legendary speakeasies all. Pro tip: try the ropa vieja…and read my Cuba: The Food post from May for a detailed breakdown of Cuban food for locals vs. Cuban food for tourists.

5) The malecónThe French call it a corniche, the Brits and Europeans call it a boardwalk. En español, it’s a malecón. In any language, Havana’s seaside walking and jogging esplanade, which extends for approximately eight kilometers (five miles), is a glorious throwback to a time when the city was ruled by gangsters and when casinos, not Communism, paid everyone’s bills. Lined by dilapidated apartment towers along the eastern half and past-their-prime hotels along the west – with nothing to the north but 90 miles of ocean (and then Florida), the four-lane coastal road is continually plied by classic American automobiles, with anglers, lovers, and photographers strolling the sea wall, dodging waves all the while. You don’t have to walk it all, but any visit to Havana isn’t complete without strolling a portion of the malecón at least once. Sunset is the best time to go; points of interest include monuments to independence heroes Calixto Garcia and Antonio Maceo; a moving memorial to victims of the USS Maine, sunk in Havana’s harbor in 1898; the no-mistaking-it U.S. Embassy building; the Art Deco Hotel National, said to serve the city’s best mojito; and Castropol, one of my favorite Havana restaurants, where the seafood is sublime and the sunset views from its terrace make that Cerveza Bucanero go down smooth.

6) Medieval CamagüeyI said all I had to say about Camagüey in my A Few Paragraphs about Cuba entry from March. For this list I’ll simply copy-and-paste those words as follows: “Neither exciting nor boring, Camagüey grows on you, in much the same way as confidence grows in your ability to navigate the city’s labyrinthine streets without getting lost. I killed three fulls days in Camagüey effortlessly; the city’s many enchanting plazas and busy pedestrian streets aided me in so doing. A bit more than halfway between Trinidad in the east and Santiago in the west, Camagüey is about as far inland from Cuba as most travelers dare to visit, but it is worth the nine-hour bus ride. The city of just over 300,000 inhabitants is home to my favorite square (Plaza del Carmen, with its pink-and-white church, its tinajones – clay pots, historically the city’s main industry – and its bronze sculptures), my favorite market (Mercado Agropecuario Jatibonico, where you can buy produce grown on the premises), my favorite park (Casino Campestre, where you can go for a jog, watch a baseball game, or pay respects to independence hero Ignacio Agramonte at the nearby Plaza de la Revolución), and my favorite casa particular (Hostal Lavastida, with its rooftop terrace, free bike rental, and $8 dinners, during which enough food is served to feed an army). There isn’t much nightlife, and the nearest beach is over 100 kilometers away, but despite these apparent shortcomings (by Caribbean standards, anyway), Camagüey is my second-favorite city in Cuba.”

7) The propaganda: If you think of it as Cold War kitsch and don’t read too much into the underlying message, Cuba’s propaganda –billboards, T-shirts, museums, plazas (oddly devoid of people), and street art – seems like something from another world. I made mention under #1, earlier on this list, of the Fidel Castro and Che Guevara urban graffiti, but there is so much more. Guevara berets and Camilo Cienfuegos sombreros sell like gangbusters down here, and billboards memorializing Castro, who passed away last fall, line the streets leading into nearly every Cuban city and town. Interestingly enough, there are almost as many memorials to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez (died: March, 2013) as there are to Castro. “El mejor amigo,” one piece of mosaic art in Havana’s Fusterlandia neighborhood read, stenciled beneath tile-work art showing the two polarizing leaders side-by-side. Cuba’s cemeteries (see #9, below) show similar, overreaching reverence for Castro and others entombed therein. I snapped hundreds of photos of Cuban propaganda – dozens just inside Havana’s Museo de la Revolución, a veritable treasure trove of colorful imagery. Maybe it is the fact that I grew up as an American in the jingoistic, right-of-center Reagan 80’s, but I found this stuff to be an absolute hoot. For whatever it’s worth, I can only hope that not many lives were lost along the way during the enforcement of such propaganda; Cubans that I met during my travels were generally willing to talk honestly about the good and bad of Communism on the island. For more info, check out my Cuba: The Propaganda photo gallery from May.

8) Havana art museumsThree city blocks are all that separate two of Latin America’s finest art museums, which combine to house a comprehensive collection of Cuban and international art. The Museo de Bellas Artes Universal, which sits kitty corner to the city’s main square, Parque Central, houses several millenia worth of oil paintings and sculpture art, most of it from Europe. The small-ish British and Italian galleries feature primarily Renaissance-era and portraiture art, including a Gainsborough canvas. One floor below, the phenomenal Spanish gallery includes several striking El Greco allegories, while the opposite hall features an impressive collection of Grecian pottery, as well as a smattering of Egyptian funerary statues. North of here and across from the absorbing Revolution Museum, the Museo de Bellas Artes Cubano features three floors of art by Cuban painters and sculptors…and I’ve never seen anything like it. Photography is strictly prohibited, but you can get an idea of what is on display by googling Wifredo Lam, Fidelio Ponce de León, Rafael Blanco, or Raúl Martínez, to name just four of the country’s artists. I spent several hours at the Universal building and almost an entire day at the Cubano building, and in both cases, it was time well spent.

9) The cemeteriesCuba, though just an island, has more political and musical history than almost any country twice its size. As such, its cementerios are places of legend. There are three in particular that merit special mention: The Necropolis de Camagüey, in the labyrinthine city of clay pots, is home to the tomb of Ignacio Agramonte, the lawyer-turned-revolutionary who led Cuban fighters in Camagüey’s 1868 uprising against Spanish rule.  Tombs here are all painted white (or sculpted from white marble), and many of the more dilapidated tombs lean against those around them. Evocative. The biggest – and most beautiful – is Havana’s Necropolis de Cristóbal Colón. I lingered here for hours, slowly pacing the rows and soaking up the ethereal beauty of these well-preserved tombs. Aside from a few “lesser” politicians, there is no one buried here of particular renown aside from Señora Amelia Goyri, known as “La Milagrosa” (“The Miraculous One”) for her supposed virgin birth. My favorite Cuban burial site, however, is Santiago’s astounding Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, where Fidel Castro rests next to José Martí. Interestingly enough, Castro’s simple tomb is a large boulder, while Marti’s is an octagonal tower with hourly changing of the guard and other pomp and circumstance. It is also here that Pepe Sánchez, affectionately known as the “father of the trova style,” sleeps – just a few graves away from Compay Segundo, a trovador who grew up in Santiago and achieved fame late in life as the composer of “Chan Chan” and as a key musician on the “Buena Vista Social Club” album, recorded when Segundo was 95 (he died not long afterwards).

10) The musicCuban music is almost as legendary as Cuban food. I am by no means a musicologist, and – gasp – I don’t even own an iPod, but whenever I sat down at a restaurant with live music on offer, or whenever I walked past a group of locals drinking to the end of the day on the malecón, music blaring on the accompanying radio, I knew I was hearing something special. Genres vary but include the Segundo-influenced trova as well as danzón (upbeat dance), son (highland salsa, sometimes peppered with trumpet blats), and rumba (drum-based and popular in places like Callejón de Hamel, Havana’s Afro-Caribbean neighborhood). Whatever the style or the number of musicians (I’ve seen as many as six players and as few as two), the key ingredients are simple: a guitar, maracas and/or drums, and soulful one-or-two-person lyrics, often about lost love or about the country’s natural beauty.  A few ageless standards, courtesy of YouTube: “Quizás, Quizás,” more famously sung in English (“Perhaps, Perhaps”) by Mexico’s Lila Downs; the aforementioned “Chan Chan,” by Compay Segundo; “Bésame Mucho” – “Kiss Me A Lot” – once covered by The Beatles; and my favorite, “Guantanamera.” Pro tip: if, while listening to Cuban music at a bar or restaurant, someone offers to sell you a CD…buy it.

Have you been to Cuba, Loyal Reader? If so, what was your favorite part about the country?

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food and culture all while weathering the challenges of life in a city with over 20 million people. Life's unpredictable journey has since brought him to Tennessee, where he is close to family and to the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, top ten lists, and travel in general.

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