For weeks now, I have been recounting our moving and seemingly inexplicable experiences in Cuba.
The country was absolutely beautiful and incredibly complex. Like any destination, it’s easy to showcase the photogenic moments and share the must-sees. My camera roll is flooded with examples of gorgeous, gripping forms of artistic expression, from the visual arts and architecture to the performing arts and music. As you scroll through this post, I’ve attempted to capture the color and character of Cuba, so passionate, so iconic, so raw and real.
Yet as I share this photo collection, I’m torn of guilt, as this snapshot represents the tourist’s red-carpet recount — but not the local Cuban’s reality.
The feeling hit home during one of our final dinners down in Havana. As a food blogger, my interest in indulging in the Cuban cuisine and restaurants was high. And as such, I anticipated that this Cuba blog post would be one like a visit to New Orleans or New York, where I recount particular dishes and must-tries! Reality slapped me in the face when we dined at another paladar (non-government-owned restaurant) that served us—just like the last six places—platters of roasted chicken, shredded beef, and snapper with beans and rice to our community tables. I yearned variety, flavors, and character in the cuisine just as the people had displayed with such goodness; and I wasn’t getting it as often as I had hoped. Whereas I was fortunate to explore and find a rare, excellent lobster tail in Trinidad and an upscale seafood experience in Havana, the servings were more of the same.
However, this is the reality of Cuba: Variety isn’t feasible, resources are scarce, and volume is tough to project or promise (especially for a group of forty). Local Cubans visit the meat section of a grocery to find empty shelves, waiting lists for rationed chickens and eggs, and unattainable produce because of their average monthly salary of $30.
We became wary of the lack of choice — but we at least had a choice.
Due to the current U.S. government’s choice to ban America tourists from visiting Cuba via cruise ship or for educational experiences, we were fortunate to obtain visas because of our mission trip-planned purpose through Temple Israel, of where my father leads as senior rabbi. Forty of us embarked to Havana, and our timing was tragically poignant — we drove by a Havana port once flooded with thousands of tourists a day, now empty. The locals we were fortunate to spend quality time with—from the small and mighty Jewish community to the private dance troupe Havana Queens and paladar staffs—were grateful and astounded to see us and host us. Much income relies on tourism dollars because locals cannot afford their services. And thus, we cherished every of our Cuban experience.
As we walked through Cuba’s iconic streets, having learned that three buildings crumble per day due to lack of infrastructure maintenance, I became swept in the architectural juxtaposition. From Spanish reign to Soviet gain, you could see and feel the influence of powers over Havana’s 500-year history.
Our tour guide Manny was exceptional, carrying us in riveting narrative from place to place. His British, Russian, Cuban history academic backgrounds (he was formerly a full-time professor) brought context to every conversation. I was a sponge from start to finish, and I can still hear his voice challenging our initial reactions, reminding us to consider the alternative perspective.
I am forever changed by our trip to Cuba, and I hope you have the opportunity to visit one day. I’ve summarized some highlights below for your future itinerary:
A city made of mosaic, Cuban artist Fuster converted a poor fishing town into a colorful mecca of tiled sculpture. You can literally get lost in the art, traversing through neigborhood streets and stairwells that lead to, yes, more mosaic. Fusterlandîa is happiness personified.
Hemingway’s Home (La Finca Vigia)
Ernest Hemingway’s estate, preserved just as he left it. The exquisite home (and even better view!) served as his refuge to write and reflect. An original Picasso and his full closet are some of the unique details you can see firsthand.
National Museum of Fine Arts
An absolutely immaculate museum that rivals any of America’s top art destinations, Havana’s National Museum of Fine Arts explores and curates the impressive creative expression of artists throughout the Revolution and more recent periods of political reign. The underlying interpretations throughout the exhibits are gripping. I recommend visiting toward the end of your visit once you’ve grasped some of the landmarks and history firsthand.
Town of Trinidad
A UNESCO World Heritage site, once a sugar town abandoned in the 19th century, now houses gorgeous relics of Spanish architecture and art, including handmade linens. We stopped at a fruit stand just before entering the Trinidad limits — and because Cuba doesn’t use pesticides, the sweetness of the sour apple, mango, and pineapple fruit will forever remain in my memory!
Museo del Revolucîon + Plaza de la Revolucîon
The sites are a must for a multitude of reasons. As historical symbols of Cuba, the experience is educational and eye-opening.
The Havana Jewish Cemetery
One of the world’s first Holocaust memorials (1946) is, believe it or not, in Cuba! Whereas I learned most countries took more than a couple of years to cope with the destructive genocide of the Jewish people, Cuba memorialized its tragedy in a timely and yet timeless way. The gorgeous cemetery grounds are in a process of restoring individual graves and have received international attention for such important preservation.
A private dance troupe based in Havana, Havana Queens brings together, trains and compensates talented professional dancers from across the country. Their fusion of dance styles and techniques (hello break-dancing and salsa), choreographed by a brilliant 21-year-old male Cuban, sets them apart. We watched their rehearsal on a weekday morning and made spontaneous plans to see their show at a local restaurants late that evening!
Callejon de Hamel
A narrow alley in Havana filled with Afro-Cuban murals and sculpture, using items including bathtubs and pinwheels. The array is whimsical and impressive — and it has become a shrine to Afro-Cuban religions, including Santeria.
Restaurant Bar La Redaccion (Trinidad)
A beautiful restaurant tucked away in the streets of Trinidad. Order the Cancháchara cocktail (honey, raw rum, lemon juice, water) + grilled lobster with garlic.
Paladar Vistamar (Havana)
The modern home-turned restaurant on the water is stunning, featuring an infinity pool surrounded by candlelit tables and a second-story terrace. Exceptional gazpacho, octopus, Greek salad, and eggplant starters. Don’t miss it!
Cafe Ajiaco (Havana)
An outdoor traditional Cuban restaurant with delicious chicken soup and appetizers, including empanadas.
La Guarida (Havana)
Stunning cocktails and tapas on the top floor of a Spanish-style mansion — Obama has dined at the restaurant and, since, it’s become a popular bar and fine dining preference for American tourists. I’ve heard dinner is wonderful, but I recommend going late-night!
Villa Lagarto (Cienfuegos)
A private restaurant and bed-and-breakfast serves farm-to-table cooking from its gardens in Cienfuegos. Lagarto’s grounds are lush and beautifully decorated, situated with a private dock on Cienfuegos’ bay.
A contemporary restaurant in the heart of Havana (near the Museum of Fine Arts), Barbra’s stunning interiors complement a refreshing menu of Cuban influence and excellent cocktails.