The Brigitte Bardot of the Caribbean, Cuba too has been ravaged by time and neglect but still has great bones. Even 60 years after the revolution, traces of the gorgeous playground of old Cuba still remain and you can still see glimpses of the extraordinary, ravishing beauty this island once was. So quick! Try to get there now as the restrictions are lessening, and before the invasion of McDonald’s.
So close, and yet so far. Cuba, most pleasantly and charmingly, is still an e-free zone (no cells, almost no WiFi.)
This is the island, after all, that my travel hero, Anthony Bourdain, referred to as a “magnet for bad behavior.” Love it. And for the Che-obsessed, this is ground zero. His heartbreak handsome face, framed by black curls and a beret, is plastered on every wall and peso.
Old Havana, now a UNESCO Heritage site, is paradise for photographers and time-capsule collectors although erosion, corrosion and poverty have all taken their toll.
So what’s left to see? Plenty! Old Oldsmobiles and those Chevies of the levies still cruise the streets, witchy women wear colorful turbans, and mafia ghosts haunt the old Hotel Nacional … Hot and humid, Afro-inflected salsa music pumped into the streets makes everyone feel like dancin’. You can ride in pedaled or 3-wheeler coco taxies, smoke really good cigars, see Hemmingway’s cute little black Royal typewriter, slug down some second-rate mojitos. Walk the long arc of the iconic “malecon,” the low sea wall framed by the skeletal facades of lavish homes of the formerly rich and famous. Eviscerated elegance. Hide from the hot sun under tall royal palm trees, root through the flea markets for local memorabilia, inspect 3-400 year old fortresses. And of course you will have to “walk the walk” as the one-person-wide Old Havana sidewalks require an off again-on again two-step. You will meet the hearty Cuban people who can apparently survive anything. And when it rains, believe me, it pours and the rain is fun. The Habaneros flee their small crowded apartments to take showers in the streets.
And make sure your itinerary includes two UNESCO must-see detours: the architecturally astounding city of Cienfuegos on the southern coast, with its wide streets and perfectly preserved 19th century Neo-classical pastel buildings … a ready-made movie set and birthplace of former Latin superstar 1950’s singer Benny Moré. Stop two: the well-preserved colonial city of Trinidad, where little colorful single-storey homes and wrought-iron window grills abut the skinny and bumpy old cobblestone roads.
To enter Cuba, you need a special license (complex travel rules) and a small “purposeful” culture-oriented group, so don’t even consider winging it illegally through Mexico, Europe or Canada. If you do not join National Geographic or Metropolitan Museum of Art or any of the other new and expensive tours, save money and cobble together your own little group. Here are some basic, experienced handlers who will deal with the nuts and bolts for you:
- My trip (direct from JFK!) was beautifully organized by Myriam Castillo of TPH-Project Services, LLC Phone: (212) 352-8012.
- Steve Rupert’s CubaTravelAdventure.com for quickies in and out of Tampa, Fla.
- NY-based division of Cross-Cultural Solutions: Insightcuba.com or phone 800-450-2822
- Marazul Charters has offices in Miami and NJ. Marazul.com or phone (201) 319-1054
- Benita Lubic, President of Transeair Travel in Washington, DC has special contacts with the Jewish communities there. Phone: 202-362-6100