A few weeks ago, we returned to Cuba after a five-year absence. Much has changed. In my opinion, Cuba in 2018 is in better shape than it was in March 2013. On the previous trip, we started in Havana, and then visited a tobacco farm in Viñales, went diving in Maria la Gorda and the Bay of Pigs, spent two days in beautiful Cienfuegos. For our third visit, our plan was to eat only in private restaurants and to see some of the cultural things we missed on previous visits.
It’s pretty obvious that the new law allowing private ownership of homes and restaurants has had the biggest impact – both for the tourist and for the Cuban who is able to take advantage of the new regulation. After our first two visits, it was no exaggeration to say that the food we were served in state-run restaurants was worse than dreadful, and the service ranged from cheerfully slow to sullenly slow. As we told everyone after our visit, you go to experience the architecture, the rum and the people – not the food. The days of bad food are over. The same crappy government places are still there, but lots of enterprising people have opened restaurants with good food AND good service.
The changes were just starting five years ago and we stayed in a few Casa Particulares (private homes) that were basic, but clean and comfortable, decorated in early 1950s grandma style. We found a few privately owned restaurants in Havana, but not many in Havana Vieja where we stayed.
A month ago, we found a fare sale on Interjet and flew from Cancun to Havana. Our friends, Jack & Vic, came from the U.S. on Delta and were required to declare their reason for travel to Cuba, (they chose “Support for the Cuban People”) and they had no problems with questions or visas.
Like any visitor, we were welcomed. Don’t forget there is a 10% penalty to exchange USD, bring Euros if possible. After searching on Air BnB, our travel companions found a very nice, recently renovated 2-bedroom/2 bath apartment in Havana Vieja with a terrace and a view of the harbor entrance. The seventh-floor terrace featured a view of most of the city. Most importantly, the building had an elevator and it only broke twice!!
The new Trump administration rules fit right into our travel plans of staying in local homes and eating in private restaurants, so our trip broke no U.S. rules about visiting Cuba. We used ViaHero to create an itinerary and for making restaurant reservations, which were necessary at a few places. Our travel expert, Laura, is from Havana and designed an amazing five days for us.
The highlight of our trip was a performance by the Cuban National Ballet at the Gran Teatro de la Habana. While the house lights were still on, members of the audience started crying out “Bravo, Bravo” and giving a standing ovation as the revered ballet mistress, Director of the ballet, and namesake of the theatre, Alicia Alonso (now blind), was led into special seating in the balcony. Her entrance (below photo, first row balcony) was only surpassed by the opening scene from Act II of Swan Lake. It literally took our breath away.
Notable restaurants were El Cocinero in Vedado, La Mulatta de Sabor and Chacón 162, both in Habana Vieja. The breakfast spot, El Cafe, near the Capitolio was incredible with amazingly rich lattes, bacon and eggs and toasted homemade sour dough. They open at 9:00 and there is a line for tables at 9:20.
The next highlight of the trip was a visit to the restaurant Mediteranneo in Vedado to meet our guide for the day, then pile into a 9-seat Willys Jeep – from the 50’s, of course. We drove about 20 minutes from Havana to the farm where the fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses are produced for the restaurant. A true farm-to-table experience found on the Air BnB Experience. The lunch afterward was terrific, too.
The last night we saw one of Cuba’s famous “Salsa” shows. We chose the one at the Hotel Nacional. There were moments of greatness and moments of unbearable mediocrity and kitsch, but we were glad we did it.
There was a cruise ship in port most of the time we were there, and there were a few more tourists crowding the streets of Havana Vieja. However, with more tourists, comes more wealth for the people – more 50s-era American cars with new paint, more good places to eat and – sigh – more Cubans on their smartphones!
Go see one of the most amazing places in the Caribbean – you won’t regret it.