After spending three days in Panama, I learned about the architecture, cuisine, fashion, history, sights and now truly appreciate the culture.
Known for white sandy beaches, cohibas and rum, Cuba has a variety of historical culture to offer surrounding the beautifully preserved Spanish colonial architecture.
Crocodile shaped since Christopher Columbus landed in 1942, this warm and welcoming country has changed over time. From Fulgencio Batista‘s dictatorship to Marxist revolutionary, Che Guevara overthrowing the government, fearless Fidel Castro led the nation to a prominent place. Now President, Raúl Castro is maintaining the Communist rule of the sovereign state with style. Hopefully, the country will keep its creative charm while the infrastructure is transitioning its marketplace from foreign investment interests. You notice the little things here.
Leaving Jose Martí International Airport, where will you stay? Well “hello Havana” or should we say, “Hola”. For accommodation, Hotel Florida is a cosy colonial casa featuring a cute courtyard with authentic Cuban cuisine in Old Havana. Hotel Saratoga which I know from my first visit is a great location for exploring on foot and by eye at their rooftop bar that has numerous cocktails and excellent service.
Then Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where I previously stayed on my second visit is a lovely luxury gem over 90 years old in the middle of Vedado. Amazing art deco, beautiful blue skies, exclusive eats, seaside views, a gorgeous garden, a cool cabaret room and celebrities strutting through the lobby are what got me. This is the place to be! Taking a walk along the magical Malecón, you’ll find the Museo de la Revolución, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana and Museo Nacional de Historia de Cuba where one can learn about the art, culture and history of Cuba.
When looking for a casual lunch, support the locals by going to a paladar (family-run restaurant). La Galería (moderate) has amazing fresh fish or Atelier (splurge) offers Cuban continental cuisine, both in Vedado. For the art lovers, you will admire every inch of this island. From the classic vintage cars to locals painting portraits on the cobblestone streets, there is something for everyone. Business is also flourishing more now and I’m rooting for Cuban entrepreneurs. Fashionistas are even in town for Chanel‘s Cruise 2017 collection runway. Follow on Instagram for updates. Who knows you may even brush shoulders with the master of fashion, Karl Lagerfeld or Brasilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen, rumoured to be walking the show by the Paseo del Prado promenade claims Harper’s Bazaar.
Two blocks away, El Capitolio designed by Eugenio Rayneri Piedra stands grandiose with neoclassical architecture. Often a friendly guy, Miguel is hanging out on the steps who will take your photo with an old fashioned camera which I loved since photography is one of my passions. Say queso and smile as you’re taken back to the 1950s. Local music can be found in numerous neighbourhoods. Soon enough, the Latina in you will come out as you hear different beats and sounds around the city. Prepare your Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC, local currency) for drinks at El Floridita to delve into the era of Ernest Hemingway and sip the best daiquiri in the world.
Dinner at the popular eatery, El Aljibe is the best. It’s the pollo (chicken)! Also the open concept and again this is a family run restaurant. I love it. And of course, you get a special treat at the end of your meal. Can you say Cuba Libre y cigarro? I think yes! Dance the night away at Café Cantante Mi Habana with a range of artists representing real rumba, heavy hip-hop, rock and sassy salsa in a mixed crowd of locals and tourists aged early 20s to late 40s. For that midnight bite, stop by Cafe de los Artistas. Lastly, I would be recommend venturing to Varadero in the northeast Matanzas Province, Trinidad in the midwest Sancti Spíritus Province and the second largest city in the southeast, Santiago de Cuba to enjoy the ocean coastline.
Today marked an emotional moment as well. According to Reuters, it was the first time in decades that a U.S. cruise ship entered the Havana Bay area. Get ready to travel. Check flights and peruse hotels. Dare to discover colourful Cuba.