10 Things You Have to Experience in Cuba
Andrea Kuhn, San Francisco Chronicle
The first time you go to Cuba, you are overcome with an assault of the senses—in the best possible way. The colors, the noise of the old cars, the patina, the smells, the sounds of music coming from cars, houses, and streets. It’s sensory overload—so energizing and invigorating that by the second day in Havana you are already planning your next trip. This is the spirit we wanted to capture in our book.
Here are ten reasons why there’s nowhere quite like Cuba:
1. THE MARKET
The first thing we do when we get to Cuba is hit the market. The large, outdoor city markets and tiny, neighborhood open-air markets are great places to embrace the culture and learn about the local food. They’re beautiful and grotesque at the same time: tons of guavas, mangos, papayas, plantains and spices like bijol, which is frequently used as a stand-in for dishes requiring saffron.
There are old men cooking hot chicharron while smoking cigars and goat heads being cleaned on a beautiful, rustic table. We once watched a man ride into the market on his bicycle and pull two freshly slaughtered pigs from suitcases that were strapped to the back of his bike. On our first two visits, we went to the huge downtown market and photographed some of the same vendors. On our third visit, we tried to go again and unfortunately it was closed. One thing is certain: Cuba is constantly changing.
2. THE BLACK MARKET
Everybody buys from the black market and you can get just about anything. Although, you need to be careful you don’t buy fake cigars or overpriced rum. Our guide took us to a house where they make guava hand pies in their backyard. We went from house to house looking for it and then walked through a small jungle of guava trees. Behind all the trees was a hidden outdoor kitchen with four men making hand pies. After they baked a few batches, a young guy pulls up on his bike and fills his basket full of pies that he will then sell to the local stores.
3. RUM COCKTAILS
To say the guarapo is our favorite drink might be an understatement. On a 98-degree day, nothing quenches your thirst like a fresh guarapo: frothy, cold, and just plain delicious. It’s made from freshly pressed sugarcane juice, Havana Club rum, and lime juice. The best of these cocktails can be found at La Marina in Old Havana. When you throw in some pineapple juice, it’s called a Hemmingway.
Of course, there is the Cuban favorite, the Mojito, and no one makes it quite as good as the Hotel Nacional. Order one or two, sit outside on their veranda by the sea and soak up the fresh air and cool breeze. There are all kinds of rum cocktails to partake of in Cuba, and on every trip, we find more restaurants and bars popping up each time. As the country’s resources grow, so does its culinary innovations.
Cuba wouldn’t be Cuba without baseball. Everywhere you look, kids are playing baseball. I have never seen another culture so in love with this sport. In Central Park, 50 to 100 men gather daily to argue about whose baseball team is better. This is not a simple argument that will ever be solved. It is a screaming match that lasts for hours and the same guys are there the next day arguing the same thing.
5. THE BEACH
Santa Maria Beach is paradise and just a 35-minute drive from Havana. Not much there but locals and a beautiful untouched beach with an azure clear ocean as far as the eye can see. It is paradise and with 20 dollars, you can live life away like a king or queen. We are talking untouched clear water, two dollars for a chair and umbrella rental and ten dollars for a whole, fresh red snapper or lobster lunch. Cuban bands travel up and down the beach playing music while a guy equipped with a bag of fresh coconuts, a machete, and a bottle of rum comes chair-side. He cuts off the top of the coconut, gives you a taste of the fresh coconut water, then fills your coconut with 7 year rum. Aaah! One of our favorite ways to spend a relaxing day in Cuba.
6. MUSIC AND DANCING
You can pretty much find it everywhere. After work, people line the Malecón—a walk along the waterway with free entertainment at every step—and dance, listen to music, and play their guitars. On our first visit, we came across two gentlemen, one teaching the other to rumba. We became the willing participants in an impromptu dance party. At any given open-aired bar or café, a strolling band will come up to the window or table and start serenading you. Music and dancing are in the parks on Sunday. Callejón de Hamel, a muraled neighborhood in Old Havana, has dancing in the streets every Sunday. One favorite spot is Fabrica de Arte Cubano. An old warehouse now transformed into a nightlife go-to for music, art, dance, food, and cocktails, all under one roof in the Vedado neighborhood.
7. THE PEOPLE
The Cuban people are the real reason we keep returning to Cuba. They love Americans and open their homes to us as if we were family. We like to stay at an Airbnb because you get to know the locals—you get an insider scoop and a real, genuine experience. Brian, who was the owner of La Casa Amador, an Airbnb, stayed up late to make sure we had dinner upon our arrival. We woke early the next morning to find he had made a beautiful breakfast with delicious coffee and fresh fruit. His house was in a neighborhood called Vedado, which is an artist community and also has some great new restaurants.
We also stayed at Casa Vitrales in Old Havana and it was a perfect location and great accommodations. They are much cheaper than staying in a hotel and most don’t have internet, which we find very refreshing.
Cuba is a layered country. The patina that has washed over all of Havana is so aesthetically beautiful, each layer of decades of peeling paint have another story to tell. The grand, old, majestic buildings are decaying, yet are so beautiful. Havana once so grand is showing signs of a resurrection, but the old patina pays homage to what once was. We are pretty much obsessed with the patina walls and graffiti lining the streets of Havana. Everywhere you look is a photograph.
Although it has all been said about the old cars in Cuba, it is still something to behold. Do you remember listening to your grandparents or parents telling you, “In my day we used to…?” Well, you can experience this in Cuba. Yes, they are stuck in time, but the family values you cherish still ring true. You see people hanging out on their front stoops talking to neighbors and telling stories. Children are playing in the streets all times of the day and night. Laughter, music, and conversation fill the air. Things are so simple and enjoyable, no one is texting or looking for Pokémon. They are engaged in conversation, it’s all about living life.
10. EARLY MORNINGS
While some of the city still sleeps, we would rise at the crack of dawn and walk the streets, stopping at windows in people’s homes where they are selling little Cuban coffees for a few pennies each. It’s similar to a small shot of espresso and super high octane. It says, ”Good Morning!” in every shot you drink and really is a great start to your day. We would see men on bicycles with fresh bread in tow, young men pushing carts full of fresh fruit and vegetables. The children with their meticulously ironed school uniforms.
There is an area where all non-government cab drivers congregate in the morning, each showing off their ‘47 Plymouth or ‘52 Chevy. Jay Leno’s head would explode. It is almost a contest to see how many people can fit in one cab on their way to work. The camaraderie is outstanding, which makes us always coming back for more.
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