“You went to Cuba?” friends repeatedly asked me when I returned from a trip with my husband and two long-time friends. “Yes,” I invariably replied, there are restrictions, but getting to Cuba was easier than I had expected.” We made our trip right before the stringent covid lockdowns of the spring of 2020, and we were so happy to have been able to make the trip before the world changed so drastically and suddenly. It was a welcome respite to an exotic place, and hopefully more such trips will be ahead of us soon.

The US’s Cuba embargo may have created shortages of food and goods, but tourism was encouraged and American visitors were welcome, as long as they followed a few basic rules. We flew on American Airlines on one of several direct flights to Havana from Miami International Airport (Jet Blue also flies there from Fort Lauderdale). At the airport we checked in at one of the kiosks and then purchased a travel visa at the Cuba Ready Booth in the check-in area. Here we had to choose one of 13 permitted reasons for travel. Like most visitors, we ticked off: “Support for the Cuban People.” This means that we could not patronize businesses owned or run by the Cuban military (read “government”) including most hotels, and some modes of transportation. We were surprised to learn that we could book a room or apartment through Airbnb which are privately owned by Cuban citizens. It turned out to be a cinch!

After arriving at Jose Martin Airport in Havana we hopped into one of the classic 50s era American cars that the country is so famous for. Un-airconditioned and belching diesel fumes the car made its way into the heart of Havana to the two bedroom, two bath apartment that we had booked before leaving the states. Here we were warmly greeted by Marisol, who made us feel right at home. She explained how to use the wifi (yes there is wifi. But be warned, you have to purchase a special card with a code, and locating a hot spot can be a challenge). Marisol and her husband went out of their way to make us feel at home. They answered dozens of questions, and each morning, they came to the apartment to cook us breakfast: fried eggs, bread, juice, tropical fruit, and importantly Cuban coffee.

Our apartment was a short walk from the Malacon a wide avenue which runs along waterfront from Old Havana to the newer Vedado neighborhood to the west. Our walk took us past the Museo de la Revolution (the former Presidential Palace) and the tank on display outside was used by Castro during the Bay of Pigs battle). Guarding the entrance to the old city is the iconic Castillo San Salvador de la Punta built by Felipe II in the late 1580s, an imposing fort built to protect the city from attack by pirates. Overlooking the Malacon and across the way from the Castillo is the Hotel Paseo de Prado, a modern structure which offers a sweeping view of the city, along with an excellent mojito.

Castillo San Slavador de la Punta on the Malacon.

Our AirBNB hostess cooks us breakfast. 

The next day we walked to Habana Vieja. This is the oldest part of the city, recently revitalized by the government as part of its initiative to open the country up to tourism. We had lunch at the picturesque Plaza La Catedral; we peeked into restored palaces, visited a Cuban Cigar store – inhaling the aromas but leaving empty handed and watched stilt walkers dance to a Cuban beat. There is music everywhere in Cuba. In the cafes, in the streets, in the parks. If you like Latin music (or for that matter, any type of music), this is the place for you. 

In the cafes, in the streets

In the cafes, in the streets

Our first excursion outside the city was to Ernest Hemmingway’s home, Finca Vigia, about a 20 minute drive (in a classic taxi) southwest of Havana. Built in1886 and purchased by Hemmingway in 1940, the home is tropical in feel and simple in furnishings. It is virtually the same as he left it when it was confiscated by the Cuban government following the revolution. You can’t go inside but you can peer through the windows to get a glimpse into his life at the height of his fame. In an open air shed just below the house is his perfectly preserved power yacht, Pilar, his pride and joy and a tangible sign of his love for the sea.

Ernest Hemmingway’s home, Finca Vigia. 

The next day, we piled into another classic car for a trip to Cienfuegos in south central Cuba where we would base ourselves for the next three days. Cuba is large, it would take at least 16 hours to go from Viñales on the western end to Baracoa on the eastern tip; getting to Cienfuego from Havana took close to three hours. Cienfuego is a quiet colonial town. The old town is built around an elegant plaza lined with candy colored buildings, ornate and refined remnants of a bygone era of sugar, tobacco and coffee barons. Now the buildings surrounding the square contain a multitude of restaurants and cafes.

The author and friends in Havana 

A horse drawn cart in the Colonial town of Cienfuegos

 Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was our next excursion. About an hour and a half from Cienfuegos, the town is beautifully preserved, and many of these elegant colonial buildings now house museums. We climbed a narrow spiral staircase to the top of the Museo de Historia Municipal, which had been the home of a sugar plantation owner and his family in the early 19th century. Another owner, Dr. Justo Cantero, is said to have acquired his sugar estate by poisoning a competing plantation owner and marrying his widow. Don’t go if you have vertigo, since the last leg is up a steep wooden ladder. But the 360 degree view of the city’s clay tile roofscape and the Plaza Mayor (declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988) is well worth it.

Our last day was spent back in Havana on the Paseo – a gracious tree-lined boulevard lined with homes from the 19th and early 20th centuries. We walked to the Plaza de la Revolution where a trip to the top of a monumental tower honoring the 19th century revolutionary Jose Marti afforded a panoramic view of the city. And that last evening, Phillip met us for dinner at an acquaintance of his, a well-known chef, who has opened his home to the public.

Cuba is a country of great disparities: incredible natural beauty, and restricted freedom. But nonetheless, its innovative population has learned how to make do with little with humor and grace, and remains proud of their culture and their rich history.