Beyond the overwhelming scandals, conflicts, and other “Castroisms” that have obscured our perception of the Caribbean island-nation of Cuba lies a rich, unique culture filled with beautiful beaches, antique cars, classic architecture, and some of the best rum in the entire world. From Sammy Sosa to Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, Cuba has been the central hub for some of the world’s greatest baseball players, the cool, endless-summer style of linens and fedoras, the world’s finest tobacco and cigars, and of course, the ever-so-famous Mojito.
Early in 2010, my sister, Julie, and I had the unique opportunity to visit this beautiful nation. As American citizens, we were subject to the US embargo and prohibited from spending any US dollars on Cuban soil. So, with our pockets lined with Euro dollar bills and a ticket booked to Cancun, Mexico, we were off on one of the most culturally enriching adventures of our lives. Once in Cancun, we purchased our flights to Havana, but Americans can also fly to Cuba from Canada or Nassau, Bahamas… just be sure to never miss your return flight home (like I did) because you may be stuck there for a very long time.
Our first stop was the famous beach town of Varadero (see next blog post). Known for all of its amazing Creole-inspired restaurants and salsa-dancing open air bars, Varadero is Cuba’s number one resort destination for locals and extranjeros alike. While I tend to stray away from resort destinations, I couldn’t pass up this opportunity solely because of the opportunity to scuba dive the infamously historic Bay of Pigs. The beaches are filled with some of the finest and softest sand in the world with water bluer than the sky.
After a few days in Varadero, we headed back to Havana for the following week to soak in the authentic Cuban experience. The best way I can describe Havana would be by comparing it to a beautiful 1950’s pinup girl. It’s like the movie Scarface meets Dick Tracy. With antique American cars lining all the streets and neoclassical buildings painted in bright summer colors, downtown Havana quite possibly is one the most romantic, beautiful cities in the world. Walking down cobblestone roads with a Cohiba in one hand and my camera in the other, it was hard to not find things worthy to capture on film. With European-inspired restaurants and bars, an entire museum dedicated making and selling every kind of chocolate, and a shop where you can mix and bottle your own fragrances, people from all over the world find themselves pleasantly getting lost in Old Havana every day.
While there is definitely no shortage of hotels in Havana, including the famous Hotel Nacional, many backpackers like my sister and I found our accommodations at one of the many “Casa Particulares”. To boost tourism and create a market for budget housing, the Cuban government grants certain families a license to convert their homes into hostel like B&B’s. Essentially, it’s like living with a host family who prepares your meals and who can show you around town or simply talk to you for hours about Cuban culture and life as a Cuban national. By staying in a Casa Particulares, we were able to catch a glimpse of what it was like to live as a local… one of the many joys of traveling the world as a backpacker.
About the Guest Blogger:
John Kim is one of my dim sum buddies in Grand Rapids. I am so excited to share his account of his recent trip to
Cuba - a place so foreign to us in the states. John is currently a 3rd year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in Grand Rapids. He originally hails from Los Angeles, CA.
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Cohiba at Hotel Nacional
A revolutionary mural in Havana
Hand rolling stand in downtown Havana
The Coco Taxi - a unique Cuban experience
The adoration of Che Guevarra is in every corner
The great theater of Havana
Classic American cars line the streets of Havana
Julie talking to one of the locals on the Malecon
Destination for many of the world’s celebrities and politicians:
Hotel Nacional in Havana
The famous Malecon in Havana
Being an American pastime and a Cuban pastime,
it’s no wonder we’re always battling it out
for the gold at the Olympics.
Julie enjoys the bleachers at a baseball game
Cuban baseball league
A quiet street in Old Havana
Havana at night
Julie and I with our host family at our Havana Casa Particulares