To travel to Cuba legally as a US Citizen (or someone subject to US jurisdiction), your itinerary must qualify for one of the 12 general licenses established by the government in January 2015. Our trip qualified under Educational/People to People. This demands that each traveler “Must have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interactions between the travelers and individuals in Cuba”.
As our charter flight from Miami landed at 930am, from the day of arrival we were on the go. Customs and Immigration was a breeze, although luggage took a long time to retrieve as almost our entire flight were Cubans returning to the USA laden with large amounts of goods (mainly household items and electronics they cannot get easily at home). Exiting the airport meant navigating crowds as loved ones reunited, many of which had not seen each other for years. The relaxation of travel restrictions has not just impacted would-be US travelers. It also means Cuban expats can visit home easier and witnessing their return to their families and homeland firsthand was extremely touching.
After a short taxi ride we arrived at Hotel Nacional, a historic hotel and beautiful national monument whose wide guest list over the years range from Winston Churchill to Frank Sinatra. Built in the late 1920’s, this hotel has witnessed incredible changes over the decades and it’s gardens are steeped in an even deeper history having been home to fortresses, towers and batteries before the building of the hotel.
We had just enough time for a quick bite to eat at the pool bar washed down with one of the hotel’s famous Mojitos (considered by many as the best in Havana) and it was time to meet our guide.
While we were taking meeting our requirements for this trip seriously, it didn’t mean we couldn’t have a little fun in the process and for the next few hours, whenever we traveled by road we did so by way of two of Havana’s infamous classic cars. Those fortunate enough back in the 1950’s to have owned one of these beautiful pieces of machinery have had no choice that to keep them running and in the best shape possible as new vehicles, and even parts, have been all but impossible to obtain since the US embargo in 1961. For visitors to Havana these are now icons and even as someone who couldn’t tell you the difference between a Chevy and a Ford, I was able to appreciate and feel the exhilaration of our mode of transportation.
The next few hours were a whirlwind as we were escorted around Havana´s 4 most representative and contrastive neighborhoods in a combination of our beautiful cars and on foot. We cruised the lively Malacon, we viewed Revolution Square and took in the various events that have happened there over the years. We sampled Cuban rum and learned to appreciate what goes into the making of their best cigars. As well as famous and traditional landmarks such as the Great Theatre and the Capitol building, we also went off the beaten path, actually stumbling on a religious ritual being performed at river on the outskirts of town. We visited the richest and the poorest parts of Havana. Our young but knowledgeable guide taught us about the education system, the military service requirements and political views of the people his age over a mojito on the rooftop bar of Hemingway’s favorite hotel as the city lay spread out below us and the sun began to set.
We were delivered to our hotel with just enough time for a quick freshen up and a meeting with a marine biologist who studies the Garden of the Queens. Dr. Maickel Armenteros, Director of Research at the University of Havana shared with us during the course of the evening and over dinner at a local paladar information about his work and what makes the main destination and focus of our trip such a special place. As if we were not excited enough for the days ahead, having even a small amount of knowledge and appreciation for what was in store for us would make our diving that more meaningful.
At the end of dinner and bidding farewell to Dr. Armenteros, we mustered just enough energy to poke around the hallways and rooms on a self-guided tour of the Hall of Fame area of our hotel. Furniture, lamps, paintings and more from the 1930’s onward await here mixed with donated items from past famous guests.
I was too tired to hit the town and with a 3am wake up call set, bed for a couple of hours was definitely the smarter option (not the one I tend to take very often). But as I drew my thick rich drapes across my giant old window, I took one last peek at Havana at night to take in as much as I could. Music was playing in the gardens below and couples began to gather on the wall of the Malecon across the street with the ocean gently rolling behind them. Even if I cannot be a part of it, it is still the perfect way to end the day.
It is going to take a while to process all that I have seen and done in the past 16 hours. The history, beauty and culture that can be found here is simply staggering. My senses are all on overload and as I close my eyes, hundreds of images of the day are flickering through my mind one after the other, playing like an old movie projector on the silver screen.
Through all of the fragmented thoughts one is clear. One hectic but glorious day simply wasn’t anywhere near enough. Havana has left her mark on me and I know for certain I need to return.