Just Back: Havana, Cuba

Locals drive 1950s-era American cars along the Malecón in Havana, Cuba. (Photograph by Erika Skogg)

Locals drive 1950s-era American cars along the Malecón in Havana, Cuba. (Photograph by Erika Skogg)

Travel photographer and writer Erika Skogg (on Instagram @ErikaSkogg) spends most of the year guiding students on photography trips with National Geographic Expeditions. She recently returned from a 10-day trip through Cuba under a people-to-people travel license, which is currently still one of the only legal ways to travel to the country for U.S. citizens.

Here are some of the highlights of the time she spent in Havana, in her own words:

Biggest selling point: If you have ever wanted to time travel back to the 1950s (in style), visit Havana. My first morning in town, I snuck out of Hotel Parque Central in the wee hours for a sunrise walk and was greeted by the glare of old-fashioned circular headlights illuminating the streets.

An artist at work in Havana’s Taller Experimental de Grafica workshop. (Photograph by Erika Skogg)

An artist at work in Havana’s Taller Experimental de Grafica workshop. (Photograph by Erika Skogg)

At the same time, it’s important to realize that all of Cuba’s time-warp elements aren’t created equal. Visitors may encounter spotty electricity, potentially even colonial-era plumbing. A rapidly growing tourism industry is pushing the Cuba’s infrastructure to its limits, so please come armed with patience and enthusiasm at the prospect of witnessing a country in the throes of dramatic change.

The lovely locals, live cha-cha spilling out of cafes, and endless supply of fresh mojitos will make you glad you came, too.

Standout culinary experience: The private paladar La Guarida, which fills the top floors of an old mansion with softly lit dining rooms, is the perfect place to kick off your stay in Havana. The entrance throws guests right into the Cuban capital’s colorful, crumbling beauty. As you climb the oversize staircase out front, passing a statue missing its upper half, peer down on city denizens deep in a game of dominoes. Tip: I highly recommend the eggplant “caviar” (there’s no fish included) to whet your appetite.
Authentic souvenir: If creative expression is a priority for you, head to Taller Experimental de Gráfica, a buzzing warehouse located near Old Havana’s Cathedral Square where artists seem to be perpetually at work on huge lithographic stones or hanging fresh prints out to dry. Walk among the large tables and printing machines scattered around the cavernous space and engage with the artists at work before picking out unique pieces to take home.

Must-attend event: Music is everywhere in Cuba. Almost every night in Habana Vieja (Old Havana), La Taberna hosts a two-hour show featuring a variety of singers and dancers (Buena Vista Social Club members have been known to sit in on sessions). When you arrive in country, ask your hotel concierge what’s happening at the National Theater over the course of your stay. You’re likely to find everything from classical ballets and international symphonies to local favorites like pianist Frank Fernández on the schedule.

Musicians perform for passersby on the old stone seawall of Havana’s Malecón. (Photograph by Erika Skogg)

Musicians perform for passersby on the old stone seawall of Havana’s Malecón. (Photograph by Erika Skogg)

Best museum: I recommend devoting a couple of hours to the Museum of Fine Arts. It’s full of impressive pieces dating from the Spanish colonial period through today, with an entire wing dedicated to Cuban artists. You can find it a couple blocks from Parque Central near the Museum of the Revolution.

Memorable moment: On Saturday evenings, Havana’s five-mile-long Malecón is packed with tourists and locals out enjoying their city. I spent a memorable night here with a group of musicians playing Cuban mambo on trombones as the sun sank into the ocean beyond.

Practical information for travelers from the United States:

If you hold an American passport, like me, ask your bank for euros before you head to Cuba; you will be charged an extra 10 percent penalty to exchange U.S. dollars.

As of today, U.S. citizens are allowed to buy an unlimited amount of artwork and educational materials while visiting Cuba, but only $400 dollars worth of souvenirs ($100 of which can spent be alcohol and tobacco).

Tip: Request a customs stamp or documentation each time you purchase art to avoid incurring an added fee at the airport.

As a new era of U.S.-Cuba relations takes shape, American travelers can look forward to the return of ferry service between Florida and Cuba.

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