For most of my life, Cuba has been a hidden travel gem. That place you heard so much about but were forbidden to visit. About 4 years ago, I started hearing about people who were taking convoluted routes to make it to Cuba. While still illegal, it was like the El Dorado for an avid traveler – absolutely worth the risk. However, I was saved from the possibility of becoming Big Bertha’s cellmate when travel restrictions for US citizens were relaxed, allowing more people to visit as long as they satisfied 1 out of 12 proposed criteria. To me, the relaxation in restrictions signaled an end to what most travelers had dubbed an unspoiled paradise so far and made me determined to see it before the winds of change arrived. And thus I began to hatch a plan to get to Havana, Cuba.
It almost didn’t happen! I had charted a route from Morocco to Havana but a flight delay caused me to miss my connection in Mexico City. Not be deterred, I charted a new route through the Cayman Islands and after a 16-hour delay because of mechanical issues; I finally landed in Havana at 0500! Words could not describe the feeling of stepping foot on Cuban soil. It was all I could do not to kneel and kiss the ground like the Pope.
Originally, I had planned on staying at a Casa Particulares (rooms for rent inside a private home and one of the best ways to experience authentic Cuban life) and also arranged for pickup in a classic car, because why not? However, given the hiccups I had encountered and having been forewarned that internet in Cuba is hard to come by, I went ahead and reserved a room at the Melia Cuba before departing the Cayman Islands. While the taxi I procured from the airport was not a classic car, it was so worn that it still fit the Cuban narrative of ingenuity. As an added bonus, my driver was puffing on a sizeable cigar! Driving through the streets of Havana I had to refrain from lapsing into a romantic montage about how I was traveling through time.Watching the streets of Havana from the taxi I was reminded why I love to travel: Adventure. Excitement. Roadblocks. Frustrations. These are a few of the emotions and challenges one faces as one travels but the feeling you get when you arrive is priceless.
Arriving at the hotel, I learned my room wasn’t ready so I explored the hotel grounds eventually stumbling on a kiosk selling tours. I was able to secure a city tour leaving in an hour! Way to maximize time on the ground! When the tour van arrived I was very grateful I travel light. On top of being fairly tall, I had to squeeze my frame into the small van and was able to sit my bag on my knees. Additionally, I was able to do so in the front, riding with the tour guide and so I was able to get to know her better. Not enough to remember her name it seems, which I do regret, but she led the tour by herself, translating everything she said into 5 different languages. I am trilingual and that is fairly impressive, but polyglots amaze me. She explained that her education had been paid for by the government and she had been sent abroad to study in language immersion programs. She said she had been offered jobs while abroad but she preferred to return home where she could teach people about her country. The tour took us to the Plaza de la Revolucion, and through the streets of Habana Vieja stopping at the St Francis Basilica and Monastery, the statue of El Caballero de Paris, Hotel los Frailes, Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas among others.
With less than 24 hours in Havana, I decided to spend the rest of my daylight hours exploring. I returned to Habana Vieja, exploring it further and eventually ended up on the Avenida de Maceo – El Malecon. About 5 miles long, it is a seawall and road that stretches along the coast of Havana. Earlier that day, the tour guide had explained that Fidel did not allow fishing in the waters around Havana (disclaimer: I have been on enough tours to know that guides will sometimes make things up. I was unable to find any confirmation online for this claim but the water was strangely bare so I am keeping her explanation) and it wasn’t till I was walking along the Malecon that I realized how infrequent it is to see the waters around a major city without sea vessels of some kind. I must admit I liked it. The Malecon was littered with families enjoying the evening, lovers snuggled together in the gentle breeze; it looked so peaceful. As I watched the sunset leave footprints across the sky, I took a moment to be grateful for the freedom to travel. This was a trip I had looked forward to taking for years and to have it come true was heartwarming. But I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I would be back!