Cuba: Our Time in Havana

As I wandered through the street of Havana, I was reminded of a quote by Hippocrates, “Life is short, the art long, opportunity fleeting, judgment difficult."

Wandering the streets of Old Havana is like walking into a living museum. The art is manifested in many different ways. I joined a walking tour that started in the San Francisco de Asis square just in front of the cruise terminal. While the basilica and monastery were the main centerpieces, the square was surrounded by other colorful buildings dressed in intricate details.

The architecture in Cuba range from Colonial, Baroque, Greek, Roman, and Neo-Classical

Our walking tour was interrupted by a visit to Teatro Retazos to watch some dance performances. Teatro Retazo is home to one of the city’s most avant-garde dance troupes. The theater included an art exhibit – paintings of local artists – at the lobby. Before watching the dance performance, we listened to a short talk about the Teatro Retazos contribution to the world of dance. It’s credited with organizing the annual dance festival where both locals and artists from different countries take their dance to the streets, parks, squares, benches, balconies in the historic center of the city. Sadly, I was not able to experience these events because the annual dance festival is usually held in March-April. But I was excited to watch an unusual and interesting dance performance in the small theater. The performance began with the dancers carrying luggage to illustrate "Destiny" the main theme.  The heavy drama was depicted in the dances that followed - abuse, attack, death but in the end the victims, mostly women, triumphed by taking the abuser to the other side. The dancers danced to eclectic music - from Spanish romantic ballad to Vivaldi’s storm.  With the dancers dressed in black and the unadorned stage made me focus on the dance choreography. I really enjoyed the whole performance because the dance movements were visually stunning.

We left the theater to continue our walking tour until the twilight hours. We walked through the dusty and narrow streets walled with buildings dressed with beautiful details such as intricate ironwork, open balconies, stained glass windows, and we passed lovely parks or plazas with the work of art like murals and sculptures, and occasionally stopped to listen to the street musicians. 

Havana was dark after sunset.  Our tour guide took us to Sloppy Joe Bar, a bar filled with memorabilia of American celebrities from the 40’s and 50’s. It was strange to see a western movie playing on the TV screen. I had not been to a bar that big and with lots of bottles of alcohol, mostly rum, on display. I ordered a rum and coke cocktail and the Sloppy Joe signature sandwich for dinner. The sandwich looked and tasted like a baloney sandwich. I ended up eating just the bread. What a disappointment.  

Later that night I went to see a cabaret show. There are two famous Cabaret show venues in Havana – the Tropicana and Parisienne. I opted for the Parisienne Cabaret at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba because I wanted to see the beautiful hotel as well, another symbol of history and Cuban culture. The show featured lots of performers in very colorful costumes, lots of singing and dancing. Overall, it was fine, but for me, it was like the old vintage cars, another relic that belongs to a living museum that’s Havana. 

The following morning, we continued the walking tour, visiting Plaza de la Cathedral. It seemed to be the oldest plaza in Cuba. The cobblestone plaza was surrounded by neo-classical buildings with collonades.  The most domineering structure was the baroque church Cathedral of Havana San Cristobal with its very ornate facade.

Catedral Havana de San Cristobal

Next, we visited a community art workshop, called Taller Experimental de Grafica, an art studio and printmaking shop. Everybody in my group bought some piece of art directly from the artist as if it was our last chance to visit Cuba.  

I also had the chance to ride a vintage pink Chevrolet. My private taxi driver took me on another historical tour, passing Lonja del Commercio building with the Statue of Mercury on top of its dome, and other historical sights. We drove along the Malecon and the view from that side of the bay was great. My driver spoke very good English. And I learned something from him about the Cuban people that I had not thought of at that point.  He said that many of the people of Cuba come from a diverse background.

 “Look at me,” he said, “I have white skin, but my hair is African.” 

Of course, the tour guides in Havana would always show the American tourists the hotels that Ernest Hemmingway stayed in and encourage the visitors to try the mojitos from the bars and restaurants he frequented.  I joined the tour to see Cojimar, the fishing village where Hemingway docked his boat Pilar and the inspiration for his famous work, “The Old Man and the Sea”. We continued on to “Finca Vigia”, Hemmingway’s former nine-acre estate in Cuba, now a museum. The visitors could not go inside the main house but could see all the different rooms and take pictures through the window. Our tour guide told us that everything in the house remained in the same place as the family left them. The most notable items were the bottles of alcoholic drinks in the library and a work of art, a gift from Picasso.  Next to the main house was a tower with a room that houses Hemmingway's typewriter, bookcase, and a telescope.  The view from the tower was not bad either. 

On the way back from Finca Vigia, I saw villages in their present day reality. I saw residential homes in need of renovation, crumbling buildings with worn out paints, and a long line of people at the bank. Our tour guide shared information about the places or things we were seeing like housing subsidies, currency, schools and the educational system, and some key milestones that shaped the country’s history. But I was surprised at her willingness to share more information that a tour-guide would normally share. She talked about how young people are postponing marriage so they could continue to live with their parents and grandparents in a two-bedroom house. She talked about Cuba’s 99% literacy rate as a benefit from having free education for all. Ironically, some professionals are giving up their state work to work as a tour guide or taxi driver.

There so much to say about Cuba, but I don’t know enough about the country’s widely-debated political history to make any judgments. From a tourist perspective, I saw Havana for what it was, a very characterful city. I love the way the morning light hit the decorative details on the colonial buildings, the way people talk to each other from balcony to balcony, the way dance and music are woven into the fabric of everyday life from morning to night.

As a visitor traveling under the Trump administration’s “People-to-People” policy (officially sanctioned group travel), I felt that the people we interacted with in Cuba welcome us wholeheartedly.  If the number of buses that lined up along the cruise terminals is any indication, I’d say that Cuba has started preparing to welcome American tourists since  President Obama eased up some of the travel restrictions to Cuba.  


1.  I'm using the word 'tourist' loosely in this article. However, there are very specific regulations that a US citizen must follow in order to travel to Cuba.  Briefly,  Americans were prohibited from traveling to Cuba for so many years.  In 2014 President Obama eased up some of the regulations: US citizens can apply for a 'general license' to travel to Cuba if they fall into one of 12 different categories listed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).  On June 16, 2017Trump rolled back some of the changes made by President Obama. Trump instructed the Department of Treasury to issue regulations that will end individual people-to-people travel (Individual people-to-people travel is educational travel that:  does not involve academic study pursuant to a degree program, and does not take place under the auspices of an organization that is subject to U.S. jurisdiction that sponsors such exchanges to promote people-to-people contact.) The change states that 'non-academic educational travel' will be limited to officially sanctioned group travel.  Travelers on these organized trips must keep a full record of the educational events they partake in.
Go to the Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) website for detailed information.

2. All photos by the author


Plaza de Armas
Middle Structure:  Lonja Del Commercio with the Statue of Mercury at the top of the dome at Twilight 

Neo-Classical Architecture

Hotel Ambos Mundos - Hemmingway rented a room here

The iconic Vintage car
San Francisco de Asis Basilica an Monastery At San Francisco de Asis square w/ other colorful buildings


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