Travel Destinations

A Cuban Adventure

Cuban Buildings | Photo by April Winship

Cuba beckons, and this small island nation is now reopened to Americans seeking a one-of-a-kind travel experience. Making the voyage on our trawler Rogue One wasn’t an option, because private American flagged vessels cannot legally enter Cuba, which is only accessible to Americans by way of commercial airlines. But that didn’t dampen our desire to explore this intriguing country.

Located just 90 miles from the southern tip of Florida, the island nation of Cuba has been largely off-limits to American tourists since 1959 due to the U.S. Trade Embargo. Although the embargo is still in place, we found with a little planning, we easily navigated the newly expanded legal requirements for American travelers.

It didn’t take long to be swept up in Cuba’s magical blend of Spanish, African and Caribbean traditions woven into the fabric of everyday life, but the warmth and hospitality of the people left us feeling that Cuba is indeed a special place.

One of Cuba’s most iconic features is the abundance of vintage American cars from the 1950s. As an American classic car enthusiast, my birthday wish was to tour the town in one of these lovingly maintained beauties. Looking over the dozens of classic cars lining the town square, all sporting audacious fins, over-the-top hood ornaments and flashy paint jobs, I made my selection. I called “shotgun” in a bright red 1957 Bel Air convertible and soon we were speeding down the streets of Havana with my hair flying and a smile plastered on my face.

But the Cubans, affinity for the past can be traced back farther than vintage American automobiles. Traversing the city, I felt like a time traveler. Reaching back to 1585 the Spanish fortress of Morro Castle began as a promontory mounted with a single cannon and evolved into a commanding six-level fortress still standing guard over Havana Bay.

Located in the heart of Havana, the National Capitol Building is the city’s most ambitious and grandiose monument, constructed after the post-WWI boom. Its dome, reminiscent of our own capital, is crafted from white limestone and modeled after the Pantheon in Paris. Winding our way along tree-lined avenues, the neighborhoods of Havana boast an eclectic range of architectural styles. Moorish, Baroque, Neoclassical and Spanish Colonial remain prominent and the vibrant colors adorning them harken back to a bygone era.

Photo by April Winship

It’s this unique fusion of vintage cars and stunning architecture that distinguishes Cuba from other Caribbean islands.

For a more intimate portrait of Havana, we booked a walking tour of the old city. The tour was an informative introduction to the evolution of Cuba. Meandering from one plaza to the next, our guide showcased Old Havana’s historic gems, sharing stories of the patriots, poets, protesters and revolutionaries who forged the destiny of the Cuban people, breathing life into the distinctive Cuban narrative.

Greatly enhancing our Cuban experience were our Airbnb stays. It was another way to meet and interact with the locals, all the while supporting a family-run business. Many offered breakfast, and the opportunity to converse around the kitchen table with our hosts, added another layer of information about Cubans day-to-day life. Our hosts also coordinated logistics such as airport or in-country transportation, money exchange and securing tours.

So much of the joy of travel is indulging in the local cuisine, and Cuba is no exception. Dining at family-run restaurants called “paladares,” we savored authentic Cuban food with flavors reflecting its diverse cultural roots. The infusion of Spanish, African and Caribbean spices married perfectly, and replaced the typical fiery burn we have come to associate with the dishes of other Spanish- speaking countries.

A popular dish, “ropa vieja,” is a savory shredded beef stew simmered with tomatoes and onions. This full flavored entré is often served with “moros y cristianos,” a mouthwatering combination of black beans and rice. These cornerstones of Cuban cuisine became a fast favorite. Of course, a visit to Cuba must include indulging in an authentic “Cuban sandwich.” A generous medley of roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, and mustard are pressed panini style between crispy fresh bread. I was in hog heaven!

When evening fell, finding the perfect balcony from which to soak up the live salsa music while sipping a glass of Cuba’s finest rum was always just around the next corner. I couldn’t help but swing my hips to the sensuous beat that poured out of wooden doorways and drifted up the cobblestone streets.

With so much to discover here, dare to hitch up your adventurous spirit and satisfy your curiosity with a trip to this mysterious island nation so close to home.

Travel tips for Americans

It’s important to note that there are additional requirements and restrictions for Americans traveling to Cuba. The U.S. State Department website stipulates the travel requirements with the most up-to- date info. Online videos from recent visitors covering various aspects of Cuba proved an indispensable tool when planning and preparing our visit.

Here are the unique requirements for Americans traveling to Cuba:

- Americans may visit by commercial airline only. Private American flagged vessels cannot legally enter Cuba.
- Obtain a Cuba Tourist Card by purchasing one online or at the airport.
- You must choose one of 12 categories of travel (such as Family Visits, Journalistic Activities, Humanitarian Projects, etc.) We chose Support for the Cuban People.
- Bring cash only. American debit or credit cards are not accepted within the Cuban banking system.
- Americans can only stay in private rooms and apartments easily found on Airbnb. Americans are not permitted to stay in government-run hotels.
- Travelers are prohibited from returning to the United States with Cuban alcohol and tobacco products.

The intent behind these restrictions is to support the Cuban people without promoting the current Cuban government.

Holy Smokes!

Tracking the Elusive Cuban Habanos

Author April Winship testing out Cuban Cigars

I could never pass myself off as a cigar aficionado. But even I knew that Cuban cigars (called “Habanos” in Cuba) are recognized worldwide as the benchmark of excellence. Much like fine wine is to Napa Valley or lobster is to Maine, I was compelled to learn why Cuban cigars are shrouded with a certain mystique and near frenzied allure within the United States.

To get my answers, we hopped into a somewhat restored ‘55 Chevy for the three-hour ride from Havana in search of the premium tobacco-growing region of Pinar del Río. Once there, I relayed to our host family that I was interested in learning all about Cuban cigars, and the next morning we were saddled up on horseback and heading into the mountains to visit a few tobacco farms. Many of these farms are inaccessible by car, which became evident as we wound our way up dirt trails passing the occasional ox pulled cart.

After an hour in the saddle, we arrived at our first farm and were warmly greeted with a freshly ground cup of Cuban coffee as introductions were made. I was eager to see the entire process from planting to hand-rolling the final product and tried to soak it all in during our tour of the five-acre tobacco plantation.

The history of Cuban cigars goes back much farther than I’d originally thought. When Christopher Columbus arrived on the island of Cuba in 1492, he discovered that the inhabitants of the island enjoyed puffing on a dried leaf tightly rolled into a tube. Befriending the local “Indians,” Columbus is perhaps the first European to ever try smoking tobacco. On his return to Spain, one of the most prized treasures he brought with him wasn’t gold or silver ... it was tobacco.

But a long history of tobacco growing and being considered the inception point of the modern cigar doesn’t explain why Cuban cigars are widely regarded as some of the highest quality cigars in the world. The short answer is that this is all due to the island’s unique soil and climate, yielding some of the finest tobacco on the planet. These leaves are then carefully aged and fermented for up to three years before they are ready to be hand-rolled by the skillful “torcedores” using methods virtually unchanged for centuries. This all results in a smooth, rich taste and aroma that sets the Cuban Habanos apart from all other cigars worldwide.

Note that it is illegal to bring Cuban cigars back into the United States, which has only added to their appeal by creating a sense of exclusivity and rarity. The best way to truly experience an authentic Habano is with an excursion to Cuba’s lush tobacco-growing fields and visit with the local farmers.

I still don’t consider myself a cigar afficionado, but I’m thankful I didn’t pass up this opportunity to savor one of the world’s most sought-after cigars.

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