Cuba - 2017
January 2017 - With travel for Americans recently approved into Cuba, I decided to arrange a trip there in order to see the country in it's current form prior to the anticipated onslaught of US tourism and investment. I invited a few friends to join us and we ended up with a group of 11.
It was a privilege to see through the rubble, what this country once was in it’s prime, where it stands today and to witness see the hopes and dreams of the future. To witness the struggle that Socialism combined with in-effective dictators and economic sanctions can bring to the people. To see the joy and happiness that exists today with so little material needs or expectations. To see the entrepreneurial efforts to survive and capitalize on the new wave of anticipated tourism. All in the midst of great pride for country and the heroic efforts to salvage and rebuild the spectacularly beautiful architectural gems from the glory of Cuba's pre-revolution past. A journey that touched our souls and forced introspection of our own standard of living and appreciation for what we have.
Since members of the group were located in different parts of the country, we decided to make Miami our meeting place and eventual point of departure.
We all converged at the Miami airport to meet Maria, our US based guide for the week and prepare for departure. The terminal for flights departing to Cuba was chaotic! Many large families traveling together and bringing several bags, boxes and cases of supplies presumably purchased in the US and unavailable in Cuba. It took most of the two hours that we allocated to present our visa's and other documents in order to board the flight. Once on board the flight was short, we landed and moved quickly through customs and onto our awaiting transportation. Our local guide Yoandry (Yo) and driver were waiting in the van and would be with us for the entire trip.
On the way to the Hotel we stopped at revolution square to see the monuments to Cuba's revolution. Kind of Erie to see the self preservation efforts of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro still prevalent both in billboards along the streets, the roads throughout the country and in the monuments at revolution square.
On the lighter side...the architecture and the cars were more than expected. You can see how beautiful and prosperous the country once was through whats left of the structures in decay and the exuberance in the american cars from the 50's. Oh and the occasional "newer (1990's)" models of the Russian made Lada's.
We arrived and checked in to the Melia Cohiba Hotel which would be our base for the duration of our stay. The Hotel was large, modern and similar to a four star hotel in the states. Located next to the Historic Riviera Hotel on the Malecon overlooking the Caribbean sea.
Dinner tonight was at the paladar HM7 just across the street from our hotel. A Fantastic first meal that set the tone for our trip.
Breakfast at the hotel In the morning. The Hotel has an amazing breakfast room with numerous food stations from traditional Cuban to American, European and Asian. Each morning local musicians entertained the room with traditional music. We would have breakfast here each day before departing for activities
We were to visit the Partagas cigar factory this morning but it was closed for renovation. Just one of the many changes in itinerary we had to make due to the informal schedules and communications locally. Flexibility is the key to ensure a great trip along with knowledgeable local guides who can make things happen!
The Hotel houses one of the official state run "Casa Habana" (Havana House) in Havana. It was an amazing place to hang out, with a full bar and a live band each night. The walk in humidor is well stocked with just about any Cuban cigar you can imagine. The staff are friendly and very knowledgeable about the cigars and rums of Cuba. We spent about an hour in the Cigar lounge and enjoyed the company of a local/seasoned female cigar roller who was happy to create a custom cigar as a gift for us. The lounge staff also prepared a rum tasting for us of the 7, 11 and 20 year old rums from Santiago All were fantastic! and reasonably priced for the bottle. My favorite was the 11 year old which would stand strong next to a better bourbon for sipping purposes.
This morning we headed to Old Havana for a Havana Historical Tour including the historic Havana Vieja (Old Havana), a UNESCO World Heritage site, Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja, Catedral de San Cristobal, Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, Calle Obispo and Calle Mercaderes.
The 500-year-old city’s architectural plenitude is hard to overstate: From the colonial Spaniards who founded the city in 1515 to the Americans of the early 1900s, the so-called “Paris of the Caribbean” became the focal point of an outpouring of culture. In the absence of the modernization and development waves that swept most of the world in the mid–20th century, Old Havana remains virtually untouched and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982.
The revolutionary government neglected the old city, however, as it focused on education, health care, and rural infrastructure. In 1993, Castro put city historian Eusebio Leal in charge of a program that channeled tourism dollars into the historic center’s restoration. But the money has fallen short, and you don’t have to go far from the restoration zone to see crumbling facades and people waiting in lines for government rations in dusty potholed streets and begging for spare change from passersby.
It was impossible not to notice the poverty, sharpened by the vast difference in spending power between tourists and locals, many of whom earn the equivalent of less than $30 a month. I couldn’t help but internalize a bit of the schizophrenic melancholy I felt around me. Something had gone wrong with Castro’s revolution, and whether it was his fault or that of outside forces, I wasn’t in a position to say.
Still, the exuberance of this irrepressible city ring out everywhere. Music is everywhere, the familiar rhythms of the cha-cha, salsa, and merengue fill the air.
Lunch at Paladar Mercaderes located in the center of OLD HAVANA in a beautifully renovated colonial house built circa 1890. It has 2 salons, each with unique decorations, fabulous furnishings and signature tiles. There are also fresco's from 1905 on all of the walls which brings an added facet to the style of the restaurant. The Beautiful interior hanging garden adds an enticing and pleasant ambiance to the dinning experience.
Visit la Feria de San Jose, the largest handcraft market in Havana. Several craft vendors, a great place to pick up typical and handcrafted souvenirs
Before sunset we were picked up at the hotel by some of the classic American cars for a tour through Havana. These cars are amazing feats of engineering! Many are not as they seem on the exterior and are kept running by ingenious use of parts that are available more by chance than by plan. for example the 54 Chevy we were riding in had a diesel engine and transmission from a Toyota pickup! The drivers are proud of their machines.
any of these are used as traditional and un-traditional taxi's
Dinner at Rio Mar restaurant. The restaurant sits on a bay with decent views and great seafood
Later that night we were treated to an all out, outdoor Tropicana Show the likes of a Rickey Ricardo production times 10! A world-recognized cabaret and club in Havana that will not disappoint. The fact that when you arrive your table comes complete with your own bottles of rum and champagne that are included in the price of admission. Extravagant, sexy and visually stimulating. A must see while in Havana
A day filled with Classic Cars, Cuban Cigars, Chilled Rum and crazy fun! It's easy to imagine what this was like back in the day. It really is a blast from the past!
This morning we ventured out to an Organoponico in the residential suburb of Alamar on the outskirts of Havana and learn about urban agriculture and Cuban cuisine. Pretty amazing to see what they have done with very little resources to build and sustain a thriving organic farm producing not only the produce needs but providing employment for the community. One of the founders took us through the garden and explained how things worked. She has traveled around the world at the request of organizations wanting to learn more about the methods and sustainability of their projects and better understand how we can put them to use. We asked her what was the one thing that she wished they had to make things better, she said a Home Depot! "It would be great to just go there and buy a shovel when we needed one, Today we either have to make our own or wait until one becomes available."
Cuba used to have an industrialized agricultural system, exporting sugar and citrus to Russia and importing most of its food, as well as oil, machinery, fertilizers and pesticides. Then the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, which combined with a US trade embargo created a crisis that Fidel Castro named “The Special Period”. Suddenly cut off from all these inputs, the country turned to agricultural self-sufficiency, organic production and permaculture almost by default. Urban gardens sprouted around the island’s cities, encouraged by the government, and the end result is an incredible example of sustainable agriculture.
Organopónico Vivero Alamar, is a Unidad Básica de Producción Cooperativa (Basic Unit of Cooperative Production). Covering 11 hectares in Alamar, a residential suburb. The allotment’s rows of vegetables are overshadowed by grey Soviet-style blocks of flats. Though small, the garden (really more of an urban farm) is incredibly productive. As well as fresh vegetables, fruits, ornamental plants, seedlings, timber and medicinal and spiritual plants, the cooperative also produces dried herbs, condiments, garlic paste, tomato sauce and pickles; vermicompost, compost and substrates; goat and rabbit meat and mycorrhizal fungi. The Organopónico also welcomes tourists and holds workshops and courses in organic agriculture. Products are sold to local restaurants and directly to community members from the farm shop.
The cooperative that owns the Organopónico has 150 members, with 17 employees. Miguel Angel Salcines López, one of its founders and the current president, says, “The sense of belonging is central to organic production, and in the cooperative form there’s even more a sense of belonging. We’re less vulnerable economically because we can adapt better to the economic conditions. And we can improve social conditions for members and their families.”
He says the cooperative is contributing to local development by facilitating access to healthy food at fair prices and creating jobs, especially for women and older people. They are also providing a beautiful example of how organic agriculture can be practiced in a city. Cuba’s shift to self-sustainability, at least in fruits and vegetables, and its wide-scale adoption of urban, organic food growing, offer plenty of lessons in how to cope with potential future oil shortages and how communities, when driven by necessity, will organize and find ways to feed themselves. In the words of environmentalist Bill McKibben, Cuba may be “the world’s largest working model of a semi-sustainable agriculture.”
Lunch at Le Chansonnier located inside a historical 1890 home in the center of Havana Vedadoa, Boasting international cuisine (as do most) with nuances of avant-garde French cuisine,
In the afternoon we traveled to the seaside village of Cojimar to meet with locals and have a guided tour of Hemingway’s country estate, “Finca La Vigia” Museum. One of America’s most celebrated novelists, Ernest Hemingway, spent such a substantial amount of time in Cuba that he purchased Finca Vigia in 1940, originally built by Spanish Architect Miguel Pascual y Baguer in 1886. While in Cuba, Hemingway wrote two novels, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and the Sea”.
You can get a flavor of revolutionary Cuba and what Hemingway experienced by watching the Movie PAPA-HEMINGWAY in CUBA... In 1959, young journalist Ed Myers (a character representing Petitclerc) is working for a Miami newspaper. He wants to be a writer and had long admired Ernest Hemingway, then living in Cuba. Myers writes to Hemingway and is surprised when he answers, inviting the journalist to Cuba to go fishing with him. While the Cuban Revolution comes to a boil around them, Hemingway advises Myers on his writing. Myers continues to write articles for his newspaper, reporting on the Revolution.
An early scene from the film depicts rebels allied with Fidel Castro bursting into a street near Havana's Government Palace to confront soldiers loyal to the government of Fulgencio Batista. Hemingway and Myers take cover, with Hemingway guiding Myers through the war zone. They gradually develop a friendship and Myers spends an increasing amount of time with Hemingway and his fourth wife Mary.
Out of respect for Hemingway, we thought it was only fitting to head next to the old Havana Club Rum distillery for a tour and tasting. A bit touristic but fun to learn more about the Cuban side of the rum story (No nods to Bacardi, seems to be taboo to speak of Bacardi's role in Cuba)
Upon returning to the hotel, there was a gathering of Harley's in the driveway getting ready to parade what appeared to be the guest of honor at a Quinceanera that just ended in the hotel.
On the way to dinner we stopped at another official Cigar shop near central Havana and the Partagas and H. Upmann factory. I managed to snap a few photos but they were closed for renovation so we couldn't go inside. From what we could see the building was very beautiful and the renovations were bringing the space back to its original glory.
Dinner at San Cristobal paladar, a lively restaurant situated in a historic home in Old Havana. The owner lives upstairs and makes you feel like you are guests in his home.
After dinner we stopped in to the nearby La Floridita Bar which was frequented by Hemingway often while he was in Havana. Had to have a Daiquiri which apparently was his drink of choice. Fun experience, great music and a chance to see Hemingway's statue occupying favorite spot at the bar. We hailed a 1954 Chevy panel truck for the trip back to the hotel where rum cigars and music were on tap for the rest of the night
After breakfast at the hotel, we departed on a day trip to the Vinales valley and Pinar del Rio, one of Cuba’s western provinces, and the place where the best tobacco is harvested. The roads in Cuba can be a bit sketchy. about 2/3 of the 2 1/2+ hour drive was on the main Cuban divided highway with two lanes on each side. Despite what you might expect from a major thoroughfare like this, speeds averaged under 40 mph as obstacles like horse drawn carts, people walking, and road in need of repair required the driver to slow on many occasions.
En route we stopped to visit a ‘Guarapero’ who makes the local sugarcane drink. This happened to also be a tobacco farm too... The sugarcane is pressed in a special machine that squeezes the juice out, your basically drinking sugar water but its really good! We looked around the farm a bit, this is peak season for tobacco and we saw some harvesting by hand and checked out the old drying barn where local women were tying and hanging the leaves to dry. Hand rolled fresh cigars were available for about $1 each so we picked up a few, they were really good!
Next we stopped to take in the view of the Vinales Valley at Cordillera de Guaniguanico. Most of the area we could see is part of the Parque de Vanales and the Sierra de los Organos mountains including the beautiful lush valleys and tall steep sided limestone hills known as mogotes that draw rock climbers. There is a small hotel at the look out which looks like a great place to hang out for a few days of exploring the valley.
Lunch at la Finca Agreologica was our next stop on the journey. The restaurant is a small converted home that sits on top of a hill overlooking the valley below. The site is also an organic garden and farm that produces much of the ingredients on the menu. An expansive patio/deck surrounds the small home making for a perfect outdoor dining experience. Casual, family style meals are served based on the ingredients available for the day and of course plenty of rum is available on the table. The owner is an energetic woman who was very well know by many of the patrons. She was a fun host to a must do experience.
Next up was a visit to the tobacco farm Finca Benito to learn about the Cuban tobacco farm process. We saw the growing and drying process, got another lesson in cigar rolling and learned how the tobacco is divided up between the many Cuban brands. The Government or Habanos S.A is the arm of the government that controls the promotion, distribution and export of Cuban cigars and owns the trademark of every brand of Cuban made cigars. The agency decides which Cigar label receives tobacco from each farm.
We stopped in and walked around the town of Viñales. Its main street is lined with colorful colonial-era wooden houses, including the Municipal Museum, which explores the region’s history. Orchids and palms fill the sprawling Casa de Caridad Botanical Gardens. We walked through a street market and picked up a few trinkets for home. My buddy Dan picked up his own Cuban military communist cap to show off at home, should go over well in conservative Scottsdale.
Along the long ride home we stopped at a rest stop along the highway. We were surprised to find a well stocked bar with snacks and a few entrepreneurs selling handmade nougat candy and some kind of nut brittle
After a brief rest at the Hotel were off to dinner at Cha Cha Cha and later a special treat that we were able to add to our agenda...
A trip to Cuba wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba and listen to a performance of the Buena Vista Social Club. We were fortunate to see two of the groups original members join in tonight. The music was fantastic and the hotel as it was in the day...once the grand playground of Hollywood legends and mafiosi like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. You could easily envision Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole chatting over mojitos, smoking Cohibas, and watching the waves crash over the Malecón.
Since our flight is scheduled to depart a little later in the afternoon, we decided to take a drive along the malecon and tour the old fort Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabaña. The Spaniards built a fortification here in the 1700s to ward off pirates. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Castro and Guevara decamped to an underground bunker here along with a small militia.
Off to Havana International Airport, José Martí and our flight back to Miami. Cleared customs in Miami fairly quick, it was interesting that the agent only asked the men if they had anything to declare, the ladies in our group were not asked.
Half of the group will continue to the Florida Keys for a few days of continued travel.
A few points from our research. Note these may have changed so do your own research before traveling
What to See, Eat, Drink, Smoke
PASEO DEL PRADO
Start at the Capitolio and head east toward the Gran Teatro de Havana, where marble angels reach heavenward from atop four ornate corner towers. Here and across the street in Central Park, the streets fairly hum with life: Brightly painted antique Dodges, Studebakers, and Fords seem to preen and take the sun; and children play circle games in the space that runs along the center of a shaded boulevard.
MUSEO DE LA REVOLUCIÓN
Bullet holes—remnants of the shootout when the revolutionaries took over—pock this elegant former Presidential Palace, decorated by Tiffany of New York and designed by Belgian Paul Belau.
PARTAGAS CIGAR FACTORY
Whether or not you’re a smoker, a visit to a cigar factory is de rigueur. Here you can breathe in the heavy scent of perfectly aged tobacco and watch as women roll the carefully selected leaves on their laps—said to be the secret to the sweetness of the Cohibas, the Montecristos, and other classic brands manufactured here. (Note: The factory might be closed for refurbishment.)
Start at the grand old Ambos Mundos hotel: Take a classic cage-style elevator up to Room 551, where Ernest Hemingway wrote the first few chapters of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Carry on down Obispo Street to Floridita, the self-proclaimed “cradle of the daiquiri,” where a bronze statue of the writer stands at the end of the bar. A few blocks away, you’ll find Hemingway’s other favorite watering hole, La Bodeguita del Medio. MY MOJITO IN LA BODEGUITA/MY DAIQUIRI IN EL FLORIDITA, the author is said to have written on a paper that’s framed on the wall. Hemingway’s home, Finca La Vigia, is a taxi ride away.
You can sample Cuban cuisine at any number of places, including La Fontana, which serves barbecued meats from an outdoor charcoal grill. The Spanish Sociedad Juventud Asturiana, from the Spanish province of Asturias, operates Los Nardos, a local favorite that offers continental and island cuisine for reasonable prices, as well as live music. Copelia is famous for its ice cream; the flavors change daily, and there’s always a line.
Being that all restaurants are owned by the government and run by employees, the food in Cuba is notoriously bland. If you are expecting the fiery pepper pot spiciness found on some of the other Caribbean islands, consider that the national dish in Cuba is rice and beans (moros y cristianos). A popular saying goes that the best Cuban food can be found in the United States. Within Cuba, the best food will generally be found in your casa particular or in paladares (locally owned restaurants in private homes).
Black beans are a main staple in Cuban households. Cubans eat mainly pork and chicken for meat. Beef and lobster are controlled by the state, and therefore illegal to sell outside of state owned hotels and restaurants, however special lobster lunch/supper offers are plentiful for tourists. You may see turtle on menus in Paladares, but be aware that they are endangered and eating them is illegal.
Paladares are plentiful, even in the smaller towns. Seating is often limited, so you may need to arrive when they open, usually around 5 or 6PM. If you are staying in a casa particular ask your host for recommendations, as the quality of the food can vary substantially between paladares. Only eat in ones that have a printed menu with prices, otherwise you are very likely to pay two to three times as much as you should. That said, several have taken to printing two different menus, one with local prices and one with foreigner prices. Eating in paladares is perfectly legal, but be aware that if you are taken there by a Cuban, you may be charged extra in order to cover commission of the person who brought you. A supper will cost around 7 to 10 CUC per person.
Eating in state owned hotels and restaurants is significantly more expensive and compares with prices in many first world countries. An average supper with soup, dessert and a glass or two of wine could easily set you back 20 to 30 CUC per person. Note that in these establishments, the vast majority of the employees' income would come from tips (their monthly salary often being less than the cost of one meal), making it a friendly and welcome gesture to tip liberally for good service. Service in the State run restaurants and bars is generally poor at best. There is little incentive for a worker/server who has been assigned this work by the Government to perform or work hard
In bigger towns you will also find some state-run restaurants which cater mainly to Cubans and accept local currency. Prices are extremely low, but the quality of food, service and ambiance is typically shocking. You may be able to secure better food by offering to pay in CUCs. Still, this may be an option if you are on a really low budget or look for an 'authentic' Cuban experience. If you choose to tip, do so in CUCs as anything else would be an insult to staff.
It is difficult to find any restaurants serving breakfast in Cuba outside of resorts; most casas particulares will serve their guests a large breakfast for around 4 CUC per person if requested. However, make sure you get value for money - often you can buy for much less money (in national pesos) the same fruit, coffee bread/omelette etc out in the street that your casa particular owner will want to charge you 4 times more for just to present it to you in a more comfortable fashion.
Sometimes if you ask nicely, your casa particular owner may let you use their kitchen to prepare your own food - in fact, they are usually quite accommodating if for instance you have special dietary requirements, or young children etc.
A tasty serving of rice, vegetables, plantains, and pork or beef (called a cajita ["little box" in English]) is an attractive and affordable option, and are generally sold for around US$1 out of people's homes.
You can also find small street vendors selling a variety of foods, typically sandwiches and pizzas for between 2 and 12 CUP. The quality varies from vendor to vendor so when you find a good one take note. Many of these stores are run from people's living rooms, and buying from them is a good way to help provide some extra income to a Cuban family. While these meals are satisfying and cheap, be warned that long lines are common and the vendors are rarely in any rush to see everyone fed quickly.
Havana Chinatown Food in Cuba is quite monotonous and - let's be honest - pretty bad (mainly rice, beans, chicken, sandwiches and pizza, all prepared without much regard to taste or presentation), but check out the small Havana Chinatown a few blocks west of the Capitolio if you are looking for something different. There are a few Chinese themed restaurants there, where the food is neither spectacular nor really authentic, but decent enough if you can't face another serving of rice and beans. Street food can also be a notch better here, try the area around the intersection of Avenida de Italia and Avenue Zanja.
The Top Five Dishes in Havana
Pork Ribs, Casa Grande Pezuela No. 86, esquina Fóxa, Cojimar, La Habana del Este From the aroma wafting from the grill, to the size of the ribs when they land on the table, you would be hard-pressed to find a better rendition of pork ribs. Maybe it is the unexpected surprise of finding them in Cuba, but who cares. They are great. The lime-soy marinade is inspired.
Lasagna de Papaya, La Guarida Calle Concordia 418, entre Gervesio y Escobar, Centro This has been one of my favorite dishes in Havana for years now. It is creative. It has the right balance of sweetness and acidity. And it qualifies for this list because it is just downright creative.
Ensalada de Pulpo, Corte del Principe Calle 74, esquina Avenida 9, Miramar The thinly sliced pieces of octopus are delightfully tender but then they are tossed with small cubes of warm potatoes and dressed in olive oil and garlic sauce. You'll want a second plate when you're done with the first.
Tuna Sashimi, Santy Calle 240A, Jaimanitas I know what you're thinking. Raw fish? Havana? But the tuna sashimi is perfect here. It may not be on the menu every day, because they don't catch tuna every day. Enough said, right? Make the effort to get here. You won't be sorry.
Roast Chicken, El Aljibe Avenida 7, entre 24 y 26, Miramar I usually muscle the willpower to stop the all-you-can-eat parade of plates because it's my first night in Havana, and I don't want to overdo it. But it's hard. The chicken is always perfectly roasted, the rice and black beans are a meal in themselves, and they have even mastered the art of french fries. Who cares if the restaurant is rustic? This is the old style of cooking in Havana at its very best.
From diners drive ins and dives
Barbers alley , shopping music and food
La Piala Fonda (behind car wash) ribs, fun for lunch?
Al Carbon (across from MUSEO DE LA REVOLUCIÓN Former presidential palace)
Casa Abel (owner is a big cigar aficionado, worked for partagas)
Westways AAA magazine
You can sample Cuban cuisine at any number of places, including
La Fontana, which serves barbecued meats from an outdoor charcoal grill.
The Spanish Sociedad Juventud Asturiana, from the Spanish province of Asturias, operates Los Nardos, a local favorite that offers continental and island cuisine for reasonable prices, as well as live music.
Copelia is famous for its ice cream; the flavors change daily, and there’s always a line.
The purchasing age of alcoholic beverages is 18, however there is no legal drinking age.
Cuban national cocktails include the Cuba Libre (rum and cola) and the Mojito (rum, lime, sugar, mint leaves, club soda and ice).
If you request a rum in a small country restaurant do not be surprised if it is only available by the bottle. Havana Club is the national brand and the most popular. Expect to pay $4 for three year old white rum or $8 for seven year old dark rum.
Cristal is a light beer and is available in "dollar" stores where Cubans with CUCs and visitors may shop. Cubans prefer the Bucanero Fuerte, which at 5.5% alcohol is a strong (hence the "fuerte") darker beer. Both Cristal and Bucanero are brewed by a joint venture with Labatts of Canada, whose beer is the only Cuban beer sold in CUC. A stronger version, Bucanero Max is also available - primarily available in Havana. There are also smaller brews, not available everywhere, such as Hatuey and Corona del Mar. These are sold in CUP.
Note that - similar to restaurants - there are two types of establishments you can go to to drink in Cuba: Western-style CUC bars with near-Western prices, a good selection of quality drinks (and sometimes food), nice decorations, semi-motivated staff and often live music, typically found around tourist hot-spots such as Old Havana and tourist hotels. Here you will mostly meet other tourists, expats and a few Cubans with access to hard currency, but don't expect a 'local' experience.
The alternative is to seek out local neighborhood bars where you can choose from a quality, but limited, selection of drinks (mainly locally produced rum by the bottle, beer and soft drinks, very rarely will you be able to get cocktails such as mojitos), cigars of dubious and cigarettes of only slightly better quality, and sometimes snacks. Local bars accept CUPs and are dirt-cheap, although bar keepers will often ask you for CUCs instead - it's up to you to negotiate an acceptable price, but keep in mind that local bar staff are state employees and (literally) paid a pittance. These bars are also a good way to meet locals who may even open up a bit and talk about their lives after a couple of drinks.
Local bars are not that hard to find despite typically having no prominent signs displayed outside. Just ask or walk around a local neighborhood and look out for a bare-walled, neon-lit room without any decorations or furniture, save for a bar and a few rickety chairs and tables, sullen staff and depressed/bored/drunk-looking customers, almost always men.
Contrary to Cuba's reputation as a music and fun loving nation, local bars are not boisterous affairs - they are quiet, almost subdued, music is rarely played (if at all, it will come from a radio but never be live), and have the charm of third-world railway station waiting rooms.
Nonetheless, they make for a fascinating experience (especially if you make the effort to speak to some locals - offering to buy a drink will get a conversation going, no surprise there), and they provide a good insight into what life must be like for ordinary Cubans without access to hard currency. As a foreign visitor, you will be generally welcomed. Discussing politics over a drink is a tricky, and typically lose-lose proposition: speak negatively about the Cuban political system and you may put your Cuban drinking companions into a very difficult position as they may very well be informed on for hanging out with subversive foreigners.
Cigars are the most popular merchandise for the tourists to Cuba, however most of the cigars that tourists bought in Cuba during Havana one-day tour or even in Varadero airport tax-free store are fake. Make sure you buy cigars in official shops, do not trust the tobacco factory where the tourism guide takes you to. Real-looking discount cigars of dubious authenticity being offered by street touts. Quite often though these are indeed genuine articles which have been stolen or collected over a long period of time by cigar workers and are sold at substantial discount on legal and taxed cigars. If you are unable to distinguish genuine cigars then you should only buy from the official cigar dealers. The best people to buy untaxed (illegal but genuine) cigars from tend to be hotel doormen who will not be offended if asked "if they know where you can get cheap cigars" and may lead you to a room in the hotel used for this purpose. If buying untaxed cigars you should not pay more than say CUC 50 for a box of say 25 Esplendidos (around ten times cheaper than taxed cigars a rule of thumb). Be careful that you see the box you are buying open to prove there are in fact cigars in it. Also often stickers are included to allow you to seal the box as if it had been taxed. There is a risk that customs will confiscate these on exit, but for less than 50 cigars it is very unlikely. If carrying more then they should be split between the members of your party. Since the activity of selling untaxed cigars stolen or collection from the factory is illegal and the locals are often very short of money outside the main tourist season it is possible to haggle the prices very low, but since a typical salary for a hotel worker may be the equivalent of USD 20 per month it may seem unfair.
Get ready to pack your bags and suitcases with Cuban cigars and rum. The U.S. Treasury Department announced today that it has removed the previous limits on bringing Cuban cigars and Cuban rum back into the United States from any country in the world, Cuba or otherwise. This means the $100 limit instituted two years ago is no more.
So long as the cigars are brought back in personal baggage and are intended for personal consumption, U.S. Customs will let your Cuban cigars through. This means that the deceptive days of removing bands, hiding cigars in your dirty laundry and lying to customs officers are officially over, effective Monday, October 17.
This applies only to cigars and rum you will either enjoy yourself, or give to another individual. The Office of Foreign Assets Control stresses that resale of Cuban cigars, distribution or commerce of any kind are still illegal, as the trade embargo remains in effect. OFAC does, however, consider giving a cigar or a bottle of rum to another individual to fall under personal use, so long as there is no payment.
The new law is applicable only to travelers. Mail order and Internet orders for Cuban cigars and rum are still prohibited.
And while the new ease in restrictions means that the number of personal cigars is technically unlimited, there is still an amount of duty that will have to be paid after a certain quantity is exceeded. OFAC's website points to an $800 exemption of duty every 31 days, and stresses duty-free limits of 100 cigars. According to OFAC's website: "A traveler may include up to 100 cigars and 200 cigarettes in the $800 exemption from duty... Additional cigars and cigarettes may be brought into the country, but they will be subject to duty and Federal excise taxes." Excess amounts are subject to a 4 percent flat rate of duty.
This easing of restrictions opens up the entire world of Cuban cigar retail to U.S. enthusiasts travelling abroad. American citizens who go to Cuba, London, Dubai, Hong Kong or Switzerland, for example, will now be allowed to come home with Cohibas, Montecristos and other Cuban cigars, as well as bottles of Havana Club, Santiago and other fine Cuban rums.
Five Cigar Shopping Tips
Flip Your Boxes—All Cuban cigar boxes are stamped with a date, and much of the shelf space will be taken up by recent smokes. In February, the lion’s share of cigars were from 2014. But patience is rewarded. Things can linger in Cuba, and a little searching can pay dividends. It’s typically easy to find something with four or five years of age, and sometimes if you check lesser-known brands and sizes you can find something even older.
Shop Around—Just because one shop is out of your favorite smoke doesn’t mean another won’t have it. While prices are the same from shop to shop, you won’t necessarily find the same cigars in every shop. Keep foraging.
Open The Box—You won’t buy a car without a test drive, so why buy a box of cigars without examining the merchandise? Ask the staff to open the box and take a look.
Never Buy On The Street—Everyone has a story, and most of those stories are false. Sure, it’s possible you just may have run into someone who knows the Castro family personally, or has an inside deal at a factory. But is it likely? No. More likely you are looking at cigars rolled in someone’s home using inferior tobacco. Cuba abounds with fake cigars, and everyone is looking to make a quick buck from a tourist.
Try The House Cigar—No, they won’t be the same as a well-aged Montecristo No. 2, but everyone should experience trying a freshly rolled cigar. If you see a cigarmaker at work, give one a shot.
I Brought the following Cigars home with me;
Trinidad Topes Edicion Limitada 2016 - Box date Sept 2016
Romeo y Julieta Capuletos Edicion Limitada 2016 - Box date June 2016
Partagas Corona Anejados Oct 2008 - Box date Oct 2008
Partagas Series E No. 2 - Box date Jul 2012
Montecristo No. 2 - Box date Jul 2015
Casas del Habano
The very best shops are all Casas del Habano, which have to stock a multitude of Cuban cigar brands, have no less than 60 square meters of space, a cigar roller, seats and a bar. This year is the 25th anniversary of the Casa del Habano concept, and we visited all of the ones in Havana (plus another shop scheduled to become a Casa soon) to assess their quality.
La Casa del Habano, 5th y 16 5ta y 16 / 5ta Avenida y Calle 16, Miramar Many regard this store (called Quinta Avenida by most) as Cuba's finest, and this lovely shop in Havana's picturesque Miramar neighborhood just doesn't disappoint. Say hello to Carlos Robaina, who has been a part of the shop for eight years, and he might tell you the tale of coming here as a younger man with his father, the great Alejandro Robaina, who would stop by when in town, take the same seat in the corner of a back room, and have a bit of Havana Club 7 Años to go with a cigar.
Like all of Cuba's Casas del Habano, this store has a bar and seating, but Quinta Avenida is built for many guests. It has several rooms, each of them comfortably decorated, and even a full-service restaurant, the only cigar store in Havana with such an amenity.
The staff knows cigars very well, and the walk-in humidor (laid out in a shape reminiscent of an inverted question mark, hugging the wall across from the cash register) typically has something marvelous. The lockers where clients store cigars they intend to age are behind a strong door with an ornate lock worthy of a bank vault from a Humphrey Bogart film. There are 96 lockers here.
Order a Cuban coffee, and smile as it's brought to you in unique fashion, sitting on a pair of tobacco leaves. If you have a large group, this is a Casa with room for all of you. Don't leave Cuba without coming here.
La Casa del Habano, Hotel Habana Libre Calle L entre 23 y 25, Vedado We don't recommend you stay in the large but severely outdated Habana Libre Hotel, but you would be wrong to miss a stop in its Casa del Habano. Cuba's largest cigar store has consistently been filled with cigars on all of our visits since it opened in February 2010, and when you can't find a certain cigar in one of the other shops you're likely to get it here.
The store's breadth begins with the stunning selection of singles, often a weak point of cigar shops in Havana. On a recent visit, one could purchase singles of most of the 2014 Edición Limitadas (something we didn't see in any other store, which had ELs available only by the box, if at all). Whereas most stores were out of Punch Punch cigars, the Habana Libre had stacks of them, at 195 cuc ($224) per box. Double Coronas of all types were on the shelves, from Ramon Allones Gigantes to Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas and Partagás Lusitanias, with prices ranging from 261 cuc ($300) to 285 cuc ($328) per box. The shop also had three shelves entirely dedicated to the new line of Añejados, more stock than any other shop in Cuba. The staff is friendly and welcoming.
Some of the earlier quirks of the store have been improved. The military blue wall by one of the smoking areas has been replaced with warmer colors. A posh smoking lounge adjacent to the shop has been created. We have enjoyed visiting here since it opened, and it has only improved. No matter where you are staying in Havana, it pays to stop here to buy some cigars.
La Casa del Habano, Club Habana Avenida 5, entre 188 y 192, Miramar, Playa Club Habana always seems farther away than any of Havana's other standout cigar shops, but in-the-know cigar lovers have sought it out for years. Pull up to the gate and tell the guard you are going to the Casa del Habano, drive around the circle and past the old Biltmore Yacht and Country Club, and park next to a decades old American car and walk into the cigar shop.
To the right is the walk-in humidor. The table near the door nearest the entrance is where you might find something special that the shop has put on display. On some visits, there have been Edición Limitadas, on others limited-edition humidors. On a most recent visit, box dates of 2011 announced a stack of cigars that included Cohibas, a cigar that never seems to sit around in Havana.
The humidor is often stocked with superb cigars, and has never disappointed. It's wise to flip your boxes and check the codes in any shop, but we have found more older cigars in this cigar store than any other. They tend to lurk on the far left side.
As with most cigar shops on the island, Club Habana makes some of its own cigars. So-called House Cigars can be so-so, but the Monsdales are my favorite. Named after the former jefe of the casa, Enrique Mons (who died in 2014), the smoke is a combination panetela and lonsdale that always smokes perfectly and has a rich, full flavor. It's likely to be the best 5 cuc you spend in Cuba. Get a few.
The back room is comfortable, cool and relaxing. There's a small but workable bar, superb café Cubano, and room to spread out. Life seems to slow down at Club Habana, and who couldn't use a little more of that?
La Casa del Habano, Hotel Meliá Habana Avenida 3, entre 76 y 80, Playa, Habana The Casa del Habano at the Meliá Cohiba is turning into a popular spot for people who know a great Cuban cigar. The gorgeous and welcoming shop is beautifully appointed. Polished dark wood, proud bottles of Cuban rum and cigars of all shapes and sizes welcome you as you enter. At center stage is a comfortable seating area not far from a small, semicircular bar.
The humidor is fairly large, and typically stocked with superb smokes. The shop had virtually every Bolivar one could imagine, including the Bolivar Belicoso Fino in both dress box and cabinet (191.25 cuc for either, but the cabinet is the superior buy). Trinidad Fundadores, which were a no-show in most shops, were in stock here (261.60 cuc).
If you're a collector and you have an affinity for cabinets of 50, this shop is your place. On a recent visit we found Hoyo Epicure No. 2s, Hoyo Double Coronas, Partagás Lusitanias and Punch DCs in cabinets of 50, ideal boxes for aging. Bigger boxes are expensive (545 to 570 cuc for the double coronas), so they tend to sit.
The Meliá Habana has a gorgeous locker room. A problem with the air conditioning spawned a recent tobacco beetle outbreak, which can happen anywhere, and the management replaced damaged cigars to reimburse those who were affected. Service is very good here.
There's a small room off the back for smoking, if you wish to escape the crowd of the room, but should you hang in the main area during the Habanos Festival or at other busy times in Havana you're likely to see some serious cigar lovers.
Summary of Cigar recommendations
Montecristo: #2, petite #2, Double Edmundo
Bolivar: Super corona edition limited 2014, Churchill, Corona Gigante
Cohiba: Esplendido, Robusto, Robusto Supremes edition limited 2014, Silo, Behike #52 and #54
Hoya de Monterey: Epicure especial (tubo), #2, Double Corona 1995=99, 1993=97
H. Upmann: Half Corona, Connoisseur petite corona
Partagas: Lusitania, series d #5, series e #2 Aug 2016 date, Salomon, #4 Robusto, Corona Gordo Anejados
Vegueros: Entretiempo, Mananita
Trinidad: edition limited 2016, Vigia, Tops
Ramon Alones: Churchill and Robusto
Romeo y Julietta: Capaletes edition limited 2016, short Churchill
Juan Lopez: Selection #1
Ten Cuban Cigars to Buy Now
Montecristo No. 2 Cigar Aficionado's Cigar of the Year for 2013 remains in plentiful supply in just about every top-tier Havana cigar store. If you see boxes stamped with early 2013 dates (April 2013 in particular) grab them. Rating: 96 points Price: 9.65 cuc ($11.09)
Bolivar Super Corona Edición Limitada 2014 Most of Cuba's newer cigars are quite fat, but this 5 1/2 by 48 Bolivar is dialed down in thickness. It's a robust smoke with clove, earth and bittersweet chocolate notes Rating: 90 points Price: 9.25 cuc ($10.63)
Cohiba Esplendido The Churchill-sized member of the core Cohiba line, stronger than the Siglo series, is smoking better than it has in years. It placed No. 11 on our Top 25. One of Havana's most expensive cigars, but worth it. Rating: 93 points Price: 23 cuc ($26.43)
Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure Especial (Tubo) If you're looking for a three-pack of cigars, we have the ideal smoke. This 5 1/2 by 50 cigar comes in tidy packs of three, and ranked No. 4 on our most recent Top 25 list. Rating: 94 points Price: 8.60 cuc ($9.88)
Cohiba Behike BHK 52 Cigar Aficionado's Cigar of the Year for 2010, this cigar consistently outperforms its thicker cousins, the BHK 54 and BHK 56. Even pricier than normal Cohibas, Habanos justifies the pricetag with some medio tiempo leaves in the blend. It has been in short supply in Cuba of late, so if you see one, don't hesitate to buy. They come in boxes of 10. Rating: 97 points Price: 22 cuc ($25.29)
Upmann Half Corona This small 90 pointer (it's all of 3 1/2 inches long by a mere 44 ring gauge) stands out for its value. It's one of the few quality boxes of 25 you can bring home for $100. They also come in sleek tins of 5. Rating: 90 points Price: 3.50 cuc ($4.00)
Montecristo Double Edmundo A longer, thinner version of the Montecristo Edmundo, this oaky, leathery cigar is not only smoking very well right now (Cigar Aficionado's No. 15 cigar of 2014) it can be found on store shelves all over Havana. Rating: 92 points Price: 9.70 cuc ($11.15)
Partagás Lusitania Sometimes a situation calls for a double corona, and the Cuban double corona smoking beautifully right now is the Partagás Lusitania. Abundant in most fine Cuban cigar shops, you will sometimes find them in tidy boxes of 10, and (rarely) in cabinets of 50. Rating: 93 points Price: 11.35 cuc ($13.00)
Vegueros Entretiempo and Mañanita The redesigned, reblended and resized Vegueros brand can be a fine cigar for a great price. The Entretiempo (4 3/8 by 52) and Mañanita (4 by 46) were named Best Buys by Cigar Insider. They come in stylish tins of 16. Rating: 90 points (Entretiempo), 90 Points (Mañanita) Mañanita Price: 3.70 cuc ($4.25) Entretiempo Price: 4.70 cuc ($5.40)
Two To Avoid
Guantanamera This brand beckons with low prices—but don't be fooled. These aren't cigars of quality, and in no way represent classic Cuban tobacco.
Cohiba Behike BHK 56 It has consistently disappointed in Cigar Aficionado ratings, yet is paradoxically the most expensive regular-production cigar in Cuba's portfolio. It doesn't compare to the fine BHK 54, and the consistently superb BHK 52, one of the best cigars Cuba has ever made.