A Week in Havana

My toes gripped the slippery edge of the mounded stalagmite as I wound up my courage to dive into the deep cobalt waters of Cueva de Saturno.

The cave lake was so clear that I could see the bottom, though it faded to inky blackness near the back corner. Little shivers caught at my breath every time my gaze flicked that way, and I tried not to think about yet-undiscovered species of Cuban cave-dwelling monsters lying in wait for freckly sun-burnt Seattle natives who disturbed their lair.

“Ready?” I yelled up to my friend standing near the guardrail, camera in hand. She gave me the thumbs-up. I turned and executed what I imagined was a perfect swan dive — Olympic-level lack of splash — into the depths of blue. The water was just shy of cold: shocking and exhilarating. Dissolved minerals gave it a silky texture on my skin. Breaking through the surface, I floated on my back for a moment, limbs extended in starfish, and stared up at the cave ceiling high above me, giving voice to the obvious but almost-unbelievable fact — I am swimming in a cave lake in Cuba.

Cuba is the forgotten Caribbean island — at least to Americans, for whom it has been mostly off limits for the past several decades. Having lived in China for nearly a year in the early 2000s, I couldn’t help but think communist Cuba might have a similar feel. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Havana

Havana is full of colorful public art, soaring cathedrals, and everywhere — music. There is also evidence of struggle. You don’t see homeless people or beggars, but there are legions of stray cats and dogs roaming the narrow alleys. There is scarcity. Grocery stores with one brand of ketchup and the scent of rancid meat, a strict one egg per person policy at our house breakfasts because the cooks couldn’t actually get more than one-egg-per-person at the market.

Havana

The people we met were warm and welcoming and I felt safe wandering through Havana’s streets where the threat of pickpockets is virtually nonexistent compared to European cities.

A lucky group of 13 — 12 women and one very tolerant husband, we descended on Havana for a weeklong yoga retreat in late September. Alaska Airlines had a direct flight from Los Angeles at the time (though, sadly, the route has since been canceled) and I couldn’t believe it cost less than $500 round-trip from Seattle. Two weeks before we left, Hurricane Irma slammed into Cuba, tearing up the Malecón — Havana’s busiest roadway that runs along the shore. Obviously, we hadn’t taken hurricane season into account when booking our trip. With professional efficiency, Cuban authorities had the Malecón completely repaired by the last day of our trip.

Havana’s architecture is a combination of European influence, particularly Spanish and French colonial, and American investment. The result feels like Europe meets plantations from the American South. Columns and arched windows, grand facades painted in every imaginable color, mostly faded now but with remnants of shocking pink and turquoise blue. Havana is like a very old woman who was clearly stunning in her youth. Though she may be wrinkled and dusty, the elegant bone structure and poise are impossible to hide.

Havana

We spent two full days wandering through the streets of Havana, starting with El Capitolio Nacional, which looks quite similar to its counterpart in Washington, D.C. It ceased functioning as a government building after the Cuban Revolution, housing the Cuban Academy of Sciences instead. In 2013, the Cuban government began restoring it to once again house the national assembly. The grand square in front of the structure is one of the widest open spaces in the city.

We quickly wound our way into the busy narrow side streets. It was overcast, but still hot and humid, with occasional rain showers. Fruit vendors were hawking massive lizard-green avocados, and entrepreneurial Cuban women dressed in brilliant colors, adorned with flowers in their hair and a cigar between their teeth, posed for photos — charging a small fee for their coquettish smiles.

Avid foodies, my friend and I were determined to taste as many dishes as possible, not to mention every incarnation of mojito and daiquiri available. When we happened to walk by the salmon-pink façade of Hotel Ambos Mundos, known for its rooftop terrace bar, we hopped in the old-fashioned elevator, bodies pressed into the ornate metal frame. At the top, there are sweeping views of the city and water. Blue plastic cisterns are perched on rooftops, a stone fortress wall visible on the hillside across the water. Cubano sandwiches; fried plantains; lobster; and, of course, mojitos were ordered, photographed, and summarily consumed before heading back to the street for more exploration.

Havana

Narrow streets open into grand plazas like Plaza de la Catedral and Plaza Vieja, the latter surrounded by brightly colored buildings. Top-floor residents lounged on balconies taking in the action, sometimes leaning over the railing to talk to friends below. A line of uniformed school children scurried past, happy to be done with their studies. In the center of the plaza, a fenced-off fountain sat dry, undergoing repairs. A bizarre bronze sculpture by Roberto Fabelo anchors one end of the plaza, featuring a voluptuous bald, naked woman riding a rooster with utter confidence — no doubt, the huge fork leaning against her shoulder like a rifle has inspired good behavior from her feathered steed. Nearby, we procured our allotment of souvenir rum and cigars at the Museo del Ron Havana Club.

Tourists that we were, it was our duty to check off Hemingway beverage stops such as La Bodeguita del Medio, his favorite mojito in Havana, according to the hand-written sign behind the bar, and El Floridita — home of the daiquiri. And one simply must take a ride in a classic convertible at least once while in Havana. They come in every color — pink being the most popular, with red, blue, green, and even purple paint jobs. After such a hot day, the wind whipping past my face, creating a formidable mane out of my long curly hair, felt fantastic.

Havana

Author Julie Arnan in Havana, Photo by Layla Pujol

We spent a couple of hours roaming the artist enclave known as Fusterlandia, after its founder José Fuster. Every surface lining the small street is covered in a rainbow of tiles. Two- and three-dimensional mosaic images and sculptures depicting faces, animals, trees, hearts, mermaids, and every whimsical thing in between fill the courtyard of Fuster’s own residence, like Picasso meets Gaudí with a side of Cuba. This was where I spent the remainder of my souvenir budget, supporting local artists, jewelers, and craftsmen.

On the final day, our group split up between the beach-seekers headed to the resort town of Varadero and the countryside tour that explored the tobacco-growing region of Viñales. Not keen on horseback rides in humidity, I chose a day at the beach. The driver we hired took us on the short detour to Cueva de Saturno before delivering us to Playa Varadero on the Hicacos Peninsula. It couldn’t have been a more perfect setting — soft white sand, warm turquoise ocean with gentle waves, lounge chairs in the shade, and Lucio the “lifeguard” (he wore the red shirt, but never once sat in the chair) delivering beverages. The photos from Viñales looked incredible, but I wouldn’t have traded that beach day for anything.

The most popular season to visit Cuba is January-March. Since my fall 2017 adventure, the U.S. government has made it more difficult to procure a visa for travel to Cuba, and at press time, flights were not originating from the States, so travelers must go through Mexico or another foreign country.

My Travel Must-Haves

YALA Designs
makes organically grown bamboo viscose and cotton clothing.

The Kayla Pant
has a fold-over top, loose-fitting flare leg, and pockets.

The Dara Wrap
Cocoon wrap top with half-length sleeves.

Diniwell Ultra-Large Toiletry Pouch
This 22-inch bag opens all the way up, allowing you to see all your travel essentials at once.

Travelambo Wallet
Fits passports, credit cards, cash and more with RFID-blocking capability to keep your information safe.

Bucky 40 Blinks Sleep Mask
Otherwise known as the “eye bra,” with contoured fit to reduce pressure on the eyes — essential for sleeping on airplanes and in bright environments.

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