How to Plan A Custom Trip to Cuba – Part 1
There are so many great reasons to travel to Cuba! It’s exciting to look at all the points of interest, from UNESCO World Heritage sites to the best place to have a mojito. I will share with you over a group of blogs some of the top things to consider when planning a custom trip to Cuba. In this blog, we will go over some initial recommendations for exciting things to do while in Cuba. I will also introduce you to foods to eat and where to dine while in Havana.
What Not to Miss When Visiting Cuba
There are a lot of places to go to and things to experience while in Cuba. Unless you have an unlimited amount of time, it is crucial to create a full agenda when visiting Cuba. Starting with the basics, you may want to begin in the City of Havana. The 500-year-old city is one of the oldest in America. As such, it is rich in history and culture. Two of my most memorable experiences in Havana were the 9 p.m. Cañonazo Ceremony at the San Carlos de La Cabaña Fortress in Havana and observing the convergence of religion, art, and music in Cuba walking through the Callejón de Hamel.
9 p.m. Cannon Ceremony in Havana
The tradition of the Cañonazo or the Cannon Ceremony in Havana dates to the 18th century. It started as a way to let city dwellers know that the gates to the city were closing for the evening to keep the population safe from thieves and other undesirable characters. Today, the ceremony continues to be held at the fortress and has become a tradition. As you enter the fortress at dusk, take a few moments to explore its historical artifacts, dimly lit passages, and inspiring nighttime views.
The ceremony starts with a group of men volunteering for the role of soldiers marching in and chanting. The soldiers are all dressed in period uniforms. As they walk in, they also bear torches, to maintain the feel of the period when this tradition started. As onlookers of the ceremony quiet down and lean in to see what is happening, there is a sudden moment of silence and expectation. Then, the cannon shot is fired, breaking that silence and surprising spectators. I would know I almost dropped my phone. For other nighttime ideas, you may also want to consider an evening stroll through the historic center of Havana.
Music, Art & Religion at The Callejón de Hamel
Whether you are religious or not, when visiting Cuba, it is essential to gain an understanding of its religion. Cuba has Spanish, African, Caribbean, and Asian roots. During the time of the conquistadores, African slaves were brought to Cuba to work the land. Their immigration brought to the island their music, their traditions, and their religion. As they were not able to worship their gods, they syncretized or had an equivalent Catholic figure for each of their Yoruba deities, known as the Orishas. African immigrants also brought with them their music. The son and the salsa, traditional Cuban dances, have deep roots in African beats! To get a glimpse of how culture, religion, and music all come together, you need to take a walk down the Callejón de Hamel in Havana.
Close to noontime on a Sunday, make your way to this colorful alley. As you walk in, look around and take a few moments to explore everything within your site. You will see unusual art displays made with unexpected elements such as bathtubs. You will also see poetry and quotes along the walls. Stop along in the way in the small shops, galleries, and stands along the alley. Those who practice the Yoruba religion will be more than happy to share insight about the different gods, the elements, and the colors that represent each one. It is fascinating. Another vital component in the Callejón will be the music and the crowd that gathers to sing and dance to live performers in the alley. Don’t be shy and join the fun! You may want to consider combining the visit to the Callejón de Hamel with an exploration of Cuban rum, cigars, and art.
Traditional Foods to try when visiting Cuba
I am a big food lover. One of my favorite ways to take in culture is through its food. With Cuba being such a blend of cultures and backgrounds, it is an exciting place to experiment and to try different flavors. Cubans enjoy a good table and home-cooked meals. As you make your way through Cuba, you will see that there are some traditional dishes that you must try.
First, is the flavorful Ropa Vieja. It is a meat-based dish that consists of shredded beef, sometimes tossed with peppers and olives. The recipe and the seasonings may vary slightly from place to place, but regardless of where you try this dish, you will not be disappointed. Next, we have sides of rice, beans, and fried plantains. Cubans have a way of cooking beans that is unlike any other I have tried. The magic is in the seasonings and surprise ingredients. Depending on the cook, some recipes may include red peppers, bacon, brown sugar, and other interesting twists. The consistency of the beans may also vary from watery to drier.
My favorite part is dessert! Traditional Cuban desserts may include a caramel custard called Flan, rice pudding, or cascos de guayaba (Guava pieces) with natural cheese or cream cheese. To close a typical meal with a lively twist, you may want to know that Cuba is said to be the birthing place for the Mojito and the Daiquirí. Both are rum-based drinks. The Mojito combines rum, lime juice, and some mint leaves to garnish. The ingredients of the Daiquirí are rum, simple syrup, and lime juice. To learn more about tradition Cuban fare, be sure to check out the blog The Essential Guide to Enjoy Food Like a Cuban.
Where to Eat in Havana
Cuba has an enticing breadth of options when it comes to cuisine. One distinction to be made with local eateries is the difference between a restaurant and a paladar. Restaurants are known as establishments that are owned by the local government. A paladar is a privately owned and operated restaurant. Local restaurants and paladares offer a variety of options and range from rustic and traditional to fusion and contemporary. Some of my favorite spots during a past trip to Havana were Paladar Doña Eutimia, Mediterráneo Havana, and El Cocinero.
Paladar Doña Eutimia is in Plaza de la Catedral, one of the famous squares in Old Havana. It is a cozy, casual, and charming place with traditional Cuban cuisine. Here the Ropa Vieja and the frituritas de malanga (Fried malanga) are delicious. The wait staff is very attentive and accommodating. I would highly recommend a stop here while touring the area for traditional Cuban fare. Another recommendation for those who enjoy the freshest ingredients is Mediterráneo Havana.
Mediterráneo Havana is in the neighborhood of Vedado, in what used to be a house in the area. This paladar was the first to offer farm to table cuisine to ensure the freshest ingredients. As a dessert person, I loved their creamy vanilla ice cream. They also prepare fantastic charcuterie boards with natural hams and cheeses. Other delightful features are their fresh pesto and tomato-based sauces. Mediterráneo is an excellent choice for those who like a casual setting, combined with an al-fresco dining experience. To gain even more insight on this organic food movement in Cuba, something interesting to consider would be an immersive farm to table experience excursion. If you prefer a more contemporary ambiance with innovative cuisine, El Cocinero might be right for you.
El Cocinero is a modern fusion take on Cuban cuisine. After ascending through a winding staircase, the open terrace level of the venue offers a great view of the sunset and the Havana skyline. This paladar has very eclectic décor, with vintage-inspired glasses and modern iron fixtures. Their cuisine and presentation are exquisite. Their menu varies. During my visit, I had what they call a tambor, which is a drum-shaped layered cake, made of boniato, as well as a delicious chocolate cake to close. This place is ideal for dinner right before visiting the trendy Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC), which is right around the corner.
Working with A Travel Agency
With so many things to do in Cuba, an experienced agency such as OnCuba Travel can be your best guide to planning a dream trip. Their team members will save you a lot of time and research when putting together a custom program by making recommendations that align with your budget, schedule, and travel plans. They will also assist you in putting together the requirements to travel legally to Cuba from the U.S. Whether you need a visa, additional information to determine which of the 11 categories for travel is the best for you and your group, roundtrip flights, transfers, or pickup of your car rental at the airport in Havana, the team on OnCuba Travel can help.
Cuban Cigars & Rum
Two of the things that come to mind when thinking about Cuba are cigars and rum. Cuba produces some of the best tobacco in the world. The country is also a top producer of Habanos. Connoisseurs, aficionados, and celebrities gather every year in Havana to attend the annual Habanos Festival. In 2020 the City of Havana will be hosting the 22nd annual festival.
Being the home of the Mojito and the Daiquirí, both rum-based drinks, Cuba is also famous for its signature rum and rum-making history. On the next blog, we will be exploring more about the history of the festival in Cuba, the history of tobacco production, and how to make the most out of the festival period to cover points of interest during a visit to Cuba.