Charming… Adventurous… Colorful… Exciting… Exotic… Mysterious… Musical… Passionate…
Everything they say about Cuba is true. It’s a country whose heart is best seen and felt through its people.
My sons and I spent six full days in Havana and only scratched the surface of Cuba’s history, music, art and cuisine. My 11- and 15-year-old were the only kids in our group but they loved every minute of it – especially their genuine interactions with the locals. Both kids worked hard on their Spanish and got a kick out of staying up late in the clubs. Morgan, my oldest, spent an hour at a restaurant helping to grind sugar cane for cocktails and even “sat in” with an guitarist on a street corner one afternoon.
Our first nighttime walk through Old Havana hooked us. Voices, music and delicious aromas fill the air. Friendly Cubans are walking, talking, eating and hanging out in cafes, stoops and in the surprisingly dark streets (there seemed to be few streetlights or lit-up buildings) but we felt very welcome and safe the whole time. There was little danger of street crime in Havana compared to being in a major European city.
Morgan took an unsanctioned walk out of a downtown café and ended up with a few good stories to tell but no hassles. Jonah, my youngest, ended up needing fluids after a bout of heatstroke one night. Every doctor and nurse in the spotless hospital spoke fluent English. The treatment was completely professional, effective and free – the upside of a socialist health system. The downside? Lots of crumbling pre-Soviet-era infrastructure.
Any worries I had that the boys would not be able to understand the significance of our visit to Cuba vanished upon arrival. Even though they’ve traveled quite a bit, both kids “got” the fact that this trip was something very special. Over the course of our week (see our day-by-day itinerary below), we all had crash courses in history (from Spanish exploration to the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis to the prison at Guantanamo Bay), socioeconomic/political theory (communism, socialism, Marxism and democracy), music (jazz, big band and Afro-Cuban), literature (Hemingway and his contemporaries), dance (danzón, mambo, cha-cha and salsa) Caribbean commodity production (rum and cigars), baseball (and how disappointed Cubans are that they can’t watch their exported MLB stars play on TV), and organized crime (from piracy to the mafia.)
We visited Havana in June 2015, just days prior to the U.S. re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Our trip was organized as part of a “cultural exchange” with a group of 24 other Americans, which was required of all U.S. travelers at that time. The process of booking the trip took two months – but it was absolutely worth the effort.
If you ever wanted to visit Cuba, the time is now! (Click here to read how one family visited Cuba on their own). Even though the rest of the world has been visiting Cuba for decades, the fact that Americans can now officially travel to the country independently will change the experience dramatically. U.S. travel agents are booking massive blocks of rooms and tours in anticipation of a flood people wanting to see what had been a “forbidden” land. A friend who visited with our group in June returned to Cuba in October 2015 and was shocked to find prices for some tourist services – most obviously, taxis and meals – had increased three- to five-fold.
That said, no American wants to visit Cuba for the low prices. The bigger concern is the potential for rapid Westernization that will certainly have an impact on the culture. Today, you can wander streets without garish signs and drive roads with no billboards. The flashiest things on the streets of Havana are the clothes and the cars – and that’s a very good thing.
Our Week in “Old” Havana – The Itinerary
Day 1 – El Malecón
We checked into The Nacional, one of the most historical properties in the city. Walking in is like stepping back into the 1950s – in a good way. (The rooms and pool area have also been preserved in time, which we loved but bothered some guests, given the room rates.) The Nacional is built atop a hill and an old Spanish Fort, providing a splendid view of the Havana Harbor, the famous seaside boulevard, the Malecón, and the rest of the city.
We dove straight into the depth of Cuban music at its Salon 1930 club. It hosts live music every night featuring some of the founding members of the Buena Vista Social Club, Legends.com orchestra, the Afro Cuba All Stars and dancers. It’s an amazing show of dance and Cuban rhythms. You can buy tickets at the tourism desk. Even though my kids were the only ones at this show, they loved it! At night we strolled the city and enjoyed the streets bursting with life.
Day 2 – Old Havana
We spent today in the core of Old Havana. We started at the famed Calle Obispo. It has no car traffic and lots of tourists, but it’s worth experiencing at least once. We got a kick out of the Camera Obscura, a gift from Spain perched on the top floor of a 20th century building. It was created as a tribute to photography and those artists who have captured Havana in a different light and the world a glimpse into the heart of Cuba. We visited the Rum Museum where learned a bit about the history of the label and saw the Cuban rum making process. We got a glimpse of the other side’s version of history at the Revolution Museum.
Day 3 – Havana
We began our day with a visit to one of Havana’s oldest and most famous cigar factories, Tabacos Partagas. There are about 400 workers there who work up to 10- or 12-hour days rolling the famed Cuban cigars.
We continued with our immersion into Cuban culture in the town of Cojimar, just outside Havana, and began our study of Hemingway, his influence and why Cuba loved him so. We went to his home, the Finca Vigía, saw the harbor where he kept his boat and met his lifelong friend who inspired The Old Man and The Sea which played a large part in his 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Then we salsa-ed! We learned the classic Latin American dance from a professor at a local dance studio. After our salsa lesson, we went to a Community Project called Compas Dance. Their presentation of live music has a strong percussion base and gave us a glimpse into the rich musical culture and talent of the Cuban people.
Day 4 – The Nacional
Today we relaxed and enjoyed the unique storied atmosphere of The Nacional. It’s historic tour is a must. It takes 20-30 minutes and is offered 1-2 times a day – or anytime you can find the groundkeeper with the key to the underground tunnels which date from the Spanish era’s days when the promontory was a fort.
We also lounged poolside for a bit. The hotel has two pools, one with a snack bar and the other that boasted to be the deepest in Cuba in 1930. The actor Johnny Weissmuller, the original Tarzan and champion swimmer, made quite a show of jumping into the pool from the second story balcony! In 1946, The Nacional hosted the “Havana Conference,” one of the most famous “mob summits” in history when American and Italian mafia bosses met to talk business. In 1960, the golden age of Cuba tourism ended as the revolutionaries took over and used the property for many militia and party gatherings. In the afternoon, we went to a beautiful local beach about an hour or so away from the hotel. The water was so clear you could easily see 15 meters down.
After a relaxing day, we had a big night at the Parisienne Cabaret. One of Cuba’s most popular cabarets right in The Nacional and half the price of the famed Tropicana, “Cubano Cubano” is a fusion of Indoamerican, Hispanic and African cultures that mix and flourish in Cuba. The Nacional has music playing daily in the various bars, restaurants and beautiful outside sitting area. Music is such a big part of the Cuban culture and it is great to be able to experience so much of it before stepping off the property. We heard various Cuban styles from bands such as “Sabor de Cuba,” “Constellation,” “Frequency Tropical,” and various trio musicians.
Day 5 – Modern Havana
We walked through John Lennon park, Callejon de Hamell and Barrio Chino (Cuban’s China town). We went to Jaimanitas to tour the community project of the artist Fuster who has turned even his home into an expression of art. We also dined and enjoyed live salsa at the famous Hotel Inglaterra, the oldest hotel in Cuba.
Day 6 – Hemingway’s Old Havana
We went back to Old Havana and spent most of the day taking photos, going into shops and restaurants and enjoying Havana’s historic beverages – ahem – culture. We dined for lunch at La Bodeguita, Hemingway’s destination for what is likely the best Mojito anywhere. We had more refreshments later at El Floridita, Hemingway’s bar, where he spent a great deal of time enjoying the Papa Hemingway grapefruit daquiri.
Since the economic reforms of 1993, there are many fabulous paladares (privately owned restaurants) in Havana. The food is amazing and the presentations rival that of any five-star restaurant in the US. One of our favorite paladares was La Guarida, the setting for the movie Strawberry and Chocolate (1993). What makes the paladares so cool is the atmosphere: The law says all must be situated in residential settings. La Guarida is on the third floor of a multifamily building. From our seats, we witnessed the bustle of daily Cuban life and our last sunset over Havana – but only for this trip. We’re absolutely returning to Cuba someday very soon.
by Jodi Glasser, February 2016
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Keywords: family vacation, family travel, travel with kids, family vacation to Cuba, cuba with kids, havana with kids, summer vacation in cuba