We didn’t spend the whole trip in those great antique cars. Lots of times, they dropped us off at places for sightseeing adventures, and took us home to our luxe accommodations.
I’ve heard stories about rundown hotels, but we didn’t experience any. In Havana, our group were the only guests in a small, gated guest house with modern, immaculately clean rooms, comfortable beds, a swimming pool and lovely plantings in the classy embassy neighborhood; when we moved to Trinidad, a charming town on the southern coast, we were in somewhat less modern but perfectly comfortable rooms in smaller guest houses.
We had private, en suite bathrooms in both locations. Though in the interest of full disclosure, I probably should mention a couple of quirks of Cuban plumbing you should be aware of before you plan your visit.
As in many parts of Central and South America, the septic systems can’t handle toilet paper. You can use it, but you need to throw it in the trash can next to the toilet. Flushing it is a hard habit to break, and not doing so feels yucky at first, but it’s not that big a deal once you get used to it.
You also get used to the bathroom attendants who dole out the paper in many public facilities. You just need to remember to keep some small change ready to tip them. (And it doesn’t hurt to have a backup packet of tissues on hand in case there’s no one around.)
What are much harder to take in stride are the toilet seats — or rather, the lack of them.
The toilets in our guest rooms had them, but most public facilities lacked seats. Apparently, Cubans don’t really use them and see them as an unnecessary luxury. When our guide hosted us at his home, I noticed that even his family’s toilet lacked one.
I admit, it was a bit disconcerting at first to us hygiene-fixated Americanos to contemplate perching on the narrow toilet rim, but I found a way to make a virtue of it.
My trainer would have been so proud of me practicing my air squats every day.
He also would have been pleased to see me climbing hundreds of stairs (including two flights on one of the scariest, ricketiest spiral staircases I have ever trusted my weight to), sweating my way through a vigorous salsa lesson at the top of those spiral stairs and also easily getting in my 10,000 daily steps as we wandered through Havana’s streets. (At least, I think I got in my 10,000 steps. My Fitbit took our lack of Wi-Fi access harder than I did, and went on strike a few days into the trip.)
It was easy to keep walking, because Havana was fascinating, with numerous old stone buildings in various states of dilapidation and repair. You could really see its colonial past, and practically feel the sweat and tears of the slave labor used to build some of the more magnificent edifices, like the governor’s palace (now a museum) and the fort that guarded the harbor from pirates.
There was also art everywhere, from sculptures in the squares to an entire street featuring Afro-Cuban art made from found materials, to my very favorite place: an enchanting house and neighborhood sculpted and entirely covered in colorful mosaic tiles.
And then there was the world-famous Malecón, Havana’s 5-mile-long sea wall promenade, though I have to admit I found it a tad disappointing. Lonely Planet describes it as “soulful and quintessentially Cuban.” I’m sure it’s just me, but its soulfulness escaped me. My description would be more on the order of “a long gray concrete sidewalk next to a shoulder-high gray concrete wall, with angry waves on the other side doing their best to get you wet” (though I admit it is pretty cool to have the ocean inches from downtown. I just hope global warming doesn’t put it actually downtown sometime soon).
So let me see, what haven’t I told you about yet? I have a feeling I’m leaving something out. What is it? It’s just on the tip of my tongue.
Oh right. The food. Yep, we ate a lot and visited farms and markets. I bet you really want to hear about all that.
But would you look at that — it appears I’ve run out of space for this week. I guess food will have to wait until next time.
Hey, don’t glare at me that way. I warned you that I’d be dragging this out. I’ve got nothing but time.
Leaf-raking season doesn’t start until October.
Although our trip was billed as a culinary one, we had only one cooking “class” — a fairly uninspired demonstration of paella making at one of the city’s best paladars, La Fontana. What was far more interesting was the terrific session with the restaurant’s stellar mixologist, Ariel, that preceded it.
We sampled this classic and refreshing Cuban cocktail at other places (including the truly dreadful one at the famous Hotel Nacional, which was made with lemon-lime soda — ugh!), but this mojito was the best of all. I think the secret is his nontraditional addition of Angostura bitters.
1 tsp. sugar
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1-2 large sprigs mint*
2 ounces white rum**
2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
In a tall glass, mix the lime juice and sugar together briskly to dissolve the sugar. Add the mint and stir it around vigorously to bruise the leaves. Add the rum and stir again, then fill the glass with ice and top up the drink with soda water. Add the bitters, stir and serve.
*In Cuba, they use a mint called yerba buena, which is very similar to, but slightly different from our mint.
**For a variation, substitute aged rum.