Just 90 miles from the tip of Florida, traveling to Cuba feels like entering a time warp. It’s impossible to arrive in Havana and not be swept up in the energy coursing around every corner. Taking in the city– frozen in a bygone era and yet on the cusp of widespread modern change–is an exercise in sensory overload. Beautiful, time-worn colonial buildings crowd the streets like a treasure box brimming with once cherished heirlooms. Locals sit by their doors for hours watching the world pass by–clothes hanging to dry on lines across their balconies above. Antique cars proudly parade the wide boulevards–their glossy, candy-colored paint reflecting the hot sun. Live music spills into the streets as spontaneous dances break out. On the plaza. In the restaurant. At the bar.
Speaking of bars, pick one–any one–and order a mojito. Or a few. Afterwards, you’ll question every other imitation that has ever touched your lips.
Walk through the winding streets of Havana long enough and you’ll start to feel the beat of Africa–distant yet somehow very present. Santeria, the Afro-Caribbean religion that weaves Yoruba beliefs and tradition with Roman Catholicism can be felt throughout Old Havana. You may notice the small colored beads that adorn the necks of many Cubans or stumble upon women dressed in all white and crowned with bursts of colorful head wraps sitting at the street corners, hand rolled cigars in hand. Strike up a conversation and you’ll quickly learn about the Orishas: Eleggua, Yemaya, Oshun, Chango. Perhaps you’ll be invited to visit a shrine to pay your respects.
Once there, you’ll find altars overflowing with offerings and relics–each for a different Orisha. As you take it all in, you might be tempted to pull out your camera to capture the magic and otherworldliness of it all–but not so fast. You’ll quickly be reminded by the Santeros that you are in a sacred place and as such, no photos will be allowed. Instead, she’ll suggest you quietly speak to the Orishas. In that very moment, you’ll be reminded of the importance of reflection and being still. Afterwards, you may be asked to stay awhile to chat. Before you know it, you’ll have a glass in hand as the rum bottle makes its way around the room. It will be your most memorable communion yet.
The longer you stay in Havana, the more you’ll start to notice the juxtapositions. There’s the Floridita–reputed to have been one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite haunts. Then there’s Fabrica de Arte Cubano–an art gallery/concert hall/restaurant/bar hybrid that opened its door to the public in 2014. There’s the Hotel Inglaterra, the oldest hotel in Havana and hard to miss as it commands an entire corner near Parque Central. Also nearby is a newly opened bed and breakfast. You can reserve your room on Airbnb.
Yes, change has indeed arrived in Cuba and with change, there will be growing pains. Will Havana become the next South Beach? Overrun by tourists, Starbucks and glitzy new hotels, top 40 hits drowning out the bolero? Or will it find that perfect balance–preserving its relics and culture while boldly facing the fast approaching new normal?
It’s anyone’s guess.
But one thing is clear–Cuba, along with its people, is resilient and full of life. And that? That will never change.