I miss Cuba. When it comes to traveling—even from Fort Myers to Naples—I’m practically agoraphobic, and my comfort zone barely stretches beyond my sofa. So one would think that a journey to Havana would put me in full panic mode. After all, first there’s the harrowing journey across Alligator Alley, then the frenzied bundle of stress that makes the Miami International Airport what it is, then the flight south across the Atlantic in an airless, claustrophobic, metal tube—meaning a charter jet that doesn’t offer WiFi OR serve liquid courage—and ultimately the landing (for my first time ever) in a foreign country. And yet, I truly miss Cuba and absolutely can’t wait to return.
I’m not what one would call a world traveler, and, in fact, I’ve had a passport for only a little over a year. I finally broke down and got one because there was always the “what if” factor. What if I finally had the opportunity to experience someplace other than the United States? My unused passport stayed tucked away and boringly pristine until my recent adventure to Cuba, and I love that its first and only stamp (so far) is from a country that we severed ties in with 1959, before I was even a glint in my father’s eye.
For 50 years, under Fidel Castro’s rule, it was difficult at best for American tourists to travel to Cuba. But, everything changed in 2015 when the U.S. ventured there and began the reestablishment of relations with the communist country. These days, Americans are happily traveling there—including plenty of my friends.
Fort Myers chef and restaurateur Gloria Jordan d’Cabral has been taking tour groups to her native Cuba once a month for over a year now. Gloria and I are good friends, so she’s been excited to show me her beloved Havana, where she was born and raised—but she also knows how attached I am to my sofa. “Come on!” she’s urged me in her thick, charming accent almost every time I see her. “Let me show you Cuba! It’s beautiful—dancing, music, art—everything you love!” Just hearing the fabulous way Gloria rolls her Rs would make you want to break out into a salsa and rush to Cuba.
With every tour group that Gloria took to her native country, I knew at least one, if not several, travelers—so, I found myself suffering from severe social media envy as they posted their photos to Facebook. Sitting on the lonely perch of my sofa, I saw beautiful beaches, antique cars in mint condition, mouthwatering food, lots of mojitos and loads of happy smiles.
Before I knew it, I was signed up with a group of 12 other local folks for a four-day Cuban adventure—Ms. Adventure’s biggest adventure to date.
Our journey started at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m. for a 6:30 a.m. van departure to the Miami airport, where the sting of rising before dawn and drowsily struggling through the hectic airport was happily soothed by potent morning margaritas at the bar outside of our gate—and by the news that we’d been upgraded to first class.
Gloria had prepared us that to go to Cuba is to travel back in time 50 years or more—and she was right. We landed at the Jose Marti International airport before noon (the flight was barely 45 minutes) and descended the stairs of the plane into the busy, un-air-conditioned airport, originally built in 1930. Female airport employees wore short khaki mini-skirts and lacy black tights, almost as if they’d just emerged from an early ’80s music video. Our chauffeur and chariot for the next three and a half days were friendly driver Alberto and his big ’70s-style white van with five rows of seats (and plenty of air-conditioning to go around).
I have to confess that I tend to be a lollygagger. But, with such a short time to see such a big city, I had to learn how to pick up my pace, stat. I can still hear Gloria laughing and telling me “Vamos!” (“Let’s go!”) several times a day throughout our trip. After a quick tour of the beautifully renovated baroque-style house we stayed in, it was off to the Hotel Nacional for the most delicious mojitos ever, and for a chance to catch our breath and soak up the beauty of our surroundings. Musicians strolled around the grounds playing traditional Cuban music as peacocks ambled about, and tourists from all over took photos of the pristine Chevys and Fords from the 1950s. Gloria explained that the cars were in such good condition because when Castro took over and relations with the U.S. went stale, the cars that were left there were the only means of transportation many Cubans had. There’s no trading in your vehicle for a new one there, so owners treasure their cars. (At the airport, we noticed several travelers bringing in carburetors and other auto parts from the states—precious cargo, indeed.) We drank, we smoked cigars, and before we knew it, it was time to get ready for dinner (“Vamos!”).
It seemed that virtually everywhere in Havana she took us, the sea parted for Gloria at her old stomping grounds like it would for a rock star. And everyone we met took extra care to warmly welcome us to their country, whether it was Alberto, who always offered me his hand whenever I entered or exited the van; or the old man who lived next door to our house and served as security, always watching, always protecting; or the groups of Cubans who invited us to join them in dance whenever we were somewhere music was playing. Smiles and hugs were abundant. I always felt both safe and welcomed with open arms. It’s as if Cuba has been waiting for more than 50 years to show Americans how much their country means to them. The people were lovely and did their best to make sure we left Havana wanting more.
It was like that at Rio Mar, the waterfront paladar Gloria took us to on our first night. Paladares are mostly family-operated in homes-turned-restaurants. They’re the opposite of government-run eateries and offer an authentic Cuban experience with fresh farm-to-table food, excellent service, reasonable pricing and a vibrant ambience. There aren’t any big signs outside a paladar; you have to be in-the-know, and that’s one of the many advantages of going on a Cuban adventure with a native—especially an insider like Gloria, who specializes in adventures of the culinary kind. There were bottles of wine and a wide variety of choices on the menu, including lamb, duck, octopus, lobster and more. Don’t expect Cuban sandwiches and rice and beans when you travel with a Cuban chef.
Afterward, we hit a couple of clubs for cocktails, and I don’t mind admitting that Ms. Adventure was turning into Ms. Exhausted. But as the constantly energetic Gloria, fueled by strong Cuban coffee, good-naturedly reminded us, “You can sleep when you get back to the States.”
After a few hours of slumber, we were up and out the door the next morning for breakfast at the paladar of one of the two houses our group occupied. Think fresh-squeezed guava juice, fruit plates with papaya, mango and pineapple—all natural, no pesticides or artificial flavorings or GMOs—then eggs and toast and ham and powerful Cuban coffee that was better than a vitamin B12 shot when it comes to energy. We filled up big time at all of our breakfasts so we would need to stop only for an afternoon cocktail before an early dinner, more ultra-caffeinated Cuban coffee and late-night dancing.
Another confession: Besides being a lollygagger, I’m also a bit of an Internet junkie and rely far too heavily on my iPhone for Googling, texting, emailing and Facebook scrolling. But if you’re going to Cuba, get over it—I sure had to. Internet is still relatively sparse there. Certain places (the airport, some hotels) have it, but you’ll need to spend about 3 Cuban dollars for an Internet card that lasts for an hour. There’s so much to see and do that I promise you won’t miss it. Instead you’ll be, for example, seeing the Afro-Cuban musicians we enjoyed on our second day in Callejon de Hamel, a festive alleyway filled with art, music, dancing and color—or Fusterlandia, the gorgeous outdoor gallery of Cuban mosaic artist Jose Rodriguez Fuster, a sensory overload of beautiful, vibrant tiles forming the shapes of mermaids, roosters and masks. Our culinary adventure that night took us to a narrow street in an old Havana neighborhood near the Museum of the Revolution, where we climbed the steep winding stairs of a 200-year-old building to a restaurant that simply goes by the name of its chef, Ivan Chef Justo. I had an unforgettable mango and grilled chicken salad with a cinnamon dressing, followed by the most delicious crab risotto I’ve ever tasted. Not being the most adventurous eater, I’m typically fine with a microwavable bowl of Kraft macaroni and cheese, but after my culinary experience in Cuba, I’m forever spoiled. Then it was (“Vamos!”) back to the house for a quick change and a 10:30 p.m. visit to the legendary Tropicana night club.
Located on a lush estate on the edge of Havana, this outdoor cabaret hosted the likes of Tito Puente, Carmen Miranda, Nat King Cole and Liberace in its heyday. These days, it’s all fit and sexy showgirls and boys showing off elaborate choreography and sparkling costumes—and by sparkling, I mean that some of the scantily clad dancing girls balanced 5-foot-high crystal chandeliers on their heads while wearing impossibly high heels. I sat there sporting my sensible Birkenstocks and watched in awe with my mouth agape. Luckily, there was plenty of Cuban rum flowing to help me forget that I’ll never be able to balance a book on my head, let alone a fully functioning chandelier. After the show, the emcee invited the audience up onto the stage for a dance contest, calling us out by country, as the DJ played an accompanying song to represent each place. Weirdly, America’s song wasn’t Born in the USA or even Sweet Caroline—it was YMCA by the Village People. I briefly wondered if the rest of the world sees the U.S. as a bunch of disco dancers in construction worker, Native American and police costumes. I visited the powder room before we left, and an elderly lady in a blue uniform attended, passing out paper towels and making sure the facilities were in good order. She had a smile and a hello for everyone who walked in, and when I left, I tipped her $5 in U.S. currency. She took the bill, looked down at it and gasped, then looked up again, her eyes wide. At first I thought I’d done something wrong, but there was gratitude all over her face: “Gracias, gracias!” she said. Gloria had told us that U.S. money is very valuable to Cubans, so after that, I started passing out $5 bills as tips for just about everything. The joy I got in return was invaluable and added so much more to my experience. I wanted these people to love Americans as much as they wanted us to love them.
After a night of dancing and a 2 a.m. bedtime, a relaxing day at the beach was in order. That’s exactly what Gloria ordered up, and we kicked back with mojitos, amazing beach massages and an ocean-side picnic complete with fresh lobster.
Our last day, however, was jam-packed as we ventured to Cementario de Cristobal Colon, an enormous, gorgeous cemetery founded in 1876 holding more than 800,000 graves and filled with stunning statues and monuments, and then on to Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s house outside of Havana. It was built atop a hill with a sweeping view of Havana, and it is where Hemingway penned The Old Man and the Sea and much of For Whom the Bell Tolls. From Hemingway’s house, we stopped at a grade school. Gloria had encouraged us to bring little toys, stickers, hair barrettes and Matchbox cars to the children, whose faces lit up with gratitude at such simple little presents. We then toured an art market where I bought my only souvenir: dangly earrings made of bone with “Cuba” engraved in them. I’ve barely taken them off since.
When we boarded the plane for Miami the next morning, I forgot my flying fears after takeoff and wistfully watched as the island of Cuba got smaller and smaller in the distance the higher we climbed into the clouds. For a moment, I felt sadness that this extraordinary country, so full of culture and just 90 miles away, had been denied to us for nearly a generation. But, as I scrolled through the photos I took of my memorable four-day adventure and reflected on the people I encountered in Cuba, I smiled knowing that not only had I been there—I could go back. And it might be sooner than you think. Vamos!