soooo I'm back from a week long trip to cuba with my mom and the world affairs council of atlanta! what a trip. words can only scratch the surface of the experience, it was truly an unforgettable time. as a travel delegation from the world affairs council, our programming was policy focused. given the pending changes between the US and cuba, it was just such a great time to go!
if you've been living under a rock, US and cuba relations have been a huge focus lately - obama and raul castro recently met, hopefully the embargo will be lifted in the near future in what's been termed the "cuban thaw." many people never thought they'd see that happen within their lifetimes. with all of this political excitement, my mom and I have been anticipating this trip for months - really since the day we signed up back in november. there is truly way too much information to share in just several posts, so here we go with day by day highlights and overviews of our trip! click here for some cuban cha cha to set the mood, I can't get this song out of my head...
we started our day in atlanta with a 7am flight to miami. once in miami, we boarded a charter american airlines flight to jose marti airport in havana. under normal diplomatic relations, this could've been a short flight directly from atlanta to havana - instead it took us almost the entire day to make the two trips in order to fly charter legally to cuba.
from the airport, we headed to the hotel after picking up our bags from the super slow baggage claim. the airport itself is an experience - there were tons of passengers with huge flat screen TVs they brought from the states for cuban relatives or other willing buyers. it was unlike anything I've ever seen before, with dozens of massive TVs waiting at baggage claim. the view from our tour bus to the hotel included tons of old american chevys, busy streets, and billboards featuring revolutionary propaganda.
first things first, we checked into our hotel. we stayed at hotel parque central by iberostar, the best ranked hotel in havana. I affectionately named it the cuban louvre due to its odd glass diamond-shaped ceiling. the lobby was constantly buzzing with people and filled with music and cigar smoke. the lobby is the only place guests can get wifi so this fosters massive crowds of people - along with the decadent free breakfast that lasts until 10am daily with complimentary mimosas. there was never a dull moment in this lobby as tourists from all different countries continued to pour in. rumour has it, the hotel is booked all the way past april 2016!
we cleaned up a bit and headed to a conference room for our first speaker series with an urban planner. we learned that 80% of havana was built from 1950-1958. approximately three houses collapse per day and the cuban government pays to relocate the inhabitants. while housing is guaranteed free for all cubans, the people are responsible for all upkeep within the four walls of the house. however, no one feels responsible to maintain the exterior of the houses. in most cases, the government does not pay for upkeep and most cubans don't have enough money to spend on the exteriors of their homes.
after listening to this great opening dialogue to kick off the trip, we ventured out to our first dinner as a group at el cocinero. this cool spot is located in an old cooking oil factory in vedado and the ambiance was dare I say, pretty posh, for what I initially expected of the cuban restaurant scene.
el cocinero features an awesome upper deck patio bar area, gorgeous outdoor seating with an industrial chic atmosphere, and three flights of winding stairs.
ok talk about ambiance... this beautiful outdoor scenery and eclectic table settings made me melt. this was only the beginning of my love affair with cuban table settings [I'm serious], you'll definitely see this as a constant observation throughout my trip. after exploring the bars and climbing the three flights of stairs to the lookout area, we came back downstairs and sat down to dinner. we were greeted with our very first cuban mojitos of the trip!
we ended the meal with their famous chocolate tarte, which was served cold. I'm not a huge fan of desserts at restaurants but throughout the trip, all of our meals came with dessert and I became pretty accustomed to it- this very first dessert turned out to be the best of the trip and the majority of the other restaurants served flan.
after enjoying our first meal in havana and feeling pretty festive after several mojitos, we walked next door to FAC - fabrica de arte cubano. FAC is a fusion of art and culture within a nightclub. I could've spent a considerable amount of time here but since it was our first night, we were all pretty tired and headed home early.
FAC features all different mediums of art - from clothing, to prints, to 3d, you name it. immediately, my mom spotted a gorgeous, silk, hand-printed dress in one of the concept shop in shops - she tried it on and had to have it! the artist came over and met my mom in person and was so thankful for her business. it was a really gratifying experience to meet the artist and see just how happy she was to make a sale. we also gave our spanish language skills a try and they reduced the price for us.
overall it was a great first day - click here to read havana day two!