From long walks along the Malecon, to many-coursed meals overlooking terraced gardens, to
Cumbia clubs and sixty years of isolation, Cuba orchestrates a world of wonder.
In Cuba’s post Prohibition heyday, Havana was the North American epicenter for excess.
Pleasure seekers from the United States flooded across the border in hot pursuit of
ostentatiously luxurious hotels, the wildest gambling, the most beautiful women and top shelf
live shows, ready to indulge in all that the “Monte Carlo of the Americas” had to offer.
In the quiet of the nearly seventy years since former President Batista’s New Year’s escape and
Castro’s rise to power, the country, the people, and the culture have become the stuff of
legends. As the curtains are lifted for its second act, there is no better time to visit than today.
Last February, a group of Departure Lounge clients packed their bags and jetted to experience Cuba
for themselves. The group was diverse. Some had extensive travel experience and aimed to finally
checking Cuba off their bucket lists. Others new to international destinations and cultures, were
a little unsure about what to expect. After a week riding in old cars, exploring cobblestone
streets, and sipping mojitos in wicker chairs like Hemingway, any fears were put to rest.
“Take a bite of everything. Don’t fill up!”
The Cuban hosts weren’t kidding. Seated on the porch of the small farm-to-table paladar a
Rare citizen-run business overlooking the World UNESCO site of Viñales, the group gathered to
share a meal. Big pots filled tiny tables. Guests’ plates heaped with leafy greens, root veggies,
turnips, spicy seasonings, fish, chicken, pork. Mojitos, heavy on the “vitamin R,” flowed.
“Nothing was wasted. They took vegetables and used them in two or three dishes, featured in
one dish, for texture in another, adding flavor in another,” said Joe Draker, from Austin, Texas.
“It was the best dining experience of my life.”
Joe, joined by his wife, Karen, and an intimate group of travelers, sat at roughly hewn wooden
tables on the porch of the small home business, chatting, filling up on local fare and drinking in
the view. Low mountains jutted from lush fields, adding drama to the karstic landscape. In the
distance, the group could see men and women plowing fields, collecting fruit, vegetables,
coffee beans and tobacco. The weather was perfect.The Americans smoked cigars.
“When I first heard about this trip, I said I’d go. I didn’t know much about Cuba, but I’ll go,” said
MK Larson, also from Austin, by way of Iowa. “And then all of the paperwork started coming in
and tips were given out…I wasn’t sure if I could do it. Once there, I was totally blown away.”
Before setting off, happy hours and lectures were organized by Departure Lounge Travel Advisor Gretchen Canter to help travelers make the most of the adventure by learning a little bit about Cuba, and to get to know each other.
“Whenever I go anywhere, it’s really important to me that I understand the history, the culture,
and the politics,” said Gretchen. “Knowing even just a little bit can make all the difference in
having a truly unique experience.”
One event included a specialist in Cuban politics brought in to speak from the University of
Texas at Austin. Another featured a young woman whose college study abroad trip turned into a
life abroad, with a Cuban husband and local business.
“They did a really good job, making sure everyone felt comfortable, and everyone was
accommodated,” said MK. “I got to know people in ways you don’t usually get to know people
and made lifelong friends on that trip.”
The group met in Miami before flying to Havana and arriving one day after the Pope. They hit
the ground running. Over the course of the next week, the explorers visited colorful mosaiced
neighborhoods, national museums and innovative art collaboratives. They wandered through
Hemingway’s Havana home, and learned how to dance and roll cigars Cuban
They drank mojitos. Lots of mojitos.
The Cuba of JFK, Frank Sinatra, and Ernest Hemingway has lay dormant since Fidel Castro
assumed power in early 1959. In the years since then, relations between the United States and
Cuba have been fraught with controversy and tension. Recently, the United States has made
great strides in mending relations with the Pearl of the Antilles, with amendments expanding
travel opportunities and reducing financial barriers.
For all those standing by, the time to visit Cuba is now.
For assistance planning your trip to Cuba contact your Departure Lounge Travel Advisor. If you don’t yet have an advisor, please email [email protected] or call 512.322.9399.
Article By Leslie Canter