Just Back From: Havana
Attorney-turned-photographer Luisa Bonachea's relationship with Cuba boils down to family.
Her mother grew up in Havana, where her family owned TV and radio stations (the CMQ, now the ICRT). They left Cuba in 1960 immediately after their properties and business were expropriated and her grandfather made a televised speech criticizing the regime. Her mother's family home in the capital is now the residence of the Bulgarian ambassador.
Her paternal grandfather was born in the 1870s and was in a concentration camp during the war of independence from Spain in 1898. He was in the army for many years and retired in the 1930s to farm in Palmira outside Cienfuegos. Her father was raised on the farm and worked at the nearby hydroelectric plant. He left Cuba in 1967 when he was 30 years old after several stints in prison for his political activities.
Although these are her parents' stories, she's fascinated by them and loves to meet people who remember them.
So, what brought you to Havana? The Havana Biennial Art Exhibition, family, a piano, sunshine, and mojitos.
Was it your first time? No, I've been a few times to visit family. Ideally, I'd like to go once a year.
What was the best tip you got before you left? When you exchange U.S. dollars in Cuba, you are charged an additional service fee, so a friend suggested that I bring Canadian dollars or American Express traveler’s checks for a better rate. Also, I came across articles on recently-opened paladares (privately-owned restaurants) in the New York Times and the Guardian which I found helpful.
How did you get there? I flew from Los Angeles. There are direct LAX-HAV flights on Tuesdays, but most flights for US citizens traveling with licenses leave from Miami. I usually travel on a family license, but this year I traveled on an educational license with the Cuban Artists Fund.
Where did you stay? I stayed with family for a week and at the Hotel Nacional for the second part of my trip. The Hotel Nacional is a beautiful landmark right on the Malecon, but the rooms are stodgy and run-down. I highly recommend staying at a casa particular (home stay with a Cuban family) or one of the newer boutique hotels like Terral or San Felipe.
What did you do? When I wasn't wandering around Old Havana, marveling at the city’s dilapidated architectural gems, meeting artists at their studios and admiring their installations at the Biennial venues, visiting my parents’ homes, or dancing, I was searching for my uncle's piano.
My uncle (mom's brother, my namesake) was a concert pianist. He died 30 years ago. There are only two Steinways in Cuba, and his is one of them. It's beautiful. My cousin, who I was traveling with, wanted photos of the instrument for a play she just finished writing about our family.
This was especially great: The Biennial, its participants, and how it incorporated the remarkable surroundings of Havana to display the artwork. I also enjoyed noticing certain changes since my last visit — especially the recently-permitted small businesses popping up around the island, like florists, churro vendors, or manicurists.
But this wasn’t: Cuban efficiency. Getting anything done in Cuba can seem impossible at times, especially when you don't have a cell phone or internet. One thing that was particularly daunting was renting a car without a reservation.
Let’s talk about stuff.
1. Glad you packed: Vitamins, aspirin, spices, used clothing, sneakers, electronics, flash drives, everything else I gave away. The average salary in Cuba is about $20 a month. There is a need for just about everything.
2. Wish you’d packed: All my friends who want to see the country.
3. Didn’t need: A sweater.
4. Brought back: Shhh...it's a secret, but let's just say it reminds me of my father. Also bought some maracas, claves, and a sweet-smelling jasmine perfume from La Habana 1791.
Speed round of favorites.
1. Meal or meals: Definitely recommend eating at paladares over state restaurants, where the food is bland and service abysmal. Although it's a trek and there is plenty of room for improvement, there is a great new spot on an organic farm in Mantilla called Divino which may be Cuba's first attempt at farm-to-table dining.
2. Neighborhood to explore: Old Havana, Old Havana, Old Havana! Get lost walking around the cobblestoned streets. Soak in the former elegance of the Paseo del Prado. Take a stroll along the Malecon at dusk. I also love exploring the gorgeous mansions and tree-lined streets in the Vedado and Miramar district where my mother grew up.
3. Site/place/thing you did: Most of the highlights were related to the Biennial, including the amazing performance art backwards conga line down the Paseo del Prado by Los Carpinteros, the twenty or so brilliant installations along the Malecon for the Detras del Muro exhibition curated by Juan Delgado, and more fantastic artwork displayed in the former prison cells at La Cabaña near the Morro, as well as the grand Gran Teatro, PabExpo, and Cuba Pavillion.
4. Cafe/casual hangout: Splurge for drinks at the rooftop of the Parque Central for a gorgeous view of the city or a mojito at the terrace of the Hotel Nacional. Sitting on the Malecon at dusk (and later) is also a hugely popular local favorite hang-out.
What’s the local specialty? When it comes to food, you must try staples like ropa vieja, picadillo, yuca frita, and frituritas de malanga.
But the Cubans really shine when it comes to music. The most famous jazz venues are La Zorra y El Cuervo and the Jazz Cafe. Check out a show at the Gato Tuerto or Centro Bertel Brecht in Vedado, rumba on Sunday afternoons at the Callejon de Hammel, or salsa at the Casa de la Musica. Your best bet is to ask around to see what’s playing each night. Also try to catch a dance performance by the Lizt Alfonso Dance Company, seamlessly blending flamenco, salsa and ballet.
Were you there for the right amount of time? Twenty days was great, but still wish I'd been there longer.
One thing/place you didn't get to visit, but wanted to: I'd love to explore Baracoa on the east coast of the island. Next trip.
What’s the #1 tip you’d give a friend who wanted to go? Bring cash (there are no ATMs), talk to the locals, and drink as many mojitos as you can. Be flexible because nothing goes as planned in Cuba.
Any surprises? Falling in love with Havana even more than I already was.
To learn more about travel licenses, go to treasury.gov.
B.Y.O. everything — starting with a first aid kit.