Just after arriving in Havana, we made a beeline for La Bodeguita del Medio, the bar where the Mojito was invented.
The bartender deftly built a round of drinks using mint, sugar, lime and Havana Club white rum. He plucked both the ice and the neon-hued straws with small metal tongs.
In Cuba, a good bartender never touches the components of your drink.
Every inch of the wooden bar top was etched with names, memories from generations past. In the corner of the bar, a lively band played traditional music, and sweet smoke from slender cigars sold at the bar wafted into the humid evening air, mingling with the bracing scent of crushed mint.
Cuba is not an airbrushed theme park—and that’s part of the appeal.
It was just a drink, really. But it was also a moment that symbolized what Havana would come to mean to me: a warm, rum-soaked embrace, with heritage and history built into every corner of the city, right down to that well-worn bar.
As 50 years of trade and travel restrictions start to lift, Americans are flocking to Cuba again. It’s not an airbrushed theme park, and that’s part of the appeal. Amid ramshackle, graffiti-covered buildings and classic cars, the rough edges make it all the more beautiful.
Planning a trip to Havana? Here’s what you need to know. Keep in mind that things are still changing, so double-check before you head out.
A handful of airlines, including American Airlines and JetBlue, offer direct flights from the U.S. Flights also run to Cuba from Canada, Mexico and some Caribbean islands. You won’t find these flights on travel discount sites yet. Your best bet is to book though a travel agency.
Who can go
Right now, U.S. citizens who travel to Cuba must fall under the umbrella of “Purposeful Travel.” The 12 categories include journalistic activity, family visits and educational “people-to-people” trips. Until visitation is opened more broadly, check with your travel agent to be sure that your visit fits into one of the approved categories, which is required to obtain a visa.
Where to stay
Havana has a shortage of hotel rooms, although there’s a spate of hotel construction. The venerable Hotel Nacional de Cuba and the newer Melia chain are among the best options. In June, Starwood opened Four Points Havana, the first American hotel chain to open in 50 years. Many travelers also use Airbnb to stay in private homes.
Expect to be unplugged most of the time. Try to enjoy it.
Pack cash, and lots of it. American credit cards don’t work in Cuba, nor will you see ATMs. But you can exchange dollars or euros for Cuba’s tourist currency, the CUC (pronounced “kook”), at the airport or lobby of your hotel.
Internet access is limited at best. Outside of your hotel, WiFi will be nonexistent. Neither Gmail nor Skype are supported in Cuba. Expect to be unplugged most of the time. Try to enjoy it.
Taxis will get you where you need to go. You can splurge on rides in American classic autos hired out as taxis (called almendron), but regular taxis are available, too. However you’re getting around, be sure to cruise the Malecon, the long wall along the waterfront where everyone comes to enjoy the view (and a beer), especially after dark.
Master of Rum
Asbel Morales is the maestro del ron Cubano (master of Cuban rum) for Havana Club, the iconic brand he describes as “the big brother of all the rum in Cuba.”
As might be expected from someone born into a home literally overlooking a rum distillery in Santo Domingo, he takes rum quite seriously. After years of apprenticeship and earning a degree in chemical engineering, he was granted the maestro del ron title in 2007.
Havana Club 3 Year Old is the label you’ll see poured most often. This white rum goes into mojitos, Ron Collinses, El Presidentes and daiquiris. These are prepared by cantineros, Cuba’s mixologists.
He spends a significant portion of his life near the barrels, observing how the rum changes from year to year, deciding when the time is right for blending and bottling.
Rum making is a way of life, he says. “You live all your life as if you want to marry the rum, and defend the rum until you die.”
Cuba’s rum culture
Although rum isn’t the only spirit you’ll spy on shelves here, it’s intertwined with Cuba’s heritage, and you’ll find plenty of excellent varieties (and rum-based cocktails) to try.
Distilled from sugarcane-based molasses and aged for a minimum of two years (even the white rums, which have the color filtered out), Cuba’s rum style is rich, caramel-forward and ideal for sipping.
Havana Club 3 Year Old is the label you’ll see poured most often. This white rum goes into Mojitos, Ron Collinses (like a Tom Collins, but using rum), El Presidentes and daiquiris. These and other refreshing cocktails are prepared by cantineros, Cuba’s equivalent to mixologists.
“You live all your life as if you want to marry the rum, and defend the rum until you die.” —Asbel Morales, maestro del ron Cubano
If you’re looking for a bottle to sip or bring home, look for Havana Club’s Selección de Maestros (about $40), a special bottling made with barrels selected by maestro roneros (master distillers), with aromas of chocolate, caramel and sweet tobacco.
You’ll find plenty of other labels, too. One of my favorite finds was Santiago de Cuba’s 12-year-old bottling. It’s viscous and warm with toffee, honey and a long espresso- and clove-accented finish.
While Cuba’s food is complex and nuanced, unlike many Caribbean cuisines, it’s generally not spicy. Look for privately owned restaurants called paladares, which range from comfortable and cheerful to eclectic grandeur, and where the food often delights with surprising touches. Visitors to Cuba will be well fed.
Among our favorite dishes: charcoal-grilled chicken at El Aljibe, served family-style with a heaping dish of plantains on the side. Try the meltingly tender ropa vieja (a traditional pulled beef and tomato dish), onion-rich vaca frita (“fried beef”) and chicken soup adorned with picture-perfect fresh vegetables at El Rum Rum de La Habana, in the Viejo Habana (Old Havana) neighborhood. Savor the colorful ceviche and tuna tiradito (slices of raw fish, in this case brightened with apple vinaigrette and cubes of mango) at La Guarida, hidden in a charmingly dilapidated townhouse built circa 1903.
Look for private restaurants called paladares, which range from comfortable and cheerful to ecletic grandeur, and where the food delights.
A word about wine: You’ll find plenty here, but order with care, as climate controlled wine storage is rare. In particular, Chilean and Spanish reds abound. An extensive, well-cared-for wine selection at El Cocinero, a paladar in the upscale Vedado neighborhood, was a pleasant surprise. Bonus: It’s down the block from late-night hotspot Fábrica del Arte Cubano, which is also well worth a visit. We can see wine culture making strides in Havana in the next few years. But for now, beer or rum is your best bet for a reliably good drink.
See Food Diet
At El Rum Rum de La Habana, a generous sampling of three ceviches preceded luscious grilled lobster tail, or a warming chicken soup ahead of the vaca frita. Just snacking? Plenty of chicharrones to be found on the street. Meanwhile, just beyond the fortress walls of Morro Castle are arguably the best piña coladas in all of Havana.