If You’ve Been Dreaming Of A Trip To Cuba, Now Is The Time To Go

“Ladies and Gentleman, welcome to Havana”

You may be the most indifferent-to-government, anti-nationalist kind of American. You may have been born long after 1962 and not give two shakes about the Cuban Missile…whatever. For all you know, the Bay Of Pigs is a barbecue joint. You didn’t hide under desks or wet newspaper. What do you care if Fidel Castro is still alive?

I’m not here to stand for or against any particular agenda or outlook. I didn’t come to argue ideologies. All I’m saying is that when your plane lands and the flight attendant chimes in with those six words, you feel it. Just like hearing “I love you” for the first time, you can’t explain why the particular arrangement of syllables affects you. They just do. Things are going to be different now.

That’s how it went down for photographer Jenelle Kappe and I when we landed in Cuba. The plane hit the tarmac, the passengers clapped, the flight attendant spoke, and our lives changed.

The seed for this trip was planted back in grade school, after hearing my fifth-period history teacher vaguely brush over our nation’s turbulent relationship with the Pearl of the Antilles. I asked her “Why can’t I go there?” but was dismissed with a casual, “You just can’t.” The more I pressed, the harder the teacher pushed back, “You just can’t. Drop it, Parker.”

That “you just can’t,” has lingered with me for almost 15 years. My particular brand of wanderlust is highly motivated by what people say I can’t do, and I never accepted my teacher’s answer for a second. Back then, I was too young to go alone, and my dad — a law abiding witness to the missile crisis — laughed at the idea of sneaking into a communist country. In high school, I dreamed of ditching our Key West vacations to check out the island nation 90 miles south but decided I needed to learn salsa first. After that came college, and work, and obligations. I got a little better at dancing salsa but shelved plans are hard to reignite. I was never quite ready. Other adventures were arguably less exciting, but easier to access.

Until one day they weren’t. The stars aligned, the numbers crunched, and the tickets were booked.

Interestingly — considering that I’d fixated so intensely on getting to Cuba — I never actually made any plan for once we were there. Jenelle and I had researched a bit and booked our casa particular but we didn’t have a set agenda. We wanted to roam and wander. We’d heard so many wistful romantic renditions of what the country was, frozen in time and free of capitalist interest, that we just wanted to discover “our” version of the place.

The day we arrived, we walked the four miles from our apartment in the up-and-coming Vedado neighborhood to the timeless, postcard perfect Habana Vieja Cafe. Along the way, we got our bearings and felt out the city — the dusty streets of Chinatown, the rapid modernization around the capitol building, the ancient castles left behind by Spanish conquistadors. We took pictures at the Hotel National, where Lucky Luciano famously threw parties in honor of a fresh-faced singer named Frank Sinatra.

Without easy wifi to guide us, we had to recognize the pulses of energy that occasionally surged through the street. One night, we followed the crowd along the wave-battered Malecón and into old town. Flowing out of restaurants, clubs, and cafes we heard music — sorrowful, celebratory, seemingly improvised music.

Trovadors, or folksingers, sat on stoops strumming guitars, while trombonists practiced along the oceanfront. It was at once light-hearted, fiercely emotional, and rhythmically complex.

It’s commonplace to hear fellow travelers say, “Don’t expect much out of Cuban food.” Forget that noise. We were told that sandwiches and hotdogs ruled supreme, with occasional hockey pucks of fried pork as a main course. Instead, we were hard-pressed to find a sh*tty meal.

Jenelle and I blindly followed the cobblestone streets and clatter of horse-drawn carriages through Old Town, stumbling upon ropa vieja — brilliantly elaborate bowls of stewed beef, and rich, luxurious beans that set the bar for what a good bean ought to taste like. We would have been happy to eat arroz con pollo and fried pork, the Cuban staples, night after night. Each version was worlds apart from the one preceding it.

And the rum! Holy hell, the rum. Doing our due diligence and following the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, we sat in whicker chairs, sipping seven-year-old Havana Club. It’s a pity that anything else is allowed to pass for rum stateside.

After a few days, we came to find solace in the aromas of Havana. Diesel and cigar smoke twined together with the ocean air and the special funk of a city in decay. Once your lungs fill and release a certain number of times, the smell becomes comfortable. Homey even.

For brief moments at a time, Havana lured us into drawing comparisons with Cuba’s Caribbean neighbors. Then another weary 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air would motor past, trailed by a beaten-up Soviet-era Lada taxi, rattling over the potholes. Along the Calle Jon De Hamel we saw Afro-Cuban window displays and vivid street art — colors and sounds that stood apart from anything we’d witnessed throughout our prior adventures.

Not having a plan gave us fluidity, and we relied on locals in Havana to tell us what we should do and where we should go. Once we were ready to leave the city, Viñales seemed like the consensus choice. Our new friends told us of salsa dancing, horseback riding, tobacco farms, mountains, and caves. We left our bags behind in the Casa Particular, told our host we’d be back the next week, and took a four-hour bus ride west.

Viñales is a small town in the Pinar del Río Province, nestled in a mountain valley and spotted with mogotes — huge steep-sided mounds jutting out of flat farmland. The main strip in Viñales was home to Italian, vegan, and Cuban paladares (private restaurants). There was a thriving farmers market and a booming cultural center. We’d hoped to beat the tourists to this place, but the town was ready and apparently they had been for awhile. 

During our two days in Viñales, we spent more time talking with our host, Jorge, than doing much of anything else. Yes, we drank, danced, and rode horses, but coming back to the house and talking over a meal was what resonated the most deeply. Cuba may be tourist-friendly, but it’s not for package tourists. It’s this authenticity — the most debated word in all of travel — that makes the country so special.

I asked Jorge about what the “new” Cuba will look like, after the cruise ships arrive. Between sips of his mojito, he said that he was excited to be a part of it all, but still had mixed feelings about the impending changes.

“The valley will be different. This place that I love will be different…” He gazed at the valley below his porch. “But I am happy that my children are in Europe. They have no plans of returning. That is good.”

Later, Jorge told us that he was going to expand the number of rentable rooms on his property and dig a pool. It left me hopeful that, after the dust settles, people like him will come out on top. The cautiously optimistic small-business owners who will embrace the changes, but not be swallowed whole by them.

As our bus motored back from Viñales, we sat in silence, reflecting on what “more” actually meant. Soon there will be more people, more influence, more money. More corruption? More demanding Americans? More of what travelers arrive hoping to leave behind?

Yes. It’s all coming to this place. The “you just can’t” insistences of my fifth grade teacher will give way to “you shoulda been here when...”

And what of it? Sure, we may be ordering a grande soy macchiato from the brand-new Old Town Havana Starbucks next time we visit, but why do we deserve an opinion about that? If it happens, it will be as a response to a demand that we created. It’s not up to interlopers to hold back changes. Who are we to say that more is a bad thing?

As outside influences flood in, the food may change. Perhaps Cuban chefs will celebrate that. Again, it’s not for us to tell. The music runs the risk of adjusting to the times. Perhaps, Casa Particulars will fall to the wayside or a new wave of hip-hop artists will decided to rap over the trombone. The main strip in Viñales might become home to a W hotel and Nobu Cuba.

It’s all possible. Part of me hopes wishes things could stay the same, but the role of the traveler is to accept places as you find them.

Back in Havana, with our knowledge deepened through conversations with Jorge, we could see more clearly that the toothpaste is slowly getting pressed out of the tube. Cuba is a country on the verge of an unimaginable tourism boom.

Regardless of what that means, the country we witnessed is a traveler’s dream. The rum is unmatched. The food most certainly doesn’t suck. The music is fantastic. Crumbling Havana is one of the most beautiful cities on the planet. The people are proud, resourceful, educated and funny as all hell.

There is a shift on the horizon and we’re in no position to fight it. All you can do is stand and marvel. Soak up the last of the “way it was” and witness “the way it’s becoming.”

Go now. Hurry. Because “you just can’t” isn’t an excuse anymore.