With the recent historic ease in travel restrictions for Americans and warming of diplomatic relations like a perfectly chilled mojito in the sun, now is the time to go to Cuba, an island that has captivated our imaginations — and remained an ever-elusive line on our bucket lists — for years. But what really has changed? How can we get there and what should we see and do?
To answer these questions, I e-mailed former classmate and friend of mine, Julia Cooke, author of one of the best new books on Cuba, The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, and her Brooklyn/Havana–based friend Hannah Berkeley Cohen, whose website Cuba Rising exists to promote “two unrelated facets of the same obsession with Cuba”: travel consulting – she leads custom tours to Cuba ranging from LGBT life to real estate – and photography, mostly of Cuban youth. Collectively, these two young women have been traveling to Cuba for over 17 years – and thus, I knew, must have the secrets any savvy, cosmopolitan traveller would pine for before their first trip to this soulful, communist enclave 90 miles south of the US.
Erin Levi: What should we expect when we go to Cuba?
Julia Cooke: Exuberance, spontaneity, creativity, sass, in every way: people move through the city in unexpected ways, solve problems with astounding creativity, and there’s a vitality to the arts these days that is really exciting. It’s an unpredictable time, which is exciting.
Hannah Berkeley Cohen: The familiar rhetoric of the Cuban neurosurgeon, who, on his nights off, transforms into a taxi driver, earning double his monthly salary in one night, is no longer a mystery to the outside world. Tourists come to Cuba wanting to talk with said taxi driver/neurosurgeon, hear his story of struggle and survival, and offer their help. Yet at the end of their ride in his 1952 Chevy, they ask for a photo with him in front of the car, as they are dropped off at a state-run, air-conditioned, marble-staircase-adorned hotel, able to escape any realities that their cab driver returns home to nightly.
Cuba is a mind-fuck of ironies and questions leading to dead ends. Tourists come, hoping to discover an unseen, virgin paradise, yet included in the preconceived package they’re yearning to bring home, are photos of crumbling buildings and snapshots of children running shoeless around Central Havana. The more time one spends in this place, the more questions one knows to ask, recognizing all along, of course, that said questions just lead to more ambiguous questions that no Cuban will know the answer to either.
Perhaps this is why Cuba has so many estranged lovers. She is the island of mystery, the island of intrigue. At distinct points in her life, she captivated the lust of the Americans, Soviets, and Venezuelans, but no one ever really stuck around to see what happened the morning after.
EL: How can we get there?
HC: There is now one direct flight a week from NYC to HAV, at the low price of just under $900. Americans traveling under a general license can also travel via Tampa or Miami, where combined, there are probably about a dozen flights daily. This is what Cuban-Americans have been doing for years.
EL: Although restrictions have eased, Americans still need a license to travel to Cuba. Can you explain what you offer travelers as a licensed travel consultant?
HC: Now, any American can go under any of the twelve categories that now fall under the guise of the general license.The people who travel with me to Cuba get a highly customized, intensive 7-13 days of “ask me anything and we’ll try to find the answer”. I create and lead all of my tours, [which] are highly customized and small, as in 1-6 people total. People who contact me about coming to Cuba already have in mind what they want to focus on [from youth culture to real estate]. It’s up to me to connect them with the people and places that interest them the most, with the end hope that it will lead to a meaningful relationship between Cuban and American.
EL: Any favorite hotels?
JC: I often stay in Havana at Casa Lilly. Lilly is warm and knowledgeable, and her style is great, too.
HC: We stay in gorgeous homes or high-rise apartments with great ocean views. I avoid hotels as much as possible.
EL: Any up-and-coming areas of Havana or favorite neighborhoods?
JC: I will be spectacularly unoriginal if I say that I love Vedado — everyone loves central, buzzy Vedado, and I am no exception. But if I could live anywhere, it’d be in Nuevo Vedado, which is a bit more secluded on a hill above Vedado. It’s got a lot of phenomenal examples of tropical modern architecture, including my dream house, which I saw eight years ago on an architecture tour of Havana, wrote about years ago, and have not been able to get out of my head since.
EL: Cuban cuisine doesn’t have the best reputation. Please tell me there’s some good food on the island to be had!
JC: There are so many amazing restaurants in Havana since the loosened restrictions of the last few years.The old ones are La Guarida, La Esperanza, and Atelier. El Cocinero is newer, Ivan Justo, Le Chansonnier, and the patio at La Galeria.
EL: What are some of your favorite spots?
JC: Patio at Hotel Nacional for coffee/writing; breakfast isn’t as much of a thing in Cuba, so I’d recommend eating at casas; for music or dancing, locals (and I) love the Café Teatro Bertolt Brecht, or the Café Jazz Miramar, or whatever club is hot (five years ago, it was El Túnel, which I hear is still good); for tourist/local people watching while dancing, the Casa de la Musica Miramar.
EL: What’s your perfect day in Havana?
JC: A calm morning of writing, preferably outdoors; my old apartment had a patio that I loved to sit on to write, read, and drink coffee in the mornings. Most Cuban apartments and homes (Lilly’s is no exception) have amazing outdoor spaces. Head downtown, see some of the galleries or museums or visit some artist friends’ studios or visit with old friends, a nice lunch of pulpo (octopus) somewhere in there, a dip in one of the saltwater pools at the hotels in Miramar, and then, in the evening, dinner and music or dance or an open mic situation of some sort. There’s always a lot going on at night in Havana, which is lovely.
EL: How is the art scene?
JC: For art, try Factoría Habana or the Servando Galería de Arte. The National Museum of Fine Arts’ modern art building has some fantastic art, too, and is well worth a swing through. There is amazing contemporary art in Havana: Lázaro Saavedra, Alejandro Campins, Sandra Ceballos, Michel Pérez “Pollo,” Los Carpinteros, and so many more.
EL: Speaking of artists, Hannah, how did you integrate yourself with Cuban youth to be able to take such intimate portraits? Where are your photographs displayed?
HC: I didn’t come to Cuba initially to make photographs or to delve into the glorious mind-boggle that is tourism. It was slowly a combination of time and trust that allowed me to organically begin documenting the lives of people around me. Without trusting relationships with your subjects, it’s impossible to see anyone’s reality.
EL: What should we read, listen to, and watch?
JC: Books: Alejo Carpintier, Jorge Mañach, Leonardo Padura. I’ve been meaning to read Wendy Guerra’s Todos Se Van for a while now; I hear she’s amazing, too. Movies, I like the classics, Gutiérrez Alea, Solás, and of course Fernando Perez. Music, too much to list, and I am leaving a lot out, but Roberto Fonseca, Ibeyi, X Alfonso, Haydee Milanés, Los Aldeanos, any of the work Gilles Peterson does with local musicians.
HC: I’d recommend reading the three following books: Marc Frank’s Cuba Revelations, Julia Cooke’s Life in the New Cuba: The Other Side of Paradise, and Ann Louis Bardach’s Without Fidel. As far as movies are concerned, I love Suite Habana, but it is perhaps a bit dated, and only focuses on one socio-economic class in Cuba, though it’s a grand majority of the population.
EL: Tourist traps to avoid?
JC: Much of Old Havana. It’s gorgeous, and wonderful to walk around, but can also be an onslaught of hustlers.
EL: When are you going there next?
HC: I’m here now!
JC: In May — I can’t wait.
Photography: courtesy of Hannah Berkeley Cohen for NeueJournal