Photography by Allen Mekies
Located in a privileged part of the Caribbean, which is why it is also known as the Key to the Gulf, Cuba is one of the most attractive destinations in the region. It has wonderful beaches with powdery sand and mild waters, and an excellent climate that enables visitors to enjoy its fiery sun during all 12 months of the year. But beyond its appeal as a sun and beach destination, the largest of the Antilles islands boasts many unique sites full of history and culture, allowing tourists to learn much more about this little country, which, moreover, has a diverse array of centers for recreation and fabulous restaurants with a broad variety of national and international cuisine.
One place of great interest for visitors, despite the fact that it is not very well known, is the site of the ruins of the former Taoro sugar mill, which is located on the road from Punta Brava to Santa FeBeach in western Havana. It was the setting for subhuman working conditions, abuse and humiliation, that is, the terrible situation of black slaves who were brought to the island by Spanish colonizers in the 19th century.
Today, visitors can see the remains of walls of what used to be the main residence, where the mill’s owners lived, and some of the slave quarters, which were built in the mid-1800s with stone walls and tiny wooden windows with iron bars. The number of slaves that lived here is estimated to have been large—possibly over 200, because some of the walls of these barracks still stand, and the sugar cane fields were quite extensive. Because of its historic importance, the ruins of the Taoro sugar mill were declared a local monument on December 31, 1981. As we continue our trip through the Cuban capital and approach its center, we find the corner of 7ma and 16 streets in Miramar, the site of the very popular house of fashion La Maison. Housed in a colonial-style mansion that was built in 1946, La Maison is a place for designers and artists—such as Abraham, Nancy Pelegrin, Mario Freixas, and many others—to display their creations.
In the evening, the mansion’s patio is the setting for fashion shows featuring elegant models dressed in Cuban haute couture. La Maison also features several boutiques where shoppers can find clothing, shoes, purses, jewelry, and perfume to meet the most demanding tastes, and it also has a restaurant featuring Cuban and international cuisine. In terms of transport, there is nothing more appealing than ride through the streets of Havana or any city in the country in a bright, colorful 1950s Buick, or in a Chevrolet from the ‘30s or ‘40s; these cars can be found rambling around every single one of the island’s cities.
An estimated 60,000 vintage U.S. cars from those decades still exist in Cuba, and are popularly known as almendrones. Many are meticulously cared for by their proud owners. These “museums on wheels” can easily be rented for having a great time and experiencing a fantasy from the last century. Several projects for historic automobiles exist nationwide: in Havana, Pinar del Rio (in the west), Santiago de Cuba (in the east), and Matanzas, the capital city of the province of the same name, home to the famous Varadero beach resort. These projects are aimed at forming non-profit associations of vintage car owners to improve the preservation of their vehicles.
These associations are called Escuderías de Autos Antiguos and are part of the Cuban Motoring and Karting Federation, a sports organization. Visiting the capital’s historic district, Habana Vieja, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1982, is practically obligatory for any traveler to this island. Its narrow cobblestone streets and ancient buildings are a tangible testimony of the country’s history. You might be able to tour Habana Vieja in a day, but if you really want to dig into the history that envelops its homes, museums, and institutions, I would venture to say that you need much more time.
In any case, one of the most attractive spots in the city is the Plaza Vieja, bordered by Mercaderes, Muralla, Teniente Rey and San Ignacio streets: it is a singular space for art and culture in the city’s historic district. Founded more than four centuries ago, it was Havana’s third plaza and has been returned to its splendor of yesteryear thanks to a comprehensive development program implemented by the City Historian’s Office in Habana Vieja. The plaza is surrounded by a number of very interesting establishments: the Planetarium—the country’s most modern; the Cámara Oscura, where you can peer through a telescope at the most important buildings in the area; the Benny More Tavern, named after the late popular musician, which hosts traditional music shows in the evening; the El Escorial Café, where you can sip the city’s best coffee as you take in the sights; and the La Cervecerֵía bar and restaurant, where you can enjoy draft beer produced in the on-site brewery.
Another great restaurant is the 1830 Tourist Complex, located on Havana’s seawall, the Malecón, right next to the tunnel that links the Vedado and Miramar neighborhoods. The 1830 is a magnificent option, because it is a convergence of elegance, tranquility, and a matchless menu of stylized Cuban and international cuisine. The restaurant is housed in an eclectic-style construction from the 1920s with large windows featuring stained glass and balconies made of precious woods, making it one of the most beautiful buildings in the Cuban capital.
Inaugurated in 1958, this complex has three main salons: the Oro, with a capacity of 40; the Tropical, with a view of the gardens and a capacity of 50; and the Rojo, with a capacity of 30, all very elegant, as well as the Colonial bar. Every evening, from Tuesday to Sunday, is special in Los Jardines, the 1830’s seaside gardens, where visitors can enjoy live entertainment by a diversity of music groups. Los Jardines features a unique space, the Isla Japonesa (“JapaneseIsland”), designed by a Japanese architect and built out of coral and stones from the sea, a great place for holding weddings and other private parties.
Next door to the 1830 is the La Chorrera tavern, a very authentic space surrounded by cannons and other remnants of ancient times, and featuring a wide variety of Spanish dishes and products. La Fontana, located on 3ra A and Calle 46 in Miramar, is a private restaurant, popularly known as “paladares,” that was founded in 1995 and has become very popular for its intimate, pleasant atmosphere. It has two dining rooms and a menu featuring Cuban haute cuisine and excellent service. Its two bars, El Edén and Yerba Buena, serve a wide range of cocktails, tapas and snacks every day from 12 noon to 6 a.m. Close by, on 3ra No. 3804, between 38 and 40, also in Miramar, is La Carboncita, another private restaurant, where you can enjoy the best authentically Italian pizza and pasta in the capital.
An Italian runs the restaurant and welcomes diners when they arrive. Prepared with fresh products, with a stone oven for the pizza, the food is always accompanied by high-quality service and in a pleasant environment, including indoor dining rooms and a terrace to enjoy unforgettable Italian cuisine. This culinary tour would be incomplete without La Guarida restaurant, located in a 19th century mansion at No. 418 Gervasio street in the Centro Habana neighborhood, where the time-worn walls make it an singularly attractive locale. La Guarida, a private restaurant, is located on the building’s third floor, which was the set for the 1993 filming of the internationally-famous Cuban movie Strawberry and Chocolate, nominated for the 1995 Academy Award as Best Foreign Film.
It is a special place in Havana. Its décor, which includes numerous paintings by well-known Cuban artists, images of saints and an eclectic ensemble of seats, gives it a Bohemian, unique atmosphere. The menu is very diverse, and features Cuban and international gourmet cuisine, with dishes that challenge the imagination. That is why this restaurant has been visited by illustrious celebrities from around the world, including Spain’s Queen Sofia, and Hollywood stars like Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, and director Steven Spielberg; Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar; French actor Jean Paul Belmondo, and most recently, singer Beyonce and her husband Jay-Z, who came to Havana to celebrate their wedding anniversary.