Business Class: Cuba Chic

6 minute read
Kathleen Parker/Havana

Discreetly mentioning your trip to Cuba these days is as likely to get you a knowing nod as a raised eyebrow. The U.S. House of Representatives two weeks ago voted to lift restrictions on Americans traveling to Castro’s island paradise, but already it seems that half the people I know, from local lawyers to textile execs, either have just returned or are leaving next week for a business trip there. Of course, many of these travelers are really pursuing the business of Cohibas, mojitos and long-lost nieces. But just in case you’re one of those who really are meeting with the Ministry of Foreign Trade and you have half a day free before your return flight, here are some tips on the latest divertimientos, based on my recent–and strictly businesslike–research.

La Habana Vieja, an architectural treasury of crumbling Spanish colonial mansions and palaces, is all anyone needs to fill half a day and requires only comfortable shoes and a wad of George Washingtons. While no one openly begs here and Cubans are almost universally polite, they’re also hungry. If you ask directions or take a picture of an old woman in flowered headdress smoking a cigar, be prepared to fork over a dollar.

Make the Hotel Parque Central your home base. It’s the newest, best-located hotel in Old Havana. Rather than get rooked by street vendors of cigars, you can shop at the hotel’s trustworthy walk-in humidor. There is also a rooftop pool and restaurant with spectacular views of the city. Service is languid, but the hotel employees–a collection of former engineers and accountants who can make more money tending bar or toting luggage–speak English, and most are probably better educated than you. Slip the concierge $20, and you can have all the advice, reservations and drivers you need.

But first take a stroll from the hotel through gorgeous, weather-worn Old Havana, where many of the palaces and plazas date from the 16th and 17th centuries. Highlights include the Teatro Nacional and Plaza de la Catedral, with its nearby open-air market for Che berets and other tourist kitsch. For a brush with real Cubans and a sense of the island’s emerging private economy, stroll over to Cuatro Caminos, a farmers’ market and photographers’ paradise full of colorful fruits, flowers and the ever whimsical fly-covered goat heads.

To buy local art–which Cubans are allowed to sell and even Americans are allowed to bring home, assuming your visit is licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department–follow Calle Obispo, which begins about a block from the Parque Central. Here you find dozens of “galleries”–usually the front room of a private home–where artists sell often fine work for low prices. Small oil paintings of Santeria saints go for as little as $25, while some serious larger paintings cost $150 to $300. That’s cash. No U.S. credit cards or traveler’s checks are accepted in Cuba. Private art galleries disappear overnight, as do the famed paladares (private dining rooms, often in Cuban homes). If you find one you like, don’t get attached.

Paladares, though far superior to state-operated restaurants, mostly run from ordinary to not bad, mainly because quality ingredients are scarce. Still, there are a couple of standout privately owned restaurants not far from Old Havana. La Guarida (Concordia 418) is considered the hippest restaurant in Havana and was the setting for most of the critically acclaimed film Strawberry and Chocolate. Another favorite is El Aljibe (Septima Avenida), a large outdoor eatery in the seaside district of Miramar. Service is uncommonly fast, and Cuba’s elite are among the regular patrons. To get a table at either of these restaurants, you should make a reservation as early as possible through your hotel or travel coordinator. Otherwise, you may as well trust your stomach to your driver or concierge. You could end up at his aunt’s house, but the food will be good enough and the experience memorable.

A good mojito is essential to any trip to Cuba, and one of the best places to find this rum-and-mint concoction is at Hemingway’s favorite watering hole in Old Havana, La Bodeguita del Medio (Empedrado 207). Equally famous and worth sacrificing every tourist’s desire not to look like a tourist is El Floridita (Obispo 557), known for daiquiris that are so good you may miss your flight and discover that you really do know all the words to Guantanamera.

Thus fortified, you may as well stifle shame’s last breath and head for the Tropicana, especially if your flight is manana, a word whose uses you will surely be discovering by now. The Tropicana merits the short drive from Old Havana to the Marianao district, the price of admission–$40 to $60–and the cheesy photo you will end up buying. Vintage ’50s Vegas and family friendly, the musical show is a sea of gorgeous, statuesque men and women in all shades of flesh, with spangled, yard-high headdresses and thong-clad buttocks, buttocks, buttocks.

Now sufficiently wired for tango, you will want to ask your driver to take you to Casa de la Musica (discreet address) for champagne and dancing. You will find mostly locals and Tropicana performers, who begin pouring in after midnight in search of world-class Caribbean jazz-cum-salsa music and who dance like nobody’s watching. You will get a feel here for Cuba’s authentic and contagious sensuality. And for a nightcap, you may as well stop at the Habana Riviera, built by Meyer Lansky on the eve of the revolution.

P.S. If anyone asks you where you’re from, smile and say, “Soy Yuma.” No one is quite sure of the etymology of Yuma, but a random survey of Cubans suggests that it has something to do with the 1957 western film 3:10 to Yuma (as in Yuma, Ariz.), starring Glenn Ford. Some Cubans use the word to describe anything good, especially good Americans. Suffice it to say you will get a smile in return. ON AOL For more information on the logistics of business travel to Cuba and what to do there, visit our website at

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