cali mitchell visiting cuba blog photo

22 Hours in Cuba: Part Dos


Welcome back! When we left off last month, I was just about to set off walking on a very full stomach in the heart of Havana, Cuba.

After lunch, we toured what was once known as Plaza de la Ciénaga — which translates as “Swamp Square.” This elicited laughs from our tour group as there were several people from Louisiana and Florida who knew a thing or two about living in wetlands and found it hard to imagine this area as a murky bog.

After it was drained and paved, wealthy families moved into the area and began building mansions. It was later (more appropriately) re-named Plaza de la Catedral after the old Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús was consecrated as a cathedral, and the Catedral de La Habana was celebrated as the center of Catholic faith in Havana. The church is breathtakingly beautiful, incorporating coral from the nearby sea. Some marine fossils are even noticeable in the stones of its front columns.

Inside the cathedral, frescoes and baroque-style paintings adorn the walls and aisles, along with beautiful handcrafted sculptures. The statue of Saint Christopher with a boy in his arms attracts thousands of tourists and religious pilgrims every year.

After leaving the cathedral, we were treated to a tour of Plaza de Armas, or “Arms Plaza,” to view a beautiful ceiba tree. The tree was highly revered by native Cubans who attributed it with having magical powers, and legend says that both the first religious ceremony and first town council meeting took place in its shade. Even today, Havana residents seeking favor from the universe go around the tree three times in silence, touching, hugging and kissing it. On each turn they let coins fall, some to have their wishes come true, others to express gratitude for a miracle that already happened.

Souvenir shopping isn’t really a thing in Havana – unless you’re into cigars and rum (which I definitely am). If you’re going to partake in these vices, Havana Club is the brand of rum to buy, available in a variety of blends and vintages. Cigar houses scattered around the city offer authentic Cohibas (my personal favorite), Montecristos and Romeo y Julietas.

To this day, the smell of a good cigar reminds me of my great-grandparents’ apartment where the spicy chocolate aroma would hit me like a wall as soon as I opened their front door. Inside these cigar shops, my mom and I fought for spots in line to buy as many boxes of cigars and rum as we could carry. Interestingly, the restrictions on returning to the United States with these delicacies have only recently been lifted, and tourists are now allowed to bring back 100 cigars and five bottles of rum per person. Due to this, counterfeit products are now very prominent in the country; we were advised multiple times to only buy cigars from licensed shops with sealed boxes.

Remember when I mentioned that one of the rules for traveling to Cuba was engaging in educational activities and public performances? Well, buckle up because this tour combined those two things in a way I never expected. We traveled to the barrio area of Havana where we would engage in the “People to People” part of our day.

Cuba is unique in that the elderly are the largest portion of the population with a life expectancy of 78 years. This is largely thanks to a completely free universal health care system. Though seen as an impoverished country, Cubans are far less likely to suffer malnutrition, malaria or other typical third-world afflictions; the country has an undeniably strong health care record. Cubas older citizens are supported by many organizations that work to keep them engaged in daily activities like dancing, singing, gaming and cultural performances. We arrived at one of the senior community centers where we were met by the Rapping Abuelitas, a group of spry gals who wear Maya Angelou shirts and hats from their favorite baseball teams.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but my video of this is priceless: The Rapping Abuelitas Live Performance.

As with many of my moments in Havana, this particular experience will live with me forever. It made me long for a phone call with my late grandmother to ask if she had a secret rap career I didn’t know about. Just the thought of my Mimi wearing a ball cap and bling and dancing alongside these amazing ladies made me laugh out loud.

As the tour came to an end, our evening extravaganza was just beginning. We rushed back onto the boat for a quick dinner — we wish we would have had time for another dinner on the island — and prepared for a night out, 1930s style.

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Our agenda began with boarding a chartered bus for a night tour of the island ending at the Tropicana nightclub. Open since 1939, the club is a city institution and worth a visit for the Las Vegas-style extravaganza. When prohibition and gambling restrictions hit the States hard, mobsters, along with the rich and famous, flocked to Cuba to engage in all the debauchery their pockets and bodies could handle. While the casino has long been closed, and the sketchy activities behind art-covered walls are in the past, the nightclub remains a truly breathtaking sight. Mirrored doors welcome you, beautiful fountains surround you and large security guards are waiting to question your photographic or videographic intentions. Taking photos requires a $10 cover; for videos, it’s going to cost you $25. If you’re caught capturing photo or video of the performances without a pass, you’re immediately escorted out of the building. I quickly handed over my currency and received my pass — I wasn’t risking it.

The seating area left us speechless. Hundreds of seats at long tables are outfitted with Habana Club rum, limes and bowls of snacks. The ceiling? Open air and the stars above. I’m not sure what happens when it rains; maybe the weather understands that something so beautiful shouldn’t be touched. There are stages, large and small, all around. The show started, and we witnessed three unforgettable hours of gorgeously outfitted dancers, upbeat music from a live orchestra and non-stop entertainment.

Prepare to be amazed: Watch A Tropicana Performance

We danced into the wee hours of the morning, just in time to rush through customs and jump back on the boat before its 4 a.m. departure. It was hard to fall asleep after being immersed in the life and soul of Havana. I ended up walking to the top deck of the ship for a slice of pizza and one last look at the lights of the city. I felt, and still feel, overwhelming gratitude for the opportunity to trace my roots and learn more about my late grandparents.

As the boat pulled away from the dock, and I finished my incredibly American early morning snack of cold pizza, I thought about my unfinished business and resolved it wouldn’t be my last trip to Cuba. And next time — there will be plantains.

Enjoyed what you read? Have questions about traveling to Cuba? Feel free to contact me at cmitchell@nullbbrcreative.com. Let’s talk mojitos.