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  • Samantha Sendor

Cultural Cuba


48 hours in Havana and what a whirlwind! So much to explore, see, and do. There is really no place like Cuba; for ages, it has been the forbidden fruit for American travelers. Even today, many Americans don't realize that it is even possible go there. Is it a little complicated? Sure, I suppose, technically, but not in the way you'd think. Planning a trip to Cuba on your own is really out of the question, but after my experience with Cultural Cuba, a luxury travel management company specific to planning travel and experiences in Cuba (in a nutshell, this doesn't even begin to touch on what they actually do), I can say that there is no other way to go.

There are some technical requirements that a US tourist must adhere by in their travels to Cuba, most commonly under the category of "Support of the Cuban People," but you wouldn't even realize it, because the experiences that await are so enriching and colorful, it's really the only way to go. I've been all over the Caribbean, and never have I been to a place so uniquely its own in the best possible way. It's amazing to think such a place exists just ninety miles south of the US coastline. With several daily flights servicing direct flights from the New York area to Havana, it's a quick trip down, but you will feel worlds away.


First and foremost, you'll need your camera (or at least a very good lens on your mobile phone), because taking pictures of the Cuban landscape is addictive. Bright vintage cars bring a sense that you're in another period of time, and the surrounding architecture is diverse and Instagram worthy to the fullest. From there, the local flavors, arts, talent, cigars, and rum... absolutely unrivaled.

But back to Cultural Cuba for a second. They make the complicated nature of the political relationship between the United States and Cuba almost, dare I say, fortuitous, in the sense that they simplify the planning of getting there, but it is their expertise, first rate team on the ground, and strong relations that extend exclusive experiences that would otherwise be impossible to attain without them. From acquiring tourist visas, making reservations at the best hotels and hottest restaurants and clubs, and arranging interactive visits with local talent, nobody does it better. 

What makes designing a trip to Cuba on your own so challenging? I'm not going to sugarcoat it. For starters, American credit and debit cards are useless in Cuba. They. Will. Not. Work. Cash only in Cuba, my friends. Curiously, for reasons I cannot begin to comprehend, many luxury hotels (arguably the best there is) appear on the US restricted list, meaning you cannot legally book a room there as an American, and even if you somehow managed to, how do you suppose you'll pay for it? With a suitcase filled with cash? Don't forget, you must declare any amount in excess of $5,000 that you bring with you. Enter Cultural Cuba: you may legally benefit from their loopholes, prepaying for your accommodations and experiences safely with a credit card on the mainland, to a US-based company. That alone makes the transaction a more comfortable one, and all you're left to worry about is how much cash you should bring for souvenirs, incidentals, and you know, those prized Cuban cigars (and no, you don't have to worry about smuggling them-- it's legal to bring some home for private consumption!). 

On to the fun stuff. When I'd arrived in Havana with an intimate and awesome group of journalists, our first stop was at a Head-Start Pre-School for disadvantaged students. This immediately appealed to my own interests, although I realize it's not everyone's first inclination for a holiday. While Cultural Cuba customizes itineraries to the interests of their clients, I found this to be a worthy visit for any tourist, as it's an incredible place with adorable children, and the mission just warms the heart. From there, we got down to serious business: getting behind the bar and indulging in an authentic mojito mixology lesson paired with tasty delights at San Juan, one of Cultural Cuba's off-the-beaten-path discoveries that stands like a hidden gem and local favorite in Old Havana. Before checking in to La Reserva, a beautifully renovated historic estate in the heart of the embassy district of Vedado, we'd stopped in at Amos Photography Studio, spending quality one-on-one time with its talented founders, Ramses Batista and Alex Castro (yes, that Castro- Alex is Fidel's son). Exploring their art and learning about their commitment to the community through education was a highlight of the experience. While I was there, I had gotten some much needed direction in my never-ending pursuit of sourcing the right digital SLR camera for my travels. 

You ever go somewhere, anywhere else in the world, and feel like you stand out as a foreigner? Havana seems to be missing that element (another thing seemingly missing: mosquitos... how did they do that??). While we must've clearly stuck out as out-of-towners while roaming about the Cuban Art Factory, a trendy multi-faceted venue featuring art installations, live music in multiple areas, pop-up fashion stalls, performance art, indie cinemas, bars, lounges, and more, we distinctly got the impression that no one noticed us as non-locals. Havana has this bizarre sense of safety that as a New Yorker, I'm not accustomed to. I don't think I've ever visited a place so absent of crime, and I must say, while I was skeptical at first, it's among the refreshing charms of Cuba. Dinner at Paladar Tierra, a restaurant at the Cuban Art Factory, was another example of the VIP experience you get with Cultural Cuba. Its eclectic menu and top notch mojitos are not too be missed. The venue as a whole is something I imagine that would be a huge hit in hipster Brooklyn, while at the same time delivering a sense of cool only found in Cuba.


You ever go somewhere, anywhere else in the world, and feel like you stand out as a foreigner? Havana seems to be missing that element (another thing seemingly missing: mosquitos... how did they do that??). While we must've clearly stuck out as out-of-towners while roaming about the Cuban Art Factory, a trendy multi-faceted venue featuring art installations, live music in multiple areas, pop-up fashion stalls, performance art, indie cinemas, bars, lounges, and more, we distinctly got the impression that no one noticed us as non-locals. Havana has this bizarre sense of safety that as a New Yorker, I'm not accustomed to. I don't think I've ever visited a place so absent of crime, and I must say, while I was skeptical at first, it's among the refreshing charms of Cuba. Dinner at Paladar Tierra, a restaurant at the Cuban Art Factory, was another example of the VIP experience you get with Cultural Cuba. Its eclectic menu and top notch mojitos are not too be missed. The venue as a whole is something I imagine that would be a huge hit in hipster Brooklyn, while at the same time delivering a sense of cool only found in Cuba.

Day two in Havana was one for walking around and snapping pictures, discovering the town's beautiful structures, fascinating history, and partaking in a couple of street delicacies (namely an artfully prepared pina colada served in a pineapple, or hot and fresh churros made right before my eyes... best fifty cents I've ever spent, by the way). Our guided walking tour was fun and relaxed, with plenty of souvenir stalls to pop into between the plazas. Havana is filled with such a zest and celebration for art, it's difficult not to admire it immensely.

Lunch at 5 Sentidos was absolutely brilliant on both the eyes and tummy, but the real highlight of the afternoon was over at the 

famous Havana Club Rum Museum. Cultural Cuba had arranged for a private rum and cigar tasting, not commonly offered to tourists, where we enjoyed Cohibas and a comprehensive tutorial on the pleasures of Cuba's finest. Let me tell you, we smoked those cigars to the very end! We enjoyed ourselves so much, we didn't in fact make it to our private one-on-one salsa dancing lesson, and while I would have loved that, I wouldn't have traded my take at the Havana Club for anything-- we had the best time!

Checking in to Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski was a breeze, and after a quick wardrobe change for the evening, we'd enjoyed canapés and you guessed it- mojitos- at the cigar lounge before riding off into the sunset for Cultural Cuba's exclusive convertible ride and photoshoot. Natasha, Cultural Cuba's on-ground professional photographer captured the magic and essence of our collective joy amid Havana's carefree vibe. I think I speak for all of us when I say it was a priceless experience, just before we took off for La Guarida, one of the trendiest and most sought after restaurants in the area. It can take weeks of planning to get a reservation here, and I can say with certainty that it is not overrated. After a sumptuous meal there, we headed up to the roof for a private mini-concert by the William Trobejo Jazz Trio, which was unlike anything I'd ever seen or heard. The immense talent in Havana alone is absolutely mind-blowing. Following the performance, we kicked back in the private VIP cigar lounge for fine rum, cigars, and conversation. In summation, it was the absolute perfect evening. It's hard to believe how much we fit in just two days, but truthfully I could have done with more time there-- the experiences that await are positively endless!


Admittedly, I didn't know what to expect from Cuba beyond its famous rum and cigars prior to my departure, but it was beyond my wildest dreams! By far one of the most unique places I've ever seen, it certainly stands apart from its Caribbean community. I am so grateful to have seen it thorough the eyes and expertise of Cultural Cuba; their passion for delivering the extraordinary expands the mind and heart in ways I couldn't have imagined. To read more about this amazing place, check out my article in the 2020 Sophisticated Weddings, and while you're at it, get ready to pack your bags (but be sure to save some room in your luggage-- you best bring home a taste of Cuba for sure!).

xx-

Samantha

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SOPHISTICATED WEDDINGS

2019 Edition | Volume II 

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Content Copyright 2020. Samantha Sendor. All Rights Reserved.

Home Page Photo Courtesy of Cody Raisig Photography.