History of Havana

TAMPA, FL - Without doubt, Cuba is considered the cigar mecca of the world. The ideal tobacco-growing conditions and many-centuries long tradition of superb craftsmanship contribute greatly to the mystique surrounding what many believe to be the best cigars in the world. But what's it actually like in Cuba itself? In person?

The country and its capital can be a bit of culture shock to American visitors such as we recently experienced first-hand. From its colorful music and congenial people to its historic old buildings and ancient American cars, Havana, Cuba, is a study in contrasts. The past and present. The old and new. We had the rare opportunity to visit Havana, and later the Robaina Pinar del Rio tobacco farm, producers of arguably the finest Cuban tobacco for more than 170 years, and both the original and new Partagas cigar factories.

Welcome back to 1958.

Our first impressions? We enjoyed the live music in the streets being played by musicians on broken sidewalks or wafting from local bars and restaurants. There are, of course, the late 1950s-era American cars seemingly everywhere, often steered by drivers eager to become your stylish local guide.

The Spanish architecture from Cuba's colonial days has generally seen better days. Crumbling facades and tattered balconies remain of what once must have certainly been grand avenues lined by city homes and fine hotels. Fortunately, some of these handsome buildings have been restored and restoration is underway on others, but in much of Havana the structures seem to teeter on the verge of collapse. Even so, the streets of Havana are still quite lively, colorful, and charming.

The national public buildings in Havana are impressive whether their purposes are governmental such as the Capital Building or cultural like the ornate 19th Century Great Theatre of Havana or the National Theatre of Cuba. You will also see humble churches as well as grand cathedrals. And, wherever you go in the city or the countryside, the one thing you can always count on is the warmth of the welcoming Cuban people.

The hotel, Hemingway and La Florida.

We stayed at the Saratoga Hotel in Havana. The rooms were standard sized with perfectly running air conditioning, surprisingly decent Wi-Fi and some English-speaking TV channels. Within the hotel is a beautiful second floor bar with a glass ceiling selling a good selection of Cuban cigars and local beers like Cristal and Buccanero and primarily Havana Club rums. You won't see a large walk in humidor but there is a large desk top humidor with some of the best cigars Cuba Has to offer like Montecristo, Cohiba, Partagas, etc. It was here or on the scenic rooftop with city vistas that we enjoyed evening cocktails and cigars before turning in for the night.

On the first day of our visit, we strolled pleasantly along the famed Malecon (officially Avenida de Maceo), which is a broad esplanade, roadway and seawall stretching five miles along Havana's attractive coastline.

Of course we wanted to visit bars that Earnest Hemingway frequented during his years in Cuba. We found La Florida Bar (La Floridita) which was made famous by Hemingway's visits. To honor his memory, there is a bronze statue of him at the bar inside. . We also enjoyed a drink at another Hemingway hangout, Sloppy Joe's Bar in Old Havana. Word within the Thompson Cigar Company was that our owner visited this Sloppy Joe's in the 1940s where a picture of him and his crew hung on the walls for years there after. We searched for his photo among montages of photos of past visitors, sadly without luck.

Other bars, other cigars and revolution.

The Iberostar Parque Central Hotel was where our crew met with vendors for cool drinks and very good cigars. The large lobby features live music during the day and a band playing American songs from the 1950s and '60s. There's a cigar lounge upstairs with numerous TVs, comfy seating and a full bar.

Some of our intrepid travelers also stopped at La Zorra, said to be famed for the finest live jazz to be heard anywhere in Cuba.

The Original Partagas Cigar Factory is located right in the city and within just a couple of blocks of our hotel. While cigars are no longer manufactured here, there is a great cigar shop where you can buy all the best Cuban Cigars Cuba has to offer. These include the Montecristo #2, Cohiba Behike, Romeo Y Julieta, and Partagas Serie D, to name a few. There's an awesome VIP Cigar Lounge which, if you're lucky enough to get in, offers some of the coldest air condition in Cuba, a nice respite from the relentless heat of the streets.

Our group also walked by the Revolution Museum on their first day and took photos of portions that are visible from outside like the revered "Granma", the boat that carried Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba. The entire boat is lovingly preserved in honor of the Cuban Revolution.

The last day of their Cuba visit found our team enjoying the Hotel Nacional De Cuba for lunch and beverages. This place has been visited by luminaries and celebrities throughout the years whose photos are proudly displayed on the walls.

So close - yet so far - from the USA.

There are no McDonald's, KFC, Burger King or any other American franchises anywhere in Cuba. Yet. So the city terrain seemed unfamiliar to us, yet, also very pleasant and uniquely Cuban. There are ox-pulled carts on the roads, along with dusty chickens, dogs and children. Nicely tended public and private gardens abound with brilliant purple bougainvillea, exotic palms, and other native plants and flowers. This city is definitely alive and exciting. And, although none of us spoke fluent Spanish, we managed fine because many Cubans, particularly in the cities, speak a helpful amount of English. So all was well.

What did we think of their journey to Cuba? We enjoyed our trip, enjoyed classic Cuban cigars and we would gladly visit again someday and perhaps bring our families.

Look for our next stories about our visit to the fascinating Robaina Pinar del Rio tobacco farm and the famed Partagas cigar factory.

Locations We Visited

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