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Forbidden Land

While Cuba Remains Off-Limits to Americans, Havana and the Island's Beaches Draw Tourists from the Rest of the World
Mark Vaughan
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

There are two dreams that all cigar aficionados eventually share: first, to smoke one of the greatest of the great Cuban cigars, a Cohiba Esplendido, Romeo y Julieta Churchill, Montecristo "A" or a Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona for example; and second, to be able to smoke that cigar in Havana. Tell a fellow aficionado that you have been to Cuba and watch his expression cloud with a mixture of envy and wistfulness. Because travel there is restricted by the U.S. government, only a few thousand Americans visit the island each year. While their counterparts from Europe, Canada and Latin America bask in the bright Cuban sun, U.S. cigar lovers can only view the "pearl" of the Caribbean as a distant Mecca.

Of those aficionados who do manage to get to Cuba, few are disappointed. The largest and most populous Caribbean island (pop. 11 million), Cuba is also one of the most beautiful. There are miles and miles of clean, uninterrupted beaches, tropical forests teeming with wildlife and some of the best deep-sea fishing, scuba diving and snorkeling the world has to offer. And there is Havana, not only the capital of Cuba, but also long the most important city in the Caribbean.

Say Havana, and vivid images leap to mind: of men in white linen suits and Panama hats, tropical breezes and cool drinks, sultry nights, hot salsa rhythms and exotic women. It has always been an intriguing city, peopled in truth and in fiction by characters from the novels of Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway. In the pre-Revolution Batista days, it was the sin capital of the Americas, a wild city of mobsters, corrupt politicians, loose women and petty thieves, all vying for a portion of the profits from gambling, prostitution and other lucrative rackets. The easy money attracted some of America's biggest celebrities and highest rollers, as well as a flood of tourists eager to indulge in the island's many carnal pleasures.

Though its wilder side has diminished, Havana has regained much of its old allure. With tourism again flourishing, famous old bars, restaurants and hotels are enjoying a comeback, and stunning new places are being built. The old town, with its colonial buildings, narrow streets, secluded courtyards and shaded plazas, is finally getting a much needed face-lift. In the commercial district of Vedado, investment and construction is on the rise, and out in the once-fashionable residential area of Miramar, long-neglected mansions are being converted into posh restaurants, bars and boutiques.

All this change has not come without some pain. The end of Soviet-era subsidies has brought shortages of nearly everything, and the move to a de facto dollar economy in 1994 has caused the value of the peso to plummet at home. Today in Cuba, the dollar is king. With dollars, you can buy anything; with pesos, even beans and rice can be hard to get. The illegal money changers who once haunted the tourist spots have now disappeared. In their stead are legions of illicit street vendors, offering guide services, cheap trinkets, counterfeit cigars--you name it. Gypsy cabs are everywhere, many driven by moonlighting doctors, architects, engineers and other professionals trying to augment meager peso salaries.

Yet, the Habaneros, as the locals call themselves, remain a people of gracious ways and friendly smiles. Despite tensions between the two governments, Americans are welcomed with open arms. As one civil engineer cum taxi driver put it, "All Americans should visit Havana. Here we have the best rum, best music, best cigars and most beautiful women in the world. What more could you want?"

* * *

To help the adventurous take advantage of that invitation, Cigar Aficionado offers the following guide to cigar stores, hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs and other pleasures in Havana and the beach resort of Varadero.

Make no mistake though--unauthorized travel to Cuba remains a crime. Under the U.S. government's Trading With the Enemy Act, a conviction could result in a fine of up to $50,000 and/or imprisonment of up to 10 years, as well as forfeiture of passport. In other words, you can be harassed, get a hefty fine, go to jail and lose your travel rights for as little as spending a long weekend in Havana.

But, hey, we're talking Cuba here! HAVANA

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Comments   1 comment(s)

joe a acosta January 3, 2014 7:25pm ET

this is a very well established magazine with lots of information for the average cigar smoker as well as the aficionado!!

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