Cuba: Dawn Of A New Day
Cuba's Capitol building, a replica of the U.S. Congress, stands as a stark reminder of this moment in the country's history. Half of the building is restored, its glistening limestone exterior looking polished and new. The other half remains covered by scaffolding, or tarnished with the dust, grime and humidity of the past century. Old and new. Side by side. A promise of better things to come, but still burdened by the past.
Turning points. History is filled with moments in time when nothing that was will ever be the same again.
Cuba is at one of those pivotal moments. After 56 years of a revolution led by Fidel Castro, and 53 years of a human and commercial blockade with its neighbor, the United States, the doors to the island are swinging open.
Excitement about Cuba has never been higher. Television news crews, print media and radio outlets have run story after story speculating about the changes that are afoot in Havana. Conan O'Brien made history in February by becoming the first late-night TV host to film a show in Cuba since Jack Paar's visit in 1959. Information boards in the Miami International Airport brim with the word "Havana," and the 45-minute flight occurs several times every day.
The spark that ignited this fire was a prisoner exchange between the two countries in December. At the time, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the intention to thaw relations with Cuba. Many of these plans became law on January 16, loosening some of the restrictions on travellers. Americans can now send more money to people in Cuba. U.S. credit and debit cards are legal to use on the island. Limits on per-diems for authorized travellers have been removed. Authorized travellers can now return to the United States with a small amount of Cuban goods. Furthermore high-level talks have begun between American and Cuban leaders. An American Embassy is scheduled to open in Havana this year, an unmistakable and bold punctuation mark on the changing relations between these longtime adversarial countries. The change has not been as abrupt or as sweeping as many hoped, but the moves to date are an important symbolic gesture that has altered the landscape as well as everyone's expectations.
Much remains to be done. The day of free travel to the island for most Americans remains in the future. While new regulations may allow travelers on direct authorized trips to return to the United States with a limited amount of Cuban goods, the products of Cuba—including its famous cigars—remain largely off-limits to those in the United States.
Still, the changes are happening, with or without the diplomatic moves. Cuba's past is nothing like what you will see if you visit Havana today. Hotels are full. Tour buses vie on the streets with the limited number of vehicles owned by Cuban residents. And, restaurants, both old and new, overflow with those same tourists, making reservations at the most popular and best eateries, now a must if you want to be assured a table.
Cigar Aficionado has been visiting Cuba for more than 22 years, and it was a visit to the island by editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken in 1991 that inspired the publication's very creation. For the last five years, we have been to Cuba more than ever, so much that it has almost become a second home. In the midst of all these changes, we returned to Cuba yet again to create this comprehensive guide to visiting the island.
We have eaten repeatedly at some of Cuba's best restaurants to give you an updated account of the nation's evolving dining scene. We revisited Havana's hotels to check on the status of the existing properties to ensure that the level of service was up to standards, and even found a new spot that's worth a visit. We analyzed Havana's top-tier cigar stores and assessed their inventory to provide you with a guide to what is smoking best right now. We have full reports on how to invest in Cuba's dynamic and critically acclaimed art and how to enjoy Havana's surprisingly strong cocktail scene. We also list the finest places to hear the rhythm of a city that truly loves its music. We've reported on places that have proven their staying power, added places that show great promise, and deleted some places that have either closed or fallen victim to the heavy tourist tidal wave. Interspersed throughout these travel stories are tales of Cuba's past and present, including the day 100 years ago when Havana became the focus of the boxing world and the story of how O'Brien brought his brand of comedy to the streets of Cuba.
It is an exciting time in Havana. It truly feels like a turning point, with a new day coming.