from the airport, we headed to the hotel after picking up our bags from the super slow baggage claim. the airport itself is an experience – there were tons of passengers with huge flat screen TVs they brought from the states for cuban relatives or other willing buyers. it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, with dozens of massive TVs waiting at baggage claim. the view from our tour bus to the hotel included tons of old american chevys, busy streets, and billboards featuring revolutionary propaganda.
first things first, we checked into our hotel. we stayed at hotel parque central by iberostar, the best ranked hotel in havana. I affectionately named it the cuban louvre due to its odd glass diamond-shaped ceiling. the lobby was constantly buzzing with people and filled with music and cigar smoke. the lobby is the only place guests can get wifi so this fosters massive crowds of people – along with the decadent free breakfast that lasts until 10am daily with complimentary mimosas. there was never a dull moment in this lobby as tourists from all different countries continued to pour in. rumour has it, the hotel is booked all the way past april 2016!
we cleaned up a bit and headed to a conference room for our first speaker series with an urban planner. we learned that 80% of havana was built from 1950-1958. approximately three houses collapse per day and the cuban government pays to relocate the inhabitants. while housing is guaranteed free for all cubans, the people are responsible for all upkeep within the four walls of the house. however, no one feels responsible to maintain the exterior of the houses. in most cases, the government does not pay for upkeep and most cubans don’t have enough money to spend on the exteriors of their homes.
after listening to this great opening dialogue to kick off the trip, we ventured out to our first dinner as a group at el cocinero. this cool spot is located in an old cooking oil factory in vedado and the ambiance was dare I say, pretty posh, for what I initially expected of the cuban restaurant scene.
el cocinero features an awesome upper deck patio bar area, gorgeous outdoor seating with an industrial chic atmosphere, and three flights of winding stairs.
ok talk about ambiance… this beautiful outdoor scenery and eclectic table settings made me melt. this was only the beginning of my love affair with cuban table settings [I’m serious], you’ll definitely see this as a constant observation throughout my trip. after exploring the bars and climbing the three flights of stairs to the lookout area, we came back downstairs and sat down to dinner. we were greeted with our very first cuban mojitos of the trip!
after enjoying our first meal in havana and feeling pretty festive after several mojitos, we walked next door to FAC – fabrica de arte cubano. FAC is a fusion of art and culture within a nightclub. I could’ve spent a considerable amount of time here but since it was our first night, we were all pretty tired and headed home early.