Ringing in the New Year in Havana, Cuba

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This past January 1st, 2019 marked the 60th anniversary of when Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces marched into Havana, Cuba to officially topple the then American backed President, Fulgencio Batista.

Up until that point in time, Havana was considered the ultimate destination to ring in the New Year with its alluring tropical weather, exotic beaches, beloved rum and cigars, exciting casinos (run by the American mafia), and world-class cabarets and sex clubs. Over the decades the Casino’s and sex clubs all were closed down, (so the mafia left and started the Las Vegas strip) and Havana fell into some disrepair. And while the rest of the world continued to visit Havana and the rest of Cuba from then on, the American tourist sector was practically non-existent due to the economic embargo and travel restrictions instituted in the early 1960s, and of which mostly continues today. In 2015, travel restrictions between the USA and Cuba were opened up more and American tourists started flocking back to Cuba in fairly large numbers. However, in 2018 relations soured again and some restrictions were put back in place on Americans visiting Cuba. (Although it’s still fairly easy for Americans to visit Cuba on a legal group tour complying with all the changing rules and regulations like we did.)

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Havana today is a city more or less stuck in time, but it is bouncing back and making progress on the eve of its 500th anniversary. New hotels are popping up, historic buildings are getting facelifts and oh yes those classic American cars are still everywhere, creating a charming museum in motion. One thing Havana has never lost is her unique Afro-Cuban music, award-winning rum and cigars, beautiful beaches and her good-natured and hospitable people.

Our group travelled to Havana on December 30th on American Airlines to spend a few days of culturally enriching experiences with the locals and to ring in the New Year.

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Our first stop was the incredible artist community of Fusterlandia where the entire neighborhood is made up of colorful, whimsical mosaics. It’s a street-art-extravaganza. After a wonderful lunch there we went to a workshop in Havana where they educated us and showed us how they keep all of the classic American cars up and running. They say “necessity is the mother of all invention” and indeed it’s true in this case. With little resources to repair the cars, especially the engines, mechanics have to rely on hand-crafting pistons and other engine parts from scratch. Sometimes it can take up to six months to replace a part in one of the classic cars. Then they took us for a ride in a couple of swanky classic convertible cars on the Malecon, the seaside road in Havana. What a treat it was.

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Now it was time to experience Havana and its people is up close and personal. We did a walking tour around Old Havana – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in 1519, it retains an interesting mix of Baroque and neoclassical monuments, and a homogenous ensemble of private houses with arcades, balconies, wrought-iron gates and internal courtyards. It’s a lively area where there always seems to be a mix of art, music and passion around every corner.

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While I typically don’ t smoke cigars and I am more or less of a wine drinker; when in Havana, there’s something about the tropical breeze mixed in with the afro-Cuban music and the smiling locals that makes one want rum and cigars. So “when in Rome” as they say! We had a cigar and rum pairing in an exclusive private room on top of a local restaurant. The owner was there too interacting with us to really make it a special time.
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After visiting the hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana where Hemingway lived for a while and his favorite bar, The Floridita, where he invented the daiquiri (there’s a statue of him sitting at the end of bar), it was time to get some sleep as the next day was New Year’s Eve and we were all there to celebrate to the max.

So on the next day, December 31st, it was time to get up to speed in Salsa dancing so we’ll be ready for the big New Year’s Eve party that evening. We went to a private dance studio in Havana where each one of us in the group had a dance instructor to learn with. I started the hour class off dancing like a robot, and by the end of the hour I was dancing like a real Caribbean star (well, at least less like a robot) !

Party hats, tiara’s and noise maker ready, we finally set off to a local nightclub for our much anticipated NYE festivities. There was quite a feeling of excitement in the air as midnight approached in Havana. It was a mix of laughter, daiquiris and mojitos flowing around, cigars being lit, locals and tourists mixing and mingling together in international synergy. Several acts hit the stage to warm up the crowd. It was a steady build-up to the headlining act, but soon the NYE dancers and high energy afro-Cuban music hit the stage and the rhythm of the night hit us like a fast-moving tropical storm. Champagne bottles were brought out to each table in preparation for the clock striking midnight, the bottles were lit up with a firework type sparkler attached to the cork area. 12 grapes were also served to all us revelers  When the countdown ends each grape is eaten, one after the other, to represent the 12 months of the New Year, with a wish made per grape.

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And then it happened – drum roll and cymbal crash please- we were in Havana, Cuba as the clock struck midnight, ringing in the new year of 2019 in the ultimate classic Caribbean style. I had a feeling come over me that Havana, in all her warm-friendly and exotic hospitality would bring all of us a very good year indeed. As the dancers on stage kept us entertained, I happened to look more closely and noticed a couple people from our group had jumped on stage to dance with them. What a fantastic joy. And they were keeping up in step just perfectly. It was so surreal, I couldn’t believe my eyes. By this point, the intoxicating rhythm and passion of Havana had swept over everybody. The fun and excitement went on for hours. However, since what happens in Havana stays in Havana, I cannot elaborate any more on that NYE evening. But let me tell you, it was everything we wanted it to be! (Actually, I don’t remember much past midnight, haha. I’ll blame it on the Cuban rum.)

The next morning, New Year’s Day we slowly came back to life with the help of some great Cuban coffee and set out to Cojimar, a fishing village that inspired Ernest Hemingway’s “Old man and the Sea” book. We visited an organic farm, where we would use the local herbs and spices and vegetables and fruits for the ingredients in a cooking class at a local restaurant nearby. We donned our aprons at the restaurant and cooked up several tasty Cuban style dishes. We also had a drink mixing class at the bar and made some very good mojitos. (A little “hair of the dog” was perfect on New Year’s Day!)

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We ended the day on the beaches of eastern Havana. Many local families were there celebrating the holiday. As the beautiful blue Pacific Ocean called me in for a swim, I gazed up at the sunny sky where a kite was dancing around, being flown by a young Cuban boy on the beach. I thought about how Americans and Cubans are kind of like long-lost cousins. We are only separated by about 90 miles of ocean, but also by 60 years of dysfunctional politics between our two nations. I made a wish that the wind that was carrying the young Cuban boy’s kite on that New Year’s Day, would also be the wind of change that would help bring our two countries relations back together again. Because we as long-lost cousins are family, and we will have so much catching up to do.
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If you’d like to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Havana or visit Havana and Cuba anytime on a legal group tour, please send me an email at jack@activeworldjourneys.comfor a customized itinerary quote.

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