Many travelers think of Cuba as being trapped in a time warp, and while that may appear to be the case at first glance, closer inspection reveals that groundbreaking changes are taking place — fast. With the Thawing of U.S. relations with the island nation and its slow opening to American tourists, more change is certainly coming. And that makes the thought of taking a trip down there exhilarating.
No group of Cubans has been more aware of the shifting tides than the LGBT community there. In a few short years this segment of the population has gone from living in the shadows — much like the U.S. pre-Stonewall — to becoming visible, vocal and politically active. Cuba has even instituted its own Pride celebration. Officially titled The Cuban Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, it was started in 2009 and has been held annually in mid to late May ever since. The weeklong event kicks off in Havana and includes a Pride parade, a sports day and a number of other special events. Other provinces usually hold events in the weeks following Havana’s kick-off celebration, and each year a different province is chosen as the focus of the festivities. While quite similar to events held the world over in terms of food, music and extravagant outfits, there are marked differences as well. For starters, there are no private sponsors or vendors. In fact, the entire parade is government-run.
Like the Movies
One of the landmark moments for Cuba’s long overdue cultural shift was the release of the 1993 Oscar-nominated Fresa y Chocolate. The film revolves around a conflicted relationship between a committed Marxist student and a flamboyantly gay artist, and it kickstarted a national conversation about gay life in Cuba whose repercussions are felt more than 20 years later. Shortly after the movie’s release, longstanding penalties for homosexual activity were abolished. And now, two locations prominently featured in the film have become unofficial LGBT tourist destinations: La Guarida, one of the top restaurants in Havana; and La Coppelia, an ice cream parlor.
Due to the stagnant economy, enterprising locals have found a variety of ways to stitch together a living. Many are more than willing to help tourists in exchange for tips, meals and drinks or outright payment for their services. Some of the most frequented attractions to check out are the National Museum of Fine Arts, Cementerio de Colón and the Hemingway Museum.
Evenings are for socializing. Everyone gathers before heading out to nightspots and parties along the seawall known as el malecón near La Rampa — where the seawall intersects with Avenida 23. In that area you’ll find a few of the new clubs that cater to Havana’s LGBT community. Humboldt 52, Las Vegas and Discoteca Escaleras al Cielo are all popular. Spend a Saturday night at Café Cantante and you’ll bear witness to Havana’s biggest party of the week.
A Day at the Beach
As rich as the culture is in the capital, you’ll want to head to the outskirts of the city and even beyond to delve deeper into Cuba’s bounty. Take a 20-minute drive north of Havana to Mi Cayito for a day at the gay beach. Locals hang out on the sand, but beach chairs and umbrellas are available for rent — and many tourists snap these up. You should be able to negotiate a cab ride for about $10-$20, and you can ask your driver to pick you up at a designated time, too. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, take the red sightseeing bus that departs from Parque Central to the hotels on the outskirts of Havana. Ask the bus driver to drop you off at the nearest hotel for Mi Cayito beach; it’s about a 10-minute walk from there. Make certain that you check the time for the last bus returning to Havana.
Beyond the Big City
In central Cuba you’ll find the province of Santa Clara, perhaps the most openly gay city in Cuba. In this sleepy region you wouldn’t expect to come across a gay club, but there it is, and has been for nearly 20 years. El Mejunje was founded by Ramón Silverio, who wanted a place where artists, musicians, drag performers and intellectuals of all kinds could gather and find acceptance. This province is very proud of its acceptance of its more colorful residents.
Santiago, about 540 miles southeast of Havana, is the second largest city in Cuba. It is known for its variety of architectural styles, from neoclassic to Baroque. It is also home to some of Cuba’s most famous musicians, including the Buena Vista Social Club. Santiago is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to the citadel of San Pedro de la Roca and Baconao Park. Historical landmarks include the first home in the Americas, the first copper mine opened in the Americas and the first Cuban museum.
On the far west side of the island is one of the most beautiful diving locations in the Caribbean: Maria la Gorda. There’s no nightlife to speak of here; it’s all about nature and exploring the azure waters, black coral and sea creatures. Soroa, known as the “rainbow of Cuba,” is notable for its immaculate mountain air and waterfalls. On the south central side of the island, Playa Ancon’s vast white beaches and Trinidad’s Colonial ambience are also major draws.
While you won’t find first-class roads, luxury hotels or experienced service in Cuba, you will find a warm country rich in culture. For the adventurous traveler, that may be enough of a draw. Others would probably be best served booking through a tour operator experienced in putting together LGBT tours.
Detours with Matt:
Arrange private trips or an annual tour to coincide with Pride. A 10-day, small-group tour includes lodging, airfare from Miami, transportation for group activities, a number of meals, health insurance in Cuba, a visa and an expert guide co-leading the trip with tour operator Matt Smith. detourswithmatt.com
▪ Explore Cuba with Yale GALA (LGBT Alumni Association): Matt Smith (see above) is the organizer of this upscale trip, which coincides with Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. The group has tentative plans to meet with Mariela Castro this May. No Yale affiliation is necessary to take part in this trip. yaleedtravel.org
▪ Coda International Tours: The 10-night Unexplored Cuba focuses on People-to-People exchanges in Havana, Santa Clara, Camagüey, Holguín and Santiago de Cuba among others. coda-tours.com
▪ Zoom Vacations:Spend eight days exploring the island with a Zoom Vacations® Concierge in May. And if you miss that tour, there’s always their New Years in Cuba tour. zoomvacations.com
▪ Al and Chuck Travel:These week-long cruises depart from Jamaica with stops in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Maria la Gorda, Cienfuegos. alandchuck.travel