No sooner had the plane finished its short ascent that it started to descend, swooping in along the northern coast of Cuba and a little bit to the west of Havana for our landing at José Martí International Airport in the afternoon. We exited the airport and were greeted by Osmin Rivero Soto, our ever-smiling Cuban guide from a state tourism agency who was to accompany us throughout the trip. We boarded the bus and immediately started our adventure and Osmin gave us some important information as we drove into the city, not to our hotel, but to Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro
. Commonly referred to simply as el Morro
, this military fortification, started in the 16th century, is located on the opposite side of the bay from the main city center. There we took in views of Havana extending from Old Havana out west as far as the neighborhood of Miramar, on the far side of the Almendares River.
We piled back in the bus, which was to be navigated throughout the trip by our chofer
Roberto, and made our way to check-in to what would be our home base in Havana, the Hotel Nacional
. Designed by McKim, Mead and White, the Nacional has been one of Havana’s grandest tourist hotels since it opened in 1930. After a quick check-in we reconvened to enjoy a group dinner at one of the near by paladares
—private, family-run restaurants that have been allowed in Cuba since the onset of the economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union, referred to as the Special Period.