Cool Hunting Edition: Cuba 2015

From the Bienal de la Habana to insider studio visits, our art-oriented experience

Right after visiting Cuba in June of of 2013, we started planning Cool Hunting Edition: Cuba. We knew that any trip to Cuba would be special, but when dates were finally announced for the 12th Bienal de la Habana for May 2015, we committed to exploring Havana through its art and artists—those who are driving cultural conversation and evolution in a more impactful way than in many other countries. So much has changed since we started planning our trip: the arts community has become stronger, the thaw in US-Cuban relations is happening at breakneck speed, and the desire for many to see the country before “it changes” is ever-increasing. Our timing couldn’t have been better.


Cool Hunting Edition: Cuba, our third travel program (we’ve previously hosted photo safaris in Zambia), featured an art-heavy agenda filled with studio visits and the best-of the Bienal’s offerings (no easy task with 130 artists from 40 countries participating), conversations with some incredible locals and a few things that only Cool Hunting could create. Our travelers were the secret sauce—26 Cool Hunting readers and friends we’ve met over the years who created an instant social network in a country with no mobile data and very limited internet access.


In addition to so many of the Bienal’s installations, we organized private visits in the homes, studios and galleries of some of Cuba’s hottest artists, including Esterio Segura, KCHO, Enrique Rottenberg, Damian Aquiles, Maria Cienfuegos, Arles Del Rio, Kelvin López Nieves, Kadir López Nieves, Mabel Poblet and more.


We got different perspectives on Cuba and frank, spirited conversations during meals with Nelson Herrera Ysla, one of the founders and directors of the Bienal de la Habana, Portia Siegelbaum, the CBS News Bureau Chief, and Ricardo Alarcón who served as Cuba’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations for nearly 30 years, was the Minister of Foreign Affairs and President of the National Assembly of People’s Power. Dr Mariela Castro, the founder and director of CENESEX, Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education, was gracious enough to host a private conversation with our group and speak about her efforts supporting the Cuban LGBT community.


Our trip was focused on Cuban arts and artists, and what better way to experience them then with a visit to ISA Cuba’s most elite art school. A day after viewing the campus, its installations and studios, we surprised our travelers with a private show of work by some of ISA’s students, who graciously gifted one of their artworks to each of our guests.


Our guests traveled in style thanks to our friends at Cole Haan, who generously offered up colorful Pinch Weekender shoes and Pinch Apparel for men and women. A highlight of the trip included a private performance by La Colmenita (the beehive) a children’s theater group, for whom we made T-shirts and gifted shoes and accessories from Cole Haan.


Cuban cuisine’s reputation is often stronger than what you experience, but we had several incredible meals at paladars, including La Cocina d’Lilliam, the newly expanded La Guarida, which now has a rooftop bar and cigar lounge, El Cocinero (which was also the location for a surprise flash mob marriage proposal with two of our guests), La Esperanza, Rio Mar and El Atelier. As well as restaurants like Café Del Oriente and El Aljibe. To ensure that every meal tasted its best, we tasked our friend Lior Lev Sercaz from La Boîte to create a travel sized spice kit featuring sea salt, red chile powder, and a new spice blend he named Mojo—inspired by the ingredients and tastes of Cuba.


Traveling to Cuba today means being open to serendipity, meeting people along the way, having unexpected encounters, appreciating the sights, sounds and colors of a city and country in transition, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of three very special people—Batia Plotch who specializes in travel to Cuba, our friend and Cubaphile Jaye Smith, and our local guide Alexis Hernandez, whose knowledge, resourcefulness and contacts were put to the test with our constant requests for experiencing the heart and soul of Havana during one of the busiest weeks every few years. Thanks to the three of them for helping us create this unforgettable experience.

Cuba images By Evan Orensten, spice image by David Graver