CaribbeanLGBT Travel

In Cuba, an aura of easy acceptance

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La Guarida, just outside Old Havana, was the setting of the 1993 film “Strawberry and Chocolate.”
La Guarida, just outside Old Havana, was the setting of the 1993 film “Strawberry and Chocolate.” Photo Credit: Augusto Mia Battaglia/Flickr

Last May I was living the dream — or at least, I was living someone's dream. I was on a plane bound for Cuba with 11 handsome, muscly men. We had rented a villa in Cuba's swanky Miramar neighborhood, where we were destined to spend our days sipping Cuba libres poolside, meandering the streets of Old Havana and dancing to that sultry, syncopated Cuban music that can make you forget that the sun rose hours ago.

It was definitely fodder for some type of female fantasy … save for the fact that all 11 men were gay.

To an outsider, Cuba would probably not seem to be a prime location to promote LGBT travel. But what we found was quite the opposite: a widely tolerant community where being gay is more than accepted. In fact, in Havana, it's a nonissue.

"Forget about the communist side of it: Latin cultures aren't necessarily accepting of homosexuality," said David Lee, owner of luxury travel company Cultural Cuba. "Combine that with the communism, which is also not very accepting, and you assume Cuba would be the worst possible place for LGBT travel. But it's not."

In fact, Cuba has a government-sponsored organization, the Cuban National Center for Sexual Education (Cenesex), that provides education about LGBT issues.

"Cenesex travels around to schools to educate and teach people about homosexuality," Lee said. "They also provide counseling to youths and young adults struggling with their own sexual identity. Beyond that, they provide transgender surgery that is covered under socialized medicine. It is one of the most progressive societies when it comes to LGBT issues."

Lee said one of the driving forces behind LGBT travel in Cuba was the release of "Strawberry and Chocolate," an Oscar-nominated 1993 film with LGBT themes that was set in Havana and shot entirely in an apartment just outside Old Havana.

The film developed a major following, and travelers wanted to come to Cuba to see where it had been filmed. The owner of the apartment transformed it into a privately run restaurant, La Guarida, known as a paladar, which is very popular in Cuba. (Paladares are private homes that have been transformed into restaurants.)

"From the street the building looks somewhat dilapidated," Lee said. "You walk in and it is gorgeous. The restaurant is on the second floor, and it is incredible. It retains the historic character of the building and has a kitchen that any chef in New York would be happy to have."

From the LGBT angle, people expected that once the film was released, because of the topic, that the government would ban it from the country and try to shut down the restaurant. But not only did they not do that, they helped promote it. A lot of this can be attributed to Cenesex leader Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban president Raul Castro and feminist Vilma Espin.

Havana isn't necessarily a "gay" destination the way that places like Puerto Vallarta or Mykonos are known for their high concentration of gay hotels, bars and restaurants. But it is a destination that is completely safe and accepting for LGBT travelers.

The "gay district" of Havana is known as Bimbom and is a central meeting point for the gay community with its many gay bars and nightclubs. Consider looking at nightlife organizer El Divino de Cuba, a company that rents out clubs specifically for gay parties on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays. Havana even hosted its own Pride parade on May 14.

But whatever dream you're looking to live in Havana, sexual orientation is not a deterrent.

What LGBT travelers will find is a warm welcome and a lot of Cuba libres.

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