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4 Books to Read Before Traveling to Cuba Posted in March 11, 2018

4 Books to Read Before Traveling to Cuba

4 books to read before traveling to Cuba:

If you’re looking for our post Expert Reviews: Best Cuba Travel Guide Book, click the link.

Our clients often ask us to recommend books they can read to prepare themselves ahead of their travel to Cuba. In this post we’re going to profile 4 books to read before traveling to Cuba. If you only have time to read one book, buy and read the first one.  If you want to read more than one book, keep purchasing books down the list. 

We don’t mention any tourist guidebooks in this post. It’s not just that we don’t recommend the guide books to our clients. After all, Havana VIP clients don’t need any guidebooks, because they’ve got us. And we’re way more up-to-date and accurate than any guidebook.  The reason we’re not going to list any guidebooks in this post is because what we’re talking about here is providing a deeper context than any guidebook will provide, so that when you get to Cuba you can better appreciate and understand the people and culture you’re experiencing on your trip.

The basic mission we set for every trip we plan is to take our clients on a historical and cultural journey from Columbus to Castro and Beyond. It’s the Beyond part that’s tricky.  Beyond refers to more than whatever the future holds for a post-Castro Cuba. There are many excellent academic tomes that deal with that, none of which we’re going to recommend here.  To us, Beyond also refers to that intangible cultural understanding that enlightened people try to achieve through travel.  That sense that you “get” another culture intuitively, because not only do you understand that culture’s unique historical circumstances, but also because you can empathize with the other culture’s universal themes.

In this post of the 4 books to read before traveling to Cuba, we are going to recommend both non-fiction and fiction books.  We present them not at all in any order of best to worst or any kind of judgement like that (which we’re not even qualified to make).  And yes, our own book Cutting Edge Art in Havana is on the list, but we’re not listing it anywhere near first, so rest assured that we’re trying to be as honest and unbiased as we can.

4 books to read before traveling to Cuba:

Havana: A Subtropical Delirium by Mark Kurlansky

If you’re going to read only one book before traveling to Cuba it should be Havana: A Subtropical Delirium.

Mark Kurlansky is a veteran journalist who has more than 30 years of experience covering Cuba (about 10 years longer than we have here at Havana VIP). This book is a short and sweet distillation of the highlights of all the knowledge he’s picked-up over three decades. He gives you the main courses of history flavored with interesting trivial tid-bits. There are accounts of key historical events from pre-Colombian times, explanations of the Spanish colonial period, the 100-plus year fight for colonial independence, the casino years of Lansky and Lucky Luciano, Ché and Fidel’s Revolution, and even daily life right now.  He also teaches you some Cuban slang, gives you some great recipes for roasted chicken, mojitos, and black beans, and explains how Cubans score their everyday essential goods on the blackmarket.

Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba… and Then Lost It to the Revolution by TJ English

This is our favorite Cuban history book, and we’ve read dozens of them.  If we could require everyone to read one book before traveling to Cuba it would be Havana Nocturne.

TJ English is a thorough and rigorous historian specialized in organized crime stories who writes in an entertaining hard-boiled style. Reading a TJ English book is like reading a history book as-if written by Raymond Chandler. This book is a riveting read even if you aren’t going to travel to Cuba. But reading it first, and then traveling with Havana VIP to visit some of the actual sites where the events he describes took actually place is thrilling.  Many of the locations described in Havana Nocturne are stops on our famous Havana Mob Tour Experience.  The painstaking research TJ English did to do to produce this book, especially sifting through the misinformation commonly peddled as historical fact by some Cuban sources, is a monumental piece of work.

TJ English has a new book (March 2018) about the Cuban-American underworld called The Corporation.

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

Leonardo Padura is Cuba’s greatest living author, and The Man Who Loved Dogs is one of his best works.  This epic fictionalized history of the plot to assassinate Leon Trotsky deserves to be turned into a major feature film.

It’s very difficult for any foreigner to “get” Cuban contemporary life, what one of our Cuban artist friends calls “the ironic circumstance of tropical communism”. Padura’s works are imbued with the heat, the decay, the bureaucracy, and the everyday impracticalities of living the utopian ideology of the Revolution. Most travelers are just never going to be able to internalize this on what for most is a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Cuba.  The Man Who Loved Dogs tells the story of Trotsky’s murder through the fictionalized story of real his Cuban assassin, Ramón Mercader, a murderer who also loved dogs. At almost 600 pages this a not a quick read, but it’s compelling and worth the time.

Cutting Edge Art in Havana by Mayret González, Raquel Carrera, and Liatna Rodriguez


Cutting Edge Art in Havana Cover

Cuban contemporary art is some of the best in the world, and the newly updated 2019 edition of Cutting Edge Art in Havana is the best available book about Cuban contemporary art.

Profiling over 100 Cuban artists living and working in Havana today, Cutting Edge Art in Havana is an indispensable resource for anyone who wants to learn about Cuban art.  The result of a 2 year curatorial field study by art historians from the University of Havana, the artists’ profiles are illustrated with examples of their works, and include otherwise hard to get contact information so you can plan your own visits to the artists studios.  All this information is organized by geographic zones of Havana and presented on easy to read maps along with Havana’s museums and cultural centers. The curators even included a selection of the best paladars in each zone on the maps, so that you’ll know where to grab a bite or a drink.  This book, produced by ARTempoCuba, is the basis for Havana VIP’s Artists Studio Tour Experience.

Those are our recommended 4 books to read before traveling to Cuba.  Do you have some better suggestions?  Let us know on our Facebook Page.

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Lisa Cashion Schreiber

They were very organized and we experienced some truly authentic Cuban experiences- highly recommend

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Claudine Rosetti

5 stars for sure! Since I found Havana VIP via an internet search, Tony was very patient in our 45 minute introductory phone call to reassure me that his company was not only legitimate but that they had been in business for over 13 years and knew the ins and outs of Cuban travel for American citizens. Our group ranged in age from 13 to 75 (Grandma~ my mother, came along and she rode a horse in Vinales. Edwardo, our...

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Jane Hammond

We have just returned from a trip to Cuba, arranged by Tony and HavanaVIP. Three couples traveled to Trinidad and Havana, with a particular focus on upcoming Cuban artists. Every plan and arrangement happened flawlessly - guides and drivers were always on time, helpful and endlessly cheerful. Ernesto was our first guide in Trinidad, and he could not have given us a nicer introduction to this amazing country - both the history, and the social state of things today. Attending...

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Nick Nicastro

I can’t recommend HavanaVIP highly enough if you plan to visit Cuba (as you should, and soon!) The island of course is fascinating and friendly and full of interest. But I particularly wanted to mention what great friends our guides Eduardo, Adrian, Mario, Natasha and Olivia became to us. They were beyond compassionate to the needs of my mobility-impaired wife. Tony was always forthcoming and helpful, even as our plans changed due to health circumstances. And HavanaVIPs local connections got...

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Alain Rossmann

A memorable experience, great planning and local execution by Havana VIP.

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Glo Harris

My daughter and I travelled together. She was celebrating her 50th BIRTHDAY. From beginning to end this 5 day trip was magical: planning with Tony was seamless, he took care of each detail just as we discussed, his knowledge of Havana was thorough and his attitude patient and sensitive...and I can be annoying with myriad questions. The guides were the best we have had anywhere, the accommodations on the Malecon comfortable. We particularly enjoyed going to individual artists' galleries, most...

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Rob Boffard

Havana VIP sorted our honeymoon for us. Tony was a pleasure to deal with, and the activities he sorted out for us were perfect. Our guides - Kenia, Ginetet, Eduardo - and drivers - Damaso, Darvel, Eduardo - worked overtime to make us happy. Would highly recommend this company if you ever head to Cuba; they know what they're doing, and they make things simple. Unbelievable trip.

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Santiago Hermes

La Galería Santiago Hermes considera que la agencia Havana VIP realiza un buen trabajo en la promoción de la autenticidad cubana

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Martha Whetstone

We just got back from Cuba and we highly recommend Havana VIP. The quality of the trip was first rate. The guides and drivers were just great and all went out of their way to make our trip run smoothly. The accommodations were all comfortable and we enjoyed our conversations with our hosts. We felt like we really got to see a variety of cities, towns, and countryside. We traveled with two doctors and the guide arranged for us to...

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Martel Angelo Postell
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Jacqueline Postell

Havana VIP made every aspect of travelling to Cuba a breeze. Working with Tony was effortless. Tony and I spoke about the things we were interested in experiencing and then was able to create a seamless itinerary that was startlingly impressive. We met the kindest people; our tour guide, Jorge Gonzalez Estrada and driver, Eduardo, were so knowledgeable, accommodating and welcoming, we felt like family by the end of the trip. The flow of the activities were well timed and...

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Adrián Lamela Aragonés
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Lisa Mastronardi

Imagine hosting 25 friends and family in Havana in August for a 50th birthday celebration. Imagine most of these guys are well traveled, international, seasoned jet setters and you are going to try and wow them with a great adventure. What is a girl to do? Hire the best.

The Havana VIP team both in the US and in Havana knocked it out of the park.

Great housing, fantastic excursions, customized itinerary, amazing experiences,...

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Cara Hogan

Havana VIP Tours did a fantastic job with our trip. My husband and I loved how everything was handled smoothly from the moment we arrived in Cuba until we left. The housing, the tour guides, the drivers, the dinners, and more were all fantastic and well planned out. We learned so much about Cuban culture and history and met some amazing people along the way. If you're looking for an immersive, informative and fun experience of Cuba, this is the...

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Brocky OA

Tony & Havana VIP Tours did an outstanding job from inquiry to finish. We couldn't have asked for more. We were 8 people traveling (4 cousins) whose grandmother & aunts & uncles lived in Havana for 4 years prior to being allowed to enter the US from 1922 - 1926. So we decided to visit where they lived. My wife found the address & we said let's go. We contacted Tony and explained about our journey that we wanted. Tony...

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Josh Poling

My wife and I traveled to Cuba with my parents in November 2016. Tony and Havana did a great job coordinating a custom trip to meet our interests. All of the guides and drivers they set up were very professional. I honestly can't imagine travelling to Cuba any other way! We made sure all of our guides knew we wanted to experience the real Cuba and get off the beaten path, and they were always more than happy to oblige....

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Nancy Pettersen

From our first conversation with Tony we felt we were in the right hands. He listened to what we wanted down to small details like food and music, customizing our trip for 4 adults. The wonderful Cuban people who guided us through Trinidad, Cienfuegos, and Havana were interesting and a great highlight, even down to our Havana driver Pedro who was so much fun. We found our days informative, educational and great fun filled with history, culture and the arts...

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Elizabeth Furst Frank

Tony organized a fantastic family visit to Havana for us. Magalys was a wonderful guide - full of information, always on time, and very friendly. Lidice gave a family cooking lesson in traditional Cuban food. And we loved our family salsa dancing lesson as well. We highly recommend Tony and his team.

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Lj Pruitt

I struggled with finding a tour operator that understood the new laws for Americans to legally travel to Cuba. I called Havana VIP Tours and was pleasantly surprised to speak with someone that knew more than me – Tony. In addition, it was clear that Tony had a deep knowledge of places and things to do in Cuba.

We are a family of 4 ranging in age from 15 years to 83 years. Our interests are...

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James West III

Having traveled extensively, allow me to say that in all aspects the service provided by Havana VIP Tours was the probably the best in all aspects; Communication, Logistics,Transportation, Lodging, On the ground support services, and, well, everything. Tony laid out what was to be offered in the Tour package, and unlike many in the business, he delivered to the most minute of details. His coordination of Flights was well taken care of, as well as necessary Visas. He communicated what...

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Judith Chevalier

We visited three cities and Tony arranged the housing and the transportation and a number of experiences for us. We are a family of 5 and the kids range from 19 to 7, but everybody was very happy with the places we stayed and the activities we had. We really did get to meet a number of interesting people and got a closer look at life in Cuba than we would have if we had set it up on our...

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Mercedes Sera
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Paul Audia

An amazing experience from start to finish.

From the planning of the trip to the people we met and guided us through the country, this was an educational and informative trip filled with Cuban culture, history, and Art.

I'm not big on planned trips but I am so glad we found you and your team for this experience! Thank you!

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Deisy Suarez

Tony is the best ! He arranged a 5 day havana tour for me and my friends. We stayed at a private house and ate at the best local places. Our driver was amazing and couldn't recommend any other concierge company in havana. Our experience was truly magical and unique.

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Stephanie Marsh
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Linda Meier

Tony arranged a 2 1/2 week custom visit to Cuba in March for four couples. We stayed only in "casas", frequently ate in private restaurants, visited with families and were very pleased with our itinerary. I would agree that of all the wonderful experiences we had, the people themselves and their stories and friendliness were the highlight. I would highly recommend using Havana VIP to organize a customized trip free of hassle and complete with backup support should it be...

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Jennifer Brandenburg

Our visit to Cuba was a fabulous experience. We learned so much about its interesting history, rich arts and culture through a very full and diverse set of daily activities. Our interactions with Cuban people were insightful. The trip took a lot of advance planning and precise scheduling by Tony and his Havana VIP Tours team. Our guides and drivers, as well as our hosts at the casa particulares, all took good care of us – special recognition for Hector,...

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Pat Topitzer

Tony arranged our 8 day visit and he completely hit itout of the park. We presented something of a challenge... 2 no-longer-young grandparents with their 23 year old granddaughter. and one of us had some significant physical challenges as well. Between the guides and the drivers, the lodgings, restaurant recommendations, the itinerary, I cannot imagine we could have been any more thrilled with our first visit to Cuba, The people, of course, are the major draw in our view, but...

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C Cybele Raver

Tony and his team were terrific- we felt lucky to be so fully immersed in art, culture, and history while visiting Havana and Trinidad. Tony listened closely to our preferences and interests, providing us with excellent itinerary, superb guest-house stays, talented and engaging tour guides, and warm and helpful drivers for ground transport.

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