New Jersey native Clayton Orrigo has made a name for himself as one of New York City's most formidable forces in luxury residential real estate. We couldn't help but notice his gorgeous Instagram photos from a recent weekend in Cuba, and were lucky enough to catch up with him about his enviable trip to one of our Top 5 Emerging Hot Spots for Spring, 2015.
What inspired the trip to Cuba?
It was my close friend's 30th birthday and he planned the trip for a group of eight of us. We all wanted to check out Cuba before everything starts changing given the upcoming political changes with the U.S.
How did you get there?
Legally. That’s the first thing to note! We used a tour group to set it up and then we flew to Miami, spent a night at Soho Beach House, and flew to Cuba the next day.
How did you get your visa?
The Cuba Exchange Program from Cuba Educational Travel.
What's the best thing you packed?
Cash, because credit cards don’t work there.
What were the best tips you got before you left?
To be prepared for the hot weather and to make sure your hotel has internet, since only a few do. We stayed at Hotel Sevilla, which had wifi.
What was the best meal you had there?
On our last night, we went to Dona Eutimia, which made Newsweek Magazine’s top 100 restaurants in the world in 2012. They are known for their "ropa vieja," an amazing pork dish. There is very little red meat in Cuba because it’s too expensive to get. Even chicken needs to be imported from Canada. So pork is their primary meat source. Since almost everything is run by the government, you're best off making reservations at private restaurants which are effectively in people’s homes, usually offering a more upscale dining experience.
Favorite thing you did:
I visited a gallery of Hector Frank, a famous Cuban artist. The gallery is in his private home, and we had a chance to meet his entire family as well as purchase a number of his pieces from his most recent collection. He’s an up-and-coming artist starting to pick up a lot of steam in the U.S.
Tell me about your best day there.
One day we met a group of Croatians and got a chance to spend time with them as they were also exploring Old Havana. We walked around and ate in bars where Hemingway used to hang out, which is big deal there (he is a huge figure in their culture and his books are being sold everywhere on the streets) and then we all went out partying that evening. We bounced around to a couple fun clubs, including the "Art Factory" which is essentially a gigantic warehouse that is part club / part gallery. We all ended up back at our hotel swimming under the stars until 6am.
What's one place you didn't get to visit but wanted to?
Varadero Beach. We ended changing a lot on our itinerary to focus on less "touristy" pursuits and more a natural exploration of the city. We wanted to find the Nolita of Cuba, not Broadway and it's tourist traps. We had our guide point us in the right direction and we roamed around for hours stopping in random bars, and street markets.
What was the most interesting thing you learned?
Brain surgeons make $30 per month. The healthcare system and the educational system is actually quite strong, but as the government pays for everything, wages are extremely low. The government provides food and shelter subsidies in addition, but some of the smartest people in the country make a fraction of our minimum wage employees in the U.S.
What did you bring back?
Everyone wanted rum and cigars and we were able to bring a limited amount back of each. I also brought back a humidor.
What’s the #1 tip you'd give a friend who wanted to go?
Get a tour guide and a car. We had a driver the whole time and that was instrumental to us getting around. Since there's no internet or Googlemaps, it's very challenging to get around. Also, ditch the aforementioned Sprinter van for some amazing classic car taxis. We occasionally had our driver follow us as we drove around in classic American 1958 convertibles in all sorts of Crayola colors.
Would you go back?
Yes. What is so interesting about Cuba is that it’s only 90 miles off of Miami, but has a very Parisian, European feel to it. The city is architecturally stunning, so for those based in Florida, they can have a completely new experience only 30 minutes away.
Do: Stroll through the Old City, visiting Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza de la Catedral, and Plaza de Armas; visit the Rum Museum; take a day trip to Vinales Valley; hike the tobacco fields; visit the arts and crafts market in Old Havana; take a group picture at La Plaza de Revolucion.