For my birthday this year, my husband surprised me with the best gift: a surprise trip to Cuba!
I had and still have mixed feelings about visiting Cuba. I knew that there would be pretty vintage cars and charming architecture but how was the Communist slave island going to feel once I was there? Well, I had 48 hours in Cuba to find out.
Here’s everything that I learned and observed during my weekend in Cuba… but first, a little information to pass on for those wishing to visit:
On December 17, 2014, President Obama ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba. The American Embassy is now open in Havana, for the first time in more than half a century.
Due to these new relations, there are quite a few idiosyncrasies for Americans traveling to Cuba:
Tourism is still banned by law, however visas are permitted for 12 categories including educational, journalistic and religious activities. I traveled under the general license of Educational exchange- People to people. The visa cost is currently determined by the airline, which in my case Delta charged $50/person paid at flight check-in.
US credit and debit cards do not work in Cuba, as American banks are not legally permitted to do business in Cuba (yet).
Travelers should exchange USD into Euros or Canadian dollars in the US prior to travel in order to avoid the 10% fee for converting USD while in Cuba. I exchanged my currency at HAV airport, on the second level after clearing customs prior to entering Havana. Make sure you exchange exactly what you will use, as there is NO international trading of Cuban pesos (you cannot exchange CUC outside of Cuba).
1 Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) pronounced “cook”= 1 USD
1 CUC= 25 Cuban Pesos (Moneda Nacional or CUP);
this second Cuban currency is only used for small purchases such as street foods.
(I exchanged approx 30 CUC into CUP for my weekend stay)
Crime is relatively low, as military and police presence is heavy. Be aware of following locals into businesses as they may expect compensation for a seemingly friendly encounter. Examine your change, as CUP may be returned instead of CUC.
Wifi is practically non-existent. Use your time in Cuba as an opportunity to get off the grid. If you’re unable to disconnect, wifi cards can be purchased for very slow internet speeds at big hotels.
Haggle everything, especially taxis.
Don’t buy cigars on the street and don’t slam the classic car doors!
Don’t be alarmed when you hear the cannon fire every evening at 9:00 pm.
There are about 8 hotels in all of Havana, all owned by the government of course. Visitors are encouraged to stay at a local’s home, a casa particular, booked via Airbnb.
WHERE TO GO AND WHAT TO DO IN CUBA:
A residential neighborhood built for the upper class pre-revolution, filled with colonial homes and charm. Really beautiful to walk around and photograph mansions that have turned into multi-family “government homes”.
The most iconic Havana hotel circa 1930, Cuba’s version of The Breakers of Palm Beach. Famous guests include Frank Sinatra and Winston Churchill.
LA BODEGUITA DEL MEDIO
The birthplace of the Mojito: Cuba’s national cocktail of rum, mint, sugar, lime and soda water. Regulars to this bar include Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Allende, Nat King Cole and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
The “Cradle of the Daiquiri”, a Hemingway favorite. Order the Papa Hemingway for double the rum and none of the sugar.
HOTEL AMBOS MUNDO
In room 511, Ernest Hemingway lived for 7 years and wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls. A beautiful historic hotel with old-timey elevators and a fantastic rooftop bar.
VIÑALES NATIONAL PARK
Three hours drive from Havana, lies the Pinar del Rio province and a small town of Viñales where the best tobacco in the world is grown.
Our car rental for a day trip cost 135 CUC and the horseback tour of the countryside cost 5 CUC per hour per person. The soreness and bruises from 5 hours of horseback are free, though.
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The best tobacco in the world is grown in this rust-colored soil.
90% of the tobacco grown for Cuban cigars are purchased by the Cuban government for 40 CUC per 50 kg. Quite the “steal” huh?
A short trek inside a dark cave filled with stalactites and stalagmites led us to a cool pool, where we swam in darkness and cold water.
PALADAR LA GUARIDA
Paladars are non-government owned “restaurants” serving food in private residences. Recently legalized in the 90’s, this is where you will find the tastiest cuisine.
La Guarida is the most famous paladar in Cuba, on the third floor of a seemingly abandoned multi-family colonial building. The second floor, pictured below is strung with clothes lines and will typically be full of sheets hung out to dry during the daytime. I, however, turned it into my dance room in the evening.
Make reservations online in advance, however my experience was a very backed-up kitchen and multiple tables without food, with patrons leaving before being served. We sat at the rooftop bar and patiently waited with rum cocktails and cigars before an incredible roasted pig dish. Try to go at sunset for a romantic dinner.
Montecristo No. 2 is voted the best cigar in the world and is excellent when paired with Santiago de Cuba 11 años sipping rum.
Other Paladars of note to visit:
Mediterrano Havana, Calle 13 entre E & F
Paladar Los Amigos, Calle M No. 253, Vedado
Otramanera, Calle 35 No. 1810, Playa Cuba
El Chanchullero, “Hemingway was never here”, Habana Vieja
La Terraza, Prado 309 Esquina Virtudes, Habana Vieja
Fabrica de Arte is the coolest place ever. It’s like Brooklyn in Havana, a warehouse repurposed as an art gallery and performance venue. A $2 CUC entrance fee and a quick moving line to enter to multiple bars and some incredible art. Hold onto your paper tally to close your tab upon exit. There was a concert room with a live rock band, and a separate room with hip-hop and a completely different crowd. It’s like getting a glimpse into the future of an emerging Cuba.
Check out El Cocinero next door for dinner beforehand.
Other nightlife spot to check out:
El Zorro y El Cuevo Jazz Club, Calle 23 entre N & O, Vedado, entrance through an old London red phone booth.
Called “La Habana” or Habana Vieja, this is the city center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and looks every bit of the ancient city that was founded in 1519. It is so beautiful in its crumbling yet vibrant architecture.
We wandered Old Havana following the sounds of live music and I suggest you do the same. No map needed, although you may be confused and think you are accidentally in Spain!
FOOD & DRINK
Having lived in Miami for 9 years, I am enthusiastic for Cuban cuisine. I was warned prior to travel that my Floridian exposure would lead to disappointment. My friends were right.
While the rest of the culinary world was evolving, Cuba was isolated as a literal and figurative island.
Spices are not really used in cooking here. The economic situation commonly results in ingredient shortage. My favorite Cuban dish is Ropa Vieja, which I ordered on 3 separate occasions in Havana and failed to receive it due to being sold out, unavailable or just plain didn’t come out to our table. (You’ll find that service is sloooooooow and that the term “Cuban Time” is quite true!)
The US embargo may be the first explanation to come to mind, but let’s not forget that decades of oppression leads to decrease in creativity and desire to experiment. When every person in your community makes the same $20/month, what’s the point in striving to serve the best food at your restaurant?
Well what Cuba may lack in gastronomic excellence, it makes up for in rum and cigars. I swear my blood ran of Havana Club (probably aged 7 years) and that I turned into a Mojito.
CENTRO CULTURAL ANTIGUOS ALMACENES DE DEPOSITO SAN JOSE
The artisan market in a warehouse on the Port of Havana where you must haggle!
It was difficult for us not to leave with multiple pieces of art. We picked up some cigars from the official shop inside. Clean bathrooms here!
CLASSIC AMERICAN CARS
Cuba is a rolling car museum.
Due to the US embargo in 1960, automobile importation ceased into Cuba. Those beautiful classic cars? They’re owned by the government and basically a beautiful shell with a mishmash of repairs holding it together. Most engines have been replaced because diesel gas is cheaper, so the pollution from these old hulks can make riding in that pretty convertible a bit uncomfortable.
All this being said, the classic cars were my favorite part about visiting Cuba.
If you don’t need to travel far, try to find a bicycle powered “taxi” for a 1-3 CUC ride.
2017 Cuba is one of the most interesting places I have ever visited. To see, feel and smell a place that has been shut off to the rest of the world for the past 50 years…
People say “hurry up and visit this beautiful country before it changes”, but be cognizant of the half-century cruel dictatorship that led to the isolation of this beautiful country and its people. Keep in mind that changes in light of improved relations with America, one that increases freedom and improves human rights.. is a good thing. Hopefully seeing with your own eyes the result of repression will prevent history from repeating itself.
Written in love and freedom,
All photos taken by Melllypoo via Canon 6D.