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Penélope’s Travel Diary: Havana, Cuba

April 3, 2017

One word to describe this little Caribbean gem, AMAZING!

 

My boyfriend, Ray, and I absolutely loved Havana. We loved it to the point that we can't wait to go back and explore other parts of Cuba. From beginning to end, every minute of our trip felt like an adventure filled with unforgettable memories. So, if you are bit of an adventure and/or history junky, book that flight and pack your bags ASAP!

 

Upon returning to the States, we’ve been flooded with messages from friends and family asking for a recap and travel tips. There still is a lot of uncertainty about this destination, for which I’ve tried to make it a little easier for you by sharing my experience along a few handy recommendations.

 

Though I loved this place, I highly recommend doing a lot of research and learning to manage expectations prior to committing to taking this trip. You should fully understand what you’re getting into and be aware that you are going to a third world country technologically stuck in time. Traveling to Cuba is a trip, not a vacation.

 

Who is eligible to travel?

As of last year, the general licenses to travel to Cuba have been extended to 12 additional categories and you’re very likely to meet at least one of them. Visit the US Citizen Services for more info.

 

We purchased a direct flight from Newark to Havana through United Airlines, which included the required visa. The Visa is purchased at the airport at the time of departure for a cost of $75. To be honest, we were very nervous about this process, but it ended up being quite simple.    

 

Travel

I hate to start on a negative note, but this definitely was one of the worst parts of the trip. Havana’s airport is very, very outdated and that being your first look of the country, it becomes an immediate culture shock. I was born and raised in a third world country and this was quite an impression even for me.

 

I highly recommend to NOT check-in luggage unless you completely and absolutely must. We waited over 2 hours to receive our bags after landing. FYI - arm yourself with patience.

 

Lodging

The city has various hotels, including the iconic El Nacional. If you are looking for comfort, this may be your best option as most are properly equipped with modern amenities, including Wi-Fi. However, note that hotels in Havana can come with quite a price tag. In our case, we opted for AirBnB, which can be easily found all over the country just a click away from your own computer. This is a modern take on the traditional casas particulares and was the perfect way to get a feel for every day, local life. 

 

Our AirBnB, Casa Rolando y Emilia, couldn't have possibly been better! Our hosts were the absolute best! We had a private little apartment with its own bathroom and running hot water 24/7 in the West side of the city, Vedado. They cleaned our room, brought us clean towels every single day and even changed our sheets on the 3rd night. Our package also included homemade breakfast every morning and a mini fridge with beer, sodas and bottled water. We found this last touch to be very thoughtful.

 

On the flip side, we were not in the center of town, therefore spent a lot of time and money on taxis, which as worth it considering that Vedado is the newest neighborhood in Havana (of course, new in relative terms).

 

Currency

Pay attention: the Cuban government has two official currencies, the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso or Chavito) and the CUP (Cuban Peso). As a tourist, you will only need the CUC, so be careful when exchanging your money. This CUC is valued 1 to 1 to the Euro.

 

Note that the dollars is currently subject to a 10% fine in addition to the customary 3% exchange fee.  In order to avoid the penalty and get more for your money, we recommend bringing euros from the US to exchange for CUC in Cuba. It's what we did and what we noticed most people do as well.

 

Be aware that Cuba is a cash country (again, you're going back in time in terms of technology) and ATMs are not available to Americans, yet. Therefore, though we brought lots of cash as recommended, we were often nervous to run out... which thankfully we didn't.

 

Transportation

The transportation is bit of a struggle. There are very few cars on the road and public transportation is super limited. Cab drivers often carry business cards, which makes it a little easier to get a hold of a driver, but considering that you can't make calls for free, their purpose is kind of defeated. 

 

After being unable to find a cab on NYE, we took la guagua (public bus) with a few random young folks we met as we walked on the street the first night we arrived. The bus was inhumanly packed – in traditional third world fashion - not to mention the violent driving... but the reggaetón was blasting and my Dominican heart felt right at home! This was a fun experience but we did it only once and never again LOL.

 

Reco: when taking taxis, try to pre-negotiate the service rate with the driver before accepting the ride in order to avoid surprises or getting scammed.

Food

I’ve heard mixed reviews from peers that have visited recently, but we personally found the food to be quite tasty. Fresh everything everywhere and very, very cheap!

 

I ate so much seafood that I am sure I returned home with skyrocketing mercury levels. However, if you are a beef lover, don't expect to find this type of meat around easily. Only the Cuban government is allowed to manipulate cattle and killing a cow is considered a felony. So, finding a piece of steak in a regular menu will be quite difficult. Touristy hotels are your best bet.

 

It’s also a good idea to make reservations ahead of time for popular/touristy restaurants as finding a table during high season could be nearly impossible.  

 

Note that the city has “Paladares” everywhere. These are small, privately owned restaurants normally in someone’s garage or home. Private businesses are generally not allowed in Cuba, but these little ventures are one of the very few exceptions and a small glimpse of democracy. We tried to support and eat at one of these stops at least once every other day.

 

Tipping – tips are included as part of the final tab, but we always made a point to leave a little extra and give it directly to the waiter. 5-10 CUCs can make a huge difference in the life of an average local.

 

Overall experience

The people were just the absolute nicest! Most obviously thought that we were Cubans until the accent would often give us away.  Upon learning about our ethnicity the answer was always the same, "la misma cosa, caballero! Son unos de nosotros." Just very simple people, very happy with very little (specially los campesinos), which puts life in perspective. 

 

Despite the struggles, everybody is very proud of their country and are always eager to offer an unsolicited (yet welcomed) history/politics/architecture class. Obviously, perspectives and political point of views change based on who you talk to. 

 

There is live music absolutely everywhere you go and the Afrocentricity and richness of their culture is deeper than I expected. On the second or third night (can’t remember), we went to la Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña to experience El Cañonazo de las 9pm. This ceremony reenacts a tradition dating back to the slavery era, when the city was divided in two sections and gated throughout. One side was for the white masters and the other side for the Mulatos. At 9pm, every night, a canon was blasted to remind the mulatos that they had to go back to the white side to continue their domestic service before the gates closed. 

 

I believe entering the fort is about 10 CUCs and in addition to the ceremony, you also get to see a bunch of little museums and street vendors with wonderful souvenirs inside. The fort is absolutely beautiful and the cañonazo is a big part of the Havana tradition. This Morro is a must do in my opinion. Make sure to arrive by 8pm in order to enjoy the place and get a chance to shop.

 

Viñales

We took a day to go to el campo and it was probably our favorite part of the entire trip. We booked a 5 hours horseback tour through the Tabaco fields, visited a cueva and ate comida hecha en caldero y leña en un restaurantito en el medio del monte. We smoked cigars, played with the wild farm animals (meaning me lol) and bought artisanal cigars.

 

A lot of people opt to stay in this town for a few nights and bike around, etc. However, I don’t think this needs to be more than a day trip. We did our excursion, bought cigars and left. We felt this was enough. 

 

The contact info:

Our tour guide’s name is Yubier and he was the absolute BEST!  

The cost of the tour is $5 per hour and you can book it for up to 5 hours, which is what we did. 

Other tidbits:

  • BYOTP: Bring your own toilet paper! We found out that most public places lack toilet paper, for which we made sure to bring a roll everywhere we went and didn’t struggle in that aspect... yes, there is no toilet seats in public bathrooms, but I personally don't sit anyway, so this was not a big deal to me.

  • We also past on the idea of hiring a tour guide and rather just grabbed the city maps available on Amazon, the notes from our research, allowed ourselves to get lost and discover at our own pace. The only thing we booked was the day trip to Viñales, and even that was done independently.

  • We avoided el Museo del Ron, as it looked like a tourist trap and it didn’t seem like something we wanted to waste 2-3 hours doing. Totally up to you.

  • Internet – 90% of places don’t have Wi-Fi access and to be honest, the lack of connectivity does suck in the beginning. However, it forces you to live and enjoy the moment, which is an art form that most of us have forgotten. That also made for a great bonding experience between me and Ray, since we couldn't escape each other lol.

  • You might know this from visiting other 3rd world countries, but don’t wear flashy clothes and jewelry or anything to call attention. Not because you’ll get robbed, but you want to avoid getting ripped off or having people telling you sob stories asking for money. Havana is very, very safe. You can walk around the sketchiest neighborhoods without a worry, which is very refreshing as an American tourist.

RESTAURANTS 

  • La Guarida – iconic restaurant with a very nice view and wonderful photo ops. Call for a reservation because it is probably one of the most famous places in Havana, so IT WILL BE PACKED.

  • El Floridita – another famous touristy place, but worth going to if you have a chance. Is the house the daquiri and known for being one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite places in Havana. The drinks aren’t the best, but go in, grab a daquiri, check off the box and keep it moving. 

  • La Bodeguita del Medio – another restaurant / bar like El Floridita. Worth stopping by for the photo op and writing your names on the wall. 

 

NIGHTLIFE

  • Casa de la musica – salsa dancing spot with two locations (Centro Havana and Miramar).

  • Fabrica de Arte Cubano – a cool gallery that also has live music, bars, etc. so it’s a good place to go at night. It’s currently a hot spot and the line can get crazy. The art scene is picking up steam now in Havana and this is supposed to be a hub for that.

  • Tropicana – this is the world-famous cabaret. It’s outdoors and the show is incredible under the stars.

 

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