I’ve had many requests from friends, family, and twitter to do a post about my trip to Cuba – so here it is! WE LOVED IT. Definitely going back. First off, why did my husband and I decide to go to Cuba? For many reasons – our previously planned honeymoon had to be cancelled for reasons beyond our control and then two years later we finally got around it – Cuba has always been on our ‘must’ list.
How to get to Cuba: If you’re not an American citizen you have no problem, but because of the blockade the American government has placed on Cuba, American citizens have two options: the illegal route (aka: fly through a city in Mexico or some other nearby country) or the legal route: grab one of the few state department approved passes for a ‘cultural tour,’ also called ‘people to people.’ We chose the legal route because we’d never been to Cuba before and didn’t know what to expect. I’d recommend the legal route for first timers because you learn a lot more and you don’t have to worry about arranging things like hotels and transportation. Plus, our Cuban tour guide was the life of the party. We loved him.
Tip: Whether going illegally or legally, take LOADS of cash. There is no place in Cuba to use an ATM or swipe your plastic. If you run out of money, you’re out of luck. Convert some money as soon as you get to the Havana airport, the rest you can take care of at your hotel.
First impressions: Communist ‘efficiency’ is on full display at Havana’s airport. It took 45 minutes to fly from Miami to Havana and about an hour and a half for our bags to get off the plane and we were the only plane that had arrived that morning. The Cuban people milling around baggage claim were super friendly though, helping everyone pull their bags off and making small talk with you. When you say you’re from ‘los Estados Unidos,’ they smile. Exiting the airport is like stepping back in time to the 1930s-50s. Vintage American cars are EVERYWHERE. It was amazing.
Tip: If you are not with a tour group grab a taxi to your hotel. Taxis are obviously any car marked ‘taxi’ but lots of people own private cars (these are the amazing vintage cars) and they work to earn an extra buck – take one of these. There’s nothing quite like driving through Havana in a 1940s Oldsmobile. You can barter for your fare – anywhere from 14 to 20 convertible pesos (CUC) should cover it (the conversion rate is roughly equal)
Food: There are two types of restaurants in Cuba – government owned and private. Government owned restaurants are pretty inexpensive, but limited. You basically get three or four options to choose from: chicken, fish, shrimp, or pork, and each comes rice, beans, and a plate with cut cucumbers and lettuce (avoid lettuce and drink only bottled water unless you’re looking for an unhealthy crash diet). Bring hot sauce. I’m not joking about this…. the food is not spicy and your condiment options are either vinegar, oil, salt, or pepper.
The other type of restaurant is known as a paladar. Paladars are privately owned and usually operated from someone’s household so the quality of food varies. A guide book to Cuba is essential to bring with you to find out where all the good ones are. We went to an internationally renowned one called Paladar Guarida and it was absolutely fabulous. I’m talking 5 stars – spinach crepe filled with mushrooms, chicken, and cream topped with a beet and truffle oil sauce sort of fabulous. Plus it was in the most ‘shabby-chic’ building I’ve ever laid eyes on – high end designers have shot fashion shoots there – honestly it was one of the coolest restaurants I’ve ever been to.
Tip: If you’re a ‘wine only’ drinker be prepared to purchase the whole bottle since they don’t sell by the glass.
Must see: the malecon (the sea wall lining Havana fills up with life at night and street musicians by day), the old presidential palace (where Batista used to live, now it’s a museum documenting the revolution lead by Che and Fidel Castro), El Floridita (Hemingway’s favorite bar in Havana), a jazz club (any will do – all the jazz I heard was the best jazz I’ve ever heard), Hotel Nactional de Cuba (where the likes of Frank Sinatra, Mickey Mantle, Errol Flynn, John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando and Ernest Hemingway used to hang out), Fortaleza San Carlos de la Cabaña (the old Spanish fort above Havana, built in 1763, they shoot a cannon every night at 9 pm to mark the hour and the view of Havana is amazing), and a show at The Tropicana or the Hotel Nactional (these shows take you on a tour of the song and dance from various Latin American countries – and they’re fabulous, though the ladies in their glittery thongs will make you wish you brought your running shoes ).
Tip: Advance reservations are required for shows at The Tropicana and the Hotel Nactional. The Tropicana is an outdoor show; we had originally planned to go to this one but we were feeling the effects of tropical storm Debby and it was cancelled, so keep the weather in mind. The show at the Nactional was great (and we heard from Cubans that it was ‘just as good’). If you’re going to see the cannon fire, plug your ears. I told my husband to… he ignored me and couldn’t hear for 10 minutes afterwards.
The restroom situation: Ok ladies, you know what I’m talking about here… you travel to foreign countries and you’re loving it and then you visit the powder room. Cuban bathrooms in hotels are excellent (totally ‘normal’), Cuban bathrooms in the more expensive restaurants are also fine, but Cuban bathrooms everywhere else require some advance planning. It’s not as bad as other countries I’ve traveled to (think: squat toilets in a hole in the floor in the countryside in China) but most of them don’t have seats and don’t have toilet paper. Flushing was also interesting. Some had bottle caps attached to strings flush, some have an elevated lever flush, and some I never did figure out how to flush.
Tip: Carry your own toilet paper. I took the roll from the hotel room each morning and it worked out fine. Also, carry hand sanitizer since 99% of the bathrooms I visited didn’t have soap.
Shopping: Cuba has fabulous art, music, cigars, rum, and coffee. The last three items you cannot legally bring back into the United States. I may or may not have tried/succeeded in getting them through customs ;-). Other than that, there is the usual array of touristy trinkets, propaganda books, vintage cars made out of Cuban beer cans, and t-shirts with Che’s face printed on them. All fun and all inexpensive.
Tip: bartering in shops doesn’t fly, and if you purchase art be sure to ask for a receipt to show customs in the U.S.
Traveling outside of Havana: We went with a tour group to the Bay of Pigs area and went snorkeling. The water was warm but because of tropical storm Debby it wasn’t as good as it could have been. We liked it, but once is enough. Cuba has some absolutely stunning beaches and beach resorts, but we didn’t go for the beaches (we’ve got lots of those here in Hawaii), so I can’t comment too much on them. It’s definitely ‘country’ outside of Havana and doesn’t have the luxuries that Havana has. If you do head out that way, visit the Museum of Playa Giron (aka: museum about the Bay of Pigs invasion), but be prepared for some guilty feelings if you’re an American.
Tip: When traveling outside of Havana cover yourself in bug repellent.
Overall: Cuba is absolutely fabulous. We will definitely be visiting Havana again (and again and again). The city feels safe (I felt safer walking around Havana at night than I do walking around Honolulu at night), the people are exceptionally friendly and willing to carry on conversations with you (especially about politics), the rum flows, the music plays, and I couldn’t have asked for more. Cuba exceeded every expectation and I can’t wait to get back there!
got questions about traveling to Cuba, politics, history, anything? Ask away!