Cuba has been at the top of our bucket list for some time. As soon as America lifted the travel embargo we were lusting over all the travel imagery we could find. Last December I missed out on the opportunity to take an eight day cruise to Cuba and barely got over my grief (jk sort of). Luckily Delta ran an epic deal on sky mile flights at the beginning of the year (15,000 Skymiles per round trip), and David surprised me by booking us a couple round trip tickets to Havana. The fact that it was over Valentine’s Day and my birthday made it truly the best surprise ever! Read on to discover where we stayed, played, and ate in addition to all our tips on navigating travel to Cuba.
I confess, we had very little time to plan our trip, so we walked into Havana more unprepared than any overseas trip we’ve been on recently. I have to say that for us this only served to add to the mystique and romance of the trip. I wouldn’t recommend unseasoned travelers to do this, but if you are experienced and have some travel street smarts, Havana is a great place to be spontaneous. Several friends had traveled to Cuba before us, so we got all their recommendations before we took off. I also browsed Pinterest for guides from other bloggers. A major bonus was how much Airbnb had to offer. Not only did we book our accommodations through the site, we also found great excursions to experience as well. We felt safer doing it this way because all the travel we booked through the site came with tons of reviews, and we paid for it all in advance which helped us budget before we went.
Where to Stay
As I mentioned before, we choose to book our acomodations through Airbnb. Our Cuba experienced friends informed us that Airbnb locations are generally nicer than Cuban hotels because the hotels are all government run and generally not well funded. We have used Airbnb in the past with great success and loved how easy it was to search for the perfect spot based on location and price point. In addition, when you book through Airbnb or through a locally run Casa, you know that more of the funds are actually benefitting the locals instead of just going back to the government. We chose this gorgeous two bedroom third story walk up in a great area of Old Havana. The apartment had been recently renovated and we loved how authentic the decor looked. The bedrooms were air-conditioned which is something you definitely want to look for when booking, as many locations do not come with AC. We also loved that our location had a balcony looking over a busy residential street with great restaurants nearby and a peek of the water and El Malecon. Our host was amazing and treated us like family. Olgita took care of us from the moment we arrived until departure, and we were able to order breakfast cooked in house (which is not a common meal in Havana) for a small fee. Our host also arranged transport for us from the airport and back which was convenient and made our trip more seamless. We decided to stay in Old Havana or Habana Vieja because its romance, history, and culture. We did get to visit other Havana neighborhoods for our nightlife excursion, as well as our history tour so we got a nice taste of what the entire city had to offer.
Tip: When booking an Airbnb look for “super-hosts” these are the hosts that have the best reviews and are well known to treat their guests well. Also make sure to know the difference between a whole house and a room rental.
Where to Eat
We ate at several spots while in Havana but I’ll focus on the most notable. We were pretty spontaneous about our dining choices because of our tight time frame in planning the trip. The only spot I really wanted to try was La Guarida which I had read about on several bloggers posts. Our reservation fell through however, so we weren’t able to make it work. I will say that for the most part, the food was pretty much the same everywhere we went. Since the country is communist, the restaurants and citizens operate on rations. There is not a ton of diversity in the menu offerings. Although I’ve read there are some family run restaurants or “Paladars”, that branch out into other styles of cooking, we remained in the high tourists areas where the selection was somewhat redundant. For future visits I would plan more Paladar experiences and venture out of the typical touristy restaurants. For us our breakfasts in home were a special treat as it was a real look into authentic homestyle cooking in Havana.
La Farmacia: This cute little restaurant was located right next door to our Airbnb and we frequented it often. The staff was friendly and very welcoming to Americans and the menu was available in English as well as Spanish which was helpful to us non-Spanish speaking Americans. The menu was pretty typical of Cuban fare although their twist was to pay homage to the original habitant of the building (a pharmacy), so they incorporated many herbs and flavors that also were known to have health and wellness benefits. We enjoyed marinated chicken, and pork chunks along with rice and beans. Like most of our dining experiences, the marinated chicken was always tasty.
Helad’oro: We visited this tasty ice-cream spot a few times. The flavors were delightful and the service was friendly. Our favorite flavors were Galatazo (which was basically cookies & cream), and the Mojito Sorbet. It was the perfect afternoon treat to enjoy while walking the streets of Old Havana.
La Esquina de Cuba: La Esquina de Cuba is located about 20 yards from the La Bodeguita del Medio (the claimed birthplace of the Mojito), and is a conveniently located second story restaurant with a bird’s eye view from their intimate balcony, of the street activity and afore mentioned tourist hot spot. We visited this restaurant twice because the cuisine had more technical finesse and artistry. They also had a prix fixe menu that included a mojito, an appetizer, a salad, an entree, coffee and dessert. We enjoyed dining here more than any of the other restaurants and always love to discover “our spot” when we travel. We will always remember our experience here (with heart emoji eyes) as our spot. The sunset was impressive as it painted the sky a rainbow of pastel hues and the vino was delicious. The restaurant was clean and the service was friendly and timely. We highly recommend this little spot.
Tip: Because the country operates on rations, it is not uncommon for restaurants to run out of certain menu items.
Where to Play
As I mentioned earlier we decided to book several excursions with locals through Airbnb. This is a great option for folks who aren’t sure where to start and may not have friends in Cuba to rely on for recommendations.
Explore Havana Nightlife With Two Locals: We didn’t have a lot of time to decide on what kind of nightlife we wanted to do so we opted to take the local recommendation route and booked this fun night out with two locals. Thursday was the only night available at the time of booking which was good and bad. Thursdays are not a popular night for going out in Havana but it turns out it’s the best night to go to Fabrica de Arte Cubano, which was really the main place I wanted to see. In hind sight, we could have just made an entire night out of this location. This is a huge facility full of compelling Cuban art and multiple stages for musical performances. There is usually a line to get in, however our guide had a quick pass for entry which was a nice bonus. When you enter you receive a card which you fill with stamps each time you get a drink. Upon exit you present the card and pay your tab. This made getting drinks much quicker. You can also get food inside, so feel free to really enjoy your time here without worrying about getting hungry. The back of the building consists of several shipping containers stacked on each other which makes for a really cool urban experience. I can’t say enough about Fabrica de Arte Cubano, we mingled in and out of all the different vignettes enjoying the art and listening to local artists perform rap, jazz, and house music. It was the perfect way to get in touch with the Art scene and connect with the voice of Havana’s progressive community. We arrived at 10:30pm, however it was really just starting to rev up around 12:30am. Later we ventured to a local salsa club but were disappointed to find it was rented out for a private party. Our last venue was ok, but more of a casual college crowd which wasn’t my crowd but definitely lively and active.
Tip: If you choose this excursion make sure your taxi finds the right corner or have the hosts arrange your transport. Our taxi took us to the wrong stop and we ended up late to our meeting point because we had to walk six blocks to get there. Remember, due to wifi limitations making contact can be tricky so all of the arrangements need to be solid before you arrive in Cuba. Our guides only spoke little English. Enough for us to communicate ok, but not strong enough to carry on much a conversation. I will say this language barrier made the experience somewhat awkward at times.
Part of our wish list for Cuba was to get to know the culture more and understand the political landscape a bit better. Instead of trying to navigate this on our own, we opted for a local tour via Airbnb with our new best friend Jorge. Our experience with Jorge was flawless. He spoke the most fluent English of anyone during our visit which made the experience friendlier, and we were able to ask more in depth questions that had been building up during our visit. Jorge had so much insight into Cuba and took us to some of the most iconic landmarks during our tour. We loved getting a chance to ride once again in a classic car, which set the ambiance for the entire experience. I don’t want to give away too many of his secrets but know that during this driving tour you’ll have the chance to have all your questions answered and you’ll understand Cuba from a whole new light. Of course I’d be remiss if I forget to mention all the incredible Instagram worthy spots you’ll be arriving at thanks to Jorge’s steller planning. Like many Cubans, Jorge is incredibly well connected so if you have any questions about where to stay, eat, or where to find the best Cuban cigars, this is the guy to ask.
El Malecon is the iconic sidewalk and seawall that stretches along Havana’s coastline for five miles from the mouth of the Havana Harbor in Old Havana to the Vedado neighborhood. Chances are you’ve seen it in the movies. This walkway is beloved by locals and tourists alike. The place folks go to enjoy a romantic sunset, watch the classic cars drive by, and take in the Havana skyline. Every night at 9pm you can also head to El Malecon to enjoy the canon display from Castle Morro. We spent our first evening watching the sunset on El Malecon, and taking in the sea air while soaking in the moment. On our last evening we made our way out to watch the canon go off and enjoy one last magical Havana night arm in arm. It’s a “must-do” for any visitor.
Tip: El Malecon is iconic and magical, but it is also a tourist hot spot. With it’s popularity comes a frequency of those who’d take advantage of your kindness. Several times while walking El Malecon we were approached by over-eager locals looking for a hand out. If this happens, just assert yourself and walk away. Generally they will move along.
In my brief research I read that if you are visiting a beach in the Havana area, opt for Santa Maria Beach which is less crowded and more of a local crowd. We decided to head there on our first day and hired a pink convertible taxi to take us there. It was about a 20 minute ride and the driver waited for us for an hour. The ride cost 70 CUC for the round trip which was a little steep. We probably could have found it cheaper if we wanted to negotiate, but in Cuba, we didn’t mind being generous. As you’ll learn, the average income is 40 CUC, so we had a tendency to pay what they requested. We enjoyed Santa Maria Beach. Our driver introduced us to someone who helped us rent a couple chairs for a minimal price and they did have food and drink options. Personally I was not impressed with the drinks, but they made for nice pictures. The beach was clean and not crowded. There were some folks trying to make money off the tourists such as musicians and women who did hair braiding. We politely declined and they moved along.
Tip: I suggest packing your own beach towels if you plan on heading to the beach. No towels were offered with the chair rental, and our Airbnb specifically told us not to bring towels to the beach.
There were plenty of spots to gather souvenirs on the streets of Old Havana. Most of them offered the same wares. Hats, t-shirts, baubles, & wooden crafts could be found in abundance along with some leather products. As we worked our way into the center of Old Havana we came upon an open air market. This was our favorites spot as you could find multiple vendors and compare prices. Upon trying to negotiate we were told prices were standard as the market was a government market. Not sure if this was just an excuse. Either way the prices were not outrageous. Jewelry could be attained from 3-20 CUCs depending on what it was made of, and leather goods ranged from 3-50 CUCs again depending on the product. At first we thought this was the only type of shopping but as we were walking near El Capitolio (The Capitol building) we were surprised to find a luxury mall with designer stores and products. It was mostly a ghost town, but I suppose the affluent guests of the larger Hotels in the area frequented it often enough.
Wifi: One of the charming qualities of Cuba is a travelers ability to visit and unplug from modern technology. Wifi is a recent addition to the country and as of this post it has only been around for a year. There are roughly 500 hot spots across the entire Cuban island. That makes logging in and connecting to the mainland rather tricky. We had read you needed a wifi card, however it was sort of an adventure trying to figure out where to attain said wifi card. Asking for it on the streets lead to little results as apparently “Wifi” is not an international word. Eventually we figured out you could find those connected to wifi as they were generally all gathered together on the streets deeply immersed in their screens (sound familiar). Needless to say this got a good laugh out of us as it reminded us how zombie-like the technically advanced world appears to the developing world. When we asked the wifi zombies where to find wifi cards we learned that most of the government hotels sold them. Best access strength, once you logged into your card, was generally in the hotel bar which, you guessed it, required some kind of bar purchase to linger and check your email and such. We found wifi cards were generally around 3 CUC, but I heard in other places they have been known to hike the price up for tourists. They also ration out the sale of these cards. We were told on more than one occasion they “didn’t have any more cards” when in reality we believed they just didn’t want us buying more than one at a time.
CYA: Seeing how wifi is so limited we highly recommend taking digital photos and printing or writing down all your travel info for back up. You will want to be able to have a back up of your passport, visas, and insurance if they were to get lost, as well as have the land line numbers of your hosts, and contacts in Cuba.
Exchanging Money: Traveling to Cuba requires you to carry cash. Hardly anyone takes a Debit or Credit Card in the country, and if they do the fees are so high you’d want to avoid it anyway. This requires you to carry a lot of cash which can be a little unsettling. Unfortunately it’s just a fact when it comes to travel in this country. We did our best to split it up between us. According to recommendation we converted our American dollars to Euros at our U.S. bank before we left. We were told the conversion rate is steeper from American to CUC (the Cuban tourist dollar) than it is from Euro to CUC. Upon entering the country we then converted our Euro’s to CUCs. We also carried some American cash in case we needed to convert more. The airport had money converters outside of baggage claim, however we were no prepared for the long line. Fortunately our taxi driver knew of a place just outside the airport that had no line. There are also banks in Havana that can change your money but that can come at a higher conversion rate, and as we found out later, if their wifi goes down they are dead in the water and so are you. We tried one time to change a little more money just in case, and their computer system was down. Tourists were lining up around the building waiting their turn. Not the way I’d prefer to spend my time in Havana let me tell ya.
Tip: There are two forms of money in Cuba. The locals use the National Peso and tourists use the CUC. The CUC is closer to a dollar to dollar conversion so if you are paying 3 CUC it’s closer to $3 American dollars and there easier to navigate the cost of everything.
Visas & Insurance: You are required to have a travel Visa and travel Insurance to enter Cuba. All of this was taken care of through our airline. The Insurance was included in our ticket price and the Visa was purchased at the airport for $50 a person. They will not let you board the plane without it.
Justification for Travel: Technically speaking, tourism to Cuba is is prohibited by our U.S. government. However, the U.S. Treasury has issued a general license for 12 categories of travel. These include journalism, athletic events, education, and humanitarian efforts just to name a few. When booking your airline ticket you are required to give one of these 12 categories as your justification for travel. From my experience and those of my friends and colleagues who have visited Cuba, this seems more intimidating than it is. Your humanitarian effort could be as easy as donating supplies to school children for instance. No one that I know of has had any push back or follow up on this. However, that’s not to say it couldn’t happen.
I’m Glad I Packed: Snacks, pedialite powder, protein bars, trail mix, and beef jerky. A hat for the sun, and sunscreen are a must.
I Wish I Packed: A travel first aid kit, bug spray just in case, beach towels, toilet paper, and a thank you gift for our Airbnb hosts.
Cultural Reminders: You are on an island so water is in short supply. All utilities are considered precious so don’t be a typical American. Be thoughtful and conserve these resources by turning off your lights, appliances, and AC when not in use. Also, their septic system is different. You cannot flush your toilet paper. All paper must be thrown in the trash. This is something I’ve grown up with since my family lives in rural Kentucky, however most Americans are not used to it at all and think it’s pretty gross. Be respectful of this request because you don’t want to be the reason for a major sewage back up. Finally, it was confided to me by a Cuban American friend of mine that the water in Cuba is not good for Americans to drink. Our digestive systems are not used to the “organisms” in the water and it can make you very sick. Because of this we used bottled water to brush our teeth and chose not to consume raw vegetables that had been washed in the water such as salad. We did run into some Americans who didn’t get this warning and they seemed fine, however if you do, you do so at your own risk. This was tricky when it came to ice in cocktails. We tried to be selective but I admit we did consume a few beverages with ice in them and so far we are fine.
What to Wear: My wardrobe may not be the best example of the ideal travel garb for Cuba. I chose more statement options since I wanted really cool images for the blog and Instagram. For the average traveler though, I would suggest light layers in the winter months as the evenings did get cool and breezy. Midi dresses that don’t drag the ground are best since the streets do get pretty dirty and there are many stray animals that leave excrement on the streets. I wore comfortable flats the entire trip. Shoes with heels are impractical for trekking over the older cobblestone streets. Hats are a must for the harsh sun. Sunnies and a small cross body bag are also a must. For men, light, loose shorts and trousers are a must. Pack yourself a few extras t-shirts just because, and linen shirts are great!
Tourist Traps:Beware of vendors or locals who are selling cigars on the streets. I’ve heard those will make you sick. Go instead through your host or an expert tour guide such as our friend Jorge to find you the best quality Cigars for the greatest value.
Art can be found in abundance but be prepared to be pulled aside and taxed when you exit the country if you have larger pieces that Customs can see when you are in line at the airport.
As I mentioned above, El Malecon seemed to be a routine place to be approached as a tourist by those looking for a hand out. Be aware of your surroundings and of befriending any over eager locals. They are not there to make friends.
Hemingway was one of the many icons who were known to haunt the streets of Havana. Beware of tours that capitalize on this. He was all over Cuba so any place claiming to be the “It” spot for Hemingway is likely over priced and just a tourist trap.
Anywhere you see tours being led, there is bound to be a guy (or a few of them) trying to get folks to buy something somewhere. Sometimes they will lead you to a “cheaper” restaurant, sometimes to a place with something you might already be looking for. We ran into the same guy multiple days in a row. Just be aware, there is always an angle and proceed with caution. Don’t be a sucker!
Best Time To Travel: We visited in mid February and the weather was sublime. When we asked Jorge what high season was, he said the winter months. For busy season, it didn’t seem over crowded at all. Although prices are likely cheaper during hurricane months, be prepared for your trip to get cancelled at any point due to storms. I would at all costs avoid mid summer as you will roast in the tropical heat with little in the way of Air Conditioning to provide relief.
Helpful Gadget: Although I did not get a chance to use this product, I 100% wish I had it during my visit. This little gadget, Travis Translator, completely breaks down the language barrier. It’s just in pre-order right now through Indie-go go but this would have been so helpful in Cuba, where few locals spoke fluent English, and we (regretably) spoke little Spanish.
These helpful apps have download capabilities and you can use them without wifi.
Google Translate- download Spanish for when you are stuck in a rut
Google Maps– download Cuba so you can get around
Tiposo– download Cuba for a great travel guide
A Strange Phenomenon:
Something strange did happen in country that I must make a note about. I would personally love to hear if any other travelers had this experience while in Cuba. I’m normally a light weight when it comes to alcohol, however in Cuba, I found the drinks had little to no effect on me whatsoever. I did drink mostly white wine while there, and it was the same delightful Chilean dry white everywhere we dined. However, no matter how generous the pour, I felt nothing. I mentioned this to my husband and on the night he choose to drink wine he had the same experience. Three glasses in, it was like were had been drinking lemonade. I’m not complaining, I mean, I loved the taste of the wine, it was just weird. When I mentioned it to our friend Jorge he said that he had never heard of that before and that it could actually be the weather. Being residents of tropical Florida, we had a hard time believing that, but we accepted it as a weird fluke of the trip.
It’s Complicated: The thing about Cuba (and everyone I’ve spoken to who’s visited agrees) is that it’s complicated. It’s surrounded by a lot of misconceptions, and a lot of conflicting reports. Our government says one thing, theirs says another. The general feeling I gathered from locals we met is that they love Americans. For many years they were spoonfed the idea that America was the big bad guy holding the country down. Meanwhile our country hasn’t been giving us a very positive report either. Now amidst fragile growth, both sides are able to make their own opinion, and discover the truth for themselves. There are many beautiful aspects of Cuba, but it is definitely a population held somewhat hostage by their government restrictions. Thankfully much progress has been made in the last four years. Cubans can now buy and sell cars, and buy and sell real estate. The sad truth is that many of them will never have this option though, because even the most educated and well trained make no more than the equivalent of $60 a month. Tourism is one of the few industries that actually offers opportunity for Cuban citizens, and it is really taking off as the digital age finally reaches this living time capsule.
Classic Cars: It is widely understood that Cuba has the largest circulating population of classic cars in the world. They aren’t in mint or original condition, but they are maintained pretty well for having been on the road for close to 70 years. I thought that most of them were under government ownership, but was pleased to learn that the majority of them are actually privately owned. Although the Cubans can now buy and sell vehicles, most of them can not afford to do this. Instead the classic cars are generally inherited when a family member passes away. This makes them even more treasured and revered. As tourism is the booming industry in Cuba, most of the cars are used to transport their beloved fans. I can’t imagine a Cuba without these beauties. It really feels like you have time traveled to another era to watch them cruise back and forth, not to mention having the privilege of riding in them. When we were planning our trip I was worried I wouldn’t get a chance to go for a drive, but that fear was quickly eliminated. Our very first taxi from the airport was in one, which totally set the scene for our memorable visit. Havana has the largest concentration of the cars and many areas around the city have pools of taxis waiting for tourists to book them. You can easily step up and pick whichever vehicle suits you at any time. I never witnessed a time there wasn’t at least one ready to go.
Family Travel: We chose not to bring our girls to Cuba this visit because we wanted to experience it for ourselves first. We weren’t sure what we would discover or how safe we would feel. After going we can’t wait to bring our girls back. We saw plenty of visitors with children of all ages and they seemed to be enjoying themselves just fine. I will say however that the classic cars are not really suited for child seats or infant seats. So you may be restricted to more modern cars, or accept the risk of not having seatbelts at all. Another concern for us is the questionable water situation. One you would have to educate your children to work around, in addition to getting them used to a different toilet regimen. These are minor things in our opinion, that can easily be accommodated for.
Safety: Many of our friends and family expressed concern before our departure due to reports by the U.S. government about reported attacks on American embassy officials. Mysterious neurological attacks or sonic attacks were the stories, but no real explanation as to how the attacks occured. We received a few government warnings that it was not considered safe to travel at this time. We have both been around the world, and many developing countries and exotic locations share similar warnings. We decided to go with caution. Personally, we at no point felt in an unsafe situation with exception of one night on El Malecon when a local came upon us pretty quickly, but then left after we clearly stated he needed to back off. We walked the (many times dimly lit) streets nightly, drove in taxis all over the city, and frequented many tourist and local hot spots. My suggestion would be that any time you are traveling you should always prepare well and stay cautious. Go with your gut, and listen to your instincts. Having said that, I would return to Cuba with confidence and a sense of security.
No Habla Inglis: If you are planning a visit to Cuba, now is the time to brush up on your Spanish. We ran across a very small percentage of the population that could speak much English and our Spanish was regrettably poor. I dug deep to pull from the two years of Spanish I studied as a teen, and we made it through between our mutual knowledge and some charades. Download DuoLingo now and start getting a basic understanding. You need to at the very least know how to say these things:
Where is the bathroom
Yes and No
Why Go Now?
Cuba is a living time capsule unlike any other place on Earth that I know of. If the powers that be plan wisely, they will be able to capture that essence, and maintain its charm for generations to come. My fear is that as progress comes, the destination will slowly lose the unique aspects of it’s sense of place right now. For the Cubans, progress needs to come, and desperately soon. So it’s hard to wish that it won’t, because for my friends, I hope it does. I’m glad we got to visit now, because we will always have those special memories of what it was. Cuba will always be a magical destination because the people make it so. However, it will only have the magic of this moment right now. Don’t wait until later, because the future is coming, and the tide of change waits for no man.
Enjoy the Journey!
xo- Amy West