There is no denying that Havana has quickly become one of this year’s most desirable destinations. Since American’s can now legally travel to Cuba – with some restrictions of course, I became very excited to adventure and explore this “forbidden land” with some friends.
Stepping out of our Jet Blue time-machine, I find myself walking back into the 1950’s. With incredible, timeless architecture, cobbled streets, vintage classic car collections, iron-wrought balconies, and vibrant street culture, I knew instantly I was in for a trip of a life time and it certainly wasn’t what I expected. With every step, the colors of the city danced past me. Although the walls were crumbling and weathered, it spoke such a profound beautiful, old-world charm that sucked me in. Oh, and the music! The music that poured out of homes and restaurants, the people who salsa-ed around me, as if everyone had known the same choreographed dance, I couldn’t help but absorb it all in with awe.
It’s incredible. These people, they have no money, yet they are happily dancing and drinking rum. There’s no food, yet every one is cooking dinner. The price of gasoline in this country is outrageous because there is close to none, yet everyone is out driving their cars all over the roads. They don’t have much, but offer us everything. They are taxi drivers, but retain the knowledge and education of a doctor. They speak broken English, but love our country. When I tell them I’m from America, I witness again and again, so many beautiful, pale blue Cuban eyes, light up at me in hope. And hope is what I will give them.
What to pack:
I suggest packing very light. Only bring a carry on if you can.
–Toilet Paper: Finding toilet paper is close to impossible. Bring your own, rather be safe than sorry.
–Medicine: There is no medicine there, so be sure to bring aspirin if needed.
–Tampons and pads: Girls, you can’t find this stuff in the markets. Even if you don’t end up using these, you can hand it off to a local, who will be more than grateful.
–Snacks: Definitely pack a good amount of granola bars, chips, bottled water, anything you can grab in the airport before your flight to Cuba. There aren’t many places you can stop for snacks. It is nearly impossible to get breakfast before 10am.
–Bath products: Shampoo, conditioner, soap
–Hand sanitizer and wipes: It’s a dirty city and if you’re lucky you may find a bar of soap time to time.
–Sneakers: Don’t pack your new, cute pair of addidas. Bring a comfortable, pair of sneakers that you won’t get upset about when they are covered in dirt.
–Cash: I suggest bringing a minimum of $1,000 in cash. Credit cards are non existent in Cuba. It’s better to be safe and bring more than you need. God forbid you need to take a trip to the local hospital, all you have is your cash on hand.
–Camera: This is an extraordinary place, you’ll definitely want to document your adventures here.
How to travel to Cuba:
You will need your Passport and a Visa. You must acquire a visa before you arrive. There are 12 categories under which an American can travel to Cuba. We got a “People to People” Visa. The purpose of a People-to-People trip is to have meaningful interactions with Cuban people. People-to-people schedules are deliberately jam-packed with approved activities. Our people-to-people experience was exactly how I like to explore and travel. We were spending time with locals every day, experiencing true, Cuban culture.
Fort Lauderdale has a direct flight to Havana, Cuba; approx. a 40 minute flight. I was able to book a round trip ticket for just under $120.
First thing we did after clearing customs, was exchange our USD to CUC. USD can rarely be used in Cuba, so make sure you exchange money before anything. Next up we bought a Wi-Fi Card, known as etecsa. These will only work in certain parks and hotels. Each card has a one hour limit, and you will need to buy a new card when your time runs out. But good luck getting on the internet. Side note: Once you start to explore Cuba, you’ll realize that your smartphone is utterly useless. Disconnect, interact and live.
Where we stayed:
Set up through our luxury concierge Emilia from Cuba Candela, we stayed at a private home also known as Casa Particular (Similar to AirBnB). I definitely recommend staying at a Casa Particular rather than a hotel for a number of reasons. One, it gives you direct access to immerse into the beauty of the Cuban culture. Two, prices vary but are typically cheaper than most hotels. Three, when staying at a hotel in Cuba, your money goes directly to the government; when staying at a private home, your money is benefiting the Cuban people.
Our place was right near the ocean.
How to get around:
Also arranged through Emilia, we had a professional private driver. Our cuban driver Hector (who spoke perfect English), rolled up with 1 of the 10 Audi vehicles in the entire country. I do NOT recommend renting a car of your own. The driving laws are very different and the police are very strict. There are plenty of amazing 1950’s Cadillacs, Fords and other Vintage cars that act as Taxi’s and will drive you to where you need to be.
What to explore:
I definitely recommend starting your journey off with a 2 hour Classic Convertible Car tour. Take your pick of the parked vintage cars for only 60 cuc per car! It’s very simple and safe to hire a vintage car. Our driver who spoke perfect English, brought us to Centro Habana, Vedado, Nuevo Vedado, and Miramar. Take in the sights, sounds and smells of the city from the backseat of a perfectly restored 1957 Chevy Bel Air.
My other definite recommendation is to experience the 3 hour walking tour through people’s homes. Here was my most memorable experience:
You won’t find many tourists here, if any at all. The streets are filled with Cuban people, just going about their day. We meet an elderly man on the street. He catches our gaze. He has beautiful dark skin, with light blue eyes. I approach him and ask if it’s possible to take a photo together. He smiles with his aged grin and is glad to take a photo. I hand him 5 CUCs. He then invites us into his home which is shared amongst many families. Their home which was once a casino, and is now abandon.
Walking up a dark, dusty white marble staircase, we follow a man we just met. Up the stairs we go, following a pattern of ripped and weathered walls filled with abstract and unique designs, which was sadly once part of a glamorous golden age.
All the families start poking their heads out of different rooms. They are excited to have American guests. In we walk, where we meet his wife. Their home was humble. A small broken in bed, a stash of faded newspapers, and a single chair in front of the old, broken television. It’s obvious that resources are scarce. His wife grabs my arm, looks at me and my friends and goes, “My home is your home. You are always welcomed to stay here.” These people are beyond welcoming, warm, kind and helpful. I hand her 20 CUCs. They cry of gratitude.
Walking back out into the hallway, there are two children running around playing. They are excited and shy to meet us. My friend hands them a few pieces of gum. “Here you go..” They are ecstatic and cry for joy. “Gum,” I’m thinking, “These kids are this excited and grateful for gum..”
My mind is starting to spin. There are 2 worlds here. Rich & Poor. Middle class in non existent.
Now headed back to the street, we continue our journey. I get stopped by a large group of guys, who quickly surround me and can’t understand what they are stammering in my face. I get a little panicked and look back at our tour guide, who seems to think its funny. “They are harmless, they want your picture!” Oh. Haha. I’m always ready for a good photo op. Soon enough, I have a line of people waiting to get a photograph with me. They are excited that “A blonde American” is in their part of the city interacting with their people! “The simply joys,” I am thinking to myself. And how much we take for granted back at home.
On to our next location, we arrive at a run down looking building. Dogs and chickens are running in and out. A woman opens the door and motions us to enter inside. We sit down at her kitchen table, and I can’t decide if her kitchen is considered to be outdoors or inside. Trying not to be rude, I find myself distracted by the cute stray dogs running underneath the table. She pours us all a cup of coffee and a conversation begins.
This was only one of many conversations discussing stories of history and politics. Communism or Democracy, Fidel Castro and his brother, a lot of whispers and hushes, because you never know which neighbor is a spy and who can hear you. It’s obvious the Cubans live in fear of the government and are anxious for a change. Communism is clearly a different world, you and I, luckily know nothing about.
We’re now walking up another long, steep flight of stairs. We walked up over 10 stories of narrow, spiral stairs. This was more intense than the stair master at the gym. As we approach our last few stairs, I overhear some shuffling, “Hurry, hurry, they are coming NOW!” from a young boy.
In we walk, to an open room on the rooftop, with sounds of Afro-Cuban drums. Three young boys are beating the drums and chanting songs, they invite us to play with them. How excited they are to play for their American guests!
Their inviting parents serve us Rum cocktails, and grab our hands and dance the next hour away. We took a moment to walk out on the rooftop balcony and reflect.
Racism is nonexistent in Cuba. People are of all colors and backgrounds and there is absolutely no racial divisions.
The Music & Art is like no other. The streets are filled with artists and musicians. People are playing guitars, people are dancing with such fluidity, people are happy. We visited a few local underground art galleries. I noticed a lot of the art was political. A lot of art pieces were influenced by America. If I had more room in my suitcase, I probably would have bought a few pieces.
We mostly ate at paradors which are private restaurants in peoples homes, opposed to eating at State-run restaurants. These homes were not weathering and run down, like you may imagine all of Cuba to be. These mansions were up to date and luxurious.
One night we dined at Paladar Vistamar, which entailed a candle lit dinner sitting on a balcony overlooking an infinity pool that overlooks the ocean. Now that is glam.
For lunch, we ate at Ivan Justo and had Castro’s chef cook us a fantastic meal. The atmosphere is quite special, entering through a small stairwell into antique filled exquisite rooms. We had the pleasure of being sat upstairs on the private terrace.
The next day for lunch we dined at Rio Mar, this private restaurant is right on the water overlooking where the Almendares River meets the sea. We sat on the outside deck. The staff was friendly and spoke good English. They were very accommodating. As a picky eater who doesn’t like seafood, they prepared a delicious pasta dish specially for me.
For breakfast we ate at this castle-like mansion called, Casa Espanola. The service and breakfast food is great.
We also ate at a cute tiny cafe called Cositas Cafe for breakfast which was right around the block from our casa.
There were a few other restaurants we dined at, that I can not remember the names of, but as soon as I get a copy of our completed itinerary, I will be sure to add the others to this post.
On the first night, we went to an outdoor concert. This was so fun! The drinks were great, and the music even better. Everyone was doing the same dance. I seriously wonder how they all know it so well. I felt like I was in the middle of a flash mob.
Another night, we purchased tickets to The Tropicana. The Tropicana is a world-known and most famous cabaret show. Launched in the 1930s, this show has been spreading Cuban culture internationally. The show features a variety of performances including acrobatics, dancing and singing all with live music. The 2 hour show starts at 10pm but goes by quickly. The event space is huge and breathtaking but seating is a bit cramped. Your ticket includes a glass of champagne, a bottle of rum to share with your table and a coke. You must pay 5 CUC extra to take photos.
Cuba is generally very safe. Cuban’s are not out to hurt or rob anyone. Even the area’s that look rough, no one will bother you. Remember to have cash on you, but don’t flaunt your money.
I recommend getting to the airport 2-3 hours before your flight. You can exchange currency back to USD at a counter in the airport. You may now legally bring back Cuban cigars and alcohol products. I was sure to bring home plenty of Cuban cigars.
There is something magical about Cuba. Maybe because Cuba was the long forbidden fruit of previous generations. I am grateful for the wonderful people I encountered. This trip was not what I expected, it was far more beautiful than I had imagined. This is truly a unique time to visit Cuba, and I recommend doing so sooner than later, because it is changing quickly. I want to thank Emilia from Cuba Candela for making our trip this extraordinary and unique experience, possible. Xx