I have been so worried about how I could summarize Cuba in just one blog post. As soon as I started posting on social media that I was there the messages started streaming in. Seems Cuba is THE travel destination and while there’s a lot of excitement about going there, there are also lots of questions, which can be attributed to the many years Americans were not allowed entry onto the island. So I’ve decided that in this post, I will highlight my personal experience first and give my recommendations with regards to restaurants, excursions etc. next. What I can tell you above all else however is that while it took years for us to gain entry into Cuba, it was worth the wait. I’ve been thinking about how I could sum Cuba up into 3 words and the only thing that continued to come to my mind were “living the dream”.
And what a dream it was! You’ve probably heard other tourists says it before, but I honestly felt like I was in a time warp. Like I traveled back to a time when things were simpler, life wasn’t rushed, you enjoyed the company of your loved ones with little distraction. From the architecture to my dining experiences, everything just seemed as if it was on a long pause waiting for you to stop and breathe it in, to truly feel it and live fully in that moment. This was the hardest part for me actually. I’m so used to picking up my phone regularly as if it were a nervous tic, to pick up my phone and not have any communication on the other end was disconcerting at first. I mean I realized that I was tied to my phone but I didn’t realize it was some what of a crutch.
I was forewarned by my girlfriend that meals were not turned around in 30 minutes but rather the process of dining was a full experience and because there is restriction on trade the menu’s would change hourly depending upon what food was left over to cook. So meals were long and laborious but they were also served with love, attention to detail and incredibly cheap compared to America’s standards. I enjoyed my dining experiences but I’m not a picky eater so I must say that I had friends who were not as impressed with their food. From complaints of it being too salty, or bland, or just all around not very tasty. I think knowing what restaurants to go to in order to have the full experience will be key in having a good time.
Restaurants (in Vedado)
· Starbien 29th street b/w C & B https://www.tripadvisor.com/
· La Zorra y El Cuerbo (jazz club) https://www.tripadvisor.com/
· Rio Mar 11 Avenida 3ra (a nice restaurant on the waterfront) https://www.tripadvisor.com/
· The Corner – Calle B b/w 1 & 3 (can’t find the link to this one)
. Restaraunte Wakamba -Calle O e/ 23 y 25, Vedado. Plaza de la Revolución. Havana (no link found)
Restaurants (in Old Havana) These three are a MUST – but you have to make reservations at the top two!
· Floridita (not necessarily to eat, but to drink daiquiris in Hemingway’s old stomping grounds + the live music is great) https://www.tripadvisor.com/
The best day in Cuba for me was the 3rd day. We hired a driver/taxi for 130 CUC total (more on that later) and went on a tour of a little town called Vinales. It was recommended by a friend and was listed as a “must do”. So we hoped in our old school taxi and drove the trek 2 hours outside of Havana to this beautiful city by the sea. The car ride was long but we stopped along the way to tour the caves, have some beers, ride some bulls, visit a tobacco farm eat dinner on a mountain top. This excursion can be done in a group or privately, I recommend a private tour. Our driver was the husband of the lady at the front desk of our Air bnb and he was knowledgable, kind, trust worthy and kept us on track! He was also inexpensive!!
Attractions to Do in Cuba
Tour Vinales http://www.discover-vinales.com/
- This is a great outdoor dancing club – be ready for some great dancing and live music
- This is also right by the water so it’s pretty nice
- There is an entrance fee but it’s pretty cheap
- I believe this place is open until about 2 am
After Hours Bar/Dance
There is an After Hours secret bar/dance place back in Habana Vieja that is on the street ”Oficios” right after “Amargura” if you’re coming from Plaza de San Francisco from South.
There isn’t a cover and after 2 am there should some bouncers on the street of “Oficios” and they’ll direct you. The cops won’t know about this place so don’t ask.
During the day the place is a dance studio but at night it’s a bar – very nice.
When you go up the stairs it will see creepy because it’s quiet but then they’ll take you up the stairs and then into a door where this is music.
Fabrica de Arte Cubano
This is an art/dance/live performance space that is a must see!
The lines are long but if you make a deal with a security guard you can skip the line if you slip them a 10 for each person in your party. Just make sure that you don’t get hustled.
Shopping /Things To Do
· Artesanias San Jose (Av Desamparados & San Ignacio from 10am-6pm Mon-Sat) It used to be an old shipping warehouse . Possible souvenirs include paintings, guayabera shirts, woodwork, leather items, jewelry, etc.) Make sure you negotiate prices as they’re all about making the sale! Also be warned that these folks can be pushy so be prepared for a lot of “Señora/Señora I have nice things you will love come into my shop”
· Malecon Walk at Sunset / Stop by Hotel Nacional for a mojito: The Malecon is the Cuban version of the Santa Monica Pier. You will see locals and tourists hanging out having a beer, fishing or just enjoying watching the sea. Hotel Nacional is one of the oldest hotels in Cuba and I went there every morning for a cocktail and to use their wifi (about $7.50 for an hour). The grounds are beautiful and if you look like a tourist you don’t have a problem using them. I’ve even heard of non guests using the pool facilities with no cover or problem. You may even be lucky enough to run into a beautiful peacock!
Where to stay
We stayed at an Air BNB that was fully hosted by a man we called Senor Orlando. I recommend staying at an Air BNB to not only cut costs but to also have the inside scoop on where to go, what to do and who to trust. Senior Orlando also exchanged our American money to Cuban (CUC) for less than what the banks were asking, he got us cigars, made us breakfast, held taxis for us and got us to and from the airport. He was also quite the ladies man…
I’ve had other friends who have stayed at Air BNBs and it’s just SO worth it. I suggest staying in Vedado as it is closest to Old Havana and that’s where most of the action is as well as most of the places I suggested you visit. The Focsa Building houses a lot of Air BNB’s and has secure access in and out of the building so I felt VERY safe. You will most likely stay with the host but there are separate quarters so it’s very comfortable.
Other Tips & Tricks
- Bring snacks!! This was a life saver as there weren’t many places I wanted to eat at after a night of drinking or on our long taxi ride to Vinales so having American snacks really helped! I suggest chips, breakfast bars, candy, gum, nuts. Really anything that is packaged and can be safely transported in your bag on the plane.
- I was told that toilet paper is scarce so I came with baby wipes and Wet Ones. While toilet paper was there, the bathrooms aren’t the cleanest so those baby wipes and Wet Ones went to good use
- I would also bring hand sanitizer as some bathrooms don’t have soap
- Be prepared for most bathrooms to not have toilet seats and to be very dirty. Finding a clean bathroom was like finding a diamond in the rough!
- There are very pungent smells on the streets so be prepared for that as well
- Drinking is HUGE in Cuba so you will spend little to nothing on alcohol! I brought back at least 5 bottles of Cuban rum and each bottle was no more than 5 bucks!
- Speaking of alcohol, don’t be afraid to ask for more if you don’t feel you have enough in your cocktail. Most likely the bartender will hand you the bottle and have you pour it yourself.
- Try the Cuban honey!! It something OUT OF THIS WORLD!
- Take the vintage taxis over the yellow cabs and negotiate the price! We paid about 10 CUC (10 American dollars) to get back and fourth from our room to Havana each day. It should not be more than that.
- Also, don’t just jump in the taxi before negotiating the price, it’s seen as rude and they will tell you to get out.
- Change your money to the Euro and then transfer the Euro to the Cuban dollar (CUC). We paid a ton of money just transferring the American over to CUC and could have saved $5.00 had we not done that.
- The CUC is equivalent to the American dollar in that 10.00 CUC is 10.00 American Dollars. Also make sure that you are being given CUC and not pesos which is the money Cubans use and is far less than the CUC.
- If you’re not Spanish-speaking download the google translator, you can use it even if you don’t have wifi
For all of my non-readers I’ve included a video of my excursion in 10 second snapchat bites! Enjoy!
That’s all I’ve got for now! I hope this was informative! If you have any questions or comments don’t hesitate to ask!