Ah, Cuba. A country that has been so elusive to Americans because of our inability to travel there. My whole life, I have been inundated with information (propaganda?) that Cuba is this evil, Communist country, where the people have zero liberties and speaking their minds is punishable by death. Yet, this only made me more interested in seeing the country for myself. A country so geographically close to the United States, but seemingly worlds away. The DAY President Obama eased travel restrictions to Cuba, I booked my flight. Of course, there are no direct flights between the US and Cuba, but for $450, I was able to score a round-trip ticket via Panama on Copa Airlines. I had flown Copa once before on a trip to Peru and had the same layover in Panama (where Copa is based). The plane from Chicago to Panama was brand new, equipped with personal TV screens for each seat. I wasn’t lucky enough to have the same comforts from Panama to Havana, nor on the return. However, on the flight from Panama to Chicago, I was able to score a first class upgrade for $200. Was it worth it? Kind of. The extra room and leather seats were nice, as well as the 4-course meal on actual dishes with real silverware. I ended up falling asleep immediately after I ate so I’m not sure what other comforts I may have missed, but I can’t imagine there was much more. Also I should note that Copa doesn’t call it “First Class,” rather “Business Class.” Regardless, it was much better than flying coach.
What I Packed
I traveled this past Memorial Day weekend (2016) and it was HOT. However, the Cubans assured me that it would only get worse from here and that I came at the perfect time. It was around 90-95°F each day, with about 175% humidity. Okay, more like 80%, but it felt much worse. So what did I pack to prepare for this weather? Lots of light, linen dresses. I wore leggings mostly with each dress- the fear of Zika Virus made me want to cover every part of my body, but with proper bug repellant, this wasn’t necessary. I have a big mass of curly, frizzy hair, so I brought a scarf to tie around my head, which was helpful since I was in a perpetual state of sweat the entire weekend. I did a LOT of walking in Havana, so comfortable shoes were a must. I also traveled to the Bay of Pigs, so flip flops for the beach were totally appropriate. Viñales, a city to the west of Havana, is where all the tobacco plantations are located. We walked around one farm in particular and it was very muddy- my shoes would have been ruined. I suggest old sneakers if you choose to do this. I was there for 3 full days (plus 2 days of travelling) so my small carry on was the perfect size, and I had more than enough room to bring back whatever my heart desired.
How I Got Around
Taxis in Havana are in abundance, especially if you are a fan of classic American cars. Taxis do not have meters so it is completely acceptable and expected to negotiate the price before you even get in the car. From the Havana airport to the city center, you shouldn’t pay more than about $30 (note, the currency in Cuba is the Cuban Convertible Peso, which is very comparable to the US Dollar, so all my prices will be in dollars for reference). There are local buses that go from the airport to the city, but I did not do much research into those. I imagine they would be much cheaper. Within the city of Havana (assuming you will mostly stick to the touristy parts) you shouldn’t ever have to pay more than about $10-$12. For reference, we paid $10 for a 7km trip. Legitimate Cuban taxis have two markers to look for- an ovular, yellow “TAXI” sticker that will be located somewhere on the windshield, as well as a light blue registration sticker, also located in the windshield. Be sure to only get in a cab if it has both of these things. Crime is virtually nonexistent in Cuba, but it’s better to err on the side of caution.
I traveled to Cuba with a friend and we actually decided to hire a driver for the weekend. We did this because we knew we wanted to spend a day at the Bay of Pigs (a 4 hour round-trip drive from Havana) and another day in Viñales (another 4 hour round-trip drive). We were referred to Mariano who was a wonderful driver and guide. He charged us $450 for the weekend, which included transfer to and from the airport as well as the trips to Bay of Pigs and Viñales. On the private driver scale, he was a little bit pricier than most, but he was completely fluent in English, extremely friendly, and super knowledgeable. We felt completely safe with him. We even got a flat tire on the way back to Havana from Bay of Pigs and he changed in in less than a minute. It was amazing to watch. Mariano doesn’t drive a classic car, but rather a Kia, so if you’re looking for that experience, look elsewhere. I STRONGLY recommend Mariano for your first trip to Cuba. He is very easy to communicate with via email and will set up an itinerary for you if you have no idea what you want to do or where you want to go. Please feel free to send me a message if you would like his contact information.
Where I Stayed
With the ease of travel restrictions for Americans, AirBnb immediately swooped in, much to the country’s delight. Being able to rent out your private home was something that was illegal for a long time in Cuba. Within the Communist government, the average monthly salary is about $20 a month (doctors and waiters make about the same salary), so any way that Cubans can try to make an extra buck is much appreciated. I stayed at the apartment of Enma Silvante, a gracious host who cheerfully greeted us even though we were over an hour late. The pictures posted on her AirBnb listing were beautiful, but they did not do the apartment justice. The apartment was located on the 5th floor (no elevator, but the daily workout was nice) and had a balcony that overlooked the Malecon. It had two air conditioning units that were a delight to come home to after sweating through my clothes 10 times over. My friend and I each had our own bedroom (which was lucky for her because I tend to snore) and the bathroom was larger than in my own bathroom in my apartment here in Chicago. On top of all of that, the apartment was immaculately clean and well stocked with towels, toilet paper, and toiletries. Enma’s mother occupied the apartment across the hall and cooked breakfast for us each morning for $5 a person. The breakfast began with a huge plate of fruit, followed by eggs, breakfast meats, potatoes, fresh pressed juices, coffee, and bread. We had to leave for Bay of Pigs at 7am one morning and she was up and had breakfast ready for us at 6:30am. She was a lovely person who didn’t speak a lick of English, but made us feel right at home. The apartment was within walking distance of Old Havana and I would definitely recommend staying here. We paid $233 for 4 nights, which was a steal. I imagine that price will increase as more and more Americans head down. You can find her on AirBnb by searching “Soñado en Cuba,” but I am also posting her business card below.
What I Ate
I have had a few experiences with Cuban food prior to this trip in both Miami and Key West. However, the American version of Cuban food is much more glamorous than what we ate in Cuba. While the food was decent and edible, it was by no means great. The soil in Cuba is not very fertile, so outside of yucca and potatoes, there aren’t many options for vegetables. Fruit is in abundance and way better quality than anything you will find in the States. Cuban cuisine relies heavily on meat, but as we would drive through the country and see fields of cows, horses, and goats grazing, they almost looked skeletal. You could easily see the rib cages of every animal we encountered. I mostly stuck to eating chicken and my friend mostly stuck to seafood. There weren’t really any flavors in any of the food. It was interesting. Food for the Cuban people themselves is rationed and they only get a certain amount each month. I didn’t see a single grocery store or market, rather state-owned shops that had a plethora of alcohol and an occasional bag of rice or cooking oil. During one drive, I asked Mariano if there was a place we could stop to pick up some snacks to tied us over between meals. Mariano seemed confused- he didn’t know what we meant by “snacks” and there wasn’t really any place to buy snacks. Tap water is also undrinkable- the Cubans don’t even drink it, so you have to buy bottled water. But the water sells out fast each day. It’s amazing how much we take for granted in the US!
There were a few restaurants that I will recommend both for just drinks and eating. I had a mojito or two with every meal and now officially have my new favorite drink!
La Guardia: Havana’s (maybe even Cuba’s) most famous restaurant. I believe this was the first private-owned restaurant allowed in the country and was the setting for the “famous movie” (I’ve never heard of it) Strawberries and Chocolate. You will be reminded of this many times over while dining here. The place is cool because it is on the third floor of an abandoned-looking building. Apparently the first few floors are residential, but we didn’t see anyone. The restaurant itself is beautiful and filled with all kinds of art and photographs on the wall. After dinner, head towards the rooftop bar. Unfortunately, not many things are illuminated at night, but still worth the view that you do have. You must make a reservation here and can do so on their website (http://www.laguarida.com/en/). We made our reservations 3 weeks in advance and were greeted with a balcony table for two. The food here was delicious and fairly cheap compared to American standards. We paid $90 total and each had a starter, entrée, dessert, 2 mojitos each, coffee, and at the end of the meal, we shared an authentic Cuban cigar. A meal that could easily cost over $200 at an equivalent restaurant here in Chicago. This place was worth the hype, and if you go, it will be your most expensive meal while in Cuba.
Castropol: We actually ended up eating here twice- once for dinner, and once for a pre-dinner snack. The restaurant was located around the corner from our AirBnb, directly on the Malecon. After checking in to our AirBnb, Enma recommended this place to us. We were starving so we ordered a lot of food. We got a thin crust margarita pizza, fried plantains, ham empanadas, as well as some other small bites. I would consider the food “a Cuban take on Western food.” It was pretty bland, but we ate every bite. We paid about $12-$15 per person for all this food and more! Pick a table in the front so you can people watch on the Malecon. They also have an upstairs with balcony seating, but we did not venture up there. No air conditioning, but plenty of fans inside.
Café O’Reilly: A fairly new café, recommended by our guidebook, located in Old Havana. This place was a quaint looking and the cappuccinos we had were delicious. They had sandwiches and small bites as well, but we just had the coffee. They sell whole or ground beans here as well and we were going to buy some but the line was crazy. We never made it back and ended up buying some coffee to bring back from a state-shop.
La Floridita: Hemingway’s hangout and very popular with the tourists. We walked in here around 1pm and were lucky enough to snag a table in front of the live music. We had some delicious daiquiris (they were invented here with the help of Hemingway himself) and had a light sandwich for lunch. Worth checking out, and there’s even a Hemingway statue at the bar you can take a picture with. Things are pricier here because of its notoriety. 1 drink will set you back $6, which is double the price of any other place in Havana.
Restaurant next door to the Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC): Not sure if this restaurant was part of the FAC or what it’s name was (more on the FAC itself later), but this place was swanky. Apparently we would have needed reservations but since we showed up right when they opened, we finagled a table on the roof amongst other English-speakers. Food was quality- more authentic Western-type food, and very cheap for the quality. This time, there were 3 of us dining and we each had a starter, entrée, dessert, and shared a bottle of wine. We paid about $100 total.
El Patio: A majestic-looking restaurant on the Plaza de Catedral, we just had mojitos here before dinner. Great place to people watch as many will walk through the plaza.
Sloppy Joe’s Bar: A fun place to check out, especially if you’ve been to the one in Key West. However, this one proclaims itself as the original. Great place to grab drinks and look at all the pictures on the walls of their various visitors over the years.
Bay of Pigs
Paladar Don Alexis: On our return from Bay of Pigs, our guide took us to Paladar Don Alexis, a small, side of the road joint, where the host, Alexis himself, took good care of us. There wasn’t a menu, rather we told Alexis what we were in the mood for and he grilled it up. I opted for the chicken, while my friend and Mariano opted for the alligator (or maybe it was crocodile?), freshly caught lobster, and crabs. Definitely a great experience of a private home turned restaurant. The walls were adorned with signatures from visitors around the world and we were sure to add ours to the collection. Our mojitos were constantly refilled and we ended our dinner with some delicious caramel flan. We couldn’t even finish our meals because so much food was brought to us! For the three of us, we paid a whopping $58 total.
What I Did
The Hop-On/ Hop-Off bus tour is $10 and picks up in Parque Centrale. We did it and it was a great way to see the entire city of Havana, but we didn’t really “hop off,” except at the Ferria San Jose- a large, open-air market where you should do all your souvenir shopping. This is the best place to find art. Be prepared to barter, but when you are dealing with the artist directly, it can be a bit insulting to offer him/her a lower price.
Walk along Obispo Street in Old Havana and check out the old shops and restaurants. The Prado is another great place to walk. The Prado is a tree-lined pedestrian walk way where many artists set up as well and musicians. The Malecon was busy at all times of the day and watching the sunset from the sea wall was one of my favorite memories here.
The Museum of the Revolution is housed in the former presidential residence. Checking out the propaganda in this museum was very interesting, especially the demonic caricatures of a few American presidents.
El Morro is an old, colonial fort in Havana. Every night at 9pm, they fire a cannon from the fort. We didn’t make it over to explore the fort itself, but it looked pretty cool.
The Fabrica de Arte Cubano is this converted warehouse turned into a full art exhibition. Within the warehouse, there are small galleries, stages for performance art, live music, and the ability to chat with the artists themselves. Entrance was only $2 and drinks inside were very cheap. It was definitely worth checking out but is only open from Thursday-Sunday.
Bay of Pigs
While my friend opted to scuba dive in the crystal clear waters of the Bay of Pigs, I checked out the Museum Giron. This museum is dedicated to the victory over the CIA invasion of the Bay. It’s very small and completely in Spanish, but it was worth checking out. Outside of this, there isn’t much else to do or see in the Bay.
In Viñales, we did a tour of the Fuentes Farm- a tobacco farm located in the heart of the valley. We were able to see how the cigars are rolled and even smoked one ourselves. We purchased cigars here directly from the farmer for $5 each. I felt better doing this rather than buying the Cuban brand name cigars.
After our tour, we visited the Indio Cave- a small boat tour through one of the many caves in the valley. Down the road, there was a bar inside a cave, but we didn’t check this out. I wish we could have spent more time in Viñales!
Crime is virtually nonexistent in Cuba- thanks, Communism! We were catcalled by guys constantly, but there wasn’t anything past the shouts of “Hey pretty lady!” I definitely felt more comfortable traveling with a friend, however I noticed plenty of single, female travelers. We definitely encountered a few smooth-talking Cubans. They will do their best to con a few extra bucks out of you. Whatever you do, don’t be swooned into following anyone into a bar. Drinks were ordered and we were out $20. Not a lot, but considering drinks are usually $3 each, this was substantial. We wanted to be the kind, polite, American tourists, but people will try to take advantage of you no matter where in the world you go! We eventually started telling people we were Canadian and we people suddenly became less interested. Sorry, Canada.
Tips and Tricks
Internet is a new thing in Cuba and luckily, things are not censored. Many hotels offer WiFi and you can purchase 60 minutes of Internet for $2. You will receive a code to log on to the government-owned network. Your 60 minutes don’t need to be consecutive- we bought one card for the two of us and used it for the entire weekend. Who wants to be tied to the Internet when you’re on vacation anyway? We had the best luck at the Hotel Deauville, located right on the Malecon in Havana. It was just a couple blocks from our apartment and had plenty of comfy couches in the bar area where we could email family and upload some pictures to Facebook.
In the US and Europe, public restrooms are few and far between, and you usually have to be a customer to use one in a bar or restaurant. This is not the case in Cuba. You can walk in anywhere and use their restroom, but be prepared to have to pay a couple coins. There isn’t usually a set fee, you pay what you want. Bring some tissue and hand sanitizer, however.
Our guidebooks mentioned that we would have to pay a departure tax when leaving the Havana airport. This was not collected from us at all. The guidebooks also mentioned that if we had purchased art, we would need some type of certificate to take it out of the country. Seeing as we spent about $30 on art, no one really checked for a certificate. I imagine this only applies to large pieces. The final thing our guidebooks mentioned was that we would need to provide receipts for any alcohol or cigars we were taking out of the country- this also did not happen.
Seeing as salaries are low, tips in restaurants are much appreciated. In state-owned restaurants, plan on tipping 15-20%. In private restaurants, 10% is acceptable since they are paid a bit more.
Bringing in small American goods is totally legal and much appreciated by Cubans. Bring some magazines, or even some American candy. We gave these things to both Mariano and Enma.
Cuba is changing and changing fast. I am so incredibly grateful that we went when we did. It truly is a beautiful country and the Cubans know that things will be changing soon. Go now and immerse yourself in a world you have never experienced before!