We went to Cuba, and I have lots to share with you.
It’s no simple task addressing a country that has been written about, photographed and documented as much as this one. I will be providing you with a massive amount of information, so that if you want to go too, I will make it as easy as possible for you! When traveling I’m always interested in getting on the inside, and discovering the interiors of a place that can sometimes prove to be difficult in a short period of time. The experience we had is not even remotely reflected in the photos I have, because so much of what happened occurred after dark, and my biggest regret was not bringing a flash. This was a lesson learned on my part. I like to travel light, so I did not pack one, even though I briefly contemplated it right before we left. It was so hot, that the best hours of the day, were always after the sun set, giving a brief, but much needed respite from the blazing sun, and oppressive humidity. After being out all day, we had to come back to the house and shower, and change out of our sweat drenched clothes to go back out after dark. This became our routine. We were lucky to land a sweet Casa Particular, essentially the Air Bnb of Cuba, where families host travelers from around the world in their homes. These are government regulated, and are now part of the burgeoning private businesses that are popping up around Cuba. Before 2008, everything was state run, and since Castro’s brother Raul took over, he has loosened up the restrictions, which has created a rise of many private business around Cuba. This has been great for everyone, in that Cuban people are able to make more money, while providing travelers access to better places to eat, sleep, and explore. It was once illegal to house US residents in your home, and now it’s so common, that it’s just part of the social fabric of Cuba.
Before I go on and give you some tips on what to do, where to go, and what to eat. I’m sure you will want to know the how of getting there. I will skip this part, since my friend Caroline over at Team Woodnote, did such a brilliant job of that for you already. She explains a lot of the logistics on her blog, as well as shares some great photos. We definitely have some other tips for you, so be sure to read both for a very thorough profile of Havana.
We paid $30 CUC to get from the airport to Vedado. It should not cost more, $25-$30 is the going rate. While in Havana, you will need to take cabs pretty much everywhere. The average cost of a cab from Vedado to Havana Vieja is $3-$5 CUC. If you want to do it Cuban style, you can stand on one of the main thoroughfare’s where you can wait anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour to jump in a “collectivo” cab and pay .50 CUC to go to a central location, of either Parque Central or up and down 23rd in Vedado, and just tell them which cross street you want to jump out at.
Wifi: All the hotels have wifi. Cuban’s all use prepaid wifi cards, and there are only certain hotspots where they are able to pick it up, so you will notice where the hubs are, where there are lots of people congregated staring at their phones. We didn’t bother with this, since I wasn’t even sure our phones would work, and I was happy to just unplug! Go to the Hotel Nacional to use the internet. Also note, that there is still a firewall between U.S. and Cuba, and I was not able to log into my business email account. Facebook was the best way to communicate to friends and family that we were alive :)
Hotel Nacional pictured above
Havana's very own Chinatown. We did not partake in the Chinese cuisine, but did enjoy one of Havana's favorite local spots blelow called La Juliana Cuba
Food and other places to eat:
Cuba is most certainly not a food destination if you are a super foody. Essentially you go for the music, the culture, the sights, and to get your belly fed when it calls, but don’t expect to be wowed by the food. Cubans eat a lot of Pizza and Spaghetti to go! We tried the Cuban Pizza, and it was ok, everything there tends to be sweet. The sauce definitely has a lot of sugar in it. It was not terrible, and if you are on a budget, it does the job. We did not try the spaghetti that was oh so prolific, I’m good on that. The best things I ate were all more traditional criolla food. I stuck to things like Ropa Vieja, which is a shredded beef in a tomato sauce, usually accompanied with rice, and some type of veggie. I also loved all the shrimp and seafood that I ate there. It tasted fresh, and not like farm raised shrimp. Another thing to note, is that things run out, like a lot, so always have two things in mind when going out to eat. Steak is almost completely nonexistent, although it will be on the menu, don’t even think about it. Pork is always available, so think about eating something with pork if you don’t want to be let down. La Gitana in Havana Vieja, definitely one of the best meals we had there. La Bien Paga for a good Cuban sandwich, and Topoly, an Iranian restaurant in vedado if you want to switch it up, order the jugo de melon for sure! The best watermelon juice that I craved every day!
We went to Playas de Este. This beach was absolutely lovely, with a restaurant near by for lunch, beautiful blue waters and white sand, as well as the fact that it is not touristy. The beach everyone in Cuba raves about is Varadero. There are lot more all inclusive resorts there, and everyone says it’s gorgeous, but we did not make it. To get to Playas de Este, it’s only about 30 minutes out from Havana Vieja, where you can go Cuban Style, and go from the the parque central or hire a cab to drop you off and pick you up. We paid $20 CUC each way for the cab, or you can pay for the bus $5 CUC round trip. Here is a great link to read more about those options.
I really didn't expect this gorgeous beach to be so lovely. The best part was that we stayed the whole day, and just as we were leaving this dark storm blew over, and created these gorgeous skies. Luckily we were close to a restaurant that we could take cover in, while we waited for our cab.
Arainbow just after the storm.
One of the best parts of our trip was reuniting with one of Shawn’s old friends he met in Cuba 13 years before. They have not been in contact since, and amazingly Shawn still had his address written down in a tattered old notebook. We just walked over to his street and yelled up at the balcony. This is Raul seeing Shawn for the first time in 13 years. The most amazing part, is that he doesn't even live there full time anymore, since we spends most of the year working in Jamaica now. It was pure luck that we found him at his house taking a little vacation while we were there.
Another serendipitous event was meeting our new Cuban friend and his Norwegian girlfriend at this cute little cafe called El Dandy. This is moments just before our meeting, and they ended up leading us to some of the best parties and events we went to during our time in Cuba. Shawn and I were taking a short break to rest from all of the walking when this couple came in and started chatting with Shawn because they liked his hat. This hat was our ticket to many things in Cuba, so shout out to our friend Fred Stuy, local maker of said hats! Turns out they were on their way to a hip hop show on a rooftop nearby and invited us. We pretty much stuck with them the rest of the time we were there.
Our new found friends also invited us to this amazing party at an abandoned theater in Havana Vieja. Knowing that I did not have my flash, I asked them to give me the directions so I could go photograph it during the day, since it sounded like it would be something super fun to photograph. I’m glad I did it, because these are definitely some of my favorite shots.
This is the infamous Callejon de Hamel. Towards the end of our trip, we hit this spot. It is definitely a tourist hot spot, so go if you're daring. The music was good, and Shawn insisted we go, since he enjoyed it a lot on his previous trip. Much has changed, but he still loves a good Rumba beat, and I found some great people that let me take their portraits.
I LOVE this guys look, and he was kind enough to take a walk with me to take some photos.
For a day trip, we headed out to Las Terrazas. It took about an hour and a half by taxi to get there, our driver stayed the whole day, and brought us back after. This is a small eco village made famous by a singer who died an untimely death named, Polo Montañez. There are several areas to visit, including this lovely little abode with the best meal we had on our whole trip. They roasted a whole pig and served it with rice and beans, bread fruit, taro root, fresh avocado, and more. Lunch was $12 CUC per person, and I’m just sorry I didn’t take picture. It's a bit far just to go for lunch, but if you want to hit the Baños de San Juan too, you won't be disappointed.
Our home for 10 days pictured below at Casa De Minverva Y Martino. We highly recommend it!
By luck, were set up with some friends of friends in Havana, which meant that we stayed in the section of Havana known as Vedado. This is the more “suburban” area of Havana, meaning that it is a bit more residential with not as much nightlife, or rather than meets the eye, because all of the best things we did were in this area and around. We loved staying in Vedado, but if you want to feel more centrally located, I would recommend going for a spot in Havana Vieja. The upside to our place, is that we only paid $25 CUC per night, and our place was LOVELY. Our private room had AC, which was a god send, since I don’t know if I could have slept without out it, and the shutters are almost black out, so there was not much light in the room at night, and it was a very quiet safe neighborhood. The bathroom was impeccably clean, they had a cute little doggy that I was obsessed with, and a beautiful garden with a terrace that we would sit in the morning and have breakfast.
The local market in Vedado
Places To Go Out:
This place is where the coolest of the cool hang, and it has a great international scene. The best part about it, is that they keep the cost low, so that everyone including locals can go! Truly an unbelievable place! It’s essentially a giant warehouse that is part art gallery, part club, part bar, music venue, and they even have food. When you pay to get in, they hand you a card, they use that to tally you drink order, DO NOT LOSE IT. Pay when you leave. Get there early, the line is long! Luckily, we made friends with a local, who got us through the line! Thursday through Sunday 8 pm - 3:00 am
The Malecon is where the kids hang out. It’s the place where you know your friends will be hanging after dark, and drinking rum or crystal, the typical beer of Cuba. Drinking in public is no problem there, and you will see plenty of folks walking around with their bottle of rum and a cup, so they can partake in a drink. One thing I noticed was that although drinking in public is totally acceptable, I did not find there to be very many super drunk people in the streets acting crazy, or being generally wasted. That was refreshing.
A cool place that has live music every night. The city doesn’t really have much a going out culture from Monday-Wednesday, so this is a good option when you are there on an early week night.
Safety: Cuba is safe. It’s somewhat unbelievable to be in a foreign land, and yet feel so at ease. There is relatively no crime there, and you can feel it. We walked around all hours of the night, and didn’t have a single problem with anyone or anything. The only things to be aware of is what is referred to as a jinetero. Cuban people are amazing, but like anywhere there a hustlers. They are not dangerous, and are rather friendly, just trying to make a buck, but sometimes you can pay a high price for this, so just be careful when anyone offers to take you to a bar, restaurant, excursion, etc. Here is a helpful article about that. http://www.casapartycular.com/en/jineteros
Luckily we did not have any experiences with this, but we did hear lots of stories from other tourists, that they were definitely not excited about.
Fortunately for us, everyone thought my man was Cuban, and I speak Spanish, so we were pretty much in the clear for a lot of that kind of thing.
Ultimately, we had the best time, had no issues, and enjoyed the heck out of ourselves. I would just recommend taking a map with you, to get yourselves oriented, as there is no wifi as I mentioned, therefore no GPS!! We picked up a copy of the Lonely Planet Cuba, which included a very helpful map in it. I have to say, I loved the experience of not having wifi, not being able to google anything, and have to usereal map. It was such an interesting feeling to not have access to those things that have become such a normal part of our every day life, but reminded of what it used to be like before the internet, when you actually had to ask someone for directions, use a map, and learn an area well enough to recognize it in the dark. I loved meeting random people and being befriended by locals that could take us to the cool local spots that could not be found in any guide book. That was the most fun. I hope you all get to go one day soon too!