Havana, Cuba – August 2017

This blog has proven to be the most difficult one that I have written thus far.  Reason being, I really don’t know how to put into words my thoughts and feelings on the experience.  So I will do my best in my descriptions to give Cuba the credit it deserves, along with suggestions on ways things could have possibly been different had I done the trip differently.  One of my best friends and partner in travel joined me on this journey and is a contributor on this blog.  Thank you Brittany McCaffrey for everything!

First, THANK GOODNESS Brittany spoke and understood Spanish!  This proved to be very beneficial, yet sometimes frustrating, on this trip.  I’ll explain as I go along.  We found a roundtrip ticket on JetBlue out of Orlando for less than $200, and our air BnB host in Cuba arranged for a taxi pickup for us once we arrived in Cuba.  I got butterflies in my stomach as we flew in over Cuba as I took in the countryside.  It is beautiful!  Touchdown and we found our driver easily outside where he took us to the currency exchange station.  Something worth noting, most airports will not exchange USD to CUP (Cuban Peso), so you have to wait until you arrive in Cuba.  It was interesting to watch as the girl working at the exchange retrieved the wrapped money from a box she had on the counter, no safe in sight.  Very basic.  Very simple.  Very not secure like you typically see at other airports, including the ones in other third world countries.  With that being said, I did not feel unsafe despite me carrying around the equivalent of USD 700 in several 10 CUP bills.  I will say I am glad I didn’t get larger bills, as the cost of food and anything else I purchased during the trip was usually less than 10 CUP or 20 CUP max.

Day 1:   A friend recommended a few different neighborhoods in Havana to stay:  Vedado, Nuevo Vedado, and Miramar.  Side note – I would also like to recommend Havana Viejo (Old Havana) as another area to stay.  Our Air BnB was not ready when we arrived so we decided to do a walking tour of the Vedado neighborhood to learn more about the culture and importance of some of the main streets.  Being that we were within walking distance of several local hot spots and restaurants, we walked down to the Malecon de la Habana which is the main beachfront road that connects several neighborhoods all the way to Old Havana.  We stopped in the Casa de la Amistad which has a Romeo & Juliet-type story behind it.  Click on the link to read about the love story.  Hunger set in, so we decided to check out a local restaurant along El Paseo and the Malecon.  The menu was simple and inexpensive.  The food was good, nothing to rave about but it served its purpose as well as the pina colada’s that were pretty freaking good.  Cuban Pina Colada’s quickly became my go-to drink during my trip.  Stay tuned for the secret ingredients!

The road our apartment connected to, El Paseo, also ran up to the Plaza de la Revolucion which is home to a couple important military buildings with a large mural of Cuba’s revolutionary hero Che Guevara and another with Camilo Cienfuegos and the words “Va Bien, Fidel” on it.  The plaza also had a massive monument called the Jose Marti Memorial, a Cuban national hero predating the revolution.  After our stroll to the square, we walked back down to the area by our Air BnB and decided to explore that side of the neighborhood.  We came upon a few restaurants and eventually happened upon the Necropolis Cristobal Colon, a national monument and one of the largest in the Americas. It was named after Christopher Columbus and has been dubbed “Havana’s city of the dead.” We did not go inside the cemetery, but it is 150-acres laid out like a city grid with over 500 mausoleums, chapels, vaults and elaborate sculptures.

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We finished off the day with dinner at the place next to our casa and turned in for the night.

Day 2:   We began the day at 10 am with a tour of Havana city.  We saw such notable places as John Lennon Park, Bosque de la Habana, Havana Zoo, Revolution Square, Old Havana, Cristo, and El Morro, among other locations.

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We decided to have dinner down along the Malecon and returned home before venturing out to Fabrica de Arte Cubano for the night. This museum/club MUST be on your “to-do” list when coming to Havana.  It is Havana’s own contemporary cultural center hosting art and dance exhibitions, live concerts, fashion shows, and a dance club, along with diverse food options and adult beverages.  Another cool thing about this place is it used to be an old cooking-oil factory.  It is only open Thursday through Sunday, and you can expect a line that starts at 8 pm.  As you enter through the main door, you get the obligatory paper for the servers to keep track of your drinks.  (Side note – Be sure to hang on to it so you can hand it to the cashier at the end of the night to pay for what you ate and/or drank.)  One of several bars is immediately to your left, or you can continue to explore down the hallway to the back club taking in all the unique pieces of artwork along the way.  Once you pick your jaw up off the ground from all the artsy creations, you can take one of two sets of stairs up to the second floor.  Here you’ll find a restaurant (reservations required), an outdoor bar and lounge-y seating area, and a large dancefloor where a dance exhibition was underway when we arrived.  Another set of stairs takes you upstairs to the third floor with yet more works of crazy cool artwork!  My cheeks were hurting from smiling at all the uniqueness and creativity in the art!  I couldn’t get enough!  Check out some of the artwork!

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Day 3:  Today we departed at 8 am for a full day in Vinales on the World Heritage Tour.  We visited the cave of the Indio, the Mural of Prehistory, Los Jazmines, Canopy view of the valley and the Tobacco plantation tour.  The plantation tour was the most interesting part as far as learning about the Cuban culture.  Hearing how intensely focused tobacco plants are grown, from seeds to plants, is quite remarkable.  Stay tuned for more info on that! 🙂

After 10 1/2 hours, we arrived back at our casa and took a taxi to Old Havana for our last dinner in Cuba before heading home and getting ready to leave the next morning.

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Day 4:   Our flight left Havana at 11:15 am, so we got to the airport 3 hours early, as instructed.  In my opinion, that is wayyyyy too much time to go in advance.  The airport is small, and security wasn’t difficult.  Something worth noting – The currency exchange booth was not open yet, so one of the fabulous ladies at the JetBlue counter exchanged my Cuban pesos back to USD for me.  (Remember to exchange your currency before you return to the US as it’s more difficult to do after the fact.)  Food at the airport is slim, expect sandwiches and coffee…that’s about it.  So you might want to bring some of your own snacks if you have dietary restrictions like me.

Now…things we learned while in Cuba.  Disclaimer:  Please keep in mind these are my opinions based on my personal experience while visiting.

1.  Havana Cuba is not a touristy place.  This isn’t somewhere you would take your family for a fun-filled trip or come for a romantic getaway or honeymoon.  You come for the experience which mostly feels much like a typical day in the life of a local anywhere in the US during the work week, but…you’re in Cuba.  Nothing overly exciting or fancy other than the architecture, in my honest opinion.

2.  While Spanish may not be an absolute necessity, I highly recommend it especially if you aren’t staying in a fancy hotel or going on tours and doing workshops with guides who speak English.  My experience was most staff in restaurants do not speak English, nor do taxi drivers, or the random person who tries to talk to you on the sidewalk.  My friend who traveled with me had a decade of Spanish and still had difficulty understanding people here due to local slang and different vernacular.

3.  Don’t expect Wifi because it is virtually non-existent.  That’s not to say there isn’t wifi available in some places, like hotels, but you will be paying a bigger price if you are not a guest of the hotel, so good luck.  There are little pop-up shops at random places close to parks where you purchase a wifi card.  Your passport is required, and you literally find a public park to get access to it.  There are hotspots within the parks, and if one doesn’t work, you go to a different park.  Look for groups of people in the parks, and that is a pretty good indication that wifi is there.  The shops are open 8 am to 7 pm, but the risk is high that they will run out of wifi cards before they close.  We were there at 5 pm, and they ran out after we stood in line for an hour.  Some people in line said they ran out at this particular spot at 2 pm the previous day.  The point of this is to get there early in the day, and I highly recommend researching places, their history and locations (including addresses) before you arrive in Cuba.  I’m sure there is a lot we missed our first day because we didn’t know what individual buildings represented and we couldn’t ask our guide on later days.  You could also just go cold turkey and not have wifi the whole time like we did.  Your choice.

4.  Taxis:  get a price for your ride before you get into the cab.  We paid $5 from where we were staying to Fabrica and was told, later that night, our ride home would be $20.  I said no…$5. We compromised at $10.  So ask before, and negotiate if you feel it’s too much.

5.  Tours and workshops are more fun when your guide speaks English…or at least some English.  We are chalking our experience up to bad luck with the fact our guide understood English, but spoke it minimally (and us assuming we would get an English-speaking guide).  We had a dozen questions we wanted to ask but due to the language barrier, got none answered.

6.  We visited a tobacco plantation (Juan Luis y Luis) where they explained what goes into growing tobacco.  The story goes as such…one seed is super minuscule so it is impossible to plant just one seed, so thousands of seeds are planted and within a month are tall enough and transplanted by hand into a larger field where they can continue to grow to maturity.  Due to the rain, tobacco seeds are planted in the September timeframe and take 4-5 months to mature.  At that point, the leaves on each plant are handpicked.  The lower leaves have softer notes, while the middle and top leaves have medium to strong tones, respectively.  The levels of leaves can be used exclusively for one flavor, or mixed with different levels to combine the taste however only the leaves from one plant are used to make a cigar – they are not mixed across multiple plants.  The leaves that are dried are utilized for the inside of the cigar, while the softer more flexible leaves are used for the wrap.  The preparer pulls the middle vein from the dry leaves to make the guts of the cigar.  The central vein of the leaf is what contains the nicotine in cigarettes.  When the appropriate amount of dry leaves is cut and stacked, they are placed on a piece of paper and rolled into a tight bunch, then removed and rolled into a “wet” leaf.  The ends are cut and BEHOLD!  A Cuban cigar.  They dipped the tip of the cigar in honey and had us smoke it.  Apparently dipping the smoking side of a cigar into a fragrant/flavorful condiment or liquor will make it taste like it.  Fun fact:  The United States is the only country that does NOT limit the amount of cigars a person can bring back with them.  We’re limited on why we can visit Cuba, but hey…bring back as much rum and cigars you can carry.  LoL

7.  Bring cash and plenty of it.  Our bank cards DO NOT WORK.  I brought USD 700 and spent about USD 500 for reference.

8.  No one likes Trump. Everyone loves Obama.

To summarize my trip…I am not sure I would go back to Havana, at least not anytime soon.  I heard several people went to Trinidad and enjoyed it, so maybe I would check that place out.  If I DID go back to Havana, I would probably stay in Old Havana and have that be my “center” as there was more to do as far as stores and places to eat.  Some of the areas were a bit sketchy yet I felt safe, just not 100% comfortable.  I wouldn’t recommend going anywhere alone after dark.  My friend and I did get several cat-calls, and one guy tried to kiss my friend as he walked past her.  That was the “worst” of it.  We weren’t treated differently than any other tourist, and there didn’t seem to be any obvious attempt to “welcome” us to Cuba aside from casual small talk from our Air BnB host, a couple of taxi drivers, and a few staff at some places we had a drink.  Not what you would typically expect from usual tourist destinations.  As I said before, it ‘s hard for me to put into words what my feelings are on this trip.  I’ve analyzed my thoughts a million times because I question if my feelings are due to the known tension between Cuba and the USA or truly because of the energy I felt when I arrived that lasted the duration of my trip.  Don’t get me wrong, Havana is beautiful but, with that being said, the majority of the buildings were falling apart and in dire need of repair.  So it was sad for me to see these neighborhoods and the architecture in the state they were in knowing what it looked like back in the 1950’s.  Being aware of the history from the last 60 years and seeing how things have “progressed” really made me feel lucky to be an American.  I hope I don’t come off as being patronizing or arrogant, that is not my intention.  I just mean being in places like here, really make me appreciate everything I have.  I am glad I went to Cuba.  Perhaps my expectations were too high; I don’t know.  Maybe if I had an English-speaking guide or had a local host to take us around and show us more, my experience would have been more positive, I can’t say.  All I can remark on is my own adventure in this city, and it was like a beautiful love story with a sad ending.  I feel like I should apologize for not giving Havana more credit; however, I felt what I felt.  Maybe one day, if I return, that will change.  Hasta que nos encontremos de nuevo, Havana!

Any constructive questions and comments are welcome! Anything rude will be deleted. :)