Traveler: Danielle Gervalis
When: February 2017
Overall Experience: Cuba is an elusive island for many Americans with political differences going back decades. Once you touch down, you immediately get the sense how far this upheaval has permeated through society. The airport looks different, changing money is a pain because your credit cards won’t work here, and you have to answer a few different questions going through customs. However, booking a trip and getting to Cuba are incredibly easy. It’s not the bureaucratic nightmare people imagine and an incredibly enjoyable country to explore. The people we met were friendly and curious about our thoughts on the political environment. I had a great time conversing and learning about their experiences. It’s abundantly clear that Cuban life is lived outside and everyone is part of each other’s daily saga. Neighbors are dear friends and are willing to offer a helping hand to lost strangers. We only spent a few days in the city but I’m already looking forward to a return trip to see what the island has to offer.
Red Tape: This all started as I was waiting for Metro and browsed the Hitlist app for travel deals and discovered that flights to Havana were cheap as hell! I proceeded to google how hard it was to get a visa, permit, or special golden calf to get permission to go to Cuba, but it turns out you don’t need the majority of those things, AS LONG AS your purpose for traveling to Cuba falls into one of these reasonable 12 categories:
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities (People to People cultural exchange)
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
- Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
My trip fell into reason #5 educational activities (people to people exchange) and most trips will fall under this forgiving category. I wanted to learn about Cuban culture including their history, cuisine, language, cigars, and salsa! I’m a firm believer you learn something about the country you visit even if you weren’t intending to. Once I booked the flight, I received an email from the American Airlines Cuba help desk with a 1-800 phone number. I called the number and they explained that I would have to pay $85 per person for a Visa to get in and out of the country. They mail a card to you which you bring to the airport where the helpful gate attendants will inspect your documents, answer any questions, and stamp your visa. If you are a slacker and don’t do this ahead of time they will charge you $100 at the airport. So save yourself $15 and plan ahead. Honestly, the process was EASY. If you’ve been putting off a trip to Cuba because you were worried about the hassle, fear not it’s simple.
As far as lodging, Airbnb is your friend for Havana. Remember, tourist travel to Cuba is still not allowed for Americans so think about that before booking a resort. If you try Airbnb you will be able to interact with the local people and learn first-hand about the country.
Flight: I booked an American Airlines ticket for $150 + $123 in taxes and fees for a total of $273 from DCA with a layover in Charlotte. Even though it was an international flight, AA still charges for checked bags on the way to Cuba but not on the return trip. Go figure.
Hotel: I stayed at Airbnb in Centro Havana on San Francisco and San Rafael for $72 for two nights. The owner’s name is Mirta and she can basically arrange anything. You get the sense that Mirta is the kind of lady that makes things happen. Like if I had to go to war, I’d want Mirta in my foxhole. She is extremely helpful with recommendations, coordinating rides, and giving directions. The house has four rooms which are small but have private bathrooms, air conditioning, fresh towels, refrigerators (with soda, water, etc. for purchase) and are very clean. She also offers breakfast ranging in price from $3-$5 (CUC) and includes fruit, eggs, toast, juice and café. She doesn’t push you to buy any of this but it’s incredibly convenient to take her up on it. She is very responsive via Airbnb and arranged a ride for us to and from the airport which took about 25-30 minutes. However, the location is almost 3 miles to the Old City and since this is where I was primarily going during the day, it was a little far to walk for daily activities. You will end up spending around $6 each way for taxis and that can add up. I would recommend staying somewhere closer to the Old City if that’s where you are planning to tour. If you want to stay close to the University of Havana and try the modern restaurants, then this is the perfect location.
Getting around: Getting around Habana is a piece of cake. There are an assortment of taxis – fancy old cars, regular cars, and pedi cabs. To grab a ride, just stand out on the edge of the curb and extend your arm out . It typically takes less than five minutes to find a car if you are on a main street. Before you get in, tell the driver where you are going and ask how much it will cost. I never paid more than $6 for a ride between the center and old Havana and that included the classic cars. Don’t worry if the driver stops to ask for directions, this happened a lot and we always got where we needed to be rather quickly. The street signage is on the side of the buildings and not always visible. Everyone in Havana was incredibly helpful with directions. For shorter trips, try the pedi cabs which range around $2-$3 and you get a nice breeze without the gasoline smell.
Currency: American credit and debit cards don’t work in Cuba and 99% of stores and restaurants only accept cash. There are two types of currency in Cuba: one for Cubans (CUP) and one for tourists (CUC). The CUC is a dollar to dollar exchange rate and the CUP is around 24 to one. The CUP will have famous Cubans on it and the CUC will feature monuments. You can’t exchange US dollars for CUCs in the states, however one exchange location in DC stated I could exchange for Euros and then exchange the Euros to CUCs, which seemed like it was going to be extremely costly. When you exchange dollars in Cuba, the government takes a 10% cut and then a 3% transaction fee. So for every $100 you exchange you get 87 CUCs (better rates at the hotels are $100 for 90 CUCs). When you finally arrive in Cuba you’ll have to exchange money at the airport to pay for your cab (this is where I was kicking myself for not getting the Euros exchanged). As soon as you go through customs and get outside there will be two places to exchange money one on the left and right, literally RUN to the shortest line. It will take FOREVER to exchange (we stood in line for almost an hour), the lines were like the newest roller coaster at Disney it was insane. Finally, you are only able to exchange up to $200 per person at the airport and I promise the cashier will be in the worst mood of their life. Welcome to Cuba!!!
Wi-Fi: Good luck trying to get internet access in a hotel or a café, I didn’t see it available anywhere. However, walking around the city you will see groups of people glued to their devices huddled in a small area. Look for the most Ruffio looking teenager with a European style shoulder bag and simply ask, “Tienes Wifi?” The kid with the WiFi codes will come over ask for your money, I paid 2 CUCs. Cuban Ruffio will then ask you for your phone so he can put in the access code, lasting anywhere from 2-24 hrs, so just hand it over and let them work their magic. Unfortunately, you have to stay in the area and the internet can be slow but it’s great for a quick check in or photo post.
Calle Obispo – This is a long winding street which ends at the Floridita with tons of tourist shops, music playing, restaurants, bars and great people watching. If you are planning on doing any shopping, this would be a great place to pick up some memorable items. If you get tired from all the activity, stop at the coconut vendors on the corners who will top off your coconut juice with some rum and send you on your way refreshed for $3.
Plaza de Armas – This leafy, green square is the oldest in the city and hosts a statue of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes who enabled Cuban independence from Spain. The architecture of the buildings lining the square makes you feel like you are in Spain. There are multiple benches throughout the park and it makes a great place to take a break and have a snack. There are a few vendors here including a second hand book market and some beautiful artwork, enjoy wandering the park and perusing the old Spanish books.
Castillo de la Real Fuerza – Bordering the Plaza de Armas, this fort dates back to the late 1500s and was intended to fight against pirates. You cross a draw bridge to enter and pay $3 to tour the interior. Today it hosts artifacts that were raised from the ocean including gold discs and gorgeous jewelry. There are also huge displays of model boats including detailed figures of what it looks like below deck, think of it as a Barbie doll house but a 16th century ship. The second floor contains more ship models and beautiful views of the Malecon. There is a watchtower with a famous weathervane called the La Giraldilla, in honor of the only female Governor of Cuba, Ines De Bobadaiila, who would search from the shores for her husband’s (Hernando de Soto) returning ship. You can climb to the top and take photos or get hustled by the employees who will take pictures for you for tips. The view at the top is a sweeping scene of the Malecon and the deep blue ocean dotted with palm trees.
Malecon – This famous long stretch of seawall runs from the Plaza de Armas past Centro Habana and acts as the evening hangout spot for teenagers, young lovers, musicians, and fishermen. Walking along the wall you will have a front row seat to the renowned classic cars cruising by while tourists snap photos hanging out the windows. I’m not a vintage car enthusiast but some of the cars and convertibles were absolutely gorgeous! It’s amazing how meticulously they are restored and how these cars from the 50s are still running. When not watching the ocean spray, you’ll see the mansions and houses lining the opposite side of the water. You can tell the homes were once beautiful but now the sea salt has stripped the colors and the facades are in disarray. They are still appealing as somehow their crumbling nature makes them more charming. I wonder what they will look like in 10 years, I’m glad I got to see them as they are now.
Plaza de Vieja – The buildings surrounding this plaza are an elegant testimony to Cuba’s colonial past. Once primarily residential, there are restaurants with outdoor seating available, as well as, an infusion of modern art sculptures in the square’s corners. There is a central fountain which is a recreation of the original 18th century Carrara marble piece which was destroyed for an underground parking garage. Literal tears at this one. On the east side of the plaza, the tallest building has an elevator where you can ride to the top for views of Havana. I didn’t personally do this because there was a line down the street and patience is a virtue that I do not possess, but I’ve heard good things.
Plaza de Catedral – The last of the main squares to be created in the city and one of the most beautiful. The north side is anchored by the majestic Catedral San Cristobal with a celebrated Cuban Baroque style which was once thought to hold the ashes of Christopher Columbus (turned out not to be true). The church is worth venturing inside to see the different naves and alters. The parishioners aren’t shy about visitors during mass but please remember to be respectful about camera flashes and noise. Across the plaza is the Museo de Artes Colonial, in the past this beautiful two story building was used to house the Governor and in the 1930s was the Havana Club Bar.
Museo de Revolucion – Located in the former Presidential Palace, it costs $8 to tour the museum. Plan to spend some time here, I think it’s important to see the exhibits so you can attempt to have an understanding about the island’s recent political history. It sets the stage for some of the reasons why Castro came to power and learn about some of the other important players in Cuba’s revolution (understanding that the information is state sponsored). I know there are strong, passionate opinions about Castro but whatever your viewpoint of this man, his actions altered the trajectory of millions of lives and made Cuba an influencer on a world stage. For these facts alone, I think it’s important to learn about how and why history was forever altered in 1959. The museum has a large collection of personal artifacts from members of the 26th of July Movement, graphic photos of the revolutionaries who were tortured and killed by Batista, a dedication to Che Guevara, and some very strong feelings about the CIA’s interference in Cuba (all of the CIA exhibits contain the full English translation).
There was an interesting section detailing a time when Cuba’s economy was failing and Castro offered to step down but there was an outpouring of people who begged him to stay in office. What a convenient turn of events! The building interior was designed by Tiffany’s of New York and is domed and has beautiful gold trimming in a few rooms, the courtyard has a thank you sign for Fidel as well as a small café.
Outside of the building, there is a collection of cars, planes and boats, including the wreckage of an American pilot whose plane was downed over Cuba. The crowned jewel of the outside collection is the glass enclosed Granma boat which is what Castro and company used to sail from exile in Mexico to Cuba to launch the revolution. It’s an interesting piece of history and certainly had a strong hold on the shape of events. I hope you’ll enjoy walking through here as well.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes – There are two varieties of this museum – an international one located near the Capitol building and the Cuban version located near the Museo de Revolucion on Trocadero. I visited the Cuban section, which cost 8 CUCs because I wanted to check out Cuban art as it’s not something I get to see on daily basis. The building itself consists of three floors; the first is an open air atrium with a museum store where you buy cheap prints and art books. They had a kid’s dance competition with a clown MC when we visited. The second floor hosts an array of modern Cuban artists, including Victor Manuel Garcia and Wifredo Lam , presenting multiple different mediums but mostly paintings. The content is heavily dominated by Fidel Castro’s impact and the political upheaval experienced in the country. You were able to take photos without flash and I’ve included a few of the pieces that really struck me. The third floors contains more of the traditional European style artwork of darker colors, religious scenes, and portraits. However, one difference I noted was all of the beach scenes which contrasts the pastoral scenes by European painters which I’m more familiar with. It is a beautiful collection and provides a unique perspective into the minds of those who lived through the revolution.
Paseo de Jose Marti – Head to this gorgeous walkway after your foray in the museums. Starting at the harbor and walking a little less than a mile to Parque Central, the tree lined Prado has large bronzed lions guarding the corners and has beautiful old buildings on both sides with Spanish style architecture. Throughout the walkway, we came across young children taking part in art classes as well as vendors selling their own artwork.
Learning about Cigars – We met a very nice couple, David and Lydia, at a bar on the Malecon who struck up a conversation with us over Mojitos. We wanted some advice on where to get cigars and David proceeded to give us a lesson on how to tell if you are getting a good cigar or not. This was both entertaining and educational and I used it when I eventually did purchase them:
- Grab a friend and have them open their hand. Take the cigar with the end you will light pointed down towards your friend’s hand. Roll the cigar between your hands. If the tobacco falls out, it’s a dud.
- Squeeze the cigar between two fingers towards the middle/end where you will smoke from. If it doesn’t spring back to its original shape, it’s probably not a good cigar.
- Smell it. However, this step is a little subjective because people will look for different notes in their cigar.
Pretty easy to remember! Some good news, as of October 2016, there is no longer a dollar limit on the amount of cigars and rum you can bring back to Cuba. This is huge as you will quickly learn the good stuff isn’t cheap and a box of quality cigars costs well over $100.
University of Havana – The University is a sprawling tropical campus with beautiful columned buildings lining an interior open courtyard with benches for students and a tank that was captured by students in 1958 when they were fighting against Batista. The campus is closed to visitors on the weekends but open during the week to stroll through. Take Calle San Lazaro up to the Escalinata, the wide 88 step staircase, which will have you face to face with the large bronze statue of the Alma Mater, who beckons all those who desire knowledge to come to the University. It really is an impressive campus and an enjoyable walk through the buildings. There are a few small museums you can visit while here as well.
Parque Trejillo – This is a small square park on San Rafael that screams Cuban life! We
stopped here on a late Sunday afternoon and the park was filled with people playing soccer, on computers, drinking, and kids playing. There is a liquor store on the corner and it seemed like it was ok to have a beer open in the park. You will see young kids asking for your bottles so they can recycle them (and presumably get paid). I sat down and spoke with a few people who were interested in practicing their English and teaching me some things about Cuba. It was such an unexpected and wonderful experience to engage with local people. They had A LOT of questions about Trump and what was happening in the states and how people felt about “the wall”. It seemed like they were concerned that diplomatic relations between the two countries would soon sour and it would be back to isolationism again. I hope this doesn’t happen, it would be such a shame to disengage after we’ve come so far. I highly recommend spending time hanging out in local parks if you visit Cuba.
Food and Drink: If you like ham and cheese, you will really enjoy the food in Cuba! Jamon is a staple that can be found on every menu. It’s a good snack as a sandwich especially on fresh bread or in the croquettes. While there is tasty food to be found in Havana, I wouldn’t say it’s the best cuisine I’ve ever experienced. I think Cuban dining has some room for improvement before it will be considered a foodie city. There are some bright spots for meals but I would rate the overall dining experience as a B minus.
For meals, try paladares for dinner. They are tiny, usually family run restaurants, in the front or back of the owner’s home. You will usually see a chalkboard or sign with the menu items and prices. You’ll find these places all over the city so don’t be afraid to pop in and try one! A final word of advice, always examine the bill carefully. We had multiple instances where we were charged for rounds of drinks we didn’t imbibe. Once we brought it to the attention of the server, they quickly removed it.
Floridita – On Obispo and Monserrate, lies the home of the daiquiri and an old hangout of Ernest Hemingway, this bar and restaurant is a must visit. The drinks are frozen and reasonably priced (Daiquiris are $6), there is a bar menu and a full restaurant menu with a variety of sandwiches and seafood. The bar has live music and will be packed with tourists. We came here for a drink, snack and a photo with the life size statue of Hemingway leaning over the bar. After we cooled down in the air conditioning and finished our second cocktail, we were on our way to see more of the city!
San Cristobal – Located on Calle San Rafael in a dark green unassuming building in the middle of the street is one of the most popular restaurants in Cuba. It has a fancy interior with gilded religious photos throughout. We attempted to eat dinner here but this place was jam packed. And was booked up for an entire week afterwards! Blame this on the Beyonce and Jay-Z effect, who ate here when they visited Cuba. If it’s good enough for Queen Bey, it’s good enough for me! If you would like to try this place, make a reservation through their website before you get to Cuba.
La Guarida – Another popular dinner spot in Havana where it is also highly recommended you have reservations. We waited an hour for a table which wasn’t terrible because they have an incredible rooftop bar. First, this place can be a little difficult to find because it looks like it’s in an abandoned warehouse. Located on Concordia #418 between Gervasio and Escobar, you get to the entrance and will see open doors with a large structurally unsound staircase to the right.
Head up three flights and you will meet the hostess. This place is a little pretentious but honestly, it’s really freaking cool. You can not beat the ambiance. The bar overlooks the rooftops of Havana, past the bathrooms, there is an additional staircase that will take you to another lounge area/viewpoint.
It truly is outstanding, you get a peek into the back alleys and courtyards of this Havana neighborhood. The bartender is also the house DJ (insert eye roll here) but the bar service was quick, the daiquiris were good, and they also serve food in the bar area! We ordered the fish and chips which were delicious, definitely one of the better appetizers we had. Dinner itself was good enough, we weren’t blown away by our meals and the service could’ve been better but overall I’m glad we came here, even just so we could say we saw it.
Side note: We met a really nice group of people here also from the US who were touring the island for 10 days. They recommended we check out the Fabrica de Arte and had rave reviews about this combination café, bar, museum and club. We didn’t get out of dinner until around midnight so we didn’t check this place out but wanted to share since it came so highly recommended.
Castropol – A large Malecon facing restaurant with both a balcony and terrace, it’s a popular place amongst visitors and has a piano player banging out some oldies for dinner music. There are two different menus, with the upstairs hosting an international sort and the downstairs featuring a more traditional selection. We sat on the inside downstairs and had a substantial meal. The prices and portions are great. The bread is tasty and they serve Buccaneer beers which are a must try! The main courses were inconsistent. I had the toughest pork chop of all time, but yet we also had a savory ham and delicious lobster (priced at $18). All in all, the restaurant has a fun atmosphere for a fancy meal on a budget.
Sloppy Joes – Located off of the Paseo de Jose Marti, it’s a large bar with high top lounge tables with a mediocre food menu consisting of sandwiches and appetizers. They also sell rum and cigars in case you need to stock up on supplies. It was opened in 1917 and later restored to its former glory. The place is decorated with old school photos of Cuba and the celebrities that visited the bar, including Frank Sinatra. The drinks are cheap and the place has air conditioning so it was a great mid-day stop.
Bar Bilbao – Located on Calle O’Reilly this soccer bar has an overwhelming amount of scarves. It seems to like every team in the world. They also have signed jerseys of world renowned players including Ronaldo and Messi (also the only two I know). They have $2 beers and $4 cocktails and a friendly chatty bartender who told us stories about Cuban baseball. The place is charming and the TVs play Cuban music videos instead of soccer games, who knew? The bathroom was another matter and I recommend you bring hand sanitizer because not every place will have running water and soap.
Biky – A modern diner/café sort of place great for breakfast near the University of Havana. The menu has a list of egg, fruit, and meat combinations so there should be something for everyone! The fruit plate is beyond generous and incredibly fresh! They also have a variety of Danishes and coffees. The setting is comfortable and the prices are under $6 so it’s an all-around great breakfast deal.
Pasteleria Francesa – Nestled on the same block as the fancy hotels, the bright pink, striped awning locale will pleasantly surprise you. There are two double wide glass cases featuring the daily delights – including both sweet and savory. There is also a menu for more substantial breakfast items including eggs and jamon. It can be hard to grab a table but typically once you have food in hand the waiters will have found you a place to enjoy your breakfast. You can’t go wrong with any selection here. You might feel tempted to get a sweet to go and you would be very right to go with this instinct as the pastries were the best we had!
La Vitrola – Located on a side street on the south side of the Plaze de Vieja, this restaurant has green iron tables lining the alley with adorable fruit table decorations. The inside is decorated like a 50s sock hop. Regardless, there is some classic memorabilia and old time photos of Castro worth the trip inside. They sell cigars to go and the refreshing LaGarto beer. Enjoy!
Good to knows:
- You will need a physical map. There is no GPS and the streets signs can be difficult to identify
- The city isn’t the cleanest of places. Grime and litter are abundant, as well as stray dogs and cats but it’s not overwhelming and there are street sweepers throughout the day.
- Bring toilet paper. You will have to tip the bathroom attendant and sometimes they will provide a few sheets of toilet paper… and sometimes not. So do yourself a favor and bring some with you.
- Visitors from the USA won’t need a plug adapter for electronics
- A Cuban doorbell consists of standing outside your friend’s house and yelling until they come to the window. Or ringing the doorbell until they come out on the balcony. Both are effective.
- Addresses in Havana will contain three streets – the two parallel streets and the cross street with the house #. You need all three parts to navigate the city.
- If you are going to bring back rum, buy it in town at a local store. It’s under $5 and you won’t have to wait in the ridiculously long lines at the airport for duty free.
- It’s a good idea to learn some basic Spanish before you go. I highly recommend the podcast “Coffee Break Spanish” there are multiple seasons and will really hit all levels from beginner to advanced.
- Bring medication with you including: sunscreen, Advil and tums. We didn’t have any stomach issues but I didn’t see these items sold anywhere readily available.
- If you completely forget to buy souvenirs or need to get rid of CUCs, the airport does have multiple stores both before and after customs to burn your leftover funds.