I didn’t have nearly enough time to spend there. I need to get back and with one way tickets for $50 on Jet Blue, I have no excuses. I didn’t know what to expect, you constantly hear about the “classic cars,” “they’re caught in time,” “Plaza de Revolucion.” But Cuba offers so much more than that and I didn’t even see the whole country. Overall, Cuba truly surprised me with their tolerance of the American tourism influx, their knowledge of English and most importantly – unlike many Latin American cultures – to not only be on time, but in most cases, early.
– How to Prepare –
I departed on Christmas Day from the Orlando, FL airport via Jet Blue. Like I mentioned above, my one-way from Orlando was $50 and return flight was $80. When you buy your ticket online they kind of make you nervous about which Visa to apply for and hint that you need to do it ahead of time. Not the case. I bought mine for $50 People-To-People at the same counter that I checked in to for my flight in Orlando. Sorcery.
When leaving America a TSA guard asked me if I spoke any Spanish and I explained, “I can get around.”
He replied with, “Well, you’re going to learn today.”
Everything I read online issued this same sentiment so I was surprised to find that it was fairly easy. I had gotten back from Colombia a month earlier so maybe I’m comparing, or maybe because Cubans highly depend on tourism. Some areas of Cuba will have more European influence so you’re bound to come across fluent English speakers.
When you meet a Cuban who doesn’t know any English is when it gets hard. They speak FAST but they’re patient and they appreciate you at least trying. If nothing else, directions, times and ordering food will be beneficial for you to know.
Customs was a breeze in Cuba. Getting back to the US they have those machines that check your passport and my brother’s was flagged. The line for the second form of approval by a human being took FOREVER and now he’s on the no-fly list. Just kidding it was random. Although, not too far fetched these days…
When packing for Cuba keep in mind that this is an oppressed country. They don’t have access to the majority of materialist things Americans do, so leave the fashionable clothes at home. Unless you’re Instagram famous and somehow grab that perfect shot of you twirling in a deserted street save for a couple classic cars and a street dog. (Like, wtf is their secret!? Do you stop traffic!?).
I pushed a bunch of sweet grandma’s out of the road to get this shot
Unless you want to shampoo your hair with the type of bar soap that makes your skin feel sticky after using it (you know the one), don’t forget this important item. The same goes for really anything you want to use on/in your body, you won’t find these items easily here. If you have extras, leave it behind for the AirBnB or casa particular. I know someone who one-upped that and was able to get 50 boxes of de-wormer for a local cat and dog rescue. She’s making it to heaven, for sure.
We went during Christmas so the weather was perfect as hell. I can’t tell you what to pack during the summers but I was born and raised in South Florida, expect 100% heat and humidity you can choke on. You’re in the Caribbean so dress will generally remain the same year round. The only time I wore something that fully covered my body was when I rode a horse in Vinales.
- Flowy articles of clothing that won’t stick and make you chafe
- Talcum powder if you’re a chafer
- Closed toed shoes
- Bathing Suit
- Cover Up
- That’s It
I realize that some people refuse to backpack or carry on a suitcase to leave the country but this is a place you’ll want to try out your ability to cope. Inbound flights are transporting family and friends in to Cuba with loads of things they can’t get. Like BIG SHIT. Be smart, pack light, carry on, you’ll live I promise. Or you’ll die waiting on that conveyor belt to bring out your bag of all those clothes you don’t need.
In addition, flying back home will easily take three hours in the Havana airport and the line is LONG from the check-in desk. You would hate to be scooting four bags on the floor as you inch your way to the counter.
This is the backpack I use and I didn’t need this much room.
Some places do accept debit/credit cards but I didn’t come across any. If you’re coming from the United States exchange your dollars for Euros at your bank before coming to Cuba, the exchange rate is better and the exchange fees are less for Euros.
Airport attendants said we would have no problem getting money inside of the city at a bank but I didn’t trust this. I had exchanged the majority of mine at the airport so while we were in Vinales I didn’t need to go to the bank but the rest of my travel party did. They all walked out of the bank like they needed 14 drinks, STAT! They explained to me that there were plenty of people working but only one person actually doing anything, the rest just sat there talking to each other. The security guard inside would randomly pick people in line to exchange their money.
My friend who had been to Cuba said that the banks reserve money for Cubans first so you’re just standing there like, “Am I on fucking boiling points right now!?” And it was true, they each ended up waiting about 30+ minutes.
So, learn from us. For the love of all things holy, exchange at the airport. There are two Cambio De Moneda outside of the airport doors. I didn’t wait long at all and they will issue you CUC because you’re a foreigner. Cubans operate in CUP and your dollar will go a lot farther, about 25:1. So if you run out of money don’t go to the bank as your first option. My casa and AirBnBs said they didn’t have money to exchange so we asked our taxi driver, DUH, who had all of the monies and he gave us CUPs.
Side Note: Most Cubans will ask you for a tip just for their foot being in the corner frame of your picture. So you can imagine when you take a tour, directions or basically anything… Don’t blatantly take pictures of locals because. Rude. I would probably capitalize on that shit too if people were constantly taking pictures of me in my “natural habitat,” in America. So when you take a tour or whatever, don’t be a dick. Tip them.
Wifi is becoming more available but as of right now, the infrastructure just isn’t there yet. A few casa particulars will advertise that they offer wifi, understand that this is rare and if it’s important to you then you should snatch that shit up. Or if you need to make an international call or check the interwebs you can buy an internet card for a couple CUC. You’ll be able to locate the city squares with wifi by the glow of everyone staring at their phone, at night it’s kind of creepy honestly. Zombies.
I turned my phone on airplane mode and never took it off, never needed it. If you need to reach someone in Cuba your casa will always have a landline and they seem to know everyone and know everything. Coming from the era of cell phones, I’m sure we just forget that this is possible.
When we originally bought our flights my mom called ATT to see if they provided coverage in Cuba and they said no. My brother bought an internet card to make a phone call and when we got our bill we had around $200 in international charges. I guess October 1st they started offering coverage. So as moms have the ability to do – she raised hell, pulled from her vault the online chats she had saved with a representative, and made them wish they were never born. Charges were dropped.
Learn from us, double check with your provider before leaving because you still may not be safe from international rates using an internet card.
– Where To Stay –
The three main areas you’ll want to stay in are Habana Vieja, Vedado and Centro Habana. Your options are casa particulars or AirBnB. They’re generally someone’s home that they’ll leave for the night to go stay with a friend/family. My mom was so nervous because we hadn’t heard from our host with more than 1 confirmation about being able to check in early and not having a way to call her. I tell her multiple times, “Mom, she’ll be there don’t worry.” Try telling a mom that… But guess what, she was there when we arrived waving to us from the balcony. They’re always around and want to make your stay as convenient as possible, it behooves them to have tourists want to come back.
The two we rented were through AirBnB because we wanted to arrange transportation prior to arriving but this is also something you can arrange once you land. The first being Casa Carmen in Centro Habana off of Calle San Martin. It was a great location within walking distance to the Malecon, food, drinks, and off a main road to find taxis. Their nephew happened to be a taxi driver as well so he scooped us from the airport and also took us to Vinales the next day.
Address: San Jose 1103 E/ Infanta y San Francisco, Apt 2, Cayo Hueso, Centro Habana, Cuba
Set your expectations low, that way when you see the apartment you’re pleasantly surprised. 🙂 Listen, I’m just laying my head down for like 6 hours and I’m a sucker for a balcony but really, this place was cute and clean.
This is in the interior of most apartments
Just about every apartment will have three doors to unlock to get inside. That night we head back home and all four of us can’t work the last lock. We are trying to hatch plans of dangling my tiny friend M out of the window so she can heave her legs across and shimmy her body over the balcony to let us in. When we come out of our delusions and realize how fucking stupid that is I start touching the ground contemplating, “we’ve had some drinks, how hard would it really be if we had to sleep on these stone stairs.” There are always people hanging out in the street so this is when M and K go outside to find help. She comes back with a man and I say, “where did you find him?” She says simply, “in his window.”
This man unlocks another gated door to go up to the next floor and finds an old man who uses no words but uses our key to unlock the door and calmly goes back to bed. You guys, we were LITERALLY debating on throwing M out of the second story broken glass window to her almost certain death, or at least a badly rolled ankle.
You can stay in a hotel if you want but in my opinion they’re over-priced and take away from the charm that defines Havana. Who wants an easy hotel key swipe anyway!?
I shouldn’t have to reiterate this again but I’m gonna.. this is a communist country. Bomb Drop. We had cab drivers who were also engineers, so support their additional jobs by staying in an AirBnB or Casa Particular.
The second AirBnB La Casa de Monica y Jose is in the Vedado neighborhood near Plaza De La Revolucion. One of my favorite things when traveling is getting a glimpse of what it feels like to live there, I love going grocery shopping as if I’m going to fill my fridge with weekly groceries for work lunches. So I really liked this area because it’s mostly all residents and you get a chance to see Cubans daily lives away from tourism.
Monica is a total babe and the fastest Spanish speaker I’ve ever met but will go out of her way to accommodate you. My ability to listen to Spanish context clues was put to the test and I’m sure at times she was thinking, “Is this Asian girl sleeping with her eyes open?” Her place is close to the Plaza de Revolucion and a short taxi ride anywhere.
She made breakfast for 3 CUC/person and the neighborhood has some good photo ops. Pics, tips and link to her AirBnB — La Casa de Monica y Jose Valley 162 between Infanta and Basarrate, Palacio de la Revolucion, Avenida Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, La Habana, Cuba
Tips on how to get that ghost town pic:
1.) See tourists and head the OPPOSITE direction
2.) Go to this park where school boy kids ask you if you want to S their D. You say, “No, pero gracis por la oferta.. SCRAM!” And take your pic.
Christmas in Cuba
– A Very Merry UnChristmas To You –
My family and I aren’t religious and after leaving for college we just never really did anything traditional to celebrate it. We found ourselves buying each other maybe 1 or 2 presents we didn’t need and drinking a shit load of champagne. I always asked for travel money so why not just get memories instead of materials? We had been talking about doing a Christmas trip for years, choosing Cuba as the cheapest and warmest location we could quickly get to. Even still, I was excited to see what it would be like in a primarily Roman Catholic country.
We didn’t see anything to hint that it was Christ’s birthday. Granted, finding churches wasn’t exactly high on our list. We flew in on Christmas and I think Christmas Eve is a bigger celebration, but if I walked into a church I’d burst into flames so what do I know? The church in the picture below is the only thing we stumbled upon. I took this picture from a safe distance two feet from the doorway.
See and Do
– Walk Around –
Simply walking around Havana is an activity with plenty of photo ops.
The old cigar factory
The Malecon is free.
If you’re from a place with a beach you’ll be like, “Eh, it’s a wall and I can’t touch the ocean from here.” A day before flying to Cuba I had landed from spending a winter month in Kentucky so I was fucking ecstatic to sit on that wall just to even smell the ocean. Did I say free?
Walking along the Malecon you’ll see the US Embassy. The Cuban flag was at half mast, it had only been about three weeks since Fidel Castro’s death.
Restaurant Dolce Vita along the Malecon where we had an adorably persuasive waiter. Next thing we know we’re on a diet of cigars and mojitos while he’s arranging a classic car to pick us up for 36CUC.
– Obviously Take A Classic Car Ride –
We paid 36CUC to start from the Malecon, I’m sure we could’ve gotten it cheaper but the sun was setting and… Drunk. These cars are everywhere, just flag them down like a taxi and agree on the price before getting in. They take multiple stops through the city so it’s not necessary to set a separate time to visit a site like Plaza De La Revolucion. It’s farther away from the city center and there’s really nothing to do here except for what’s in the first picture below.
– Havana Plazas –
Plaza De San Francisco
This is the first plaza where we were dropped. We walked up to a crowd starting to gather into a circle, strangers started singing and praying together while holding hands.
Plaza De Armas
Walk through towards the water and you’ll see the cruise boats docked. Hang a left and you’ll be in Plaza De Armas.
There are little stores and people selling propaganda in the squares along with plenty of restaurants. There is a strip of them off of Obispo right past the propaganda tables. We sat outside of La Mina where we got a 3-course meal for about 15CUC and a mariachi band came by with men in tight clothing. I pointed my mom out to one of the guys so he swooped her for a dance probably assuming that this white lady was going to break out with disco fingers. My mom ballroom dances in her spare time so she shocked them and ate that shit up for dessert.
Customs: “Have you touched any animals, livestock or been on a farm..” Me: “But I just love dem”
You can walk down Obispo to El Floridita Bar (blurry picture above). I had heard that Floridita was pretty touristy and hyped up compared to what they offered. So we openly drank beers the whole walk down to that area. Loud music, people and entertainment for free. There’s a cut through from there to El Capitolio with plenty of waiting taxis.
Santa Maria Del Mar
– A Beach Close to Havana –
The host from my second AirBnB arranged for Jacon to take us to Playa Santa Maria which is a beach about 30 minutes away from Havana. He waited for 3 hours while we were laid up on the beach drinking Club Havana all for 30CUC, I know there are cheaper options to get there and How Not To Travel Like A Basic Bitch goes into detail on that in this post. We had a limited time frame since we had just gotten back from Vinales and had to go to a show that night. He also took us the scenic route on the way back so it was kind of like taking another classic car tour but longer for cheaper.
–So learn from me, if you plan on going to Santa Maria take a classic car instead of the local Cuban bus, you’ll kill two birds.
There are little restaurants and bars under tarps speckled along the beach
Fuck the Tropicana Show
– Go Here If You Like to Throw Out Money –
I sacrificed my last night of a short trip to Cuba at this money leech of a tourist trap. Nobody else wanted to spend the $100 each or see it, except for my mom. I took one for the team so she didn’t have to go alone. I’m not a martyr though, I bitched the whole time.
I had such a good time in Santa Maria and around Havana that day. There were some things I still wanted to see in the city so I couldn’t justify spending the money on an outdated show I knew was going to be terrible.
First of all, it’s away from the city and there isn’t shit to do in this area. My brother and friend cabbed it with us out there so while we were at the show they walked outside of the complex attempting to find a bar. They said it was a little sketch and they could feel eyes on them. Seemed like tourists rarely came out there to do anything aside from what’s in the Tropicana complex.
There’s nothing to do in the Tropicana complex. Immediately upon entering you can see that in its hay day it was probably the tits, but now it’s holding on to something they’d attempt to argue is historical. There are two restaurants – one was overpriced and dead as hell that kept asking us if we had reservations. As I’m spinning around the room trying to search for any people that would warrant a reservation. The second, Cafe Rodney designed in cheap Carnival cruise decor. I had the most mediocre Cuban sandwich of my life and 14,000 glasses of wine to numb the pain.
The show itself isn’t anything to write home to mom about. Looks like they haven’t revamped the costumes or dance numbers since its inception. The tables are so close together that the waiters are constantly knocking into you or asking you to “scooch.”
We introduced ourselves to the people we were sharing our table with, they were all from Florida and had paid $300+ for their plane tickets. Every traveler is different and I completely get that but I am writing about my perspective here… I don’t pay to go to a different country to speak English with white people from Tampa and feel like an attraction trapped my ass.
Good thing my mom’s back was to me or she’d see my eyes bug out of my head during the theatrically violent dance number. You aren’t allowed to take pictures unless you pay to so I unfortunately didn’t get many examples to show you guys. During one of the acts they snatch the female dancer and bring her stage right.. I don’t know if it was just my sick brain or not, but it could have been interpreted as sexual assault. Don’t worry, they distract you with the African American men stage center, they’ve dressed them up in loin cloths with wood along the backs of their arms to insinuate slavery.
If you’re a white middle-aged woman that fancies ballroom dancing, you may enjoy this.. My mom said, “glad I saw it,” but she (we) is so damn stubborn she would never admit (to me) if she didn’t like it. I am glad I had the experience so that I could tell my total of 3 readers, who may or may not have made it all the way to the end of this post, not to waste their time or money. Go find a bar, 90% chance they’ll be playing salsa music and watch some real Cubans dance. Aside from that experience…