If you follow Curves and a Carry On on Instagram, you saw that I was recently living the “island life” in Cuba!
I’ve been dealing with a lot lately…canceling my wedding, re-evaluating myself and my relationships with people, and trying to rediscover my motivation and passion(s). It’s been…hard. I was really looking forward to this trip, and taking some time to explore a place that’s gotten a bad (hardly deserved) rep over the years.
I did a lot of research prior to going, and I was lucky enough to make some contacts before going with the inside scoop!
I’d love to say that all my research and planning helped me to manage my expectations, but that would be a total and complete lie. I expected to see lot of the poverty, tons of stray and sick animals, and experience perceived hardships like minimal wifi connection, difficulty communicating in Spanish, or severe humidity. I expected colorful buildings, and broken streets.
What I didn’t expect was that despite all of the things we Americans see as an inconvenience, this is merely just another day in the Cuban life. And despite all of that, they still find time to help a neighbor (or a tourist stranger), yell from the balconies to invite someone up for a cup of juice or coffee, or tell you about the rich history of their country. That next to one well-kept building, you’ll find one condemned. That for every broken street, there’s a well-maintained one.
I came in a stranger, and left with my own little Cuban family, experiences that will forever be etched in my heart, and an overwhelming amount of gratitude for the life that I live.
That being said, it’s only right I pass my knowledge on, and keep encouraging others to experience Cuba!
Getting There: This seems to be the most daunting and fear-inducing part from people who heard I was going to Cuba, and I gotta say…I don’t get it? Traveling to Cuba is LEGAL, and super easy! It’s got a few more caveats than your standard trip, but it’s nowhere near impossible!
Travel Reasons: The USA has designated 12 reasons for travel to Cuba, and you must be able to prove at anytime during or after your trip that you qualify under your selected reason. The easiest for leisure travel is “Support of the Cuban People,” as you immediately qualify by booking your room/house on airbnb, and booking your tours through an independent agency versus through the Cuban Visitors Bureau also qualifies you. By dining at paladars and privately owned restaurants, you also help contribute to the Cuban people versus the government.
Flights: Most major commercial airlines like Delta, JetBlue, and American are flying into Cuba now. You can also fly major international airlines like Copa, Avianca, etc. From LAX we paid just over $300 RT, and my friends went from Tijuana airport for about $276 RT with a layover in Mexico City.
Visa Requirements: Entrance into Cuba does require a Visa, which you can purchase from most commercial airlines. I flew Copa airlines from LAX to Panama and then Panama to Cuba. The gate agent in Panama sells the Visa for $20 USd (cash only), and…that’s it. Two of my friends flew in from Mexico City, and same deal.
Health Insurance: All non-residents are REQUIRED to enter with international health insurance. You can easily buy an inexpensive travelers medical policy online, and print proof to take to the airport with you. The agent at the desk WILL ask. If you don’t have it, upon arriving at the Havana airport there is a desk at the entrance to baggage claim where you can purchase it. I didn’t see the price for myself, but I’m told it’s a nominal fee of $3-4 CUC per day.
Airport Transfers: ImmerseCuba, who I booked a couple of day trips with, was awesome enough to offer airport transfers for us. For $30/car, we were picked up at the Havana airport…and I was surprised to see it was a classic car waiting for us for our first ride into the city, which is about 20-25 minutes from the airport. There are tons of taxis, both of the yellow taxi or classic car variety waiting there at the airport, if you haven’t pre-arranged your ride.
Currency: Locals still use Cuban Pesos, not to be confused with the Cuban Convertible Currency, or CUC deemed for use by travelers into the country. There’s a currency exchange office right outside the airport doors! US dollars incur an extra 10% fee for coversion, so I converted my money to Canadian dollars (CAD) before leaving the US, and then traded those for CUC’s. I got a small amount exchanged at the airport, and the rest in town at a currency exchange office (there are plenty around the city). Unless you have debit/credit cards from a foreign bank, you won’t be able to use US bank cards at stores/ATM machines, so bring enough cash! I budgeted for $100/day plus a $200 cushion! This was plenty for meals and souvenirs and taxis…the majority of my money was thrust into the palms of amazing people who showed us the most hospitality ever. Every cent well spent, thank you!
What to Bring:
Check out my Cuba packing list here!
Where to Stay:
We stayed at a gorgeous AirBnB, NOA Art Studio in Vedado, right on the border of La Habana proper. The house is at the very end of Calle Neptuno, by the Alma Mater University. Calle Neptuno spans from in the city Centro all the way up to the University, so it’s a big Main Street and made it a lot easier to navigate. Vedado is a more suburban area, but generally very close to the city center. The area we stayed in was closer to the Malecon, and a quick trip into the city by taxi. It was a very walkable area, and we could have taken a longer journey on foot into Havana Centro, but that heat…nope!
New to Airbnb? Use my link for $30 off your first stay! Remember, the US requires you travel to Cuba under 1 of 11 reasons. By staying in an airbnb, you not only help supplement fixed incomes of Cuban people, but you then qualify for travel under “Support of the Cuban People.”
Havana technically has 14 municipalities, or neighborhoods. The most common for visitors are: Habana Centro, Habana Vieja (Old Havana), Vedado, and Miramar (the formerly wealthy area nearest to the sea, full of giant colonial style homes).
Where to Eat:
I didn’t get to try all of the places on my list, but my list was compiled of recommendations from locals and frequent visitors, so they warrant a visit, regardless! The best meal I had was made by Laura, one of the cooks at the house where we stayed-but these restaurants offer something special for a meal out!
Antojos: A modern, super hip take on classic Cuban dishes like Ropa Vieja, Picadillo, and some of the best black beans we had on the island! Entrees range from $6-10 CUC, which is some of the cheapest we found on the island, and some of the BEST!
Barbra: A more tourist-style restaurant, the menu has all the classics, at a higher price. It was modern and cool inside, and A/C was a requirement on some stops! We had lunch here, and the food was good! Overpriced, but it did the job!
El Del Frente: This restaurant was recommended for the best dinner, but was closed for renovations during our visit.
Paladar Los Mercaderes
Lo Del Monik: A local friend, Yari, recommended this new hip spot! It was closed during our visit, but she highly recommends the seafood dishes, particularly the octopus salad!
La Guarida: Famous because people like Beyonce and the Obamas dined here, La Guarida is certainly special in its own right. While on the pricier side (I ordered a dessert that cost $8-more than most entrees at local restaurants), it’s charm is undeniable. The walls are littered with vintage photos and memorabilia, and its space on the 4th floor of an old building in Habana Vieja makes for a pretty spectacular view. Blink, and you may miss it, among crumbling buildings! As you walk up each floor, you’re greeted by old ballroom style foyers with grand chandeliers and balconies! Great photo ops. We just had dessert and drinks, but it was a break from the heat, and worth checking out.
What to Do:
The Malecon: the famed “sea wall” is a popular local hangout. Groups of people sitting along the wall, enjoying each others company day and night. One of the main drags for vehicles, you’ll drive along and see large waves splash over the wall and the road leads up to “El Morro.”
El Morro: Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro, or “El Morro” is the fortress guarding the entrance into Havana from the bay. It was constructed in 1589. Named after the three biblical Magi, it still stands strong. It was designed by an Italian, constructed when the island was under Spanish rule, and captured by the British in 1762…then returned to the Spanish in a treaty about a year later. She’s been through some things, but like Cuba, she’s still standing strong! Morro is Spanish for “large rock visible from the sea”, and you can see this grand fortress from all over the island.
Playa del Este: Just 25 minutes from Havana, Playa del Este is the closest beach area to lay out and enjoy the beautiful ocean. The Malecon area is beautiful, but high tides and a lot of rocks make it a place to sit along the wall and just hang out, like the locals do.
Hotel Conde Del Villanueva: A place recommended by visitors and locals alike for purchasing cigars at an affordable price-and if your country of residence requires paperwork to bring them back home (the USA no longer does, as long as they are for personal use), they will provide that for you as well!
The Marketplace at Feria del Prado: Our tour guide, Douglas, recommended this marketplace for souvenir shopping!
Casa de Habanos: Another highly recommended spot for getting the finest of Cuban cigars.
Cafe Escorial: The oldest cafe in the city, with strong coffee and a large list of alcoholic coffee beverages to suit any taste!
Cafe Fortuna: Nestled in an old colonial home in the Miramar area of Havana, this cute and quirky cafe is off the radar! It’s just a block or so up from the beach, and it’s affordable! A shot of expreso is less than 1 CUCm and the eclectic decor is so fun! A bathtub and half an old car both serve as tables, and there’s shelves full of old cameras in the main lobby. It’s a nice place to cool down in the A/C with a drink…they have several standard cafe classics, and a menu full of boozy coffee drinks, too!
Habana 1971: A place to make custom perfume (I didn’t make it there this trip, sadly, but I plan to next time) for the perfect souvenir!
Where to Dance:
Fabrica del Arte: Popular with locals and tourists alike, Fabrica del Arte is a hub for good food, live music, and local art! They have it all, and the party starts around 10:30 pm Friday-Sunday!
Hotel Inglaterra: Smack in the center of Havana, you can go to the rooftop of this hotel for free live salsa music, and sip a mojito or 3 while you dance the night away!
La Bodeguita del Medio: Famous for many famous musicians, and the original mojito, its a must for a visit in La Habana Vieja!
La Floridita: Rumored not just as the place where the daiquiri began, but also a popular spot where one may have run into Ernest Hemingway back in the day! Skip the food, and do drinks only!
Casa de Musical
La Casa Musica Miramar
Buena Vista Social Club: A VERY touristy experience. About $60 for a three course meal (ahem, the WORST I had while visiting), and a live show with talented musicians, singers, and dancers. It’s not at the top of my list, and I felt a little slighted by the recommendation from a taxi driver, but live and learn! It’s worth a mention because of the talent of the performers, but it’s definitely more suited to travelers looking for something less “local” (if that’s a thing)
We arranged our day trips with ImmerseCuba, and the experience was amazing. We loaded up in an orange vintage van and headed for destinations a couple hours from the city with a driver, an English speaking guide, and a lot of excitement! Highly recommend them-planning from afar via email was seamless, and they also helped us arrange our airport transfers too! You can email them directly: firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact them on Instagram (tap through the post below) for more information. They offer several types of tours in the city, and to beach cities and the country too!
Varadero: About two hours from Havana, Varadero is home to powdery sand beaches and stunning turquoise waters. As you travel there, you’ll pass through Bacunayagua, home to the highest bridge in Cuba.
From there, you’ll enter Matanzas, known as “the city of bridges.” The views are gorgeous, and the drive is just as scenic as the beaches themselves. We went during a thunder storm, and in between dips into the warm ocean, we laid out while rain poured through our umbrellas and onto our tan skin, just to welcome the sun again shortly after! It was truly beautiful, and the rain didn’t spoil it at all!
You can pay a nominal fee to rent beach chairs and umbrellas and relax. Servers come by and offer $3 mojitos or Piña Coladas to sip, and just one block up from the beach you’ll find plenty of places for lunch. There are also several hotels in the area with cafeteria fare to munch on, or to extend your stay for longer than a day! A post on Varadero is coming soon!
Viñales: If I had all day, I still couldn’t impart to you how much I adore Viñales and the people living there. A stop at the Los Jazmines view point was our first stop. There are a couple of little stands with cigars and souvenirs, a small bar to grab a water or mojito, and bathrooms (bring change for the attendant!), as well as a cute hotel and pool on site. The view of the valley is phenomenal!
From there, we kept going up the hill to the main village where we stopped at a small market with local souvenirs, and then carried on to lunch at a local farm. At this amazing “finca” we were served many traditional family-style dishes. First, we were brought a “farmers” soup with fresh veggies from the garden, and lots of yucca, squash, and avocado. They brought plates of pork, beef, chicken and rice and beans, as well as tostones, or fried plantains topped with tuna. We were all served beverages like Pina coladas, fresh pineapple or mango juice, and bottled water. Dessert was homemade flan and coffee. A true farm-to-table experience.
From the farm, with full bellies, we headed to a tobacco farm in a more rural area. It’s where a majority of the tobacco in the country is grown, and also the most picturesque area we visited. The people are hard working, with a huge emphasis on sustainability and ecological preservation. The best cigars, coffee, rum, and honey….all of those we found here…and the money went straight into the hands of the makers, which I was really proud to contribute to! There will be an additional post on the Viñales Valley soon!
To Sum it Up…
Don’t be intimidated by Cuba! It’s a beautiful place, rich with pride and culture and hospitality! A man even stopped us and said “Just so you know, we don’t hate Americans. We hate the politics, but not the people.”
Cuba needs tourists, because Socialist governing means they make minimal earnings, but can’t afford simple things like diapers, tampons, or even milk and sugar. Our dollars enable them to make extra money for luxuries that we consider to be everyday essentials. They open their arms and hearts to us, and the people I connected with are forever my little Cuban family. I’ll be back soon!
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