There’s something vastly intriguing about visiting a country that’s been playing by its own rules for over half a century. The idiosyncrasies are subtle but deeply entrenched and highly developed from years of sealing itself off from the United States. When planning my visit to Cuba, we initially thought 1 week would be a lot of time. But given its history, it turned out to be barely anything at all. Here are some of my thoughts about my experience and of course, a travel guide for anyone who wants to (and should) visit Cuba.
In many ways, Cuba is a relic of times past. The buildings are worn, its tenants weathered. Classic cars line the streets, but a closer look reveals that they are beautiful and shiny only from the outside; on the inside, they are rusty and unkempt. In true island form, people come and go, following the waves of the Caribbean sea in quiet steadiness.
In various nooks and crevices of the city, the socialist message rings loud and clear. Large photos of Fidel intersperse themselves with dashing Che Guevara portraits. Where there aren’t pictures, there are fierce signs. Socialismo o muerto. Yo soy Fidel. Fidel es el pueblo. Viva la 26 de Julio.
Time itself is a very different concept in this country. There isn’t widespread internet. Basic food, education, and healthcare are taken care of by the government, so there is little incentive to work hard. Upon visiting, I realized for the first time what a capitalistic phrase “working hard” even is. In Cuba, you don’t work, you exist. Because at the end of the day, your future is decided for you, and attempting to think or do otherwise is not taken to kindly.
Beneath the rampant repression, however, lies a growing stream of change, which makes Cuba such a fascinating place to visit. During our stay, we ate at privatized restaurants, which only became allowed a few years ago. Cubans are slowly experimenting with their food, and while not all of it is a hit, the desire to expand their palate is clear.
Other examples of change are evident in the millennial Cuban lifestyle. When internet is available, everyone is on Facebook or Instagram. In the discoteca, American songs alternate with Cuban hip hop, a genre that was once an offense punished by jail time. Rum is still the national drink, but whiskey and gin are creeping their way in. There is a desire to live life as best they can and share it with visitors, who are no longer a threat, but a stepping stone to a new world.
Traveling to Cuba is now easier than ever. We flew direct from New York via JetBlue, and there are countless other flights from Miami and Los Angeles that are inexpensive. Some tips when you go:
Getting a visa is incredibly easy. Just go to the airport 3 hours before your flight and purchase it for $50. You can list yourself as going in “Support of the Cuban people” and you’ll be good to go.
Bring copies of everything—passport, medical insurance, lodging, phone numbers. Internet is scarce, so you can’t rely on being able to look things up.
Change your money into Euros in the US and then change it into CUC at Havana airport. There is a fee for converting from US dollars.
Stay with host families and book through Airbnb. It’ll be much cheaper and you can eat breakfast with your family and take a cooking class (there’s a photo of me above learning how to make Cuban-style pollo y arroz with our abuela)
That said, staying with a host family means cutting into their food rations. Bring gifts from the US to give them, like chocolates, snacks, or cookware. You should also pay them 5 CUC (aka $5) to cover their expenses.
Bring hot sauce. Cuban food is notoriously bland.
Taxis shouldn’t be more than 5 CUC – feel free to bargain. If you ride a coco taxi (you’ll know what they are as soon as you see them), they’ll cost up to 20 CUC, but are exponentially more fun than riding in a regular taxi.
Get the Lonely Planet Cuba book. It’s extremely helpful and full of interesting historical information.
Google Maps doesn’t have offline maps for Cuba, so we used Triposo, which saved our lives many times. You can also add your own pins to the map.
If you want internet, you’ll have to go to hotels (we went to Parque Central) to buy ETECSA cards. From there, you can find wifi stops around the city. They legit look like Pokéstops, because you’ll see hordes of people suddenly hunched over their phones. In Cuba, internet can be as elusive as a Zapdos.
I recommend 4 days in Havana. Our favorite spots:
Paladar Los Amigos [Vedado] Beautiful outdoor patio with solid Cuban food, especially the ropa vieja. Anthony Bourdain also ate here.
Coppelia [Vedado] Fidel built this flying saucer-shaped ice cream parlor beause of his “passion for dairy products.” Stand in the local’s line and go upstairs to the salon rooms. A scoop is 25 cents, so you’ll often see families bringing their own tupperwares, ordering 25 scoops, and taking them to go for their homes.
Castillo del Morro [Malecon] Buy some beers and take a taxi to this lighthouse to watch the sunset. It’s a stunning view of the Havana peninsula.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes [Habana Vieja] aka Cuban MOMA. This is the only spot where you’ll see anti-fascist art.
El Cocinero [Vedado] Obama ate here, so obviously you should come here for drinks or dinner. It’s also right next door to…
Fábrica de Artes [Vedado] The epic art-gallery-turned club of Havana. Wander the huge space to look at art, watch an old film, or dance your face off to Cuban and American music. If “Work” goes on, you’ve hit the jackpot.
Topoly [Vedado] The first Persian restaurant in Havana, and it’s good! Get the skewers and the cucurucho, a traditional Cuban dessert made of coconut and nuts.
If you can, spend 2-3 days in Trinidad. It’s a UNESCO site and extremely beautiful, plus a short drive from Cienfuegos, another popular town. Our favorite spots:
Playa Ancon [Half the reason for coming to Trinidad is to get in some solid beach time. It’s about 15 km from the main city, so don’t be like us and think it’s bike-able, because you will end up very sweaty and tan. Take a taxi, bring towels, and enjoy the day]
Disco Ayala [One of the most famous clubs in Cuba, and it’s in a CAVE. It’s one of the coolest dancing experiences I’ve had]
Casa de la Música [An outdoor haven of live music and drinks, perfect for a warm night]