As I plan many of my trips, I decided with relatively little notice to go to Cuba. Like many of you, I was confused about how to go and what the rules actually are but after doing a lot of reading on the subject, I decided to just go and roll the dice. I wanted to see Cuba and I’m so glad I did!
The Trip to Cuba
Departing Vegas at 10:55pm for Cuba via Charlotte (CLT), I found the check in process to be similar to any other flight. American required an in person check in for flights that end in Cuba. The gal at the front desk asked for a purpose for my Cuba travel and I stated “people to people exchanges”. That was about it.
When I got to Charlotte around 630am local time, I found my connecting flight easily andalso a little kiosk labeled “Cuba ready” right next to the gate. There, I paid $100 for a Cuban visa (steep), they stamped my boarding pass and I was on my way! Really very much like any other international flight with a few caveats. I was afraid of being interrogated about my travel to Cuba but none of that occurred for me.
Landing at Havana Airport is quite a treat. On approach, all I saw was the ocean water. We actually got very low before the island finally appeared and then we turned to land at the airport but got treated to great views of the surprisingly green undeveloped open island spaces. A lot of farmland and open grasslands for miles were in sight.
Havana (HAV or Jose Martin) airport is really not in the best shape. There’s not two ways to put that. It’s not uncommon to see rough airports in Latin America but this one may the worst. The upside is that I got through customs fast and simply. Within 10 minutes of deplaning,I was out of the airport. I rarely check bags so I can’t speak to that experience at Jose Martin airport.
When I got out, a taxi driver quoted me 75CUC to get my airbnb. It’s a good thing my host told me in advance what to pay because I would have no idea that this guy was overcharging me. So I told him I would pay 35CUC and he agreed. So thanks to my host Martha for that!
After about a 30 min drive to my host I got out and marveled immediately at the very rough but charming visual of this unique Cuban neighborhood. It’s very hard to describe. Something that could easily be as high end as the garden district in New Orleans but also reminded me of the worst parts of Detroit because most of the buildings are in visual disrepair. If our stupid government ever get off this horrible Cuba policy and opens that island up, I can’t say enough about the incredible opportunities with their buildings. They’re absolutely stunning even though 90% of Havana is falling apart. If they were restored to the original condition (much like what’s happening in Panama City’s old town) Havana would rival even Paris as the most architecturally stunning city on earth. You can see the detail and the marble and pillars in the 19th century and early 20th buildings.
Anyway, I was greeted and got settled into my very cute little room which thankfully had AC. My hosts were very gracious and helpful. It’s like staying in my grandparents home in a way. It was nothing like a hotel. But very clean like one should be.
I slept a few hours since I took a red eye and got no sleep whatsoever. Then Juan, one of my hosts, helped me get a taxi to meet my evening Havana tour. Unfortunately, I forgot my wallet and didn’t realize it until I was there so my driver took me all the way back and back again. I went from being thirty minutes early to being fifteen minutes late. And a 10CUC ride became 30CUC. So that really sucked.
When I got to my group, I quickly hit it off with them but fast realized that none of them really cared for our tour guide. I actually liked him a lot but I think he was a bit quick to judgement and took things too personally and that may have come through in some of the interactions. I chalked it up to Cuban passion. So the whole night was fun but just sort of uneasy with the group. We did a little drive around Havana which was fun but the highlight was certainly a rooftop mojito making session. We all had fun drinking and dancing and making drinks. One other Brazilian drink which I could not ever pronounce consisting of 3.5 scoops of sugar, three pieces of limes squeezed and left in, muddled, then rum, ice, shaken, and more ice makes the most delicious drink. The views from the rooftop and the tasty drinks made that hour up there a highlight for me. I only wish the whole evening had gone as well.
After that, we had dinner at a little Cuban restaurant where I had a delicious pork dish and good drinks. That restaurant was Nao and I ended up returning twice more before leaving Havana (more on that later). That was about the beginning of the end for the night though!
It didn’t help that one of our group mates wanted to see the annual Havana carnival festival (which was going on at the same time) and that’s not normally part of the tour. So our guide reluctantly accommodated and I think that took things way off course to the point where everyone else was tired of walking and just wanted to go drink and ended the tour. I’ve never seen a tour group mutiny like that and just decide they were done with the tour. It was just awkward. I liked our guide but I can’t blame the rest of our group either. They were all tired and I think they’d rather have been drinking and dancing than walking on the malecon endlessly. The whole premise of the tour was disrupted. Instead of a drinking/fun tour, it became a walking tour.
I stuck with our guide and we walked just the two of us another hour or so and exchanged cultural information and I tried to give him advice on better ways to interact with different types of Americans and I suggested not deviating from what works. Sometimes doing things to please people who don’t know Cuba can make things worse. I’ll bet if he stuck to his normal routine everyone would’ve had a better time and been happier in the end. Once we deviated it just became a walking tour not a nightlife tour. Anyway, I still had fun. I got to see a lot of Havana on foot. I try to see the good side of everything when I travel. The more I thought about it later I realized that most tours aren’t all that successful and the few group tours I’ve taken that were successful only became that due to the people in the group. It rarely is possible for the tour guide to get the group there. It’s the people in it and how they interact that makes it special.
Anyway, I ended up skipping the taxi and walking around 30 minutes from the malecon to my room at 11pm. It’s a bit rough walking thorough the Vedado neighborhood of Havana after dark but I never felt unsafe and I just used good judgement. I enjoyed the walk with the exception of a man sitting on the sidewalk in a dark residential street that I almost tripped over. He was basically laying on the sidewalk in a dark spot. He didn’t move when I leaped out of the way so I’ll just hope he was drunk (and not dead)! I made it back to my room safe and sound.
My other lingering concern on Day One was cash. Everyone warns you to bring extra cash and I thought $500 would be plenty considering how cheap the country is but after $65 in taxi and $40 in tips, that was a big chunk gone day one.
My first impressions of Havana was that it is truly unique and seeing the Cubans in the streets dancing and having a good time made me smile. The country feels so remote in some ways. Even though it’s 90 miles from Miami, I felt far more connected in Japan or China than Cuba. No reliable cell service (Verizon works but not always and when it does it’s super expensive and no data) and internet is not easy to find either which is nice in many ways but definitely hard to adjust to. The energy and unique nature of Havana does get the blood pumping and the curiosity flowing.
I woke up on Day 2 in Cuba determined to get to my morning food tour on time (unlike the day before). So I got up and was ready to go around 9:15 to make a 10:00 tour. I was excited. Ready!
Then my hosts and I could not find a taxi! We called so many places but Cubans seem to sleep in on Sundays so it was hard to find someone willing to come pick me up. Thus I barely made it but I did (in the end) make it on time. Ana, my tour guide, met me in old town Havana (or Habana Vieja). I realized I was the only person on the tour. Considering the drama of the night before, I actually was pleased. I recalled that in China, I had two back to back food tours in which I was the only person and had fun both times! I find one on one tours to be great personal exchanges with locals that I otherwise would not get with a large group. I still prefer to be around a group of people on tours (when I’m traveling solo) but I think food tours in particular are easy and rewarding to do one on one. So I had a good feeling and Ana did not disappoint. First we had a traditional cafe con leche.
She pointed out that in Cuba, most people can’t afford milk so powdered milk is more common in homes and that’s what this restaurant served in their coffee. It tasted delicious. We also had bread and butter except here they might dip the bread and butter into the coffee!
We had a great little meal at the mojito mojito restaurant. From there we walked around Habana Viejo and discussed various topics from the internet and phone situation in Cuba to the lives of everyday Cubans. I have to admit I was surprised by the level of difficulty to accomplish what are everyday simplicities for Americans. One thing I’ll think twice before taking for granted again is the internet. It’s available everywhere I go at home. In Cuba, it’s a real chore to find it.
We toured several plazas in Habana Viejo and tried a variety of foods from chorizo to fresh fruits.
My favorite stop was the restaurant Nao. I actually had eaten there the first night with another tour. This time, Ana introduced me to Ropa Viejo (old clothes) and it was amazing. The name comes from an old Cuban legend of a man being so desperate to feed his family that he destroys his own clothes and tries to cook it (praying god would change it to food). His wish is granted and it becomes a delicious stew. The taste of flank steak and tomato paste cooked for hours with many spices and a side of black beans and rice was unforgettable.
Ana warned me that it it’s not uncommon for restaurants in Cuba to run out of food due to the difficulty of acquiring it and it turns out she was very right. I went back to Nao a third time the next day to discover they were out of flank steak!
After finishing our day with some very delicious mojito ice cream, Ana helped me exchange my money and buy internet cards (yes you need a card). Even with the wifi cards, they have to be activated one at a time for an hour each and only in the few areas you can find a stable connection to the network. I found a little hotel in old Havana that had a great connection.
I walked around for hours shooting Habana Viejo and getting better acquainted with it before getting a taxi back to my room and exploring more of the area around my casa particular (Airbnb). That area is Vedado.
One thing I’ll say about Vedado is that (to me) it’s just indescribably nuts. Walking down residential streets there is part terrifying/part majestic. It truly reminds me of New Orleans both in the setting and the style of homes but it’s much rougher. It feels a little like Halloween when you don’t know which houses are actually just quiet for the night and which are actually open for trick or treating. In this case the trick or treating houses might be a hidden club or restaurant that otherwise looks like a less than enthralling house!
It is truly the most unusual place I’ve EVER explored. It is seedy and dirty and falling apart but it’s also beautiful and vibrant and overflowing with charm. Go figure.
Anyway I had a forgettable dinner with little time to plan, stopped at the hotel Melia Cohiba to use their internet and have a drink. I went to my room to change and decided to go find a place to dance Cubano style. Finding taxis is not easy in that part of Havana so I decided to just walk to the malecon (which is their riverfront district). It ended up being a 45 minute walk (and I walk fast). Something like 30 blocks! Under the dark, crazy Vedado night!
When I got to the malecon, I found a scene straight out of Back to the Future Part II. You know when Marty wakes up in Hill Valley’s alternate future and finds it to be a crazy over the top version of itself. That was the malecon at midnight on a Sunday night. Thousands of Cubans on the streets, some just standing on sidewalks for no apparent reason. Others, I assume, for a reason. Loud vintage cars, smog, police, prostitutes, and drunken Cubans and tourists alike. On the other hand, the energy level is so high and the scene so unbelievable that it has to be seen to believe. I ended up never getting to dance but I had an experience I’ll never forget and can barely describe. I ended up walking the whole 45 minutes back! I won’t lie and pretend I wasn’t on edge. You would be too in the same situation. I’m sure I was never in any danger but my senses were raised in those dark backstreets of Havana. Still, that’s why I travel. For the discovery and the minor discomfort. What’s a little fear of the unknown darkness in front of you? I love the sensation.
The biggest challenge by far in Cuba for Americans is the money situation. You MUST bring enough cash to get through the WHOLE trip. This might not seem so complicated but if you’re like me, I’ve never been in a situation where I couldn’t use either a credit or debit card. Adding to that, getting money from home is also impossible (unless you happen to have family who are Cuban nationals living abroad). So if I had run out of cash, I would have been truly screwed. Someone would have to fly there to bring me more money. Thus every decision I made haltingly because it’s not enough to have enough for the whole trip, I needed some for taxis and to save for emergencies too. I could not run out. I simply could not. Normally travel and don’t sweat the small stuff, especially in poor countries where $5 to me means nothing compared to them. However, in Havana I found myself being cheap and tight to avoid disaster. I can’t convey how much it weighs to have to worry. So do yourself a favor and price out each day honestly and then double it. Take that much cash with you!
Also make sure they are perfect bills. Ripped, curled, or otherwise damaged notes will be rejected if you try to exchange in Cuba. Also they have a 10 % penalty and 3% service charge. So as of the time of this writing, $100 US is only 87CUC. It doesn’t seem like much but of the $500 US I brought, $65 was lost to exchange rate penalties. I didn’t think that through. Be smarter than me!
Santa Maria Beach
I started the day with breakfast at my casa particular Airbnb. My host charged me 5CUC but served a crazy amount of food and it was delicious! A platter of the freshest fruits I’ve eaten, avocado (also very fresh), a full omelette (delicious), coffee, fresh squeezed juice, water, two orders of toast with homemade mango jam, and a slice of some kind of pie for dessert. I really appreciated the hospitality of my hosts. I am quite certain I would not have enjoyed my visit nearly as much in a hotel. I got to see the real Havana intimately on this trip. Not just walking Vedado but walking three times through most of Habana Viejo.
I got a taxi to change more money and then went to parque central to catch the hop on/hop off bus to playa Santa Maria. I got out at the beach and spent an hour or so laying out and taking in the waves. I assumed (always a mistake) that there would be a place to get towels and water on the beach but that was stupid of me. If you go, make sure to go fully loaded. I’m spoiled with hotel beaches in Mexico and didn’t think. So I didn’t stay long as it wasn’t that comfortable. Also if I’m being honest, it was quite dirty too. I try to look at the positives in every country I visit but I think no one could dispute that the beaches have way too much trash all over the place in that area. I can’t speak to the more remote beaches but the one I visited was closest to Havana.
After the beach I made it to Morro Castle, named after the three biblical Magi. It is a fortress guarding the entrance to Havana bay in Havana, Cuba. The view from it’s steps of Havana is expansive and breathtaking. After hanging out enjoying the view for a while, I eventually made my way back to the bus to return to Havana.
Dinner in Habana Viejo
Then I made my way back to Habana Viejo. Without the internet, I did not have a GPS powered map but I knew I wanted to make it to the same hotel I went the day earlier for WIFI. Thus, I literally picked a direction at random and just guessed which way from Parque Central to get there! I wandered around for 30 minutes looking for anything familiar and as it often happens, I found my destination! I was pretty happy with myself on that one!
After catching up on emails and Instagram I set out to find Nao again. The restaurant from the first two days. I think that experimenting at random on restaurants when traveling only is a good idea if you can vet them with trustworthy locals or the net first. Otherwise the odds are always high of disappointment (at least for foodies). I couldn’t find Nao at first but saw another place that was recommended by my food tour guide Ana the day before and went to walk in. The host (or I thought he was the host) ushered me across the street and into a small restaurant in a Cuban house instead. I was a bit taken aback but I was curious to see what would happen. He said he had family in the US (which I doubt). No doubt, he said that to try to make me more at ease. Then sat me down in this restaurant. There were other patrons there and nothing seemed all that out of the ordinary at first. It took a while to get a menu but when I finally got one, I realized the scam. The prices were 2 – 3x more than they should be! Shockingly high for Havana. Entrees in the $30 range would be no big deal in the US but at Nao, I could get a 3-course meal for that and drinks! Thats when I realized this was a menu for tourists to try to charge way more than they should. As soon as he realized I wasn’t Cuban, he ushered me across the street (probably where he’d receive a kickback). In Cuba, I’ve been told that government run restaurants (and all businesses) pay very little. So there’s no real loyalty to the employer. Knowing this, it became obvious that this host was just pushing people somewhere else so he could make more. Assuming he was actually the host. It was a bit bizarre.
Many travelers complain about being scammed. If it happens to you, simply get up and leave. That’s what I did. I don’t mind helping the Cuban people as I’m blessed and what we make in the US is probably 100x what they make in a month. What I DO mind is being scammed. I’ll tip well and be the best customer but don’t try to scam me. As soon as I said the prices were crazy, he immediately offered to lower it by half (seriously) but I didn’t want to eat there at that point and I said good bye and walked right out. Do the same if you feel you’re being scammed. These guys prey on Americans and Europeans who are too polite to speak up and will just accept the scam to save face. Face saving isn’t something I care about.
Anyway I finally found Nao and had an amazing meal of Quimbombo (a type of vegetable stew with okra, corn, carrots, Tocino and chorizo in an amazingly flavorful broth). Then I had pollo a la plancha for my entree. Both were excellent and the ladies treated me very well there. I like places that don’t have a menu for Americans and a menu for everyone else!
My last night in Havana, the skies opened up and thunder and lighting on an epic scale came down on Havana. I managed to get a taxi back to Vedado just before the rain really poured down. At that point, I was wiped after several eventful days and just relaxed in my room for the evening and headed home the next day.
When I arrived back at Jose Martin, I found that it was pretty basic (as I expected) but efficient. The security line was long (so get there early) but the process easy/simple. The terminal itself is very old and run down and when I got to the gate, the only way we realized they’d switched gates is by happenstance when another person waiting for the same flight noticed the change (seriously). So just pay attention when you’re there.
I was very happy to be back in Miami (and back to free flowing and easily accessible WIFI!). When I reached customs, I was a bit nervous as I didn’t know if my trip really qualified as “people to people” exchange but I went through my Global Entry queue and when I reached the Customs and Border Patrol officer, he asked me the purpose of my Cuba trip. I replied “people to people exchange” and he said “ok, have a nice day”. That was that. So all the stress and anxiety about taking this trip came down to four words. It was that simple. After that, I connected through Miami (MIA) on my way back to Vegas.
All in all, I really enjoyed my Cuba trip. There was some definite culture shock and drawbacks but that’s why I travel. It can’t be 5-star accommodations and high luxury all the time. I have to take the good with the not so good and enjoy each country I visit for what it is. The Cuban people and their viewpoints on politics, family, fun, and life is truly unique. Every Cuban seems to be engaged and aware of what’s going on in their country and in the world as it relates to their country. It’s a country of free education, free health care, no rent, and stunning beauty. On the other hand, the average Cuban makes between $20 and $40 a month (depending on who you ask) and only 20% has their own transportation. The cost of cell phone usage, internet, and owning a vehicle are astronomical in comparison to what they make.
I might have said “people to people” exchange at customs because it’s the easiest category to say but in truth, I really DID exchange ideas with the Cuban people and learned so much about their culture and tried to return with good information about our American culture. Whether or not my trip met the literal letter of the intention of US law, it certainly met the spirit of it.