Havana, Cuba (or La Habana in the vernacular) has been on my bucket list for a long time as I am fascinated in equal parts by its political history and its time-capsule-esque character. Traveling even further south in August, perhaps not always on my bucket list… but the way our schedules worked this summer, last month turned out to be the perfect time for my husband and I to finally explore Havana as a nice last hurrah of summer. After our Thrift Store Adventure down the Florida coast, we parked a car full of antiques at the Ft. Lauderdale airport and flew off to Cuba. It wasn’t an impulsive trip – there was research and planning involved and after seeing my friend Grace’s incredible trip (you can read her really helpful Cuba Travel Guide here) I was inspired to finally pull the trigger on ours.
Even so, I felt a little out of my depth and also per Grace’s recommendation worked closely with the organization Cuba Educational Travel to execute our first Cuba adventure. After what we learned on this trip, I would totally feel confident winging it more next time and planning things more independently, but this gave us psychological security with the big details – like securing our visas (more on that here), arranging our accommodations, and coordinating all of our transportation. But more than that, through them we saw a side of Havana I don’t think we would have seen otherwise – and got a more local, and in depth perspective on the city via our fantastic guide who was with us nearly the whole time and helping our trip to run smoothly. We actually started referring to him as “the fixer” as he seemed to possess an innate ability to get cabs (the old cars are always breaking down) procure cigars and secure dinner reservations. It is important to remember, however, that it was and still is a communist country. Therefore Cubans are all on a government wage – less that $20 American Dollars a month. The US Government has also not allowed trade between our two countries since 1960, which has to a large degree economically paralyzed a country whose proximity to the United States could otherwise be a huge economic and trade advantage. It also means the vintage American cars that Havana is so famous for are quite literally stuck in the 50s and 60s, because they are built and rebuilt over again as a result of the lack of new automobile inventory and parts. This definitely contributes to the romantic perception of Havana and its famous aesthetic, but is also disheartening because it represents both a desperation and a resourcefulness that is characteristic of day to day life there. All to say, remember that this is far from an affluent country and you will feel silly and disappointed if you are looking for a polished and glamorous experience, But, what you get is far more interesting and beautiful.
Our first stop was at La Plaza de la Revolución, the one of the largest city squares anywhere, where most of Cuba’s political rallies take place and from which the various government ministries are run. The contrast of the colorful American vintage cars with bleak architecture the many-stories-high Fidel Castro and Che Guevara sculptures is striking. This was our sweet guide who was absolutely incredible, and even if he was sick of us after four days of non-stop hanging out, never showed it.
Also an important stop is the Museo de la Revolución which is, as it sounds – a museum of the Revolution. In the old presidential palace, the building is dramatic and beautiful and the narrative of the exhibits give an interesting window into the story Castro’s revolution.
So much of the architecture and interiors you see are breathtaking and have this air of faded grandeur. Some of the washed out, Caribbean colors actually reminded me of historic Charleston. But, as mentioned – August – sooooooo hot. Especially because exploring old Havana on foot is the most interesting and fun way to do it, I would suggest going in a cooler month. Charleston summers only had me somewhat prepared to handle the Havana summer heat.
Those last two photos are the interior and exterior of the Ambos Mundos Hotel where Earnest Hemingway famously wrote part of For Whom The Bell Tolls. You can stay there and you an also tour the room he had. We actually stayed in local accommodations, which I highly recommend called a “Casa particular” which is a private home owned by a Cuban family who rent out rooms – like a bed and breakfast. It was in Vedado, a suburb of Havana that was not very touristy but still had a lot of color and character. And in that neighborhood, through our guide we were able to tour a beautiful and privately owned Mansion from the 1920s which was pretty jawdropping.
Though a bit gritty, another major highlight was going out to the beach one afternoon in Tarará, a gated resort town with crystal blue water. We were definitely the only non-Cubans there and you can drink mojitos on the beach in actual glasses and watch people swim-dance to really loud Cuban rap music that was being played by a DJ on the beach. Kind of heaven!
Music is everywhere and radiating from everything. We even took salsa lessons. A single salsa lesson will really only prove to you how little rhythm you actually have, but also give you enough of a desire to learn more. Against the advice of our guide, we went to the touristy Buena Vista Social Club. It was fun but I suspect a much better version of a this type of thing is The Tropicana Club, which is more like a dinner club with elaborate performances and music. We started to get anxious towards the end of our trip that we did not have enough cash so we were afraid to splurge on this. You cannot. Get more. American Dollars. Anywhere in Cuba. You can’t use American credit cards and will have no access to your American accounts. There are no exceptions to this so I recommend bring more in cash than you even think you’ll need.
Two final spots I would not miss were also where we had our two best meals. One was at La Guarida, a restaurant on one of the upper floors of an old, shelled out building. You walk up these marble stairs into this quaint romantic restaurant that was featured in the movie Like Water for Chocolate. The food was really, really good (for real, because we did not find that to be the case in general) and the view of the street from our balcony seats was incredible. There is also a fantastic bar on the roof that overlooks the city that you can have a drink at without even going to the restaurant. But the best part is (though there is no photo to prove it since we were tech free on this trip) we sat next to Donald Glover who was eating at the next table! Apparently in Havana to film a video with Rihanna, kind of magical as Atlanta is one of my favorite shows.
The second spot was less of a restaurant and more of a mixed use space that evolved throughout the evening. Fabrica de Arte Cubano (or The Cuban Art Factory) is an old factory building (run by the Cuban government) that consists of multiple bars and restaurants as well as areas to eat, drink and dance. It houses a number of rotating contemporary Cuban art shows. You can go for a drink, then dinner and spend all night there into the early morning. Havana really does not sleep.
We were only in Cuba four days and really mostly in Havana, but somehow it felt like time slowed down. I think this had something to do with not using our phones (another great reason to travel there – you will truly unplug!). If I could end with a few thoughts and suggestions about traveling to Cuba they are as follows:
– Bring plenty of American cash. Then bring even more.
– Cubans do not have direct access to things we take for granted – toothpaste, toiletries, make-up, even socks and underwear. Bring extra toiletries with you and leave them with your hosts or whomever wants them. Bring host/hostess gifts if you go to someone’s house. Anything you can offer will be much appreciated.
– Tip often and well. The tourist economy is essential to Cuba and it has definitely been negatively impacted in recent years. Plan for this in the amount of cash you bring.
– While not an affluent country it is incredibly safe. You can walk on any street at any hour of the night and feel totally secure!
– Stay local – the Casa particulars are a wonderful experience, often nicer than hotels and help support Cuban families.
– The tap water is not safe to drink, but also don’t worry too much about getting sick. We were absolutely fine, we just stuck to bottled water and ate everything that was served to us.
– Dance and don’t feel silly. The sheer amount of music and dancing makes you realize no one is looking at you, no one cares, everyone is just enjoying themselves
– Hop in a cab and go to the beach – they are beautiful! It is worth the ride!
– Turn you phone off! Even if you can get service here and there, why do you need it? If ever there was a place to disconnect and be in the moment, this is it.