Cuba was always an enigma to my young, American mind. Naturally, as one to go against the grain, I had always longed to get a taste of the forbidden fruit. However, recent policies allowed Americans to commercially travel to the island to get a taste of the past. Before Cuba inevitably becomes saturated with corporations and selfie sticks, I took my brother with me on a 5-day trip to Havana, the Cuban capital.
Preparation (especially for Americans!)
- Legality (USA): The current President’s new regulations mean you can’t check off “people-to-people relations” or “educational purposes” as your reason for travel on your affidavit form you get with your visa. We checked off “support for the Cuban people” and we technically did contribute to the Cuban GDP by eating out!
- Documents: First and foremost, the Cuban visa. You can order one online through Cuban Travel Services, or depending on your airport and airline, you can buy the visa at the airport. I flew Alaska Airlines out of LAX, and I bought the visas at the airport for $100 each. You’ll get your Cuban affidavit form with your visa. Fill it out and hand it to the airport attendant when asked. DO NOT MAKE ANY MISTAKES. If you make even one mistake, you’ll have to buy a new $100 visa.
- Flights (USA): You can fly through JetBlue or Alaska. A 5-hour, nonstop flight from LA cost $330 round-trip.
- Money: Cuba has two currencies, the Cuban Peso and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). Foreigners will use the CUC. It’s best to take out all cash for converting back in your home country as the ATM’s in Cuba don’t work too well. The ATM at the Havana Airport ate my British bank card! Also, they don’t take any American cards. The CUC is equivalent to the US dollar, but if you’re converting US dollars to CUC, they’ll charge a fee. You’ll get the best conversion rates with pounds or euros at the airport.
- Internet: Internet is very scarce in Cuba. Before leaving, print out all itineraries, documents, etc. I downloaded the app, map.me, on my iPhone to download an offline interactive map of Havana. It wasn’t the best, but it did its job. When in Cuba, you can buy 1-hour internet cards for CUC 1.50, or 5-hour cards for CUC 7.50. You can use them in many of the hotels or many of the public parks, indicated by a crowd of people on their phones. All social media except Snapchat will work with little to no issue.
You can stay in a hotel for $100/night, or you can get an Airbnb for less than $40 a night with air conditioning (which saved us in the June heat) and get a more authentic Cuban experience. You’re likely to get near or equal quality to the hotels if you pay $50/night. Use my Airbnb code to get $39 off your first booking and to give me $19!
After a surprisingly smooth trip through immigration and baggage claim, we headed to our Vedado Airbnb. Vedado is a young district, 20-25 minutes walking from the Habana Vieja centre. Upon arrival I immediately the utter lack of billboards or advertising. The only public messages displayed were political, pro-Castro, pro-socialist propaganda. One that stuck out to me read “Socialismo o Muerto” (Socialism or death), but I was unable to take a picture.
Our first full day started with lunch at Sloppy Joe’s in Habana Vieja. Truthfully, we didn’t eat too much proper Cuban food when we were there because Cuban food in Cuba is underwhelming. Apparently, the embargo bars Cubans from some of the necessary spices required to make “authentic” Cuban food. Apparently, the traditional recipes in their truest form are preserved in Cuban restaurants in neighbouring Miami.
- Sloppy Joe’s: A casual restaurant with a classic New York vibe. The walls are adorned with pictures of the owners with family friends, old celebrities, and historical moments. The food was nice, something super central if you’re hungry.
- Paladar Los Amigos: A casa particular, or a privately owned restaurant ran in a home by a family. It’s world-famous for their ropa vieja, which Anthony Bourdain had on his show, No Reservations. It was definitely worth the hype.
- Museo del Chocolate: This place holds a special place in my heart solely based on the fact that it’s the most INCREDIBLE chocolate I’ve ever had. My brother and I walked 20 minutes at night in the downpouring rain to get here and for 1 CUC, you can get an impeccable cold drinking chocolate, made with their homemade chocolate. We then bought 5 boxes of 12 chocolates each for 10 CUC total. There’s also a churro stand on the corner next to here, selling churro cones for 0.50 CUC! They’re best dipped in the drinking chocolate.
- Paladar Los Mercaderes: A stunning, delicious casa particular than spans two floors. There’s a plant room, live jazz band, and beautiful vintage posters and neoclassical paintings hanging on the sky-high walls.
Things To Do
- Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes: A centrally located, four-floor contemporary art museum. Many of the works were unsurprisingly dedicated to the Cuban Revolution triumvirate: Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Che Guevara.
- Calle Obispo: One of the busiest streets in Havana, there are endless shops and restaurants. Sit back and watch street musicians blow into their trumpets, kids playing soccer, and feel the energy that Cubans are so well-known for.
- Museo de la Revolucion: The strikingly opulent main political museum of Cuba, this museum describes the lives and accomplishments of the leaders of the Revolution. Explore to relearn history through a unique perspective.
- El Malecón: The beach esplanade that wraps around Havana. During sunset, all the locals come out to watch the sunset and blast music. Unfortunately, you can’t swim in the water as I had thought. The Malecón is lined with bold antique buildings and cars blanketing the city in smog.
- Walk! The city is steeped in history and culture. The best way to explore Cuba and its way of life in the culture is to take in your surroundings and to keep your eyes open.
Right after a museum, a local stopped us, fascinated by our American English. He started recounting stories of his travels around the globe and how he wants to move to the US.
This was a common theme in Cuba. Locals often stopped my brother and I and told us of relatives residing in the US, desires to travel, and wishes for better relations between the US and Cuba. Talking with the locals was a highlight of the trip. To me, it was an enriching experience to just go to the bar with a Cuban as he showed us Havana. We had banter, we talked about dancing, music, politics, just like one would with their friends. The Cubans took us Americans in as if we were one of their own.
Havana’s not a massive city; it’s easy to do in four or five days. A highlight was going to the Museo de la Revolucion and seeing a room dedicated to “The Aggressions Committed by the United States Against the Cuban People.” This described in great detail a list of operations committed by the US which disadvantaged Cuba. According to the museum, the CIA blew up department stores, churches, public squares, etc. The US is very much described as a modern terrorist group.
For our last night of dinner, I ordered the amazing ceviche at the Paladar Los Mercaderes. And of course, the jazz duo crooned The Girl From Ipanema, one of my all-time favourite jazz songs. A perfect way to end the trip!
After 5 burning, humid, rainy, and fascinating days, we ventured back to the United States, the land of widely-available internet, widely-available toilet paper, and cocktails that cost more than $3.
Cuba was a truly unique experience. Havana is filled with museums, beaches, and pretty buildings, but the Cuban way of life is the greatest sight to see. Despite their turbulent politics, the Cubans are an extremely vibrant people and the energy in Havana is electric. They always saw the glass half-full, grateful for what they do have.
It’s best to go to Cuba with your mind open and empty, and a curious instinct. Lose yourself in Cuba’s hypnotising streets. Question what you learned in high school history class about Cuba. I 100% look forward to returning sometime in the next five years, after the summer, with the intent of exploring Cuba outside Havana.
Have you been to Cuba? If so, what were the highlights for you? Let me know in the comments below!