Two months after Obama touched down in Cuba I made a 10 day trip to there with my girlfriend to experience it before an entire wave of American entrepreneurs and high-rise hotels inundate the island. As of yet, the Cuban people are both carefully optimistic and cautious towards their Capitalist neighbors. My highest interest, however, was in capturing the aesthetics through photography. This will not be an exhaustive account of the trip but more a visual summary.
Tensions have appeared to mostly be old news to the Cubans with whom we interacted. Despite the obvious economic and political issues that restrain them, without fail the bottom line of each conversation with a Cuban emphasizes that they live an overall satisfied and happy life.
To begin, there’s the issue of getting there. The US Government has not yet completely lifted the travel restrictions for Americans seeking to visit Cuba. However, there are ways around this. You could elect to go with a legitimate visa, dictating that one of your reasons for visiting Cuba falls within 12 self-identifiable vague categories. Your other option is to go via a 3rd country, e.g. Mexico. That’s the path we chose, finding it more convenient, cheaper, and faster. The main airline in Cuba is Cubana. Flights from Cancun are relatively cheap and only 45 minutes long, seeing how the island is less than 100 miles from the coast of Florida. If you go this route, take note that during your layover in Mexico you need to go behind the Cubana Kiosk and to the right. Here you’ll find a small window where you can purchase your Cuba tourist visa for 20 USD. That’s quite literally all there is to it. Upon entering Cuba, customs will simply ask you if you want your passport stamped, or not. Make things easier on yourself and say ‘no.’ After another quick bag check you’ll find yourself outside in the midst of overwhelming humidity, taxi drivers offering you rides, and the typical hustle seen just outside a small overcrowded airport. You will want to agree on a price with the taxi driver prior to hopping in, but on average a ride from the airport to the center of Havana should run you approximately 25-30 CUC for the 30 minute ride there.
This brings up the topic of currency. Cuba has two official currencies. The CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso), and CUP (Cuban Peso). You will be dealing with the CUC entirely. The CUC is used for all major purchases and entirely by tourists. From my understanding with speaking to Cubans, the CUP is used by Cubans for small exchanges of everyday life, like rice, vegetables, and fruit at local markets. Anything more extensive than that requires the CUC. Be aware of the difference so as to avoid scam when receiving change or dealing with the money in general. A good analogy I read prior to leaving is think of monuments vs. men. The CUC have photos of monuments on them, and the CUP have pictures of people on them. The exchange rate is 25 CUP for every CUC.
Remember, cash is king in Cuba and your American credit/debit cards will simply not work there. You will have to bring in everything you foresee yourself needing. Now, if you’re coming from the US like we were, it may be more economical to exchange your dollars into Euros or Canadian dollars, and then to CUC upon arrival in Cuba. There’s a 10% tax plus an additional 3% fee for using USD, so you are basically getting 0.87 cents for every dollar you exchange. That will make your trip that much more expensive, so if you’re so inclined, do the math and figure out what currency would be best for you to exchange to before you leave. If you’re lucky enough, one of your friends will be a finance genius and help you out with it. Thank you, V. For us, we exchanged USD to Euros, then CUC when we arrived in Havana. You may exchange your cash at the airport, or at a bank or Cadeca in Havana. The international money exchange spots, known as Cadeca’s, are your best bet. As numerous as they are, they’re not labeled well and may be difficult to track down. We ended up just asking a bunch of people and were able to find one near where we were staying. The lines WILL be long and typically they only allow one or two people in at a time. That means you’ll be waiting outside in a long line. In the heat. Dress accordingly. If you’re anything like me you’ll want to skin yourself to cool down. Be aware that seemingly random men will approach you to ask if you want to exchange the cash with them. Politely decline. Nothing good could possibly coming from that.
Despite the much needed digital detox you’ll experience in Cuba, should you absolutely need to use the internet your best bet is to find an internet cafe. The government still does not allow private internet to its citizens at home, however there are public cafe’s and squares in town that offer wifi. You will have to buy an internet card from an Etecsa. They’re small credit-card sized pieces of paper that you can tear off a portion of it to reveal your login and password. You will likely also be able to purchase them at hotels. They were cheap too, and should run you about 2-3 CUC for an hour’s worth.
Now, where to stay? To reiterate, most, if not all, accommodations should be confirmed before you leave. That goes with car transfers and some tours. You will likely not have access to the internet and your phone will not work there. You can’t simply open Tripadvisor and find a good place to stay or eat. Do your research before you leave. The hands down best way to stay in Cuba is at a casa-particular. You can find them via Airbnb or a simply online search. Every Cuban we spoke to agreed this is the best way to see how they actually live, and to experience the culture. The spot we found was located directly in front of the Malecon, the 5 mile esplanade that runs the along the coast of Havana.
La Habana Vieja
Our First couple days were spent walking around and familiarizing ourselves with the area. I had scheduled a tour on the third day to take us to some of the sites however we found that we hit the majority of them simply walking around aimlessly. I might suggest simply figuring out where you want to go, reading up on it, and planning a walking tour yourself. Ours was 100 CUC and included pick up/drop off in an almendron, checking out all the main sites, a tour in the rum and cigar factory, and an hour for lunch. If you’re short on time this may be your best option, of course. I booked with Havana Journey’s and would recommend them. We didn’t have any issues and they appeared to be the most legit option. The city itself looks like a frozen accident from the mid 20th century.
Along the Malecon you will find hundreds of Cubans sitting along the wall, overlooking the water. There is ceaseless activity here and you can expect to see young people flirting, smoking, and drinking with their friends until sunrise. Watch the sunset here or follow the Malecon West to the Hotel National de Cuba where you can sit on the back patio and get one of the best sunset views in the city.
Museum of the Revolution
Museo de la Revolucion is one of the more impressive museums in Havana, Cuba. The entry fee was 2 CUC, for 3 floors filled with memorabilia and photos from the revolution era. The top floors houses a small gift shop to buy works of art and various gifts. The building itself used to be the Presidential Palace until 1959.
Architecture and Cityscapes
The city is beautiful. That’s all there is to it. It. There is influence from neo-classic Spanish and French architecture. The most notable for myself can be seen in the city’s Capitol building which looks very similar to that found in Washington D.C. Without fail, every street and every block reveals in itself parts of its history etched from former rulers and conquerors. Many of the old hotels are historic icons themselves, having housed numerous writers and celebrities.
Hang on. Someone’s lit a map of Britain in the sky..
Fabrica de Arte Cubano
Part art gallery, part music venue, part bar, part restaurant. This place was overwhelmingly impressive. 3 CUC to enter for endless entertainment. They have a unique method of payment in that you receive a card upon which every drink you order is written. When you leave you hand the card to an employee who tallies it up for you to pay on your way out.
Restaurants and Bars
If, and when, you become tired of Cuban food, keep in mind that with the increasingly lax grip the government has in private enterprise comes more variety with cuisine. We were able to find most cuisines through the city and even ran into a couple sushi places. A few things to note: They do appreciate an at least 10% tip for restaurants/bars. You’ll have to ask for water (bottled or mineral), and will have to ask for the check unless you just want to sit there all night wondering why they haven’t brought it. Also, the notion of a ‘salad’ still seems to elude most Cubans. If you ask for one you’ll usually receive a small plate of several dry and pathetic looking leaves with no dressing. Paella, seafood, rice with chicken, daiquiris, coffee, mojito’s, and rum galore, however, all delicious and inexpensive.
FAUSTO TERRACE BAR
We had drinks on the roof top Fausto terrace bar of the Hotel Plaza one night. They were setting up for dinner and live music when we arrived but we didn’t stay to eat. This is a cool spot, if just for its history. Albert Einstein and Babe Ruth both stayed here. The lobby is beautiful with a central fountain, stained glass dome, and birds in cages throughout the lobby.
Bar Dos Hermanos is one of the oldest and most iconic bar/restaurants in Havana. It was a staple for celebrities including Marlon Brando and naturally Hemingway. It’s located by the docks and immediately next to El Museo del Ron (Rum Museum).
EL MUSEO DEL RON HAVANA CLUB
As mentioned above, the Rum Museum is located near the docks and was made from an old colonial home. It’s about 7 CUC to get in for a tour but we just walked to the back and checked out the selection. I’ve heard and read of varying experiences with the tour but unfortunately can’t give any personal input. Your best bet for some influence is to watch the short episode on youtube that Conan did while visiting it.
O’Reilly 304, which is also this spots address, makes some of the most unique looking cocktails I’ve ever seen. A lot of the drinks were various styles of mixed fruit smoothies with a ton of rum Food comes in tapas style and is all delicious. We went here midafternoon on a Thursday so were able to sit right at the bar immediately, otherwise they suggested trying to get reservations as it tends to book quickly.
El Floridita opened in 1817 and still uses its original location. The bar was made popular due to being one of Hemingway’s favorite spots to hang out and drink. There’s a life-size statue of him in the corner next to the bar. The restaurant’s other claim to fame is the daiquiri’s they serve.
Approximately 90 miles East of Havana located on a peninsula is the resort town Varadero. You go here for the beach. They don’t get overly crowded and the water is refreshing and not too cold. White sandy beaches and crystal clear blue water. We took a Viazul bus from Havana which took 3 hours and costs 10 CUC per person. The buses are in decent enough shape and will take you directly to the bus station in Varadero. The town itself is very small and walkable. After just an afternoon there you should find that you are familiar with the town. There’s a large shopping center located near to Calle 36 and a great Italian restaurant called Nonna Tina, right off of Calle 38. Again, the way to do Varadero is to stay at a casa-particular. With a recommendation from a friend, we ended up staying at Rosa’s Bed and Breakfast, off of Calle 32, and 2 blocks from the beach. That B&B ran us 45 CUC total per night and she provided free breakfast every morning.
Varadero is a very relaxing town so it was a nice change from the stimuli in Havana. Bars close relatively early here, but there are liquor stores all over if you’re so inclined. The internet deal is the same here. There’s an internet cafe located off of Calle 30, and a square near the shopping center that provides wifi as long as you have an internet card. If you need money exchanged, there’s also a couple cadeca’s. We went to the one in the shopping center which opens at 9am.
The day before we left we booked a ‘safari’ outside of Varadero. It included pick up and drop off at a hotel, off roading, a speed boat ride, cave diving, snorkeling, and a visit to a local small town for some lunch and horseback riding. It was approximately 70 CUC for all of that. We found a small tourist agency off of Calle 34 and booked it there the day before. We’re glad we did it, but if you end up on one of these tours make sure to bring a few extra small notes of CUC. We found people rather forcibly asking for tips after every activity we did. The Cuban people sometimes came off a bit hot and cold in this sense, in that if I happened to not have any cash on me, or simply didn’t tip, they immediately became cold and distant as if I had greatly offended them. So, just a thought if you end up in the same situation.
From Varadero, it was a 4 hour car ride to Vinales. Situated about 115 miles to the West of Havana, this is the real Cuba. Roaming plantations, fields, tobacco and coffee farms, and vast hills with imprinted ancient caves. Vinales is located in the Pinar del Rio Province and itself is rather small. It has a very cozy home-style feeling to it. Most the homes are one story tall with more and more being turned into home rentals for the increasing tourism to the area. There’s a surprisingly high variety of different restaurants here, and it was the first place in Cuba where I was able to find an actual American cheeseburger. Again, we stayed in a casa-particular in town. Walking around, it’s almost difficult to find a Cubans home that has not been painted a very vibrant color and adorned with a hand written sign indicating it takes guests. Such is where we found ourselves.
The most impressive part of Vinales are the views. We scheduled a tour with discover-vinales which took us throughout the best landscapes and a stop at the tobacco farm where you can purchase cigars, rolled immediately in front of you. The tour ended at the organic farm and restaurant Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso. Here, you have a perfect sunset view, delicious food all made directly from their farm, and tons of drink options that come fittingly with a bottle of rum for you to add as much or as little as you’d like.
Our last stop in Vinales was to the Tobacco farm. The government requires that the farmers return 90% of the tobacco but allow them to keep the remaining 10%. The leaves had already been harvested by the time we arrived and were being cured in a barn where they’ll stay a couple months. Afterwards, the leaves are separated by size and color, go through a second fermentation process, then are finally sent to a factory in Havana to be rolled and sold. The factory itself in Havana is interesting. There are rows of tables where workers perform various stages of the production process. The whole experience reminded me mildly of a sweat shop. There are murals of Fidel inside overlooking the workers. I recommend checking it out but keep in mind cameras are not allowed. The cheapest way to get legit quality and taste cigars is here though. They are usually sold in stores for almost $200 for a box of 25. I was able to purchase 20 cigars straight from the source for $40.
I would like to put in a disclaimer here regarding purchasing cigars in Havana. You will be approached there by Cubans offering to sell you actual Cohiba’s on the street for significantly less. The scam artists we dealt with specifically all were explaining how the Cuban government had dropped the cigar prices solely for tourists by 50%, and lucky for us, this was the last day it would be in effect. They will also explain to you how several of the cigars have been dipped in rum, chocolate, or honey. These are all fake cigars. The hosts with whom we stayed while in Cuba all reinforced that we should never buy cigars from anyone on the street.
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Copyright © 2016 John Tierney