Everyone always describes Cuba as traveling back in time. It’s 100% accurate.
In the midst of the poor, dilapidated city — you’ll see cars from the 1950’s, hear live music in the street and watch people have meaningful conversations.
It’s hard to believe in the age of technology, Cubans are detached from their phones and rely on real-life communication. It’s largely due to the country having the world’s worst internet. A decision by the government to keep millions of citizens from surfing the web.
Still, there’s something charming about it.
Everything about Cuba is eye-opening — from the waves crashing against the Malecón to locals eager to teach you how to dance.
Life is simple.
I wanted to go before it changes, but I wasn’t prepared for third world conditions. Aside from those iconic Havana nights, there’s a lot of work to be done.
So come for the culture, pictures and rich history. Don’t expect much from the food.
Before You Go
Southwest has direct flights from Tampa to Cuba for as low as $149 roundtrip. The ticket includes the required travel insurance to enter the country. You’ll just need to purchase a $85 visa online from Cuban Visa Services. Pick it up at the airport before you check your bag.
Exchange your money at the mall. There is a 10% tax on all American dollars in Cuba. Convert your cash to Canadian, Euros or Mexican Pesos to avoid the tax. Keep in mind when you convert to cuban money at the airport, tourists use CUC and citizens use CUP. Don’t get the two mixed up, you will pay for it in the long run.
Also, bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you. A lot of it. Many restrooms make you pay for toilet paper or do not have it at all. You will first experience this at the airport. Same goes for napkins…
Where to Stay
Skip the expensive hotels. Rent an affordable Airbnb instead. 10 of us stayed in a spanish-style mansion for $200 per person. It was a gorgeous oasis next to the city and comes with full-service maids. Every morning we had breakfast made to order. One night we had a chef cook seafood and a band perform on the patio. Turns out they were featured on Conan. (You have to see to believe it here)
What to Eat
The best restaurants are paladares. Since tourism is booming, you must make reservations ahead of time. Otherwise you may be eating a $1 cuban sandwich on the street. Keep in mind Cuba rations food, so not everything on the menu is available.
Here are some of my favorites:
La Guardia is the most famous and among the best food in Cuba. It’s not uncommon to see celebrities. Queen B herself, Beyonce, once dined here.
San Cristobal Paladar is another hot spot known for its walls covered in vintage photos and antiques. Former President Obama and the Kardashians both got a taste of the traditional dining experience. I don’t smoke, but at the end of the meal you get a hand rolled cigar. When in Cuba, right?
Paladar Vistamar is by far my favorite. This newly upgraded home has a spectacular view. Enjoy seafood overlooking an infinity pool that spills into the ocean. Don’t get to close to the edge, you’ll get soaked by waves.
El Cocinero is an old vegetable factory transformed into a hip restaurant/bar in the art district. The view from the rooftop will blow you away.
Where to Have Fun
There is something fun around every corner. Here are the places we visited:
1803 is a nightclub with live music and salsa dancing. Locals aren’t afraid to show you their moves. Just bring a small purse or you will have to check it at the door.
Fabrica del arte is an art museum and bar. The interesting concept draws large crowds. Get there before 9 p.m. or you’ll have to wait a couple hours to get in.
Hotel Ambos Mundos is walking distance to everything. The rooftop has a spectacular view of old Havana and the ocean.
Hotel Nacional is an iconic place featured in a lot of movies filmed in Cuba. It’s a perfect spot to grab a mojito and watch the sunset.
Museo Del Ron isn’t a rum factory, but it is a tour of how it’s made. Enjoy a traditional mojito or pina colada at the bar next door.
Ernest Hemingway’s house, Finca Vigía is 10 miles outside of the city. He lived there from 1939 to 1960 and wrote From Whom The Bells Tolls. Since it’s near the beach, you can do both in one trip.
Partagas Cigar Factory is worth a visit, but get tickets from a hotel before you go. You can’t get them at the door.
My biggest regret is not going outside of the city. I’ve heard Trinidad, a Spanish colonial town near the sugar fields, is a must-do. That’s on my bucket list for next time.
It’s still so hard to believe the country is so close yet a world away. Only time will tell if anything changes…