Oh Cuba... Take me back to the 50's!
Guantanamera, salsa music, cigars, and classic cars! This is only a small part of what Cuba is really about. Culture, people, flavors, and color is what makes it a top destination and one of my favorite countries visited so far. When I was planning my Central America/Caribbean trip I knew that Cuba was going to be the highlight of my trip, and it sure was! The place where time stood still and brought me back to the 50's!
I took a flight from Cancun airport to La Havana, it cost me about $110 US with InterJet. If you chose this option of inbound flight you must acquire a visa at the airport (approx. $10 US) at the time of check in before your flight. Plan on allocating 30 min to 1 hour for this so you don't miss your flight. I landed in the island as the sun was rising and it was such a beautiful site. The island is so green and beautiful. This was a flight to remember!
As soon as I landed the first thing to do was to exchange money. Non-Cuban citizens (tourists) are not allowed to use the national currency; therefore, you must exchange your USD or Euros at the airport. The exchange rate is $1 USD to 1 CUC. From my poor planning I suggest that you exchange as much money as possible at the airport. It is possible to do it in the city center; however, it is tricky and you can only do this at the banks.
I then took a taxi from the airport to the hotel, it cost about 25 CUC and took about 45 minutes to get to the center of La Havana. Now the question is: How did I book my hotels? Note that you cannot book hotels from the US via sites such as hotels.com, booking.com, travelocity, etc. I booked through these guys: Booktocuba here you can contact them directly and they will arrange your stay based on your selection. They are very reliable and easy to work with. One suggestion for any first timers, try to stay near the city center, it's easier to arrange tours and get around that way. Don't count on public transportation here please this is not like any other Latin American country so lots of walking involved or private taxis.
I arrived in my hotel around 10am and decided to take it easy since I was very sick that day. I walked through the streets of La Havana mesmerized by its vibrant colors and the feeling of a city which was lost in time. I did a lot of people watching and tried to understand how people live in this society. My first impression was that they live simply but happily. Below are some pics of this old but elegant city and some of the faces that made my experience unforgettable.
I decided to take a break and enjoy my first lunch in Cuba. One thing struck me during lunch when I asked for a dish with avocado and my plate had some sort of yellow fruit. I asked the waitress "Excuse me, I asked for avocado" she said "That is avocado!" my reply "Avocado is green and soft" and her reply was a confused look. I knew immediately that how would she know what Californian or Mexican avocado looks like right? She's never left the island all her life and this is all they know. I could have said "Do you have an Instagram account?" and she would have returned the same look. This is the beauty of Cuba, it disconnects you from this world completely, which is good for us perhaps but is this really good for the locals? Millennials growing up without knowledge of the internet, the latest technological device, etc.The impact of socialism in our modern society. I will not provide me personal opinion in this post but I will plant the seed and you can form your opinion on this.
After some well deserved lunch I continued my walk through the city. I decided to hire a taxi to take me to Morro Castle to enjoy the view of the city and to witness "El Canonazo," a ceremony that takes place every night at the castle. It depicts the historical reenactment of the shooting of the canons across the bay. It's a must see if you're in Havana.
The next day I headed out to Varadero, a beach city about 3 hours away from La Havana. I booked a door to door bus private transfer through these guys: Havana Day Tours | Havana Tour Company. I will say something about this company though. They will tell you to be ready by 7am and they really pick you up at least one hour later. I personally waited 2.5 hours to be picked up so just be prepared to wait if you go this route. You may also take a bus Viazul but then you have to pay for a taxi to get to and from the bus station so it ends up being perhaps more expensive this way. Once you're picked up it's a smooth ride to Varadero with a 15 minute stop halfway to buy crafts or pina coladas. I finally arrived at my hotel around 1pm.
I wanted to experience the beach life in Cuba. Unfortunately for me, the only day that I was in Varadero it rained all day. Varadero was still a good choice but I would recommend staying for at least 2 days. I wanted to relax and be completely disconnected from the world and that was easily achievable there. Most of the hotels are all inclusive resorts and the beaches are very private. I booked my hotel through the same site mentioned above. I enjoyed the beach, the pool, delicious Cuban food, and some mojitos. It was the perfect getaway from busy Havana.
The following day I returned to Havana to enjoy two more days in this beautiful city. I walked around the whole city. Visited about ten different historic sites and El Museo de la Revolucion. I really suggest that you walk around this city as much as possible. You will be able to see what the every day life is for Cubans. Below are some shots I captured during my walk.
Some important places such as: Plaza de la Revolucion are not so close to the city center; therefore, I opted to take a taxi. I hired my taxi driver in front of El Capitolio and negotiated the price to about $20 CUC for 1 hour. They took me through el barrio Chino, the Havana Cathedral, Iglesia del Sagrado Corazon, and finally La Plaza de la Revolucion. I really suggest this experience to everyone. It's a must do when in Havana.
One of the things I enjoyed the most was the art galleries. Many galleries displaying colorful works of art about Cuban lifestyle and also many paintings depicting important figures in Cuba such as: Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Ernesto Guevara (Che).
For those interested in Cuban cigars, I am going to give you a tip. Once a month the "Cooperativas" allow the workers of the Cuban cigar factories to sell a certain amount of cigars to the public (tourist). You can buy them at half the retail price or even less depending on your negotiation skills. Make sure you plan well and research on which days those are and plan your trip around that, you can really take advantage of this and save big bucks on your souvenirs. For instance, a box of 25 Monte Cristo's can go for about $400 but during those days you may purchase it for $200 and if you negotiate well you can buy them for even less. This could even be a way of financing your trip now that the US allows tourists to bring back home a limited quantity of Cuban cigars. I'd take advantage of this.
I will have to say that my favorite part of visiting Havana by far was interacting with the locals. I made many friends walked through the streets. This young man (above left pic) was such a bright person. The absence of the internet and things such as social media allows locals to invest their time on learning many other interesting subject. This guy spoke more than three languages and was knowledgeable in so many subjects. We had a very interesting talk. I also ran into so many kids playing soccer on the streets, playing chess in their front porches, reading books or simply relaxing in the central park. This was by far my favorite part of Cuba. So if I think about it, Cuba offers rich culture, gastronomy, vibrant colors and culture, great music and beautiful beaches where one can relax. No wonder Cuba was my favorite country during the Caribbean tour!
I urge you to visit this city now before it gets too touristy. Obama lifted the embargo in 2015 and this is already altering the atmosphere of this beautiful country. Within the next few years it could become so crowded and be once again the American getaway destination of the 50's but with new technology and crowds. It could turn into another Miami and lose its current charm. I am happy I got to experience it now. I cannot wait to go back once again!