Cuba was everything I didn’t imagine. Reading pages and seeing photos doesn’t really prepare you for what you’ll see, yet, if you really thought about what Cuba would be like it is exactly that. It has a storied past, including European settlement way back when, but it is poor, a lot of Havana is almost falling down, yet people are still living in those decrepit structures. It was eye opening, very interesting and I am glad to have gone, but I can’t say that I share the overwhelming love for the country that other travelers seem to express.
Given that we went to support the Cuban people, we did exclusively home-stays (in casa particulars) booked through Airbnb, which were great. Our hosts were all lovely people, generous and eager to help us figure out our way through the country. The other highlights of our trips were tours given by local people who shed a little light on what it is like to live there. We made two stops: Havana for two nights, Vinales for two nights, which is a couple of hours to the west of Havana, and back to Havana for our last night before flying out. Cuba is actually a pretty large country, but for us this was a good amount of time in city and out of it for a little taste of what Cuba is like.
I wanted to like Havana more than I did. We had a very pleasant time, but weren’t expecting the smells, pockets of grittiness and poor quality of living, which was only exacerbated by the contrast to all the tourists stopping by on cruise ships, the opulence of the large government run hotels and the streets of Habana Vieja that have been restored, while surrounding neighborhoods are still without. Don’t get me wrong, this is the point of traveling – the entire trip was extremely enlightening and valuable. We have both been to developing countries before and you always do come away from those experiences valuing your own quality of life and having a new appreciation for ways of life in other parts of the world. Just a few of the interesting things we experienced:
- Lack of grocery stores/stores in general. Obviously, no capitalism = lack of shopping. There were stores to buy specific products like soap (all soaps, body wash, dish soap, counter top cleaners, etc) or cookies, little kiosks with hand made snacks and water, fruit carts on the street and little tourist shops (in Habana Vieja only), but in general no store where we could buy a multiple things together, like a bags of chips and a bottle of water together for our road trip. Most of our meals were sit down and large so that we didn’t snack in between.
- This being said about the stores, there were tons of restaurants, and good ones. We learned that a majority of the product is bought on the black market and that the beef and seafood you see on the menus is for tourists only. We had some great dining experiences though, details are below.
- Given the salaries that people make, there are very few cars outside of Havana. We took a shared car to Vinales and were curious if there would be traffic, but there were hardly any other cars on the 2 hour journey. Not only are cars expensive in relation to how much people make, but they are even more valuable because you can turn a car into a taxi and make significantly more money than in other positions.
In Havana we stayed in Habana Vieja, which I would recommend. It is well kept, close to sights, good restaurants and very easy to walk to everything – with the exception of one night time taxi, we walked everywhere. We also did a bike/food tour in Havana, which was an absolute highlight. We booked through Airbnb experiences and loved being in different parts of the city and all that we learned from our host. Our guide used to be a teacher, then found tour guiding, which he said literally changed his life. He walked us through his government food card, how much people make (vs. how much things cost) took us around town to some local food stops and sights that we wanted to see. All in all a GREAT day.
Our second stop was Vinales, which we loved. It is settled in a spectacular landscape, in a lush valley known for growing tobacco with some dramatic limestone mountains/cliffs surrounding the valley. The town is small, just one main strip with restaurants and a couple of parallel streets with housing, most of which are casa particulars. We loved everything about it, the slower pace, the setting, the things we did (day trip to the beach and a walking tour of the countryside). Again the tour we did here was a highlight – we got to go into the valley, learned that every farmer must grow some tobacco on their farm and give 90% of it to the government, it takes 3 min to hand roll a cigar, and that honey can be savory! Side note: I tasted some of the MOST unique honey I have ever had. In fact, the Acid episode of Salt Fat Acid Heat touches on this point exactly, which was all the more surprising since I watched it on our return trip home. In general I think it’s a must to get out of Havana to see some of the rest of the country, and I would definitely recommend Vinales!
Despite some of my mixed reviews of Cuba, it was a unique, interesting and valuable experience. We loved the people we met and the things we did. All travel is worthwhile and I’m very happy to have experienced this place for myself. If it’s on your list, go! Details of what we liked in each destination and general tips are at the very bottom, enjoy the picture tour!
- Airbnb in Havana – our accommodation was great, a little refuge from the city, where we had out own little patio and the wonderful Debora who came each morning to prepare breakfast for us. She also let us use her phone to contact the host to be able to figure out transportation to Vinales.
- Bike Food Tour – this was the best thing we did in Havana. We were able to tour the city and see and taste things we would have otherwise not discovered on our own. The host Jorge provided great details and insight about his life in Cuba and his context really helped us appreciate everything we were seeing.
- Walking Tours – we did a couple of other walking tours one through Habana Vieja on our first day and through Centro Habana on our way to the the bike tour. I’d definitely recommend checking out the different neighborhoods in the city since Habana Vieja is so touristy. You need to get out in order to be able to really understand life there.
- Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Art Museum) – the museum building itself is a start soviet looking structure, and the art wasn’t all necessarily up my ally, BUT I thought it was so interesting seeing how national artist were expressing their feelings through art, and putting the art into context of what was happening in the country at the time. It’s not expensive and worth at least a quick visit.
- El Dandy – an enjoyable bar/restaurant in Habana Vieja with a very cool vibe. It has drinks and art, what more could you want.
- Lamparilla Tapas & Cervezas – we ate here our first night and loved it. It’s got an ecclectic funky vibe, is open to the street and the food was great. We loved their ropa vieja and black beans of all things.
- O’Reilly 304 – we stopped here for some cocktails after dinner one night. It’s intimate, makes a mean daquari and the servers were great. We had a nice chat with the bar tender and I wish we’d eaten there too!
- Music – I wish we’d stopped a little more to see the live music, but it is everywhere. After the bike tour we ended up at an open air outdoor bar and just had beers, people watched and eventually a band started up with fantastic singing and music. It was the perfect end to our day.
- Airbnb in Vinales – The hosts here were fantastic, really embodying mi casa es su casa. They made us a cuba libre (rum & coke with lime) one night when we were reading on the patio, gave Will his first Cuban cigar and offered very generous breakfasts both mornings. The accommodations were close to the main street and the house was clean, comfortable and had a couple of great patios.
- Cayo Jutias – a gorgeous beach we went to for a day, our hosts helped arrange the shared car up there. It’s a bit of a trek, but we thought it was totally worth it.
- Walking Tour of the Valley – it is very popular to do a horseback riding tour through the valley, but neither of us are big horse people. I actually think we go to see some more special things on foot too. Not only was this spectacular scenery, but we got to learn a bit about farming practices in Cuba, the relationship with the government. We tasted some of the most unique honey I have ever had and watched a cigar being rolled in 3 minutes. A must do if you go to Vinales.
- El Campesino Paladar – This was a recommendation from our host, which I would definitely recommend too. The roast chicken was AMAZING and you eat on a nice outdoor patio – had it not been night time, we would have seen the farm off to the side too. It’s a little walk out of town, but worth it.
- Tres Jotas – great tapas place in town. Lonely Planet recommended their crayfish (or river shrimp, camarones del rio) which were actually very tasty. This was our biggest meal and everything we had was great. We sat outside on the patio and enjoyed a bit of relaxing after a long day.
- La Cocinita del Medio – went here for lunch after our farm tour and it was delicious. We shared one of the best ropa viejas we had and had ice cold beers. The service was great too and again we dined on the patio to enjoy a bit of relaxing before traveling back to Havana.
- Cash – US cards do not work in the ATMs and they sometimes run out of cash too. Bring more that you think you’ll need as the last thing you want is to run out of money in a country where you can’t get more. Booking on Airbnb (or just online ahead of time) was a great decisions, since it removed the need to have cash for those transactions at all.
- Bring a travel book – wifi doesn’t really exit. Wifi is available in some public parks (you’ll know them by the fact that EVERYONE in the park is on a smart phone) and you buy a card for an hour of time, but in general it’s not available to do research while you’re out. We brought our trusty Lonely Planet book on the road with us and referenced it’s maps and recommendations all the time.
- Use your hosts – they live there and they know how it works! Dining, transportation, activities. Always a good idea to rely on local recommendations.
- Safety – I only mention this because sometimes other developing countries can be not very safe, but we felt 100% safe in Havana and Vinales. I’d say the one thing to look out for is negotiation of prices for transportation, we heard stories of people getting outrageous estimates for taxis, but if you have your hosts help or at least ask them what you should pay for the journey, you can pay a fair price.
- Hotels – they are government run, so we didn’t want to patronize them, BUT it was the only place we could easily book our collectivo (shared taxi) from Havana to Vinales. It was actually and easy process, they picked us up at our house and on time! Every collectivo we were in was filled to the max, so don’t expect that empty middle seat next to you.
- Getting There/Visas – You still need to fall into one of 12 categories to be eligible to travel to Cuba, but we made a detailed itinerary of where we would be staying and what we would be doing to support the Cuban people and didn’t have any trouble at all flying to Havana from Miami. You can obtain a Cuban visa/travel card through a third party, if you are flying American Airlines. As mentioned above, I’d recommend booking as much ahead of time to save on the cash you’re bringing and know what you’ll be doing!