Cuba is a truly unique country, surrounded by many myths and filled with traditional building. It’s natural beauty, overwhelming cultures and contradictions make it one of a kind.
We didn’t fully know what to expect with customs. My passport and visa were reviewed by the immigration official, my picture was taken, and my passport was stamped in all under three minutes. I can confirm that it was a breeze to get through upon arrival; but one thing that threw us was when exiting the airport were the people standing outside, waiting with no facial expression. It almost felt like a silent protest with everyone standing around watching who entered into Cuba from the doors. Be prepared!
Our government announced earlier the new requirements which included the recent ban on cruise ships. We applied for a thirty-day visa a few weeks before our trip and selected “support for Cuban people” as the category. This category requires you to spend money at Cuban-owned businesses throughout your trip, something you are certain to do, even without trying.
Pro Tip: Make sure you change your money before leaving the US to Euro’s and then when you get to Cuba, change them over to CUC for a lower rate on your currency.
Where to Stay
I highly recommend finding an AirBnB for your stay.
This was our second time trying out Airbnb: our first was Aruba. We would later venture out in Cuba. Both times have surpassed our wildest expectation. We stayed in the heart of Old Havana at Yisel& Friends Casa. Ramon, the owner’s father treated us like family; no wonder it has nearly perfect ratings from over 250 guests. It certainly lives up to the five-star rating.
We visited Cuba during my birthday week December of 2019. This would later go down as one of the best birthday trips ever because our Airbnb host had his mother make me a homemade Cuban-style birthday ice cream cake. It was AMAZING!!! It left our mouths watering for the rest of the trip.I personally wouldn’t recommend staying in a hotel in Cuba. I believe you will miss out on the “living with the locals” experience, and the value for money isn’t very good.
Heading into the trip, I didn’t know what to expect with regards to transportation in Old Havana. I quickly questioned my thoughts on celebrating my birthday here in as we entered after leaving the airport. Let’s just say that I had a “culture shock” on the way to our casa!
We saw see a lot of people waiting to catch the bus (we would later find out they have a shortage of buses). Fancy convertible cars are not all over Cuba; you mainly see them in the heart of Havana, and the buildings are not all in livable condition.
The Cuban state follows the socialist economic model. The country controls most resources and the majority of citizens are employed by the government.
You can blame the stereotypes of Cuba portrayed in nearly every picture you see online — a plethora of 1950’s Chevy’s. These classics operate as “taxi particulars”. For cinco pesos ($5) you can take one nearly anywhere in the city. Many drivers will try to charge more once they see that you’re American, but nearly all are willing to negotiate.
My husband Marcus, is 6’3, which mean those fancy looking cars were not made for tall people so we didn’t waste our money with trying to ride around in any convertible style car.
Despite the convenience and cheap price of the taxis, the best way to get around Havana and experience its true charm is by foot. We walked around Havana just to sightsee and feel the true culture on each street.
Pro Tip: Make sure when you travel outside for the country, you download Maps.Me to help you navigate offline so you don’t have to use your cellphone data.
Where to eat
Admittedly, I am a picky eater, so take this and run with it (because it NEVER happens): we had some of the best food in Cuba! I repeat the food was delicious. We had a mix of Native American, Spanish, African, and other Caribbean influences — nothing bland about any of the options we picked each day.
Here’s all the places we had a chance to visit;
What to see
There is so much to see in Havana, and we were only able to cover a portion of possibilities during our five-day trip.
The best place to start is Old Havana. You could easily spend a few days winding your way through the cobblestone streets, eating in small cafes, touring castles, and visiting museums. We spent most of our time on the streets of Aguila, Neptuno and Compotela. Also, Paseo del Prado is the main street connecting the Malecon to the Capitol building. Here you will find many hotels, restaurants, theaters, and street vendors and artists.
Two must-dos in Havana
Viñales is a small town in western Cuba. The town is full with beautiful green valley and National Park in the Pinar del Rio region. It took us about 3 1/2 hours to get to the town from Old Havana. I should warn you the tour is 11 hours total, but it’s WORTH EVERY PENNY. We were able to see where they grow all the tobacco that gets used for those famous Cuban cigars. Even if you don’t smoke cigars (I’m not a smoker either), you will enjoy this tour of the tobacco plantations.
We had a sit down with a local farmer that told us all about the tobacco growth cycles, and they explained the process from when the seeds are first planted to when the tobacco leaves get rolled into cigars. They have to sell 90% percent to the government, which sucks because that only leave them with 10% percent of the earnings — such a rip off.
He offered us all a cigar to smoke while he showed us how they make them. You can buy cigars from the farm for approximately three CUC a cigar. This is considerably cheaper than the ten CUC per cigar in the shops in Havana.
Also, on this tour you were able to horseback ride through the countryside of Viñales that overlooks the “mogotes” — aka mountains — very captivating and a perfect way to see the nature valleys. After seeing how well manner the horses were, it put us at ease, especially how experienced our guides were with each one. This was Marcus’ first time riding a horse & he enjoyed it so much he didn’t want to get off.
The horseback, tour of the farm, and cigar experience lasted about one hour. The weather was perfect: we dressed very relaxed in shorts and comfortable shoes. We didn’t run into any insects despite being outside near water & a lot of trees. Just seeing the different shades of green was very inviting and just what we needed from the hustle and bustle of Havana.
Lunch is included in this tour and it was the BEST we had while in CUBA!!
Our group of ten plus sit around a big family sized table and enjoyed the fresh ingredients and beautiful setting provided by the Paladar El Sabor Kirenia restaurant. This was the freshest food we had during our stay and the view was breathtaking.
Don’t miss the delicious “antistres” cocktail they make — wonderful as is and even better with a pour out of the bottle of Havana Club that they generously provided. Worth the long trip from Havana and a refreshing contrast to being in the city.
Get ready for a relaxing day in this wonderful and natural location, with crystal clear waters and white sands, we will enjoy this tour in a beautiful air-conditioned classic car. Our tour guide was Marica, the sweetest lady ever. She answered all of our questions about the history, culture and life in Cuba.
Whenever we get a chance to visit any beach, we’re the happiest!! There’s something about the beach that makes us at peace with the universe. We have the best conversations about life and business. Varadero Beach gave us just the vibe we were looking for during our last few days on the island.
What to avoid
When traveling, it’s always helpful to know what to avoid.
Most importantly, be sure to avoid drinking the water while in Cuba. You will get sick (speaking from experience).
Other than bottled water, stick to beer, wine, mojitos, and Cuba Libres (rum and Coke). Try to limit ice in these drinks as well – most places just use tap water. Make sure you bring toilet tissue as public restroom charge you for tissue!
On a similar note, most travelers recommend avoiding any sandwiches or “pizzas” and “ice cream” from street vendors. These are made with the lowest quality ingredients and there is no guarantee what you’re eating – so buyer beware.
Finally, you’ll want to avoid the local criers/hustlers. These people will offer to help find you a taxi (for a tip), tell you about the “one day only” cigar festival and take you there (for a tip), or draw your “Cuban selfie” (for a tip). While part of the experience, the sooner you learn to politely ignore these people, the better of you’ll be.
Enjoy Your Trip To Cuba!
Overall we enjoyed our trip to Cuba it was one of the most unique travel destinations we’ve ever visited. Please make sure to support local Cubans with your travel choices while there, you can bring toiletries items, coloring books and crayons to give away to the Cuban people.
Be sure you soak up every bit of beauty and culture the country has to offer, and get to know the amazing, resourceful and resilient people that live there. They make Cuba the beautiful place that it is.