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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

"Half Of My Heart Is In Havana...."

Jon and I traveled to Havana, Cuba last week and still can't believe how beautiful it was! We keep saying to each other that it is hard to explain to someone who hasn't been there. The architecture is intricate and beautiful, I imagine it is what parts of Europe look like. The classic cars were our favorite part of the trip. The US cut ties with Cuba in the early 60s so no new cars have been imported from the US. It kind of feels like the whole city is stuck in the 60s. No billboards, no technology, no hustle and bustle like the US. It was really like stepping back into time. There is so much poverty in the city but the people are so happy. It was very eye opening to see people living on nothing being so content, meanwhile in America we all struggle with wanting more, more, more. One of our tour guides said Cuba is 25-30 years behind in technology and it is apparent when you try to sign onto WiFi, it is basically non existent! It was incredible to unplug, relax, learn, explore, and immerse ourselves into a new culture. 

Getting There
American travel to Cuba has been restricted until only recently after negotiations with President Obama happened. In 1961, America stopped trade with Cuba and it turned into a 50+ year issue, read more about it online, it is so interesting! Anyway, now that Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba, I wanted to jump on the opportunity (while we still can? Who knows what our president will do…). We flew Southwest Airlines- Austin to Fort Lauderdale and Fort Lauderdale to Havana which was only a 45 minute flight, gate to gate. Upon booking travel, we had to state a reason for travel since technically “tourism” is not allowed. After chatting with friends who had recently been, I wasn’t worried about not qualifying for travel. Options for reason for travel were journalism, business, family visit… a few others…and I chose journalism. I was told by friends and prompted by SWA to buy a Cuban Visa online for $50 a person. I did it 3 months ahead of time but we had the option to buy them at the gate in Fort Lauderdale. I would buy ahead of time just to be safe.  A valid passport is also a requirement.

Where to Stay
It is hard to get an idea of the lay of foreign land, especially land that not many people are familiar with. I talked with friends and read lots of travel blogs (also, ladies if you love travel, join Girls Love Travel on FB! The group is amazing and so helpful. Warning, it will make you want to travel, travel, travel). We learned that the hotels in Cuba are all government owned and while they are very nice, they are expensive and it is better to support locals by staying in AirBNBs. It is very common for people to stay in the homes of locals and the locals will cook breakfast, etc. We found the most adorable private apartment on AirBNB with amazing reviews! The reviews of the apartment and hosts were what sold us! We paid $36 USD a night (which was during peak time!) for a private apartment with a king bed, AC (not common!), tv, bathroom, mini kitchen, and living room. Here is the link for our AirBNB, I HIGHLY recommend it if you are going to visit Havana. It is in the Vedado neighborhood, right by the water, walking distance to Hotel Nacionale and so many restaurants/night clubs. We felt incredibly safe (our apartment had a gate outside the steps downstairs) and were able to get cabs immediately on the corner.

The currency in Cuba is the CUC, Cuban Adjusted Peso. They also have another currency for locals called the CUP but it is not worth much so when you exchange your money, be sure you are getting CUC. After doing extensive reading on visiting Cuba and talking to friends who have been, we learned that the Euro has a better exchange rate to the CUC versus the USD. In fact, there is a high penalty rate for exchanging USD in Cuba and when you are on vacation spending quite a bit of money, you want to save as much as possible. Credit cards don’t work in Cuba so you must travel with enough cash to last you for the whole trip, that was a little nerve racking! I went into Wells Fargo (my bank), 2 weeks before our trip to order EUROS. Again, after researching and talking to friends, I didn’t want to run the risk of running out of cash on our trip so I ordered $1500 USD worth of EUROs. They do keep some at the bank but had to make an order for me which took a few days. Our AirBNB host picked us up from the airport and we were able to exchange right in the airport. We only exchanged about 2/3 of our money the first day, you are able to exchange currencies at most of the big hotels and banks.  I made sure we always had small bills/coins for short taxi rides and tips.

How Much We Spent
Jon has a Southwest Companion pass so I fly for free with him anywhere (cha-ching). We booked his ticket with points so I am not sure how much tickets cost but you could easily check or your favorite airline (we saw United and JetBlue flights there, not sure who else flies there). We paid for our AirBNB ahead of time with my credit card, which was only $130 USD for 3 nights! We also paid for a 3 hour classic car tour of Havana ($90 USD) through AirBNB ahead of time… I had no idea you could book experiences on their website, it was so cool! At the end of our trip, we exchanged the CUC we had left for Euros and then the day after we got home I went back to Wells Fargo to get USD and I got $465 back (we brought $1500). Everything is pretty darn cheap in Havana… we had sit down breakfasts for $7 USD, fancy seafood dinners with cocktails and lobster for $30 USD, and souvenirs for all the kids for less than $10 USD. Seeing all of the poverty in the country and learning how little the locals live on, we made it a point to tip really well during our trip. We also splurged and hired a driver each night for a drive around the city which was our favorite part but if you wanted to do Havana on the cheap, unnecessary. We spent $200 on cigars and rum as gifts too. As cheap as everything was, the most expensive thing we bought was a beach towel! We only had two small bath towels at our apartment and didn’t want to bring those to the beach so we bought one at the souvenir market. Only 2 booths out of probably 100 had them and we talked them down to $25 which was a lot considering the beach towels we have at home were $7.99 at Target! We also spent $80 to go Cabaret Parisien at Hotel Nacionale (more on that later). It was nice to be able to put money directly into people’s pockets buying things off of the street. I exchanged our remaining CUC to Euros at the airport and then Euros to USD at our bank when we got home and got back $465. So we spent a little over $1000 in Havana, plus our AirBNB ($140), car tour ($90), and flights (not sure). You could definitely do Havana cheaper though!  

Bringing Kids
This was a kid free getaway for us and I am so glad we didn't bring them. We were so confused by not seeing a lot of kids when we were there... our tour guide told us most families just have 1 kid because it is so expensive. We did see kids going to school in the mornings in their cute little uniforms but for the most part we didn't see a lot of local kids or tourist kids. I would have felt perfectly safe bringing my kids to Havana but it was just not somewhere I desire to bring them... it was hot, not a lot of places had AC, the sidewalks were bumpy and uneven, I can't imagine pushing a stroller, and we were in and out of taxis and buses. It would be a lot of work with kiddos to see the city and we were so glad to be able to explore without them!

What To Pack
  • ·         Comfortable shoes- I packed 3 pairs of cute flip flops, 1 pair of tennis shoes, and one pair of wedges and wore my tennis shoes 90% of the time and my comfy flip flops 10%. We did lots of cabs and taxis but still a lot of walking and exploring. Comfort over style in Havana!
  • ·         Sunscreen-  I threw in sunscreen last minute on the morning we left and I am SO glad I did! We both got burned on the first day riding in the classic car on our tour of the city, whoops. We made sure to lather up because the sun just feels a lot hotter down there. We also went to the beach one day so sunscreen is a must.
  • ·         Sunglasses- obvious item to pack but don’t forget! It is VERY hot and sunny
  • ·         Swimsuit/towel- if you plan on going to the beach, don’t forget your suit and a beach towel. We forgot a beach towel so ended up buying one at the souvenir market and it was pretty expensive ($25). Makes me wonder if they are just hard to find down in Cuba.
  • ·         Bags- Jon brought his work backpack and I brought a crossbody purse which was perfect for our trip. It felt weird not carting around tons of baby/kid gear, I basically had an empty purse the whole time. The backpack was nice for travel (my book, ipad, headphones) and also for the beach day.
  • ·         Hand sanitizer- we were warned that there isn’t much running water in public in Havana and I was shocked to find that for the most part, the places we went DID have it. A few times we were out and about without a place to wash our hands before we ate so hand sanitizer was a must. I also brought a package of baby wipes but we never ended up using those.
  • ·         Small package of tissues- one thing that was hard to find in public was toilet paper. Lots of places you had to pay $1 CUC to use the bathroom and then there was a lady in there selling toilet paper. Some places it was free to pee but no TP. I kept a small pack of tissues in my purse that I used for TP. 
  • ·         Immodium- despite being diligent with only drinking bottled water, we still experienced a touch of Montezuma’s Revenge. I think it comes with the territory of visiting a 3rd world country. Take my word for it and buy a small pack, Jon and I both used it. Also bring Ibuprofen. Long days in the sun can cause headaches and sore bodies.
  • ·         Sound machine on your phone- even though we had a private apartment, it got loud with barking dogs, taxis, talking people. We have a sound machine app on our phone and put it at full blast to drown out the city noises and sleep in.
  • ·         Toiletries- I brought our own shower toiletries and I am glad I did. The AirBNB had some non-descript bottles in the shower so I was glad we came prepared.
  • ·         Snacks- I packed quite a few snacks that we didn’t end up eating but it was SO nice to have protein bars, sunflower seeds, and Chex Mix in our apartment when we went back to rest in the afternoon.

Trip Advisor App
We use Trip Advisor all the time when preparing to travel and I learned something so valuable before we left for Havana. You can download the Trip Advisor City Guide for any of their cities that allows you to use it without internet! This was a LIFE SAVER!! Right when we landed in Cuba we realized we probably should have printed out a map so we could get our bearings but it was too late. I came with a list of what we wanted to do and restaurants I had researched with the addresses and how far it was from our apartment. I still have no idea how this worked but the Trip Advisor App tracked us in real time and we were able to figure out where we were and where we needed to go. This helped when trying to figure out where to eat (reading reviews), and finding our way back to our apartment. I am going to do this every time we travel, even when we are in the States! We tend to always get the notification from our cell phone carrier when we travel that we are almost out of data, whoops.

Speaking Spanish
I am going to be 100% honest with you and say that if you don’t have any Spanish, I wouldn’t go to Havana. The locals speak very little English and most of the restaurants we went to were all in Spanish. Jon knows pretty good Spanish (thank God!) and we still ran into some road blocks. We laughed at how funny it must look to talk to another grown adult but have a language barrier…. Lots of laughing and slow talking like we are talking to babies. If you plan on going to Havana and don’t know Spanish… start learning! “Como se dice” is “how do you say” and that is a great way to learn with a  native speaker. You also want to know how to ask how much something costs, where the bathroom is, giving directions to a taxi driver, basic food words, and numbers. Jon did most of our talking to the locals and I would just say that “Mi espanol es un poquito y muy mal”…. Very limited and very bad. The only time we spoke English was to each other so coming back to the states was funny! We instinctively spoke Spanish to the flight crew, customs workers, waiters, etc.

What To Do
I am going to list in bullet points everything that we did with a little info on each. We packed a lot into the 2.5 days we were there. The one thing we didn’t have time for was driving to Vinales (3 hours away) to see the tobacco/coffee farms. Many people also drive to Trinidad (4 hours away) to see the sugar farms. We ran into a lot of Europeans on our trip who were in Cuba for 1-2 weeks and they would spend a few nights out in the country on the farms. Our AirBNB host offered to help us coordinate a driver to Vinales, along with tours and lodging for a night but we just didn’t have time to fit it in.
  • ·         3.5 hour tour in a classic car of the city- our favorite part of the whole trip! Since historically Americans haven’t been allowed to travel to Cuba, my knowledge of the country was minimal. We learned so much, saw all of the best views and important landmarks, and loved getting to know our driver. We booked it ahead of time through AirBNB experiences. There are so many other fun things you can book through them! I highly recommend our tour guide Soto, he had great energy and a hilarious sense of humor. Here is a list of where we went on the tour:

o   Revolutionary Square- you will see the statue of Jose Marti and learn about Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, two huge figures in the Cuban Revolution that are still celebrated today. You  may recognize Che from Rage Against the Machine prints.
o   Colon Cemetery (Neocropolis de Crisobal Columbus)- famous cemetery where Christopher Columbus is buried. There are thousands of beautiful grave sites.
o   Almendares Park/Isla Josefina- the most beautiful park we’ve ever seen! It had gorgeous banyan and willow trees with lush greenery. We saw people in all white digging and burying things, our tour guide told us about a polytheistic, voo doo religion that came from Nigeria that is now becoming popular in Cuba. It was so surreal and sad to watch these people search and attempt to sacrifice things (we saw lots of animal bones and carcasses from sacrifices) to gain power, riches, and happiness. We came back to the park a few times, it was so gorgeous.
o   Hotel Nacional- this is the oldest hotel in Cuba, owned by the government and right on the gulf shore. It is beautiful and immaculate and has lots of information on the Cuban Missile Crisis. We walked through the underground bunkers and learned a lot that American History does not teach.
o   I can’t remember the name but we went to a giant army base that was built in the 14/1500s. Each time we were in a classic car, the drivers took us there, so you won’t miss it! It has the most beautiful view of the city right on the water.
o   Christ of Havana- also a beautiful view of the city from the other side of the bay. Cuban Jesus is holding a glass of rum and a Cuban cigar.
o   El Capitolio- this was our initial meeting place for our tour and we drove around it but it was closed for renovations. It is beautiful!
o   We drove through Old Havana and Central Park and learned so much about the beautiful city of Havana.
  • ·         Fábrica de Arte Cubano- this came highly recommend to us and it was amazing! It is a big old warehouse or church building that they’ve remodeled into an art gallery, exhibition hall, music venue, bar, and night club. It was $2CUC to get in and drinks were really cheap. We walked around all of the interesting art exhibits and listened to a jazz artist. We ended up in a large venue where they had a huge iMax like screen and were playing a documentary on scoring and music in Hollywood movies. It was SO COOL! We stayed from 8:30-10:30p on a Sunday night and it wasn’t too busy. I’ve heard it can get busy depending on who is playing music, etc.
  • ·         Museo de la Revolucion (Museum of the Revolution)- after learning about the Cuban Missile Crisis and Cuban history from our tour guide, we knew we wanted to go to this museum. It is in a beautiful stone building (all of the architecture is so old and intricate… makes me think of Europe). It was a bit confusing because it didn’t tell you what room to go in first so we had to piece things together, and like I said above, not everything was translated into English but we loved it. We had read reviews on Trip Advisor that told us to be prepared to learn about what the US did to Cuba and be shocked because they leave those parts out of US History… and they were right. Outside they have the real cars and boats the Cubans used during the revolution and so many cool artifacts. I think it was $10 CUC per person to get in.
  • ·         La Zorra y el Cuervo- we read about this jazz club before coming to Cuba and we are SO glad we went! It was right around the corner from our apartment and we were told to show up early which was good because a line formed 30 minutes before doors opened. You enter through a vintage phone booth and $10CUC gets you admission and two cocktails. We got there a little before 9:30p on Monday night and were second in line. It’s a small venue so they only let a certain number of people in. Doors opened at 10p and music started at 10:20p. A world famous group played, the drummer was insane, pianist was incredible, and bassist was playing 6 strings. We overhead a guy talking who composes music for orchestras for movies in LA and he came just to listen to this group. We absolutely loved it!
  • ·         Floridita- this is a famous restaurant in Cuba, known for being Ernest Hemmingways favorite bar and the birthplace of the daquiri. We went during peak lunch hour and it was insane, we didn’t even ask how long the wait was. They had a full jazz band and cocktails while you waited. We didn’t end up eating there but it was cool to see. It is right in the heart of Old Havana by Central Park.
  • ·         Feria Artesanal Nave San Jose- this is a huge souvenir market we went to, it’s right by where all of the cruise ships doc. Items were so cheap and we loved browsing, buying things for our kiddos, and soaking it all in. The artwork was so beautiful, displaying the classic cars and architecture.  We didn’t see any other stores where we could buy souvenirs so be sure to visit this!
  • ·         Playa Santa Maria- I had no idea beaches were so gorgeous in Cuba but they knocked our socks off! We took an air conditioned charter bus (Transtur) to the beach 30 minutes away (pick up/drop off was Central Park). It cost $5 CUC… a steal of a deal! Cabs to the beach were $30-40CUC. There were a few stops at different beaches but our AirBNB host recommended Santa Maria and it was nice because most people stayed on the bus for the next stop so it felt more private. We weren’t sure what to expect but there were lounge chairs and umbrellas you could rent for $2 CUC each and cocktails, food, and cigars for purchase. This was one of my favorite parts of our trip….we swam then laid on our chairs in the shade just relaxing. The sun felt a lot hotter than Texas sun so bring sunscreen! The bus picked up every 40 minuets until 6pm so we stayed for 2.5 hours then hopped back on the bus, it was the perfect amount of time.
  • ·         Cabaret Parisien- a few people told us about the Tropicana show in Cuba and after doing some research, it seemed expensive and over rated. We ended up finding out about the Cabaret Parisien at Hotel Nacionale and were excited that it was highly rated and more affordable ($40CUC each). We read reviews NOT to eat dinner at the show beforehand and we didn’t buy tickets until the night of at 9pm. The show is at 10pm so we were there pretty early and they seated us in the front row…. And by front row I mean I had to lean back during some of the numbers because I was about to get kicked in the face! The show was 100% in Spanish and it was wonderful! Beautiful costumes and dancing and it was such a different entertainment experience than in the US.
  • ·         We also spent time exploring on our own. Walking the small streets of Old Havana, going into hotels, looking into windows, talking to locals. One thing I kept saying to Jon was the lack of signage all over the city. When I think of America, I think of Times Square with all of the advertising and lights… Havana was the opposite. You kind of had to know where you were going because stuff was unmarked. As we walked, we weren’t sure if we were in a neighborhood or residential area or more commercial. Everything was intermixed. We loved looking inside of boxing gyms and schools… the children all wear cute little uniforms.
  • ·         Each night we went to Hotel Nacionale and chose a classic car we liked and paid the driver $30CUC to drive us around at sunset. It was so relaxing and fun!

Where to Eat
I am going to list all of the places we ate with a small description. I did a ton of research before we went and had a long list of restaurants to try and we didn’t go to any of them. We trusted Trip Advisor when we got there and took advice from the locals we met. We were told not to expect much from the food and I can see why but I wasn’t totally disappointed! We ate a lot of yummy seafood and ended our trip with a few Cuban meals. We definitely didn’t over eat when we were there and we were sad we didn’t get lots of treats (one of our favorite parts of traveling is finding awesome treats). I did bring a package of chocolate Pocky that we polished off when we came back to the apartment at midnight each night. I wasn’t prepared for the odd pairings of food at meals but we went with it!
  • ·         Toke- this was right by our apartment and it was a great place to go our first evening. I ordered shrimp and spaghetti and that is exactly what it was. A huge pile of spaghetti with garlic and tons of grilled shrimp. Jon ordered lobster enchiladas that turned out to be a bunch of seafood in a sauce with rice and beans. It was really good and so cheap. We also went here on our last morning for breakfast. Jon got simple fried eggs and toast but I got a Cuban sandwich and it was HUGE and delicious. A few restaurants served plantain chips, I love those.
  • ·         El Biky- also right by our apartment in the Vedado area, it was very fancy but really inexpensive. We got an “Americano” breakfast…. Bacon, eggs, toast, and fruit. They have a bakery attached so we got a chocolate pastry for the road.
  • ·         Elizalde- we were starving after the car tour and chose a highly rated restaurant by Central Park. This was probably my least favorite meal… it wasn’t bad but not something to write home about. I got a club sandwich and Caesar salad and Jon got some seafood paella or something? It was pretty expensive too.
  • ·         Balcon del Habana- our second night we asked our driver where he recommended we go to eat and he dropped us off here and we are so glad he did! It was on the beautiful deck of a big, historic home, with an intimate atmosphere. We got a seafood platter for 2 and enjoyed lobster tail, shrimp, and white fish. They brought out flan with a candle and sang happy birthday to Jon. It was our most expensive meal $50 CUC but so delicious.
  • ·         Café Nana- this was a few minutes from our apartment and we stopped in for a quick breakfast one morning. There were only a few breakfast options on the menu of each place we went to so we stuck with eggs, bacon, and toast and paid $10CUC. Lots of places also have fresh squeezed fruit juices.
  • ·        Fonda La Paila- we ate dinner here on our last night and it was absolutely delicious! We were so over seafood and got excited when we stumbled upon it while walking around and read about the delicious “bbq” on Trip Advisor. We got roast chicken, filet mignon, black beans, and black rice… it was amazing! It was tucked into the side of a hill with outdoor lights and neat decorations.

Getting Around
We took taxis most of the time. Cars are either classic cars or junky old Russian imports and we took about half and half. You definitely pay more for the classic car taxi so we did that when we wanted a relaxing ride but if we just needed to get from point A to point B, we would flag down a cheaper taxi. Always ask "Cuanto cuesta?" (how much?) before getting in. They also have these funny little motorcycle egg taxis that were the same price as a regular taxi. We took one for the experience and it was fun and windy. We had our AirBNB host pick us up from the airport and I highly recommend arranging airport transportation before you go. There is a bus system in Havana and it costs something like $.05 per ride. That may sound enticing but these monster buses were packed with 100 people at a time. Taking the bus is definitely a way you can save money during your trip but it wasn't what we wanted to do.

Don't expect to be able to work during your trip to Cuba. Internet was scarce and intermittent. We bought WiFi cards and went to a park nearby to sign on (you can tell the areas with WiFi because you see a bunch of people glued to their phones). We were only able to send a few messages, load email, and FaceTime with our kiddos but no browsing or surfing the internet. I thought it would be overwhelming to be without internet but it was pretty darn awesome. It made me realize how much mindless time I waste on my phone. Jon and I talked, relaxed, napped, and just enjoyed the silence rather than filling our time on our phones. All of the hotels we went to had WiFi, but still not great connection.

I feel like I covered it all but if you have any other questions about traveling to Havana, Cuba, send me an email!


Kaity B. said...

Oh, this makes me want to visit so badly!! Admittedly, I don't speak a bit of Spanish, though.

MrsCab said...

It is heartbreaking to see people encouraging others to travel to Cuba and continue to support a government who oppresses and abuses it's people. My family left years ago and we have family and friends who continue to suffer. I know you mean well Ruthie and your heart is in the right place, but unfortunately this only continues the cycle of pain in my homeland.

Wildali @ These are the times... said...

I love this post so much. I also love your family's openness to explore and respect new cultures and places. It is always good to see vacation posts to places out of the box. This totally makes me want to go.

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