The American Girls Guide to Cuba — Yes Bring Toilet Paper
On a Saturday morning in early December while laying on the couch binge watching This is Us, I got a text from a friend that flights to Cuba were $200 roundtrip. By evening 4 of my friends and I had booked our flights thanks to a bomb JetBlue deal. For weeks I’d seen people on Instagram traipsing around Cuba. Apparently everyone in New York and beyond bought a ticket (remember that glitch that had everyone flying to Dubai, déjå vu). I stalked Havana Cuba geotags and hashtags on Instagram searching for information on where to stay and eat, as well as what to do and see. I then spent an extraordinary amount of time deciding what to pack. I filled and emptied so many online shopping carts it’d make your head spin. I spent 5 days roaming the streets and eating fresh fruit daily. I smoked and choked on cigars while sitting in a rocking chair on the balcony of a restored colonial mansion. I was pelted with white sand on a windy beach day in Varadero and I took in the city from the back of a classic pink droptop. I got cat called by Cuban men (their version is making a loud kissing noise) and learned to salsa. There’s always music playing in the streets. Havana is a visual masterpiece even in it’s deterioration. You need to visit before Trump closes the gates.
Know before you Go
Please don’t be those girls on my outgoing flight that had us turn around from the runway and taxi back to the gait. Apparently they didn’t know Cuba doesn’t accept American credit cards and that’s all they had (45 minutes wasted). Do your research. You need a US passport and a visa to get into Cuba as well as Cuban Health Insurance. When you book with JetBlue and most airlines the medical insurance is included in your flight price. With JetBlue you buy your visa for $50 at the gate. Other airlines have the option to buy the visa at the time of flight purchase. Don’t drive yourself crazy about the whole People to People thing either. After buying your ticket you’ll get an email about the visa. Fill it out and check People to People. When at the airport getting your visa just check tourism on the form and next to the other box, write in People to People. I wasn’t asked for an itinerary or anything of that sort when getting my visa or anytime going through customs to and from Cuba. I did type up a little itinerary just in case and kept my receipts from Cuba as well. But nope…no problems and no one asked. Take as much money as you will need because American credit cards aren’t accepted. Exchange your money in Cuba to CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos). There’s an extra 10% fee to change US Dollars to CUCs so perhaps change your monies to Euros first. Bring snacks, toilet paper or wipes and a few gifts for your hosts or the locals. Yes, toilet paper is scarce in Cuba. Download maps.me app and get a map of Havana. It works without internet service and you’ll never get lost. Speaking of internet it’s almost nonexistent but for 2 CUCs you can buy a wifi card from most major hotels thats good for 1 hour of wifi time. Havana is not a shopping destination. There are no department stores or bodegas. The average Cuban makes 30 CUCs a month. One of the best parts of my trip was giving away clothes and toiletries that I’d brought for that purpose.
Where to Sleep
In Havana you have 4 options of digs to choose from: Hotels, Casa Particulars (Cuba’s version of Airbnb’s usually with shared bathes), Hostels and Airbnb’s. If you want an authentic experience go for an Airbnb or Casa Particular in Central Havana close to the Malecón. It’s more gritty but you’ll interact with and learn more from the locals. With the influx of tourists to Havana, lodging of any kind is scarce so booking in advance is paramount. Casa Particulars are great in that the owners are usually present and you can pick their brains about Cuban culture. They also come with amenities such as cooked meals for a small fee (5 CUCs daily). Hotels are pricey and most are completely booked several months into the future. All accommodations are hell to book online (Cuba isn’t very progressive when it comes to internet) so be prepared to make a reservation online and then call to confirm. Airbnb is the best way to book online and pay in advance. All other options require payment in Cuban currency at check-in. Check out Hotel Florida, a classic colonial hotel in Havana Vieja (Old Havana) which is walking distance to great nightlife and the Museum de la Revolution. It has a popping salsa night club as well. I opted to stay in an Airbnb in Central Havana. My host Rafael was amazing arranging airport transportation and a day trip to Varadero beach. A few friends chose to stay in a Colonial Mansion in La Vibora, a residential neighborhood 10 minutes from Old Havana. Their digs came with breakfast and a wrap around porch perfect for indulging in or choking on a cuban cigar.
Where to Eat & Drink
The food in Havana is unremarkable so don’t expect gourmet cuisine. You’re paying for ambiance if your meal is anything over 15 CUCs. For the best daiquiris in town head to Bar Floridita where the drinks are 6 CUCs and a live band will have you dancing with dirty old men from Italy. It was also the hang out of Hemingway, so there’s that too. Dress up and swing by Paladar La Guarida for drinks at the rooftop bar overlooking central Havana and then head down for dinner in a low lit nook. If this restaurant is good enough for Queen Beyoncé, it’s good enough for us all. Make reservations online in advance (and don’t fret when they don’t respond for several days). For a delicious breakfast with classic cuban character head to Cafe Arcangel. An entire meal complete with fruit salad and savory coffee will run you 5 CUCs and the husband and wife owners are lovely. You may even catch their abuela roaming around. For damned good food with no frills, run don’t walk, to Casa Cantabria where 3.50 CUCs get’s you a strong piña colada the size of your head. Order the chicken and rice and share it with a friend. Thank me later but be prepared to wait. Cuba is on island time.
What to See & Do
No trip to Havana is complete without taking a salsa lesson. Put on your converses and head to Casa del Tango. You will learn the basics of salsa for and hour and a half with skilled teachers Tito, Nora and Yunaisy. Be prepared to sweat, laugh and be frustrated when you’re told you’re the woman and should let the man lead. Then put on a dress and go hone your skills at Hotel Florida’s salsa club with music nightly from 9:30pm-1am. It’s 5 CUCs to enter and that get’s you a free yet disgusting mojito. I danced with a man from Canada who counted his steps out loud. Visit Paladar La Guarida restaurant in the light of day. The lower levels were used as a film set but now they’re used to hang dry the restaurants linens. Take a trip to Varadero beach which is 2 hours away from Havana. Stop along the Mirador de Bacunayagua and bask in the view of the canyons, palm woods and sea while a live band adds the perfect soundtrack to your Instastory. Hiring a driver to take you in a classic car will cost around 130 CUCs roundtrip. Trinidad is a nice visit as well but you should allow a few days being that it’s about 6 hours away from Havana. Try Viñales for a day trip 3 hours away from Havana. I really wanted to experience Fábrica de Arte Cubano (F.A.C.), the Cuban Art Factory with live music, art and food but it’s closed for renovations until mid February 2017. Walk the streets of Havana Vieja and visit the many artist studios such as Martalena. See the city from the back of a vintage car, preferably a drop top for 5-15 CUCs. Make sure to buy some Cuban cigars and tons of alcohol to bring back to the states for you family and friends (don’t be scared when US customs asks if you brought anything back either, just tell them cigars, they are allowed!) While in Cuba make sure to talk to the people and get some perspective on their way life.
What to Wear
Have fun and wear vibrant colors to blend in with the beautiful colors of Cuba!