Bandera Cubana: What you need to know before traveling to Cuba
Cuba? Really? Cool, but why? A lot of people asked me and I said, "Why not?" My husband and I were celebrating ten years of wedded bliss, we'd been saving up money for a trip and JetBlue had two round-trip tickets to Havana (with a connection in Fort Lauderdale, FL) for $1000 total. Sold! By the way, JetBlue was amazing about transferring our connecting flight to a later time from Florida to Cuba after the plane we were on was running late and we would have missed the flight! Gold star for you JetBlue!
In a nutshell, Havana really is a city lost in time. Its streets are mostly dirt roads, the architecture is amazing, the food and music are incredible, most people are welcoming and they vehemently want you to discover the place they so proudly call home.
Weather-wise, we didn’t make the greatest decision to go in mid-July. July and August are the hottest months of the year in Cuba with temperatures reaching more than 110 degrees Fahrenheit! My porcelain-skinned husband had to slather on the sunscreen and we had the bug spray and extra clothing ready to go.
Let me in!
How did we get in was the most asked question amongst our friends and family. The U.S. Government offers 12 categories in which you could travel to Cuba. We chose the “people-to-people” educational visit and had absolutely no problems. The visa was provided on the flight by JetBlue and was valid for our week-long stay. Here’s a good resource with a bevy of information from the U.S. State Department on the latest travel rules/restrictions as an American traveling to Cuba.
Disclosure: Our visit was booked before President Trump announced more restrictions on travel to the country so things may or may not be more challenging for you to visit. This is a really big shame. Cuba is starving for more tourism. Some people in professional positions, I’m talking doctors and professors, are only paid about $20 a month because of government regulations so they depend on tourism for extra income (a former television news colleague recently travelled to Cuba and wrote a great piece on her experience and the Cuban people. Read it here). Most of the people we talked to in Havana said they really despise President Trump and were curious about the political turmoil in America right now. ‘Idiota’ was the word I kept hearing over and over again in regards to our Commander in Chief.
Before I go into more travel info, it’s important, no imperative to start your day in Havana with a great cup of Cuban coffee or cafecito. I love the way it’s done on this show I am currently obsessed with called One Day at a Time. Watch Rita Moreno in all her perfection as the passionate Abuelita here!
Now, there are a few options on where to stay in Havana and it depends on your comfort level and how much you’re willing to spend on accommodations. You can live it up like President Obama and Beyonce/Jay-Z and the Prince of Morocco, who I was told brought his 25 wives and rented out enough space for his group at the famed Saratoga hotel. But until we win the lottery and/or become royalty by decree, we looked for deals to save money and chose to AirBnb it which I highly recommend. Shortly after President Obama announced easing travel restrictions, AirBnb went to work right away setting up shop and creating content on all things Cuba. We stayed in what’s known as a Casa Particular (family home) in Old Havana near the square with a great mother and son Mikael and Lucy (If you’d like their information, please DM me), all for an impressive $30 per night! If you’d like, Lucy offers to make breakfast for 5 CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) per person. We didn’t end up doing that but it would have included coffee, juice, a breakfast sandwich and fruit.
Important to note: I would be prepared to speak basic Spanish. It’s not required but the people do appreciate you trying and if you’re Spanish is so bad, they’ll stop you and speak English. Frommer’s has a quick reference book that was really helpful when I couldn’t find the words or phrases to communicate. This map was also a lifesaver sans Internet to get a better idea of where you are in Havana. I highly recommend it. I also have to thank mi profesora de espanol Senora Susan Howell for teaching me this invaluable and beautiful language back in high school. Muchas gracias a ti Ms. Howell!
Mikael and Lucy’s home is in a central location of Old Havana that’s very close to sightseeing, shopping and restaurants. The room itself had a full bathroom and shower, a closet, two beds and mas importante, a powerful air conditioner and oscillating wall fan. It was heaven when we wanted to escape the 95 degree weather and tropical humidity. It’s best to avoid the sun between Noon and 4 p.m. when the heat is at its highest, so I recommend going out early, escape to a bar/restaurant for shade or enjoy a nice Siesta (Americans could use something like this in the U.S.) to recharge for the busy evenings and nightlife.
Like several other blogs about Cuba pointed out, there is limited Internet access and U.S. credit cards are no good there so bring more cash than you think you’ll need to cover costs. My husband did a great job of looking into this and decided to convert Dollars to Euros while we were in the U.S. and then to CUC once we were in Havana. For five days, we actually were under budget converting 1,400 Euros to 1,550 CUC. It paid for our stay, meals, souvenirs, lots of bottled water, and tours. We suggest going to a banco nacional for the best rate exchange. If you’d like more information on Money Exchange, TripAdvisor is a great resource. Link here.
For Internet access, you can go to the big national hotels which are all over the city but you will need an Internet access/phone card, something which was difficult for us to find. We even stepped inside a business that was clearly labeled ‘Internet and mobile services’ only to be told by the woman at the desk that they didn’t offer Internet service. I was in shock! One of the only times we felt we were being lied to or they didn’t want our business. The nearby hotel we went to did offer Internet access but only offered service after Noon. After all that, we just ended up unplugging and enjoyed the time away from tech for a week. It was a nice respite but my husband was pretty thrilled to get back online after a week of disconnecting. We also learned from a very nice couple from Spain that the rate for Internet usage has gone down in recent years. It used to be $4 or $5 an hour and is now about $1.50 per hour!
Tour me crazy
Another interesting thing we learned about Cuba as visitors: You really don’t need to plan far ahead to book a sightseeing tour in Havana. For the famed classic car ride, we wandered into the Plaza de San Francisco where we spotted a line of beautiful automobiles ready for tourists!
For 40 CUC, the 1.5 hour tour included a drive through Old Havana, Havana Central, along El Malecon, a stop for strong and tasty Mojitos and an educational tour through a small neighborhood centered around the religious practice of Santeria.
This was a great way to get a sense of where you are in the city and where you might want to stop by. It’s also a nice alternative to the cattle call Hop On, Hop Off buses that are already plentiful there.
For a more intimate experience, my husband and I were lucky enough to meet a tour guide who took us on a Horse Buggy tour through Havana. The tour cost 30 CUC/$25 USD. To this day, horse buggies are a normal way of transportation for many Cubans since public buses and other transit is still difficult. We saw some people who walk or hitchhike for miles just to get to their jobs and other towns!
One of the best tour guides in Havana at the Plaza de San Francisco. He told us families were not allowed to openly celebrate Christmas until 1998!
The guide was very knowledgeable and friendly and we learned a lot about the culture and the way people live 57 years after the embargo was lifted. We saw a lot of art deco architecture (my favorite design) dating back to the 1920’s. Unfortunately, many buildings were still under restoration or unsalvageable due to hurricane damage. We were told a lot of people’s homes were decimated because of the sheer weight of the second floors. Several buildings house multiple families with homes built one on top of the other.
What we brought home
The sheer volume of gifts, trinkets, toys and clothing can be overwhelming! Many items are made with love, even some books which are still put together by hand in Matanzas to this day! But you do have to be mindful especially when it comes to cigars. We found out the best places to buy authentic Cuban cigars are in official storefronts. As tourists, you’re going to be pushed to buy off the street but in many cases, these cigars are not even assembled in Cuba. They are most likely from Honduras or the Dominican Republic. My husband did buy and enjoyed a cigar made in Honduras, Rocky Patel Edge Toro Maduro. You can get a good Cuban cigar for under 10 CUC but for a Cohiba, expect to pay up to 40 CUC each or 450 CUC for a box of 25. The other brand my husband liked is Romeo y Julieta. For more information with a whole list of top quality cigars, click here.
After walking along the popular shopping areas in Havana like San Ignacio and Mercaderes, I picked up some T-shirts, maracas, ceramics, canvas artwork, a white dress, jewelry a handmade notebook, and of course several bottles of Havana Club rum. Note: I didn’t realize how easily available Havana Club was to buy at the airport before coming home. I bought mine at one of the best places to enjoy a Cuban pina colada in a pineapple is El Penon. It’s a small but nice stop along the highway between Havana and Varadero. Don’t expect anything too fancy here though.
I’m quickly realizing there is so much more to write about Havana and Cuba in general. There will be a part two about museums, nightlife, art and restaurants coming soon. Thanks for reading this blog. I hope it was helpful to you!