Goes to Cuba for one week: posts pictures for a month. Guilty!! If you couldn't already tell, we loved our trip to Havana. Like, really really loved it. It was easily one of our favorite trips of all time!
Before we get into travel recs, it must be said that travel to Cuba for U.S. residents is complicated. U.S. residents were not able to travel to Cuba for 56 years when Obama opened the doors in 2014. And in late 2017, Trump repealed this decision, closing tourism for U.S. residents again.
So how did we go?! Well, this was not a vacation for us, it was a work trip. Technically it was booked before the restrictions (our original travel date was August 2017) but also, there are 12 categories of visas currently open, and the type of visa we had booked - journalism - is one of them. If you're thinking of traveling to Cuba right now, the easiest way is to take a cruise. This type of travel utilizes the "support of the Cuban people" visa. There are guidelines for this, which the cruise line takes care for you. If you want to try that visa on your own, check out this article for some tips.
Why are there so many hoops to jump through? Some serious stuff went down between our countries back in the day, and essentially our government disagrees with the way the Cuban government treats their citizens. As a result, when you travel to Cuba, the U.S. government does not allow you to spend any money with the Cuban government. That eliminates most hotels, and you need to seek out independently-owned restaurants. The U.S. government can audit you for up to 6 years after your trip with hefty potential punishments, so keep detailed records of every dollar (aka CUC) that you spend.
If all this sounds complicated, it is. But also, Cuba was SO beautiful. We struggled to put our finger on what exactly it is about Havana that is so special. (Beyond just that hit song lol.) There are so many things, but overall it's an interesting combo of a big, booming city plus the flavor and color of a Caribbean island. I've been to more than 20 Caribbean islands (and the hubs grew up in Haiti), but there's just no where else like it in the world! The food was amazing!! And the people couldn't be nicer.
Where to stay:
Head to Airbnb.com to book your room in advance, or find a casa particular available for rent when you arrive. They are marked with this blue and white sign. Not everyone has internet access, so there's more variety if you do it in person.
We booked our first casa particular a week before, and it was in the heart of Old Havana. It was open-air, loud, no air conditioning, shared bathrooms, lots of locals coming in and out. Our host was a social butterfly and seemed to know everyone. We loved her. It was an adjustment at first, but it wound up being for the best because she was a wonderful guide and helped us find our bearings.
After spending three nights right in the heart of Old Havana, we moved to a casa particular in Vedado for four nights. It's a 10-minute taxi from Old Havana, and more of a suburban residential area. There's not quite as much tourism although there is still plenty to do and see! We loved switching it up and checking out a new neighborhood, and this casa particular was super modern and had total privacy.
Which neighborhood you pick is totally up to you! We really enjoyed both as well as splitting our time.
Where to eat:
The hubs and I had the best food of our lives on this trip. It was Caribbean-style food (think: fresh red snapper and grilled veggies) so that was a win. The woman we stayed with had the best recommendations. And an entire feast for two cost the equivalent of $30, so that didn't hurt!
When you eat at a restaurant, give yourself plenty of time. They move at a very slow pace compared to American way of eating. It's such a nice change to savor the moment and the delicious food slowly though. Also, restaurants can be tough to find. Many look nothing like a restaurant from the outside and you'll have to make sure you are in the right place at first. And all of them are small - because independently owned restaurants in Cuba are required to have less than 40 seats. Also - many casa particulars provide breakfast with your stay or for a small fee which is so nice. Our host was a great cook!
You can't go wrong with these restaurants. Cafe Laurent was my favorite, Joshua liked La Terrazza and O'Reily 304 is probably the most popular.
- O'Reilly 304 - the place to be for foodies
- El Dandy - order the Platico El Dandy and thank me later
- La Terrazza - on the third floor of Oviedo
- La Familia - super authentic Cuban food
- Cafe Laurent (Vedado neighborhood) - so good we ate there twice, worth the trip from Old Havana
- Biky (Vedado neighborhood) - our go-to breakfast place in Vedado
- Cafe Nana (Vedado neighborhood) - for a "quick" authentic bite
What to do:
- Rent a convertible (like the pink one pictured above!). They are technically taxis, but they also do guided tours. Enjoy a sunset along the Malecon like we did in this video. It's so romantic!
- Wander through Old Havana. It's not super huge but we could've done this for days. It's a colorful, lively, never-sleeps maze of people, cars and architecture.
- Take a bus tour. It costs approx. $10 each, and you can hop on and off all day. It covers a good amount of ground and goes all the way to the Miramar area and back, about two hours round-trip. Catch the bus in the main square in Parque Central.
- Hit the beach. You can easily do a day trip to the Santa Maria area from Havana. It's about 30 minutes away and $30-40 round trip. We hung out near the Ranchon de Pepe restaurant.
General travel tips:
- Check into travel restrictions and purchase your visa. If you fly Southwest, they will send you detailed instructions via email after you book your flights.
- Download Maps.me - GPS that works without internet. Street signs can be difficult to locate, and the actual building itself can be almost impossible to locate (no signage outside) so GPS is key.
- Download Google Translate - it also works offline. And/or practice some key phrases in Spanish, you will need it!
- Bring toilet paper. Carry it with you wherever you go.
- Go with an open mind. Chances are, Cuba is not the same as your own country, and that's okay! Being open to new experiences and new ways of doing things (even if, at times, they can feel inconvenient), is one of the best parts about travel.
- Credit cards are not accepted in Cuba, so bring enough cash. We recommend exchanging money before you go to get a better rate. Exchange US dollars to Euros in advance. Then when you arrive at the airport in Cuba, exchange Euros to local currency, which is CUC (pronounced "couk").
- Don't plan on having internet access. You can buy one-hour cards at the Plaza Hotel in Parque Central for $1. But even those don't always work. Sometimes the internet is just down. And then sometimes it restricts you from certain sites. The last 3 days we could only use apps, not websites.
- Negotiate your taxi fare before getting into the taxi. (Good practice anywhere you go!)
- Bring all the toiletries and snacks you'll need. Don't expect to grocery shop or go to a drug store. The only ones we saw were open at random times, and appeared to only take ration books.
- Bring immodium tablets, and drink bottled water.
- Read up on history. It will help you understand the sentiment towards Americans by locals, and in general the relationship between our countries. Perhaps one of the reasons we liked this trip so much was because we took the time to understand the bigger picture of what we were seeing.
We would go back in a heartbeat. We loved it.
We hope you get a chance to experience this beautiful city someday, too!