As new travel restrictions have been added on travel to Cuba, I feel lucky I went last year. Organized tours have been banned but, at the time I am writing this article, it seems you can still go independently like I did, flying to Havana under the "Support the Cuban People" general license.
Technically, going to Cuba was never an issue for me as I have a European passport, but it was different for my husband. When restrictions started loosening up in 2014, and direct commercial flights from the US resumed in 2016, it finally seemed possible we could go together. Our journey to Havana was enchanting and I hope this article will entice you to go.
Plan your trip to Cuba
Organizing our trip, I researched the web to know what to expect. Here are a few things to know:
- The Internet is scarce, so you can’t really count on using your cell phone there. We did buy a pass at our hotel to use their Wi-Fi and this was the only place we were able to connect with the rest of the world during our stay: make sure you have hard copies of any information you might want to access during your stay.
- Pack medicine and hand sanitizer: I think I saw one pharmacy during our trip and its shelves were mostly depleted. The Visa we bought from our airline included medical insurance but fortunately, we did not have to test this feature!
- I had read to bring toilet paper, as it is a luxury over there, but I did not need it. Our hotel was properly stocked and all public bathrooms we encountered were supplied with bath tissue, though some were rationed by an attendant who would only give you the bare minimum of sheets in exchange for a coin of 25ȼ. In a couple of places, there was no running water from the sinks and the restroom attendant would give you a small dollop of soap and pour water from a bottle on your hands, then offer one sheet of paper towel to dry them!
- Plan your expenses: you can’t use US credit cards there and Cuba runs mainly a cash economy. I had to estimate the cost of all of our activities (museums, restaurants, transportation, souvenirs) to make sure we would have enough money without carrying too much currency with us.
- Bring euros, not dollars: there is a surcharge of 10% to exchange American dollars for Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). Also, Cuba has two currencies:
- Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) for tourists (the equivalent of 1USD)
- Cuban Peso (CUP) for the locals (valued at about 1/25 of the CUC)
- Be prepared to be hustled! We could not walk 5 minutes without someone attempting to sell us something. It often started with “You’re from America? I love America!” as an icebreaker, then your new best friend would move onto the sales pitch: “Today is the last day of the 50% off cigar-factory holiday special!” or “Come eat at my restaurant, my Mama’s cooking and she makes the best ropa vieja of Havana!”. All this was done in such a very friendly way, it was impossible not to chat back with the street hustlers and joke with them while refusing their offer.
Uncover the spirit of the Cuban people
What struck me the most was the resourcefulness and solidarity of the Cuban people. Walking the streets of Havana, it felt as if the capital had frozen in time after the embargo placed by the United States on exports to the country in 1960 (further extended in 1962). Today, you can see ruins of what used to be a flourishing economy, some better maintained than others, with all traces of any past western influence removed: for example, the former Hilton hotel was renamed to Habana Libre.
You definitely go back in time watching the cars driving along the Malecón, the iconic boulevard that stretches along the coast of Havana, packed at night with locals enjoying the cool air from the maritime breeze. Most vehicles are several decades old and still running because of the ingenuity of their owners. Most of the gorgeous American fifties rides with flashy colors are refurbished with all sorts of aftermarket parts and operate on “Frankenstein assemblies”: the 30’s model T we rode on had Volkswagen pedals and a car stereo with a detachable faceplate!
As those sweet rides are fragile, they easily breakdown, and it is not unusual to spot several drivers stop and come to the rescue of an unfortunate motorist, opening the hood, troubleshooting the issue, and pulling tools and parts out of their trunk.
We experienced this altruism first hand, riding in a Coco taxi (a motorcycle revamped to a three-sitter that looks like Pacman) on the Malecón. We got a flat tire on the left lane, and within seconds, several bystanders were pulling the vehicle to the curb and helping our driver remove and swap the faulty part.
Embrace the ambient nonchalance
While in Cuba, adopt a chill vibe: things may not go as planned, or take longer than expected, but who cares? You’re on vacation. Here are a few of our misadventures that we still smile upon:
After being at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana for a couple of hours and still early in the afternoon when the museum closes at 5 pm, we and a dozen of other wandering tourists were corralled by the museum attendants and directed towards the exit. There was no explanation given but the museum was closing now and we were told we could reuse our tickets the next day. Our best guess was that is was a slow day, and workers decided they wanted to go home early!
Here is a sample of the museum's impressive collection of Cuban art:
Our visit to Coppelia, the emblematic ice-cream parlor in Havana, was another surreal experience! It was a hot and steamy afternoon (not unlike Louisiana) and the place, extremely popular with both locals and tourists, was packed. The setting is a beautiful park where families can enjoy frosty treats, with charming patio areas scattered around and at the center, a large round building resembling a carousel with its colored glass windows. Each sitting area had its own waiting line, but before we could pick one, we were stopped by informal guards asking us which currency we were carrying (CUC or CUP). We had CUC so we were escorted to the stairs of a depressing building, and motioned to enter a room on the first floor. It had tiny windows and dull paint on the walls. A man was attending a freezer where the ice-cream flavor selection was not near as enticing as what I had seen outside. We placed our orders and proceeded to a larger room adjacent to the entrance, furnished with a few tables, chairs, and a small TV playing the World Cup. Our orders were delivered a few minutes later, and soon afterward, we were joined by other tourists. To this day, I am not sure if this is the standard experience for foreigners, or because the lines were so long, this was the VIP treatment!
One last adventure involves our attempt at using public transportation. From my research, I had found that using the Hop-on/Hop-off bus would be the most economical way to travel through the city. With no official website, I relied on information found on blogs and had printed maps of the three lines available and their respective stops. So we hoped-on on our second day. My maps matched the itineraries listed at the bus stop, so I felt quite confident! Except that once on the bus, it skipped stops and added others! Then, at the end of the day, waiting on the bus that would take us back to our hotel, it remained parked at the stop, loaded with passengers, for almost an hour before taking off! After this, we solely used Coco taxis and cabs for our long distance travels!
My best memories from Havana
Fusterlandia was quite an astonishing place to visit. José Fuster, a Cuban artist who specializes in ceramics and painting, has been redecorating his neighborhood, Jaimanitas, for several decades with bright mosaics, sculptures, and murals. His colorful naïve art, reminiscent of Antoni Gaudi’s Park Güell in Barcelona, is marvelous and is revitalizing the area, bringing tourists to this part of town that would be otherwise ignored.
Cuban food is delightful and quite inexpensive: being close to the coast, seafood is abundant and many restaurants serve tasty grilled lobster. Rum cocktails are the national drink, rather cheap, depending on the venue, and pretty light (rum there is only 76 proof). Places to visit include two of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite joints: La Floridita, which offers a dozen different daiquiris, and La Bodeguita del Medio, for perfect mojitos. Both places, as well as most bars and restaurants, offer entertainment by traveling musicians and dancers who will perform enticing Cuban rhythms.
Finally, I find that souvenirs are the best way to reminisce on my travels. From this trip, we brought back cigars, rum, and coffee, and each time I smoke a Cuban while sipping on some Anejo rum from our bounty, I am brought back to the gardens of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.