(Shout out to my good friend Doris Alcivar for being an awesome editor on this post!)
I just got back from Cuba. It was the second time I’ve been in five years. Everyone is asking for tips and I figured this was the easiest way to share them!
First of all, GO! It’s a beautiful place with SWEET people who are HAPPY to see Americans. So how did I get there? Easy! Jet Blue. They have direct flights from JFK airport in NYC. You pay the travel visa on site. It cost me $50.
** Many have asked: Do I need to have an official “reason” for traveling there? No. Just pick “person to person” support/travel in the drop-down menu on Jet Blue’s website when purchasing your ticket. (More Cuba travel FAQs answered here.)
Attitudes have changed. The young people we spoke to at length (20s through mid 40s) are ready for change and most spoke about wanting to visit the United States. (Some even bashed their former longtime dictator!)
Don’t worry if you’re not 100% fluent in Spanish. Many who work in the hotels or in tourism-related posts (snorkeling guides) speak some kind of English, so one can get by. Some of the cab drivers don’t know English, but they know ALL of the places tourists want to go, so you’ll be fine.
A note: Cubans say “Dale!” (sort of in the way Spaniards say vale) a lot (it means yes, got it, go ahead, sure). It isn’t just a Pitbull thing.
In 2013, I went to Cuba through a travel agent and stayed at Spanish-run hotel and resort. They were beautiful and clean and included breakfast (and, at the beach resort, all-inclusive food and drinks). If you’re a resort/concierge person, stay here:
In Old Havana, right by their Central Park: Hotel Parque Central
In Varadero (beautiful beach town, about two-hours away from Havana): Iberostar Varadero
Interested in booking through a travel agent so he can do all the legwork? Here’s his info:
3174 Dwight St
San Diego, CA 92104
For this trip, our travel agent included all transfers, so I couldn’t recommend a tour bus company for the ride between Havana and Varadero. (It was probably Transtur, which you see a lot of throughout the tourist areas) Find some bus transport tips here.
This time around, we took an official taxi. It should run about CUC$115 (115 Cuban Convertible Pesos, which is the currency tourists can change money into). The currency symbol is CUC$.
SPEAKING OF MONEY: Go to your bank or money exchange agency and buy EUROs to change into . Dollars from the United States get hit with a 10 to 15 percent tax. Go with the Euro. Last week, the exchange rate was about $1.07 CUCs per Euro. (You can also go with Canadian dollars, though I’m hearing it’s weak at this time.)
My 2017 trip was very different than my 2013 experience. In Varadero, we stayed at a “casa particular,” which is a rental within someone’s house. We had our own separate entrance. The tiny apartment within the house slept four. It’s nothing fancy, but it did the job for our beach-all-day and restaurants at night agenda.
It’s called Casa Bertha & Alberto, and the email address is here. The well-kept home is air-conditioned, located just steps from the beach, and Alfredo is a great cook (breakfast is $5!). We booked everything for this trip directly with the owners via email (in Spanish, as they didn’t really speak English).
In Havana, we used good, old AirBNB. The apartment we rented is in the lovely neighborhood called Miramar. (Think beautiful pastel-colored mansions.) This apartment slept four (though we stretched it to five with an additional twin bed), and has a television in each room. There is internet access, though it can be spotty at times, and you must buy a $2 card for a password for about an hour’s worth of access. I highly recommend it.
However, on my last day in Havana, I met a nice Cuban lady who rents out her apartment within Old Havana (near Aguacate street – yes, avocado street!) for just CUC$35 per night! Her name is Nancy, and you can call her at: 54-293205.
Places to go
I can’t take credit for most of this wonderful list. A great friend (Elkin Cabas) of someone in our group typed it up for us (I added my input with an asterisk). We hit most everything he recommended.
So, go! Have fun!
1. La Foresta Restaurante
a. Calle 17, between 174 y 176, Rpto. Siboney, Playa
b. Fancier restaurant but pretty affordable!
c. Our Airbnb host recommended and actually took us there for dinner
2. Starbien Restaurante
a. Calle 29 #205, between B y C, Havana, Cuba
b. I think this was my favorite dining experience in Cuba. Great food, ambience, and the restaurant is set inside a colonial-style home. It’s pretty awesome. We had the paella and ropa vieja which was great!
3. Bodeguita del Medio (*** If you like your mojitos light, as in low in sugar, this is the place to drink them! They’re fantastic!)
a. Empedrado, La Habana, Cuba
b. Must see place, would recommend to do this for lunch
c. You’ll see plenty of writing on the walls from visitors all over the world and framed photographs of celebrities
d. Delicious food and live music in the front bar
+ If you can get reservations at Doña Eutimia I would recommend it! It’s one of my regrets not having eaten there. It was highly recommended by my friends.
+ La Guarida, which is amaaazing and apparently lots of celebrities go here when they visit Havana. Definitely on the expensive side if you feel like splurging one night! *** ed. note: Ok, we ate here, and loved it! It’s in a gorgeous historic building that is being renovated and the restaurant is on the rooftop. You’ll see all the celeb pics on the wall. The food was great, as was the service (and wine!)
*** A word about the food in Cuba: they do not typically serve fruits and vegetables that are not in season. For instance, we kept wondering why there wasn’t any avocado. We asked and that was that. Makes sense for their farmers (so they don’t have to get the produce from OUTSIDE the country), but it’s a lesson learned for Americans who are used to getting nearly anything they want WHEN they want it. So, bring snacks! Especially because convenience stores are low on snacks (but never on rum or beer!)
**** Or don’t bring snacks and walk 15,000 steps a day average like we did and lose weight! I lost three pounds. 😉 But, seriously, I never felt ravenous. Their portion sizes, while not ENORMOUS, were filling enough with real food (chicken, beef, or pork, rice and beans, etc.)
1. El Floridita
a. Famous cocktail bar in the older part of Havana
b. Famous for its daiquiris and for having been one of Hemingway’s favorite hangouts in Havana
2. Don Cangrejo
a. Friday nights are pretty fun here. They have a cover I think though of like 10 CUCs, but it’s pretty cool cause it’s open air and on the water and they have some live concerts on occasion
3. Mio & Tuyo
a. We went there one night and actually had fun! Lol We wound up buying a bottle and getting a “table” (smaller than we expected)
b. Good music, drinks, it gets pretty packed but it’s fun
ed. note: *** In Havana, have drinks at Sia Kara. The Times included them in their “36 Hours in Havana” write-up and I fully agree!
**** In Varadero, hit Calle 62. It’s an outdoor bar/restaurant with live music and dancing on the streets! (See video shot by my friend Giancarlo Ganoza below!)
· Old Havana
· Do the Hop-On/Hop-Off! (*** so worth it if you want to see all of the city in one day)
· Gran Teatro de la Habana – gorgeous by day and night!
· Central Park
· El Capitolio
· Plaza de la Revolucion
· El Malecon
· Hemingway’s House
· Varadero beach (**** must go!)