Thursday, October 18, 2018

a lost American's guide to Havana

Never did I ever imagine that I would find myself in Cuba. When I was a child, Americans weren't allowed to go there. So in my mind, it was essentially a made up place that didn't exist. 
But just a few years ago, the Obama administration facilitated opening the gates of Cuba to Americans for the first time in more than 50 years. Unfortunately, since then, the Trump administration has begun to make it more difficult to visit. So we decided that if we ever would want to visit Cuba, now is the time because who knows if visiting Cuba will always remain a possibility to Americans. And since we did so much research going into this trip, I thought I would share what we learned about visiting Havana Cuba. 

But aren't they communists that hate Americans?
We got a lot of raised eyebrows when we began telling people that we were heading to Cuba. No, we don't agree with the government policies of the country. But if that were our main qualifier, there would be no place on Earth for us to go. And as for the people of Cuba, they love Americans. They are completely mesmerized by our way of life and are happy to have us supporting them with our tourist dollars. You will never travel anywhere with friendlier locals.

Getting to Cuba 
While visiting Cuba through a cruise-line is always an option, flying is actually cheaper. Because many Americans are still so hesitant to visit Cuba, the flights are fairly inexpensive and can be booked for around ~$100. And believe it or not, you can catch a direct flight into Cuba from both the East and West Coast from several U.S. airlines including Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirt, United, and Alaska. 

Visas & Passport Stamps 
As an American, it is legal to visit Cuba as long as you qualify within one of our government's 12 criteria for visiting the country. Americans traveling for pleasure can designate their travel under the "support for the cuban people" category. The only caveat is that you need to ensure that you are actually supporting the Cuban people by visiting locally owned businesses and participating in cultural experiences while you travel.

The process and cost of purchasing a visa itself will vary based on the airline you are flying with, so it's important to contact them directly. For simplicity, we booked our flights online, then purchased our visas at the airport the day we left. It's actually a pretty simple process. With regards to the visa, you're supposed to have the Cuban government border patrol stamp your visa, not your passport. But our border patrol agent moved quicker than we could, so both Husband and I have Cuban passport stamps. No worries though. We had no problem re-entering the country. 

The Confusion about Currency
When traveling to Cuba, the most important thing to do is exchange your American money for Euros. Yes, I know that Cuba isn't anywhere near Europe, but hear me out. First thing to note is that American issued credit cards and debit cards will not work in Cuba. You have to travel with cash, but most places in Cuba will not accept foreign currency. When traveling internationally, I normally like to exchange currency BEFORE I leave the country. But as you might imagine, I couldn't get my hands on any Cuban currency anywhere in the United States. So your best bet for exchanging currency is in Cuba--as soon as you land at the airport. But, in Cuba, there is currently a 14% penalty tax on American money. That's a hefty fee and a big chunk of money to lose during the exchange process. 
The American couple in line for cash exchange in front of us were shocked by this news, but we were prepared. Before leaving the states, we had our American dollars exchanged into Euros by our bank for free. Then once in Cuba, we exchanged the Euros for Cuban pesos and completely avoided the extra taxes and losing money. Euros and Canadian dollars don't carry the tax rate that American dollars do, so be prepared to exchange those. Keep in mind that Cuba participates in tourist pricing where visitors pay more than locals. In fact, tourists are given an entirely different currency known as the CUC vs. the CUP that locals use. Don't worry though, any and everyone in Cuba will gladly accept your tourist CUCs. 

Is there Internet? 
Yes, there is internet in Cuba. But it is controlled by the government. You must purchase a card with an access code to use it and you must be in a hotspot access site. While it's easy enough to get and use internet if you really want to, part of the charm of Havana is that you're not just visiting another country, you're visiting another time. We personally enjoyed the internet vacation because like most Americans we have come to rely on it too heavily. 

Where to Stay? 
All hotels in Cuba are owned by the Cuban government, which helped us to immediately decide NOT to stay at a hotel. Add in the fact that the prices are outrageous and the standards don't meet what most Americans are probably accustomed to. We stayed in a casa particular. In Cuba, the government has allowed locals to rent out spaces in their homes to tourists. This system is highly regulated and the Cubans participating pay a tax to the government. But the majority of the money you hand over to them gets kept by them, which is a major support when you consider that on average, Cubans make the equivalent of $20USD a month. Supplementing local families income by staying in a casa particular is the only way to visit Cuba in my opinion. And now that AirBnB functions in Cuba, it's never been simpler to book a place to stay.

What to Do? 
Drink Mojitos: In Cuba, drinking is an olympic activity because nothing cuts through the heat quite like a mojito or a  daiquiri or a piña colada! And you will never have another drink quite as delicious and authentic as the ones in Cuba. 
Salsa Dancing: Don't miss out on a chance to salsa dance while you're in Havana. There are great spots everywhere from true salsa clubs to shows to just about every bar and restaurant having dancing. We of course had no idea how to salsa and had fun taking a salsa class at La Casa del Son
Smoke a Cuban Cigar: I'm not an advocate of smoking, but when in Rome Cuba right? 
Climb Morro Castle: Spending an evening exploring and watching the sunset at el Morro Castle turned out to be an unexpected highlight of our time in Havana. Best part is that you can skip the entrance fee to the one room exhibit and explore the grounds for free. 
Cuban Classic Car Tour: Because of an embargo placed on imports to Cuba, many of the cars are 1950's classics. Nothing beats a top-down ride through Havana. So make it official with a tour guide to educate you on the sights along the way. 

What to See? 
Havana Viejo: This is easily one of the main areas to explore. It has earned its distinction as a UNESCO heritage world site and is studded with historical and architectural gems. 
Havana Centro: Less of a tourist trap with its crumbling streets and dilapidated buildings, Havana Centro is where you should go to really experience the barrio and the way of life in Havana. 
El Melacón: This is Havana's coast line with sweeping views and gorgeous plazas that you do not want to miss. 
Capitol Tour: Most of the museums in Havana aren't worth visiting, but the capitol is. It's newly re-opened in 2018 after extensive renovations and is worth a visit with a guided tour. 
Cathedral de la Habana: A gorgeous cathedral with free admission. 

Where to Eat & Drink? 
Honestly, I don't think that you can go wrong with where to eat in Havana. Everything is amazing! And one of the best items we had was a set of 50cent churros from a street stand. I've listed a few of our favorite spots we tried below. You can expect to spend around 5CUC for breakfast, 8-12CUC for lunch, and 15CUC for dinner for high quality meals with drinks.  

Santo Domingo: This is both a bakery and a restaurant, so it's perfect to pop in for a snack or to have a full meal. 
Café Arcángel: This was our favorite breakfast spot of the trip (meal featured in the picture above) and it was also the best coffee that we had in Cuba. 
5 Esquinas Tratorria: This is actually an Italian place with a Cuban flare. We loved this spot for their food, great pricing, and atmosphere. We may have eaten several meals here. 
El Rum Rum: Without a doubt, this was our best meal in Havana. 
El Floridita: Skip the entrée here, but do have one of their famous daiquiris. Enjoy the lively salsa performers while relaxing in one of Hemmingway's favorite watering holes. 
Hotel Iglaterra: Don't miss drinks on the rooftop with live music to boot. This is the perfect spot to spend an evening. 

More from Cuba 

All in all, Havana was an unexpected dream. It is easily one of the most diverse, welcoming, interesting places that we have ever visited. And if given the chance, I would go back to Cuba again and again. 

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