Time machines do exist, y’all. Get on a 45-minute, $50 one-way flight to Havana from Miami or Fort Lauderdale and you’ll be transported back to the 50s and 60s.
Which is what I did for the past few days. I took a quick trip to Cuba with my dear friend Bamboo for two-ish days this week and just got home to edit the photos. It was such a surreal experience that I won’t soon forget, and I’m so excited to share my images with you! Stay tuned after the jump for some travel advice and tips from yours truly.
We were picked up from the airport by a taxi that Ivonne, our Airbnb host, set up for us. Our driver was wonderful and pointed out landmarks and interesting buildings to us along the way in, which was about a 30-ish minute drive from the airport to the city center.
We couldn’t believe our eyes on the way in. Classic American cars circa 1950 were everywhere, sprinkled in amongst a few newer import cars and some 1970s Euro vehicles like Fiats and Peugeots. Seeing these hot rods paired with the colorful buildings of Cuba as the backdrop was almost dreamlike. To see something that was once forbidden to Americans and only viewed through the photos of others was seriously rad.
Upon arrival, Oscar, the Airbnb coordinator, met us at our casa particular and walked us through all the important pieces of staying in Havana. He showed us our building, important phone numbers, gave us recommendations for restaurants and then we were on our way.
We spent the entire first day on foot exploring every little nook and cranny of the city we could find. We were both short on sleep — Bamboo came in from a redeye flight from LA and I was up before the sun to get out of Miami — but being in this new world reenergized us.
We first explored La Plaza Vieja, a central square located in Old Havana, where we were also staying. It was built in 1559 and now houses restaurants and shops. This was where we had our first meal at La Vitriola, where we noshed on some interesting cuisine: plantains stuffed with ham and cheese and pork, fried cheese balls (both of these seemed to be on all the menus), and a whole goddamn fried fish and “lamb stew,” which really meant “a whole rack of lamb.” It was a touristy locale and the food was not the best we’ve eaten, but it was the perfect place to get our bearings and take in the scenery. (More on this and the food scene at the end of this post.)
After lunch, we continued walking the city to spend time on El Malécon, the famous stretch of highway providing gorgeous views of the harbor, until we ended up at Parque Central, where the theater and the capitol of Havana are located. We finished the evening dining in a paladar, the name for family-owned (read: non-government) restaurants, and topped it off with a serving of Cuban churros.
The view from our casa particular‘s balcony
Inside the atrium of our casa particular, where we stayed next door to local Cubans
La Plaza Vieja
This dude understood the hustle: many tourists would stop to take a photo and he would accept graciously with the expectation of a tip of a few CUCs, the Cuban Convertible Peso (the currency tourists use, which is different than the currency that the locals use)
More from La Plaza Vieja
Exploring side streets near La Plaza Vieja
Wandering through the streets of Old Havana
Che Guevara’s face can be seen all over Havana
From the cathedral located at La Plaza De San Francisco
Back side of a pedicab
Stray cats and dogs were on nearly every block
We peeked into many old buildings such as this one as we explored. Almost all buildings follow a formula that begins with a foyer/entryway with some sort of staircase taking you from the ground level to the first floor of residences. These staircases ranged from opulent marble to more like the one above, needing a little love and renovation. You can only imagine what it all used to look like before the revolution.
While we saw many Cubans with cell phones, pay phones like these are sprinkled about the city and are still very often used by locals
More from the streets of Old Havana
A lot of the classic cars were also taxis; a swanky way to tour the city
Another taxi option: coco-taxis, similar to tuk-tuks from Thailand
I really love the couple in the bottom-right corner; the gentleman was resting his head on his lady’s shoulder and even someone with a cold, dead heart such as myself found this to be very endearing
We saw this rose tile here and there across the city
Getting further into the city’s neighborhoods, you see more dilapidation blended with preserved facades
We took a walk along El Malécon, the boardwalk along Havana Harbor
More from El Malécon, with Castillo San Salvador de la Punta in the distance, a fortress built to protect the entrance to the city circa 1559
Parque Central, with the Hotel Inglaterra (right) and the Gran Teatro de Habana (left) in the background
This was probably my favorite stop of the city: classic taxis parked out front of the incredible Gran Teatro de la Habana
El Capitolio to the left
Our second day started with breakfast inside our casa particular. We opted to have a lovely housekeeper, Addys, prepare breakfast for us at an additional cost to the stay. This was totally worth it, as Havana itself doesn’t really wake up until about 10 a.m. We wanted to get our day started so Addys came in at 8 a.m. and prepared scrambled eggs with ham and cheese, freshly-made papaya and pineapple juice, Cuban coffee, a spread of tropical fruit, and bread and butter. It was nice to not have to worry about where we were going to start the day with breakfast.
We decided to check out a museum of the city’s history in the morning, which is housed inside an enormous building that used to be home to the governors. Now, it features exhibits of old Cuban flags along the years, military uniforms, and how these grand residences used to be furnished. It reminded me of the Palace of Versailles just outside of Paris with lavish décor and furnishings.
Afterwards, we walked over to the Castillo de le Real Fuerza, a fort built in the 1500s. This thing even had a moat and a drawbridge — I don’t think it gets any cooler than that.
For lunch, we found a new paladar to check out and had some delicious shrimp and lobster. Meals in Havana are quite simple: a meat of some sort (often seafood) that is either grilled or prepared in a Cuban sauce (red sauce) or garlic sauce, complemented by fried plantain chips and rice. We didn’t find many vegetables at the restaurants we tried, but found plenty of options to get perfectly ripe tropical fruit.
We continued exploring the neighborhood streets until early evening, when we decided to hop in a convertible taxi for a jaunt around the city. This was also another highlight of the trip, which I’m sure may seem touristy for some but I don’t care — I loved it.
At the end of our second and last night in the city, we dined on a rooftop paladar to live music and mojitos. These drinks are unlike any mojito I’ve had in the U.S. These mojitos were a crisp balance of the sweet rum and fresh mint, all used with quintessential Havana Club Cuban rum.
Okay, this may have been the most touristy thing we did all trip: for 1 CUC you could take photos with these cute-ass dogs (I don’t care how cheesy this is, I can’t get enough of it and neither should you)
I mean come on
Outside of the city history museum
Marble staircase inside the city history museum
More from inside the city history museum; it was really cool to not only see articles from Havana’s history but to also see what the inside of these awe-inspiring buildings look like now (and what they once looked like before the revolution)
Walking towards the Castillo de la Real Fuerza
Inside the Castillo de la Real Fuerza
La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana
This cat gets it
Paladares near the cathedral
Just a casual little tree growing out of the third level of this building
Back at La Plaza Vieja
“No te preocupes” = no worries
A funky ship-like building that definitely stood out amongst the standard Cuban architecture
Another view of the Gran Teatro
Road work in Havana
Havana is rich with art installations, both old and new; this piece was near El Malécon, by Puerto Rican artist Rafael M. San Juan
The highlight of the night! Riding around in our classic convertible taxi
A favorite frame of mine from the trip
We spent our final morning finishing up our souvenir shopping for friends back home. We stopped at one final museum, the Wifredo Lam Center, which was home to a funky exhibit by artists Michael Bielicky and Kamila B. Richter. In a series of video projections into different rooms of the museum, the exhibit highlighted the ongoing state of world affairs — most notably, the disasters that our planet continues to face. To get a better feel for the exhibit, take a peek at this YouTube video with snippets from a few of the rooms of the installation. It’s worth noting that we saw allegories for Trump, global warming, nuclear war and many more relevant issues throughout the piece.
Lastly, we spent some time with Oscar, the gentleman featured below, who drew a custom charcoal art piece for Bamboo. I also cleaned out most of his watercolor paintings, which I found to be a nice break from the mass-produced Cuban souvenirs that didn’t have nearly as much soul as his work.
We sat and chatted with him for a bit while he drew and Bamboo and I agree that he was our favorite person that we met along the way in Havana. He gave us his Facebook info and pending my friend request, we are soon to be BFFs.
Thank you for stopping by the blog and taking the time to make it through 100+ photos from my trip! If you are interested in traveling abroad to Havana anytime soon, here are my tips for a smooth trip:
- Go now! With many airlines opening up routes (Spirit, Frontier, American and United all fly to Havana, either directly out of Miami, Fort Lauderdale or New York), fares are really affordable. Southwest is working on getting their routes opened to Havana as well.
- Prepare to spend $100 on a tourist visa at the airport. Additionally, make sure you know where to get this before you fly out. I thought I was purchasing mine at the gate (Bamboo purchased hers at the gate of departure for her flight) but it turns out that I had to get it before going through security. I had to literally sprint out of the gate, back to the terminal to find a dude with a briefcase and no visible signage to buy the visa and then go back through security to get on the flight. I think you can buy the visas online before you go; I would check with your airline to see what they recommend to do for this before you go.
- Get all of your info on your trip before you go. Internet is not widely available in Havana. We found it at the airport and at the larger hotels, but not in many other places. To get online in Havana, you have to buy an internet card with a username and password on it; these are around 4 CUCs ($4) for one hour. Unlike European cities, internet cafés are not a thing here. Do your research and write down or screenshot where you want to go/eat/etc. before getting on the plane.
- Stay in an Airbnb (casa particular). This is a great way to experience one more level of Havana, a taste of the city that you don’t get while staying in a hotel. Bamboo and I shared a quaint apartment with a double bed and a single bed, located blocks from pretty much everything. We loved the location and loved staying somewhere authentic. If you’re going soon, I recommend checking out the Airbnb where we stayed. Ivonne was very helpful in setting up taxi rides to and from the airport and never took long to email me back.
- Bring a buttload of cash. As of the writing of this blog post, American credit and debit cards are not accepted in Havana. I changed my American dollars for Euros at the airport in Miami prior to leaving for Havana, but I believe you can change your American dollars in Havana for a slightly higher exchange rate. Make sure to bring some emergency cash in case you run out while you’re abroad. The exchange rate is also fairly easy to remember: 1 CUC = 1 USD, give or take.
- Get small bills at the exchange desk. Cuba has two currencies: Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs, which is what you will be spending and using) and Cuban Pesos (CUPs, which is what the residents use), and as such, merchants don’t always have change for larger bills. Make sure to get 1s and 3s as you can, as you will need them to buy souvenirs, entrances to museums (all seemed to be around 3 CUCs), and to tip almost everyone. If you want photos with people, many are happy to oblige; you should make sure to have a stash of coins to tip them after the photos or whatever it is they are helping you with. For example, if anyone helps guide you through the museums, you should be prepared to tip.
- Spend no more than 30 CUCs on a ride into the city from the airport. We arranged transportation with our Airbnb host prior to arriving. The only caveat? Bamboo arrived at one terminal and I arrived at another, and unlike most airports, which offer connecting shuttles or buses — I had to take a 20 CUC ($20) taxi ride from one terminal to the other because there is no other way to get over there. It was a five-ish minute ride to get to her, which is something I had not expected. If it turns out that you are traveling from different cities with friends, it might be worth it to meet up in the city center as opposed to taxiing from terminal to terminal to find each other.
- Stay in La Habana Vieja (Old Havana). You will be right in the middle of all the action!
- Avoid government-run dining options. To be quite honest, the first meal we had at La Vitriola was quite possibly the worst meal I’ve eaten. Ever. I’m not saying this because I’m a snooty American tourist — I am saying this because it was really awful and devoid of pretty much any flavor, as is the case for the government-run restaurants. You should look for paladares instead, which are family-owned restaurants and the food is much more flavorful. The garlic sauce we had on our seafood was divine. Many paladares will have someone on the sidewalk advertising their menu to you; simply ask if it is a paladar and make your dining decisions from there.
- Keep your receipts from your educational visits. While no one at U.S. Customs even so much as batted an eye that we were coming back from Cuba, the government can essentially audit your trip for up to five years afterwards. Since general tourism is not a visa option (we selected “people-to-people” or “support of the Cuban people”), the government could ask to see the educational activities that you did while in Havana. Bamboo and I really enjoyed the museums we went to and would highly recommend the city history museum and the contemporary art museum. We didn’t have time for the fine art museum and the museum of the revolution, but they were on our lists. You are also supposed to have an educationally-driven itinerary for your trip as well.
- Stock up. We didn’t see many places for snacks, toiletries, over-the-counter meds, etc. Make sure to bring sunscreen, snacks that won’t set off alarms at customs (e.g. no produce, more packaged products), bug spray, aspirin, band-aids, etc.
- Havana is very safe for tourists. Tourism is their #1 mainstay of the Cuban economy. As such, crimes against tourists are treated with severity. Bamboo and I walked around all day and at night and never felt unsafe. Some men would ask us where we were from, and once we replied with “los Estados Unidos,” we would both continue on in our different directions. We did experience catcalling, but it didn’t feel as aggressive as the catcalling I have experienced in, for example, Mexico or Greece, where I have legitimately feared for my safety. Overall, we never felt like we were in any grave danger as two women traveling alone.
- You can barter with the merchants but…I would recommend against it. Just 1 CUC goes a long way for Cuban citizens, and to me, it’s worth more to give up a few cups of coffee at Starbucks to support the locals and their work.
- When in Rome! Take a taxi ride in a classic convertible! Have a daiquiri at La Floridita (where Hemingway used to hang out)! Drink mojitos! Smoke a Cuban! Sure, a lot of this is considered “touristy shit” but I am a firm believer in doing whatever the hell you want and whatever the hell makes you happy.