Havana oh na na! I spent two wonderful weeks learning about nutrition and food policy with a grad school class. We stayed in a Casa Particular set up for students in Vedado outside of Old Havana, with delicious meals provided in the mornings and evenings. I can’t say enough good things about this trip. (#TAKEMEBACKPLEASE!)
Travel Tips for Cuba:
1. Prepare to unplug: There is limited internet access. (The horror!) This was probably the piece we struggled with most. It was like a drug whenever we were able to log on – we needed our fix! To use the internet, you have to go to specific places to buy an internet card (5 CUC for 5 hours, or 1 CUC for 1 hour). Even when you have a card and you’re in a location that has internet access (you’ll see the crowd standing around staring at their phones), the WiFi is spotty and will kick you off every 5 minutes or so.
2. Slow your roll: I’ve been in NYC for almost 5 years. My day is usually spent rushing from place to place and task to task. We’re used to Energizer-Bunny-style movement until we physically drop from exhaustion. Even our free time feels like we need to fill it with something. Let that go. Life moves more languidly in Cuba. You have the time to wander and get lost. Take long strolls and sit outside enjoying the sunshine and a mojito. I recommend sitting along the Malecón, the seawall/highway along the coast. Share a beer or a rum juice box and enjoy the sunset.
3. Clean your plate: In the 90’s (called the Special Period), Cuba was hit hard by the embargo blocking US/Cuban trade. Cuba’s economy tanked and its citizens struggled greatly trying to feed their families. Although the Cuban economy is improving, it is not a wealthy country and many people are still struggling. Food, outside of the rations provided, is very expensive for Cuban citizens. There is a beautiful tradition of sharing food as a gesture of goodwill and kindness. If someone offers you food, clean your damn plate.
4. Bring the cash you need: There are limited ATMs and (if you are American) your bank will not allow withdrawals in Cuba. There are two currencies in Cuba: CUC and Moneda Nacional/Cuban Peso. CUC is for us tourists and equates to 1:1 on the US dollar. The Cuban Peso is the equivalent of about 25 cents. On the US side, you cannot exchange for CUC or Cuban Pesos. You’ll have to convert upon landing in the Havana airport. Additionally, the US dollar conversion is subject to a 10% conversion fee, so if you can bring Euros or Canadian dollars, I highly recommend it. (I did not do this and lost some money in the process.) Don’t convert all of your money at once, but convert as you go. There are lots of places to convert money, with hotels probably being your best bet.
5. When someone offers you a sip, take it: I was lucky enough to travel with someone who has been to Cuba many times and has Cuban friends. If you’re standing outside and socializing, someone may pass you an open rum box. Take a sip, pass it on.
6. Ride in a Taxi Colectivo: Taxi Colectivos are those 1950s-style cars we see in photos of Cuba. Generally running 5-10 CUC, this is a don’t miss experience. We rode in a few, going back and forth from where we stayed in Vedado to Old Havana. The most memorable ride was with David. After a few mojitos, we were heading back to the Casa and got in his taxi. David drove like a madman, steering with his foot, dancing to Cuban salsa and laughing the whole time. He kept trying to race other taxis and would yell at pedestrians. He told me he loved me and proposed marriage. Sorry BF, I’m engaged to David now.
7. Brush up on your Spanish: As I’ve talked about before, I’m trying to learn Spanish. According to DuoLingo, I’m 30% fluent. That 30% was not enough. While you can get around using English, it’s not only polite to use Spanish in Cuba, it’s also easier. Although my Spanish improved exponentially, I spent the majority of the trip relying on the Spanish speakers in our group. Next time, Cuba, I’m coming prepared.
8. Prep your sweet tooth: Cuba is the land of sugar. Sugar is a primary food group and you’ll be hard-pressed to find spicy food. Get ready for delicious desserts!
9. Keep your mind open: As an American, I’ve grown up in a Democracy First, Best, and Always culture. It can be jarring to talk with Cubans who don’t agree. There are signs praising Fidel everywhere and communism is a large part of Cuban culture. Resist the impulse to get into a spirited argument. Listen to what people have to say, and if you dissent, do so respectfully.
10. Don’t pet the street dogs: Or do. Whatever you want. Just wash your hands.
Beer Towers and Cigars in Plaza Vieja – In Old Havana, there is a plaza with a central fountain called Plaza Vieja. There is an outdoor bar where you can order light or dark beer served in a tower. Each tower probably holds about 12 beers, so bring some friends. One of my favorite afternoons was spent sitting outdoors, drinking beer, and having a cigar.
Viñales – Head to Western Cuba to this beautiful town. Viñales is set against the mountains, so if you’re into outdoorsy stuff or just like cute mountain-y towns, go here.
Los Naranjos – We visited this restaurant bar on our last night in Cuba. It’s on the pricey side, but this mansion-turned-restaurant is breathtaking and makes a mean mojito.
Malecón – I already mentioned this, but walk along the Malecón. The sunset along this stretch of sea was designed to fall in love and feel some feelings.
Hotel Presidente – So, you need your WiFi fix. We sat outside the Hotel Presidente more often than I would like to admit, sipping on mojitos and rage-reading US news. This spot also has live bands play in the evening.
Museum of Fine Arts – Cuba has a rich artistic history and artists are revered. Go with someone who knows what they’re talking about and walk through Cuba’s history through paintings.
Sugar Mill – If you are traveling with an educational group, try to see the inner workings of a sugar mill. I can now say that I stood next to a small mountain of brown sugar.
Havana Club Rum Museum – To be fair, my favorite part of this tour was the gift shop afterwards. However, the history of rum is interesting and this is definitely a great stop on your tour.
Bar Efe – We spent a few nights in this restaurant/bar-turned-nightclub. You could lift this bar and drop it in Brooklyn, and it would be right at home.
Ropa Vieja – Eat this. Seriously, it will change your life. Spanish for “Old Clothes”, Ropa Vieja is a signature dish (primarily in more expensive restaurants), made of shredded beef and vegetables. I’m hungry just thinking about it.
Beach! – Go to the beach. Dip your toes in the Caribbean or the Gulf. Even in the winter, it feels like the coziest bath water.
Hasta luego, Cuba! I’ll be back someday!
Total Countries Visited: 18
6. Antigua and Barbuda
22. Bosnia and Herzegovina
27. Burkina Faso
Canada34. Cabo Verde
35. Central African Republic
41. Democratic Republic of Congo
42. Republic of Congo
43. Costa Rica
44. Cote d’Ivoire
48. Czech Republic
52. Dominican Republic
55. El Salvador
56. Equatorial Guinea
110. Marshall Islands
126. New Zealand
130. North Korea
137. Papua New Guinea
147. Saint Kitts and Nevis
148. Saint Lucia
149. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
151. San Marino
152. Sao Tome and Principe
153. Saudi Arabia
157. Sierra Leone
161. Solomon Islands
South Africa164. South Korea
165. South Sudan
167. Sri Lanka
181. Trinidad and Tobago
188. United Arab Emiriates
United States of America
My feet are starting to itch again! Where to next?!