Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Cuba in Review (Two Americans go to Havana, Fall 2017)

Cuba defied my expectations. I am not one to have many expectations before going somewhere when travelling; I don’t do a ton of research ahead of time and I dive in head first. With Cuba, this approach would be more of a risk because there is minimal access to the internet. Anything I needed to know, I wanted to know ahead of time (including how to get in and out of the country, my biggest worry). Here is what I learned from our trip!

How Cuba?
This Summer, there was supposedly going to be a tightening of the entrance to Cuba from the US. I wanted to go before all the loopholes closed! To go, you need to comply with one of twelve reasons opened up during the Obama administration. As of October 2017, I was able to easily travel to Cuba, and more importantly, make it home to the US.

I chose to go under “Support for the Cuban People”. We made toiletry/first aid kits and tried to only use private restaurants (Paladars) and transportation. We stayed in an Airbnb so we could book ahead but everywhere you look is a Casa Particular sign if you want to wing it once you arrive.

Coming home through US Customs they asked me “Where were you?”, “How long were you there?”, “Why were you there?”, and “Did you bring anything back with you?”. We brought home some knick-knacks, cigars (which I think I bought off the black market and is a funny story), and some rum from the Duty Free in the Havana Airport. I consider this an easy and successful entrance into the country.

  • Do your research ahead of time or be willing to play it all by ear. I got most of my information from Pinterest but also took a library copy of Lonely Planet Cuba with me for on the ground research.
  • There is a roundtrip beach bus (HabanaBusTour T-3) that leaves every 40 minutes 9am-6pm from the Parque Central that only costs 5CUC. Do this often (we did it on three separate days). It’s some of the cheapest transportation you’ll find and it runs like clockwork. The beaches in Playa del Este (Santa Maria, Miramar) have palm trees and beautiful teal water. We did this and skipped an excursion to Veradero, a resorty town. There are also pools at each hotel that seem very nice. Some are rooftop, Hotel Parque Central for example, and are free to go up and look at the views. Some charge you to swim though. I read that the Hotel Presidente (by our casa) charged 4CUC an hour or something like that so we beached instead for about the same price for an afternoon and the transportation. When in Cuba!

  • Taxis are expensive. This is one of their biggest sources of private revenue and they milk it. We stayed in Vedado but a lot of the action is in Old Havana. Everytime we wanted to go in it cost us between 5CUC and 10CUC. I was able to normally get them down to 5CUC. If you are on a budget, I think it would be beneficial to pay the higher room costs in Old Havana and save more on taxis since they add up quickly!
  • Common sense but: the more beat down the car, the cheaper the ride. Those beautiful, colorful, well maintained, classic cars are pricey.

  • I was able to bargain because I am more or less fluent in Spanish. You will have a MUCH easier time if you have a working knowledge of Spanish. English is rare there but for the car and cycletaxi drivers yelling “Taxi? Taxi?” or “Where are you from?” at you. My boyfriend did a few months of DuoLingo before we arrived and while I wouldn’t have left him to fend for himself, it was nice to know that he had some idea of what I was reading or talking about.
  • Hop on/Hop off bus T-1 (same company as the beach bus): This was a nice way to get oriented. It also makes a full loop of the city so we used it as a tour and also as our evening transportation to cut down by one more taxi the day that we purchased the pass. 10CUC each, for purchase on the bus.
  • It is hot and water is important. They sell bottles everywhere and we never had issues with it or safe ice. However, they will try to charge you 1-3CUC for a little 500mL bottle. That’s like three gulps. Forgo this and get the biggest jug you can find so you can fill up at home. We got the 5L bottles two at a time from a hole in the wall on Calle Obispo between Calle Aguacate and Calle Compostela (right next to the Artisan Patio). They were 3CUC a piece and worth the heavy lifting to not have to worry about hydration. This was also the best deal we saw.
  • Try to use the toilet at home as much as possible and carry your own tissues/tp. Have small coins with you when you do go in public as the attendant will want a tip. If you look like a tourist you can get away with using the restrooms in the fancy hotels… just look like you own the place!
  • Excursions: take or leave them. Havana had more than enough to entertain us for a week. We made a day trip to Viñales, the main tobacco growing region. The limestone mountains (mogotes) are cool and look like something out of Jurassic Park or the live action George of the Jungle with Brendan Fraser. We also saw a tobacco farm and watched a cigar being rolled. This was neat and I might have bought them there if I weren’t afraid of bringing them home (they were 10 for 20CUC which is NOTHING). Now that I know there was no issue bringing the cigars in my carry-on, I might have attempted it. We also went through Cueva del Indio, a cave with a river running through it. This was only so-so to this Central Pennsylvanian girl who went to Penn’s Cave every summer growing up. We took a Cubatur bus to Viñales which left from many nearby hotels. This cost us 67CUC each and was worth it considering it covered transportation, a big meal, and entrance into the cave. I’ve heard good things about collective taxis you can organize but that seemed like more work to me.

  • Speaking of carry-ons, the airport in Havana is unorganized. Don’t check bags unless you absolutely have to. We read that you can wait up to two hours to claim your bags. We did just fine with a suitcase and a backpack each and had room for souvenirs once we unloaded our toiletry kits.
  • There’s two types of money, Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs) and Cuban Pesos (CUPs). A neat trick is that the CUCs have buildings/statues on them and the CUPs have people on them. You will use CUCs for nearly everything. CUPs will buy you fruit or street food (ham and cheese on a roll or a little flatbread pizza). *The pic below is me with an avocado I bought in CUP* Make sure that you get the right kind of change and that they don’t short change you. We only had this problem once; we gave a 20 and change came back as if it were only 15 that we had given. We only stood to lose 5CUC but still... I brought it up, again, nice to be able to use Spanish, and he apologized and brought the correct change.

  • Exchange rates: To bring dollars or Euros? I read online that Euros get a better rate. For us, it was not worth exchanging at home to Euros, exchanging in Cuba to CUCs, and then having to exchange back to dollars at home since we came in under budget. There is a set exchange rate for USD. You will get 87CUC for your 100USD everywhere you go (hotels, banks). We figured if we lost any money by not bringing Euros, it was minimal.  
  • Don’t forget to bring as much cash as you will need. Debit/Credit cards from the US are not accepted. It is largely a cash economy. Know your budget. We brought 500USD per person for a week and skimped here and there to stay within budget. If you don’t want to have to worry about a budget, as an American, bring MUCH more than you think you’ll need.
  • One plate of food (main course, oferta or plato fuerte) is enough for two people. We saved a lot of money on food this way and they were accommodating. If you got a pork dish it came with a vegetable, rice, and beans. An oferta (offer) would also get you a Mojito or a coffee and a dessert.

  • Download this app before you go. Do it. Download the Cuba map in particular. This will allow you to have street names and directions offline. It was a lifesaver. It also has some notable restaurants and attractions and often includes a phone number, helpful for making reservations from your casa’s landline.
  • I never felt unsafe in Havana. There is little to no crime. It’s dingey, but safe (it’s all part of the charm). Even at night. Still use common sense though.

Notable places to eat and drink:
Razones (y Motivos): Good platos fuertes and cheap drinks (~2CUC). It was right down the street from our casa so we went there a handful of times. This is the place where we got short changed, but only once. If you want to eat downstairs you probably need a reservation but the terrace bar upstairs, Motivos, was always open to us.

Art Factory Cuba (Fábrica del Arte): This was a fun night out. There’s lots of art and other fun installations. We aren’t really museum-y people (Havana has a museum for EVERYTHING) so this is the only one that we went to and it lived up to the hype. We caught a fashion show and danced for awhile to 80’s music videos. The cafeteria food was meh. There was a cool looking smokestack restaurant (El Cocinero) next door that we didn’t try but heard good things about.

Café Bohemio: This is on the Malecón. They have a nice front porch with water views and great prices. We went there for lunch and had a few mojitos, a Cubano sandwich, and some bruschetta which was a piece of bread with chipped ham, melted cheese, and chopped pickles on top. The food was great but not what I was expecting!

MarAdentro: This was one of my favorite meals. It’s on a side street right behind Cafe Bohemio so we just stumbled upon it. It’s a sleek place that reminded me of my time in Spain. They have a great lunch oferta but we went for their dinner; seafood paella. It was gorgeous and there was soooo much food. We took leftovers and made several more meals out of it. We drank wine and good rum and then had an ice cream cookie sandwich. This place was so good (and close to our casa) that we came back the next night and sat on their swanky porch for a drink. The whole neighborhood’s power went out but we still had a great time! Go there.

SolMar: A bar on the water. We only went in here to escape the rain. We had some cheap beers (1CUC each) and enjoyed the hoppin’ music. Nothing to write home about but nice if you need it.

Los Naranjos: I had had a recommendation to try this. It was definitely their off-season because it was rather empty. It was very luxe inside but we ate outside on the balcony because duh. The daily menu was written on a chalkboard and the waiter, a med student, was seriously impressive bouncing between the tables speaking different languages. I don’t think we did this place justice because it was our last meal and we were trying to use up our CUCs juuuust so. We split a seafood dish and I was underwhelmed. If you have more money to spend and it’s during peak-season this place might be rockin’.

Centro Havana/Chinatown
Esquina de Dragones bar: This is right next to the Chinatown (Barrio del Chino) gateway and across the street from Parque de la Fraternidad. We stopped in there because it had a tree growing out of the courtyard. Remember the cigars I purchased? It all started here. The brother and sister running the bar were very friendly- our 4CUC mojitos (a steep price) included an additional free beer… making them less steep? The siblings introduced us to their friend who took us to a cigar-factory-employee-collective-house right behind the bar. I’m still not sure if this was a terrible idea or a great one. We got a really good deal on Cohiba cigars, the kind Castro smoked. 10 for 50CUC in a nice wooden box. That was honestly the best deal I found so I guess it worked out alright even if it was a little shady. Funny enough the house is marked on… see for yourself!

Old Havana
O’Reilly 304: Super hip, small place with a tapas menu. We thought this place was very fun and had great drinks. We really liked the little empanadas. They also have (banana) chips and salsa at each table that’s very tasty. Make reservations.

El Del Frente: Right across the street from O’Reilly 304 and owned by the same people. It has much of the same menu and the same chips and salsa but it’s on a rooftop. I love a good rooftop. And the drinks are just really fun. I had a great Caipirinha there. Both El Del Frente and O’Reilly 304 will send the ladies home with a beautiful flower too.

Paladar los Mercaderes: I think this place was a little overrated. The food was quite good but expensive ($$$), our most expensive meal in Cuba and we shared everything. Their staff tried to upsell us the whole time. They did have the best piña colada I had though. So maybe go just for that! Everything is farm to table too.

Café Habana: We grabbed a burger and a daiquiri here at 10:30am. That’s the way to start the day! The burger was flavorful and it was well priced. I loved that morning beers, mojitos, and daiquiris are so common in Cuba. Mimosa-shmimosa.

La Imprenta: We loved the look of this little indoor courtyard (which we spied from the balcony of Paladar los Mercaderes) but we tried to go there for lunch and couldn’t. We were there right when they opened at noon but a man said we needed a reservation even though there was no one inside. I kept thinking he was joking. Kind of a rude joke… He wouldn’t let us make a reservation til 3pm. Needless to say we left but it was a bummer because it looked fun. Let me know if you are able to make a reservation and try it!

Bar Rum Rum: They pass out flyers that say happy hour on them. Their price is not as the flyer shows. They told me that they printed too many fliers so they are old but they hand them out anyhow. Don't get me wrong, the drinks were still cheap. They were strong but our piña coladas were only so-so.

Esquina de Cuba: Super trendy place with a nice little balcony. The drinks were tasty and they gave us peanuts for the table. Again, the caller pulled us in with promises of a happy hour. This happy hour was great. The drinks were 2 for 3.50CUC. A nice little place to stop.

Barroco Café: Not being able to go to La Imprenta was a blessing because we wandered and found the most adorable cafe just down Calle Mercaderes. Tiny; seriously two tables and two barstools, tiny. They were so nice and the food was AMAZING. I think I might have to give this the gold star for best meal in Cuba. We had a heaping plateful of beautiful shrimp, perfectly cooked veggies, rice and beans, drinks, and an ice cream sundae. I think they made the ice cream in house and I just about died it was so good. Please, please go here. They deserve it and you deserve it.

That’s all I’ve got! Cuba was fun and I would recommend it though I would say it’s not for the faint of heart and it’s better if you know Spanish. It definitely pushed this experienced traveller out of her comfort zone! But that’s what makes it so enjoyable!