I wanted to be surprised, to see something I couldn’t find with a few clicks. To experience a culture I knew nothing about. I travel to be a part of something unexpected, to see a completely new place, and I fell in love with Havana Cuba.
We stared in Cancun and flew 45 minutes to Havana where we immediately changed $1000 Euro’s for $1000 CUC (1 to 1 rate) the Cuban currency used by foreigners. Basically every 1 CUC equals about $1.4, but that is completely depenednt on the USD Euro exchagne rate. I had arranged for a stay at a Casa Particular, thanks to recent changes allowing Cubans to rent rooms to foreigners, this is a fantastic option for several reasons.
- You are staying with locals: Most will cook meals and help with travel arrangements.
- The rooms are really nice: they have to pass government inspection so they are clean and well appointed. Ours had a balcony, AC, stocked mini fridge and private bath, it overlooked a taxi path so we could watch classic cars all afternoon.
- Price: as low as 15CUC and up to 40CUC for entire apartments. Government hotels can be 100CUC to 400CUC and may not be as nice.
- Let them arrange for transportation in advance: our casa did this for us and they pick you up at the airport with a sign and your name and deliver you to your Casa’s door. In addition the government asks where you are staying before they let you out of the airport, so it’s much better to know where you are going.
On our first night we were overwhelmed with Havana, it looked like the world put a large glass bubble over the island in 1960 and there hasn’t been a fresh coat of paint since. In parts it looks like a city in the middle of a war; crumbling buildings, no street lights, impassible roads and dark alleyways. But it’s safe, really safe; everyone makes a big point of telling you how safe it is. They take national pride in it; maybe they believe that outside of the Cuba’s island bubble people live in constant fear of crime and violence.
We stayed in the Centro Neighborhood not too far from the Melecon (waterfront main drag) and only a block off the Aveneda Del Prado (main street from Melecon to capitol building) and both are filled with artist on weekends and locals all day/night. It’s rundown, busy and at first a little scary, but after 3 days (and every Cuban we talked to tell us how safe it is) we relaxed and enjoyed the rundown dark local Havana.
Most foreigners stay in the newly reconditioned Viejo neighborhood, yes that means old town, but in the past 10 years they have spent a lot of money bringing this area back to its glory days. Now old town looks very new.
Viejo has a lot of restaurants, famous bars like the Flamingo where Hemingway drank daiquiris, and beautiful hotels. Bring your CUC’s, it’s expensive by Cuban standards and we spent more than budgeted when we ate/drank in Viejo. You will find everything you need for a great vacation in Viejo, all the comforts of home, the only exchange bank outside of the airport, and plenty of Cigars, Rum and souvenirs.
You will want to ride in one of the iconic 1950’s American cars, and you really have to, but take your time and choose wisely. The nicest cars charge a premium and we spent 30CUC on a 2 hour tour in a convertible Ford Thunderbird. Then spend 5 CUC for a 20 minute ride in an older less fancy Buick to a restaurant in Mira Mar every guide book recommends, El Ajibe.
Al Ajibe is famous for Chicken in Orange Sauce served with heavenly black-beans and rice. The restaurant has large open-air dining room with enough tables to fit several tour-buses of foreigners. While the ambiance lacks real Cuban feel the food was delicious and if you didn’t get enough they offers second helpings. At 10CUC per person the chicken was memorable but right in the middle of the beaten path.
I didn’t know what to expect from Cuban cuisine; this is a country that went hungry for a decade after all, and has only recently allowed farmers grow whatever they want/need. Just like hotels there are government owned restaurants that have full menus, bars, waiters and almost any food you could possibly crave but few Cuban’s could afford to eat there. Then there are family restaurants, they don’t have flashy buildings and the menu is limited but locals are charged in Peso’s so supposedly they can eat there too. I had read about several popular home restaurants but since they have no signage, I couldn’t find them in the 4 days we were there. Next time.
We had one amazing meal at El Temple in Viejo, the chief would probably earn a Michelin start or 2 anywhere else. This colonial style Cuban restaurant was a complete formal dining experience featuring excellent service, wine list and out-of-this-world-good seafood. We enjoyed daiquiris, wine and a three course meal which started with the most amazing civiche I’ve ever had and ended in flawlessly executed profiteroles. This one meal set us back over 100CUC but I would still go back.
Next time I will bring more money for food, art, tipping, and drinking.