I had a vacation planned for the east coast for two weddings and decided while I was there to add Cuba to my list. I convinced my best friend and fellow blogger, Alex Caraciolo, to come with me (our plus ones tagged along as well 😉 …thanks for the photos boys! xx)
Things To Know Before You Go:
We booked our tickets before Trump announced changes for travel to Cuba in June 2017. While you can no longer travel under the People to People category as an individual, you can travel independently under 11 other categories, including Support for the Cuban People.
When you book your ticket, the airline you’re traveling with will ask you to select what category your visa falls under (see above). We were able to pick up our visas for $50 at the airport prior to departure, but you’ll have to research which airline you’re flying with to determine if you can pick up your visa at the gate or have it mailed to you.
It is advised to have an itinerary with the activities you plan to do as well as a few tours booked, depending on your visa category. Alex created one, but nobody checked it, and getting our visa was pretty seamless. However, I would adhere to the advice, especially as President Trumps regulations go into effect.
The peak season to travel to Cuba is December-March. We went in September, which is hurricane season, and we missed hurricane Irma by a few days. Fair warning, flights are probably pretty cheap but it is HOT & HUMID during this month. You will sweat through every piece of clothing you own.
CASH MONEY: Credit & debit cards issued by American banks still don’t work in Cuba. So a trip to the island involves bringing lots of cash moneyyyyy. We spent about $40-60 per day, per person. To save some cash, convert your American dollars to Canadian or Euros BEFORE YOU LEAVE THE STATES!! You can convert American dollars, but there’s a 10% surcharge in Cuba to do so.
Cuba has two different currencies. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is the “tourist” currency. The Cuban Peso (CUP) is what locals use, and worth a lot less. So when you exchange money as a tourist, you’ll receive CUC.
If you’re addicted to your cell phone, be well advised that Wi-Fi is a hassle to get. You have to purchase a Wi-Fi card and go to a Wi-Fi designated area to connect. I don’t have much to add to that as we didn’t even bother to try to connect. We navigated using the maps.me app, which uses GPS to navigate offline.
If you do not speak Spanish, I would imagine the experience would be quite different. Luckily we had Alex and Patrick, who are both fluent, to guide us and interpret for us. I can’t say that my 4 years of high school Spanish did me much good, but I am certainly appreciative of having travel companions who could speak the native language of the country we were visiting.
Accommodations in Cuba
We wanted to squeeze in as much as possible while exploring all Cuba has to offer, so we decided on a few nights in Old Havana and a few nights in Trinidad.
You’ll definitely be able to find some hotels in the main cities (Havana, Trinidad, Varadero), but the way to go is through casas particulares, which is similar to a homestay. Since the casas particulares aren’t available on the internet, you would normally have to walk around and ask for them in the city. However, now that AirBnB is available, it includes most of the casa particulares, and our hosts provided breakfast, dinners, and activities for us during our stay.
We stayed at the following AirBnB’s and I highly recommend both. Our hosts were amazing!!
Two Days in Havana
We arrived in Havana from NYC around 2pm in the afternoon. Usually, I’m pretty prepared for trips and have a list of things I want to do, with an allotted amount of time to do each thing. However, this trip we kind of winged it. We had a few recommendations from friends and read some blog posts about what to see but overall we decided to walk around and go with the flow.
After we checked into our AirBnB, we walked towards the Plaza Vieja in search of a mojito and a Cuban sandwich. We successfully found both at Cerveceria Plaza Vieja, (but I would recommend Café Bohemia next door for future ventures).
After a few rounds of drinks, we walked along Malecon, which was closed down to vehicles due to the hurricane damage.
Once we satisfied our exploration of the city for the day, we headed back towards the Plaza to grab dinner. We darted to the first restaurant with live music and settled in for more drinks and bites.
Six miles and numerous drinks proved to be quite tiring for the first part of our day, so around 10pm we called it a night and headed back to our AirBnB to get some sleep.
We woke up lazily around 9am and Pat had gone out to the market and brought back delicious coffee from Café Bohemia along with fresh rolls and avocado.
After breakfast, we decided to check out the Museo de la Revolución (Museum of the Revolution) as our curiosity of the country was piqued since our arrival. It cost 8 CUC to enter and we spent the better half of our morning learning about how Fidel came to power. It was definitely an eye opener, and gave insight to a perspective most American’s aren’t exposed to.
That being said, the museum was pretty heavy and we decided to relax and treat ourselves to a bit of Cuban luxury for the remainder of the afternoon. Pat’s friend recommended a cigar shop outside of Old Havana, so we took our first old American taxi to Club Havana. The cigar room had AC, which was a blessing in itself, but it also had a charming feel with large leather chairs, a small bar in the corner, and the endless glass cases of cigars ranging from $1-$2,000 cigars.
We browsed the selection and purchased a few souvenirs, as well as a couple personal cigars for our trip. Then we went to the connecting restaurant where we indulged in the best cuba libres of the trip and a large meal of pollo asado cubano (all for the right price of $6 CUC per person).
After our late lunch we returned to the cigar room and had a just fewww more cuba libres with our first Cuban cigar of the trip.
Once we were fully relaxed, it was about 4pm. We decided to go back to our AirBnB to have even more rum /get ready for a late night on the town.
Around 9pm we headed out and the city was a ghost town! To be fair, it was a Monday night, but the night before was bustling til 3am! We attempted a few bars that proved to be empty, and then attempted a few restaurants that were even more empty. With defeat, we headed back to our AirBnB and ate the left over rolls and avocado from breakfast as our dinner. It was a hilarious experience to say the least!
Three Days in Trinidad
Prior to our trip, we were debating between Trinidad and Vinales. We ultimately decided that while both would be worthwhile, we preferred to be by the sea, so we booked our trip four hours south of Havana to Trinidad.
Our old American car ,arranged through Best Cuba Guide, arrived at 9am to take us to Trinidad. About 1.5 hours into our road trip, the car broke down in the middle of nowhere. We seized the opportunity to take this poor broken down car and turn it into a photoshoot. Warning: the pictures make it look a lot more fun than it was. We were stuck in the suffocating heat for almost 2 hours, but we kept our spirits up and acknowledged that it definitely made an authentic experience.
Once our second old American taxi got to us we were ecstatic. We finally arrived at our second destination in Trinidad and no sooner had we stepped in the door our host, Yoel. was ushering us out to a restaurant. We went to a rooftop about a block and a half from where we were staying and we were introduced to the infamous canchánchara.
I could dedicate an entire post to this drink itself. It is the local African/Cuban drink in Trinidad and comes in these adorable clay mugs. The drink consists of raw white rum, honey, lime juice, and a splash of soda water. I think I had 3 of them within the first 15 minutes.
The entire feel of Trinidad’s quaint colonial town was completely different than Havana. We wandered down to the town square where we found a little market of handmade souvenirs, and another canchánchara bar. We heard music playing down the street and floated in that direction, letting the rum carry us most of the way.
The music & the rum led us to an enchanting bar patio where we found our first band of the day. We listened to them play until they literally left the stage. Alex asked the band where the night life was and they directed us to El Rincon De La Salsa. We ended up there ’til about midnight and somehow snagged private salsa lessons for the following day from one of the waiters.
Our host, Yoel, offered to make us breakfast for a mere 5 CUC and as he is a chef, we definitely took him up on the offer. He got to our casa around 8:30 am and we woke up to a feast of fruit, eggs, toasted bread, a breakfast sandwich, and assorted baked goods with coffee.
After we stuffed ourselves, our host also provided door service for our next adventure: Horseback riding to a the El Pilón waterfall in the Valley of the Sugar Mills
DISCLAIMER: while the horseback riding was an experience and the waterfall was incredible, I don’t necessarily recommend doing a tour. In most underdeveloped countries, animal rights are not protected. We didn’t witness any abuse of the animals or see any immediate signs of mistreatment, but there were a couple of instances where we felt unsure if we were doing the right thing. Granted, we only rode the horse (and that isn’t cruel) but we don’t know how the animals were trained/nourished/etc. Just a word of advice from one animal lover to the next.
We arrived at the waterfall and it was truly beautiful and crystal clear. We spent 30 minutes or so swimming in the aqua pools before taking the 1.5 hour ride back to the casa.
When we got back, Yoel asked if we would like him to prepare a dinner for us, and after experiencing the delicious breakfast we eagerly said yes. We quickly showered and headed to our 5pm salsa lesson at El Rincon.
Our salsa lesson was incredible! We had a few canchánchara‘s to warm us up and an hour and a half later we were a little less gringo than when we walked through the door.
In case you’re wondering, EVERYONE in Cuba has rhythm, and EVERYONE can salsa. So before you decide to enter the country, I advise you oil your hips prior.
After our salsa lesson, we went to Casa de la Música. for a mojito before heading back to our casa for dinner.
As soon as we walked in, our nostrils were infused with garlic, butter, and other decadent smells. What followed the smells did NOT disappoint the taste buds.
Yoel created a meal for royalty. We had pescado in a garlic butter lime sauce, red rice and beans, avocado, and a delicious garlic butter creama to drizzle on top of everything. Or as Pat did, eat it like soup right out of the bowl. This meal was SO fantastic that Al & I went into an immediate food coma. So much for going out and practicing our salsa in the club that night…
Day Three: Trinidad to Havana
Our last morning in Trinidad, we decided to wake up early and go to Playa Ancon. Yoel also arranged a taxi for pick up at our casa at 8:30 am so we would have a few hours of the morning sun at the beach before we left to go back to Havana.
When we arrived the beach was completely empty, so we nestled ourselves under a palm tree and took a quick dip to cool off every few minutes or so.
I read about the snorkeling in Cuba being amazing, but we didn’t have enough time to book a tour (definitely will cover that on the next trip!)
I wouldn’t say the beach we went to was the most beautiful beach I’ve been to (but I am biased from living in Hawaii). However, it was the closest beach to Trinidad and definitely qualified for some R&R.
At noon, our taxi arrived to take us back to Havana. We made the four hour trek back without any problems and became amigos with our driver, who also arranged to pick us up the next morning and take us to the airport.
We checked into our final AirBnB, which was next to the capital, and we were greeted with ice cold Cuba Libre’s from our host. She also offered to make us breakfast the following morning, to which we undoubtedly accepted.
We had our last meal at a fancy restaurant where we also guzzled down two bottles of wine. After dinner we wanted to go to a bar our friend, Sameea, recommended called Fabrica De Arte, but once we got there we were told that it was closed for renovations through end of October. Instead, we went to El Cocinero and had more wine and the best espresso martini of my life. Although it wasn’t the bar we intended, it was a hip, cool bar unlike any we had gone in Old Havana.
We went back towards Old Havana after finishing our drinks and ended up at ROMA, one of Cuba’s up and coming bars. It is located in an apartment building, on the balcony, amongst other apartments (who apparently don’t mind the noise til 3am).
There was a DJ who I remember played all of Earth Wind & Fire and we grooved til the wee hours of the morning.
The grooving and the rum proved to make a head-throbbing journey home the following morning. We ate what we could from our amazing breakfast and met our taxi driver at 1030 am below our casa. He was so generous and brought us each two Cuban cigars as departing gifts.
We got on our 3 hour flight back to NYC and left one of the most interesting countries I’ve ever visited. It was incredible to be so close to a place that seemed so far away.
This was hands down one of the best trips of my life. From the people to the food, Cuba is unique in it’s culture and a captivating country. I sincerely hope this will not be my last visit and my only regret is that I didn’t have more time.
Feel free to drop a comment or contact me for more details of our trip!