Grab your wine, coffee, henny, whatever you prefer–this is going to be a detailed account of my trip to Cuba. I hope you find it helpful if Cuba is a place you hope to visit.
Anyone who knows me knows that Cuba is the one place I’ve wanted to go all of my life. It’s been a serious obsession. Such that some of my Latino friends from undergrad gave me a Cuban name: Talia. How fitting? I’ve always said that I was Cuban in a past life in a semi-joking manner.
You would have to live under a rock to not know about the over half-century embargo against Cuba by the United States which resulted in severe travel restrictions. Despite these restrictions, it has been fairly easy to get to Cuba but you can read more about that here.
Why the wait?
Having said that you might be wondering why I waited so long to go. Well, I could have gone using a Jamaican passport or through another country with a US passport, but I don’t know too many people who are ’bout that life’ and I also don’t solo travel.
Over the last two years President Obama has taken steps to relax the strained relationship between the USA and Cuba which has resulted in:
- ‘Unlimited’ liquor and cigars
- No harassment/questioning about US citizens visiting
- Many USA airlines establishing service to Cuba
- USA cell phone companies extending coverage to Cuba (although generally expensive and not included in any international plans/coverage)
As soon as I saw American Airlines offer service to Havana from Baltimore starting at $274 RT, I booked. I’ve always wanted to do New Year’s Eve abroad and this was my chance. The next day Delta Airlines came out with a matching fare from Baltimore to Havana. Since I hate flying Delta less than I hate flying American, I canceled my flight and rebooked with Delta for $304 RT for 12/30-1/3.
I kept this pretty quiet simply because Cuba has always been my number 1 and didn’t want to invite anyone who could jeopardize my first experience there. After sharing with a selected few friends, four booked for the same dates.
Traveling to Cuba
The morning of December 3oth I arrived in time for my 8 am flight and zipped through security thanks to my Global Entry status, and you can read more about that here.
We arrived in Atlanta around 10 am with about a 1 hr layover in which we grabbed food on the way to the international wing for our flight to Cuba. Once at the gate, we filled out our paperwork, received our visas, and the gate attendants even blessed us with a few drink vouchers. We were ready for Cuba!
I should mention that I’ve been flying since I was old enough to fly and I’ve never been scared to fly. On the way to the airport in Baltimore, I had this sick feeling in my stomach that I just couldn’t explain. Eventually, it went away prior to landing in Atlanta, but on the flight from Atlanta to Cuba, it came back and even stronger. But more on this later. By the time we started our dissent into Cuba, I felt like I would throw up.
I had a margarita during the flight from Havana to Cuba, it was delish!
Arriving in Cuba
Upon arriving in Cuba we went through customs where we take a picture and submit our passports and visas. They do ask if you would like your passport stamped. After that, you put your luggage through the scanner and walk through a metal detector. Once you’ve done all of that you go on to baggage claim if you checked luggage, however, we didn’t. We heard that there is often a long wait at baggage claim –to the tune of 2-3 hours. #teamcarryon
The other girls we were meeting up with were to arrive before us via Southwest in another terminal so we agreed to meet in Terminal 3 (where we arrived). Here is where things fell apart largely due to not being able to communicate which each other. We were able to confirm their flight landed but we couldn’t find them. Long story short it took us almost 2 hours to find each other. The moral of this story is if your group is arriving separately, agree on a meeting area and have a contingency plan should situations change, such as a delayed flight. Most importantly, stick to your agreed upon plans, don’t deviate.
Another thing worth mentioning is that unlike most airports, the terminals at the airport in Havana are not in the same building and are not walking distance from each other.
Right outside of terminal 3 (where Delta, Spirit, Jet Blue, Interjet operate from) there are two money change places on either side of the door. I changed 100 Euros while we waited for our friends here so I’d have enough for the taxi and perhaps dinner if needed. There are places to change money in Havana where you can get better rates than the airport.
There are plenty of taxis right outside the terminal and they run a pretty efficient process. We got a taxi and negotiated from 40 CUC to 30 CUC to take the 4 of us to our Airbnb that was about 25 minutes from the airport.
Our Airbnb was located in the Vedado area, walking distance from the Malecon, a money change establishment, restaurants, and a little convenience store. It was a two bedroom, two bathroom apartment (not including the rooms the owners occupied) on the third floor, with a big den and living room. Our bathrooms were inside the bedrooms which provided an added convenience and layer of privacy. It was also very affordable at around $60 per person for the entire length of our stay.
Although we thought we were renting the entire apartment, having the owners living there seems to be a common practice in Cuban Airbnb’s that ended up being to our benefit as they would often make recommendations for places to go and things to do. Another benefit to this is hosts are often more successful at arranging drivers for your trips to other cities at a much better rate than you would be able to do on your own.
Friday evening we decided to have dinner at a nearby restaurant that happened to be one of the ones we researched named La Catedral. Oh my word! The food and drinks there are amazing and cheap.
The unassuming restaurant is positioned on a quaint little street in the Vedado of Havana, on Calle 8 between Calzada and 5ta. It is frequented by the locals, which according to our “host mother” is as good a sign as any that the food is good.
My friend and I decided to share plates to we could try more than one dish. I ordered the Chilindron de Chivo (Lamb) with green plantain chips and white rice. It cost 5.70 CUC. It was a plate of delicious, tender meats.
She ordered one of the house specials for the night, langosta a la plancha, or grilled lobster. It was 8.95 CUC. And fresh, tender meats. It was so good.
Remember I told you about the mojitos? La Catedral had the BEST mojitos we had the entire time we were in Cuba, and we drank a lot of mojitos. They were also the cheapest. This is a mojito de piña, or a pineapple mojito. 1.70 CUC, can you say dirt cheap?
We decided to try the cheesecake which was also pretty good, not sure what the topping was, maybe some kind of strawberry situation but the cheesecake was delicious.
As you may have noticed by now, I am about transparency and wholeheartedly believe seeing is believing. Dinner for 4, appetizers, water ( bottled water), mojitos (x 10), cheesecake, and to-go boxes, ALL for a whopping 69.69 including the service job. Top that.
Saturday morning we walked over to the convenience store and bought liquor and juice, then we walked a few blocks down to the money change place to change over more Euros.
We had hoped to find breakfast, but somewhat failed in that endeavor, tried to go back to La Catedral but it was closed for the holiday. We settled for a little 24-hour corner spot that had freshly made smoothies, pizzas, and other entrees. The food was decent. But the entertainment. I got the sense this place was family owned, but a couple of locals who were sitting in the corner chatting over pizza broke out in song and started playing the drums with an empty bucket. In fact, he sang many songs. And everyone who worked there from the cooks to the lady taking the orders sang and clapped along. It wasn’t even noon yet, but this was a full demonstration of the spirit and culture of the Cuban people.
Later on, we set out to check out a restaurant my friend researched prior to the trip called 304 O’Riley. The name is the address. Unfortunately, it too was closed. As we would later realize New Years is kind of a big thing in Cuba. Many places are closed at any point between the 30-3rd. Because of this we ended up just walking into a nearby restaurant–big mistake. The food wasn’t terrible, but it was nothing like the caliber of food we had before. I’ll also mention that it didn’t seem like many Cubans (if any at all) were eating there–red flag. However, the live music there was amazing! Most restaurants seemed to have some form of live music, really talented singers and musicians of all ages.
Afterwards, we just walked around the area, which is filled which shops, souvenirs, street food, bars, just about anything you can imagine.
I found a Churro stand, 50 CENTS…and they were delicious!
We walked around the area until nightfall, took pictures, visited bars, listened to live music, drank, laughed, and made a series of bad–but hilarious–decisions before becoming famished. Many places were full or required reservations so a local suggested a little dive bar called Cafe Wanda’s Bar. It had great drinks, food, and was also cheap! We met a few other travelers there and hung out and chatted a bit before heading home to bring in the new year.
I generally don’t care for mint, but this mint daiquiri was amazing! If you make it to Cafe Wanda’s Bar which is basically perpendicular to Floridita, make sure you try one!
We went to a restaurant/club called 1830 for their New Years celebration, it is on the Malecon, about a 10-minute walk from our Airbnb and a 5 CUC/125 CUP cover charge. People were in a great mood and ready to dance the night away. There was a dance group who performed before the countdown, and then some popular artists performed afterward. It was a great atmosphere–lots of salsa dancing, shots, hugs, and more bad–but funny–decisions.
Sunday — Varadero, Cuba
Sunday we set out for Varadero, and were ready by 8:30 am to meet our driver that was arranged through a friend’s Airbnb for 130 CUC total for the 5. We set out on the roughly 2-hour ride (in a classic car) to the tourist town which is a very peaceful and scenic drive.
We skipped breakfast so the first order of business was securing food upon arrival. The night before we met two American girls who had just returned from a few days in Varadero and highly recommended a restaurant called Super Machi on Calle 15 (the beach side). They said they ate there every day and the food was great and cheap. Unfortunately, it was closed that day :(.
We asked around to find somewhere open to eat at settled at a spot close to Calle 15. The food was decent, not bad but nothing to rave about. It was also not expensive but not as cheap as other places. The one glaring negative was that we waited a long while for our food and it seemed like other customers did not.
I had the ‘barbecue’ chicken and as you can see it doesn’t look barbecued, and it didn’t taste like it either. This seemed more like baked chicken and for the price (6 CUC), it was decent.
Again, for the sake of transparency here is our table’s receipt. Keep in mind the total was 66 CUC for entrees, water, and drinks for 5 people. That’s an average of roughly 13 bucks per person, not bad at all.
After brunch, it was beach time!
Understand when I tell you the beach in Varadero is one of the best beaches I have ever been to — and I’ve been to a lot of beaches. If not the best it is easily in the top 3. The water is so unbelievably clear (for a long distance), and it is very clean and calm. The only thing that would have made our time at the beach better would have been having more time in it.
We planned to leave the beach around 4:30 so that we could explore the craft market across the street for souvenirs and art before heading back to Havana. We wanted to head back to Havana while there was still daylight because there are some amazing views along the drive where we wanted to stop and take pictures. Unfortunately, we ended up running a little behind schedule so we didn’t stop for pictures, but there is always next time. And there will be a next time.
Look how far we are from the shore and you can still see our legs and feet through the water! If you love a good beach, definitely make plans to go to Varadero, you won’t regret it.
A lot of Havana was shut down early in the morning for a rally/march at la Plaza de la Revolucion celebrating 58 years since the revolution. This basically ruined our plans for our day trip to Viñales so instead, we explored Havana more. We went down to revolution plaza and on a recommendation from some AfroCubans we met in the area, made our way to Callejon de Hamel.
Callejón de Hamel is an alley-way that is essentially the living canvas of Salvador Escalona, a Cuban artist/sculptor who focuses on Afro Art. There is art literally everywhere, indoors and outdoors, an explosion of color, culture, and symbolism. Grab a drink–ask for the ‘El Negron’–and walk in the buildings, look up at the ceilings, walk up the steps, there are so many intriguing things everywhere. While there, kids were playing along the block, workers were painting and welding new pieces, and we even caught the artist, Salvador walking around.
Some Afro-Cuban women were in some traditional outfits playing music and sharing a dance with tourists. It’s really a magical area that’s a complete nod to African religion (Santería), art, and culture upon Cuban culture–a definite must see.
After exploring Callejon de Hamel we decided to walk to Chinatown to try out a Cuban-Asian fusion restaurant called La Flor de Loto, which was about 15 minutes away. This is another restaurant that is local friendly and apparently popular as there seemed to be a 1.5-hour wait no matter what time you came. There was a healthy crowd waiting outside the restaurant at all times in addition to the people actually sitting in the waiting area. We killed that time around the block people watching and playing heads up on a street corner.
And boy was it worth the wait!!! Not only was the food cheap, it was delicious, and the portion sizes were MASSIVE.
This pineapple daiquiri was life!!
This chicken appetizer was so good!
Doesn’t this look like a whole fried bird? Looks delicious though.
The hardest thing about eating at Flor de Loto was deciding what you wanted to eat because their menu is about as long as a CVS receipt. I got the fish chow mein, it was good but I was dreaming about the shrimp chow mein I couldn’t get because they ran out of shrimp by the time we were seated. Everyone really enjoyed dinner, it was so worth the long wait.
Keeping with the visibility and receipts, here is our bill for a table of 5 at Flor de Loto. 81 CUC for drinks, appetizers, and entrees for 5 people is not bad at all!
We wanted to go out to salsa on our last night after dinner. We walked to Fabrica de Arte, but like so many other things that weekend, it was closed!
We went back down to O’ Reily street to get the rest of the souvenirs we wanted before heading to the airport. You can get great souvenirs for cheap down in this area. More churros.
The day we went to revolution plaza some of us took a taxi and some walked over. We asked if our taxi driver would come pick us up on Tuesday morning to take us to the airport. Would you believe this man actually showed up at our place promptly at 11:30 Tuesday without a phone call, text, or email? True story.
We ended up buying our cigars and liquor at the airport. Then we met Stan (Martin’s boss at the radio station) at our gate.
Sum it Up: Cuba in a Nutshell
So that was our trip. As lackluster as it may have sounded due to the number of things that ended up being closed, we still had fun, and still were able to really experience Cuban culture, and connect with the people.
Towards the beginning of this recount, I spoke about several moments of overwhelming physical sickness while traveling to Cuba. It was real and still difficult to explain in many aspects. You know that feeling Black people often mention the first time they go to Africa? That feeling of home? Pilgrimage?
As a person of African descent, that feeling of stepping foot anywhere in Africa for the first time is magnetic and very real. I remember it vividly as my first time going to Africa was in October 2016.
Booking the flight to Cuba, descending into Cuba, landing in Cuba, breathing ‘Cuban’ air, stepping on Cuban soil, for me was that magnetic, home going feeling times 10. It is something I will never ever forget.
If I had to describe Cuba for someone, I’d say it’s full of charm, art and culture, spirit, beautiful architecture, and a very proud and resilient people. The Cuban people are incredibly sweet and friendly, proud of their country and culture, and based on my experience always willing to help.
If and when the relationship between Cuba and the United States thaws such that travel for tourism is permitted I hope it doesn’t change what is unique and charming about this Caribbean nation.
There’s so much to see and do that I honestly believe Cuba is a country that needs several visits where you can dedicate a few days in different places. Overall, I am happy to have finally made it to the country I’ve been dreaming about all of my life. I’ve been struggling with the words to truly describe what it was like and what it meant to me. But one thing I do know is I cannot wait to return.
Have you been to Cuba? What was your favorite part? If you haven’t been and want to go, what are you most looking forward to? Comment down below!