April 5 - 10, 2017
Cuba wasn't super high on our list, but once those travel sanctions were lifted - thanks Obama! - the itch had to be scratched. Cuba felt like forbidden fruit, a mysterious place that is still untouched by bachelorette parties and cruise ships. Curious to explore, and worried that restrictions might some day return, we carved out four days in early April 2017 and headed off to La Habana Vieja.
Passports are required for Cuba, and you'll also need a visa. We flew American Airlines and moments after booking, got two emails from AA: one reminding us that our trip had to fall under one of the twelve travel categories and one giving us the heads up that a company called Cuba Travel Services would be calling us to set up our visas.
Most readers traveling to Cuba will fall under the "educational activities" category, which is what we traveled under. We had no issue making that legitimate: we booked a walking tour, visited a few classic cinemas and had dinner with local filmmakers. We took multiple copies of our itinerary with us in case anyone required it. At the risk of giving false expectations, we literally had zero problems and were asked nothing beyond "What is your reason for travel?" at customs, to which we responded "educational opportunities."
Getting your visa through Cuba Travel Services was easy: I spoke with the agent over the phone, she followed up with an email with a link to the purchase page, and within a week, our visas came via FedEx. At the Miami airport we had to present both documents at the "Cuba Ready" counter outside the gate, and we were all set.
We stayed at the Hotel Ambos Mundos. The location was perfect - right in the heart of Old Havana and a decent breakfast (included) was served every morning on the roof. The rooms had air conditioning (a must) and the shower, though old and small, had excellent water pressure. The biggest downsides to our room was the hard bed, lack of a view and thin walls. We inquired about a number of casa particulars, but none of the ones we selected were available - and the casa particular website rep kept offering us locations we weren't thrilled about, so we went with the hotel for the piece of mind (and our trip was looming). I'd recommend trying, if you can, to book a casa particular. It is supposedly the "way to stay" and if you find one you feel comfortable with, you'll get a more authentic experience.
GO THERE, DO THAT
1. Drinks at El Cochinero, followed by art (and more drinks) at Fábrica de Arte Cubano.
El Cochinero and FAC (right next to each other) seem to be the *hottest spots* in Cuba. Located in the Vedado neighborhood, they feel like what all of Havana *should* feel like in 2017, with more of a contemporary New York City or Chicago vibe.
El Cochinero is a beyond hip, open air rooftop restaurant, where a random but somehow perfect playlist plays (we heard Tori Amos, Bruce Hornsby and the Range, and Prodigy) and the cocktails are strong and plentiful. The food wasn't memorable, but the people watching was spectacular - fashionable tourists, arty headwear, interesting shoes. They do take reservations, but you might want to press your luck and show up. There is a small bar that overlooks the dining area on one side and Vedado on the other, and is a good spot to sip mojitos if you have to wait.
FAC is an enormous old cooking oil plant turned into an arts center, but let's just call it what it is: a club with various art on display. If you like to dance and party all night, you'll be in heaven. If you're an old lady like me, I'd recommend going a little early (it is open on the weekends from 9PM - 3AM) so you can actually walk around the whole space, get a drink relatively quickly and settle into a cool spot outside or in the room with the huge movie screen (they were projecting American music videos - we saw a lot of Kanye in a short period of time). By midnight the crowd was THICK.
You can show up to either of these places wearing jeans and feel comfortable, or wear a Lady Gaga hair bow and fit in.
2. Get a private tour with Fertours2Cuba.
We wanted to get an understanding of the place that, for many years and for many reasons, we previously couldn't have stepped foot in, so we booked a private tour. I'm not a huge tour fan, but this was really enjoyable, and if you can spare a little more money, private is the way to go (it was about $115 total for approximately five hours). Our guide Allen was lovely and gave us the real scoop - history, future, food, language, etc. We got the lay of the land immediately - we did the tour on our first full day - and the excursion included a car ride in a classic 1950s convertible. I thought that would be lam-o, but it was actually a blast. We wandered around Old Havana and he dropped us off for lunch at the restaurant of our choice, and stopped for coffee together. It was essentially 100 degrees that day, and Allen somehow never wilted. It was a "three shower day" as Jack says.
3. Get drinks and tacos at El Dandy.
We had the best tacos of our LIFE there. And the vibe is just great - a little corner bar that serves an impressive menu and really, really good drinks. If you can, grab a table on the corner side by the actual street and watch the world go by as you sip a Cristal (light Cuban beer) and, if the gods are on your side and they are available, order the pulled pork and pulled chicken tacos. You'll never eat a better taco.
4. Walk on the Malecón at sunset.
The Malecón is Havana's Lake Shore Drive (Chicagoans, it is almost exactly the same!) and it is delightful. Head out for your walk at least an hour before the sun actually sets, and you'll be privy to a spectacular sunset. Lots of good people watching - young lovers making out on the wall separating the water from the road, older men fish and lots of professional photographers capturing the magic hour. Beware - the water splashes up on the side and you might get doused (fun, unless you are walking to a nice dinner or wearing white).
5. Get ice cream and enjoy the process at Coppelia Park.
Okay, pay attention to this one. Oh, what I wish I had known!
Coppelia Park is this huge outdoor ice cream place in Vedado, and it has a number of different entrances all around it, which you will probably find easily because there are DOZENS of locals standing in line. Find a line that feels good, and stand in it. And prepare to stand for awhile. This is how it works: security guards (no joke, the one by our line was wearing gold necklaces and smoking a cigar because - on a hot day at the ice cream park, he is truly king) get word from each little seating area how many free seats they have, and then the security guard waves people in: "Cuatro mas! Cinco mas!" and then the people at the front of the line excitedly hurry over.
They *do* have walk-up booths for tourists, with NO line, but trust me that waiting is fun: we were the only tourists in the line and we were surrounded by cute little kids and families who clearly have a weekend tradition. We waited for...40 minutes? Not that long and it was a sunny day, so who can complain.
After that, don't mess it up once you're sitting down: you'll share a table with someone and sit. And wait. And then eventually a waitress will come over and ask you your order. In the line areas, they have a posting of what ice cream they have that day (it may or may not be accurate). Order more than you think you want: dos vanilla, tres chocolate, dos caramel because this ice cream is like FOUR CENTS a scoop, and you've waited so long, right?! Then it arrives with little cookies and malted powder and caramel sauce on it. The ice cream isn't manna from heaven, but it tasted pretty damn good when I ate it. Look around - many families order dozens of dishes, and then immediately scoop the ice cream into containers to take home with them. Our table-mates also ordered an entire dish of the little cookies, which was a baller move because they were really good.
We each only ordered two scoops and I felt like an idiot, but then we just walked up to one of those no-wait booths and each ordered cones, then waltzed along to enjoy the rest of our day.
6. Get the Café Escorial at Café El Escorial.
When traveling, is there anything nicer than taking a load off and sitting in a cafe for a cup of coffee or a sweet treat and people watching? This spot is perfect - situated in a plaza and on the corner, with tables shaded by big umbrellas. Take a seat and order the Café Escorial cold. If you aren't a big coffee drinker or you prefer your drinks hot (I'm not and I do), still get this. It's a mix of cream, whiskey and cinnamon and it is essentially a little tumbler of pure cocaine. So creamy and sweet, it is like drinking a cloud.
7. Listen to Jazz at La Zorro y El Cuervo.
This is *the* jazz club to go to in Havana, though keep in mind that means "for tourists". There seemed to be a handful of locals there, but it was mostly eager European and American folks in the audience. The entertainment was a four-piece Cuban band and they were FEELIN IT that night. It is cheap to go - $10 CUC each and your ticket in includes two cocktails. Prepare to wait outside for a bit (they allow you in in groups, just like Coppelia Park!) and prepare to stand inside until seats become available.
8. Take a beach day in Guanabo.
We packed swimsuits and on our last full day we headed to Guanabo, about 30 minutes away from Havana. Veradero, about two hours from Havana, is the *the* resort beach and supposedly gorgeous, but we wanted something a little more authentic, and closer to home base. We walked to the Plaza de Armas and negotiated a taxi - 20 CUC later we were walking on soft sand. You really can't go wrong if you tell your taxi driver "Guanabo beach, por favor." We set up camp under a coconut tree and read, swam and sunbathed for a few lovely hours (sunscreen, sunscreen!). There were a few groups of Cubans enjoying the beach with us, and after we'd had our fill of sand, we headed down the road to El Picolo for pizza - apparently one of the best pizza spots in all of Cuba. We sipped beers and stuffed ourselves, and then our waitress called her husband, who drove us back to Havana for another easy 20 CUC. Perfection.
9. Get drinks at Hotel Nacional at sunset.
Hotel Nacional is the old-schooliest of hotels in Havana (way out of our price bracket at around $400 a night), and is where dignitaries and celebs stay when they come to Havana. But, you don't have to be a guest there to drink something rum-based on the terrace. We walked through the lobby of the hotel and then made our way outside, snagging a table overlooking the Malecón. Jack smoked his cigar (ew) and we watched the sun go down.
10. Walk everywhere.
There are loads of taxis to be had - you'll get honked at with an offer for a ride everywhere - and we did rely on car transport, but as much as we could, we walked. Through various neighborhoods, along the Malecón, through Guanabo. It felt like the best way to see the city - being able to peer into old abandoned buildings, stopping to take photos of graffiti, kicking a runaway soccer ball back to a group of kids. Choose your most comfortable pair of sandals and set off on foot. It makes your evening (or afternoon) cocktail all the more delicious.
- Good walking shoes. No one is lying when they say the streets of Havana are cobblestone and uneven. High heels won't work here, and I truly don't know if I saw a single pair, even on the most fashionable of women. Wedges and platforms are pushing it, so I suggest a pair of low profile sneakers (you aren't cross training). There wasn't a real need to "fit in" in Cuba - people knew we were Americans (or - one can hope - a cool French couple) from a mile away, and after logging literally 25,000 steps one day, I was happy to be blister free.
- A jumpsuit. You heard me. As a woman of a certain age, I'm always a little shy when it comes to wearing a romper (ARE they flattering? I mean, are they really?) but Cuba felt like the right place to take some chances. This romper from Whit is perfect - and the fun print fits right into the vibe of Havana.
- Interesting pants! I LOVE a unique pant. Show me something high waisted, pleated or cuffed and I'll show you an outfit that just got elevated to something more stylish. With an interesting pant, you can make a basic t-shirt sing.
- Knit utility pants. It was pretty hot during the day, so jeans were out of the question. A few pairs of knit, utility (i.e. not delicate) breathable pants should do the trick.
- Not t-shirt shirts. Don't get me wrong - I LOVE a crisp t-shirt, but when I travel (and I'm not hiking) I like to be a little more polished. A crisp button down or a blouse that won't wilt completely after a few hours in your carry-on are suggested, especially if you are doing some nice dinners or going to museums.
- Sunscreen and sunnies. Don't even play with me: cover your freaking body with sunscreen because the sun is wonderful but also evil and NOTHING is a trip killer like a beat red sunburn (Jack got torched on beach day. He doesn't like to talk about it). And sunnies are just cool as hell and take up nominal room in your bag, so pack two why don't you!
- Speaking of the evil sun, take a hat! This packable one from J.Crew is a good option because it is packable - or be truly cosmopolitan and wear your hat on the plane! If you don't want to take up the space, there were a bunch of little Panama hat shops in Old Havana, though you'll probably pay too much for something that was made in China.
- A good tote. I usually stick with my black leather shoulder bag, but since we were in the land of mojitos and pina coladas, I decided to bring a straw tote. As long as you bring a sturdy one, you should be fine, and bring one that you can shove a jacket and bottle of water into while you sight see.
- A light jacket. I've had this Tommy Hilfiger (I *know*) jean jacket since 2003 - bought for $10 on the clearance rack at Younkers in Iowa City, so it's officially vintage and rare. It's also officially busted and kind of gross, but it is my go-to for travel. A denim jacket was perfect for the cooler evenings in Cuba.
- Comfortable sandals. If you've got a pair of trusty sandals that don't hurt your feet, and/or you aren't walking for miles, wear em. Yes, these are Jimmy Choos but I got them on super clearance at Nordstrom Rack and I had a gift card so don't judge me.
- Some hot weather tops. It was straight up HOT one day (our first day, no less), so check the weather and bring some tank tops or sundresses.