Make sure to bring your passport and your drivers license. This is apparently required to verify your address at the airport when you check in. I have spent a lot of time traveling and have never had this occur before so I wanted to emphasize this. Security took about an hour for us but was generally really easy. We flew on southwest so being on time to boarding was important. The flight took just over an hour and the views we got on descent as the sun was rising were amazing. We purchased our visas for the people-to-people program from www.southwest.com. They were roughly $80.00 USD. It is important that after getting this stamped you hold onto it for the duration of your trip. You will need to provide the same visa on the way out of the country. Make sure you bring enough cash to last your entire trip! CREDIT CARDS DO NOT WORK! I cannot stress this enough.
I felt like I needed to start with this since I know a lot of people thought we were crazy for traveling to Cuba. What I have found everywhere I go is that what people expect is usually far from what they find. Cuba is no different. The people in Cuba were exceptionally nice and willing to spend time talking with us and sharing their culture and stories. I never felt unsafe walking on the streets and ladies... I never once got catcalled! For them tourism is a huge source of income and the American dollar goes a very long way.
The city is packed full of things and places just waiting to be discovered. Be sure to check out Fusterland, which was started in 1970 by a local artist. He has spent years decorating his actual home in a very unique way. Other things to explore are the revolution center, the seawall (Malecon), old Havana with lots of little shops and the hotel revolution. In the back of this hotel are still remnants of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crises. This was one of Toms favorite things to explore in Havana since he is a bit of a history buff. I also highly recommend setting up a tour of a cigar factory. It will give you a real perspective into not only the process but the lives of the people who take a leaf and turn it into a cigar.
There is lots to do in the countryside including visiting an Indian cave and prehistoric mural started in 1964. If you opt to do the cave I recommend going in the morning before all the tour buses start getting there; the earlier the better. By far my favorite experience in the country was horseback riding into a farm to learn about tobacco production from real farmers. It was a true glimpse into life in Cuba. We met our guide after lunch, rode down into a valley on horses and then toured both the fields and drying cabin where part of the processing occurs. IT WAS WORTH EVERY SECOND AND PENNY!
Hang out at the beach catching some rays. Be sure to bring a towel and/or chair unless you want to try and barter with hotel staff to use one that’s already there. You can also participate in a snorkeling trip on a catamaran. We were unable to do this excursion due to weather since the winds really kicked up the seas. Our guide says this is a fabulous trip and there is not a doubt we will embark on this next time we are in Cuba.
Places to Eat
There was tons of great food in Cuba but by far my two most favorite places were Santyz and Grados. The chef of Santyz used to be Fidel Castro’s personal chef. If you eat here just know it is a seafood only restaurant and you will get huge portions. I recommend eating a more family style dinner here and sharing a couple dishes. Grados was just two doors over from our Homestay and was out of this world. The chef has spent a lot of time traveling around the island learning different ways to cook and infuse the flavors of Cuba into the many dishes they have there. Everything on the menu was amazing but as a whole we thought the mango and coconut shrimp as well as the carderone and pry (lamb) was exceptional!
I’m not a huge drinker and had never had a mojito before coming to Cuba but after this trip I think it’s my new favorite drink. Another classic drink there is the cubalibre which is essentially a rum and coke. Drinks were very inexpensive; averaging around $3 CUC, which is probably how I ended up drinking my weight in mojitos.
There is something to be said for traveling. It makes you wiser and more humble but Cuba takes this to a whole new level. You could visit here and spend your entire week in Valdero at an all inclusive hotel and say you have been to Cuba but to be totally honest you would not “have been to Cuba”. The magic happens sitting at your rental house in Havana drinking home made sangria and eating tamales when the sun goes down with your neighbors. Only then do you truly feel the beauty and spirit of Havana. I am so thankful for the people I met here who were willing to talk with us and take us to some truly amazing places. I learned so much and I cannot wait to return and continuing soaking up this truly beautiful culture! Before heading off on your trip I recommend watching “Cigars: The heart and soul of Cuba” which is a documentary available on YouTube for free.
If you have additional time I was told a visit to Trinidad is a must. We didn’t make it there since it’s a very long drive and requires an overnight stay. We plan on visiting this the next time we make our way to Cuba.
Tips and Tricks
Tips and Tricks