For as long as I can remember, and for reasons I don't totally recall, I have always wanted to go to Cuba. Perhaps it was because until very recently, Cuba was off limits - you always want what you can't have, right? Maybe I didn't even have a reason, and pure desire was simply enough. Anyway, Ryan and I swiftly took advantage of a recently-lifted travel ban and hopped on a plane (back in time) to wildly seductive La Habana for one week!
- Casa Particulars: The Cuban version of AirBnB allows travelers to rent rooms in the homes of Cuban families. We stayed in three very different casas, for very reasonable prices that included a hefty breakfast, and had the pleasure of getting to know locals, get advice on public transportation (always helpful), and learning about everyday life. Our favorite casa was Hostal del Artista, run by the friend of a friend, who is an outgoing and genuinely thoughtful actor. Never a dull moment with Ramon!
- Casa de la Musica: There are two of these concert venues in Havana, we went to the one in the Playa neighborhood on the outskirts of town (and walking distance from our first casa run by the very sweet Lila). Here, world-class musicians play every night of the week and we were lucky enough to be invited to share seats, drinks and dancing with a local family. To get here, take the P5, direction PLAYA and get off at Calle 20.
- Fusterlandia: Located on the far-flung outskirts of Havana, Fusterlandia is named for an artist, Fuster, who's work decorates block and blocks of this Havana suburb with vibrantly colored mosaics, mirrors, and other Gaudi-esque embellishments reminiscent of a cartoon. Collectivo taxis are really the only way to get here, so ALWAYS negotiate your price before getting into the car. Always.
- Museo de la Revolucion: I spent I don't know how many hours in here (partially b/c the signage was mostly in Spanish only which slowed me down), but the content is worth pouring over. Cuba's history is rich and complex, and the spirit of the revolution is alive and well, especially according to the street art, so swing by the museum to learn why. It was fascinating.
- Museo de Bellas Artes, Arte Cubano: Go to the Revolution Museum first, then visit the art museum. Much of the art on display here was made in the decades leading up to the revolution. Despite being a time of economic prosperity in Cuba, the country was gripped by a brutal US-backed dictator, and much of the art critiques industry and capitalism, and uses heavy, Hopper-eqsue dark colors and sharp geometric lines, telling a different story. Also, pieces in this museum display portray colorful and unique styles, influenced by European and American trends, while also setting themselves completely apart, on a world stage. (I also really like art, so this was a fun place to nerd-out.)
- Old Havana: Oh yes, Habana Vieja. Beautiful and gritty, restored and nostalgic, touristy and oh so very local, Old Havana has scores of modern boutiques, pedestrian streets and sidewalk cafes aplenty. One block over, this neighborhood boasts headless chickens on street corners (Santeria offerings), Che Guevara murals, and a dizzying bustle of bicycle taxis, cars and street vendors. Get lost in Old Havana, you never know what you'll find.
- The Malecon: This 8km stretch of road is famous for is wide sidewalk and seawall, which, come dusk provides the perfect vantage point for impressive sunsets, and becomes Havana's informal, outdoor living room as travelers, locals, fisherman, musicians, and more come to chat and make friends (and a few CUCs). Ladies, the gentleman are exceptionally outgoing, but mostly harmless, so be prepared.
- Food: Cheap and abundant, it was mostly easy to be vegetarian in Cuba. Street pizza is a thing, so is street spaghetti, and most restaurants and paladars (in-home restaurants) will have veggie favourites like pizza margarita, cheese and/or vegetable sandwiches, congri (black beans and rice), fried plantains etc... YUM!
- Language: More people spoke English than I was prepared for. HOWEVER, Ryan and I speak Spanish, which made a big difference, and really allowed us to connect with people on a much less superficial level. I recommend learning some Spanish before traveling to Havana, absolutely.
- Rum: Drink the rum. What sweet, sweet nectar, made sweeter with a splash of lime and Coke.
- Zika: We were really lucky and didn't see many mosquitos in the city. Bring bug spray anyway.
- Currency: US credit and debit cards do not work in Cuba, so plan on bringing all the American cash you will need, and change it at the airport in Havana. They'll take an additional 10% off US dollars, but there's not many ways around that. ATMs and currency exchange are difficult to find outside the airport.
- Packing: All the gringos were easily identified by their wide-brimmed hats, or lobster-red shoulders. Cuba is in the tropics, so bring sunscreen and hats, - and brightly colored clothing!
- 1950's era cars: Yes! They're in abundance and ranging from clunkers to supremely detailed-borderline-Barbie-car beauties! The 1940-1950's era cars mostly run as tourist taxis for hire, or as shared taxis on fixed routes (collectivos). Many drivers hover outside the museums and the Capitolio, hawking their chauffeur services and old-school convertibles to tourists.
From the moment we arrived, it was apparent that neighbors talk to each other, play together, gossip together, and truly live together. Taking a break from our busy device-driven lives (oh yes wifi is virtually non-existent, except in wifi parks which cost roughly $3/hour) and seeing fully-present interactions, and interacting with others in a fully present way reminded me of what I learned (and sadly lost) in a year of traveling, one year removed. People and the world around us can teach us so much, if we're willing to listen. And Havana is full of stories and secrets, waiting to be told!
And lastly, for some tips for US citizens wanting to travel to Cuba. Traveling to Cuba is pretty easy, but does require some additional steps once plane tickets are purchased. Here's some info on the processes we had to go through:
- Purpose: The US Treasury Department requires US citizens to declare a purpose for the visit before going through security at the airport, choosing from twelve pre-established categories. Most people (ourselves included) traveled under the People-to-People purpose, included in the official Educational Activities category.
- Medical Insurance: US citizens must have NON-US medical insurance while in Cuba. Ours was included with our airfare and our boarding pass was proof of purchase. (We flew Delta Airlines, call your airline to specify. Also, we did NOT need any vaccines or special medication.)
- Visa: US Citizens do not need a traditional visa. However, you must declare a purpose (see above), and pick up and pay for a travel card at the airport prior to departure on the way to Cuba. GET TO THE AIRPORT EARLY! Our travel cards were $50 each.