Cuba! Havana & Trinidad
First Things, First
If you’re here, you’re likely prepping for an upcoming trip. If you don’t already have some Cuban jazz on, please pause and put this Spotify playlist on. Forget about travel restrictions! I find it more of a crime not to be passively chair dancing to seductive beats of the claves, cowbells, bongos… and all the rest as you prepare for the trip!
We really enjoyed our time in Cuba, but we barely scratched the surface in only 6 days. It was half 10th anniversary and half time w/ friends so we did our fair share of partying every night, but we also explored the old cities (via a bar crawl, naturally), tried to get a local vibe, took one hike to a waterfall, hit one coffee plantation and chilled on 2 beaches.
Overall we thought it was a bit Disney-like, particularly in old Havana and the cobblestone streets of Trinidad. In old Havana, though you want to close your eyes and pretend you are walking through Havana in its heyday, when you turn a corner and see the VERY stark differences between the nicely restored touristy bits and the real life of Cubans, I think it leaves a very sour taste. Yes, you might feel the same when you compare a Caribbean resort to the rest of the island and it’s inhabitants, but for me the difference is (for better or for worse) that Club Med, or 5-star Resort ABC isn’t pretending to represent the Island or country where it stands. It’s its own destination, likely chosen when there is a profitable combination of gorgeous beaches and cheap labor. Cuba has those, too…. But in walking around Havana Viejo, I really didn’t like the dissonance. The people of Havana deserve just as much care, attention and money as the old buildings that the tourists gawk at…… and yet it is abundantly clear that it’s not the case. For goodness sake, some of the sewers seem to run right into the street and the availability of toothpaste is not a guarantee!!! … and yet a tourist will never be without bottomless mojitos (again – can’t get toothpaste, but they never run out of mint!). But I’ll get off my high horse…….
Were only there 5 nights, had different groups of friends overlapping us on both ends of our trips, and we had a noon flight home, so we ended up in Havana the first 2 nights, then 2 nights in Trinidad, and back to Havana for one more night. This meant lots of early mornings on top of ALL late nights, which next time these old folks might want to reconsider…. But we summoned the energy and had a blast!
Next time, we would try to get to Santiago, Cayo Guillermo or Cayo Santa Maria, and maybe squeeze in a day trip to Vinales.
- Legality & Tourist Card: We went several months ago and things they are a-changin’. Still, at the time I thought Delta’s FAQ was the most comprehensive and straightforward, and I’d keep that as one of my references if I went again. I thought the tourist card was a bit of a farce, myself. Though you don’t need a visa, you need that tourist card, and officially, tourism is still “prohibited”. It’s a outdated, and completely useless requirement of the US Treasury (of all things). If you read it to the letter, CLEARLY 99.9% of the US passengers deplaning in Havana stretching the truth when they select the “People to People” category. That said, your airline will likely be happy to take your money and pass along to the government. We didn’t submit it ahead of time. It only added 10 minutes to the check-in process right before the flight.
- Medical insurance: it IS required, but it should be part of the cost of your flight. Again, we flew Delta and it was included (see FAQ). As a receipt, you need to carry your boarding pass with you at all times in Cuba, just in case you need to prove your health insurance coverage.
- Currency: Cuba has a separate currency for tourists (CUCs, referred to as “kooks”) vs the local peso. They are nowhere near equal, but that’s a story for a different day. A convenient way of knowing the difference (i.e. so that you don’t get ripped off when you get change back, which we read about but didn’t encounter) is that CUCs have monuments on them (as opposed to faces).
- Taxi Collectivo: They are the way to go. You can pay 7 times more for a private taxi. In Havana you can easily hail classic American cars anywhere, and along certain stretches (like along Linea if you’re in Vedado) they just make loops of the city and you can do a sort of hop-on-hop-off. Ask your hosts what the correct price should be from your location to Old Havana because taxi drivers will gouge (while also driving Cubans for mere pesos).
- Between Cities / Day Tours: Learn from our mistake. You’ll be taking classic American cars all around Havana, so when you go anywhere else, save your bum (those old seats not great for long journeys), eardrums (windows always open, music usually trying to drown it out (?) and overall comfort and just do a collectivo in a “modern” car. We had reserved a classic car ahead of our trip using this site (which also has great info as far as travel times) but we ended up cancelling our return journey, opting for the modern collectivo and it was a more pleasant ride back
- Breakfast: Another place to learn from our mistakes. In retrospect, I wish I had been more bold in asking for different breakfasts at the Airbnbs. I NEED to eat breakfast, and I had read so much about the lack of breakfast restaurant options around town, so we opted into b’fast each day at our Airbnbs….. But it was the same everywhere (bread, a slice of ham, egg, fruit, juice and coffee), and I wish I had asked for something more local and interesting (even if at a higher cost). On second thought, I think the real issue is that I didn’t sort out how to confidently and respectfully request that in Spanish.
- Accommodations: We absolutely LOVED the Airbnb we stayed at in Havana (Trinidad, not so much). It was definitely very upscale and 3x the price of other casa particulares / Airbnbs, but it was so worth it for our celebratory trip. The room was immaculate, the common areas peaceful and gorgeous, and the art was amazing. The neighborhood was quiet and peaceful and while there was a few great restaurants and a grocery store, it was VERY hard to find water (NOT at the grocery store) so, plan ahead and bring some with you if you prefer bottled water.
Good Eats in Havana
- Overall – Not sure if things just change quickly or what, but more than once, a place that was recommended by close friends of similar tastes was NOT all that they cracked it up to be (e.g. Los Nardos in Central Havana and Atelier over in the far end of Vedado). SO take our recs with a grain of salt and maybe also venture to your own finds!
- Decameron was our first meal. We checked in and our host recommended it, just a few blocks away. It was delicious. Felt neighborhoody despite the one large group of tourists. There seemed also one local family in the back…. Though in retrospect nearly every restaurant seemed not to have locals (likely in large part due to the currency situation).
- El Chanchullero was 3 levels of coolness, offering tapas and good drinks. was a good find when wandering Havana Vieja on our last day. We didn’t try their food but it looked really good. We only did drinks on the roof.
- El de Frente. Our friends loved this so much that they went twice, asking us to join them one night. The food was really good (especially the fish tacos), as were the cocktails.
- Restaurant Van Van. We stumbled into this after our first afternoon of bar hopping w friends (directly after mohitos on the rooftop per below). Had a great vibe, great music, and those that ate a quick bite enjoyed it.
- Iberostar Parque Central was an upscale hotel which had a rooftop bar with great views, and great mohitos (not as sweet as so many of them!!!). Great spot to waste an afternoon after wandering Old Havana. Note that if you enter thru the main doors and use the closest elevators, you will appear on the roof by the pool, but the bar is on the far side. We almost left without realizing that. 🙂
- Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Is a must, of course. We ended up there late night twice, for cigars overlooking the Malecon, and one of the times we took a roadie beer from there to enjoy down on the Malecon.
- El Cocinero is supposed to be great and have a wonderful terrace. We never made it despite a few recommendations. I think there is a big chimney w/ lights that’s supposed to be very cool? It’s close to Fabrica des Artes so you can plan to hit them the same evening.
- Atelier came highly recommended but we didn’t agree. The terrace was great, and they had really cool bathroom art, but we didn’t enjoy the food at all.
- Many quote Varadero as the most beautiful in Cuba, and some brave souls do it as a daytrip from Havana but it’s a 2 hour ride, each way. Instead, we did Playas de Este / Santa Maria del Mar which was a $20 cab fare and about 25 min ride from Vedado. We loved it, and found it even nicer than the famed Playa Ancon in Trinidad. It’s a long stretch of beach and we got dropped off at the first dropoff area, while our friends were dropped further down at what seemed to be the main dropoff. At the beginning there is only one restaurant and it’s less crowded, but down further is more restaurant options, some craft/souvenir sellers, and lots of cabs waiting to take you back to Havana. Arrive early to get umbrellas and chairs… even if you don’t want either, you will need them if you want to order food / drinks to your spot on the beach! Have cash on hand for merchants walking around with coco loco (a fresh coconut, where you drink out some coconut water and refill on the spot w/ rum. Yum!).
- La Zorra y el Cuervo (Fox & Raven): nice for a local jazz bar feel, even if was also a lot of tourists. Think Blue Note. Check out set timings and plan your night accordingly so that you don’t stand in line for a long time like we did, since we didn’t plan in advance!
- Sia Kara: Awesome, awesome piano bar. The night we went, the singer and the pianist were both amazing and ambiance / art on the wall was great. The singer really worked with the crowd and sang songs based on where the audience was from… was a fun time. Could have stayed (danced!) all night but we had to get our friends some Cuban cigars for their last night…
- Fabrica des Artes Cubano: I was SO excited to check this out, but in the end I didn’t think it was all it was cracked up to be. I did enjoy the art, and I also enjoyed talking to the few artists that were there… I did like the various rooms with different musical options… but overall I just wasn’t as blown over as I thought I would be. That said, I would definitely try it again.
Other Fun Stuff
- Wandering: we had a great time doing a sort of pub crawl through old Havana, checking out galleries, etc. Plaza Vieja was our fav plaza for hanging. We did stop into La Bodeguita del Medio (alleged birthplace of mohitos) and it was of course overrun w/ tourists but had nice music and of course watching him make a row of mohitos was a spectacle. We skipped Floridita (Hemmingway haunt).
- Bike Tour: our friends did a bike trip that did sound fab and I kinda wished I had done it. A woman took them all around and gave them all sorts of insider stuff about Cuba. I can get that info if you want…
- What we missed: we didn’t end up doing any formal tour or museum but didn’t necessarily feel we missed out. That said, I was surprised hubby didn’t want to check out Nostalicar but wasn’t that interested. Kinda wish we had managed to fit in a show at the old school Tropicana or Le Opera de Calle, but there’s always (maybe) next time.
- Wandering: lots of walking the old streets, stopping in for a drink or a bite, walking some more, shopping a bit…
- Jazz on the steps Not far from Plaza Mayor is a big set of steps where there is jazz halfway up. I think we payed 1 CUC each to get in, and the same for a mojito. They seemed like legit local acts, and with local patrons… as opposed to so many lifeless bands at other establishments that played Guantanamera and greatest hits of Buena Vista Social Club. You’ll hear those just as you walk around touristy areas… 🙂
- Rooftop Bars: You can’t miss them because you’ll them in the afternoon, and definitely as the sun goes down. See the photo below. A great way to ease into the evening with a beer, good (if touristy) tunes, and a gorgeous sunset.
- Disco Ayala “La Cueva” is a dance club in a subterranean cave! Apparently it was used as a hospital at some point. It was a very cool setting, even if we weren’t totally loving the grooves.
- Wi-Fi note: in the plaza below the steps, they are giving out cards which have a code for you to get on the internet.
- Taxi to hiking or beaches… you will be offered taxi services by every 2nd person on the street. Find one who speaks your language and has suggestions on where to go. We lucked out w/ Manuel, a former teacher who had all sorts of great convo and local tips.
- Waterfalls: Highly recommended. We hired our taxi driver Manuel for the day, to take us to the park, then Playa Ancon, then back to Trinidad. He also added 2 stops, including the coffee plantation noted below. I can’t put a quick finger on good links for the hikes/waterfalls, but its definitely worth checking out. Photo below to tempt you. Swim out and stand on the rock under the falls!
- Coffee Plantation” This wasn’t on our list but ended up being a great time. Our taxi driver Manuel suggested it and we’re glad we went! The sign on the photo below says Don Pancho, but that doesn’t come up in any google searches… dunno if i have the wrong name, or if they are just old school and not online! After all, internet isn’t readily available in Cuba…
- Playa Ancon: Very pretty, but I liked Santa Maria del Mar outside Cuba better. I met one super cute crab (see the pic of the yellow one below), and one horrendous crab (also) from NYC, but who was rude, and unwilling to share the shade of their umbrella that they weren’t using.
- Taberna la Botija: Popular small plates spot with a lot of turnover. Every time we walked by, there was a line. When we finally decided to try it, by the time we got to a table, all the dishes we wanted were out. What we had we enjoyed and we’d def try it again. Supposedly it’s open 24/7? Wish I had known and would have looked at it for bfast time… thought if food was gone at like 10 or 11 or whenever we tried…. Dunno?
- La Ceiba (tree of life): Our taxi buddy Manuel highly recommended it for an upscale celebratory type of dinner but we didn’t end up going
- Sol Ananda: Was one close to Plaza Mayor that was gorgeous inside but was hit and miss w/ dishes. The area where they had us wait for drinks was so well done. There were some interesting Indian inspirations included in the menu (which was one of the draws for us) but not all hit the mark.