I was looking for a turn-off-my-brain beach vacation. Hunting fares online that would plunk me somewhere warm and easy, with internet access. And then I found EXTREMELY affordable, direct flights from JFK to Havana, and it seemed silly not to – so we pulled the trigger – partner-in-crime was my boyfriend.
Then the research began. Where to go, what do we need to know, do we need visas, what’s the currency, is it legal-legal or legal-but-don’t-stamp-my-passport-legal. The first realization was that there is basically inaccessible internet in Cuba. There are kiosks which sell cards you can pay for by one-hour or five-hour increments. The kicker is that you have to use said cards in the exact area you bought the cards. The other sticky point is that there are post-office-esque lines that barely move. So we quickly realized this was not going to be a connected vacation.
Before we left, we swapped our American dollars for Euros, prepped for the cash-economy (i.e. no credit cards or ATMs for a whole week), we downsized to carry-on’s only (we heard the baggage claim scenario in Havana was for the birds), printed out recommendations and Airbnb confirmations.
We made it to JFK, went to the check in desk, dropped $50 for a mandatory visa and Cuban health insurance (which consists of stamp on your paper boarding pass which you must hold on to for the duration of the trip), and we were off. There’s an entertaining side story here about the couple sitting across the aisle from us who audibly argued for the first two hours of the flight. To the point that the guy sitting next to me and my boyfriend begged us to promise we wouldn’t break up on the flight. This couple had clearly been up all night, the woman accused the guy of still being drunk, he accused her of abandoning him at his birthday party the night before. And it pretty much went on like that for hours. Including the man saying “you are broken, you’ve been divorced like fifty times!” to which she replied by putting on her sleep mask.
Less than three hours later we landed in Havana and it was cozy humid and breezy and I felt eek-excited. Passing through customs was a cinch, and the lines to exchange our Euros to CUC’s moved quickly. (Cuba has two currencies: the CUP for locals and CUC for tourists.) We grabbed a cab and headed to our Airbnb in Vedado – the neighborhood about ten minutes east of Old Havana. Let me jump in with a pro-tip here. Actually two: first, stay in Vedado, it’s the best area of Havana for a variety of reasons including, beauty, quiet, ease of access to a number of wonderful music joints and restaurants, and it’s NOT the trashcan of Centro Havana, or the tourist mayhem zone of Old Havana; secondly: if you can find spots through Airbnb you can book with a credit card in advance to help cut down on the amount of cash you have haul along.
We lucked out with this apartment. It was like a mini-plantation with an airy outdoor sculpture garden, large bedrooms that included sitting rooms, and pink marble bathrooms, and wrought iron gates keeping us far from the noise of the streets.
We spent four nights in Havana. We ran on the Mallecón and through the Miramar neighborhood, we ate our weight in ropa vieja, and tried a number of paladares (privately run restaurants – as opposed the state-run restaurants which used to be the only option), peaked in on art studios, sniffed around the cigar scene, and really indulged in the nightlife. Typically when I’m planning a trip and some guidebook says “this city is great for nightlife!” I’m like “goodbye.” Because the truth is, when I travel I like to get up early, see everything I can possibly muster during the day, go for some luscious dinner and probably am ready to zonk out after that. But in Havana, the nightlife is beautiful and it naturally integrates into the vibe and feel of the city itself in a way I have never experienced anywhere else. The music is the main draw. Jazz, mojitos, jazz, mojitos, son, mojitos, salsa, mojitos. Repeat. We went to Jazz Cafe, La Zorra y el Cuervo and we saw some tunes at the Hotel National too. Oh! how could I forget our very first night, which set a perfect tone for the trip, when we went to La Fábrica del Arte Cubano (FAC), the art house and performance space in Vedado that is the place to be Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. We saw incredible art work set to live music and film screenings with mojitos flowing hard. Pictures below of some highlights, and an apology to the artists – I did not write down their names so all credit FAC and the artists!
We also took a day off from the city and hopped in a taxi to Santa María del Mar, at Playas del Este – a local beach about 35 minutes east of Havana. It was RIGHTEOUS.
After we wore ourselves out in Havana, we went to the touristy beach called Veradero about two and a half hours away for a full-blown beach hang. Our Airbnb there had less WOW factor, however there had a PIG ROAST our last night, and all was well in the world. We ate the best during the entire trip at this house.
Cuba is really was a special place. I’m so glad we opted for the adventure. I can say now say with confidence that Cuba is very accessible from the United States, so it’s time. Pack your carry-on.