I wasn't quite sure what to expect from our quick weekend trip to Havana. Information online was a bit scarce and it was certainly out of my comfort zone for someone who is mostly used to traveling through Europe.
I figured that our short Saturday - Monday trip was going to be just long enough for me to say 'Oh wow, when can we come back that was amazing.' or 'Gee I'm glad I did that but I sure am glad to be home now.' I can say without reservation that it was certainly the former.
I was blown away by how much I enjoyed Cuba. I was captivated by everything from the crumbling architecture of Old Havana that seemed to hold a perfect shot around every corner, to the classic cars everywhere you looked. But it was really the people who surprised me the most and really made me want to come back again and again.
For a country that has endured such tumult and hardship the people that I met in our brief time there were hands down the most gracious, good humored, captivating people that I have met on all of my travels.
We flew direct to Havana from Miami which was an easy short hop for us (I still can't get over how nice it is living so close to several major airports!). We bought our visa at the airport in Miami when we checked in for our flight and it was a very easy process.
Upon arrival to Havana the customs and Immigration process was pretty quick and easy. We had changed dollars to euros before we left Florida as if you change dollars directly in Cuba you are charged and extra 10%. We only had to wait in line for a few minutes to exchange money - though if the line is long there are exchange booths outside, just inside the main terminal as well as upstairs. On our way home we changed money back to Euros and did run into a tiny snag - the exchange booth didn't have as many Euros as we wanted to change back - so just something to be aware of - while you want to be sure to have enough money for your stay as US credit cards don't work in Cuba try not to bring too much. It worked out fine for us in the end as we were able to change some into Canadian Dollars and one of our party was actually headed directly to Montreal when we got back.
It was very easy to get a taxi right outside the airport. Our Airbnb host had let us know what the price should be around which was helpful. We did find that it was good practice to pre-negotiate taxi rates wherever we went in advance. Our trip from the airport to our Airbnb in the Vedado neighborhood was 30 CUC. Outside of this we found that it was very easy to find/flag down taxis in Havana and that to go from our neighborhood to Old Havana was between 8-10 CUC if you wanted one of the cool classic cars (and who doesn't) or 4-5 CUC for any other vehicle.
Our Airbnb was great and I would highly recommend it. It was in a less touristy neighborhood but still close enough to walk to most places that we wanted to go. Our hosts were wonderful and for an extra 5 CUC cooked us breakfast every morning. This turned out to be very convenient as we had some early mornings where we wanted to be out and about by 8am so it was nice to know that you didn't have to go searching for food and coffee before that.
Once we arrived at our Airbnb, dropped off our things and got our bearings we headed out to explore the city. We decided to head for the Malecon - the seafront promenade that runs for 8km along the water. It was while strolling the Malecon that we got our first chance to chat with some locals. People kept stopping us to say hello and ask where we were from and why were we in Havana and did we like it. As a frequent European traveller, my first inclination when stopped by a stranger in such a manner is unfortunately to wonder what they want from me etc. . . . European pickpockets and con artists have habituated me to be a bit wary in these situations. After the first few people stopped us we realized that people were really just THAT friendly and had a great time stopping to chat with people on our walk.
Our first stop after wandering the Malecon was to the Hotel Nacional for a Mojito. While it is a bit of a touristy destination the beautiful and iconic hotel is a must see for any visitor to Havana. Built in 1930 the hotel is an eclectic mix of Art Deco, neoclassical and neocolonial architecture. In 1946, the hotel played host major Mafia gathering, which was later depicted in The Godfather Part II. The lobby and grounds are beautiful and were a perfect spot to stop and relax for a few minutes and sip a Mojito in the sun.
We were heading vaguely in the direction of the Cathedral with the idea of lunch on our minds. We stopped to ask someone for directions and ended up chatting with the incredibly nice people for a bit as we walked. We abandoned our ideas of the Cathedral and asked them what we should see in Havana that we might not be able to find without the help of a local. They were wonderful - so interesting to talk to - both were teachers that they ended up walking us to a vibrant arts street/district Callejon de Hamel which we never would have found ourselves. The small streets were full of art installations and murals, many with a nod to Afro-Cuban culture.
Images from Callejon de Hamel
We had a fantastic lunch with our new friends (and an interesting side adventure for Travis and Patrick to search for some 7 Anos Havana Club Rum with a side trip to someone's living room for cigars. . . . )
I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the food in Cuba. I know that I like Cuban food whenever I find it here in the states (note - the Cuban Sandwich - not actually Cuban) I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised with the food I can honestly say we did not have a single bad meal and most were outstanding.
We had an amazing lunch with our new friends at the Paladar el Barracon de Hamel. The menu was full of freshly prepared traditional Cuban food for incredibly reasonable prices. We split some fantastic Ropa Vieja and a lobster dish with tomato sauce that was outstanding. As a massive seafood lover I was thrilled with how fresh and reasonably priced all of the lobster and shrimp I found in Cuba was.
After a long afternoon of lunching and wandering around we headed back to our apartment to rest up a bit for dinner. Relaxed and rested we had a drink on our balcony before setting out to find a spot for dinner. Sadly the place that we originally planned on going was closed but we ended up at a restaurant next door called El Figaro that was still pretty good and had a lovely ambiance outside under cafe lights.
We headed out for a few drinks after dinner and stumbled onto a lively bar with salsa music where we had a few mojitos before headed back to get some sleep as we had a very early wakeup for day two.