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Blog #175: Cuba Libre

“When you’re in Cuba, you feel that you’re in a time capsule – 50’s Chevy, warm greetings, original Club Havana Rum and the famous Cuban cigar.

Even when you leave Cuba, it’s architecture and hospitality gives you another reason to come back”.

Overview of 4 day itinerary:

Day 1 – (Havana): Walk in Old Havana – La Cathedral, La Plaza. Drink Daiquiri at Hemingway’s bar – La Floridita, party at FAC

Day 2 – (Havana): Spend half a day at Santa Maria Beach, sunrise at El Malecon, ride in 1950’s convertible chevy, drink original mojito at La Bodega

Day 3 – (Vinales Valley): Do a day trip – 5 hour horse riding tour

Day 4 – Museum of the Revolution, Jose Marti Memorial, Tour of Hemingway’s house, Museum of Club Havana Rum

Ever since I started dancing Salsa, I had a dream of dancing on the streets of Havana. Few years later, my cousin and I decided to take 4 days vacation to Cuba.

Day-1 (Sat):

We rushed through the gates of Newark airport, we finally saw the UNITED airlines board for Cuba. We bought our Tourist Visa (more information below) and went to the boarding gate. 3 hours later, we landed at Jose Martin (Havana) airport. It is the tiniest airport that I’ve been so far. The immigration office is separated by a wooden door. You open the door, the immigration officer validates your passport and tourist card; puts the stamp then open the door. Viola, you’re in Cuba (literally, 2 mins). We had to wait for 30 mins for baggage arrival.

We went to the Currency Exchange office (more Currency info below) at the airport. There was a long waiting line, we had to wait at least an hour for out turn.

Our AirBnB (more housing info below) host had sent a driver ‘HUGO’ to pick us up (CUC 20). He took us to his car – green color Bel-Air Chevy. He told us that the car was built in 1951, Cubans have a tradition of passing car from one generation to another. It was in mint condition. After 30 mins, we reach Old Havana where our host was waiting for us. He explained rules of the apartment and gave us pointers.

It was already 5 pm, we were starving by then. We walked towards the La Cathedral, we ordered food in the first restaurant that we saw. It was definitely an interesting experience since a band was playing live music for us. Then we went to our first stop, La Cathedral.

#1 La Cathedral:  It has unique architecture (picture below).

#2 Boulevard: A colorful cobbled street from La Cathedral to La Plaza. Spanish house with balcony and colorful wall makes it a perfect spot for your next Facebook profile picture.

#3 La Plaza: It’s a big square in the heart of Havana. Most of the Spanish colonies have similar plaza.

After plaza, we went back to our apartment to change clothes. It was around 8 pm. It was time to explore the famous night life of Havana.

#4 La Floridita: It’s commonly known as Ernest Hemingway bar. It’s a bit touristy but I’ll definitely recommend it. There will be a band playing music and a bartender making Daiquiris. The walls have pictures of Hemingway, there is a bronze statue of Papa Hemingway smiling and holding Daiquiri in his hand. The bartender told us that he held a record of drinking 13 daiquiri in a single sitting. That’s a lot of rum. We spent an hour there, left the bar to visit FAC.

#5 Fabrica De Arte Cubana – FAC (must recommend): I’ve been to many nightclubs but I’ve never seen anything like FAC. It was a factory turned into a nightclub, museum, fashion show, movie screening and food court. We reached there by 9.30 pm, there was already 30 mins wait line. Even waiting line was fun, we were been entertained by street performers. We paid 2 Cuban Pesos as a cover and got a card that is used as a stamp to buy food/drink. We got us Mojito, it was delicious. First, we went to see interesting art exhibition of Cuban artists. Then next floor had a Michael Jackson inspired Fashion Show. Another floor had a movie screening and a gazebo. One floor had a photograph collection while other had a costume/design collection. You get amazed as you walk from one floor to another. There were 3 dance floor with different music – Pop, Metal and Latin. They had a food court too.  This place was a paradise. We left the place around 1.30 am while wondering – Why we don’t have such a place in America? Also, we saw a huge line waiting to get in since it’s open till 4 am.

Day -2 (Sun):

We woke up late, made our breakfast at the apartment. It was a sunny weather, so we decided to go to the beach.

#6 Mira mar Beach: To get to the beach, you can either take a Taxi (cost CUC 40) or public transport (CUC 5 per person). We took the bus in front of the Chevy Taxi Stand (you’ll find beautiful vintage car standing in line). Within 30 mins, we were at the beach. The water was torques green color, warm and clear. It was the most beautiful beach. I can’t swim so I didn’t go deep, just floated. We were having fun and didn’t want to leave the beach. Jay’s Rutgers T-shirt came useful, a girl approached us. She became a good friend who joined us to Vinales Valley trip. After spending afternoon at the beach, we decided to head back to the city. We reached Havana around 2 pm, had lunch at cafe Old Bistro and walked towards El Malecon.

#7 El Malecon: It’s Havana Marine Drive. A beautiful a mile walk. We sat there, enjoying the ocean’s breeze and looking at the fisherman trying to catch fish.  We could see the Moroco Castle in the distant. We took a open convertible taxi for a ride on the Malecon, it was a fun ride. It dropped us at the Hotel National.

 #8 Hotel National: It’s the most famous landmark in Havana. Beyonce stayed here. It was a beautiful garden overlooking the sea. Perfect spot to watch sunset while sipping Cuban Libre (coke + Club Havana rum). We decided to go home and sleep early since we had a early morning start to Vinales Valley
Day-3 (Mon):
Our host arranged a Taxi to drive us to Vinales Valley, home to the Cuban Cigar. We left Havana around 6 am. On the way, you get to see a lot of rural Cuba. It’s a 3.5 hour drive to Vinales Valley.
#9 Vinales Valley: Once we reached the valley, we had our breakfast and met our guide. He charged us CUC 35 per person for 5 hours horse riding tour. I would highly recommend longer tour.
Each one of us got to ride their own horse. My horse name was Coco. We had to follow our guide’s horse into the jungle. There were 5 stops in the tour:
a) Coffee/Rum Plantation:  First stop was coffee/rum plantation. The guide gave us tour of how they make coffee and rum in Cuba. They gave us sample of their coffee and a drink (sugarcane + rum). Never thought sugarcane with rum would be so tasty. Anyways, they offered us to buy coffee or rum. I would recommend to buy them – you won’t find such things anywhere else.
b) View/Lake:
c) Cuban Cigar: Buy cigar from here, they’re cheaper
d) Panoramic View (highest point):
e) Natural Spring Lake:
The best part of the tour was horse riding through the jungle, it was a surreal experience. The tour ended around 4ish, we had lunch and left the vinales. We were exhausted and slept on the way to Havana.
Day – 4 (Tues):
#10: Revolution Museum: We had plan to visit the museum but we woke up late and didn’t feel like going there. Instead, we decided to shop in the market. I would highly recommend visiting it. They’ve a famous Che’ statue in front of it.
#11: Old Havana Market: They’ve lot of street shop, you an find beautiful handicrafts. You need to know Spanish to bargain (thanks to Jay’s AP level Spanish lesson, we negotiated a lot).
We had a return flight to New York in the afternoon. Hugo dropped us back (CUC 20). Few hours later, we were home and didn’t had any issue entering the country 😛
Visa: This is the most confusing topic. There isn’t much information on Cuba’s visa. People have asked: Is it safe to enter the country? Can I enter back to America? What are the requirements and so on. Below tips for Indian passport holder:
Cuba is safe and yes, you can enter back even after Cuba stamp on your passport.
Step 1 – Education category *People to People interaction. When you book your ticket, the flight will ask you select travel category out of 12 options. Select Education.
Step 2 – Call your airline to check whether they sell Tourist Visa at the departure airport.
Step 3 – Once you reach airport, there is a separate section for Cuba to buy Tourist Visa. The cost is $75. it’s expensive since it includes insurance cost (you’ll be treated for free if you fall sick in Cuba). Don’t loose your tourist card, you’ll submit it while leaving the country.
That’s it! it’s a very easy process.
Currency: No credit card or debit card works in Cuba, take extra dollar or Euro. Exchange currency at the airport, you can also exchange at few designated shops in Havana. Budget everything, you don’t want to run out of cash there.
Tip: Exchanging $ implies 10% penalty. You’ll get better rates with Euro or any other currency.
Accommodation: Casa La Particular/ Airbnb are the 2 options. I would recommend taking an airnb in Old Havana. Book places that are less than 10 mins walk from La Cathedral. Make sure your host speaks English, it really helps. We paid around $36 per night for a spacious 1BHK apartment.
Language: Basic Spanish is a must. It comes handy when bargaining.
Internet: You can buy a internet card from the La Telpunto centre. It’s very slow, only good enough to text your family and upload picture on Facebook/Instagram. There is a limit of only 1 cell phone linked to the card.
Cost: My total trip cost was less than $1,000. Air tickets – around $500, and rest were cost of living expenses. It’s a cheap and a beautiful country!
It’s so close yet so far away. I would highly recommend visiting Cuba.
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