Travel Diary: Havana, Cuba

I keep a running of list of places I would like to travel, mostly international, and I had not thought of Cuba…until I thought of Cuba. I was searching for a place to spend my 25th birthday that I could find a flight + Airbnb without spending an outrageous amount of money. I found an article that listed places off the coast with flights that were around three or four hundred  dollars and Cuba was one of those places. When I thought about it, I did really like the imagery I had seen of Cuba and how people-to-people interaction is virtually promoted in support of the flourishing culture there, so I booked it. I had never done an itinerary before, but it’s advised and almost required to have one, so I sought people I knew and blogs/articles as well to plan my trip down to a T.


Vinales

I booked a horseback riding tour of Vinales, which is like the countryside or rural area of Cuba. It’s a valley about two hours away from Havana known for farming, especially tobacco, but also coffee, rum and honey. This was my first time riding a horse, but it was incredibly easy. My horse Ranchero was eager and sweet and seemingly knew his way around the valley without my having to guide him a whole lot. The first tour guide talked me through the process of harvesting and curing tobacco in order to make cigars. He then showed me how they roll cigars and taught me how to smoke them. He then passed me to the next guide who described the rum-making, coffee-making and honey-making processes. Finally, the initial guide who taught me to ride the horse led me on the actual tour through the valley, stopping at a couple villas where gorgeous pictures of the landscape can be taken while ordering mojitos and other drinks from the bar.

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Girls Cigar Workshop

Rolling a cuban cigar felt like a must, so I was more than ecstatic to find a class for young women that was taught by a young woman. This was an interesting experience to say the least, as the translator did not show up. My only saving grace was that there was a couple who had signed up, and they spoke English, so they translated for me. The instructor, Yadira was good-natured, and although I couldn’t understand what she was saying, her demeanor was obviously very funny. She explained the types of leaves, what each was for and showed us how to prepare and roll them. Once finished, she taught us proper etiquette for holding, smoking and ashing cigars.

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Dance Lessons

There were several dance classes available through Airbnb Experiences, but of course this one stuck out to me because the photoshoot was included. Since I traveled here alone, I wanted some part of my trip guaranteed to be documented just in case I wasn’t able to solicit a photographer or safely set my equipment up. What a liberating experience it was to begin my birthday dancing through the streets of Havana with new acquaintances that felt like old friends. They chose three locations around old Havana and we danced a different dance at each one of them. We first danced Afro-Cuban, which was my favorite, then Salsa, and finally Reggaeton. Two of the dancers including the main choreographer Yosiel were younger than I, Gabriel who picked me up directly from my apartment was 27 and the photographer was the older at 29. They were extremely friendly and patient with me as a beginner dancer, which made the experience very light and fun.

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Varadero Beach

There are closer beaches, but Varadero seemed to be very popular. I didn’t think about the fact that I would be going on a Saturday, so it was pretty crowded unlike what I think it would have been on a weekday. The sand is white and the water crystal blue, which made my time there incredibly scenic and strikingly beautiful. If you want to lie on a tanning bed or under the umbrellas you have to pay for a guest pass, but I chose to just lie on my towel directly on the beach. There is a section of the beach that is for tourists staying at the American resorts and hotels where there is an outdoor mall with shops, eateries, and the bathroom if you need it.

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Food

To be honest, I don’t have a wide scope of good choices to discuss, because I ate ham and cheese sandwiches three times. Each of them was made a different way, but all very good. It seemed that everything was fresh from the meat to the cheese to the bread. One had mustard on it, another had pickle on it and the other was served with fries drizzled in a barbecue-like sauce.

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I had pizza, which was very good as well, but not any different than you might get at an Italian restaurant in the states.

While I was in Viñales, I visited the first restaurant that was established there where the food is cooked on an open grill. You hear a lot about Cuban pork, so I got sliced grilled pork roast, which was very flavorful. It was served with arroz con pineapple- rice with pineapple that threw me for a loop, because the pineapple was seasoned, so it was more salty than sweet, but nonetheless good.

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Travel Tips

1. Take more money than you need. This is extremely important, because there is no way for you to get more money if you need it. To be on the safe side, I would take at least $150 per day, especially if you plan to travel to Vinales or Varadero, as the transportation is about $120 for the taxi to take you there, stay with you, and bring you back to Havana.

There are places around the city of Havana to exchange your money but it’s easier to do it at the airport as soon as you land.

Also, you should absolutely convert to euros or pounds before you travel; if you try to convert from US dollars to CUC, you will lose anywhere from 13-20% of whatever you planned to spend.

2. If I had it to do over again, I would have gone with at least one person rather than alone. Because I don’t speak Spanish and could not regularly communicate with my family back home, it felt a bit isolated.

3. There are legitimate taxis and there are illegitimate taxis. They both will try to overcharge you; however, if you know your way around Spanish at least a little, you can negotiate with the illegitimate taxis.

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4. I would recommend finding an Airbnb host that is willing to really host for your stay. My host not only made sure that the towels were changed and bed made in my room each day, she also arranged a taxi (who happened to be her husband) for me every time I needed to go somewhere. She made sure that I ate and even let me use her phone when I needed to contact my family upon arrival.

5. I have Verizon cell service, and there is no international plan for Cuba; you can only “pay as you go.” Each call is about three dollars, outgoing texts are fifty cents, and incoming texts are five cents. If you don’t feel you can go long periods of time without cell service, I would suggest you stay at a hotel where there is WiFi. Because I stayed in an Airbnb, I went to a hotel lobby nearby and paid around $4.50 for a WiFi card. The cards allow you one hour of usage. You will need to purchase a new card whenever you need more time.

6. I would highly recommend booking experiences through Airbnb. It justifies your reason for being there, which for most people is “support of the Cuban people.” I booked the cigar workshop, horseback riding, and photoshoot dance lessons that way. As you book experiences, Airbnb builds an itinerary for you, so that you have all the information you need in one place including what you’re doing, addresses, and times. This will come in handy with your transportation as well, because if you cannot tell your driver where you need to go, you can show them. This is also helpful financially, because you prepay through the app and don’t have to carry additional cash with you to pay for these experiences. Be sure to read the reviews so that you know exactly what you are getting. Also be sure that the experience is offered in English if you do not speak Spanish.

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Overall Cuba is a beautiful place to visit, and even better if you have meticulously planned your stay. There is no shortage of things to do, as there are also museums and other sites that I did not make it to. If you’re looking for a location that is well-advanced and technologically up to date, then I wouldn’t recommend Cuba, but if you’re looking for a place to really disconnect and immerse yourself in the culture, I would definitely say that Cuba fits the bill.