Havana, Cuba- Christine
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A flight from Tampa to Havana takes no more than an hour, but when you land you are transported to a different time and place. I’ve been all over the world, but I have never been to a place quite like La Habana.
The Caribbean island locked in time is a perfect long weekend trip for Americans living in the Southeast. Cuba is only 90 miles south of Florida, making it an extremely short flight for us Florida folks. Southwest has perfectly timed direct flights that are great way to maximize a long weekend trip to Havana. On Friday, we took a 7:00 am flight out of Tampa on Southwest and were in Havana before I generally am sitting down at my office desk checking my first email. On Sunday, we took a 6:05 pm flight home which essentially gave us another half of a day on the back end. Although some of us were able to get in a little cat nap, the flight was one of the shortest flights I have been on. We ordered a mimosa on the way there and were descending before we even had the chance to drink it!
When we arrived, we had transportation set up from the Airport to our Airbnb. The drivers had a sign with our names on it and we spotted them immediately. Although there are plenty of Taxis outside of the airport, it was nice to know that our transportation was set up prior to our arrival. Our hosts had the taxis set up for us for $30 each car. It should be more like $25, but I learned that hosts generally use their friends for transportation and take a cut. It would appear that the going rate for setting up transportation was $5.
There is a “tourist” currency: the CUC (1 CUC = 1 USD). We needed to convert at least enough of our money to CUCs to pay for our taxi ride. Oddly, the airport limited us to $200 per person. This doesn’t seem consistent to many other people who I spoke to who traveled to Havana. We were staying off the beaten path (because Wifi and AC and Toilet Paper and 6 people, need I say more?), but we learned that transportation and converting cash became more difficult because we weren’t staying in Old Havana near all the tourists and hotels.
We went to the Airbnb to check in and get settled. After we got settled, we got a Taxi into town. Unfortunately, it was raining, so our Friday was spent mostly dodging into bars to get out of the rain.
As it got later, we decided to head back to our place to get ready for dinner and the Tropicana Show. Our hosts recommended a paladar near the Airbnb that was booked solid, so we went to the second runner up, Paladar Vista Mar. The view was STUNNING. Although it was still overcast and rainy, the sunset was a beautiful shade of blues.
Paladars are the independent, state sanctioned, family run restaurants of Cuba. The alternative is government run restaurants or cafeterias or street food. Paladars are usually in converted homes which make the aesthetic super cool. They are also one of the best ways to experience the local Cuban cuisine. Paladars were legalized in the 1990’s, but the strictly enforced regulations still made the venues feel more like a speakeasy than a restaurant. In 2011, the regulations were loosened, but it is still not easy for these paladars to obtain a variety of fresh ingredients that we take for granted in the U.S. I think this is what I love most about the food in Cuba. These people have to be creative with their dishes because they don’t have access to the ingredients we commonly use. The creativity is oozing from these private restaurants and I find it fun and intriguing.
Paladar Vista Mar was expensive for Cuban standards, but the food and drinks were amazing and the view was to die for. There is an upper deck that would have been perfect if it wasn’t raining. The infinity pool gives the restaurant a nice and relaxing aesthetic. It was in a residential area near our place and near the Tropicana, so it was a great place to go before the show.
As we were nearing the end of the day, we were starting to run low on funds (remember, we could only take out $200 per person present at the airport money exchange). We were already pooling our money at this point to ration our funds to make it to the end of the night.
After dinner and drinks, we went to the Tropicana show. I tried to research the dress code, but it was hard to determine what the proper attire was. The tickets had “costume required” printed on the tickets and you are urged to dress nicely. I’m here to assure you, that whatever you are wearing is fine. I would encourage you to dress up and there are some people dressed to the nines! There are also people that are extremely casual. You have to think that this is VERY expensive for the average Cuban, so dress for the occasion! I opted for a black jumpsuit and statement necklace and felt comfortable and dressed appropriately. Additionally, if you go straight here from being out and about during the day, there is a nice, large restroom to change in. There is also an option for dinner, but we opted to go to a local paladar instead of eat there since it WAS touristy.
Due to the rain, our show was moved indoors. It was still really fun, but the outdoor venue looks GORGEOUS.
Upon arrival, you are given a flower (for the gals) and a cigar (for the dudes). It’s 2017, so if you want a cigar, girl, you give that carnation back and smoke that cigar. Unfortunately, due to the rain and indoor venue, none of us were given cigars. We were, however, provided a bottle of Havana Club rum per 4 people with some Coca. We prepaid online so all of this was paid in advance which was our saving grace for our cash flow issues. I will say, that if you arrive early (doors open at 8:30 PM); you will be required to purchase any drinks prior to the show. They bring you a glass of champagne right before the show starts and that is when you receive your bottle of rum, ice bin and cokes. If you aren’t eating or wanting to purchase drinks before, you can show up closer to the show time (10:00 PM).
Overall, I really enjoyed the Tropicana Show. It was definitely a tourist attraction. I’m pretty sure this is one of the “excursions” offered for the Cruise ships, but it was definitely a good activity for the Friday we arrived. It was raining and we were still getting the lay of the land with a large group. It was a nice, chill activity to get our feet wet.
With just enough money to get home, we crammed into an old Ford and made our way back to our casa, with a couple bottles of rum in hand.
The next day, we needed money. Badly. We woke up, ate breakfast prepared by our hosts, and walked to the money exchange place in our neighborhood. The architecture throughout our neighborhood was beautiful. The country also seemed super safe. Other than the occasional odd looks, child asking for money and group of angry Cubans taking our photo, we were not bothered.
The walk was nice, but it was HOT. I have grown up in Florida and I was still really hot. It’s only 90 miles south of Florida… but it’s 90 miles SOUTH of Florida. At the peak of the day, we were missing the Friday storm.
Once we got to the money exchange stand, we found out that it was closed for an hour or so. We walked back to the Airbnb, defeated, with no money. This is when our host told us she could give us CUCs for our U.S. dollars but not Canadian dollars. Some of us had taken out Canadian dollars to avoid the 10% government tax on U.S. dollars. We exchanged whatever U.S. cash we had on us and got a taxi to Old Havana.
We walked through Old Havana most of the day where we say puppies for sale, a dog with a rat standing on its back and other odd sights. When we passed a Cadeca (money exchange place) we exchanged the rest of our Canadian dollars.
We wandered around Old Havana (La Habana Vieja), occasionally dodging into bar to get a good view and Mojito to escape the heat. Walking down the Malecon, the crumbling waterfront promenade to get a glimpse of the 17th century Catillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro was breathtaking. After our stroll, we wrapped up our day at the Hotel Nacional with some mojitos and sunset on their beautiful grounds.
At around sunset, we hopped in a (pink!) cab to head to La Guarida, Cuba’s most coveted dinner reservation, for dinner. La Guarida has a magical atmosphere in an old, crumbling mansion on a side street in Central Habana. The entrance might be the most enchanting part of it all. Think crumbling marble staircases, chandeliers and Fidel murals. It was breathtaking. We headed upstairs to the newer rooftop bar for drinks before dinner. The view is amazing. The bar is fairly small, so you might want to call ahead, but we were able to snag a corner table.
When our reservation was ready, we went downstairs and had a table next to the window. The décor is an old world vibe and unique. We ordered bottles of wine and food to share. All the food was pretty good. It was definitely the best food we had in Cuba. It is a very trendy paladar, so the portions were small and price points higher than any other paladar.
After dinner, we planned on going to the Fabrica de Arte (a really cool nightlife area), but alas, we were running low on funds (again). We headed back to the Airbnb to hang out before bed.
The next morning, we realized we were in dire need of some funds to be able to do anything. We had also racked up quite the tab on the refrigerated items and brekkie. Luckily, our hosts allowed me to pay them through Airbnb for the charges we accrued on beer, water and breakfast. We needed some spending money, so I gave them an extra $100 and they gave me cash. Do not rely on this method. I repeat. Come more prepared than me and bring lots of money. If our hosts weren’t so nice, willing and able to front me money, I wouldn’t have had enough to get me through the trip.
After we settled our bill with our hosts and packed up, we went to a restaurant near our Airbnb (La Fontana Havana). Our hosts personally knew the owners so they gave us a discount. It was a really nice location and had a gardeny vibe with streaming coy ponds carved out of the venue. The food was just okay, and the prices were extremely high for Cuba. I DO recommend the Sangria though! I made a conscious effort to try Mojitos everywhere I went, but the vibe of this specific restaurant was perfect for a Sangria. It did not disappoint.
At one point, one of us went to the restroom and spotted our hosts! We joked that they were babysitting us because they were worried we were going to run out of money again. After lunch, half of us got in our taxi and headed back to the Airbnb to meet our driver to take us to the airport. The other half of us hung back to wait for the car to return to pick us up. This part was some of the most fun times because we got to actually hang out with our hosts! They even bought us a drink, joking that they KNEW we didn’t have any money left. We chatted and laughed and drank with them and wished we had more time to spend with them. In fact, if it wasn’t for us actually being responsible for once, they definitely would have made us miss our flight.
We got to the airport and used our last CUC on a beer in the terminal before taking off for the US of A. Overall it was a great trip and I can’t wait to go back and visit (with more money). Before you go, learn from my mistakes and bring lots of cash.