Cuba had been on my bucket list for quite some time now, so I was really stoked to have been able to visit before any travel restrictions had occurred due to Covid-19.
Cuba is only an hour flight from Miami, yet remains one of the most isolated countries in the world. It is also a country that is a lot closer to communism than I had anticipated. The government owns a large percentage of businesses, if not all businesses, and monitors everything from internet usage (you must register your passport and lodging information before being able to purchase an internet time card) to track spending. Visitors are given CUC- Cuban Convertible Pesos when exchanged, while locals use CUP-Cuban Pesos.
Here are some tips to take note of before your visit.
BEFORE TRAVEL TIPS:
TIP #1: You will need a visa to enter Cuba. I went through www.cubavisaservices.com. The visa is around $85USD. I chose the “Support for the Cuban People” option on my reason for visit and experienced no problem going through Cuban customs.
TIP #2: Since you won't be able to make any currency exchanges into Cuban currency here in the States, make sure to bring Canadian currency or Euros to Cuba. All Cuban banks have a government mandated surcharge of 10% for any USD that is exchanged. Any other currencies besides USD do not have this 10% surcharge.
Furthermore, another thing to note is you won't be able to use your debit or ATM card in Cuba as Cuban ATMs are not compatible with US debit cards and pretty much not accepted. I know you’re going to think your AMEX black is going to be accepted worldwide blah blah but they will pretty much look at you like you're crazy if you present them with anything other than cash.
TIP #3: *VERY IMPORTANT* BRING LOTS OF SNACKS and NAPKINS. Bring napkins because a lot of restaurants didn't have any to give to their patrons at the time (I think there was a national shortage then?). I used my shirt a few times as a napkin, it was cool...
Pack snacks, girl I’m talking trail mix, protein bars, cup of noodles, cheetos, IDK, BRING IT ALL. It is not common for Cuban's to snack, so don't expect to find chips at the corner store. During our whole stay, the only snack we were able to find were these “agua y sal (water and salt)” crackers and they tasted exactly as such.
Another reason why I am telling you this, is because I got super sick in Trinidad and I was pretty much afraid to eat anything after that. It would have been nice to have something familiar to eat on hand to ease the anxiety, but what can you do...
Now that I have you prepared before your visit, here are the places to stay, see and do while in Cuba...
Transforming before our eyes yet still gloriously frozen in time, Havana is a place where old and new worlds collide and is made obvious just by observing the buildings and classic cars in itself. It is still creating its identity yet it struggles between maintaining its legacy from La Revolución (which I found Cubans are very proud and even fond of), but also tries to keep up with some of the conveniences and advances of today's global economy.
Stay: For some reason I felt it was difficult to find any hotels in Cuba online. Perhaps this may be because many hotels are government owned. However, I did manage to find several Airbnb options. If visiting Havana I would highly recommend staying anywhere around El Capitolo (aka the capital building), which is situated between the historic centre and downtown. Many streets do not have street signs and the GPS routes on our phones were inaccurate a lot of times. Staying near a monument such as El Capitolo made it easy to navigate around, as it is a hub for many businesses and happenings. Furthermore, it also makes it super easy to tell your taxi driver where they can drop you off as opposed to showing them an address on your phone that they themselves, even as locals, may not be able to figure out.
Do: Definitely take a ride on one of those classic cars along the seaside of Malecón and perhaps try out a Cuban cooking class. Most of all, I would say just walk around and take in the scenery. Although many of old Habana's buildings are on the verge of crumbling all together, it's a remarkable reminder of its once glamorous past and perhaps may not be there in the next ten years, so I think it’s fair to say one should enjoy old Habana as much as possible.
Eat: Food access is complicated in Cuba. One of the things we noticed after sitting down at a few restaurants is that there was a shortage of certain foods that were requested from the menu. I can only imagine what it must be like for some restaurants to be innovative and practical at the same time. However, this Cuban tapas place pretty much saved the day, Lamparilla Tapas & Cervezas (Lamparilla 361 e/ Aguacate y Villegas | E/ Aguacate y Villegas, Havana, Cuba).
My fave menu item was their lovely chicken croquettes. They were bomb, and were pretty much my go-to for almost every meal (oops I did it again, lol).
Unfortunately during my stay in Trinidad, I was riddled with a stomach bug so I didn’t have a true chance to give it a fair assessment. The only part I was able to see was the old square and the town's main cathedral. The main cathedral was the happening spot for the locals it seemed (besides the park that had WiFi connection). The architecture and streets are all from a distant era yet both elders and children sat along the square’s cathedral steps to enjoy the backdrop of a sherbet hued sunset.
Varadero was probably the highlight of my Cuba trip and was a great way to end my stay. Varadero is a small beach town that is about a 3 hour drive from Havana so you will have to hire a driver (about $65 USD). The drive was pleasant, as you will see a lot of the countryside and the bucolic lifestyle of the locals along the way. Overall, it is probably one of the most beautiful and unspoiled beaches I’ve ever been to. However, I must tell you, there isn’t much to do there but layout, swim, nap and relax, so don’t expect there to be a lot of activities, you really go there to become a beach bum, which was fine by me.
Cuba is a place that is no doubt unique and beautiful and by far very different from anywhere I have ever visited before. The people there are probably some of the most resourceful individuals in the world. It was really quite inspiring to experience. It is a country with very limited resources, so possessions hardly ever become “garbage” but rather are repurposed and restored. What may look like an antique to us, is actually being used for functionality and it’s quite remarkable how well they have preserved some of these relics from the past.
I really hope to one day revisit to see and hear about it’s progressions. In any case I know Cuba is going to have that perfect balance between its revolutionary past and its innovative future.