Three years ago, I sat in a presentation during a conference in Miami listening to the head of Marketing for the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Miami speak about the concerns the city had with Cuba’s borders opening. Why would people continue to come to Miami when they can get the real deal in Cuba, now? He spoke about their creative ways of keeping traffic and dollars in their economy by creating layover flights that placed people in Miami overnight. A tactic that proved to work during the games in Rio. If you stay overnight, even for 6-8 hours there’s still money going toward a hotel and dinner, maybe even (definitely) cocktails. That’s when I decided I had to get to Cuba! Maybe he shouldn’t have mentioned all that.
On the road, next stop Havana, Cuba!
Fast forward to late 2016 when people are finally able to get into Cuba without an act of God or being a Knowles-Carter or Obama. I decided it was time, and what better way then to invite friends to join me in celebrating my 30th birthday. So I start spreading the word to my friends who like to travel. The original list was long but if you travel with groups, you know how the story always plays out. A few people always say yes but never buy the flight, a few people have a million questions that just get you in circles, a few people just drop off the face of the earth and so on until you have your final travel group.
So here we go, May 25, 2017, my amazing friends from all over the country boarded flights and met me in HAVANA!
1. No, it does not take an act of Congress, for now at least
I purchased two separate RT flights to take advantage of a Southwest deal, FLL—>HAV, RT for $69 when it was available and searched for my flight from NOLA later. There was no way I was passing up that fare steal. Southwest may be one of the cheapest options for travel to Cuba. The flight was inexpensive and the Visa which you can purchase through the airline, was only $50. Definitely get to the airport with some time, FLL has a new setup for this journey and many of the natives are headed home or visiting with lots of baggage. Expect some delays, nothing crazy, though. Don’t check a bag, it may be the next day before you see it hit baggage claim runway (slight exaggeration but you’re definitely going to be held up for a good hour). Make a plan with your friends if you aren’t traveling together to meet at the currency exchange booth or right at the exit doors because once you step out there’s no way to contact each other.
2. Prepare to drop off the grid.
This was my very first vacation in 6 years where I could legitimately leave my laptop at home because cell service and internet were NOT guaranteed. I personally walked away thinking that was the best part of the trip. We talked each other’s ears off and laughed so much it hurt. But yes, seriously, even with an international plan there’s only wi-fi in what we liked to call the Hotspot Parks, in which you must negotiate with a Cuban for a wi-fi card (NOTE: They will sell to you for 3CUC but it only cost 1CUC- honestly, the way their wages are set up, graciously hand over the extra 2CUC) and then enter your code and sit in one spot and don’t move or breathe too hard ‘cuz you’ll lose the connection.
3. Download maps.me. before you leave the US!
This map of Havana which acted as my Google Maps during the trip was a lifesaver and required no wifi. (Thanks, Joel!) Since very few cabbies speak English this was the best way of getting the crew to and from in our cabs. Interesting fact: Learning English was technically banned in Cuba until a few years ago. In 2015, the Cuban government actually made it a priority for English to be taught in schools in wake of the 2014 agreement to normalize relations.
4. Converting the USD funds
There are a few options here. First, know that the USD is 1.10 to 1 CUC. Also note, that the CUC is what you’re getting not CUP, which is what natives use. Most spots and drivers carry both. Another way to circumvent losing out on some of that dough is to exchange USD to Euros in the US airport, then when you arrive in Cuba exchange Euros to CUC. Listen closely: you CANNOT use USD in Cuba and you DEFINITELY CANNOT swipe your debit or ATM card or stop at an ATM. We budgeted about $100 a day which included food and rides, souvenirs and maybe an extracurricular activity or two. If you have plans to visit somewhere a little more extravagant like Paladar-La Guardia or Tropicana, be sure to set separate money aside.
5. Negotiate. Look disinterested. Start walking away… Got ’em!
Hate to make this seem like a dirty game but if we’re being honest the “Americanos” are targeted once you hop off the plane. Cab-fare during the day in the Old American cars shouldn’t be more than 5-10CUC. If you’re only going 3 miles you should be able to talk them down pretty easily. If you’re traveling further, traveling with multiple people, or traveling at night, expect the fare to start at 10CUC. Just be prepared to hear 20 and 25CUC a lot. As much as they give you an attitude give them one back. The natives pay a portion of what we pay in cab fare so you’re already giving more than you should have to. Please note: The Old American cab drivers are legit and safe but not run by the government so they are a bit cheaper. The yellow taxis are government owned, so you already know…
6. The Food
Sorry for everyone who experienced such forgettable meals while they were in Havana. We ate SO GOOD! We took some suggestions from past travelers and were only steered wrong once, by Cubans, who yes, kinda got over on us. We didn’t get to try too much local fare, except the breakfast sandwiches that saved our lives on the way to Vinales at 9 am!
I’d suggest reservations at Paladar-La Guardia if you’re looking for a fancy dinner. My birthday dinner was there and I budgeted $60 per person. Even after drinks, appetizers, and entrees we split it 6 way and spent 43CUC each. Beware though, you can’t just walk up into this mini castle. I made reservations several weeks out because there was a large group. If smaller, at least call a few days ahead or make reservations through the online portal
Laid back, Miami feel with your shades on, get over to El Cocinero. I’ll probably never trust another Mojito or Pina Colada in the states again, it’s rubbish! Cool Fact: Cuba is the birthplace of the Mojito
Going for family style or want to try a few things and share you have to go to La Rosa Negra. It’s small and popular so expect to wait a while. Try and make reservations if you can. Great service. Great food!
7. Sorry, I only do hand-rolled cigars!
Take a ride out to Vinales for the cigar tour. The family has been in the mountains planting tobacco leaves and rolling your favorite Monte Cristos and Cohibas for 100 years or so. So it’s safe to say, they’ve got this on lock. Expect to make a day out of this. It’s a good 2.5-3 hour drive from Havana there and back plus a good 2-3 hours of learning the process, sippin’ mojitos and strolling through a cave (more if you go on a busy tourist day). There are some opportunities for guided tours and you can stay in the national park. Our AWESOME AirBnB host set us up with two drivers for the day who stayed with us and let us do our thing.
Unfortunately, Fabrica de Arte (FAC) was closed during our visit to the island, but it landed us at some other cool clubs like Sara’s Bar & Disco. It had a pretty similar vibe to the venues you might walk into in Miami, playing a mix of American hip-hop and rap hits, crossover Latin hits, and local music. Take it easy though, the drinks, like most things on the island are incredibly inexpensive. It’s a marathon, not a race!
We also made it to Tropicana. This was probably the most important stop for me to make the trip. The cabaret opened in 1939 and has had some of the largest entertainment stars in the Latin world grace the audience with their presence. The dancers and their costumes though are what really makes the night. We sat right on the side of the stage and at some point or another, all were pulled onto the stage to dance. Yes, the closer you are the better the chance you’re going to be a star that night as well. I’d suggest eating dinner somewhere before you arrive. Be on time! Get seats in the center so you can get a full view of everything happening and enjoy a bottle of Havana Rum, Anejo 7!