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Why I Took My Kids to Havana

By Eric Kaye
April 4, 2017
Havana vintage cars
Eric Kaye
From the friendly streets packed with live music, vintage cars, and 18th-century buildings to the gorgeous beaches and delicious ice cream, my family’s affordable getaway to the once-forbidden island of Cuba was a hit, not only with the adults but also with the little ones.

"You brought your kids to Cuba?” The question was repeatedly posed to us upon our return, a bit of incredulity mixed with a slight tinge of envy.  

Yes, between Christmas and New Years of last year, we took our well-traveled 5- and 7-year-old children to Havana for a five-day trip. Affordable, safe, filled with friendly people, live music spilling out onto nearly every street corner in old Havana, and stunning beaches a stone’s throw away, this city was surprisingly perfect for a family vacation.

Since November 2016, it has been extremely easy to simply hop on a plane to Havana from the U.S. You can get your visas at your check-in counter. There are three direct flights a day from New York City, priced as low as $250 a ticket. As long as you go for one of the 12 approved types of travel, there are no other restrictions. We went under the auspices of a “people-to-people”  trip, in which our goal was to meet Cuban people and have the kids learn some Spanish. That was not a challenge. Cubans are incredibly warm and friendly, and it’s easy to make new friends with a couple of smiling moppets in tow.

A bit of pre-travel advice: Before leaving for Cuba, it’s extremely useful to exchange your U.S. dollars into either Canadian dollars or Euros. U.S. dollars are hit with an additional 10 percent exchange penalty that other currencies are not. There are actually two currencies in Cuba: Tourists use the CUC, or convertible peso;  Cubans use the CUP, or Cuban peso, pegged roughly at 25 CUP to 1 CUC. In general, tourists do not have access to Cuban pesos, unless they get a local to swap some notes on the sly. And cash is king: U.S. credit cards and ATM cards are still not accepted in Cuba. Unless you have a foreign credit card or bank account, you need to bring a large amount of cash with you.

Havana's splendors have been described by great writers over the years, but that doesn’t prepare you for the sensation of actually walking its streets. It's a full-frontal assault on all five senses. You’ll love feeling the tropical breeze caress your face while viewing grand 18th-century architecture and vintage 1950s American autos trapped in time, hearing the sounds of Son and Charanga emanate from the musicians and radios on seemingly every street corner, the smells of Havana's finest cigars wafting through the air, while sipping on the best mojito you've ever tasted.

Back in the 1950s, Havana was Paris in the tropics, one of wealthiest cities in Latin America. Now it's the world’s greatest urban paradox, simultaneously modern and a trip back in time. The iconic old American cars cruise the street in equal numbers with new Toyotas and 1970s Soviet Ladas. While the Edsel may be found only in car shows and museums in America, it's a common sight on Havana's streets, as are Studebakers, '57 Chevys, and almost every other classic automobile. Our kids preferred to get around Havana in bright yellow, three-wheeled coconut shaped rickshaws, called “coco taxis.” Be prepared for a bumpy ride.

Ernest Hemingway's ghost haunts every corner. He's so revered in Cuba, you'd think he was part of the Revolution. At least three bars claim to be his "favorite drinking place,” and considering Hemingway’s reputation, I suppose he could have spent enough time at each of the three bars to justify the claim. There are lines out the door at the Bodeguita del Medio on Empedrado, where Hemingway drank his mojitos. For a proper daiquiri, he would head up Calle Obispo to El Floridita. Both spots are must-visits for Hemingway fans and cocktail lovers. Finca Vigia, his residence on the outskirts of town, has been preserved as a museum exactly as he left it in 1960.

STAY

Most hotels in Havana are actually rather expensive, and usually booked months in advance by package tour groups. Thankfully, Havana has a well-established and government-sanctioned program of private homes and rooms to rent, called casa particulares. Since 2015, the vast majority of these can be booked on Airbnb.  A room in old Havana can be had for about $40 a night. We splurged and rented a two-bedroom apartment in a high rise on the water for $90 a night in the heart of Vedado, in the newer part of town. Our apartment overlooked the Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Platform, which prominently features a statue of Cuban hero Marti holding a young Elian Gonzales, with a reproving finger pointing at the U.S. Embassy across the plaza.

EAT

Well-stocked supermarkets don’t really exist in Havana. You’re at the mercy of what’s in stock, which is generally very little. While we was there, there were shelves full of Panettone and Gerber baby food, but very little in the way of eggs, fresh fruits, and vegetables. For an extremely satisfying breakfast, however, the Hotel Capri in Vedado has a vast and sumptuous buffet, open to the public. For just $12 per person ($6 for kids), a feast awaits that can fill a belly for half the day. Kids can have their fill of fruits, eggs, pancakes, cereal, and even donuts.

Just as some Cubans have been allowed to rent their apartments for lodging as casa particulares, others have been allowed to operate restaurants out of their homes. These in-home restaurants, limited to 12 seats, are known as paladares and can be found throughout the city. In fact, paladares now outnumber official state restaurants. A tasty dinner including drinks can be had for $10 to $15 per person, and every cab driver will show you their favorite special “secret” paladar if you ask.

SMOKE (IF THAT’S YOUR THING)

Every souvenir hawker and tout in old Havana will offer to sell you “real” Cuban cigars, cheaply. While they may be indeed Cuban, and cigars, they are poorly made knockoffs of the stogies that made Havana famous. For the real deal, stop by one of the Casa de Habano stores found throughout Havana. They have every brand of Cuban cigar imaginable, and you can be assured that you’re not buying counterfeits. After teaching my kids since birth that smoking is disgusting and bad for them, I really had no explanation for why I was bringing home a box of Montecristos. I’m not sure if they bought my “a cigar is a sometimes thing” excuse.  

PLAY

Hugging the waterfront in old Havana is a wonderful children's park and playground, replete with aging carousels, see-saws, and newer bouncy castles. It’s enough to keep the kids entertained for a few hours.  Convertible pesos are not accepted for the admission fee, so if you want to visit, you need to find a local parent and trade them some CUCs for CUPs. It’s about $0.15 to enter the park, and admission to the enormous bouncy castles and slides are another $0.15.

In the center of a leafy park in Vedado, an enormous mid-century modern UFO rises above the trees. Lines of locals stretch down the block on all four sides of the park. The UFO does not take trips to Miami, but houses the famed Copellia ice cream parlor. Established by Castro in the early 1960s, Copellia made ice cream accessible to the common folk. For about 20 cents and an hour’s wait, you can get an enormous bowl of Havana’s best Ice cream. For tourists who don’t want to wait and don’t mind paying a little more, there’s an opportunity to skip the line and go to a separate gringo section, where the same ice cream can be had for 10 times the price.

A 20-minute cab right out of town brings you to the gorgeous beaches of Playas del Este, a great day trip. A few hotels dot a 15-mile stretch of white-sand beaches, but it’s largely free of development. For $25 (half-price for kids), you can buy a day pass at the Hotel Atlantico in Santa Maria del Mar, which includes a buffet lunch, and use of the hotel’s pool and facilities. It’s a rather aging, communist-style hotel, mainly filled with foreign package tourists and complete with the requisite overeager activities staff giving poolside salsa and rhumba lessons.  The kids loved it.

I should note that Cuban travel is not for everyone. Those accustomed to five-star accommodations and meals and streets lined with fancy boutiques may find themselves disappointed. Folks willing to forsake a few creature comforts for a unique experience a mere 45 minutes from Florida will find Cuba’s charms irresistible. My kids’ days of “people-to-people” experiences left them with beloved memories. As for their newfound knowledge of Spanish? The only word that seems to have lodged in their brains is helado.  Ice cream, of course.

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My 11-year-old, Clara, a basketball and lacrosse player, got it in about two minutes. My 6-year-old, Rosalie, a dancer and gymnast, got it in about five minutes. Let’s just say I’m still obsessively reviewing in my 0mind how to master the fine art of stepping in and out of skis. This established a pattern for the remainder of our lessons. Stephen demonstrated how to glide down a gentle grade and stop by turning your skis inward, forming a triangle, or “pizza,” as they say in kids’ ski school. Clara? Got this. Rosalie? Got this. Me? Instead of stopping, I popped out of my skis and fell on my face in the snow. “Double ejec­tion!” exclaimed Stephen, delighted. “I’ve never seen that before!” After a few hours, we took a lunch break with Michele in River Run Village and swapped stories: Her morning at Keystone’s spa was pretty much paradise. She also shared her drawings of the mountains—there’s nothing like the Rockies to inspire an artist to break out her sketch pad. (Lunch and all our other dining experiences at Keystone—from burgers to a fondue feast at the summit to a sleigh-ride dinner that took us up to an old home­stead in the woods—were truly exceptional.) Because the girls had mastered gliding and stopping, post-lunch we hopped back on the gondola for the ride to the summit, where a more challenging learners’ slope awaited. Up there, with 360 views of the surrounding mountains, the kids got better and better, practicing run after run. I was content simply to remain vertical, mostly, and to practice easy turns and stops. I started snapping photos and enjoying watching my girls laughing and swooshing around, asking smart questions, and having a blast. After that first day, our week of lessons flew past—and just got better and better. Finally, it hit me: This trip was never about me. This was about giving my children the opportunity to become those girls—the ones who fearlessly glide down a mountain. Am I ever going to move beyond “beginner”? I still hope so. But I’ll tell you what: Clara and Rosalie are already asking on a regular basis, “When are we going back to Colorado?” A KID’S VIEW OF THE MOUNTAIN My daughter Clara loves to read (including Budget Travel) and write. On our visit to Keystone Resort, Clara, who was 11 at the time, took notes, and I suggested that if she took the “assignment” seriously, I would consider sharing her thoughts with BT readers. Here, Clara’s “kid’s-eye view” of Dercum Mountain and our skiing lessons: What I remember most about Keystone and learning to ski is the gondola rides up and down the mountain. I felt like I was flying up higher and higher in a magic cube. When we got out halfway up the mountain, I gazed at the gondolas, like little boxes, moving up, faster than I had felt in the actual vehicle. On the way down, I watched the antlike people and the toy-size buildings grow bigger and bigger as we made our way down. The gondolas were not only handy but magical, especially to me, a newbie. I will say that learning to ski was both fun and scary. Getting in and out of the skis was always tiresome, but the fun and exhilarating ride that came after made up for it! On my first try, I fell over twice, but after learning more, I was more confident and comfortable going downhill. At one point I questioned myself for trying to glide down a mountain on two thin slabs attached to my feet, but eventually I decided I was safe enough and not to question myself or my trainer any longer. At first I was scared to go flying down a hill very fast, but after learning simple tricks, like turning your head in the direction you want to go, I didn’t doubt my skill again. I certainly do appreciate the hard work that our teacher Stephen, my sister Rosie, Papa, and I had to go through so we could learn to ski, because it was really a fun, exciting, and lovely experience!

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