Just Back From: Cuba

Grand Teatro Cuba old carsOld cars parked in Cuba
Nobohh/Dreamstime

There's a lot more to this once-forbidden island nation than vintage cars and cigars.

Back in the fall, I was on a plane-ticket buying spree. Cheap airfare is my Achilles heel, and post-holiday flights are always irresistibly inexpensive; true to form, I couldn’t say no, booking tickets to San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, for two cross-country trips within less than a month of each other. (Irresponsible use of my credit cards? Perhaps. Proven method of combating SAD? Most definitely.) So when my oldest travel friend got in touch and invited me to crash her trip to Cuba, I was predisposed to politely decline—she would be traveling in between my two West Coast sojourns, and I’d already racked up enough debt to make my New Year’s resolution null and void before 2017 was even over. But true to form, I just couldn’t bring myself to say no, and that’s how I found myself skipping town the morning of a nor’easter and disembarking at José Martí International Airport a few hours later to bright sun, blue skies, and 90-degree weather. During the next five days, we wandered around Havana, lingering in plazas and browsing through museums and galleries, eating and drinking and taking in the rhythm of the city. (We also spent a day at the beach, because it was February and how could we not?) Here’s how it all went down.

Day 1: Habana Vieja

Cuba-Air-b-n-b-view.JPG?mtime=20180404134125#asset:101214
View from the Airbnb. (Maya Stanton)

Our first two nights, we stayed in a casa particular (a room for rent in a private home) near Plaza Vieja, a square in Old Havana with eclectic architecture, bars with live music and towers of beer, and restaurants that cater to a tourist-heavy crowd. As we walked through the narrow streets in and around the square, we dodged groups of happy, noisy school children and peeked in the windows of all kinds of stores, from upscale chains to hole-in-the-wall souvenir shops.  

OReilly-drink-Cuba.JPG?mtime=20180404134136#asset:101217A gussied-up gin and tonic at O'Reilly 304. (Maya Stanton)

We’d read that O'Reilly 304 (O’Reilly between Habana and Aguiar) was vegetarian-friendly, which suited the third member of our party—we expected to be inundated with pork and seafood during the next few days, so it seemed smart to start someplace that had options for all of us. The bar is known for its gin drinks, and my G&T was suitably over the top, with a smattering of fruit and peppercorns in the mix, and a spiral of lime peel and a pink-edged petal for garnish. Our non-meat-eater gave two thumbs up for her veggie tacos, while my friend and I tucked into plates of octopus (extremely tender), lobster (a bit overcooked), and grilled vegetables (copious but pretty plain).

Malecon-Sunset-Cuba.JPG?mtime=20180404134133#asset:101216Fishing on the Malecón. (Maya Stanton)

We rolled out of the restaurant and ambled over to the Paseo del Prado esplanade, pausing to watch a small ensemble performing traditional tunes as couples danced and visitors filmed. From there, we made our way up to the Malecón, the seawall that separates the road from the surf and serves as a meeting place, a fishing hole, and a WiFi hotspot all in one. We took in the ocean breeze for a bit, admiring Cuban sculptor Rafael San Juan’s Primavera, a 23-foot-high ballet-inspired bust of a woman, created from recycled steel for the 2015 Havana Biennial and installed in front of a bright-green building, then continued our walkabout.  

Habana-Vieja-street-Cuba.JPG?mtime=20180404134130#asset:101215
A colorful street in Habana Vieja. (Maya Stanton)

We circled through the vibrant old town, its dusty streets teeming with people—tourists making the rounds, locals chatting with neighbors, running errands, and calling out from souvenir-shop doorways, sidewalk cafes, and pedicabs to earn some business. A woman with a baby strapped to her chest walked with us for a bit, asking for money, and as we wound our way through neighborhoods with dilapidated facades and sparse markets, dodging stray dogs and catcalls, the contrast between our fancy lunch and what we were seeing on the streets in front of us was striking. As the sun set and we grew closer to home, a nightcap seemed in order, so we made a quick stop at Siá Kará (facebook.com/siakaracafecuba), a café with cheap beer, good piña coladas, and a tempting menu, then made our way back to our casa particular.  

Day 2: Habana Vieja, Centro Habana, & Vedado

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Museo de Arte Colonial, Havana. (Maya Stanton)

The next morning, we woke to the sounds of roosters crowing and breakfast sizzling. Most casas offer a homemade morning meal, and for CUC$5 per person, our host provided a generous spread of eggs, fruit, rolls, plantains, and coffee. Properly prepared for our first full day on the island, we started off to explore, heading first to the Plaza de San Francisco de Asís, a 16th-century square that faces the Havana Harbor. After a quick photo op, we swung over to Castillo de la Real Fuerza, a fort built in the 1500s that stands guard over the bay. We decided against visiting the navigation museum housed within, instead rambling a block south to Plaza de Armas, the oldest square in the city. A group of exuberant kids played a variation of Duck Duck Goose in front of the statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the Cuban revolutionary who got the ball rolling on independence from Spain, as we looked around for the secondhand book market that’s reportedly there Monday through Saturday. But the vendors were nowhere to be found, so we consoled ourselves with a few minutes of eavesdropping on a guided tour, then moved on.

Somehow resisting the siren call of baked goods from Panadería-Dulcería San-José (Obispo between Mercaderes and San Ignacio), we poked our heads into a store that carried a preponderance of white-linen dresses and guayaberas; a few steps further led us to their place of origin, an open-front workshop humming with sewing machines. As we wandered the cobblestone streets, lined with sherbet-hued buildings and dotted with shops and cafes, we stumbled upon Piscolabis (piscolabishabana.com), a boutique-cafe combo carrying unique apparel, accessories, and home decor, all made by Cuban artisans. I wanted to buy everything, then remembered my already-full suitcase, limited funds, and disinclination to carry shopping bags around the rest of the day, and left empty handed.  

Plaza-de-Catedral.JPG?mtime=20180404134856#asset:101223Havana's Plaza de la Catedral. (Maya Stanton)

Finally, we arrived at Plaza de la Catedral, an 18th-century square in the northeast corner of the city with an asymmetrical stone cathedral at its heart. The entrance to the Museo de Arte Colonial (San Ignacio 61) faces the plaza; we took a lap around the gift shop and snapped a few photos of the canary-yellow courtyard, but we still weren’t ready to commit to a museum visit.

Taller-Experimental-de-Grafica.JPG?mtime=20180404134913#asset:101224A wood-block printing mold in the making at Taller Experimental de Gráfica. (Maya Stanton)

Instead, we headed for the other end of the plaza, where there's a narrow alley awash with restaurants and a gauntlet of touts who gather at the base of the street, attempting to reel in customers. Past the tables of diners with stray cats begging at their feet, you’ll find Taller Experimental de Gráfica (Callejón del Chorro 6), a very cool space where artists create and sell their work—everything from painted tiles to carved-wood-block prints. I fell in love with a pastel-hued, old-school-style travel poster of the Malecón, but at CUC$300, it was out of my price range, so I settled on a small 8"x10” print for CUC$40 instead. It was the smart choice, but even now, months later, I’m still thinking longingly of the one that got away.

Havana-bookshop.JPG?mtime=20180404134825#asset:101220Librería Victoria on Calle Obispo. (Maya Stanton)

Our afternoon agenda included a visit to the Museo de la Revolución (Avenida Bélgica; CUC$8) in Centro Habana, and to get there, we had to pass one of the other vegetarian-friendly restaurants on my list, so we figured it was time for lunch. Before we could get there though, we were lured into Librería Victoria (Obispo 366), a dimly lit bookstore on the main shopping drag, with great silk-screened posters advertising Cuban films, Rolling Stones concerts, and classics like Singin’ in the Rain; a birdcage swinging above the door; and plenty of dusty old tomes. We browsed the stacks until our stomachs were rumbling too much to ignore.

IvanChefJusto-lobster-salad.JPG?mtime=20180404134834#asset:101221Lobster salad at Ivan Chefs Justo. (Maya Stanton)

Luckily, we were just few blocks away from Ivan Chefs Justo (facebook.com/IvanChefsJusto), a brightly painted yellow townhouse with an antiques-jammed interior, every bit of available wall space covered with framed prints, paintings, and photos of varying sizes. We decided to forgo the visually busy dining room in favor of the shady rooftop terrace, accessed via a narrow spiral staircase. After consulting the chalkboard menus, we ordered a bunch of plates to share: a bread basket with dips; a salad layered with lobster, fresh tomatoes, and thin-sliced onions and doused with olive oil, tiny basil leaves, and a shower of cheese; golf-ball sized fish croquettes with plantains and a smear of tzatziki; and mixed seafood on a chunky, risotto-like bed of corn and pumpkin. Stuffed and fighting the urge for a siesta, we ordered coffee and headed across the street to the museum.

My cortado must’ve done the trick, because as we made our way through the former Presidential Palace and gawked at glittering chandeliers juxtaposed with bullet holes dating from a student-led (unsuccessful) attack on then-President Batista, I didn’t yawn once. We took in the propaganda-loaded history lesson (let’s just say the Kennedy administration isn’t painted in the most positive light), then stepped out front to find a ride to our next destination.

We were hoping to hail one of the city's famously photogenic vintage cars to take us there, but the drivers we spoke with were looking for passengers who wanted to hire them for the day, not a single ride. The regular cabs were a bit pricey, so we ended up squeezing into the back of a coco taxi (a yellow helmet-shaped scooter that seats up to three behind the driver) and holding on for dear life as our driver peeled out into traffic.

A short ride later, we pulled up in front of Cuba Libro (cubalibrohavana.com), an English-language bookstore/coffee shop/community hangout in Vedado, a sprawling residential neighborhood to the west of the old city. We whiled away an hour in the shady, hammock-laden front yard, shooing away mosquitos, sipping iced tea, and flipping through the pages of a street-style book as the Sirius station streamed perfect sunny-afternoon soul tunes. (We especially enjoyed the cleverly labeled reading material in the restroom.)

From there, it wasn’t a far walk to El Cocinero (elcocinerocuba.com), a rooftop bar and restaurant in a former oil factory, with a trendy, too-cool-for-school vibe. We showed up without a reservation, but the hostess eventually cleared us to climb the winding stairs up to the terrace...which turned out to be practically empty before the dinner rush. We opted for cold bottles of domestic Cristal (CUC$2.50) instead of something from the cocktail list, then headed for our dinner reservation at Río Mar (facebook.com/restauranteriomar), a seafood-centric restaurant on a tiny peninsula on the north coast. After a wrong turn through a neighborhood that didn’t seem to get many tourists and a detour past a burned-out, apocalyptic-looking seafront high-rise, we finally found the place. We ordered a few tapas-style small plates: ropa vieja on soft corn cakes, stuffed piquillo peppers, and another round of veg tacos for our non-meat eater. We’d planned to swing back toward El Cocinero to see what was on next door at Fábrica de Arte Cubano (fac.cu), a hipster-sounding arts and entertainment venue, but we were wiped out and instead opted for a cab back to Habana Vieja, where we ventured up to the plaza for a few glasses of wine, then called it a night.

Day 3: Varadero

We’d booked a taxi to take us to the beach at 8 a.m., and our driver was right on time. (At CUC$10 per person, it would’ve been less expensive to take the bus, but a cab offered a more direct route and a more flexible schedule, and since we didn’t have unlimited time to spend in transit, we sucked it up and paid the $100 fare.) The resort town of Varadero is a few hours by car, so we made a pit stop at a thatched-roof roadside plaza for a breakfast of coffee and ham-and-cheese sandwiches. Even at that early hour, a four-piece band was warming up, providing a serene yet slightly surreal backdrop, especially for those of us more familiar with the chaos of rest stops on the I-95 corridor. 

Varadero-pina-colada.JPG?mtime=20180404135415#asset:101227A beachy beverage at Vernissage. (Maya Stanton)

By 11 a.m., we’d checked into our centrally located casa particular and found our way to the patio of Vernissage (corner of Avenida Primera and Calle 36), a restaurant and snack bar conveniently situated between home and beach. After a round of piña coladas and a rib-sticking lunch of roast pork, rice and beans, seafood bisque, and vegetable lasagna, we were more than ready for an afternoon in the sun. 

Varadero-beach-Cuba.JPG?mtime=20180404135406#asset:101225A glorious day in Varadero. (Maya Stanton)

We walked the block to the beach and stopped at the first place we found, Hotel Los Delfines (Avenida Primera and Calle 39), where we rented lounge chairs for a few CUC and spent the rest of the day swimming, reading, and sipping mojitos.

After the beach, we rode the complimentary tourist bus to the end of the isthmus and back (don’t do this—it stops at every all-inclusive along the way, and it’s a long trip), then went in search of dinner. Our first choice, a Spanish spot, was permanently shuttered, so we settled for the next place we happened upon, an open-air joint called El Rancho, for an utterly forgettable meal.

As we were paying the bill, we heard the music ramping up across the street at the Beatles Bar (Avenida Primera and Calle 59), and as a lifelong fan of the Fab Four—albeit one with an ingrained dislike of Beatles cover bands—I felt compelled to stop by and check out the show. A quartet of a so-bad-they’re-good sculptures greeted us as we entered, and as the band began cycling through an odd mix of Beatles tunes and random ‘90s hits from the likes of Shania Twain and the Offspring, we found seats in the back and watched the very enthusiastic crowd from a safe distance. A little went a long way and we'd soon had enough, making our way home to crash hard before our early-morning departure.

Day 4: Matanzas & Havana 

Varadero-breakfast.JPG?mtime=20180404135412#asset:101226Breakfast, casa particular–style. (Maya Stanton)

With the help of our host, we arranged for a driver to take us back to the capital via Matanzas, about a 40-minute drive from Varadero, making a stop or two along the way. We just had time to finish our homemade breakfast before the cab arrived, and we were on the road by 8 a.m. Our first stop was Cueva de Saturno, a freshwater subterranean cave with a swimming hole and snorkeling gear for rent. Sadly, and contrary to the intel we’d gathered in the planning stages, it wasn’t open that early, so we hopped back in the car, rolled down the windows, and let the wind blow through our hair as our driver blasted the timba.

Matanzas-Cuba.JPG?mtime=20180404135733#asset:101231Riverside in Matanzas. (Maya Stanton)

Half an hour later, we pulled into the waterfront city of Matanzas, winding our way through town until we reached Ediciones Vigía, a small-batch publishing company with serious artistic bonafides. Its books, released in limited editions and beautifully crafted from handmade paper and found materials, have received international praise, featuring in collections from New York’s Museum of Modern Art to the Library of Congress. I could’ve lingered in the airy, plant-filled space for another hour, but we had things to do and places to be, so we made our selections (a notebook for me and a volume of poetry for our vegetarian friend) and got back on the road.

Ediciones-Vigia-books-cuba.JPG?mtime=20180404135730#asset:101230An array of books from Ediciones Vigía. (Maya Stanton)

Before long, we were hitting the outskirts of Havana. Our final casa was the best of the bunch, with high ceilings, a mini fridge with honor-system bottled water and cans of beer, and a great location a block or two from the Paseo del Prado. We dropped our suitcases and set out to cross a few things off our list. After a quick stop at Hotel Sevilla (hotelsevilla-cuba.com), where we grabbed cigars to take home for friends and spent a few minutes in the atrium listening to the band, we hailed a cab to take us back to Vedado for lunch.

Decameron-lunch.JPG?mtime=20180404135727#asset:101229Arroz caldoso and Havana's best mojito at Decamerón. (Maya Stanton)

Inside a nondescript townhouse on a high-traffic street is Decamerón (facebook.com/RestauranteDecameron), a privately owned paladar with a plain facade that belies a genteel, white-tableclothed interior and well-executed, vegetarian-friendly Cuban cuisine. (It also served the best mojito I had all week. The secret ingredient? A generous dose of bitters to cut through the customary sugar for a more balanced beverage.) We commandeered a corner table on the leafy terrace and proceeded to have a leisurely meal of green salads—our first in days—and, for me, a highly satisfying bowl of arroz caldoso, brothy rice with chicken, pork, and Catalan sausage.

After lunch, we made a pilgrimage to Parque Lennon (not to be confused with Parque Lenin) for some quality time with my favorite ex-Beatle. Though his music was once banned in Cuba, John Lennon is now memorialized in bronze and patiently accepts visitors from his perch in the park. His glasses were missing, but other than that, the resemblance was uncanny.

From there, we caught another cab, this time bound for the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (bellasartes.co.cu). We started with the international collection, which was broad in scope and not super exciting, and took in José Manuel Fors’s Palimpsesto installation, but we spent the bulk of our time with the Cuban collection. I loved the ink-and-tempera illustrations from the 1930s, and the modern pieces on the second floor were stunning.

Havana-Cuba-Car.JPG?mtime=20180404135724#asset:101228Back in Havana. (Maya Stanton)

With a few hours of daylight left, we spent the rest of the afternoon popping in and out of various galleries in and around the museum: The Merger (Monserrate 203), a studio directly across the street with contemporary sculptures and prints, and over on Obispo, the gallery of Ernesto Villanueva Morera (evillanueva.com), where I would’ve spent all of my money if only I'd had enough. On our way back to the casa to change for dinner, we came across a small collective in a gritty, ground-floor space just off the Paseo and spent a few minutes browsing and chatting with the artists. No matter where we looked, we seemed to find that creative spark.  

For dinner, it was back to the Plaza de la Catedral for a meal among the touts. We’d made a reservation at Paladar Doña Eutemia (donaeutimia.restaurantwebexperts.com), the alley’s initial attraction; when the restaurant became popular, others sprung up in its wake to vie for its overflow, but none of them have the cachet—or the quality—of the original. Our table was out front on the terrace, which was lovely...until it started to rain. Relocated to the cheery dining room, we dug into plates of picadillo and roast pork (and garbanzo-bean stew for our vegetarian friend). The pork was dry, but the picadillo—seasoned ground beef sautéed with raisins and olives—more than lived up to the billing.

The rain was still coming down when we left, and the streets had emptied out a bit. We made an impromptu stop on the way home, drying off a few seats on the balcony at Esquina de Cuba (facebook.com/esquinadecuba) for a farewell round of piña coladas and fancified gin and tonics.

Day 5: Homeward Bound

Breakfast-home-cuba.JPG?mtime=20180404140256#asset:101233Definitely not waffles. (Maya Stanton)

Lured by the promise of waffles, we chose Cuban fashion designer Jacqueline Fumero’s Café del Angel (cafedelangeljf.com) for our final breakfast. Sadly, it was false promise and there were no waffles to be found, so we settled for a colorful spread of eggs, toast, mango juice, and coffee instead. With our flights scheduled to leave in just a few hours, we had time for one more stop: the Saturday art market on the Paseo. My friend bought a print, but my last CUCs were reserved for the taxi to the airport; if I’d budgeted enough, though, I would’ve found room in my suitcase for a tiny watercolor or two. 

Street-Paseo-del-Prado-Cuba.JPG?mtime=20180404140252#asset:101232Just off the Paseo del Prado in Havana. (Maya Stanton)

Again, our host at the casa helped arrange our ride to the airport, and when we came downstairs, we were pleasantly surprised to find a vintage turquoise Plymouth waiting for us at the curb. I'd had mixed feelings about being one of those oblivious tourists gallivanting around in a classic car, and now that one had presented itself, it was like my internal dilemma had materialized before my eyes. I was still grappling with the disconnect between the cushy visitors’ experience and the poverty we were seeing on the streets; the two coexist in a way that’s troubling, to say the least. Though a recent survey puts the numbers slightly higher, Cuba’s National Office of Statistics reports that the average monthly salary is less than $30 per month—meaning many Cubans make less in a month than a visitor spends in a few days. They can’t eat at the same restaurants, take the same transportation, or spend the same currency, and the tourist restaurants get first crack at whatever produce is available, so food scarcity is a real problem. (More on this below.) Unsurprisingly, we felt some resentment during the course of our stay, but we also met people who welcomed us warmly and wanted to talk about everything from their day-to-day lives to their thoughts on America’s current political climate. As we slid into the Plymouth’s floral-upholstered backseat and passed through parts of the city most visitors only see through a cab window, I thought about the moments of beauty we'd experienced, the hospitality we’d received, and the creativity we’d witnessed, and let myself sit back and take in the ride.

The Fine Print

Though the U.S. State Department still forbids its citizens from traveling to Cuba strictly for tourism purposes, Americans can obtain visas under 12 categories of acceptable travel. You'll select one when you book your plane ticket, and then purchase and pick up the visa at the airport, so be sure to allow extra time before your departure. 

Americans will need enough cash to last for the duration of the trip—our ATM and credit cards don’t work there. The country has two forms of currency, one for locals (CUP, the Cuban peso) and one for tourists (CUC, the Cuban convertible peso). Though it didn’t happen to us, we heard stories of people paying in CUC and getting literally shortchanged with CUP, so pay attention when you hand over those bills.

Safety-wise, we never felt threatened, but as women, we were subjected the most aggressive catcalling I’ve ever encountered—and I live in New York. Also, as Americans, we got a bit of a mixed response from the locals, though I do think the lukewarm reception was due at least in part to my subpar Spanish. 

If you want to get online, you’ll need a WiFi card, which should run around CUC$2 for an hour of access, and a hotspot, which probably won’t be well-marked. Your best bet is a property like the Hotel Sevilla, which sells cards at the front desk and has WiFi in the lobby. If you’d prefer an al fresco internet experience and you already have a card, try the Malecón, or just keep an eye out when you’re walking around—you’ll see clusters of people glued to their phones, which is usually the sign that you’ve found an access point. At night, it’s even easier: All you have to do is look for the glowing screens.

Plan on buying bottled water while you’re there. The tap water isn’t potable, even for brushing your teeth.

Accommodation in Cuba is a tricky thing. In November, the State Department declared 80-some properties with ties to the Cuban military off-limits for Americans, and all hotels there are majority-owned by the government—which, for my money, is even more reason to rent a room in a private residence. Known as casas particulares, these rooms vary in price and style, depending on the location and the owners themselves, but they’re not typically luxurious digs; they are fairly inexpensive by American standards, though, and while you might not be sleeping on high-thread-count sheets, you will be interacting with locals and getting a different perspective than a hotel would provide. Once upon a time, before smartphones and apps and Google Maps, the best way to book these casas was with a phone call or simply by showing up and ringing the doorbell, but it’s a bit easier these days: They’re all on Airbnb. Our favorite was Casa Meyly 2, which was centrally located with a wrap-around balcony and a private bathroom for just CUC$30 per night.

Casa Meyly 2
Consulado 203
Havana, Cuba

Finally, a word on the overall economic situation. While the Cuban economy relies heavily on tourism to bring in those dollars, euros, and yen, the influx of visitors is creating food shortages nationwide, with basic pantry staples and produce going to tourist restaurants and paladares instead of local markets. To say that it doesn't feel right to chow down on lobster sourced on the black market while citizens can't get enough to eat is an understatement. If you're going to visit, consider traveling with a volunteer organization, be mindful, and tip well (10% is standard, but more is welcome). 

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