Our Cuba Vacation

Havana

When I tell people that we did a spring break vacation to Cuba, their response has been “oh wow!” A friend at tennis even laughed and said “Oh, I’ve never heard someone say that before!” Seriously, that is exactly why we wanted to go. It is different, in fact, the culture in Cuba is unlike anything in the world. (Well, that’s not exactly true, there are currently 5 communist countries.)

Actually, my parents had recently traveled to Cuba via cruise ship, so we decided we wanted to go too. They loved it and recommended going. The best thing we did was book our trip through a travel agent. We used the same one that my parents have used to book their trips all over the world, @Rupiperetours.

Cuba Vacation

Our trip started in Havana, where we spent 2 days. There is so much to see, we definitely needed more time! You could spend a week just in Havana. At first glance, Havana looks like a run down, dangerous, poor town. If you didn’t know in advance that there is hardly any crime there, you might be afraid to go into some of the areas. We’ve all seen the beautiful pictures of the colorful buildings, but that isn’t what it looks like everywhere!

We took a private tour with our own guide in one of those old 1940’s Chevy convertible, yes they are everywhere! The car didn’t appear to have originally been a convertible. But like most of the old cars, many alterations have been made to hold these 50+ year old cars together. The backseat did not have one spring or cushion left in it!

Our guide had a tour plan for us, which worked out perfectly. Sometimes it was hard to understand her English because of her accent, but in general everyone speaks English because they are now taught it in school (up until 10 years a go it was Russian). I wanted to ask her everything about her life! She has never left the island, she works 7 days a week and thought it was hilarious that we wanted to take a picture of the laundry hung out to dry.

Our tour included a lunch stop at a “paladar” which is a restaurant that is privately run, not owned by the state. She and the driver ate with us. It was interesting, Tony the driver, could not speak a lick of English and she told us she was so tired of eating chicken. “That’s all we ever eat, chicken, beans and rice, there is not fish or beef for us.” 

classic car cuba

Also, oddly, there’s not a lot of fruit and vegetables there. When the menu says salad, it means white cabbage with a couple slices of cucumber and pale tomatoes. I never saw a banana or a piece of broccoli once. Although the food was mild, usually chicken, and every meal had rice and beans, it was all good. It is not a trip for exotic cuisine, but that is also a unique part of enjoying their culture. 

There are no fast food restaurants or fancy coffee shops. Since the restaurants (paladares) are in homes converted into restaurants, they are hard to find. We ate at Atelier in Havana, it is on the second floor, the menu is handwritten, the lighting is dim but the food is interesting and wholesome. Our hotel recommended it to us since we had no idea where to begin. There are no advertisements or signs for these restaurants. They rely on reputation and word of mouth!

kelly rae nelson cuba

 One of the “must do” things in Havana, is a walk or drive on the Malecon, which is the road along the Gulf of Mexico. I thought it would be like walking down their Lake Shore drive. It is not. The sidewalk is crumbling and the buildings either look uninhabitable or like Cabrini Green.

The classic cars and buses are rolling down the Malecon burning gas and oil, pumping out the black smoke and it smells like exhaust everywhere. There are soccer games being played in a dried out, grassless park with an abandoned, not painted in 50 years, seating arena. Men are fishing for their dinner, since fish is not available to them in the grocery stores, because according to our tour guide, “the fish is for export, not for us”.

Our tour took us to the Plaza of the Revolution, to the El Capitol, their version of central park, to Morro Castle (their water front fort built in 1589), Central Havana City and then lunch in Havana Siboney. We were supposed to go to the Cohiba cigar factory too, but we got caught up in taking pictures and drinking coffee and therefore we ran out of time. Ugh.

vacation cuba

 

After Havana we took a different car and driver, pre arranged by the travel agent, to Varadero Beach. It was about a 2 hour ride mostly along the Cuban coast, through numerous small towns and some rural areas. That drive was an eye opener as well! People are using all modes of transportation including horses, horse and cart, bicycles, motorcycles, sidecars, buses, old cargo trucks and even hitch hiking!

The beach is gorgeous and the weather was perfect. We stayed in an all inclusive beach hotel which was nice because we didn’t have to worry about finding restaurants for every meal. The hotel was beautiful and clean with one exception…the hotels in Cuba do not have king mattresses, instead they have 2 twin beds pushed together. Between that situation, the crunchy sheets and the “prison” mattresses, sleep was a bit restless. The first night we called it the night of twenty naps because we kept waking up all night!

 cuba
 

I absolutely would go back to Cuba. Regrettably we did not got to any of the other cities! I believe our mindset going into it was it would be sort of a more interesting, non-typical “Caribbean beach vacation”. It was so much more!  There is so much to see and do! My biggest recommendation is to research, research, research. Use Pinterest and travel websites, listen to your travel agent’s suggestions and write things down. You will not be using your phone or your computer – no cell service and bad, virtually non-existent wi-fi. It’s a perfect time to do a tech detox. Don’t worry, you will be too busy exploring and taking pictures to miss it.

I put together a few helpful, very basic lists to get you started on planning your trip to Cuba. Do you want to go? Are you planning on it? Let me know and please ask me any questions in the comments below!

Getting There Basics:

  • Use a travel agency
  • If you do not live in Florida you currently cannot book a direct flight. 
  • Get your Visa at the airport, at the gate of your flight to Cuba, ours were $125 each.
  • Currency. You CANNOT use ANY American money or credit cards there for anything. You have to convert to their money (CUC). This can be done when you get to Cuba at your hotel.
  • Do research in advance and bring those trusty travel books with because wifi is difficult or impossible.
  • Download the MAPS.ME app for an offline map of Cuba
  • Pinterest has great blog posts on Cuba for all sorts of information

General Info:

  • It is safe, the crime rate is almost non existent
  • Bring a ton of cash. You can’t use your credit card or US money. You can convert your money as you go at the hotel. (hotel takes 13% ugh)
  • You need a electrical travel converter (btw my salon powerful hairdryer could not even convert)
  • To get wi-fi you need to buy a card (at the hotel or airport) for aprox $1-$5 an hour
  • Bring snacks (especially if you bring kids)
  • Do not drink the water, or brush your teeth with it (bottled water is everywhere)
  • There is nothing “American” there. No Diet Coke, McDonalds or Lay’s potato chips
  • Not all restrooms have toilet paper, keep some with you just in case
  • Buy cigars at the state run stores. They keep the cigars in a humidor and the prices are not more expensive than anywhere else. If someone says they have a deal it’s probably not fresh.
  • When a taxi driver or a merchant says they don’t have “change”, they are probably lying…..We got scammed twice by taxis.

Our travel agent:

Booked our hotels
Scheduled our taxi to and from the airport and between hotels
Planned our Havana tour in a convertible etc.
Gave us excellent, invaluable advice

 

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