I visited Cuba in early 2017 and it was a very memorable and educational experience. I was very impressed by the island’s stunning natural beauty, as well as the vibrant city life, food– and of course, those classic cars : )
As a U.S. citizen, tourism in Cuba is prohibited but I traveled at a time when a relaxation of the requirements allowed a general license for self-made educational exchange programs. According to the Department of Treasury, that previous authorization enabled travelers to engage in a “full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people… that will result in a meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.” Note: later that year the requirements were changed to eliminate the individual option, but it is still possible for U.S. citizens to go on group tours.
The customs process was fairly easy. We had to buy health insurance for the days we were in Cuba (I used Atlas International), and we paid for a visa as we boarded the flight (Copa Air) from Panama to Havana. The immigration process on arrival / departure was pretty straightforward without much hassle.
I traveled with my dad (Yakpacker Sr.) — he had an interest in history, whereas I had an interest in Cuba’s agricultural practices. Taken together, these interests converged to make a rich set of educational exchanges in Cuba– although it ended up being a very packed schedule!
A note on money: the ATM / credit card scene might’ve improved in recent years, but as of 2017, most transactions were done in cash and I couldn’t use ATMs. There were few money exchange places downtown and I had to stand in a queue for about an hour to change money. For that reason, it’s a good idea to arrive with plenty of hard currency and change it at the airport before going downtown. Cuba has a two-tiered pricing system. Many destinations (especially in Havana’s old city) will use a internationally-convertible Cuban peso (CUC), which is pegged to the dollar at a fixed rate (they take out an extra surcharge if you change U.S. dollars, so best to use Euro or another currency if possible). The local currency is the Cuban (non-convertible) peso. This is used around the country for smaller purchases. Oftentimes, sellers offer prices to foreigners in CUC, but you’d get a better value if you pay in local pesos. For that reason, it’s a good idea to have a mix of both currencies. Just remember– you won’t be able to change the local pesos when you’re ready to leave, so don’t get more than you think you’ll need (or just donate them at the end of your trip).
Wifi— I couldn’t get phone data while in Cuba and wifi was spotty — some hotels (like the Ambos Mundos) offered scratch cards for a set number of wifi minutes. There were also plenty of people selling wifi scratch cards on the streets, especially in the parks and plazas, where young people would crowd in the evenings to surf the web on their phones.
The first thing you always see in the tourist brochures for Cuba are the pictures of the colorful, well-maintained classic cars. I always thought this was just something for the tourists– and while they certainly are a draw for visitors– they’re way more common than I’d expected. All around Havana and outside of town you’ll see shiny cars from past decades, in pristine condition, zipping around on the streets.
We stayed at an Airbnb, which I highly recommend. The larger hotels in Havana were grossly overpriced (at the time I looked) and most had sub-par reviews, whereas the Airbnb options were a much better value and provided a unique opportunity to stay with a family. Some of the best memories of Havana were sitting on our tiny balcony (straddling the A/C unit) and watching the lively street scenes below — vendors passing by with carts shouting out what they were selling, people playing soccer, etc.
As Yakpacker Sr. is a renowned fan of Napoleonic history, our first stop was the Napoleon Museum, which is located in a beautiful palace and features an impressive collection of over 8,000 Napoleonic-era items and paintings. It’s not too far from the famous Revolution Plaza, and is a worthwhile detour in that part of town. Out guide at the museum explained that the items came from the private collections of Julio Lobo and Orestes Ferrara, who most graciously decided to donate their collections to the government following the revolution, before going into exile. Notably, this museum contains Napoleon’s death mask from his own exile in St. Helena.
Heading into the city center, a famous landmark is the Capitol building, which dates back to 1929 and bears a striking resemblance to the one in Washington, DC. We also visited several forts with museums describing the military history of Havana and the city’s defensive posture over the years. I especially recommend the 4-point star-shaped Castillo de la Real Fuerza, surrounded by a moat, as well as the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, and La Cabana (across the Canal de Entrada), which has a nightly cannon-firing ceremony.
Anyone walking around downtown won’t miss the Revolution Museum, which is in an elaborate palace in the middle of town– as well as the Granma, an open air museum of military equipment and Castro’s boat. I highly recommend visiting the Museum of Fine Arts, which gave a glimpse of Cuba through the eyes of artists across its different periods.
Rounding out our historical tour, we stopped in the Cathedral of Virgin Mary, which dates to the 1700s and sits on a scenic, colonial-era plaza. It’s possible to climb the Cathedral’s bell tower to get a great view of the square.
Shifting gears to learn about Cuba’s famous agricultural products, our first stop (naturally) was the Havana Club museum, which provides a great overview of the rum industry in Cuba. The mojitos all around town are fresh, delicious, and the perfect way to counteract the heat and humidity! La Bodeguita Del Medio is a popular spot with old-timey atmosphere, and there are plenty of similar places to pop in for a quick refresher!
For cigar fans, its possible to take tours of the Romeo & Julieta factory, or visit another cigar-rolling tour nearby– but note that the hours are limited and spotty. Every time we tried going, they were closed. So it might take a bit of advance research (or luck on timing!) If you’d like to get locally-rolled (basic) cigars, pop into one of the small corner stores outside of the Old City. They’ll be priced in local pesos (very inexpensive). This probably goes without saying, but imitation cigars are rampant– don’t buy cigars from random folks on the street offering brand name cigars at cut-rate prices.
When it comes time to eat, there are plenty of restaurants with excellent food. We noticed some that were lined-up next to each-other in the main plaza were not only overpriced, but had the exact same menu (best to avoid those– unless you just want a quick snack to sit and soak up the atmosphere). Old Havana and the Plaza Vieja are popular places to enjoy the city’s vibe. The surrounding streets have plenty of nightlife and local bands performing at night. One street dessert I enjoyed was the coquito, a fried ball of shredded coconut soaked in syrup. It was tasty, but quite heavy!
I also frequented the Hotel Ambos Mundos, which has a large open-air bar and sells internet scratch cards. (This hotel is famous for being where Ernest Hemmingway stayed). After dinner, we enjoyed walking along the waterfront (Malecon) at sunset, and stopping in the various nearby corner shops and cafes. Back at our Airbnb on Trocadero street, I was impressed by how the neighborhood came alive at night — many people had their doors and windows open, stopping by and chatting with neighbors.
To venture further afield and learn more about Cuba’s agricultural practices, we visited the Vinales region — about a 2.5 hour drive west of Havana. We booked a guide through Discover Vinales, a local company that tailored our visit to meet our requested itinerary of interpersonal educational exchanges. They were a great company– and I strongly recommend visiting Vinales while in Cuba — it’s beautiful!
Our first stop was in the lush, green Vinales valley, where we met local farmers who showed how they seeded their crops by hand, while using oxen to pull carts and till the soil.
As this region is famous for growing tobacco, we saw some fields of the famous crop and visited a tobacco farmer, who demonstrated how the tobacco is picked, sorted, dried and rolled to make cigars. I got to roll my own cigar (“Romeo y Yakpacko”), which was trickier than I thought it would be! We continued our walk through the valley stopping by a famous tree known for good luck, as well as a mural of dinosaurs painted on the side of a cliff.
At lunchtime we ate at the organic Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso, which was one of the best and largest lunches I’ve ever had! In addition to the freshly-cooked whole hog, there was an army of various organic dishes that just kept coming. With pina coladas and the Vinales valley in the background, it made for a memorable experience!
We then took a quick boat ride in the nearby Indian Cave — an ancient indigenous dwelling with impressive waterfalls. Afterwards, we set out on horseback and continued visiting the farms and exploring the Vinales valley. All in all, it was a perfect (and very educational) day!
Something for Next Time: Next time in Cuba, I’d really like to visit the scenic and historic cities of Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba. I’ll also prioritize going hiking in the rainforests at the Turquino National Park.