DAY 1Dec 09 2016
Why Cuba? Ever since Cuban travel restrictions were lightened in late 2015, we had wanted to visit before it becomes another touristy Caribbean island. In mid 2016, the first flights to Cuba were scheduled and the first flights to Havana were scheduled for December. As soon as they went on sale, we bought the first Friday flight to Havana.
Travel to Cuba is still technically illegal from the U.S. However you can still get a Cuban Visitor's Visa if your trip falls into one of twelve categories. We picked Educational/People-To-People Exchange which meant we were there to learn about Cuban culture and interact with Cuban people. We didn't have to fill out anything in advance besides a questionnaire from the airline. Cuba is a communist country so healthcare is free to residents. Anyone visiting has to buy a temporary health plan to visit for $50. Most airlines tack this on to the price of the ticket. Our departure to Cuba was from Newark and there was a representative at the gate from the Cuban Consulate selling the visas. We only needed to show our passports and purchase the visa for $25.
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
Newark Liberty International Airport
José Martí International Airport
We ended up on the actual third or fourth flight on this route to Havana, the plane had a really fun atmosphere and when we landed, everyone was clapping and cheering
We were picked up from the airport by a friend of the owner or the apartment where we were staying, Lazaro. His car is a 1950 Chevy. His father bought it when he was two years old in 1970, and the car has been owned and maintained by the family since.
José Martí International Airport
We rented an apartment on Airbnb in Vedado, or "New Havana." A lot of this section was built up during the 1940s and 1950s when Havana was a big tourist destination for Americans.
The hotels in Cuba are all owned and/or run by the government so they are pretty expensive. We also wanted to stay in a less touristy place so we rented an apartment from Airbnb which ended up being really nice. The owner rents it for about $150/weekend. In Cuba, a highly paid government worker earns about $40/month so the owners are making a small fortune and have put a lot of money back into their apartment.
We had to take cash with us for this trip as credit cards are accepted barely anywhere in Cuba. Cuba has two forms of currency, the CUP and the CUC, or "cook." The CUP is the everyday money for citizens and about 30 CUP equals CUC. However, if you are a tourist and you come to Cuba, you need to convert your cash to CUC or Cuban Convertible Peso. CUC are equal to one USD. However, Cuba charges a 3 dollar exchange fee. In addition, it charges a 10 USD "penalty." So, for every $100, you can get 87 CUC. While things are still very cheap in Cuba, the conversion ratio is not great. Also, places that receive a lot of tourists, are likley to charge you what they think you would pay at home so there isn't as much savings as you would think. Cash exchanges should be done at the airport when you arrive (the line is long) because it is hard to find places to convert currency in the country. Anything that you don't use can be converted back to USD when you return to the airport to depart--- for another 10 dollar penalty.
After getting settled at the apartment we were all starving so we started walking around looking for somewhere to eat. We walked and walked and since we were in a mainly residential area, didn't find anything before starving to death so ended up at the Hotel Presidente. We were able to each get a pizza and two or three drinks for about $10 so that was cool. There was a band playing on the veranda as we were leaving so we decided to stay and have a couple more drinks.
DAY 2Dec 10 2016
After dinner, we moved to the veranda where we had more drinks and listened to the Cuban band playing and watching all the bingo grannies dancing.
The next morning, we were up early for breakfast before the tour and found a cute cafe down the street with super cheap food and coffee.
After breakfast, we went to the convenience/grocery store outside of our apartment building. The store literally only sold water bottles, canned beans, and few other canned food items, and alcohol. In Cuba, citizens all get a food allowance. You can buy additional food with the little money you may earn in these stores. Luckily, all we came for was water and we were able to purchase that before our tour. We arrived back at our building as the tour guide was arriving.
We got sooooo lucky with this tour. The tour I had previously booked cancelled on the Thursday night (we were left for Cuba Friday morning) so I spent A LOT of time on the phone, trying to call around Cuba and find another tour guide. When I finally reached someone, it sounded like they were at a party. I was a little skeptical but he said he would send a guide and driver on Saturday morning. There was a little confusion when I gave him the address so I had been worried about them finding the place but turns out I was worrying for nothing.
Our guide was Angel and our driver was Franco. They were both so kind and warm and eager to share their experiences living in Cuba as well as ask questions about what it is like to live in the U.S. It was so humbling talking to them as they live off such a small income, but be so positive and hopeful for the future. Both could not wait until travel restrictions were lifted so they could travel to the U.S. to try a McDonald's cheeseburger and drink an actual Coca-Cola.
The first stop on the tour was the Jose Marti Memorial, which is in front of Plaza de la Revolucion. This was a square where the Castros held their political ralleys and state occasions. On all other days, its just a huge, empty parking lot.
Right around the time we arrived, it started to pour rain and would rain on and off most of the day. We had forgotten to bring umbrellas with us but our Airbnb host left some for us to use. We were so grateful. They were definitely not the newest or smoothest functioning but they did the job. Our guide also had a small umbrella and explained it is hard to get good ones in Cuba because they do not make them there so they rely on imports from other countries. Because of the U.S. trade embargo, they are incredibly costly due to high import costs. So, if you get an umbrella you keep it and treasure it for life. Very humbling.
We did tour the interior of the Jose Marti Memorial but it was not the best thing we visited in Havana. All of the displays have Spanish explanations with them. While we all have a working knowledge of Spanish, we still found the displays hard to follow. There weren't many displays to begin with and the steps to the top were closed but he were able to get a good idea of the history behind the Cuban Revolution.
Opposite the memorial are the offices of the Ministries of the Interior and Communications. The exteriors of the building have steel memorials of the two most important heroes of the Cuban Revolution; Che Guevara, with the quotation "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" (Until the Everlasting Victory, Always) and Camilo Cienfuegos with the quotation "Vas bien, Fidel" (You're doing fine, Fidel).
The next stop on our tour was a Cigar Factory. Angel and Franco took us to the most famous, La Corona. Although the factories are closed on Saturdays we were able to visit the store that is attached to it and witness the mayhem of people shouting and pushing and shoving trying to purchase the cheap cigars. The factory makes all kinds of cigars and the workers are told in the morning what kind they will be making. So, you are able to purchase most kinds of cigars in any factory store. We eventually purchased the cigars we had on our list and others as souvenirs and then headed out.
Next up, Angel and Franco took us to Central Havana where the Capitol, Central Park, and the Gran Teatro is. We walked around Central Park which is where a lot of old cars park to be displayed and offer rides to tourists. If you want to see a lot of classic cars in one place, this the place to go and negotiate a good rate.
There is a famous set of multi-colored buildings in Havana that are often photographed with classic cars parked in front of it. They are across the street, facing the Capitolo. You can see them in one of the pictures below.
The Capitolo was designed by an American architecture firm in the 1920s and modeled off of the American Capitol building. The dome is a combination of the cupola of the Pantheon in Paris and the Capitol dome in Washington D.C. After the Cuban Revolution, it stopped being used as an assembly building and became various government offices. Over the years of the Cuban embargo, the building fell more into disrepair. However, as of 2013, the Cuban government has begun restoring the building for use for the Cuban Assembly again.
After looking around at some of the cars outside, we went into the Gran Teatro de Havana and took a tour of the building. The theater has recently undergone a major restoration and been renamed in the honor of Cuba's prima ballerina, Alicia Alonso. It was a really great guided tour given by a man with great English who was able to make it interesting for people who would not normally be interested in ballet.
After our tour of the Grand Theater, we walked through Central Park. Since the communist government forbids political debate, this park is known for being a place where citizens gather to passionately debate sports. On this day however, there weren't many gathered due to the rain.
We then walked to El Floridita Bar which is famous for being one of the places that Ernest Hemingway would hang out during his stay in Cuba. He would say "El Floridita for my daiquiris and La Bogedita for my mohitos." So, we all ordered daquiris. The club was very crowded so we met and talked with a lot of other tourists in here. Many were from European countries which don't have an embargo against travel to the country. We talked to one couple from Amsterdam that booked the trip as an all-inclusive 9-day trip, including airfare from the Netherlands for 900 euros! They said it was so cheap, they weren't even staying on their resort the whole time, they were keeping their room but had rented a car to drive around for a couple of days. most people we talked to were really interested to see how we felt about the surprise election results in the U.S.
After we left El Floridita, we walked around downtown for awhile taking in the sites.
By this time, we started to get hungry so Angel and Franco offered to take us to a Paladar for lunch. Since Cuba is a communist country, it is illegal to run your own business. In the past year restaurants that were not owned by the government were starting to become more common. However, most eating out is mostly done in restaurants that are actually inside of someone's house.
Angel and Franco took us to Paladar Dona Carmela, which is the same Paladar that Beyonce and Jay-Z had eaten at when she had visited a year earlier.
The food was really good and we were able to eat on their terrace where there was a small band.
After lunch, we headed to Habana Vieja, or "Old Town."
As a part of our tour, we visited the Hotel Ambos Mundos. This is where Ernest Hemingway stayed while he lived in Havana.
Next we walked over the La Bodegita which is where Hemingway went for his mohitos.
By this time it was late afternoon and it was time for Angel and Franco to take us back to our Airbnb. We exchanged contact information so they could reach us when they finally get to visit the United States. They were so awesome and would definitely recommend them.
After our tour was over, the sun finally came out so we decided to walk around more of Vedado. This time we walked towards the waterfront. Because of the stormy weather, there were huge waves coming up onto the sidewalk and road. Apparently this is pretty common. A few months later during hurricane season, a lot of new channels were airing footage of the waves coming up on the street and saying it was caused by the hurricanes. A reminder to be mindful of what you see on the news may not always be the full truth.
DAY 3Dec 11 2016
The American Embassy in Cuba was opened in 1953. It was closed in 1961 due to the U.S. ending relations with Cuba over the Cuban Revolution. In 1977, both countries agreed that they could each operate a "Special Interests Section" in each others' countries- they were not considered embassies though and the flags were not allowed to fly. The U.S. Special Interests Section was operated as a part of the Swiss Embassy with the Swiss government providing protection. The building became the official embassy again in July, 2015. On the day we visited, the flag was at half staff in remembrance of John Glenn who had recently passed.
After our walk, we went back to the Hotel Nacional to tour the Cuban Missile Crisis bunker which is annexed to the hotel. There is a small museum that tells the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis from Cuba’s perspective. In Cuba this period of history is called the Crisis of October or the Crisis of the Caribbean.
In 1962 during the Cold War the Soviet Union placed 36 nuclear missiles in Cuba pointing at the United States in response to US missiles in Turkey pointing at the Soviet Union. After a 13-day standoff that nearly led to a nuclear war, the Soviet Union removed the missiles after the United States promised not to invade Cuba.
The museum is located in a system of underground tunnels that form a circle beneath the hotel’s gardens. There were no nuclear weapons here during the Cold War but the tunnels were used to spy on the United States and you can still see a large periscope on the grounds.
When we left the Hotel Nacional, we arranged for one of the taxis that out front to pick us up from our apartment. We went back and packed our things and checked out with our host, Anna. The tax picked us up and took us back to the airport.
We each had a little Cuban money left when we returned to the airport and instead of exchanging it back and paying the 10% penalty again, we just bought more cigars with the money we had left.
Previously, Cuban cigars could not be brought back into the U.S. because of the embargo. About a year before, the law changed and you could bring back $100 worth, which is hard because each cigar is about $7-$10. However, shortly before we came the law changed again that you could bring back as many as you want as long as they fit in your personal luggage and you aren't going to sell them when you return to the U.S.
We had a layover in Newark and hung out in the United lounge while we waited for our flight back to D.C. When we got to the gate, we realized the Monty Durham from Say Yes to the Dress was on our flight. We were all surprised that he sat in economy on the flight home.
José Martí International Airport
Newark Liberty International Airport
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport