I've long romanticized about travel to Cuba (confession: I had a crush on Andy Garcia as a young girl, but I digress)...back to Cuba. The land of Ché, Cigars, Vintage Cars, some of the world's best baseball players and more recently, my soul sister Bey took her man Jay Z there to get him back on the Lemonade.
With JetBlue opening direct flights from JFK to HAV I knew I had to get there stat. I contacted CubaToDo and they hooked me up with a visa and helped me arrange my four night stay at the Hotel Saratoga. I chose my travel dates around their availability since it's the newest, the nicest and the rooftop pool overlooking El Capitolio is pretty damn sweet. I heard some not so great stories about other hotels being a bit rundown - no air conditioning, no wifi, a lack of security, etc so I knew if Beyonce could sleep there, so could I. Saratoga is pricier than other hotels but if you can swing it, it's definitely worth it. If that doesn't work out, try Parque Central and Hotel Nacional instead.
1. Money: Have you ever had a friend or family member wire you money? Yea me neither and I'd love to keep it that way. I've heard some horror stories from friends who visited Cuba and ran out of money before the trip was over. "Your money just disappears." Cuba does not yet accept American credit or ATM cards so cash is king. Overestimate and lock the extra cash in the hotel safe. Booking through CubaToDo was helpful since our visa, airfare, hotel (with breakfast included) and airport transfers were paid-for in advance. You'll need $25 at JFK for departure tax at check-in so be sure you add that in to your total budget. Seriously, bring way more than you could possibly need so you can avoid a potentially very stressful situation. If you do end up running out of cash, there is a trusty Western Union at the airport.
2. Exchange USD for EUR: Before your trip - exchange your USD's by ordering foreign currency through your bank. Most US banks offer this free of charge and you can just pick up your cash at your local branch. There are two different types of currencies in Cuba - one for tourists (CUC), one for locals (CUP). Tourists are able to pay with either but I'd personally recommend sticking with CUCs. In my experience, Cubans preferred CUCs to CUPs and some actually rejected CUPs all together. You get more CUC if you use EUR vs. USD and they actually charge a 10% fee if you try to swap USD's for the CUC straight up. Download the XE Currency app to get an idea of how much you should be walking away with. I prefer that app as it works when your offline and in Cuba I stayed in airplane mode the entire trip. For accurate budgeting prior to your trip, check out the Banco Central de Cuba for the most accurate exchange rates. We were able to exchange our money at the Saratoga so we exchanged a small amount at the airport for tips and then exchanged as needed at the hotel.
3. Pack Light: JetBlue has a 20 lb. limit for carry-on and they will weigh your bag at check-in so try to weigh your luggage before you leave. Cuba is very hot so pack summer clothes and extra sunblock. Remember, if you forget anything you probably won't be able to buy it in Cuba so pack thoughtfully when it comes to toiletries and medicine. You will likely be smoking cigars and drinking a fair amount of sugary mojitos so I'd suggest bringing something to settle your stomach (or cure your hangover in the morning).
4. Educate Yourself: You will enjoy your experience more thoroughly if you read up on the history of Cuba prior to your trip. You'll want to know all about the Cuban Revolution, Cuban-US relations and who the important political figures are that you'll see all throughout the country (before posing for potentially offensive instagrams in front of them).
5. Expectations: Things will go wrong. Our airport transfer was not waiting for us with a sign welcoming us to Cuba. In fact, it never showed up. It wasn't a big deal - we took a cab for 25 CUC and CubaToDo reimbursed us for the missed transfer. The Hotel booked us in an inside room just off the lobby bar with no access to natural light. None of it was a big deal. Just smile and enjoy the adventure. More importantly, travel to Cuba with an open mind and form your own opinions about the country. I have both heard and read tons of reviews both positive and negative but every experience is different and should be personal to you.
6. Touring: You won't be able to walk one block in Havana without someone offering to take you around the city. Make sure to hire a driver who speaks your language. I recommend either having your hotel find you a driver they trust or just use my guy, Rolando. He drives a '53 Buick hot pink convertible, speaks impeccable English and will teach you everything there is to know about the city. It's pretty strange riding around without a seatbelt on but you just have to cross your fingers and hope for the best. They'll take you through Havana Vieja (Old Havana), you'll ride along the water on the Malecón, you'll see the Morro Castle, the Havana Cathedral, the José Martí Memorial, Christ of Havana, the Gaudi-inspired Fusterlandia and whatever else you'd like to see. If you have the time, have them drop you off at the beach for a little while and swim with the locals in the clear, blue water. We bought a couple of cuban hats from a guy on the beach for $5 each.
7. Drinking: "My mojito in La Bodeguita. My daiquiri in El Floridito." - Ernest Hemingway. These two government-owned and operated bars are both within walking distance of each other and are just as great as Hemingway used to say. I was a huge fan of La Bodeguita and went there almost every night during our stay. We even had dinner there one night and it ended up being one of the best meals we had on the trip. On certain days La Bodeguita sells hard(ish) to find cigars behind the bar so if you like one, grab a bunch. You'll find live music at both so it's a great place to spend an evening enjoying some local music.
8. Eating: Make a reservation at La Guarida (you can even email prior to your trip). It's extremely popular and will likely be fully booked if you try to make one day-of. Get a drink on their modern rooftop before or after dinner. When we got there Emeril had just finished filming his meal for a new Amazon show he's working on so we knew we made the right choice. We asked the crew for more recommendations and they suggested 304 O'Reilly (amazing cocktails) and Rio Mar (make sure your driver knows exactly where this is, hard to find). I recommend indulging in the lobster wherever you go since it's extremely fresh and it only costs about 20 CUCs.
9. Taxis: The old American cars are very, very cool. It really feels like you've hopped in a time machine when you see them driving around the city. Drivers are starved for work so don't be surprised when they come up to you asking to show you around every time you walk by. A simple, "no gracias" is polite and will usually do the trick. We got suckered into hopping in one of the cars on impulse (rather than calling our pal Rolando) and it was not worth the money at all. Our "1-hour tour" included a stop for gas, a stop at a "Cigar Festival" (a 2nd floor apartment with boxes of cigars available for purchase at 'half-price just for us') and a driver that didn't slowdown for the sites. Lesson learned.
10. Cigars: If you're curious, check out a Cigar Factory. Warning: It will be very hot, very disorganized and you will have to walk up at least 3 flights of stairs. It's a quick tour through the building where you watch employees rolling cigars through a doorway. It's a cool thing to see, not a must-see by any means. You're legally allowed to bring home up to $100 worth of cigars so ask your driver/hotel the best place to buy them and bring some back with you. Hotel Nacional has an amazing cigar store inside and many bars will sell them individually. You're in Cuba - you should probably smoke some Cuban cigars.
11. Museums: Visit the no-frills Museum of the Revolution in the former Presidential Palace. There's no air-conditioning, most of it is in Spanish, some of the exhibits were randomly missing but it's still something cool to see. You might not agree with some of their political statements but it's fascinating to see their perspective and to have a better understanding of what the Cubans went through during the revolution. The tank out front was used by Castro during the Bay of Pigs invasion. In the garden around the corner you'll find the eternal flame honoring the heroes of the revolution.
12. Nature: Look out for the giant trees. Sounds weird, but they're the widest trees I've ever seen. Drive through the Havana forest and see the magical fairytale land for yourself.
13. Hotel Nacional: Visit the Hotel Nacional which was built in 1930 on the Santa Clara Battery. Guns from the early 19th century have been preserved in the garden and you can tour the tunnels from the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Hotel Nacional has been host to many world leaders and celebrities and has even named certain rooms after their famous guests. Watch the resident peacocks roam around the gardens while you sip your mojitos and smoke cigars.
14. Timing: Hurry up! Now that travel to Cuba from the US is significantly less challenging - Americans are racing to beat Americans to Cuba. Seriously. Once the trade embargo is lifted, Cuba will no longer be the country where time stood still. Get there as fast as you can and soak in the history. Those pretty old cars? They will never pass an emissions test. The clock is ticking.
15. Havana Airport: Get there early and be sure to have your passport, visa and departure tax receipt. Check-in moves slowly so you'll want to give yourself a full 3 hours. You'll be able to purchase reasonably priced duty- free cigars and rum in the airport gift shop. There's a little corner café that sells snacks and drinks. I recommend grabbing a bucanero and finishing off your trip with a surprisingly great Cuban sandwich (it's the only thing they serve).