After a rough second half of 2016, I was in much need of a little adventure and excitement in my life. So when my group of old college friends and their significant others started to talk about location ideas for our annual get-together, I immediately threw out an idea.
Then-President Barack Obama had recently eased travel restrictions on Cuba, and I already knew of at least two people who had visited and had nothing but positive things to say about it. That, combined with the thought of how the influx of American tourists would change Havana quite a bit in the coming years made a five-day trip a no-brainer.
We knew we wanted to go. We could buy plane tickets, but how do you actually go to Cuba?
Getting to Cuba
At first we flirted with the idea of using Airbnb and renting a house. That proved to be a little overwhelming in more than one way.
We finally partnered with The Educational Adventures Company, in Durango, Colorado. For one set price, it took care of our Cuban visa, transportation to and from the airport, lodging at a casa (Cuba’s version of a bed-and-breakfast), and a locally sourced tour guide to assist us in getting around Havana.
It was very important we were able to pay for all of this before the trip. While Americans are welcome in Cuba, our money isn’t.
You can exchange dollars at the airport, but elsewhere U.S. currency and credit/debit cards associated with U.S. banks are not accepted. Combined with no cellular or internet service (there apparently are a few Wi-Fi hotspots in some of the nicer hotels), visitors need to plan ahead.
Architecture and mojitos
Our first day was a busy one. We met our guide, Yohandro, at our casa after breakfast. He told us we’d have a busy day but to remember Cuba is an island in the Caribbean, and things are pretty laid back.
“If you guys just want to stop and have a beer, we’ll stop and have a beer,” Yohandro said.
Havana is a very crowded, busy, compact and old city. The streets are narrow, and in Old Havana, almost every bit of first-floor real estate is utilized. People have souvenir shops, barber shops, book shops, or maybe just a cooler of cold beer or rum.
There is no rhyme or reason to the architectural styles. Havana was founded in 1515, so it blends 500 years of architectural styles.
We started with a walking tour that took us to the three main plazas of La Habana Vieja (Old Havana): Plaza De La Catedral, Plaza Vieja and Plaza De Armas. We also walked by the National Capitol Building (El Capitolio), which resembles the U.S. Capitol quite a bit.
With all of this before noon, we were hungry and thirsty.
We were told that lunch was going to be at someone’s home. We had no idea what to expect. We were met at a mundane doorway on the street, then we followed our host up six steep, long stairways. At the top, we were amazed to find a rooftop garden and veranda.
Our meal included two mojitos, the first the host showed us how to make, and the second we had to make.
After a wonderful lunch we went back to the street level, where three 1950s-era American cars waited to whisk us around town.
We sped down the Malecon (kind of Havana’s version of Charleston’s Boulevard) and toured a more residential neighborhood, saw the famous Colon Cemetery and Plaza de la Revolucion before stopping at the famous Hotel Nacional. This was where mob boss Lucky Luciano set up his casino before being kicked out after the revolution.
To end the day, we strolled back via the Malecon as the sun began to set. One of my friends had a Fitbit and estimated we walked more than 10 miles.
‘Better start drinking!’
The rest of the trip was a little more laid back. We visited a nearby beach for a little fun in the sun. Again, our mode of transportation was big 1950s-era cars. They all seemed to be in great shape, but I was warned that under the hood there could be a mismatch of parts since Cubans cannot import any new parts. We found this out the hard way on the return trip, as we encountered a downpour of rain and realized the car had no working windshield wipers.
Right before he cranked up the music, the driver turned around and asked if we had any rum.
“Sure, you want some?” my friend replied.
“No, but you guys better start drinking!” he said.
Another highlight of the trip was our visit to the former home of Ernest Hemingway. Lookout Farm is located about 15 miles from downtown Havana and is where he wrote most of “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
You can’t go into the house, but all the doors and windows are open. We actually got to see the typewriter he used. The guide at the house told us the Hemingway estate had donated the property to Cuba to be used as a museum. However, Hemingway’s widow said it was more along the lines of the Cuban government expropriating the property.
Dining without chains
As far as food goes, we did well. I was happy we had the excellent advice from our guide, Yohandro. I have been told from others who have been to Cuba they weren’t too thrilled with the food.
I’m pretty sure they just weren’t going to the right places. Every restaurant we went to (or saw) was relatively small. Think cozy and intimate, and there’s a good chance the building was once a house.
The food we had was always very good, and because Havana is a seaport, there was an abundance of seafood. The best part, though, was the price — I don’t think I spent more than $30 on a meal while there, including drinks and tip. Beer was $1 a bottle and the mixed drinks and cocktails were $2.50 to $4.50.
There are no chain stores or restaurants in Cuba. Everything is local. There are some government-run grocery stores, but that’s it.
There are also no noticeable name brands. I’ve been around the Caribbean and parts of Europe, and I saw obvious signs of United States’ influence with branding from companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonald’s or Nike. In Havana, there was nothing. The only things there from the United States were tourists.
A respectful, friendly people
The best things about Havana are the people. Everyone I met seemed like nice, good, genuine people. I felt totally safe the entire time. No matter their vocation or what they were doing, they were all very happy and friendly.
There are some street hustlers who are quick to offer directions to a restaurant or where to buy cigars, all of which comes at a small fee. Even they were respectful and not pushy after you declined.
There was a bit of a language barrier. A few people spoke a little English.
I spent three months prior to the trip using the Duolingo application on my phone for about 20 minutes a day trying to learn enough Spanish to get by. I did OK and was definitely able to communicate when I needed to. Better than that, I got the sense that the locals appreciated my attempts to speak Spanish, even if something was lost in translation on occasion.
For most of its recent history, Cuba has been a very political subject, and that was part of the intrigue that led us to visit. I wanted to see a place that, for most of my life, I wasn’t allowed to visit for reasons I didn’t understand.
I feel fortunate that I was able to go when I did because once again relations with Cuba are in question. If you have the desire to go, I would recommend a visit — perhaps sooner rather than later.
Taylor Raab lives and works as a financial adviser in Charleston. He enjoys travel adventures with friends and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.