So way back in February we were drinking wine with our friends in Chile. (All good stories start like this, right?) Our buddy Laurence was telling a story from his recent time in Cuba, and I happened to have my laptop out at the time. A few clicks later, we now had confirmed tickets. Woohoo! Thanks Laurence!
I won’t discuss much here on travel restrictions for US citizens since the current situation is uncertain and remains fluid. Keep up to date before you plan your trip….google “OFAC Cuba” for latest info and F.A.Q.s
We bought our tickets long before the president announced his intention to change things up. But we were still technically bound by the 12 categories of authorized travel, so we chose “Support for the Cuban People”. We decided to stay only at local “casa particulares” and eat most of our meals at locally owned small restaurants. We feel this helped us have a more “authentic” experience as well.
Anyways….on to the good stuff!
Cuba has been on our bucket list for years. And now we’ve finally made it. We only had a week, but with a direct flight from Orlando to Havana, at just under an hour, we were able to really use all our time there. Here’s what we got up to for our one week in Cuba.
We landed in Havana in the late morning and immediately headed west to Viñales, an area popular for it’s rural and beautiful landscapes and many tobacco farms. The casa particular we stayed at had some amazing views, and we spent our first evening enjoying the views of the mogotes (limestone mountains) that form the Viñales Valley.
One of the best ways to see the countryside and visit local farms around Viñales is on horseback. So after breakfast, and a lot of coaxing (I’m not keen on riding horses) from Thalita, we saddled up! Our casa owner set it up for us with a local guide, Cuco, that’s been riding and raising horses since he was a child. The cost was 5 CUCs/hr, and the horses were calm and well trained.
Cuco first took us to a local coffee farm. Miguel, the owner/farmer, showed us around. He gave us a quick lesson on coffee, and since it’s not harvest season right now, he skipped to the roasting. He showed us how he processes and roasts all his coffee by hand. According to Miguel, ninety percent of his crop goes to the government, and he’s allowed to sell or use the remaining ten percent. So tourists visiting, tasting, and buying his coffee is an important part of his income. We did a taste for a couple CUCs and it was great! Bold tasting, and we needed to bring some home! So we bought a 12 ounce or so bottle filled up with roasted beans for 8 CUCs. Well worth it. We’re looking forward to grinding it up and enjoying it very soon!
We left the coffee farm and headed towards a farm for what Viñales is famous for……cigar tobacco! Now we’re not smokers, but when in Cuba, one must learn about and sample it’s world famous cigars.
We arrived at Finca Martinez and were welcomed by Enoel and Yoasney, father and son, who own and work this farm. They gave us a short history of their farm, which has been in the family for over 6 generations. We were showed the secador, or drying house, and told the process from picking to drying to rolling. It’s quite complex, and you can really feel the love for this work they both have. Like Manuel’s coffee, they give ninety percent of their crop to the government. According to them, this is then mixed with many other farmer’s crop, massed processed, and used to make popular brands like Cohiba.
The Martinez’s and many other local farmers use their remaining ten percent to make “puros”, a hand rolled cigar, with no weird additives or chemicals. We sampled a couple, and coming from nonsmokers, they were actually really good. Paired with a fresh mojito, we couldn’t feel any more Cuban! We had to buy some to bring home, so we bought them at 3 CUCs/each. 60 bucks for 20 fresh, hand-rolled cigars, straight from the farm. Totally worth it!
Our next day in Viñales, we explored the small downtown area. It’s a cute little space, dotted with many restaurants and casa particulares, indicating it’s position as a thriving tourist town. It was Saturday, so the streets were full, music was playing from many directions, and people were relaxing and enjoying the day. We found a Brazilian restaurant, and had to give it a try. The owner, a local Cuban guy, said he thought it was a great business idea, to stand out from the crowd of restaurants. We thought so, and really enjoyed the Cuban/Brazilian mix of food on the menu. We also had to enjoy some Caipirinhas made with Havana Club rum.
After a wonderful few days in Viñales, it was time to move on. We headed back towards Havana, and went slightly past the city to the small beach of Bacuranao. We spent one night here to experience a local beach town, not really paying attention that it was Sunday that we would be arriving and visiting the beach. It’s close proximity to the city means this beach is a popular weekend party spot. This ended up being a great authentic experience though. It was crowded and uncomfortable at first, but we just grabbed spot, an umbrella, and some mojitos and let it sink in how lucky we are to be on a beach, in Cuba.
After our short time at the beach, we headed back to Havana for the last three days of our one week in Cuba. We decided to stay in a casa particular in Centro, instead of Habana Vieja or Vedado, mainly because of price and we didn’t want to be in a sea of other tourists – which is easy to find yourself in in Havana. We were really happy staying there.
When in new cities, we like to head out and explore on foot. You really get the best feel and experience like this. Besides the heat, Havana is a great city to walk around. But when in Havana, one must also explore the city in a classic car! It’s super easy to find one to take a ride. We just walked around the Parque Central, “shopping” through the many cars for which one we wanted to ride in. A bright red 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 caught our eyes, and within a few minutes we were riding in style! It cost 50 CUCs for a one hour ride/tour around Habana Vieja, Centro, Vedado, and a ride down the famous Malecón. This was the standard price with most drivers we asked, so we didn’t feel like haggling. Our ride was well worth it!
I’ve enjoyed reading about Cuban history, and because of that, one place I really wanted to visit was the Museo de la Revolución. This huge museum has tons of artifacts from the revolution, and is a great place to learn about the history of the revolution, albeit through the government’s eyes. One of the best exhibits on property is the Granma, the small boat taken from Mexico to Cuba by Fidel and his men. It’s astonishing to think that is what the revolution was started in. A visit to the museum is highly recommended.
We absolutely loved this city. It’s truly amazing, and we feel we barely got to scratch the surface. You could spend a month here and still have new things to experience. With impending change in US travel regulations, we’re not sure when we’ll be back. But we hope someday soon. Here’s some more shots from our walks around Havana.
Tips for your visit to Cuba:
- If you’re a US Traveler and you choose to use “Support for the Cuban People” as your approved reason for visiting, do just that by making sure the majority of the dollars you spend go to the Cuban people. Eat in small local restaurants, stay in locally owned casa particulares (easily booked online beforehand), and buy souvenirs from small street side vendors.
- It’s hot and humid walking around Havana. For a quick cool off, dive into one of the fancy hotel’s bars for a drink, some AC, and a little wifi.
- Speaking of Wifi – it’s available at certain hotspots – usually a central park area or hotel lobby. You have to buy a card, sold at some hotels or Etecsa Offices. We found the cards to be 1-2 CUCs pretty much everywhere, and they give you 1 hour of access. Speeds were just okay and went down tremendously if many people were also at the hotspot.
- Aside from an obscure few (I think from a bank based in Tampa), no US issued credit or debit cards work right now in Cuba. So that means you have to bring all your cash with you. There is a 13 cent/dollar tax on the US dollar, so basically if you change US $100, you get 87 CUCs. Some people say it’s worth it to get Euros or Canadian dollars from your bank before you go since they are not penalized on transfer. Do some math and weigh what you think you’ll lose, but we just brought US dollars. There’s a money changing station outside the front of the airport in Havana. Also, we changed some at the Hotel Sevilla (even though we weren’t staying there). We also were able to change small amounts with our casa particular owners.
Planning a trip?
With internet being unreliable, Cuba is a great place to have a guide book in hand. We used these two on our trip.
If you have any questions in planning your trip to Cuba, don’t hesitate to ask us in the comments below, or send us a message through our contact page. If you’ve been before let us know your favorite place or experience in the comments below.
We’ll end this post with a beautiful shot. We saw this rainbow over the National Museum of Fine Arts as we walked around our last night in Havana.
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