As soon as the sanctions relaxed and the travel ban lifted for Cuba, we knew that the best time to go was now! The many travel blog posts seen every week, only escalated that urge to jump on the Cuba wagon. We started planning right away and decided to visit on Memorial Day Weekend in 2017. A couple of our friends also wanted to go, so we decided to all go together!
You know how it feels, when you are forbidden to do something; it makes you want to do it even more. Well, that’s what made Cuba such a hit destination for 2017. But what really got folks singing “Viva La Havana” and run...not walk to José Martí Airport was the country's preserved history and culture; its highly sought after cigar and the anticipation of riding (but really posing LOL) in a colorful antique car.
We planned a 5-night stay packed with activities, since we knew we were going to be deprived of the internet and our cellphones. The process to get in the country was less complicated than the media made it out to be. We went on a “people-to-people/cultural exchange” visa which we obtained at the Fort Lauderdale airport through JetBlue for an extra $50. This process was seamless and so was going through customs in Cuba. We exchanged money in the US but upon arrival in Cuba found out that it's actually much cheaper to exchange there.
Our tour guide Carlos from picked us up at the airport and drove us to our Airbnb. The apartment was in Vedado, about 10 minutes from from Old Havana. It was a couple blocks away from the Malecón, a renown esplanade, roadway and seawall. But the best thing about the apartment is that it was one street over form Hotel Presidente, which is a WiFi spot (YES!). Aside from that, there were tons of restaurants and lounges within walking distance. The apartment was well equipped with necessary amenities. Although we ran out of running water, (there was a water issue in the neighborhood) the host was responsive and we made the best of it! One thing about traveling is that you have to learn to roll with the punches.
One of the best thing about this trip was our tour guide, Carlos. He was the best and coolest guide we’ve worked with. He went above and beyond to make sure we were pleased. The first night in Cuba, he took us to a quaint little restaurant with political figures painted on the wall. There we sat, ate and he recited the whole history of Cuba and it’s political and economic structure. He was so well versed on everything, from music, to literature, politics and even the American history.The restaurant offered a sampling of everything on the menu for 25 CUC (approx. 24 USD) per person and everything was delicious. We had much food, that we couldn't finish the rest of the tasting. Later on that night we were introduced to the true Cuban lifestyle: Salsa dancing!....and a little bit of kizomba. Yes! It was at a lounge in the Florida Hotel with groups of locals and visitors who never left the dance floors. It was a blast! Carlos was funny, engaging and overall, a great businessman with integrity to match. Here is how you can find Carlos, phone email: email@example.com or office email: firstname.lastname@example.org or cell phone +(53) 52 74 72 58. Please let him know that we sent you, he can help with lodging as well!
This was a well thought out vacation! Our first full day together with our friends, we set to take over the city of Havana in colorful head wrap in and our branded t-shirts. It was our Kreyol takeover day! We drove all around the City in our dropped top pink antique car, snapped pics, shopped and ended the day at the Havana Rum Museum. The next day, Carlos picked us up and we headed to Vinales to tour the cigar farm and to go zip linning. On the way there he set up for us to have lunch prepared by his Aunt which was a feast of lobster, fish, yuka, plantains etc...followed by homemade juice of your liking. The family was so sweet and welcoming! After lunch, we went straight to the cigar farm and got to see the process of making them and assisted a class on how to roll and smoke the cigar. Pretty cool experience! Our last full day was more on the relax side as we set sail to Varadero for some beach fun. We spent the day on the beautiful turquoise blue, white sand beach with more grilled food and had an amazing massage seaside before headed back to the city. The day of our departure, we went souvenir shopping near the port and visited the Hotel Nacional which is an art deco historic luxury hotel located on the Malecón.
Honestly speaking, Cuban food is often a hit or miss. We did however managed to find some pretty great spots to eat from other bloggers and through Carlos who took us to the some great local spots. Worthy of mentioning is a restaurant we found across from our apartment called VIP Havana, it was an exquisite modern Spanish tapas restaurant with tasty treats. We sat for a while, simply sipping on Sangria and having girl chat. The highlight of our dining experience has to be the exclusive “La Gaurida” which is well known amongst tourists. You MUST make a reservation for this restaurant, we made ours 2 months prior to our trip via email. On the day we dined at this restaurant, we decided to paint the town Yellow! La Gaurida is on the 3 floor of an old, abandoned building with seats on the terrace looking over the city. The crowd is pretty hip, the food and cocktails were super delicious. After dinner, we went up another level on a terrace where there DJ was spinning some cool hip hop tunes, drinks were flowing, conversation sparking. All the recipes of a great night and what an awesome night it was!
On our last day as we head to the airport Carlos took us to “3XL”, which is nested in the middle of what used to be a yard; it is beautifully set up as a buffet of various type of food including grilled items made on request. The food was really good, inexpensive and fast. Exactly what we needed to close our trip.
Cuba is one of those places that cannot fully be explained. You have to experience it for yourself to understand it. It is as if you are transported to a different world. Truly the best thing about this trip was the fact that we got to step away and disconnect with the first world amenities and reconnect with each other. I truly enjoyed spending time bonding with my sisters and our new friends without the constant distraction caused by mobile life.
P.S: The laws to travel to Cuba have once again been restricted. We advise you to do some research and keep an eye on our blog for updates before deciding to go there.
Have you been to Cuba? What was your experience like?
Until next time!
Steph and Vannie