In an earlier post, I wrote about some of the things to know before and during a trip to Cuba. It was a unique experience for my three travel companions and I. Everyone has a different experience, depending on their expectations going in. We expected a bit more “touristy” stuff, given that Europeans and Canadians have been going to Cuba for many years. But we also expected it would not be like any other experience and were not disappointed. The following is a summary of my experience there. The ratings of the experiences are my own and may not be shared by my travel companions.
The Very Good
I’d classify this category as I’d be happy to do it again and at any time. Each of these offers a good reason to return.
Meeting The People of Cuba
In general, we found all the people that we had conversations with to be extremely pleasant and courteous to us. Hotel employees, restaurant servers, people we asked directions of, including police, farmers and small town residents. This is a very poor country. Education is free and good, going right through to graduate and medical school. There are many talented people in the country. But those jobs don’t pay well. An engineer or optometrist might make 30 CUC a month. (1 CUC = 1 us $). A doctor might make 40 CUC a month….a month….It’s not a mistake. And they might only work 2 days a week at those jobs. So they take tourist related jobs where they can get additional income and tips. We met an optometrist that cleans apartments. Engineers and doctors that drive taxi’s. It was heart breaking to see this and hear their stories. They were genuinely nice people. Food there is expensive. Many live day to day on rice and beans. They work in hotels and restaurants so they can get better meals and maybe even bring food home.
There were many beggars in Havana. There were also people that would be extremely nice, only on the hope that they could receive a tip from you or a commission from the person that they brought new business too. However, the good far outweighed the bad here. We generally felt very comfortable, regardless of where we were traveling.
I mistakenly left the B&B with one of the two sets of keys. There were three keys to the apartment. I was in Varadero when I realized the error. I texted our host and she told me to leave the keys are the rental car stand at the airport. Honestly, I’d have a hard time doing this in the US. My prejudice would say to never do that in Cuba. At the counter, which is more like a glorified lemonade stand with a main person and several others hanging out to move cars, the counter person took the keys, put a label on them, stapled them to a rental car brochure. I wrote the host name and phone number down. He told me his name and said to pass it on to her. Four hours later, she stopped at the airport and got her keys. A wonderful example of the kindness of the people of Cuba.
Airbnb – Casa Colon in Vieja Habana
ChaChaCha’ Restaurant in Vieja Habana
At Ana’s recommendation, our first meal, a late lunch, was here, just two blocks from the apartment. It was tremendous. The Shrimp in Garlic was delicious. Another winner was the Lobster salad. A huge and delicious portion. This was our second favorite restaurant.
El Del Frente Restaurant in Vieja Habana
We were trying to get to the restaurant known as 304 O’Reilly or O’Reilly 304. It’s #304 on Calle O’Reilly. As American’s this looks to be a good Irish name. However, to locals, it is pronounced closer to Orelia. Thank goodness for the hard copy map. Well, we couldn’t get in. But the server suggested the restaurant across the street at #303 and owned by the same company. The server there said if we were willing to eat fast and be done before their reservation in 50 minutes, we could stay. He agreed to serve us quickly and then did just that. It was a phenomenal dinner. There was a watermelon mojito that was fantastic and ordered by two of us. The others got Pina Colada’s. In a second round the Colada drinkers ordered the mojito’s. They came without Rum. When we notified the server, he came with the bottle and gave it to us. Three of us got three different varieties of delicious Taco’s. The menu only says Taco’s. However, when asked, there were Lobster, mixed seafood and meat Taco’s. We got one of each and shared. All great.
Mojito’s – the drink
When in Cuba, the Mojito is king. We had them everywhere of the basic variety, with one exception for a Watermelon flavored one. All were good. We generally had no problem ordering four mojito’s at a time, other than breakfast. They take a bit more time to prepare, but it’s worth it.
Bridge at Mirador de Bacunayagua
This is a rest area overlooking a bridge that spans a very large valley. It is on Via Blanca, the main road between Havana and Matanza’s along the shore, en-route to Varadero. The real attraction was the Pina Colada’s they serve at the stop. They give you the bottle of rum to mix to your own consistency….Excellent! We acquired some souvenirs here as well. Parking was 1 CUC, but worth it.
At the scenic vista, there were a number of large birds, probably vultures, riding the air waves. They were above and below us. It was a spectacular vista.
Beach in Varadero
I’m no beach expert, but this was the nicest beach I’ve ever experienced. I was told that this is true of the North shore of Varadero, so other hotels would be like this too. And I’m not talking about bars and sailboats and the extras a hotel might offer. This is pure sand: no rocks, no shells. It’s got a gentle slope into the water where you can walk out quite a bit. There was some surf for occasional body surfing, but nothing scary. There was a wind that blew this fine sand along the beach. We were told that’s abnormal for the area. You’d better cover any food and drink to avoid chewing sand. The air temp was 85 F. The sun was out. But the sand wasn’t blistering hot. It was very comfortable. The downside? We brought a lot of that fine sand into our hotel room.
Buying Rum to bring home
There was a Rum store in Varadero close to our hotel. It was a substantial discount to the rum and cigar store at the hotel. We got 5 half shots of rum to taste test. I never knew there was chocolate and coffee rum…well, I guess if you can do that with Vodka, you can do it with anything. Needless to say, we bought several bottles for the trip home. Don’t forget you’ll need extra time, and maybe money, to check the bag with the bottles and then wait 30 minutes at the carousel at your destination.
Our other experiences – the Good
I guess I’d have to say that these were good enough to do again, but not necessarily the reason to do it all again.
Museo de Bella Artes in Vieja Habana
Interesting museum across 3 levels. Very large spaces. Most of the art was post 1959. Many of the styles mimicked those of the US during the same period. There was also some “ancient” art from the 18th century on. Works similar to Gilbert Stuart, so matching that timeframe as well. A lot of pro-Castro and Che Guevara in this collection. It was a reasonable cost and interesting viewing. It was conveniently located one block from our Airbnb.
Museo de la Revolucion
This was more of a military museum. Missile launchers, tanks, helicopters, Jeeps (Willys) and other instruments of destruction outside. Inside a glass enclosed building was Fidel Castro’s yacht. Supposedly, for 8 CUC, you can walk into this park/museum to see it. If you walk around the park, you’ll see it all for free. Note: at night, there are soldiers on each of the four sides of the park to protect the museum. Interesting. After reading the weblink I added, I see there was a palace next door that we could have visited as well. That would have been more interesting than the military equipment.
Plaza Vieja for the Cuerdo Vive concert
It’s a nice old plaza, in a European mold. A nice restaurant, Factoria Plaza Vieja on one side. Street vendors in the corners. I love the Maiz – corn on the cob nicely seasoned and on a skewer to eat. Didn’t get one this trip, but I was drooling for one…The lines were too long. While there, they were setting up for a concert: Cuerda Vive 15th Anniversary. It translates to Cord lives, but featured acoustic guitars. That was on Thursday. On Friday afternoon, we saw them broadcasting on TV. Each performer got two songs. We arrived four hours later and the plaza was packed and the music continued.
Hotel Nacional – Malecon Havana
The treat here was to see the sunset on the Malecon and have a mojito from one of several outdoor bars on the property. This is the most famous hotel in Cuba. Celebrities and dignitaries stay here. It was very well maintained as it has never gone out of favor. The drinks were good, but pricier than elsewhere. We arrived 5 minutes late as it is not a trivial place to drive into. However, two drinks later and we were well prepared for dinner.
Paladar Vistamar in Miramar Havana
This was highly recommended. A Paladar is typically a family owned restaurant in a home. This was a traditional restaurant with three floors. It was attached to what appeared to be a defunct hotel. One level surrounded the empty hotel pool. We ate on the top floor, outside. This is situated just above the north shore of Cuba. It was a beautiful evening and a decent meal. We had to make a reservation here. It was packed.
Barcelo Solymar hotel in Varadero
We originally booked our trip, via GalaHotels at Be Live Experience Las Morlas. In early February, we were informed, via a cryptic note, that we’d been moved to Barcelo Arenas Blancas which adjoined the Solymar. We decided to stop at Las Morlas to see why we’d moved. It seems someone had cancelled the reservation in December. I’m guessing GalaHotels scrambled to get us a new place in early February. We showed up at Arenas Blancas and were told we were booked next door. Well, we lucked out. The quality of the pool, bars and facilities of Solymar were superior to Arenas Blancas.
Like the rest of Cuba, this hotel was aged and needed some repairs. However, it did seem to be getting some attention, though not soon enough to cover all the blemishes it had. The lobby had vines growing that were five floors long and provided wall to wall covering. That must have required a lot of maintenance. However, the hallway lights going to our room were out for the entire corridor. I could imagine a single woman getting a bit nervous going through there themselves.
The room had two queen beds. Our shower needed three door panels to keep water out. It only had two of the three and the missing one was closest to the shower head, so unless you removed the head and stood behind the second panel, water went all over the floor. There were three pools between the two Barcelo hotels. The pool directly by Solymar was the best and the only one we used. It was nice and comfortable. The beach was a short hike from our room. The beach itself: sand and water, was one of the best tropical beaches we have ever been at. The sand is fine, there are no rocks or shells. There is a gentle slope in the water and you can walk out quite a way. While there, we had a decent surf and fairly strong wind. This was wonderful. The beach has a number of “palm umbrellas” known as palapas. These were pretty old and poorly maintained. They weren’t much of a sun blocker due to the number of missing palms. The beach bar was terrific and there were a number of recreational activities to take advantage of at the beach. The hotel is all inclusive. There is a large buffet restaurant, with plenty of seating, in each hotel and five separate restaurants that require reservations. Book reservations early, if you want to go to one. We went to the Seafood restaurant once. There were three main courses to choose from, a soup, salad buffet and dessert. Honestly, when we left, we all agreed that the buffet would probably have been better. The buffet covered three meals a day. There were many, many choices. The servers were terrific. The hot food stations, were food was cooked to order, was probably the best, as the food was hot. Other stations, where the food was in pans, was not so hot. And you’d recognize some of the food from the evening before. Fruit, breads and drinks were very good. All of the hotel employees provided fantastic service to us and answered any questions we had. We greatly appreciated their efforts.
Pina Colada’s – the drink
We figured this is a tropical island, so Pina Colada’s would be native. Cuban’s consider this an international drink. So they charge a little more. The important thing to note is how they are made. Several use powder mixes. Ugh. Some didn’t use creme de coco, so it was just Pineapple juice and rum. Not bad, but not too sweet. Others were fantastic. And a variety of places split an cored a pineapple, put the drink in the core, cut and notch in the top and provided the whole thing to you. In one case, they gave you the rum bottle to “season to taste”. That meant drinking the virgin Colada enough to add room for the rum. If all of them were as good as those, this would be in the Very Good category.
While I didn’t participate in this activity, those that I was with did quite effectively. No hidden Picasso’s but there are plenty of prints to acquire in Cuba. Just make sure they aren’t the factory models that are mass produced by forgers/copiers of the realm thing.
Again, I didn’t participate, but we got tremendous advice from some large cigar shops to some small ones. There were always people on the street trying to sell us “local varieties” that were rummage sale carryovers/forgeries of name brands. Ultimately, we acquired some premium brands, but they were not cheap. As much as 25CUC per cigar.
Walking along Paseo di Marti (aka Prado)
This is the main drag that separates Old Havana from central Havana. The Capitol is there, a number of museums, restaurants and other tourist attractions. It’s a divided boulevard.
Easy to walk, wide open and lots of picture opportunities.
In Cuba, automobiles have the right of way. If you plan on crossing a street, beware. The drivers seem out to get you. If the light is green ahead of you and you feel it is safe to cross a side street, you’d be wrong. A turning vehicle could hit you. This is a sharp contrast to NYC where the pedestrian has the right of way. It takes a bit to get used to.
Our other experiences – the not so Good
Not the sole reason for not returning to Cuba, but these are things that catch you attention in a negative way.
Through out the cities and country side are billboards claiming, in large print, that Castro will forever be with us. Long Live the Revolution. Che (Guevara) and Fidel.My guess is Fidel was beloved when the revolution occurred. But given the income and environment today, most people weren’t too pleased with the results.
One local told us there were 2 million people in Havana. 1 million residents and 1 million policemen. Everywhere we went, there were National, City, local and military personnel. One the highway, there was a motorcycle policeman about every 10 kilometers. It was both intimidating (we didn’t speed) and reassuring in large crowds. But it did give us pause as we saw so many of them.
Sloppy Joe’s Restaurant
This is a tourist trap that’s very well done and close to the National Capitol (Capitolio). It was also close to our apartment. The drinks were okay and the food was passable. But it was also more expensive. It wasn’t worth a second visit. But lots of celebrities have been there.
San Jose Market – Vieja Habana
This is a huge market with many cubicles, similar to some of the open air markets of NYC. However, you could classify the cubicles. Wooden toys. Clothing. Cuban memorabilia. And the contents of each were the same as a dozen other cubes. This merchandise was all mass produced. It was the same stuff that we saw in markets and private home stairwells throughout the city. None of it was worth it.
Walking along Calle Muralla to Plaza Vieja
One of our party got very nervous walking down the street. It’s a run down street. Many private homes selling wares and begging you to come inside. A mass of people going up and down the street with the majority being locals and not tourists. It’s easy to see how intimidating such a place can be, given concerns going into the trip. However, as stated earlier, it was a very safe area. Locals are punished heavily if they do anything negative to tourists. So the reality is, it’s a tolerance. But if large crowds of locals concern you, head down the parallel streets of Obispo (large market dedicated to tourists) and O’Reilly instead. More tourists than locals there. Maybe even less crowded.
Hotel Copacabana – Miramar Havana
This was a functional hotel. Kind of like Hotel 6. Not a lot of frills. It is located on the Malecon, with direct access to the shoreline. It was very different from what we expected. The hotel itself, was similar to much of what we found in Havana: time has passed and there were a lot of cosmetic updates that could be made. The rooms themselves were large enough and beds comfortable. The bathroom worked well. Overall, the interior of the building looked dirty and paint was peeling and doors were rusty. There are two pools. The fresh water, in-ground pool is large enough and comfortable while in it. However, it’s old, you need to be careful around the edges and the cement statues in the center of the pool have worn down, with age, to the point they are no longer recognizable.
I was going to put this and car rentals under a category of bad – something you never want to do again. However, the reality is, if you ever want to travel in Cuba, you need to be able to navigate. Do not under estimate the value of detailed paper maps. Reality is, you need multiple maps of the same area. One with a high level view to show street navigation. And then multiple levels smaller that show the details of shops, restaurants and tourist destinations so that there is a frame of reference to easily find them. When driving a distance, you must come up with turn by turn directions that are better than the text of Google Maps. Even their mini maps don’t show the details necessary to navigate. So plot out some basic things you want to do. Once behind the wheel, you’ll need a good navigator or plan to stop often to check if you are traveling in the correct direction.
Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. As such, this can’t be bad, but it doesn’t have to be good either!
The problem here was the wait time to get the car and the quality of the transmission. Otherwise, we had a pretty big car, compared to what I thought we’d get. We got where we needed to get to, eventually. With the alternative being buses for long distance driving, the car rental was terrific. Know in advance that the wait can be terrible.