It's always been a bucket list dream of mine to travel to Cuba. I imagined old world Caribbean, bongo drums pounding, mojitos pouring, back in the day, Hemingway at his bar stool at El Floridita, rocking a Cubavera, sipping a cocktail, drawing inspiration for his next work of art. Perhaps we'd have a chat about how he came up with the idea for that whale and he'd give me a kick in the booty to finally get my book published! Ernie liked cats, I can see how he loved Cuba!
So when my favorite social media travel site, Girls Love Travel, partnered with Heart of Travel and offered Girls Trips to Cuba, you didn't have to ask me twice! I was in and couldn't wait to finally experience Havana!
HOW TO GET TO CUBA
For Americans to legally travel to Cuba, you need to visit under one of the twelve reasons. We traveled under reason number seven, Support of the Cuban People. I booked my flight on American Airlines with a quick stop in Miami, then just a one hour flight to Cuba.
To travel to Cuba you also need a visa. You can purchase one at the departure gate, or order one ahead of time online. Being a little OCD, I ordered mine online and it arrived within a few days!
You also need a valid passport and proof of health insurance, and you'll need to fill out online Cuban immigration and customs form called D'Viajeros.
WHAT TO BRING
Since we were going under Support of the Cuban People, I packed as many tolietries as I could fit in my carry on since Cubans literally have nothing. There isn't a Quick Trip, there isn't a Walgreens, if you forget your Advil, you're gonna have a headache. Whatever you bring is what you're gonna have cause there is literally almost nothing to buy! Even in early October it was a whole new level of hot and I'm from Ho-lanta. I packed skirts and tanks, flowy sundresses, tennis shoes, a swimsuit and flips for the beach, several hats, and sunscreen is a must. Pack all of the tolietries you need because you won't be buying any here and pack some basic meds like Advil, Pepto, and I always bring Charcoal pills in case of food poisoning or if you want to be PC a good disagreement! My emergency kit also included a a bottle of Chardonnay (legal to bring) poured into 3 ounce bottles (cause I carried on). Because of the embargo almost nothing gets imported so you are deep in the land of rum and cerveza and Pepsi like mixers from China and juego de whatever they can grow!
DAY 1 FIRST MOJITO
A Classic car with an upgraded sound system rolled up to the curb. Emmanuel, one of guides, introduced himself in perfect, self taught English. Our driver, Pablo, didn't speak a lick of English but had a rockin playlist that took us back to the 80's cause he knew Girls Just Wanna Have Fun! Pedestrians and buses overflowing with riders packed the streets of Havana. Speckled with palm trees and more street art than the Louvre could hold, you could just imagine what Havana looked like in it's hay day. Now the buildings with their old world architecture were just old buildings, some crumbling right down to the ground. We passed people waiting in lines that wrapped around the block and Eman pointed out these were government buildings and people were waiting for their rations.
We pulled onto a side street where cats were feasting on a corner, and a once neon sign flashed Bar, and stopped in front of a pink and green building. This was our Casa Particular, home for the next few days. While the government owned almost everything, they were slowly giving Cubans a tiny bite of the pie. A Casa Particular is owned by a Cuban and run kinda like an American B & B. The owners provide rooms and breakfast and get paid! We opened the door and were greeted by a narrow steep staircase, after staircase, after staircase. Four flights to the almost top, I opened my door to my room where the air was ice cold and the shower was nice and hot, two extreme rare gems in Cuba. The room was nicely furnished and the fridge was stocked with water, juice, sodas, and Cuban beer. My window opened to a balcony and I could watch Havana life going by and my neighbor across street hanging up an endless amount of clothing to dry on the rooftop clothesline. There was just enough time to set my suitcase down and grab a water then it was off to dinner.
In front of the Casa, bici-cabs picked us up. These bicycle taxis were everywhere and a quick and cheap way to get around. Don't even bother to fix up your hair here. Between the humidity and the wind while getting driven around in a bici-cab, you will always have that slightly damp, wind tunnel look, no matter what.
Whomever said you can't go back, hasn't been to Cuba. I was truly reliving my best '80's life! From Pablo's playlist, to spotting my first car twins all over Havana! It was 1989 all over and maybe I'll just pretend I'm 18!
Our first night, we dined at rooftop restaurant Yarini. Stairs are for real here, lots of steep narrow stairs but I would rather hike the stairs than get in an elevator! Just a little phobia of mine along with the number 13! Dinner under the stairs with lots of naked bathroom art, Yarini served up tostones, ceviche, a lobster for the main course, and guava ice cream for dessert. In a country where food is rationed, lobster seemed a little, well lux! When we asked our tour guide Paloma about it, she said lobster is from the sea, we can catch all we want! So basically we were dining on the cheeseburger of Cuba! Yarini had a moderate crowd but our guide told us, Cubans do not come here, they can't afford it. Yarini was a paladares, a restaurant owned by Cubans, not the government. But to own a paladares, it takes dinero, so many paladares are started by Cubans who came to America legally, and then came back to invest in Cuba. After a long day, we retired the Casa, sipping on a 3 ounce pour, sitting on my balcony taking in the adventure I had once dreamed of!
DAY 2 CLASSIC CARS & HAVANA HISTORY
Oh yeah, it was the day I've been waiting for, the classic car crawl around La Bana! Up on the roof top of our Casa, our hosts made us a lovely breakfast of local fruit, Cuban bread, eggs, and the oh so good Cuban coffee. I have to say the coffee is strong, so strong, after a sip or two I was worried I would jitter myself into a panic attack, my brain was awake! While were in Havana their was a gas shortage, so breakfast was a little slow while our hosts worked to cook on electric frying pans. Another challenge, eggs! Cubans are rationed small amounts of meat, chicken, and only get about five eggs a month and many families sell their eggs to restaurants and Casas to make extra money. Not a big fan of eggs to begin with, I decided to pass on the eggs feeling guilty they are in such short supply!
Walking out the door of our Casa, we could see the classic cars, all the colors of the rainbow, lined up on the street, waiting to explore Havana! I actually took the time to curl my hair so I would look fab for one insta moment before it was blown to bits by the heat and humidity of Havana!
We drove all around Havana with Eman, pointing out various government buildings, where President Miguel Diaz Canal lived, then we stopped in Plaza de Revolucian where Fidel Castro gave his famous long, long, speech. The buildings host a steel homage to the faces of deceased heroes of the Cuban Revolution Che Guevara, with the quotation "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" (Ever Onward to Victory) and Camilo Cienfuegos. After an iphone photoshoot in the square with our classic cars, it was time for a bar and we had barely cracked 10am. I'm liking Cuba, it's always 5 o'clock somewhere!
First stop, La Bodequita Del Medio, home of the first mojito! I sampled and yep, it was good! After you had your mojito and patroned this bar, it was customary to ink your name on the wall! After that, we toured one of Havana'a most famous cathedrals and met an octogenarian fortune teller with legs like Tina Turner. We were followed by musicians who seranaded us with Spanish songs and street walkers who followed us on stilts. Everyone was hustlin' and trying to make a buck, especially the kids.
The next stop of the adventure, we went into the rainforest and saw locals making sacrifices with flowers in the river. And deep in the rain forest, what did we find? A pina colada stand with self pour rum! #winning! The pina coladas were like nothing I had tasted. Super creamy and coconuty, they were delish, or maybe it was the three shots of rum floaters my friend poured since there were no stoppers on the bottles!
We stopped for lunch on an umbrella lined street at Lamparilla Tapas & Cerveza. This was my favorite mojito and favorite meal!
We started off with ceviche and tostones, then tried the signature dish of Cuba, ropa vieja, which was delish, and yucca which was kinda like potatoes with garlic and cheese! I also tried one of the cerveza frio and it froze as I was taking a sip. After lunch, we went to a local home and learned to play Dominos.
We had so much fun, I bought a hand caved domino set to bring home to my kids, one of the few things you can buy in Cuba! I think it was maybe $3 USD! Now I wish I had bouoght more! We also had the opportunity to buy Cuban cigars and coffee from a local farm. The cigars are wrapped in a palm leaf and we were told we could take them back legally since they were purchased from a farm. I got mine back to America with no issues but some ladies in our group weren't as lucky! With my Cuban pesos wrapped like a brick, my coffee in a water bottle and my Cubans in a palm leaf wrapped in newspaper, I felt like I was in the mafia and up to no good!
There is no siesta in Cuba! The days were long and action packed! We had just enough time to shower and change at the Casa then if was off to dinner at Frente. A rooftop restaurant that served up apps and tacos, we had a delicious dinner before we loaded up in bici-cabs for a cross town trek to a paladares bar on the water. And there I spied with my little eyes a lonely bottle of Gray Goose that I couldn't wait to drink! It was the only time I saw it, they said it was very expensive, and my vodka soda rang in at $8 USD, way cheaper than South Beach 90 minutes to the north! After listening to some live music, we were exhausted and ready to get our beauty sleep for the the big beach day ahead!
DAY 3 LA PLAYA
By Day 3, we were getting into Havana Life. It is like going back in time because almost nothing is imported since the embargo in the 1960's. Stuff is kinda passed around, and reused. We couldn't help but noticing our guides were decked out in some pretty fab Nike gear, Eman was even sporting the trendy cross body bag. So how'd they get that? Eman told us that almost every Cuban has a relative in America. They can legally send their people supplies they could never otherwise have, wrapped up in what they call turkeys. Imagine a package, bubble wrapped to death, that's a turkey. We saw them coming in by the mother load off the conveyor belt in the airport. So when your turkey arrives, it truly is Thanksgiving for Cubans!
When we had the option for a beach day in Havana, I imagined I would be sipping a mojito at a restaurant, eating the best Cuban sandwich ever, with salsa playing in the background watching the waves. This was not exactly the case! If you travel up north to Varadera, you'll find resorts on sugar white sand with crystal blue waters. A popular vacation spot for Canadians and Europeans, but not for Americans. And even worse! I learned a Cuban sandwich is an American thing and doesn't even exist in Cuba!!! Who would have thought?
So for Americans to go to the beach, legally, it's a little tricky! Our guides found a beach where they served drinks about a 1/2 mile away, and found us a little restaurant where they cooked us chicken and rice and veggies for lunch. A mojito, pina colada, or beer was 80 cents in USD each! I also purchased a Havana hat made out of palm leafs and my friend and I shared a coconut full of rum! It wasn't at all what we expected but we had a good day!
On the way back to Havana, we rocked out to Pablo's 80's playlist. In Cuba, Michael and Whitney live on! We didn't even have time to change out of the beach gear then it was off to the street art tour of Havana.
With so many restrictions, the arts are one way people can express themselves here. The streets are colored with the talent of various street artists. Also on almost every corner you find music. Trumpets blaring, guitars strumming, drums pounding. After taking in the sights and sounds of the streets of Havana, it was time for Cha Cha Cha, our final dinner in Cuba.
Every time we had a mojito in Cuba it tasted completely different! Everyone seemed to have their own recipe! We sampled another variety tonight at Cha Cha Cha then had the first vegetable I had in days, a salad, followed by what translated to Fish Chunks. It was swordfish served with traditional beans and rice and was actually delicious. After dinner, my friend and I found a rare bottle of wine on the menu and ordered it for $16 USDs! We were happy to introduce our photographer for the trip, Ahmed, to glass of California grapes!
DAY 4 INSTA FUN SHOOT & HOME
A final breakfast at the Casa and a last sip of Cuban coffee, we had a photo shoot with Ahmed then it would be time to bid adios to La Bana.
In and out of the pouring raining, Ahmed @islaahmedrabi took us around town to snap some pictures for our photoshoot. We ended up meeting our guides, Emmanuel and his wife at a super cute lunch spot, had some apps and a final Havana mojito then it was back in the classic car and time to head home.
At the airport in Havana, I have to admit I was a little nervous. Would they let me out, would I be able to go back home? We sailed through customs and nobody cared about my coffee or cigars. As the plane landed in Miami, our entire plane started cheering and clapping. Just an hour flight and world away. At that moment, I was never so happy to land in America and have the once gift that's truly priceless, freedom. Even on my worst days, I still have freedom. Freedom to choose, freedom to travel, freedom to buy, freedom to make my life whatever I want. Several Cubans would give anything to come here, even if it meant having nothing, because they would freedom to make a choice.
My heart breaks for the people in Cuba who don't have a choice and don't know what they are missing. For the people like Eman who are separated from their families. Through all the poverty, the crumbling buildings, the shortage of food, and all of the government control, the people of Cuba have the biggest hearts! Eman, Patrice, Paloma, Pablo, Ahmed, all welcomed up with the biggest smiles, full hearts, and worked their booties off to show us the best time in their country.
Tuesday night once we were home, we received a What's App message from Eman. At our lunch spot, Lamparilla, that we ate at just two days before, a building across the street collasped and several people were missing. Eman told us the crew decided to donate all of the tips we had given them to the families that were now homeless.
People who have so little, giving everything they have to help someone. That pretty much says it all. I came to Cuba to check a destination off my bucket list, but I left with an experience that will never leave my heart!