Never in my life had I been more nervous before going through customs. You would have thought I was on an episode of “Locked Up Abroad.” For years, going to Cuba had been almost impossible for U.S citizens to visit. Even though the entry requirements have changed, I was still afraid I would be denied entry. After standing in line for a few minutes, the lady in customs looked at my documents and waved me through. Next an additional form for the Health department had to be filled out, which basically asks if you’re in good health and your reason for visiting Cuba. The options were tourism, work, family visit, or religious reasons. I was scared to check tourism but that was the only one which applied. After completing the forms, I was formally welcomed to Havana!
Once you arrive in Cuba, you have to exchange money. Luckily there is a cadenca (currency exchange) ,outside the departure level, which is open 24 hours. The key is to bring Euros because when you exchange USD, there is a 13% penalty which means you lose more money in the exchange. The easiest option is to go to your local bank and request Euros before your trip. It’s important to bring enough or more than enough because your bank cards/credit cards will NOT work in Cuba. So if you run out of money, the only way to get more is to have someone back home wire you some cash. Save yourself the headache and bring extra cash just to be safe.
Prepare to be hassled by a zillion taxi drivers as soon as you exit the airport. I took a yellow cab to our airbnb because apparently the yellow and black taxis are the most legit. The house was about 20 minutes from the airport. On the way to the house, the taxi driver talked about life in Cuba and pointed out different landmarks. One of the comments he made which stood out to me was how in Cuba, there are very few robberies, assaults, murders, etc. He also stated there was no racism. I remember thinking yea right, how is that even possible.
Our airbnb was on the 11th floor and had a balcony which had great views of the city. Looking out over Havana, you immediately notice the dilapidated beauty of the city. Havana has a flavor all its own, with the colors of the homes, the people going to and from and the old cars passing by.
Walking along the malecón (boardwalk) heading to Old Havana, I noticed the many shades and hues of Cubans. The people looked like my nephew or even my sister and father. I saw myself in them. Old Havana is the touristy party of Havana. This is where you will find the women dressed elegantly with cigars dangling from their mouths, in hopes someone will give them a small tip in exchange for a picture. This is also where you will find outrageously priced hotels and the iconic restaurant/bar La Floridita, which was frequented by Ernest Hemingway. Havana is a beauty but the city also has a certain level of grit. As much as I enjoy exploring the tourist hot spots, I enjoy even more having the opportunity to explore places which are filled with locals.
The entire time I was in Havana, I felt completely safe. The people were quite friendly and willing to help. Because I speak Spanish, I tend to feel just as comfortable in a Spanish speaking country as I do back in the U.S.
The first couple of days I explored the many restaurants and bars, in search of the best mojito. Restaurants offered Cuban cuisine as well as more traditional American dishes such as burgers and fries. I ate some amazing pulled pork tacos in Old Havana at Sloppy Joe’s. Overall I really enjoyed the food in Cuba.
After a couple days in the city, I headed to Varadero. Varadero is an idyllic beach city about 2 hours outside of Havana. The easiest way to get there is to hire a taxi which can average $50USD each way per person. Luckily our host knew a cheaper route which was a shared taxi for $30 p.p. The other two people in the car were from California so it was nice to connect with people who reminded me of home. The beaches in Varadero are absolutely breath taking. I felt like I was looking at a postcard. Unlike many other Caribbean beaches, the beach was not crowded at all. It also was not filled with throngs of tourists. The city itself is small and quaint.
Tips for Havana: Book an airbnb. Hotels are extremely expensive due to lack of competition. Take a tour of Havana in one of the convertible old cars ($30) or just take pics in one for free (this is what I did)! Have a daiquiri at La Floridita and enjoy the live music! Go salsa dancing! Sundays are popular nights for dancing. Bring extra cash! Check out the store Clandestina. They have really unique trinkets and gifts. Walk along the malecón and enjoy the views of the Ocean.
Tips for Varadero: Beach, Mojito, Repeat. There is a currency exchange at the “mall” in town. Check out the souvenirs at the local shops. I got a really cool painting which was very affordable. Make sure to negotiate the price of whatever you decide to buy. Buy a piña colada from the cart across the street from the Centro Comercial Hicacos! Deliciosa! Thank me later! Enjoy!
DISCLAIMER: I traveled to Cuba before the latest travel restrictions were in place.