Visiting Cuba was one of the main highlight of my year so far, it was a sensory overload. Cuba is an infinitely fascinating country and undoubtedly different from most places I have traveled to. Cuba's 80's charm, complete with vintage cars and historic architecture, is any person's dream. Here is what I have gained from this experience:
The first thing I instantaneously fell in love with was the Cuban people. I have never met such genuinely helpful and friendly people (not to mention their super super good looks). Despite the hardships of some locals, it amazed me to see how helpful, kind and fun the majority of Cubans I met were. Cuba is a country overflowing with music and culture and its people are warm and hospitable. Contagious salsa music is deep-rooted in the streets, along with sounds from ladies who shout to their neighbors as they hang their clothes on the balcony. At one point we were lost in the street of Old Havana in the pouring rain, without an umbrella and this old man popped out of nowhere speaking in Spanish. At first, we got baffled by this guy who later said some words in English "come with me", at that point we're like obviously not dude.. We saw him go into his store and grab an umbrella to cover us, close his store, and walk us to our location. (Misjudgment at its best). The neighborhood we were staying at in Old Havana became family to us, by the time we were leaving we all exchanged hugs with all the neighbors as everyone gathered to say goodbye and chase us to the taxi to make sure everything was fine.
When I started asking for tips to my trip to Cuba, the most common thing I got told was "Cuba is not an easy place to visit", well it's not the simplest place to be, due to no internet access and no phone lines (unless you are married to a local, but haaaaaaay we have a reason now ;) ). But, if you are planning to visit Cuba you have to go with the mindset of being stuck in the 60's, LITERALLY. Internet, TV, technology or good food are very limited.
Before you travel to Cuba make sure you exchange your money for Euros because the exchange rate for dollars is extremely bad, to give you an example : 1 CUP = 0.80 USD. (But if you find someone to do exchange from the black market then they will be able to give you a rate of 1 CUP = 0.95 USD, but this is rare) Also, if you decide you want to exchange in Cuba only do it at a bank.
Always negotiate on prices (If you are Lebanese you should not have a problem with this), you can go down 50% from he original price. For example, we got a bargain in the airport cafeteria (I don't know if this was due to the staff dude who was extremely nice, or for our bargaining skills) but anyways point of story: we were broke by the time we were in the airport leaving and we just had 7 CUP and we were three girls and each sandwich cost 5 CUP's so I asked him if he can do 3 sandwiches for 7 CUP's and he gave us three delicious sandwiches (not #Gag) haha . Moral of the story if you have good negotiation skills, you won't die of starvation.
Most bathrooms are paperless. BRING TOILET PAPER WITH YOU.
Buy cigars in Viñales. The cigars in Viñales are better and far more organic than those in the government-run stores in Havana. Save your money for Viñales, where the money you spend on buying cigars will go directly to the people who actually grow the tobacco.
PLACES TO GO & THINGS TO DO
Now let's cut to the chase and talk about the important stuff. Cuba’s traditions are so apparent everywhere you go, the bright color cars, colonial buildings, and of course, salsa! Over here all the drama of life here is lived out on the street.
I stayed in Old Havana which I personally loved! We stayed in a beautiful Hostel or Ma & Pa Hotel where the wife cooked breakfast for us in the morning, it was so cute (images below). If you are interested in staying here contact Franco +53 5 824 02 83. I enjoyed my stay here because I loved and preferred to support the local people. Everything is owned by the government in Cuba (even hotels), and since it is a communist country everyone makes a monthly fixed wage of $20 USD per month (even if you are a doctor). Therefore staying at a locals house and buying stuff directly from the local's will help support them and their families. The Ma & Pa Hotel we stayed in was in central Old Havana, walking distance from the key places to visit like Plaza de San Francisco, and the huge tourist market. The streets here are filled with history, the mix of architecture had me wondering if I was in Paris, Spain, or Italy. There are plenty of restaurants on the streets in Old Havana, but throughout our whole stay, here are the places I recommend:
Restaurants & Bars
La Guarida - Pretty fancy and needs a reservation
Floridita- This cute place where Hemingway used to go and write, good for Mojitos & Daiquiris
Paladares - This family-run restaurant is the best option if you are looking for homemade Cuban food
La Bodeguita del Medio- Another Hemingway favorite hangout place & awesome Mojitos
Fábrica de Arte Cubano - This place was AMAZING, & hugely recommend. This super awesome art factory had such a cool industrial-scale hipness. This place is massive, I really enjoyed walking around the different spaces seeing the art, listening to music, and dancing till 5 AM. The idea is borrowed from Brooklyn and Berlin and everywhere else that old warehouse spaces are being repurposed as art galleries. But the Factory is 100 percent criollo, all Cuban art that ingrate politics in a tightly controlled society. The art displayed push boundaries, with a room filled with nude photography.
Casa de la Música- This place was a super awesome Salsa club, the vibes were great and it also showed me how much my dancing skills suck.
Places to go in Cuba
Viñales Valley- Where most of the cigars are made
Varadero- If you are looking for an awesome beach with white sand and lots of palm trees, this is the place to b
NOW THE BEST PART
PICTURES FROM THE TRIP