I can’t say that travel to Havana, Cuba was ever on my radar or travel bucket list. I think part of its newfound allure was that the U.S. finally changed its policy and made it possible for its citizens to visit. Now the forbidden fruit was accessible.
Needless to say, we jumped at the opportunity to go, deciding to make it a Christmas vacation. Per the airline, we needed a landing card. I am not sure if this is still a requirement. When we booked this trip, some airlines offered to help with that process. We purchased super cheap airfare and the airline’s partner helped with the visa process. We provided the following information to them and paid via its secure website: full name, accompanying travelers, travel date, flight confirmation, nationality, and address for mailing the landing card. The total cost included priority postage, the landing card fee, and a processing fee. I think the cards arrived in about two weeks.
On the big day, once arriving at the flight gate in Miami, attendants direct us to another location. There, we filled out the required general license form for U.S. located people, where we check off one of ten reasons for our visit (not toursim). That took a few minutes due to the lines. After that, we were off to our adventure.
Arriving at the Havana – Jose Marti Airport was definitely like stepping back in time. I don’t think the airport had WIFI, so you had to use your phone’s cellular data. I don’t think we exchanged currency at this point (I don’t remember why). The airport looked very old. Once stepping outside, it really hit that I was in Cuba. All the cars were old, like something out of the fifties. We had arranged transportation with our Airbnb hostess, so that was one less thing to worry out.
With Airbnb, sometimes it’s the luck of the draw with what you get. I didn’t have a recommendation from friends, so I searched and picked one. Once getting there, I realized it was NOT a good choice, but we had to make it work. We went to the bank near the Airbnb the next day to exchange currency, as they were closed when we arrived. If you miss the bank, you have to find an exchange place while you are out and the lines were always long there.
Everything around us reminded us of the past – from the antique cars, to the old buildings. Some had been kept up, but most weren’t. You’d walk by what you thought was a vacant building, but look up to see someone’s clothing hanging on a line outside the balcony. Internet access was even crazier. If you weren’t in a hotel that had access, it was not readily available. You had to buy internet cards from a store, hotel cafe, or a guy in the park selling them. If you were walking down the street and passed a park where everyone had their heads down in their phones, that meant it was a ‘wi-fi park’. There was a signal there and possibly a guy selling cards. One evening, our vintage car driver took us to the park and facilitated a card sale. It was the funniest thing ever.
What I didn’t like about travel to Cuba was that you cannot use your debit/credit cards there. I assume that this just applies to U.S. cards, but I am not sure. You must bring all the physical money you think you will need for your trip. I suggest you bring 1 1/2 to 2 times the amount you think, as it’s safer to have a cushion. If you spend all your money, there is no way to access any additional funds.
What I loved most about Cuba was the food and the people. The food was amazing. We found a restaurant near the main square that was 2 or 3 stories, with 3 restaurants inside. You knew they were good because the lines were always long. We ate there for lunch or dinner everyday, trying each of the restaurants. People were friendly – waving hello, usually assuming we were from New York because of hubby’s fitted caps. We met a guy who turned out to be our ‘unofficial’ tour guide. He was a cool guy who gave us tips on stuff to do and show us good places to eat. We had no problem buying him a drink or giving him a few pesos for helping us. He was so fascinated by our cellphones, as we were way ahead of anything they had access to in Cuba.
I don’t remember doing a ton of ‘things to do/see’ research before my travel to Cuba, so I did not line up much. I wish we had, because I would have loved to visit other parts of Cuba such as Trinidad, Cienfuegos, and Santa Clara. We did not pack our days with too much, but tried something new daily. One day, we took a manual taxi to lunch, which was cool. It was lots of work for the driver, but I guess he was used to it. We walked around, took a vintage car tour, and a bus similar to Hop On Hop Off. It stopped at some museums, the beach, a forte, and a few other places. We also visited the San Jose’ Artisans’ Market, which had food, arts, crafts, and clothing. You could even get your hair braided!
I regret that we did not see any live music outside of a hotel band on Christmas, but we never made it back to the restaurant/lounge that had it. There was a cool museum, Fabrica de Arte Cubano, that turned into a night spot on the weekends with live music.
If I traveled back to Cuba, I would venture out to other sections, as I found myself bored after 4 days in Havana. We actually changed our flight and left a day early. Overall, it was still an interesting experience that I don’t regret having.