I have scratched one more destination off my bucket list: La Habana, Cuba! What an amazing city and intriguing country.
My husband grew up in Miami so he was torn about visiting Cuba. After reaching out to a few of his Cuban friends that have been to Havana in the past two years, we decided it was time for us to go. And we are happy that we did. Every single resident was happy to see us, we felt more than welcome, and we were received with open arms.
So first of all, let me remind you that we are a 40-minute flight away from Havana. We booked these flights last minute and the initial plan was to spend a day in Havana and get back in time for dinner. Yes, a one-day trip to Cuba.
Unexpectedly, our flight was delayed almost three hours, which turned out the best thing that could have happened to us. Spirit Airlines rescheduled our return flight to the following day and that’s when the true adventure started.
Once we had our flight rescheduled, we started looking for hotels online and that’s the moment we started learning all about the Cuban government. We were unaware that you need to book hotels with a minimum of 2 days in advance and only a few will accept online “reservations”. I will explain the quotes in just a few.
We finally managed to book accommodations for one night at the Tryp Havana Libre (picture below), and we were more than ready to explore Cuba.
For those that have never been to Cuba, let me guide you through our entire trip and what we have learned from it.
We flew with Spirit Airlines and our flight was $114 for a roundtrip ticket. Once you book your airfare, the airline will help you with the Cuban visa. Ours was $100 per person and we paid it at the counter when we checked-in, but I know some other airlines only charge $50 like JetBlue.
To obtain a visa, you have to pick one of the reasons below. The most popular are #2 and #10. We selected option number two.
1) I am a Cuban National and resident of Cuba
2) Educational activities, including people-to-people exchanges open to everyone
3) Professional research and professional meetings
4) Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions and exhibitions
5) Religious activities
6) Humanitarian projects
7) Journalistic activities
8) Family visits
9) Activities in Cuba by private foundations, or research or educational institutes
10) Support for the Cuban people
11) Exportation, importation, or transmission of information technologies or materials
12) Certain authorized export transactions including agricultural and medical products, and tools, equipment, and construction supplies for private use
13) Official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
14) Specific license
Airlines that fly to Cuba:
- American Airlines
- Alaska Airlines
- Spirit Airlines
- Frontier Airlines
- Southwest Airlines
- United Airlines
- Silver Airways
Once you land, you will have to go through Cuban customs. Be prepared to be in line for 30-45 minutes in a non-air-conditioned room. They offer several lines and we were in the one that stated “Airlines Crew”. Go ahead and get on that line if it is short. It is not limited to crew but they don’t disclose it. We stayed in that line and had no problem getting through customs along with the other 40 people.
After customs, you will be asked to go through a metal detector and x-ray your hand luggage/carry-on.
Tip #1: Do not get in line for currency exchange inside of the airport. They advertise US dollars but don’t offer them inside of the airport. Go outside and on your left, you will see a “Cambio” window. Get on that line and exchange your US dollars to CUC – Convertible Cuban Pesos.
Tip #2: Do the currency exchange in the US. The currency lines are very long and you will be melting in the heat if you don’t. We gave up waiting in line after 35 minutes and asked a taxi driver if he would accept US Dollars. He said he would and quoted us $40USD. We shared a taxi with another tourist which dropped our price to $20.
Tip #3: Use a Canadian travel agency to book your hotel or make sure the hotel is PAID in full before you fly in. Remember my “reservations” statement? Well, online agencies will reserve the hotel for you but the Cuban Government does not accept any US credit or debit cards, which means our hotel was not paid for and we had to use $265 out of our budgeted money to pay for the hotel. Needless to say, we were shocked that they could not use our credit card used for the reservation and now we had to pay for it in cash. Good thing we were somewhat prepared.
Tip #4: Bring lots of money, whether it’s US dollars or CUC (Cuban pesos). There are no ATMs in Cuba and NO ONE accepts US debit or credit cards, which means if you run out of money, you’re out of luck. You will have to make the best of it with whatever you have left.
Tip #5: Buy cigars, souvenirs, and rum at the airport Duty-Free. We did the mistake of buying rum at their local market, and when we checked-in, we were told the bottles would most likely never make it to the airplane. Granted it was only a backpack, not a sealed suitcase, but the price was the same at the Duty-Free so next time that’s all we are doing. More details on the cigar counterfeit issue at the bottom.
If you are going on a budget, your best bet will probably be Airbnb or VRBO. If you have a comfortable budget, the hotel we stayed in at was in a great location, but similar to an Embassy Suites, even though it was $265/night!! If budget is not an issue, I highly recommend the Melia Cohiba which is right around $325-$350/night. We toured the hotel and it was 100 times better than the one we stayed at, even though they are both Melia Hotels. We stayed at the Tryp Habana Libre and this was their panoramic view room:
Although we didn’t spend much time in the room, we did have breathtaking views to their amazing sunset:
My Irish husband trying to pull off a Cuban look 🙂
We had lunch at the hotel at “El Barracón” when we first arrived since our room wasn’t ready for another 45-60 minutes. We started off with an octopus appetizer (Pulpo A La Importancia) and had the Luxurious Cuban Pork Sandwich “Pan Con Lechon” as we didn’t want to waste time indoors and were more than eager to see Havana. I photographed the menu so you can take a look at the prices. The conversion while we were there was $1USD=$0.87 CUC.
Right after lunch, we headed outside and looked for a taxi to take us to the famous Old Havana aka “Habana Vieja”. The taxi wanted $20 but we decided on their tiny yellow egg motorcycles, Coco Taxi. We paid $10 (with tip) and had a few laughs on the way.
In Old Havana (Habana Vieja) we had lots to do, lots to see and plenty to drink! Ha. Below are some of our highlights in that area:
Throughout town, they have little bars with happy hour menus. I had a “couple” of their mojitos and they were delish! Not sweet like the ones in the US. Here’s my bartender:
On the Malecon side of Old Havana, they have a gorgeous line-up of cars from the fifties. Although, we did learn that they have mechanics in town that will make pretty much any car look like these, as long as the chassis is the same.
We headed south to check out the Capitol, La Floridita Bar, Havana Club, Central Park and the Grand Theatre. These are some of the landmarks that you do not want to miss. If you have time, please be sure to enjoy the live music at La Floridita Bar:
Park across from La Floridita:
Havana Club (and a shot of 7-year-old rum):
Gran Teatro de La Habana (Grand Theather):
On the side of the Theatre:
We headed this way to buy cigars in the “Cooperativa”. This is where you can buy cheap [fake] cigars. Although these are most likely counterfeit, we did it for the experience. We did not buy any of their boxes for $100-$200. Instead, we walked out with a small box of 5 “Cohibas” for $35. If you are a cigar lover or you want to buy the real thing, wait until you get to the Duty-Free at the airport on your way back. Those are the real deal and at the price is still very appealing.
Here’s my husband with our counterfeit cigars in the Cooperativa. I guess they are still Cuban since they were made out of Cuban banana leaves! Ha. Also, can you see how drenched he is? We are used to Floridian summers but Cuba can get really hot and humid. I am pretty sure we lost a couple of pounds just by welcoming the weather 😉
The rest of the day we just walked around town, hopped on their public transportation (bus) and had a casual dinner. To this day, my husband says that’s the best chicken he has ever had. Thanks hun! I took a picture of the menu so you can have an idea of dinner options as well as prices. This restaurant was right behind our hotel.
My husband’s best chicken ever aka 1/2 Pollo A La Brasa:
And I ordered the Cerdo Campesino (pork). Both came with a side of white rice and black beans.
The following day we didn’t do much as we had a flight to catch, but we did walk on the Malecon (sidewalk by the bay), had the opportunity to interact with locals, walked by the American Embassy, explored the inner local roads with old mansions that are now old and uninhabitable, stopped at a couple of bars for finger food (croquetas) and local beer (crystal).
Residences by the Malecon:
After a long walk around the neighborhood, we had to head back to the airport as the recommended time is 3 hours prior departure. Unfortunately, when we got there we were not allowed to check-in as most counters only open two hours before departure time, but at least we were there on time and didn’t have to rush.
We negotiated a trip back to the airport in this red beauty. He asked for $40 but we negotiated it down to $30. We had a wonderful time driving in a convertible and it was a classic way of saying adios to Cuba.
Don’t worry Havana, we will be back soon!
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