In reflecting on our trip last week to Havana Cuba, all I can say is WOW. It is so difficult to put into words the entire trip and how we experienced it, and although I was expecting a wonderful vaca to a Caribbean island filled with rum drinks and the romance of old Hemingway haunts, what we got was so much more. (Does it trip anyone else out that Hemingway is a guys name and is in spell check!) However there were definitely bumps in the road so I though I would give you a list of Cuba Travel Tips, while telling you all about my experience there.
I have been wanting to travel to Cuba since reading about my friends trip there in “Confessions of a latter Day Virgin” and began researching. About a year and a half ago I started looking into hotels and found it very difficult because of course all the websights were in Spanish, There were 10, yes that is TEN, english websights, my options were very limited because I paid someone in Veuve Clicquot to pass all of my online Spanish exams to that I could get my undergraduate degree. In retrospect not such a great idea, I got a degree, but couldn’t book a hotel in Cuba. So I decided to call, and the funny thing is that when businesses don’t have websights in english, they typically don’t speak it either. It became a little too much trouble and I put it off. A year passed and then US airlines started service to Cuba and my lovely friend (coincidentally, the same one that passed my Spanish exams for me in college) decided that she wanted to celebrate a milestone birthday there, and have a few of us join her. Yippie, I get to go to Cuba and I have a translator for the trip… Win Win…
Even with a Spanish translator, there is quite a bit of work involved with traveling to Cuba, research we had to do, and preparations to be made. Which is why I’m writing this, hopefully I can save you some time.
It is still not legal for Americans to travel to Cuba for tourism, you have to be going for a reason. We got a visa to travel for cultural awareness and education (funny, we didn’t know that we sure would be schooled on our vacation when we checked that box). You can mail in 70 dollars to get your visa, or pay 100 dollars at your departing gate in the us. We opted to purchase ours at the gate because we dicked around to long and ran out of time to be able to get them ahead of time which was a completely stupid move. Cuba Travel Tip # 5 Just get it done early, your going to need the 30 dollars later I promise you.
A simple google search for hotels in Cuba brought up 49million 900 thousand 4hundred results, in english! So in a year they really got their shit together so they could market to the fucktards in America that only speak 1 language. I was astonished, and oh so happy to be their target demographic. (there’s more on being the target demographic later)
Money, Money, Money……Moneeeeey
Money is also a huge thing when traveling to any foreign country, but especially to Cuba for a couple of reasons. Typically when we travel we exchange enough money to land with enough to get food and transportation then use the atm’s in the foreign country because our bank gives us the best exchange rate for the day when we use the atm. Well, atm machines in Cuba do not connect with any US banking systems. So that was out. The other things is that Cubans would rather wipe their ass with US dollars than accept them as a form of payment. Literally, toilet paper is more valuable than us currency in Cuba. Knowing this, we exchanged US dollars for Euros in the states, with the plan to exchange Euro for CUC (cuban tourist currency) at the cuban airport because guess what else, you can’t get CUC in the US. So a double exchange, switch from USD, to EUD in the states, then from EUD to CUC in cuba…no worries. Except that the line to exchange currency at the Havana airport was 2 hours long. Do yourself a favor and don’t exchange, most businesses in Havana took euro. I only found 1 business that didn’t. Additionally most of the time if you pay in euro they will give you change in CUC, so you’re going to end up with some anyway.
While on the money topic though, when getting euro, get small bills, These people are poor and many can’t break large bills.
So Cuba Travel Tip #15, Get small bills. The other thing to consider is that if you lose your money your totally fucked!!!! US banking serviced do not work in Cuba, that means your emergency credit card wont work there, and nobody in the states can Western Union you some get out of jail free cash. Your totally screwed. Had I though about this a little bit more, I totally would have applied for a european credit card ahead of time, which is the only way that I would send a loved one there, because you have to have a safety net for when you get all fucked up, arrested, and land yourself in the slammer. As it was I had to totally play it cool the whole time.
While we’re on the topic of money, the Cubans have this great system where there are two cuban currencies. The tourist Cuban Dollar which is the CUC and the local curency which is the CUP. Only people with Cuban Id can get the CUP, so you’re stuck with CUC, and every time you pay they know your a tourist. But also every time the locals trade in CUC for CUP, they get taxed on it because the government knows that it came from a tourist transaction. It’s very smart and very tricky.
So were all excited we have our euro, visa’s, airline tickets and were off. Cuba Trip Number 19: Do yourself a favor, eat at the airport in the states before your final flight into Cuba!!!! There is not edible food in the airport there, and there’s not any food close to there. While were on the topic, bring snacks…. Cuba is unlike any third world country I’ve ever traveled to, in that there is not a lot of street food, or any food really, and the food they do have is not really that flavorful. So bring granola bars, and nuts, whatever your snack of choice is, because it’s not really a snacking type of place, and eat before you leave the US to avoid getting hangry while you wait in the very long lines to claim your bags or exchange money (if your going to do that).
My suggestion is that if you don’t want to waste half your vacation waiting in the baggage claim area, pack light and carry on.
So we land in Cuba and get off the plane and I must say the airport is in decent condition. It is old but it has these glass walkways and honestly I’ve seen us airports in worse condition. That was until I went to the restroom, where I had my first encounter with a Cuban Bathroom. Now let me preface this by saying I’ve peed around the globe, in holes in the floor in Venice, to beach shacks in Thailand. I’m pretty adaptable, I had my flushable wipes ready. So I go into the bathroom and find stalls, a sink but wait there’s something missing, oh yeah, that little thing we call a toilet seat is missing from the toilet. And me being me, I can’t help but wonder what happened to it? Surly nobody stole it. It just doesn’t make any sense, so I check the next stall, and they were all missing. I guess this is one of the ways that the Cuban government keeps their citizens healthy is by giving them a quad workout every time they have to take a piss. So in preparation for your trip you might try doing about 10, squats every day and hold at your lowest point for between 20-30 seconds. I normally don’t pee that long, but it turns out when the bathrooms are dirty you hold off the inevitable longer resulting in a longer session in the filthy bathroom in the first place. Cuba Travel Tip #1002 my recommendations on the whole sanitation thing. Bring wet wipes with you everywhere because most bathrooms don’t have toilet paper they have attendants that will sell you a square of it for a euro, and, it’s not great tp. Besides you can use the wet wipes to wipe your hands, because there aren’t any paper towels or soap either.
After claiming our bags we head out to the main arrivals area and it begins…. We start seeing what everyone has been talking about in terms of taking a step back in time. The 1950s cars keep rolling by. The thing I was surprised about is that there were quite a few newer cars too, and by newer I mean 1980s, 1990s, but the newer cars were not american made. It didn’t make any sense at the time, but after reading a bit of history it makes total sense. In the 50s America was the largest financial contributor to the Cuban economy imported so much sugar from them. Of course they purchased cars from us. When Fidel decided he wanted to cut ties with america, we kept our sugar subsidies, which fucked them financially. Fidel didn’t think that one through too well. Russia stepped in and game them subsidies for a while, but then it collapsed financially and again they were fucked financially. Well asian countries stepped in to save the day and get their sweet tooth on, which is why there are a lot of Chinese and Japanese cars from that period of time.
So we jump in our prepaid airport transportation and head to the private apartment we have rented. In Cuba, you can stay in someones house, and the owners have to pay a tax to the government or you can stay at one of the government run hotels. We opted for a private house, there were 6 of us going and we rented the whole house so we would have some privacy, or so we thought. We pulled up to the house and the funny thing is that there was a sign that said “hostle“. So we’ve established that my Spanish is not that great, however at that moment, I was thinking that the word hostle is pretty much universal, turns out I was right. We entered this crazy maze of a 3 story house that had 2 kitchens and different levels. Each bedroom had a separate lock and key and each floor had shared bathrooms… We definitely did not get the private house we booked. Cuba Travel Tip #15… Make sure you are explicit that you don’t want people outside your party staying in your accommodations, unless you are ok with that. I wasn’t super pissed because it’s always nice to meet people in other countries. I did worry a bit about the security of my belongings though. Especially my face cream in the bathroom. I cant start looking old, and I have some great face cream.
So we get unpacked, I wash my face, leave the face cream in the bathroom and we catch a cab to take us to Hotel Nationale to meet a friend for some cigars and Mojitos!!!
So here we are at the Hotel Nationale, which is fucking stunning even on a cloudy day
Then this guy just strolls up next to us:
Obviously I we had to smoke cigars, which, turns out I’m not that good at, my first and last on the trip, possibly my last one ever. I just don’t understand what all the hype is about.
So between photo ops with cuban cigars and mojitos we chat with our friend who has been there for a week. What comes to light in this conversation would pretty much sum up the rest of our trip. What should have been a 4 dollar cab ride to the hotel cost us 25 which we paid because the guy said that was how much it was. And the 25per person yes per person so ($150 total) airport transportation should have been $12 for the whole car. We pre-paid $125 per person for our next days excursion to the cigar factory so a total of $750, while she was paying a driver $30 per day to drive her around. Yep, we were getting screwed. However even though we were paying more, there are still some things I wouldn’t change.
Cuba Travel Tip no 2 Pre-pay for as much stuff as you can, but barter with the person on the phone, they will be happy to over charge you. The advantage of paying in advance though is that you can save the money that you bring to Cuba for the things you will need while you are there like food, drinks, toilet paper and drinks… yes I did mean to say drinks twice. And for sure pre-pay your return taxi to the airport because if you lose all your money at least you can get to the airport.
So, at the Hotel Nacional after a couple of drinks we ask the concierge if there is a good restaurant nearby, which he tells us about one that is about a mile away called gringa viejo, I probably should have clued into the fact that when in Cuba you shouldn’t eat food from the old white guy, but what the fuck, the concierge says it’s good. . We decide to hoof it so we can get a feel for the cuban streets. It was a beautiful neighborhood with old romantic architecture, it was just breathtaking. We end up in this little restaurant order a couple bottles of wine and take a look at the menu. Now, on the travel channel and all the places that show Cuba, almost everyone talks about eating for pennies. and having wonderful Caribbean flavors. Just eat a cuban sandwich in the Ybor City (a cuban community in Tampa) and you know that it is great. However this restaurant was about 20euro per entree. Which I am not opposed to paying for a meal, but we weren’t expecting food to be that expensive in a third world country where the citizens make an average of $30 cuban dollars a month. Our meal that night was the equivalent of 7 months pay for a cuban person. So I was thinking this must be awesome food at that price…. clearly I wasn’t thinking clearly because of the drinks. I ordered a lamb stew and the lamb was tender, but overall it was greasy. My husband was the smart one, he ordered beans and rice, and they were delish as far as beans and rice go. I chalk it up to being near the nicest Cuban hotel in an upscale part of the city.
So we go out to get a taxi and the first cab driver quotes me $25 to get back to my hotel. I’m starting to get this place figured out, so I tell him no, he lowers to $20. Just then Fredrico, an average citizen with a car dives by and says he will take us for $6. …..And the Winner is…. We jumped in fredrico’s car and were back at our hostle 3 minutes later. We tipped him $4, which he didn’t want to accept, but eventually did. So he made 10 days worth of pay in the matter of 10 minutes and we felt really good about getting a fair price for the ride. Winner, winner, chicken dinner.
These are the tobacco leaves they pick them and tie them onto poles upside down to dry.
At the cigar factory we bought our first bottle of 7 year aged cuban dark rum Cuba Travel Tip number 150 Buy the aged stuff. I typically don’t even like rum, but this shit is so smooth I was sipping it neat. Sooo good.
With our bottle of rum and our cigars in hand we got in the taxi and headed to lunch in the cutest little town named Viñales. It was so cute and quaint, I would totally stay there for a night or two next time I go to Cuba. Anyway, we stop at this little restaurant where our tour guide has arranged for lunch to be included in our tour.
They brought me this:
Now that’s a fucking pina collada! It was delish, however it was the only thing that was. There was alot of food, we started with a bean soup, there were 2 different types of rice, a pineapple rice and a rice that had been cooked with the beans, there was a shredded lobster dish that was to go over rice that was pretty good tasting, but they missed a lot of the shells in the dish, so I was digging them out of my mouth. There was a greasy bone in roasted chicken, and a pretty yummy pork dish that was thinly sliced pork chop it was almost like a port jerky. I was starving so I ate it all, but none of it really moved the needle for me. The bummer was one of my friends is a vegan and there wasn’t much she could eat except the rice and beans. Even the bean soup had pork in it. It was only our second meal in Cuba and I was beginning to realize it just isn’t a culinary culture like other cultures. There’s not a real defining flavor pallete and even the servers aren’t super excited about the food or giving good service for that matter. In other places I’ve traveled the people are excited to share their culture, and food is a part of that, it just wasn’t the case in my experience there, but it was still early in the trip.
We then went on a tour through a cave, ending with a boat ride out of the cave. It was a tourist thing, I’ve seen lots of caves in different places and this was just a cave. It was pretty, then we got in the van for a long trek home.
Once home we had a nice glass of the 7 year aged rum and consulted our lonely planet Cuba for a restaurant that was close by and had decent ratings. We decided on Castropol which was a short walk along the Malecon (Cuba’s sea wall). The book that was published in October of 2016 (6 months ago) said entres are between $6-$12CUC/EU, and to go for the fried Garbanzo beans. Well the fried garbanzo beans were good, but they were $25.00, which seems outrageous for beans of all things. The rest of the food was decent and our waiter was awesome, he even left us a little note. Overall it was a lovely evening with great company in a little second story restaurant overlooking the water.
While Scott, Dee and I headed straight back to the crib after dinner, 3 of the other girls went to what would become the local bar for a night cap. There they met the owner who’s daughter is a school teacher and wanted to give us a walking tour of Havana the next day, for just a tip. Awesomme!!! right It was my friends birthday and we had dinner reservations but it seemed like a great way to spend the morning. Another tidbit they found out is that Cuba tries to keep it’s population healthy, with socialized medicine and all that you can drink the water, it’s actually very clean…. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT drink the water. More on that later.
The next morning we woke up at the casa, had some breakfast filled up my water bottle adding a little ice from the freezer and headed out to meet our tour guides Daniel and Jame pronounce Jahma. We came to cuba with some stuff for the people. We had hear that they are so poor that anything we could bring them would help them out, so we bring old sunglasses with us and give everyone at the bar a pair of sunglasses for our walking tour. They were grateful for the shades, and we were grateful to have someone who knows about Cuba to hang out with for the day. The first thing we do is go to the bank where Jame explains that handicap people don’t have to wait in line like everyone else. (did I mentions she only has 1 arm), anyway she takes a bunch of our euro in and walks past the block long line and exchanges our money, so great. She comes out and we start walking. Daniel and Jame took us all over Havana, we saw the good the bad and the ugly.
The above picture was taken just down the road from our hostle, it is not unusual. In any given square or street, if you look one direction it is completely beautiful, then you turn to look the other way and it is falling to pieces. The city is a little bi polar like that. More interesting is how visceral it is to see these buildings that used to be so majestic literally crumbling to the ground. During our tour, the social worker in the group asked Jame what happened to her arm. Apparently when she was 21 she was on a balcony with her grandfather and her best friend and it collapsed under them. She lost her best friend, her grandfather and her arm. The crumbling city isn’t just a sad thing from an architectural standpoint, it is tragic for the cuban people. There re literally piles of cement in the streets that fall off the buildings.
So we walked and walked and walked just taking in the city and noticing all the nuances. The cuban culture in Havana at least is totally a walking culture. One of the things it isn’t however is a culinary culture. Unlike other places there aren’t just venders of food all over the place, in fact it’s pretty rare. There also aren’t little shops where you can buy food. There are a few vegetable markets, it took us 3 days to find a local bodega to stock up on some stuff and literally all they had was powdered milk, sodas, beer, liquer, saltine crackers, coffee and a few little salami types of meat. I know the locals go to the ration building to get their monthly rations of supplies, but for the life of me I can’t figure out where they get the rest of their food. This is why I say bring snacks.
So after hearing Jame’s story I look at all the buildings differently and the beauty of dilapidation shifts. It is no longer a romantic frozen in time sort of thing, and one of tragic neglect. Jame told us that the Cuban government would just come in seize property and “close it for renovations”, and many if not most of the time the renovations never happened leaving nobody to care for the buildings and they just deteriorate.
I’ve seen poverty before, but this is a different kind, because for many years, there has been no possible way for people to get out of it. There is no capitalism, and our guides were telling us that there also was not hope. That they as a people were super excited because they are just now being able to have personal businesses and rent out their homes or open a hair salon in their living room, but they still yearn for personal freedom, freedom of expression and a bunch of other liberties that we take for granted in the states. Many of them hope that communism will open up and allow for capitalism similar to how it has in china. I thought is was endearing that there are parts of communism that they want to hold on to, and that the people my age that who don’t remember anything else identify with it as strongly as they do. I have always assumed that they would want to ditch it as quickly as possible.
And we walked some more.
Like this guy who sits on his stoop and runs a business out of his living room. I’m not exactly sure what business it is, but locals were popping in and out. I
Thank god they didn’t let this beauty crumble. They actually have an interesting religion that is a mix of catholicism that the Spanish brought over along with some of the ritualistic religion that was brought over with the african slaves. One example of this is instead of lighting candles as they do in the catholic faith, they bring flowers to lay at the alter. There’s lots of small things like that.
One of the things that I had heard before I left was that the kids love baseballs, but they are so poor that they play in the streets with rocks and sticks. They love candy and especially bubble gum. The moms and children will beg in the streets and give signs, if they act like they’re writing they’re asking for a pen or pencil, if they act like their scrubbing their arm, they’re asking for soap. After hearing this I made sure to pack a bunch of candy, some pencils, and some travel size toiletries, hair ribbons for the girls and my friend brought baseballs for the boys. We just handed them out to people in the streets. The gesture didn’t cost us very much, but was really appreciated by them.
The above graphiti artist made me think about art in cuba and wonder a little more about it. We actually went to Factoria Habana which had one of the best exhibitions I have seen in a long time. I didn’t think to take any pictures because the work was that visceral that all I could do was experience it. I didn’t want to take the intermediary step of putting anything between me and the work. If you go to Havana and your into art, you have to check this place out.
So as Cuban’s are now able to start businesses of their own. You will find places where they just tape a menu up on the shutter next to their window and put a little table with 2 chairs. It’s really fucking genius, they are making use of what they have. It did make me mad to pay 10 dollars for an egg sandwich (because that’s what they had for a snack) on one hand, because that is an outrageous price for an egg sandwich even in the us where it is prepped in a sanitary environment. But on the other hand I totally get it. They aren’t sure if the government is going to let them keep on doing it, it may change tomorrow, and they have been soo poor for so long that they are being incredibly opportunistic. Throughout the whole week I vacillated between feeling like I was taking it up the ass by the cubans every time I had any exchange with them, and a feeling of utter compassion for them trying to navigate this transition the best way that they know how. I really couldn’t explain it even when I got back because it doesn’t come from a place of malice, it comes from a place of poverty. I decided that they weren’t criminal, and there was no deceit, but that cuban people at this point in time are incredibly opportunistic.
Daniel made arrangements with a taxi driver to take us through the cemetery, over to Cristo De La Habana, a park across the Bay of Havana and then bring us back to the hostle so we could get ready for dinner. It was going to be $20 euro per person so the guy was going to make $160Euro for 2 hours worth of time. Pretty great wage if you ask me, even in america. Well on the way back after we got out from the tunnel that goes under the bay, Daniel started argueing with the cab driver and then the cab stopped and Daniel and Jame made us get out. We tried to tell them no, that we just wanted to go to the hotel but they insisted. It turns out that the taxi driver was trying to raise the price and they got in a fight about it. We still paid our $160 euro but we had to walk the rest of the way back to the hostle. Along the way Scott bought a months supply of powdered milk for their children and as we walked Jame talked about how things were hard but one of the things that is great about Cuba is their race equality and how everyone is equal. It is so crazy to hear someone talking about the greatness of communism because of racial equality when they can’t even afford to buy milk for their baby. Along the way Daniel and Jame convinced the birthday girl that no birthday could be had in Cuba without a night out at the club….We tipped them $210 or $30 per person or half of their annual salaries, and made plans to meet them after dinner for dancing.
Sooo for the Birthday Dinner we had reservations at What we were told was the best restaurant in Havana. La Guarida, it is in a dilapidated old building with a roof top bar. The building was old, these were the first set of stairs you had to go up to get to the 4th or 5th floor where the restaurant is. While it was beautiful, I was scared shitless, I mean jame lost her arm in one of these buildings. But I made it to the top.
This is the view from the roof top bar. It is so spectacular, and the service at the bar was beyond exceptional. They were so nice it was service that you would expect at any high end establishment . We were a little early for our reservation, which I am so thankful for because otherwise we may not have gotten to see this. Cuba Travel Tip no 29: have a drink at this bar, but bring a jacket…. I totally thought Cuba would be warm all the time, but it is not and it is also very windy.
La Guarida does have out door seating which is lovely, but make sure you specify when you make reservations whether you want outdoor or indoor otherwise you may get stuck somewhere you don’t want to be. We were luck on the chilly night to be seated inside. Although it is a bit crowded but it is very charming. The service was cold, unfriendly, and impatient. The food was meh! The bathrooms though are the best in Cuba. it is super hip unisex bathroom with soap, toilet seats and hand towels.
The really unfortunate thing about my visit to this restaurant is that about 10 minutes after I sat down my mouth started to water, not in a good way and my skin got clammy, and my stomach started to gurgle. I applied some Digestive essential oil blend to my stomach but it was too late….. You know that really nice bathroom they have… I trashed that bathroom with more fluids than I knew I had in me coming out of both ends of my body uncontrollably.. ….because you know when the local told us that the water was ok to drink and I thought I wanted Ice in my water for the walk, well, the local with that information was evil and wrong, and the ice made me sick as fuck. I ended up having to leave the restaurant early and head home where I continued to throw up for several more hours.
I have never been sick in another country, but for whatever reason I always prepare for it. Cuba Travel Tip #42 Bring digestive reinforcement. I brought my doterra GX Assist which has caprylic acid and oregano oil which is anti bacterial, anti parasitic and anti viral. I took 2 when I got back to the casa, I threw them up , and took 2 more, threw them up, then the third time I took 2 more and was able to keep them down. I had the chills like crazy but eventually fell asleep and when I woke up the next morning I was a little weak but fine. I know I would not have recovered as well had I not been armed with my oils. The other great thing is I had that travel diffuser which Scott immediately loaded and turned on so our room didn’t smell like my funk.
On the upside I missed the night at the club. The girls went out to the club and it was another deal where they really took it up the ass. They paid $15dollars a head to get into the club and paid for Daniel and Jame, $25 for a table that only has bottle service and paid for the drinks all night until 4am. I’m so glad I wasn’t with them. This is the crazy part and where the girls finally started to understand more about the emerging tourist economy. Daniel and Jame got a kick back from every taxi driver and every establishment they brought us into, so after the girls paid their $375 bar tab that night, who knows how much Daniel and Jame left with, but then they did asked for another $10 dollars so they could get some food. Another situation where you can’t help but feel like you’re getting screwed, but you also can’t blame them for trying to make money when they live on nothing.
I gotta be honest, I was a little tired not sleep deprived like the dancing fools, but low energy after all the throwing up. So we had some breakfast, and the little house lady gives me the “Im throwing up sign and then rubs her stomach in circles and rambles something to me. Which my friend translated as Sorry you were sick, don’t drink the water. I loved this little woman, but I wish she had told me that the day before. I didn’t want to waste the day, so we went on walk about in old town. Now if you have 3-5 hundred a night to spend on a hotel and you never want to see how cubans live, you can stay in old town, and never actually meet a cuban person. It is literally all tourists. But it is where all the Hemingway Haunts are, so we did it, we went to La Floridita for an overrated daquiri. This place was packed with people shoulder to shoulder and they were making daqueiri’s 20 at a time with 3 huge blenders going non stop. La Floridita is raking it in like the crack dealer for the senate, however their product is all hype. I’m glad I went so that I can say I went. I was curious too if they use purified water for their ice. Anyway here’s the iconic picture and the recipe if you want to try it. I plan to try the recipe in a single batch and see if the recipe it tastes like the one there or if their quantity was throwing off the taste a bit. I’m hoping that it was just the quantity they were pumping out. I bet when Hemingway hung out there it was a nice quiet bar with great drinks. Popularity ruins everything.
We also went to Plaza De Armas which has the last remaining wood street in the world or some crazy shit like that. The bricks are literally blocks of wood, and you would never know it unless you were looking. The plazas or parks are also where the very limited wifi is. You have to purchase a wifi card and then take it to the park where you can log on. But depending on how many people are in the park you may or may not actually get to look at the internet. And it is really strange to walk past some of these beautiful parks and see everyone looking at their devices instead of smelling the fucking hibiscus. Crazy, but hey who am I to judge.
We also went to eat at the roof top restaurant at the Hotel de Ambros Munoz which is where Hemmingway stayed. Again, the view was beautiful, but the food was meh decent, but the server was quite sassy. I was shocked that he would be such a smart ass, but not in an overt way in a passive aggressive way. So weird, I’ve never had so many instances of awkward service and even as I write this I cant help but wonder if we were putting something out there to deserve it, but were fucking chill cool people that love to laugh and tip well, so i seriously doubt it. We ordered salads and some fries which were little skinny root vegetables, not just potatoes. They were good.
We shopped found artists, talked to people and walked and walked and walked. Finally 17,600 steps later we re-entered the house and started making plans for dinner. And when we met up with the other half of our party, the unfortunate had happened ….another brother down….. someone else was sick with digestive issues…… she was so sick she hadn’t left the house all day, hadn’t been able to eat and couldn’t go to dinner. Such a bummer, but I started her on the GX assist also. So the others and I walked along the Malecon to a Russian restaurant, Nazdarovie, with food that is a culinary blend between Russia and Cuba. It again was on the top floor overlooking the water with a breathtaking view. And Guess what…. The food was good…. They used spices like dill and parsley. It was such a nice change of pace to have some flavor. The borsch was exactly what I needed to end a long day of walking after a pretty sleepless night. The Picture below is the view from our table.
We brought some perogi back to the house for our mates that didn’t come to dinner with us. Upon arrival at the casa…. oooopppssss another brother down…. we have another sick person. That makes 3 of the 6 people who have gotten ill. So we all crashed super early.
Since only half the team went out the day before, most of us decided to go on another walk about Day 4 Sickies number 2-3 were feeling a bit bettwer, but Sickie number 4 was just feeling the symptoms and needed to stay close to a bathroom that had a seat on the toilet. That makes 44% of our crew that hadn’t had an episode, not great.
One of the things that I had noticed was that a lot of the touristy stuff was all the exact same. The “hand carved” made in Cuba wooden salad servers were all the exact same. Now the problem I have with that is that they are all the exact same and people do not “hand make” any two items the exact same. So they are machine made, and probably in china because every shop has the same exact trinkets. It is just like all the glass in venice or any other tourist place in the world. It’s all made in china unless you have the fucking wherewithal and or patience to sift through all the bs to find the few items that actually are hand made and local. I was on the search for a cuban made pair of leather sandals and an authentic cuban license plate. After walking all over the place we found the honey hole Almacenes San Jose
The Almacenes San Jose is an artist market that is the size of a football field, and while there is a lot of the made in china tourist trap bullshit there, there is also a lot of really great artists with booths and some great craftspeople too. I found some wooden shot glasses that are beautiful, handbag made out of recycled pop tabs, and some cool new leather sandals. My list was almost complete. It took us a couple of hours to walk through the ginormous place and with hundreds of booths. It is probably about the size of a football field. I could have stayed in there for so much longer, but I did get a little tired of the venders keeping on trying to get me into their booths.
La Taberna Del Galeon is a cigar and liquor shop that the links blogger wrote about really well, but in my story it is a frame of reference for the place across the street. We had no idea we were looking for a cigar shop, we thought it was an antique shop, but just across the street was an outdoor 2nd hand book store where there were also booths. It was a really cool place where some venders had antiques and some had books, some had political posters. Some super cool shit including my two new to me, authentic Cuban license plates. P.S. You can tell the authentic ones from the made in china tourist ones because the authentic ones have a serial number stamped in the upper left hand corner. Anyway, Nobody probably cares about that, or license plates except me. I really felt like in a place where they keep their cars forever, it would be cool to come home with a little piece of auto history.
So, in the three days of walking around Havana one of the things I noticed everywhere was the trash… There was sooo much of it everywhere, and the smell, my olfactory was assaulted regularly. Which then it started making sense to me that of course people smoke cigars there. The cigar smoke is a welcome distraction from the many other unpleasant odors.
After getting all my finds, we just went on walk about and look what we found. An artist that loves #45 as much as I do!!!.
For our last night there we decided to eat at a place recommended to us called O’reilly 304, and it was the right decision. Again it was small, but sooo worth it. It was the best food we had during the whole trip. It was a culinary delight. The started us with a salsa that had some sweetness to it, but a hell of a lot of kick too. It had onions, cilantro, peppers… it came with a basket of fried plantain chips. Sofa king delish. I had a three taco plate that came with 1 crab, 1 pork and 1 beef taco, they were all flavored differently and so well. I also ordered a salad which had onions and olives and tomatoes. This place is the shit and you must try it out. The bathroom is clean and has toilet paper and paper towels. It is a little bit of heaven. You have to make a reservation plenty in advance though. Cuba Travel Tip no 19 Make reservations in advance and show up on time. Both La Guarida and O’reilly 304 have to be booked like a month in advance
After Dinner, it was time to go home and pack up our things for our 6am departure the next day. When we walked into the hostle, there were 4 boxes of cigars missing from our living room and the staff was nowhere to be found. Such a bummer… but we had some drinks at dinner and weren’t going to stand for it. We kept trying to call out using the house phone, but even the Spanish speakers in the group were getting hung up on. We ended up knocking on all the doors and asking everyone in the complex if they knew where the owner Nana was and he eventually showed up and said it was impossible that anyone in his house would have taken them. He called all of his staff including and the breakfast lady showed up. Finally his little brother Micky called him and explained that he had been cleaning and moved them to the closet where the hot water heater was and put them under a towel just to be safe. We will never know what was really going on with those cigars, but thank goodness we got them back. By this point in the week we were completely exhausted and I was thinking about the luxuries of home. Someone had told us before we left that gently used clothes are like treasures for the Cuban people, so we did a little mini closet clean out and packed clothes for our trip that we could leave and donate to a local shelter, which is a genius move. Cuba Travel Tip #2 leave all your clothes behind. I had a handful of clothes that I brought home, but there were tank tops, skirts, t-shirts, a cross body purse, sample toiletries and a bunch of other stuff that the house lady said she would be happy to donate for us. It was wonderful because my backpack had less stuff in it on the way home than it did on the way there.
I had a burger and fries in Miami, that might have been the best burger and fries I’ve ever tasted.
It really is hard to wrap my brain around exactly what I experienced. It was not a relaxing vacation simply because it is a culture of dichotomies and my brain cant rest until it all makes sense; but in Cuba things don’t make sense. It is shifting culture, and they are changing at a rapid pace. Prices have doubled in the last 6 months and the locals are becoming entrepreneurs. Businesses are starting and becoming established and I was their target demographic, a foreigner who makes more than 30 dollars a month. There is an emergence of class and definitely the haves and have nots. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, they are becoming more Capitalistic. It is so hard to say whether it is for the best, and I don’t even think they know as a culture yet. It feels crazy to sit here and discuss the experiences I had while traveling on vacation to a third world country where the locals make 30 dollars a month and could never afford to eat the food they were serving me, stay in the places I was staying, and they have to spend more than their entire annual salary on an evening of drinks and dancing.
What should have been a relaxing vacation in actuality, was a constant mental challenge to figure out what was going on, and my gut knew there was more to the story than what I was initially seeing. Cuba is at a pivotal point in their history and I definitely want to go back because I’m intrigued at how it will continue to develop.
The moral of the story is
- Bring way more money than you think you need in euro
- get a eu credit card
- bring wet wipes
- negotiate everything
- bring snacks
- bring a jacket or wrap
- make reservations ahead of time
- pack clothes and stuff you can donate at the end
- bring small soaps and candy for the locals
- don’t forget your fucking oils, you will use and need them.
These are the Essential Oils I wouldn’t go to Cuba Without
- Breathe for respiratory issues and to freshen your room
- Scent Trekker travel diffuser by green air, it’s the size of a soda can.
- Peace Blend for the poor parts of town where lots of people want stuff from you.
- Correct X, because if you get a cut, it’s going to get infected.
- Lavender to put on your pillow so you can sleep well through the noise.
- Digestzen for mild stomach upset, hickups or burps
- GX assist and pb assist for the major stomach upset
- Lemon to flavor your water
- Balance to calm your nerves on the plane
- Peppermint for motion sickness or nausea