Cuba Travel Guide 2017: How to and Picks
Been thinking about going to Cuba on your own? It’s easier than you think, wonderful, and everyone couldn’t have been friendlier. Just back from five days and already thinking about a return trip. It’s a good idea to go now before what is sure to be, as one of the tour guides said, an “avalanche” of tourists. Here are my tips if you’re planning to go:
Getting In: There’s a lot of brouhaha about the difficulty of getting a visa. To the contrary, it’s easy. Go to Cuba Travel Services and you can order one online. The exception is if you were born in Cuba, then it’s a little more complicated (but still not much more so). If not Cuban born, you need to choose one of 12 reasons for travel. Friends chose people to people which is what most people choose. Whatever you pick, be ready to justify your choice, though no one ever asked me or friends for proof. Proof can be as simple as a day long itinerary/tour.
Where to Stay: If you’re just going for a long weekend, go to Havana and stay in Old Havana section which is where most of what you’ll want to see is. Second choice is Central Havana which is adjacent to Old Havana, though be ready for a number of streets that are dug up. The best hotels like the Nacional and Parque Central start at around $270 US. And if you want luxury, what will be the top hotel – Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski (same operator as the Adlon in Berlin), is opening soon ( their website doesn’t give an opening date). Check out Air BNB for apartments – lots of those for rent.
Money exchange: The local currency is the CUC. We read and were told that if you change USD you lose 10%. We changed our money at home into Euros which are on a par with the CUC. Note that banks in the US will change your money but you need to have an account with them.When I checked here with Chase, they said it takes 48 hours to get them. Best place to change money in Miami is Euro Exchange in downtown Miami. They gave me the same rate as the official one I found on the internet that same day and they don’t charge a commission.
Internet and telephone; This trip will be your time for digital detox. AT & T doesn’t work and the only place you can get internet is in hotel business centers (paying) or at public outdoor areas around town. Though I was told it was slow, mine at the Parque Central hotel was fine. It really helps to have a phone for local calls. Our apartment gave us one preloaded with 10 CUC which was enough for our 5 day stay.
Sightseeing: We took three tours – a 2 hour walking tour of Old Havana, 4 hour tour of Havana neighborhoods and sights (Vedado, embassy row in Miramar, Malecon seaside) and an all day art tour visiting the Museo de Bellas Artes, artists studios and a prominent gallery. You can find tours on TripAdvisor and your hotel or apartment can recommend them. Our art tour was arranged by Margery Gordon of Arts Encounters . (If you’re interested in art, you should know about her company. An art critic, journalist and educator based on Miami Beach, Margery curates conducts guided tours to cultural venues throughout South Florida and Cuba, some open to the public and others customized for individuals and groups).
Be sure to also see the Museum of the Revolution and friends spoke highlight of Hemingway’s Farm ,about a 20 minute ride from Old Havana. Combine that with a visit to Fusterlandia, a “village” decorated in tiles and inspired by artist Jose Fuster’s visit to see works by Gaudi and Brancusi. Whatever you do, allow time to walk around Old Havana at leisure, taking in the old colonial buildings with gorgeous detailed stonework in sorbet colors. Also well worth a visit is the Gran Teatro performance hall.
Eating: We never expected the food to be so good. Meals were uniformly excellent. TripAdvisor is a good place for recommendations or ask me in a comment on this blogpost and I’ll reply with the list we went to, different kinds of cuisine. Expect to pay anywhere from 15 to 35 CUCs per person to eat well, and that’s with one cocktail or a glass of wine. Our favorite restaurant was San Cristobal (Cuban and Creole cuisine) which is where Obama ate.
Nightlife: Do not miss Tropicana nightclub. The show here was so good it deserves its own category. The outdoor setting, creative and exuberant costumes, music and entertainers, all terrific. Order tickets online in advance. Other recommendations: Legendarios del Guajirito Buena Vista Social Club — great music from local legends, dancing, very entertaining. We didn’t make it to La Zorra y el Cuervo jazz club but it’s there at the top along with the others. If you like ballet, check to see if there’s a performance when you’re there to see the well respected company.
Getting around: If not walking, the best way to get around is by either yellow taxi or a super fun classic car. The classic cars are a sight to behold (I was told there are 55,000 of them in Cuba though most are in a state of disrepair) – convertibles and coupes. Expect to pay between 5 and 15 CUCs for most places you’ll want to go within Central or Old Havana.
Shopping: You’ll save money in this department – not much to buy except for cigars, rum and maybe a handmade set of dominoes.
My only disappointment — the mojitos weren’t so good as they are in Miami. Go figure.
When we arrived back in Miami Mr. W said we went from 1959 to 2017 in a forty minute flight.