Justin and I wanted to celebrate his retirement from professional football by taking a trip. Going somewhere new symbolized the next step of our journey in life; after 11 years in the NFL, we are headed into uncharted territory as a family. We decided to go to Cuba and we couldn't be happier with that decision. Cuba is very safe and stunningly beautiful. We learned so much! We fell in love with the music! We enjoyed the historical sites and beaches, and the cigars and the rum! We did not bring our kids on this trip but I absolutely would when we go back. Read below for the highlights from our trip and our recommendations:
Where we stayed (in Havana):
We stayed at the Meliá Cohiba in Havana, Cuba. It's touted as a "five star" hotel but lower your expectations a bit if you intend to stay there. The carpets are stained and the décor is decades old BUT the staff is friendly, the wifi is quasi-reliable and the location is fantastic. The Meliá Cohiba has a fantastic pool, a few gift shops and several restaurant options on site. From our room and from the breakfast buffet on the 20th floor we could see the ocean on one side and the city on the other; visibility is great on most days so we could easily see the Russian embassy and other landmarks that were pretty far away. Directly across the street from the Meliá Cohiba is the Malecón, a roadway and seawall that stretches for miles along the coast in Havana. At all hours of the day and night, locals hang out on the seawall - fishing, swimming or just relaxing.
We were originally supposed to stay at the Atlantic Building, which is within walking distance of the Meliá Cohiba and can offer more privacy than a regular hotel.
We visited friends at the Parque Central in Old Havana twice. It seems like a very nice hotel. Parque Cental is located within walking distance of several tourist attractions/cultural institutions. They have a bar/lounge in the lobby that offers a nice variety of drinks and cigars.
The only other hotel that we considered in Havana is the Saratoga but we did not end up going inside at any point to check it out for future reference. Airbnb seems to be a very popular option based on some of the other tourists we met. Ultimately, we were very happy at the Meliá Cohiba.
Where we stayed (in Varadero):
We took a day trip to Varadero in the Matanzas province. If we had stayed the night, the Meliá Varadero, an All-Inclusive Hotel of Meliá Cuba in Varadero Cuba, looked nice. In fact, we used one of their beaches (which is not technically permitted unless you are a hotel guest, or willing to tip the hotel security!).
There are plenty of ways to access public parts of the beach in Varadero and they were just as pretty and not at all crowded. The main difference was the distance you have to walk to get a drink or use the bathroom in the public versus private areas!
Where we ate:
La Guarida had the best food we ate on our trip, BY FAR. The restaurant is "the most elegant Paladar (Cuban restaurant) in Havana." My favorite menu items include: the ceviche, the pollo asado (baked chicken, with a honey and lemon sauce), the langosta (lobster, with creamy rice), and all of the desserts! Everything was delicious! The restaurant is in a crumbling but beautiful building that was built in the early 20th century; the bottom floor houses private residences and there is a rooftop bar with stunning views.
One day, we asked our taxi driver where his favorite restaurant was... A candid conversation revealed that 1. Locals can't afford to eat out (which is sad, because a good meal there costs less than half what we pay to eat out in New York or San Francisco) and 2. They aren't/weren't allowed to eat in certain places. So, I don't feel like I have any profound insight in this category. The truth is, we found the food to be underwhelming in most places, but where culinary skills lacked, the service and atmosphere more than made up for it. There was live music just about everywhere we ate and the musicians were seriously talented!
El Cocinero and Hostal El Cañonazo deserve honorable mentions. When making reservations at El Cocinero, request a table outside on the roof! At the Hostal El Cañonazo, enjoy the music - and sharing your dining space with live chickens!
The coffee is fantastic. Normally, I drink fancy lattes from coffee chains but in Cuba, I took my coffee black and didn't miss the chains one bit!
What to pack:
In order to get your suitcase on the charter flight to Cuba, it has to weigh less than 50 lbs. I packed primarily shorts, t-shirts and sandals. From the minute you touch down in Cuba, you can feel the resilience and spirit of the people; bright colors are everywhere! Buildings might be deteriorating but you can tell they recently received a fresh coat of paint. Similarly, most of the cars are bright colors and most of the outfits you'll see modeled in Havana are bright. Locals are very stylish- they love to accessorize. I was hesitant to bring too many accessories myself but I regretted that decision! We were glad that we packed two "fancy" outfits because the Tropicana had a dress code and going out for dinner/dancing in general warranted an outfit change. Our travel mates are super stylish and their sunglasses, bracelets and wedges became the topic of conversation with everyone we met, from waitresses to fellow tourists!
Bring your cell phone! Our Sprint phones had service everywhere we went, although we did not have internet access outside of our hotel. You can rent a phone at the airport if you need to but it's nice to have your own. American credit cards don't work in Cuba so you need to bring cash. You should also pack sunscreen, band aids, hand sanitizer, bug spray, any over the counter medicine you might want/need, toilet paper/wipes and soap, because those items are not easy to find over there. Bringing toilet paper seemed ridiculous but sure enough, most bathrooms do not have rolls of toilet paper in the stall so come prepared or air dry haha!
Add musical performances to your "don't miss" list! We had the honor of watching a performance by Habana Compás and a private rehearsal for the Compañía Irene Rodríguez. The music, the movement, the performance, the passion - it's unmatched! Compañía Irene Rodríguez is coming to the United States, NYC in May 2016 and Washington, DC in September 2016, so if you can't swing a trip to Cuba but will be in one of those cities I'd check them out!
Take a formal tour in a classic car or just hop in a classic car for a quick taxi ride. Our tour guide said that he was aware of one car dealership in Cuba (fairly new) but didn't think you could get a car there for less than 6 figures, in 2016! With no automobile imports coming in, American cars from the 1950s have been preserved by Cuban mechanics. Cruising the streets is like hopping into a time machine, it's not like you have to search out these antique cars, they're everywhere, classic cars are the standard on the road.
Head to the Hotel Ambos Mundos for rooftop mojitos! The view is amazing, there's live music, and the drinks are good - it's the perfect way to relax away an afternoon on vacation. Additionally, Ernest Hemingway lived in this Hotel in the 1930s.
Varadero! Varadero and its beaches are about 2 hours from Havana by car. The drive itself is picturesque and its a great way to see more of the country and the way of life in the countryside. And the beach is among the best in the world! The beach is super clean and not too crowded. The water is clear and there are no sharks (or so we were told haha). The beaches are still in such a natural state, it's hard to believe how close you are to the United States!
Tour a cigar factory! I don't smoke (well I didn't, I guess I technically started on our trip) but I still found the cigar factory fascinating. Cuban cigars are world-renowned and yet the process for making them is not at all fancy. Workers don't wear uniforms and they can smoke while they sort through tobacco leaves and hand-roll each and every cigar! We were able to chat with some of the employees, learning about their daily quotas and work life. Even though American football is basically nonexistent in Cuba, the employees guessed that Justin was a professional athlete and they were eager to meet him. We toured a rum factory as well, Havana Club. The tasting was fun but the overall experience didn't stack up compared to winery and brewery tours we've had in other places. I'm glad I went once but you're not missing anything if you can't squeeze it in. In hindsight, I would have preferred another museum or art gallery in that time slot.
Our final recommendation is to attend a show at the Tropicana (definitely skip dinner there). The Tropicana is a world famous cabaret and club that was built in 1939. The singing and dancing is very professional and the entire experience is reminiscent of a time that's long since past. The costumes look exactly like they did in photos I've seen from the 1940s and the outdoor theatre looks as though it's been preserved from that time as well. After the performance, which lasts for about 2 hours, professional dancers welcome tourists to the stage. It's a little bit cheesy but a lot of fun!
I have to give our travel agent major credit in this category! When we touched down in the Cuban airport we were met by an airport official that escorted us into the "VIP" waiting area after we cleared customs. The airport in Havana is notorious for its long wait times at baggage claim. We only waited about 40 minutes for our bags but it was nice to have a private room with comfortable chairs and unlimited Cuba Libres! When we returned to the Havana airport for our departure, we were delayed for over 4 hours. This time, we were not invited into the VIP room but we decided to check it out anyway. For $15/person we were able to stay in the VIP room and that proved to be money well spent! While in Cuba, we had drivers for the entirety of our stay. Since American credit cards don't work, it was nice to know that we had paid for everything up front and wouldn't run out of cash and not be able to get a taxi to the airport! Our drivers also acted as tour guides and interpreters when appropriate. They seemed overly thankful when we tipped them but we felt like it wasn't enough. For perspective, a nurse in Cuba reportedly makes about $15/month so a $5, $10 or $20 daily tip goes a long way! We also did a lot of our exploring on foot! We really enjoyed getting to know the Cuban people. We have new friends and new favorite places; we can't wait to go back!
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