Until recently, my knowledge of Cuba has been scarce and mainly came from history textbooks I had read in high school. However, I have heard great things about Cuban culture seen photos of Cuba, but it seemed so distant because of the embargo and the sour US-Cuba relationship. So when President Obama opened up travel to the island county last year, Cuba became a top travel destination for me.
I spent 5 days in Cuba and flew Spirit Airlines from New York Laguardia Airport to Havana with a layover in Fort Lauderdale. Prior to leaving the US, we acquired Visas online and picked them up at the Spirit counter in Fort Lauderdale – the process was very simple actually, just check how it works with each airline. We did not have the best experience with Spirit and the Cuban airport as they lost our luggage and found it a day later, so just something to be aware of when traveling to Cuba.
Landing in Cuba was like stepping in a time machine and traveling back in time to the 1950s. Classic American Chevys, murals of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and graffitis of ‘Cuba Libre’ echoed the pre-revolution period. The impacts of the US embargo on the Cuban economy were very clear, but at the same time it helped preserve the Cuban culture so that we are still able to see the raw version of Cuba today.
My favorite part about Cuba was definitely the culture and the strong sense of community I felt in the streets and amongst the people. Walking through the street of Old Havana, I peeked into the open front doors of many houses and saw a snapshot of a typical night in a Cuban family. The houses were exposed to the streets, with shutters instead of windows and oftentimes with the front doors wide open. There would typically be a tube TV with several chairs around it, and likely a baseball game on. This was their main source of entertainment, and people were not glued to their laptops or smartphones since internet isn’t as common. They would also walk into their neighbor’s house and socialize or congregate in the streets over a game of dominos. Perhaps it’s the Latin culture, perhaps it’s the lack of internet, but the sense of family and community felt much stronger in Cuba than in the US.
Another favorite was the architecture. The streets and buildings resembled European styles with cobble stones and detailed architecture. Old Havana’s streets are narrow and the buildings are all roughly five-stories tall, each with its own style and design. It was beautiful looking down a row of unique houses or looking upwards at the contours and carvings. Despite walking down the same streets, the architecture always awed me. Old Havana also had plazas and squares where people congregate and socialize, such as Plaza Vieja, Plaza de Armas, and Plaza de la Catedral. We would sit at an outdoor coffee shop at Plaza Vieja and watch the school children play in the square during their phys ed classes. It felt very relaxing without the pressure and fast-paced tempo of cities in the US.
A little bit more about the squares:
Plaza de la Catedral
It is the smallest of the three. It’s named after the Catedral de la Habana which is on the northern side of the square, while the other three sides are mainly just houses. There’s not a whole lot of action here, but it’s one block away from one of Hemingway’s frequented bar called La Bodeguita de Medio.
Plaza de Armas
It is most centralized, in my opinion, since it’s in between Havana’s two main streets, O’Reilly and Obispo. The plaza has a green space in the middle while shops and squares surrounded the square. A lot of tourists hang out here, often times huddling around a wifi hub, while locals sell wifi cards or try to sell you street food or items.
This is the biggest of the three, and I think the prettiest. The middle of the square is a fountain while shops and restaurants lined the outskirts. We had coffee at Café el Escorial and just people watched. There were both tourists taking pictures and local school children exercising in the square. Camura Obscura is at Plaza Vieja and you can go to the top for the best view of Havana. It was a 360 degree unobstructed view of the city and even had a device that uses sunlight to reflect what’s going on outside onto a white canvas. Really neat and very nice people who shared Cuba’s history with us.
Just across the canal from Old Havana is the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana. It is the third largest fort in the Americas and has been used to protect Havana. There were still canons mounted and everyday at 9pm they shoot off an (empty, I’m assuming) canon as part of a nightly ceremony. From the fort, we had a great view of Old Havana and further down the Malecon towards Central Havana and Vedado. The view’s not as great as from Camura Obscura, but you do see further. About half a mile from the fort is the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro lighthouse. Apparently sunset is beautiful here, but when we went it was overcast so we left before sunset.
A few other noteworthy callouts in Havana. The Capitol is worth checking out and looks very similar the US Capitol. There are lots to do along O’Reilly and Obispo, like restaurants and shops, so it’s nice to just stroll along those streets. Our favorite restaurant there, O’Reilly 303, has really good mango and guava mojitos and daiquiris.
Throughout Old Havana, I was able to see remnants of the Cuban revolution and pre-revolution. The economy, how underdeveloped the country is, and the American classic cars were the noticeable impacts. During Fidel’s rule, the Cuban economy has been stifled by communism and anti-Capitalism views. Average monthly income today is $20 CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos), which is equivalent to $20 USD. The houses are very old, and to be honest I thought some of them were abandoned when they were actually not. In addition, the overall infrastructure of the city is not as advanced but it’s making progress. In the streets, you will more likely see an American classic car than a more modern looking car as these were left over from the 1950s before the embargo was in place. These look pretty and are great photo ops, but make sure you don’t stand behind one otherwise it will drown you in smoke and exhaust.
Asides from Havana, we took an afternoon trip to Santa Maria beach roughly 30 minutes out of Old Havana. The beach was one of the best I’ve been to with light blue water stretching far into the ocean. I swam in the water for a little bit and spent part of my afternoon napping. In between naps, we bought pina coladas from the hut next to the beach and they were the best we’ve had – super creamy and sweet, not sure how much alcohol was in it though.
We also booked a tour to Vinales through one of the hotels. It was very easy to book and I would highly recommend it because the points of interests were sprawled out and difficult to get to on your own. Vinales is about two hours west of Havana and is made up of mountains and valleys. The drive was very scenic and we saw long stretches of flatland and with large humps of mountains scattered. We stopped at a rum factory and saw how they distilled and packaged rum. There, we got guava sweet rum as well as the famed Cohiba cigars. Next, we visited a tobacco farm. It was more of a hut than a farm and inside it were rows of tobacco leaves hanging dry. We tried the cigar the farmer rolled, which tasted sweet but I don’t find it too enjoyable. For lunch, we ate at the restaurant next to the pre-historic mural, painted in 1964, and checked out the surrounding area. Post-lunch, we visited an Indian cave and took a small boat ride in the river, which was probably the least exciting part of the day. To cap everything off, we stopped for photos at Hotel Los Jazmines, which had the best unobstructed view of the valley. The viewpoint was from higher in the mountain so we saw the flatlands, the valleys, and the mountains in the background. Fun fact, Speilberg wanted to film Jurassic Park in Vinales but couldn’t because of the US embargo.
Oh, and have I mentioned how good the drinks at Cuba were? And they're so cheap!
We also had dinner at La Guaridita which had great food and photo ops.
And lastly, the people!
I thought five days was the perfect amount of time to spend in Cuba. It is a low-effort planning trip and you can book most tours when you get there. The biggest challenge was the language barrier as many locals speak only broken English or no English, but luckily, we had some broken Spanish speakers in the group.
Most of what I saw in Cuba met my expectations with the typical classic cars and European-styled architecture. They were beautiful and it felt great walking in the streets of Havana, kind of like I’m walking through a section of history. However, what surprised me the most was the culture. Coming from the US, it was hard to imagine what it’s like in a underdeveloped country with limited access to internet and underdeveloped infrastructure. I tried to grasp what life is like in Cuba and it made me appreciate the culture that cherishes family and community with personal interactions. It’s heartwarming to know that countries still preserve this kind of culture despite the technological advances in first world countries.
Now the bads. Traveling with three other Asians, we stood out. Big time. People would look at us and ask, “China? Japan? Korea?” and after about the tenth time it started to get annoying. Also, it was always a pain haggling cab fares because they always try to upcharge tourists. This applies to food as well. Cuba’s food scene is not good. There would be restaurant promoters on the streets hollering at you, and the food is $15 for mediocre quality (keep in mind the average monthly income is $20). We stopped trying new restaurants and ended up at O’Reilly 303 every day.
The goods, the bads, the unexpected, Cuba was still a trip worth the experience. A friend I bumped into in the streets said traveling to Cuba is a trip, not a vacation. I agree as you can’t fully enjoy the time you’re there – gotta worry about being ripped off, the language barrier, etc – but definitely worth the trip to experience the culture and remnants of Fidel’s legacy. I’d highly encourage those who haven’t been yet to make the journey and soak in the Cuban culture and architecture.
The Dos & Don’ts