Over the 4th of July weekend we hopped on a plane to Havana to celebrate Grant’s 30th birthday! I had done a lot of research so I had an idea of what Cuba was like and had fairly high expectations. They were not only met but exceeded! The tropical paradise where fedora-wearing travelers sip mojitos and puff Cuban cigars while riding in convertible classic cars isn’t just a dream, it is a reality!
Havana was bigger than I thought and bustling with loud colors and life as I had hoped! It had more of a European vibe than the rest of the Caribbean. Naturally most Caribbean islands have some European influence but Havana felt much more developed and the architecture and cafe scene in Habana Vieja could have been in the middle of Spain!
Havana is divided into several smaller neighborhoods but is famous for Habana Vieja (or old Havana) that is where the tourism is centered. We spent and two days wandering the streets of Habana Vieja and taking in all of the colorful sights and sounds. Be sure to stop into La Floridita, where the first daquiri was made, it is frozen and served in a martini glass, go figure! Apparently Hemingway liked his daquiris from La Floridita and he loved his mojitos from Bodeguita del Medio. Both of these spots were pretty packed when we were there but we also saw a few cruise ships parked in the harbor so everyone had come to dry land to wet their whistles. The drinks at both spots were great and they were a lot of fun!
Habana Vieja also had little shops and markets. You can get a t-shirt with Fidel or Che on it just about anywhere and the trinkets were typical tourist goods but the prices seemed reasonable. I also ate the yummiest ice cream ever! It was coconut flavor and came in a half coconut shell. I wish I remembered the name of the place. If you find it, definitely order one. It was the perfect reprieve on a hot Havana day.
Havana is dotted with several historical monuments as well and the capitol building and forts that make for lovely photos. You absolutely cannot miss Hotel Nacional. It is an old hotel with photos of all of the celebrities who have visited there. They have the best mojitos and a gorgeous ocean view patio. Live music and peacocks roaming the premises make for a great happy hour.
Obviously you have to ride in a classic car, so find a starburst colored convertible and hit the Malecón! The Malecón is a sea wall alongside Havana with ocean views the entire way. It truly is what you think of when you picture Cuba. Some of the cars will take you on a tour or you can simply use them as a cab to get from point A to point B. Either way it is treat. Take as many no-shame selfies as you want! At night time lots of locals grab some rum and head to the Malecón to hang out. They just sit on the wall and talk, listen to music, and hang out in these beautiful surroundings.
My one negative about Cuba = the food. I was super looking forward to the food as eating is my number one hobby while traveling. Everything was just kind of bland. Grant and I adore all food from Latin America especially island style seafood so I was hoping it would be similar, but it definitely was not. Ropa Vieja is the Cuban specialty so we tried it but the verdict was meh… it directly translates to “old clothes” so that’s self-explanatory. All this just to find out the Cuban sandwich originated in Florida. Super letdown!
Also, the restaurants are insanely taxed by the government so there are little mom and pop style restaurants called paladares all over. Look into an open door in Havana and what at first glance appears to be an abuela’s living room is actually a restaurant. There are also well meaning hustlers on the street who will chat you up and walk you to their friend’s “awesome restaurant”, in exchange for a beer or mojito of course. But forget about the food, because the coffee is to die for! It is officially our new favorite coffee in all of the world (sorry, Amsterdam!)
I’m exaggerating a little, not all of the food was bad. I made dinner reservations at La Guarida weeks in advance and it deserved all of the hype it receives. The building is so cool. You walk up a crumbly marble staircase of a dilapidated building only to find a fancy restaurant with delicious food (did I mention Jay and Bey ate there?) It wasn’t traditional Cuban food but was more European inspired. I was impressed with the beef carpaccio and they had an avocado salad which was great! Be sure to go up the other staircases after dinner which lead you to a fun rooftop bar and romantic patios.
Go back in time with a visit to the Tropicana Cabaret! The show has been going on since the 1930’s and I don’t think much has changed! It was timeless entertainment full of glitz and glam. We purchased show tickets ahead of time online for about $70USD. While this was steep it included 2 bottles of rum (for 6 people) and a welcome gift of cigars for the men and carnations for the ladies. The cabaret reminded me of an old Vegas show and it was very entertaining! Afterward they welcomed guests on stage and it turned into a little dance club of sorts.
We stayed in Vedado, a hip part of town about a 10 minute cab ride from Havana. It is a residential area where lots of old houses and mansions are converted into airbnbs. Or as they are locally referred to, casa particulares. The hotel scene is pretty weak aside from Hotel Nacional so I recommend staying in a casa particular for sure. Our airbnb was to die for! It was seriously a dream house and perfect for our big group. It was build in the 1930’s and still had much of the original decor with just enough modern conveniences to equal perfection. Talk about ringing in Grant’s 30th Gatsby style! Check it out and read my page long positive review here.
I had read about Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) in some other travel blogs while planning our trip and I was intrigued but it wasn’t until our Viñales tour guide not only recommended it but said she would be there that night as well is when I was convinced we should go. I don’t even know how to describe this place. It was like an interactive art exhibit meets nightclub and more! All of the pent up energy and expression the Cuban people had been holding in under Fidel was unleashed in works of art!
We arrived early around 8pm, this is a must do if you don’t want to wait in a Vegas style line, and ate dinner at the restaurant which was probably the best food we had in Cuba! It was a tapas style blend of Cuban and Spanish food and the thoughtfully prepared charcuterie board was the most satiating thing I had eaten in days! The boys ordered some mojitos (clearly they are our go-to drink at this point) and discovered the bartender handed you the bottle of rum and let you pour your own! Cost effective or dangerous? FAC was unlike any other place I had been before and is definitely worth visiting if in Havana.
I noticed Cocinero’s rooftop when we arrived at FAC and we came back to visit later in our trip, both were very close to our airbnb. We stopped here for drinks and to meet our friend’s cousin who is a local. We came in between lunch and dinner so it was pretty dead but the rooftop terrace was really neat. It had a modern vibe and leisurely seating. There was also a chandelier made from snorkels! We ordered some snacks and I had a cheese stuffed empanadilla (basically a baby empanada) and it was so delicious. Okay I know I said we didn’t like the food but aside from the aforementioned tasty treats, the food was bland, I promise! Cocktails at Cocinero followed by an evening at FAC sounds like the ideal Vedado night to me.
Valle de Viñales
We decided to go to Viñales Valley for the day to get out of the city and see some of Cuba’s natural beauty. We also wanted to ensure we were using a tour guide on some point of our trip to prove we were meeting the requirements for our people to people visa, more on that here. Viñales is three hours away from Havana and we were gone a full 12 hours on our day trip (7am-7pm). The tour company picked us up at our airbnb in fun classic cars, and our tour guide, Amanda, was fabulous. She was very informative but also had a lot of fun tips. Actually, booking the entire tour with Havana Journeys was seamless, we had a great experience.
Halfway on our journey to Viñales we stopped at a rest stop where we could get drinks and snacks. There was a cheesy gift shop and a little pond. Then we kept driving through what seemed like farmland and just when we were staring to wonder why we left Havana for rural boredom, we saw the mogotes! Mogotes are the beautiful green, almost mosslike covered limestone hills jutting out of the earth. They seem like something out of Jurassic Park or the landscape in Kauai. Our 3 hour car ride was definitely worth it once we saw our beautiful surroundings.
Cueva del Indio
Our tour consisted of 3 parts; a cave with an underground lake, a tobacco farm, and horseback riding though the valley. Our tour guide described the cave, Cueva del Indio, as “Disneyland” since other tourists would be there. Fortunately, it wasn’t that crowded when we arrived. For $5 you get to go inside a cool cave and take a boat ride as the captain points out rock formations that look like animals, I wasn’t super excited for this but it was actually really cool! I am glad we stopped. There was a spot to grind your own sugar cane for a cocktail and an actor dressed as a native Cuban on the way in, a little cheesy but entertaining nonetheless.
Next we visited the tobacco farm which was my favorite! We stood inside a barn filled with drying tobacco leaves as the farmer explained fun facts about cigar making and how each family’s recipe is a little different. We then each got to try one! I am not a smoker but boy were these fun! He even dipped them in honey for the ladies. Sipping on a mojito, smoking an organic Cubano, and overlooking the mogotes in the valley was divine! We bought cigars here and got 20 for $60USD which seemed cheaper than in Havana. Our entire group was purchasing some so we were able to haggle a bit.
Before our horse riding adventure we stopped for lunch at Finca Agroecologica el Paraiso. Make reservations in advance because it is a pretty popular place and I can see why! It is farm to table style organic cuisine surrounded by pristine vistas. We never even saw a menu or ordered! The servers just started bringing out fish, meat and plenty of moros (a combination of rice and beans) and it was pretty good!
By the time we headed to the horses we were pretty tired and the horses seemed tired too. The horseback riding was a little overrated but for 10USD an hour, you can’t complain. We are not huge horseback riding people to begin with and it was super hot so we felt bad for the horses. However, we did get to see some pretty views we wouldn’t have otherwise. Then we headed back to Havana. Stopping by a road-side stand of the largest, juiciest fresh picked mangos was the perfect way to conclude our Viñales visit.
If you can’t beat the Havana heat, head to the beach! Cuba is famous for Veradero, a stunning beach resort town, but it is about 2 hours away so we stayed local. We visited Playa Celimar which is one of the Playas del Este, the beaches east of Havana. The beach is beautiful, and the water is warm, clear, and Caribbean blue! There was a good mix of tourists and locals and it wasn’t too crowded for July. We rented some chairs and a tent for $20USD. I’m pretty sure we got the gringo discount on this one since the chairs were broken, but no worries, we were in paradise! Playa Celimar was only 40 minutes away from Havana and some of the other Playas del Este were even closer. It’s definitely worth the drive.
From Havana to Viñales, we LOVED Cuba! Unfortunately, it’s not the easiest place to travel to as an American so be sure to read our post on how to get a visa and prepare for your trip.
For more information on Cuba, grab this Lonely Planet guide book.