It’s taken me until now to actually process Cuba and write about it. I went three months ago. People use the phrase “frozen in time” over and over to describe Cuba. I guess that’s the only easy way to describe it without getting into all of the challenges that the country has. It takes a day or two after arriving to wrap your head around this place, the beauty, the oppression and the hope.
STAY: La Rosa Ortega is on the outskirts of the city. Before we went we were feeling bummed to not be staying somewhere more central. This truly ended up being the best decision we made. We stayed in the Family Suite and booked it on Airbnb. This place is a GEM. The property is a little haven, they serve a delicious breakfast and the place has a Vicky Cristina Barcelona feel.
EAT: I was pumped for all of the restaurants that people had told me about in Havana. For the first couple of days, everywhere we ate felt like we were on the same track as everyone else visiting Havana, even the “cool” restaurants felt generic and the food was mediocre. Through the Airbnb Experience that we did (see below) we went to what was definitely my favorite restaurant called Sia Kara– which I guess is more of a bar but they have the right combo of food and drink. It feels Hemingway-esque, a small room with different pockets of activity, a piano player, a living room lounge, a balcony with tables above, a circular crowded bar and all of the cool kids of Havana under one roof. We also ate at El Del Frente, the new restaurants by owners of O’Reilly 304 and across the street from it which was good. El Cocinero, which everyone talks about, felt sort of lame to me and very touristy. It’s a pretty place but that’s really all that resonated with me.
DO: It’s very simple. Do the three following things and you will have the most bomb trip to Cuba.
- Go to the beach. We had to ask a friendly restaurant maitre D’ three times to get the right answer of what the best local beach spot is. Playa Des Este / Playa Guanabo is the BEST. It’s a lot of locals with some pleasant tourists sprinkled in, there’s lounge chairs on the beach for rent, food and drinks being sold and a relaxed, fun Cuban beach vibe. It’s about a 30 minute drive from the city and the perfect way to spend a day.
- Go to Viñales. Get a driver for the day to drive you out to Viñales and spend the day. It’s a trek but so worth it. You can stay the night or go there and back in one day. Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso is a must, and in my eyes the best part of Viñales. It’s a farm and a restaurants that serves the freshest feast of a lifetime. We also rode horses from there to a smaller family tobacco farm to smoke cigars and drink rum drinks, heaven. Call ahead and make a reservation at Finca, my fave part of Cuba.
- Book an Airbnb Experience. I’ve heard a lot about the new Airbnb “Trips” feature and it makes so much sense in Havana. You need some sort of guided experience in Havana and I could not get onboard with any of the overpriced, generic travel companies that show you the “real” Havana. Airbnb’s experiences are the real deal and vary in length. We did “By Night in Havana” with Meiby, it’s fun and chill, Meiby is amazing and you get an authentic Havana experience.
KNOW: SO much to know. US credit/bank cards don’t work in Cuba, bring cash. There’s very little internet so don’t count on it. Airbnb is the best way to book accommodations. You need dinner reservations for every restaurant. Customs did not ask a single question about the purpose of our trip, airlines are trying to fill planes, the times of needing an “educational purpose” are over. Cuba is very safe, I never once felt in danger or nervous. What you’ve heard is true- the food is weak but the drinks and cigars are excellent. Plan to bring cigars home, they are that good. There are taxis everywhere for getting around. The old classic cars are as fun as you think they will be. Because Cuba is what it is there’s not much to buy, there was a cute outdoor market in Vinales with crafts, textiles, etc. I bought a fun wooden fan as a souvenir and was a little too happy to see commerce and capitalism in a tiny marketplace.