I never imagined I would ever visit Cuba…but here I’m, writing about it while sitting in a small apartment located near the historic downtown of the city, listening to children yelling and the rain beating down my room’s window. We arrived less than ten hours ago in Havana, however, I already think Cubans are one of the happiest people I’ve ever met. Our plan so far is to explore Havana for a few days and leave out three days for exploring white sand beaches and some part of the island. I dedicate this blog for those who are traveling on a tight budget but still want to get the most of their trip—hopefully you will find this blog helpful.
My impression of Cuba, based on the little time I stayed there, and the locals that I talked to on a daily basis, is that the country has an excellent education, health, and security department. I stayed and walked through places where I wouldn’t have dared coming near to in Brazil and Mexico; however, I always felt 100% safe in Cuba, no matter where I was at and whom I was with. In addition, every Cuban I interacted with—from truck drivers to restaurant managers—were well educated on world affairs and the latest news, I was impressed. On the other hand, the economic situation in Cuba was something that people wished some improvements could me made on: have more freedom to own things, have easier access to basic products, and etc.
On the overall, I thought Cuba to be an amazing experience! I got to feel a little bit of what life is like in a communist country, what people think of the Revolution and how they go about their daily lives. I strongly urge tourists to not only stay in resorts by the beach, but also to visit Havana and other cities where one can really see and experience the true Cuba and its rich culture.
1st Day (Havana)
Havana is one of those cities that have stopped in time, in the early 60s to be more precise. Most of the buildings were at least fifty-years old and look old from the outside, yet, many of them had beautiful interiors. The streets were crowded with people and convertible cars from the 50s; the houses were glued to one another and their bright colors marked the landscape.
Since we got out to the calles around 4pm, we headed to a nearby restaurant called D’Lirios to have lunch. D’Lirios was situated in a building where each level was a different restaurant (Italian, Cuban, etc). Right after lunch, we toured the town in a bright-pink convertible, which I highly recommend for anyone visiting Havana!
2nd Day (Havana)
After having breakfast, my father and I went for a run throughout Havana’s downtown and the Malecon, the city’s waterfront (great place to jog/walk). The area from the Capitolio that stretched out until the ocean was one of the prettiest; newer and renovated buildings took place of the decaying ones, and at the very center of the calle a strip for pedestrians was framed by great trees. On our way back to our apartment, my father and I searched for a market to buy some basic groceries—quite the experience! Since Cuba is a communist country, the purchasing of simple things such as food and house supplies were closely monitored and there were very little options to choose from. The biggest market of the area was La Isla de Cuba, and within that tiny market were about five tiendas, each sold specific products (one sold meats, the other cheeses, the other was a pharmacy, and etc). We ventured in a few markets before being able to buy a handful of things. Eggs were treated like delicacies, it was nearly impossible to find them; however, we eventually found a lady in our street that sold them (after we tried 5 different places).
Around noon we met up with friends who came to Cuba with their sailboat (check them out at amarsemfim.wordpress.com/) and toured the city together. The rest of the day was all about strolling around the streets, dodging bright-colored convertibles and enjoying the warm weather at the waterfront.
3rd Day (Havana)
Our third day in Havana was dedicated to visit a couple museums nearby: the Gran Teatro de La Habana and the Museo de la Revolucion. The teatro was magnificent—its oldest part being almost two centuries old and the newer part was completely erected in white marble. I would highly suggest taking the forty-minute tour throughout the theater, walk around the floors, exhibitions, and learn a little more about the crown jewel of Cuba’s ballet: Alicia Alonso, the nearly blind ballerina who danced until her late 70s. Besides hearing about the Gran Teatro’s history, we also got to know more about the early history of Cuba and its Spanish colonization. A few blocks from the theater, the Museo de la Revolucion was another extremely interesting attraction, a must-go in my opinion. There, we toured around the halls and read all about Cuba before, during, and after revolution of 1959. The blocks between the two museums were packed with beautiful buildings from the 20th century, cafes with live, local music, and shining cars; additionally, there were numerous tiny calles where one can go and explore. We had lunch at Los Nardos, the restaurant just above D’Lirios (same owner), where each plate could easily serve two to three people and for a very good price. Hotel Inglaterra had the perfect “post-lunch” espresso shot.
At nightfall I went for a run near the Capitolio, and I must say that Cuba was just as fun during the night like it was in the daytime— salsa music filled the dark night, people laughed and ate at restaurants/bars, and the old buildings were lit up. Night walks were a perfect way to see Havana with a different “air” and it was perfectly safe to do so.
4th Day (Havana)
Our last day in “La Habana” started with a grand breakfast a Hotel Inglaterra, where one can have an all-you-can-eat experience for a great price (their scrambled eggs were the best). Around noon we headed to the most beautiful part of the city, Obispo Street. The street was a touristy area; however, it was one of my favorite places in Havana because of its gorgeous architecture from Spanish colonials times, dapper plazas, and fortresses and churches from the 16th century. Smaller calles crossed Obispo and ran deeper into Havana’s heart, all packed with small stores and bars. The Plaza de las Armas was very pretty and a great place to relax and see nearby museums. La Mina was a restaurant option right by the plaza (ask for their Cuban pork, extremely tasty); similarly, the Mango offered delicious helados Italianos.
5th Day (Varadero)
We left Havana yesterday and headed to the touristy part of Cuba, Varadero. Varadero is a famous destination in Cuba for tourists all over the world, especially Americans and Canadians; the area is surrounded by hotels, pools, and a long white sand beach with clear water. The day was mostly spent by the pool and floating on the turquoise colored water of the Caribbean, drinking cold coconuts and enjoying friends’ company, a day to relax. For lunch, my favorite spot was the Steakhouse Argentino (portions can be easily divided into two); additionally, the hotel’s villa had a great chocolate house, where I obsessed over this Russian, zero sugar and stevia-sweetened chocolate (literally bought 20 bars to take back to Mexico…oh well).
Since coming to Varadero, we were invited to stay at the Amarsemfim sailboat. We spent three nights in our friend’s boats, which was honestly a blast. It felt so good to be back on the sailboat (posted more about my experience on the boat under “Florida”), just soaking up the sun by the ocean, eating prime food (cooked by our friend, Ricardo), and playing games and watching movies for hours with the Yoshimas, which was the family who owned the sailboat.
6th Day (Varadero)
For our last day in Cuba, we decided to do a last minute diving/snorkeling trip. We all hopped on a boat at 9 am and went off to the ocean. The view was beautiful. Not a single cloud could be spotted in the horizon and a nice breeze cooled down the hot morning; the ocean was dotted by turquoise and deep-blue colors and some small islands showed up here and there. Halfway through the trip, the captain decided to put me in charge of driving the crowded boat while he went downstairs for the rest of the way. We went to two diving spots: the first at a sunken ship at 30 m deep, and the second one was on shallower waters where marine life was more abundant. The rest of the day was spent jumping off the second level of the boat, snorkeling on the middle of the ocean, hanging off the front of the boat on our way back to Varadero, and even making an extra stop at a reef where we saw so much sea life. After our last stop, Maria was put in charge of driving the boat the rest of the way until the marina. The day was perfect.