October 31, 2017

Havana || Travel & Leisure

Havana! It is hard to put into words what our quick visit to this (mystical) island was like. Being Cuban-American and the product of exiled families made it even more bitter sweet and intimidating. That being said, I am so glad I went and saw what life in 2017 is like in Havana as a visitor. It has been a bucket list trip for a long time and somehow, I finally convinced my parents (at the young age of 30 and married with a child) to let me go. My trip was never going to be a mojito binging, Tropicana attending, rooftop pool dipping experience. I wanted to see where my families came from, grew up and witness first hand the legacies that were left, quite literally in the dust. One thing is to hear it and it’s one thing to see it, because seeing IS believing.

We visited Cuba on the People to People method of travel. I had an itinerary planned to the hour since our visit was self-guided. To keep this light and quick, read on for a few tips on what and what not to do and where and where not to eat! I will do a more in depth day by day soon for those who care ha!

How we got around

I had heard that taxis can get pretty pricey. I don’t doubt it. We had a driver with a 7 (comfortably fits 5 adults) seat van. He was $200 a day. While that may seem like a lot before you get there, it is not if you plan to move around a lot, which we did. We crossed Havana back and forth at least twice a day. A cab would have been pricey and annoying. So yea, do this.

Where to Stay

I looked at pretty much every AirBnb in the Vedado and Old Havana neighborhoods before narrowing down. I settled on a 2nd floor large condo style home with detailed reviews and perfect location for us. It was around the corner from where family had lived ages ago (weird but cool?) and in a quieter part of Havana. Details on that coming in another post. Find it here!

(This terrace was a great outdoor space and is perfect for groups of all ages.  Dress Mother Goose Miami. )

Where we ate

While I am NOT one for Cuban food (I think I’m Mexican) we ate great food and for a hell of a lot less than you would in many international destinations. We knew where to go thanks to many recommendations from family friends that had been before. I also read what felt like every blog post on Havana. Do your own research, but these below are vetted.

Atelier Restaurant: Cool vibe, service was slow but remember where you are aka The Islands. Strange yet fascinating, was that the silverware was actual silver mismatched and dating well over 60 years. The glasses on the tables had names on them. We couldn’t help but wonder who they belonged to before the revolution.

(Fun Fact: I love the name Augustina. Didn’t fly so I named my daughter Valentina)

Doña Eutemia– Old Havana: Crowd pleaser and home of the Mojito Frappiado! It is what it sounds like. My 2 yr old actually ate and the service and food was some of the best we had. Everything on the menu looked good. Live music outside was great for when the kid got table fever. Reservation is a MUST. The restaurant is teeny and was busy. Imitators have popped up near it so make sure you go straight back to right place! The plaza it is off will make you think you’re in Europe.

(Watching the live music and trying to spy on stray cats)

Cha Cha Cha- Old Havana: We did not plan to eat here but happy we did. My in-laws had recently been there on their Cruise to Havana and had a positive experience. Jazz like vibe and fun spin on traditional cuban food. Let it be known I basically ate ropa vieja everywhere because I eat like a 3 yr old. They had chicken fingers coated in plaintain chips and Serrano Jam croquetas…WIN! Went in for lunch to escape the rain so we got lucky, but from what we kept hearing, make a reservation anywhere you plan to go.

(Some sort of eggplant meal that the consumers swore was delish)

Rio Mar– We came here because this was directly across from what once was a beautiful ocean front condo building where my grandmother once lived. Now, it is abandoned and quite sad. This restaurant is another stepping into the twilight zone moment, or for you Mad Men fans, like walking into the Drapers. They mainly serve seafood and from what I gathered, one of the few water front restaurants. It sits at the mouth of what else, but the Rio Mar. Where the river meets the ocean. Once upon a time I can only imagine how beautiful the river water must have been. This place is great for the views if you just want to pop in for a drink too.

La Guarrida- Old Havana: just off the Malecon: To keep it simple, where all the celebs go. Great food and impressive building. Just please do me the favor and take your pictures in the rest of this gorg grand old building and not in front of the Castro speech mural… k thanks. The pictures on the walls of those who have passed through La Guarida shall keep you entertained for hours.

(she went to Havana for the Lemonade… )

(yep.. the restaurant was in that building)

Stop for A Drink:

La Floridita: While we didn’t go on a bender in Havana this came as one of those you must go but get ready. We walked in, and walked out! It was SLAMMED. Having a stroller in tow didn’t make it easier. If you are fine with the crowds than squeeze on in and get yourself a daiquiri and feel the spirits (quite literally) around you!

Gran Hotel Manzana: We ended up here when Floridita was slammed since they are across from each other. We put on our best faces, made sure my daughter didn’t make a peep (insert ipad) and went to the rooftop to take it all in. This hotel is the first luxury hotel in Cuba post revolution. Fun fact, the square where this hotel is set was the first ‘mall’ in Havana and started by my sister-in-laws great grandfather. Fashion is literally in her veins. It took a turn for the worst post revolution and is now on track to house luxury brands below the hotel. Considering you cannot use major credit cards, don’t ask me how this really works. Prices were your typical luxury hotel bar prices and so be it. You see the tip tops of Old Havana and that in itself is worth it.  Get ready for the people watching…

Cigar Shopping:

 As cautioned by many, do not purchase cigars anywhere. While my husband did snag a very well priced small humidor in the “artisan market” , he got his cigars in the Rio Mar neighborhood. The place to go was closed when we drove by which led us to back to a restaurant we had stopped at earlier for coffee and ice-cream because, 4pm. blood sugar crash.
El Aljibe Restaurant

Large open air restaurant with a cigar shop to the left of the entrance. If you don’t want to eat there, just pop into the shop and puff puff off you go. 

La Casa del Habano, 5th y 16

There are many of these throughout Havana but this is the one you should plan to visit. Cigar Aficionado agrees.

Photo credit: Cigar Aficionado

What to do: 

Old Car Tour: 3 of us did this on a whim and it was pretty neat. I had tried to pre-plan this and work it into my by the hour itinerary but decided to leave it to chance. It worked out. It is max 2 hours (depending what you want to do) so it’s easy to do last minute. The car we were in was part of the big Chanel bruhaha so that was fun. Our driver was great and informative. He did speak English but we did this in Spanish. We began in front of Hotel Matanza and he dropped us off at home. This was 30 CUC and we tipped.

Museo De Artes Decorativas: This home was built by my sister-in-laws great grandfather for her grandmother as wedding present (again, wow). After feeling the home was a bit too grand, it was lent to her cousin, a Countess of Spain. The stories surrounding this mini palace and the parties thrown there are for the books. After the revolution it was seized, turned into a museum and preserved. Everything will blow you away. I urge you to go before you have to creep look into the rooms from the door frame rather than inside the room itself. If these walls could talk…

(Note child in stroller with iPad… #Merica)

Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market: Being a first time homeowner I realized art is expensive. Found this place by chance (after interrogating a nice gentlemen on instagram about where this place was and if he had a hard time bringing things back) and it was crazy. Art everywhere, top to bottom basically hanging from the ceiling. There is a lot of not so great things, but keep walking and searching and you are sure to find something(s) to bring home. The prices are GREAT. I did not haggle as I am not really one to haggle, and I wanted to contribute to any person there I could. I purchased 3 paintings and brought them home in checked luggage.

Colon Cemetery: If you are Cuban American and have family that lived in Havana, there is a good chance you have ancestors who were laid to rest here. This cemetery is large and is stunning. If you do plan to look for a relative, call ahead and get exact information on their location if possible or to let them know you will be coming by. We learned this the hard way. We immediately found the burial site of Calixto Garcia and some of his family. He is my fathers great great grandfather and his and my brothers namesake. Calixto Garcia was a general in various Cuban uprisings and celebrated throughout their history. His monument is located along the Malecon which was very cool to see. My 6th sense daughter knew exactly what to do while there with the flowers she was given.

Castillo del Morro: Great views and the fortress guarding the entrance to Havana.

(Not safe, not recommended and I wanted to throw up taking this picture.)

We spent a million dollars on all the smart water we could carry at MIA and finished it by day 1. Our Airbnb had water bottles in the fridge ready for us and we drank it all and lived to tell about it. The water is bottled in Cuba and you’ll be just fine. We did have Life water bottles just in case we were weirded out.

What not to do: 

The Revolution Museum: Blah. Pre-Revolution this was the the Presidential House aka White House of Cuba. My great grandmother lived here for a short time while her father was an interim president. My grandfather ran up and down the marble stairs so we had to see it. But, that awe is soon lost in propaganda and a Che exhibit (which my daughter said was scary and that pirates scared her) that looks like something out of a defunded Museum of Natural History . Out of the mouth of babes. It cost double the price of a cocktail so do yourself a favor and marvel from the lobby or outside.

Food: Don’t stroll into to just anywhere to eat. It is very hard for these people to make ends meet and feed themselves. So it is crazy to think how these Paladares (Restaurants) have so much food flowing. Do your homework, search instagram, ask strangers and plan ahead as much as possible. You don’t want to end up feeling sick or even get that mental game in your head going. Pack snacks and eat them often. If traveling with children, you know the drill.

Random Do’s + Dont’s:
DO Download the maps.me app before you go for Havana. My cousin had this on her phone, and while we thought we were part of some government tv show, it knows where you are sans wifi etc. and has all landmarks, restaurants, little streets and parks on it. Our driver had the same app!
DO Exchange money there as you go. You don’t want to be stuck with CUC’s. We exchanged our dollars at the Hotel Cohiba lobby (even though we weren’t guests) as it was very nice, not crowded and close to where we were staying. You lose 15% wherever you exchange. Some take Euros but personally, it seems like a whole lot of work to go with euros, change them there for a smaller fee and then change them back. If you have Euros you want to dump, then yolo.
DO pay it forward and tip. I like to think every extra bit helps anybody there and who knows if they actually get paid the included tip on your bill at restaurants and your drivers pay a lot in licences to be on the road. If you are staying at an Airbnb, tip. You can change someones next 6 months by leaving an amount you spend at Target in 45 seconds.
DO pack all the baby wipes you can fit and have them with you while out and about. Kid or no kid in tow…
DO get EVERY address needed beforehand. If you are a Cuban American who have family that left it all behind, chances are you’ll want to see what it is they left. The addresses in Havana are wack and haven’t changed since the exile. So write them down, try to find all the intersections and what color the front door and side window and archway and roof tile look like – true life thats how we found the houses. Don’t be hesitant to speak with the current residents but get ready to be a bit irked.
DON’T Expect to stroll into a supermarket and get all the things you left behind. Take everything you think you will need. Be an Eagle Scout. If there is a language barrier it will be easier to already have the things you need. We took about 4lbs of pepto and didn’t need it, but we had it!
DON’T Check luggage if you do not have to. We took the pack’n’play in a golf bag stuffed with my daughters milk boxes and snacks. It took over an hour to come out. It was nuts and really annoying. Nothing was stolen, but prepare yourself.

DON’T go and totally wing it. Yes this mentality works for some, but we found it simpler to have the plan laid out for each day. While it seemed like it was jam packed, we ended up checking off our points of interest quickly which led to extra time to do things we hadn’t planned to do. Also, you don’t really have a choice in this matter if you are traveling there on a self guided trip as an American. You will need to have an itinerary on you in case customs requests it.

 And most importantly:
DO go with open eyes and ears and speak with the locals. While you won’t get opinions on their political views, it is easy to notice a change is wanted by all and they cannot do it alone.

Huge shout out to Mariella Vilar for this amazing write up on Havana.  With 8392479384 trip advisor tips out there, we have a feeling you’ll get the most out of this one. Probably a laugh too! #winning

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