Last weekend, I went on my first side-trip to Cuba for the long weekend. It wound up being a great trip by the end, but there was a steep learning curve, so I figured I’d share how not to plan your trip (learn from my mistakes!).
1. Don’t forget your cash.
Luckily I planned ahead for this part, at least. US debit and credit cards don’t work in Cuba, so Americans need to bring as much cash as they’ll need for their entire trip. I budgeted $100 a day, and wound up with $5 left at the airport (which I spent on the world’s strangest steak sandwich), so that seemed about perfect.
2. If you’re staying in Havana, don’t book a place far from city center.
Trust me. GPS is not a thing there. Neither are cell phones or maps. If the taxis can’t find your Airbnb, you’ll spend half your trip giving directions and the other half winding up lost at 3am.
3. Don’t rely on finding internet.
Seriously, it doesn’t exist. Pretend it’s 1990 and plan everything you want to do (and where/when you’ll rendezvous with your friends) ahead of time. If you absolutely must find internet, the Hotel Nacionale (worth a visit on its own for the beautiful architecture and the cash exchange in its basement if you need it) has Wifi you can access for $10/hour, but it is still a very weak signal.
4. Don’t use your cell phone.
I made the mistake of turning on data a couple times to locate friends. $65 in roaming charges later… Ouch.
5. Don’t plan too much in one day.
Life moves slower in Cuba. Glacially slow. It can be a really fun, relaxing getaway if you’re prepared for that, but if you’re expecting to run around and see a zillion things every day, then you will get frustrated. (It was so difficult to silence my inner New Yorker this trip.)
6. Don’t be freaked out by the way things appear.
We all know Havana is stuck in the 1950s. But from afar, that can sound romantic and nostalgic. In reality, it means that some houses look like ruins. Ceilings have fallen in, doors are missing, everything is broken and peeling. Same goes for the cars. On the surface, it can look dangerous. But Havana is probably one of the safest places you’ll ever visit, despite its appearances.
7. Don’t expect good food.
The pizza tastes like a disassembled hot pocket. The tuna is all canned. There’s meat in just about everything, and your salad will most likely not be fresh. There are good restaurants here and there (I highly recommend La Catedral and Decamarón, both in Vedado), but remember, Cuba has been on food rations for decades. Of course the restaurants have struggled. Which leads me to my last point…
8. Don’t forget where you are.
As an American visiting Cuba, I became intensely aware of my own privilege. I can travel almost anywhere in the world, whenever I want to, simply because I was born in the USA. Most Cubans (especially any doctors or skilled professionals) are not allowed to leave their country, even for a vacation. They live in the houses the government decided their families would have, drive falling-apart “vintage” cars because our government decided they couldn’t import new ones…
It’s intense. It’s eye-opening. It’s the first time in a long time that I experienced culture shock, and it really woke me up.
But this list sounds very negative. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to Cuba. By the end of my visit, I really loved it. It was a unique experience, and I learned a ton.
So, now that we’ve covered what not to do, what should you do?
1. Relax and go with the flow.
Sneak up to the rooftop bar at Hotel Saratoga. Kick off your shoes, stick your feet in the pool, and spend a while admiring the view.
Explore Old Havana. Buy some cigars or enjoy a cuba libre (rum and coke) in one of the bars that dot the neighborhood.
Visit the Playas del Este, the beaches east of Havana. There’s a number of them, though we found Tropico pretty uncrowded (also, the snack huts dotting the beach serve epic piña coladas).
Walk along the Malecón (the seawall bordering the city) and get soaked by waves while you drink in the sunset.
While you’re on the Malecón, go dancing at the seaside salsa club 1830. I guarantee you’ll feel like you’re at someone’s backyard BBQ, sharing drinks and getting swung across the dance floor by locals. If it’s rainy, though, you can always dance indoors at Casa de la Musica Miramar instead, or even catch a show. We watched Pupy perform live, after having a couple of drinks next door at the cafe attached.
But the biggest lesson I learned was just to go with the flow. Pre-planning is nice, but if you plan your day to death, you’ll spend most of it working on frustrating logistics (like trying and failing to rendezvous with the vintage car tour you booked), rather than actually experiencing Havana.
2. Talk to locals.
There’s no better way to get to know a city—or to find your new favorite night out spot! Our Airbnb hostess Julia was extremely sweet and helpful, always recommending new spots for us to check out (if you decide on an Airbnb in Cuba, definitely check out House Blue Sea).
3. Brush up on your Spanish (and bring/download a really good dictionary).
Some people speak English, but many don’t. It was helpful to know the essentials, especially when talking to taxis, ordering in restaurants, or going out dancing in the clubs. Also, without internet or cell phone access, looking up translations on the fly gets tricky, so either bring a pocket dictionary with you, or download an app like Google Translate, which allows you to download language packs for offline use in advance.
4. Be present.
Havana is a strange, beautiful, wistful, inspiring place to visit. It forces you to disconnect—from modernity, from the world you’re used to, from the internet (I know I keep saying this but it’s only because I have a serious ‘net addiction, okay?). It can be jarring at first, and it can throw you out of your element. But that’s the beauty of it.
Just let yourself live in the moment and experience what’s in front of you. Don’t worry that you’re missing out on a million other things (it’s impossible to see it all anyway).
Simply enjoy where you are.