Cuba has been on my travel bucket list for as long as I can remember. When I went back to Trinidad for Carnival back in March, I decided it might be a good time to squeeze in a Cuba trip after because I was already out that way. I went with amazing photographer and good friend of mine Michael Moretti, (@Moretti) and we decided to just go and create with no strict itinerary.
Cuba is such a unique and fascinating place. I’ve traveled the whole world and I found there is no place like it. Its history has so much depth and is so complex; I felt all kinds of mixed emotions when I was there. On one hand I was so excited to finally be there- the Cuban culture is just as vibrant as the the city of Havana. Colorful vintage cars, fruit stands and graffiti/ street art on the walls of the buildings…the city is just so full of life and color its like a dream. I also found the energy of the people to be good and genuine, yet I couldn’t help but feel a grimness in the air because of what the country has gone through due to its politics. The Cuban people suffered and are still suffering today which made me feel sad because I know life isn’t easy for them. I try to show the beauty and soul of a place and I think every place in the world is beautiful and can be portrayed as so, but it’s also important to not ignore and acknowledge the economical and political issues. Cuba is like a beautiful disaster- its literally stuck in time and hasn’t progressed since the 1950’s, but that is what makes it so unique and nostalgic. As cool as seeing all the classic cars on the street and feeling like you are in a different time period, you have to acknowledge that it is also unfortunate that the people never had the chance to prosper and reach their highest potential due to communism and corrupt politicians.
THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW/MOST ASKED QUESTIONS
Got TONS of DM’s and messages when I was posting my Cuba pics and stories on Instagram with misconceptions and things people wanted clarification on in order to travel to Cuba. I’m going to cover everything I know below.
Got lots and lots of questions about Americans flying in from the states. I flew back to Miami from Trinidad and took a separate flight from Miami to Cuba. The ban has been lifted and you can fly into Cuba from the states with no problem. You have to pay for a Visa, which you don’t have to do beforehand- you can do at the airport at the airline ticket counter before flying and it was $50.
Micheal warned me to make sure I got enough cash out before we got to Cuba because it was hard to get money once you’re there if you are American. Cuba still doesn’t work with any US Banks or credit card companies, so if you are American, you are unable to use your US credit or ATM card in the country- you are also unable to get cash out of any ATM machine there. That means you need enough cash to last you the entire duration of your trip. There are ways to get money if you run out but it’s not really an easy or convenient process, so better to take out more cash than go through the hassle and be sorry you didn’t. I decided to wait until the Miami airport to take out cash before our flight and the ATM machine only let me take out $200 max and we were rushing to board our plane so that’s all I pretty much had going into Cuba. I hoped to get more once I got to the airport in Cuba (which now I know was a mistake), but luckily Michael had enough cash which lasted us through our whole trip. We made it by the skin of our teeth and cut it realllll close though LOL- had to sacrifice a few meals just to play it safe which is kind of funny now looking back. Travel memories!
A few FYI’s:
We also wanted to book an Air B n’ B in Trinidad, Cuba while we were in Havana but couldn’t because you can’t book anything online with your US credit card while you are physically in the country of Cuba. Crazy right? I had to have my sister book it from the states. If you want to book any hotel or Air B n’ B accommodations while you’re there, you can’t- so make sure you have everything booked before arriving or be prepared to pay for all rooms in cash on the fly.
Upon arriving into Cuba, the airport confiscated Michael’s drone and held it at the airport in customs until our departure home. We had to pay a holding fee per day for them to keep it there and picked it back up when we arrived to the airport for our flight back. You might be able to get away with getting it in but just know if they find it they will take away and hold in customs until your return flight home.
*WIFI*- THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION lol. Yes it’s scarce and yes it’s hard to get. We had wifi at the Kempinski Hotel but once we left there was nothing until we visited the Iberostar in Trinidad to get on wifi again. Some air b n’b’s have it but even if they do, still spotty and wouldn’t count on it. Commercial hotels have if you ask for the passcodes but you have to pay.
WHERE I STAYED
Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski Havana- I stayed at the luxury 5-star Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski in Havana. We stayed for 4 nights and it was the perfect place to stay in the best location. Contemporary chic with vibrant accents, the hotel gave you a luxury and modern experience in an old world. Located in the heart of Old Havana, when you step out of the hotel and into the streets, you literally feel like you stepped back in time. The great thing is you can walk pretty much everywhere from the hotel and it’s just a short walk from the main UNESCO Heritage buildings. The rooms have amazing views of the buzzing streets of Old Havana, and my room had a view of a beautiful square and the famous El Floridita daiquiri bar where Ernest Hemingway used to write and sip daiquiri’s back in the 50’s. One of the highlights of this hotel is the Infiniti rooftop pool and restaurant. It’s absolutely stunning with 360 views of Havana and a great place to hang during the day or for an epic sunset view of the city. Not sure the rules if you are American and want to stay here ( I got asked a bunch of questions about this and this specific hotel), but we worked with the hotel and only paid for one night. For the one night we had to pay in cash as they do not accept US Credit cards.
FOOD & DRINK
So finding good food in Cuba was a challenge. We had a few good meals in Havana but overall I was not impressed with the food. You guys know food is #1. for me, it’s so important! I was bummed that I wasn’t excited about the food and it was hard to find a decent meal. I feel like good food plays such an important factor and impression when visiting a place. There were two restaurants I’m going to recommend and a fast food spot that we found that had decent pizza for a cheap and quick meal in Havana. I know I’m not the only one who didn’t like the food there, most people say the same thing and I’m not sure why good food was hard to come by. I think it might be because of the limited resources they have there. I just found most things to taste bland, even the fruit. I’m sure if I got some home cooked meals by any local I would have a different opinion, but we didn’t really do that and we didn’t have much luck eating out.
La Guarida- We went to lunch at La Guarida which is a well known restaurant in Havana. It’s great for lunch or dinner. The place is beautiful and good for photo opps too. We had a delicious lunch- totally recommend going here as it was hard to find good restaurants. This was our best meal in Cuba.
Dona Eutimia- A little gem located in Old Havana. We went to dinner here on our first night and it was really nice. The place was super cute and it felt like a local spot with authentic Cuban food. Worth going!
D’Next Bar & Cafeteria- We stumbled across this place by accident. We were so tired and hungry after a long day and just wanted something quick. I was too lazy to leave the hotel and Michael brought back pizza from this place and it was pretty good. We ended up eating here for dinner a few times because it was fast, cheap and easy- just a few blocks away from the Kempinski hotel in Old Havana.
El Floridita- Well known hot spot in Old Havana because Ernest Hemingway used to come here to write and sip on daiquiris in the 50’s. When we went they had a live band performing and it was very lively. We tried their famous daiquiris just to say we tried it- nothing special but worth a visit.
Kempinski Havana rooftop– I mentioned above but a great place for a cocktail and some bar snacks with epic views of the city while watching the sunset.
**Honorable Mentions: Please note I can’t take credit I didn’t go to them but these are places that were recommended to me by my followers that I thought I’d share with you!
Henky’s, Monserrate Bar, La Bodeguita del Medio, El Litoral, 1830
THINGS TO DO
Visit H0tel Nacional de Cuba- Didn’t get the chance to go here and really regret it! Our time snuck up on us and went by so fast and we didn’t have time to check it out, but it’s a must when visiting Havana. A historic hotel with beautiful decor and architecture.
Walk and get lost in the streets of Old Havana- Just explore and get lost in the streets of Havana, there is so much to see! You can venture out on your own or there are walking tours that a lot of my followers recommended. Around $80 USD for 4 hours and you see all the famous sites.
Rent a vintage car and drive around the city- Prices vary and you can bargain but it was average $50 USD an hour if I remember correctly.
Fabrica De Arte- We got all ready and took a taxi here which was like a 15 minute ride from our hotel. Lots of people recommended this place as well. It’s art, live music and food and turns into a nightclub later on. We were hoping for salsa music and dancing and we were bummed to find out that is was a regular club that played house music. The line was so long so we decided to leave to find a more low key spot for salsa dancing.
When I thought of Cuba, I thought of salsa. I pictured people dancing salsa on the streets in Havana. I’ve seen it in movies and hoped it would be that way. I at least thought there was going to be tons of salsa clubs. To my surprise finding a place to salsa dance was really hard and there weren’t many options. We went to Fabrica De Arte hoping to salsa and they played commercial house. We were on the hunt to go salsa dancing and went back to our hotel to ask the concierge where to go- she said she didn’t really know of any place open (it was 10pm). We decided to just walk around on our own and stumbled across a tiny dive bar with live salsa music. There were only a few people dancing but I took the opportunity to dance a little and get it out of my system. That was one of the things that really surprised me about Cuba. I love to salsa and was a little bummed it wasn’t as easily accessible and easy to find as I thought it would be.
We took a day trip to Varadero- a 2 hour drive from Havana. We hired a driver in a classic vintage car and for round trip transportation I believe it was around $150-180 USD, I can’t remember exactly. Varadero beach is gorgeous. White sands and bright clear blue water. It was so nice and relaxing to spend the day there.
I decided I didn’t want to stay in a hotel in Trinidad, I wanted a more local experience. (There is only one 5-star hotel there which is the Iberostar). This is the perfect place to stay at a local’s home or an Air B n’ B. We had my sister book us an Air B n’ B from the states last minute and it ended up working out and we loved where we stayed! Trinidad is a small, colorful town located a 4-5 hour drive outside of Havana. We rented a car for this part of the trip. You can hire a driver to take you there but I personally like to have my own car because I like the freedom of being on my own schedule.
The small and colorful streets were lined with old classic cars and locals riding by on their horses. This place really felt like a time warp. Riding horses is one of their main ways of transportation, they aren’t used for tourist purposes. I acknowledge that it is sad for the people to be stuck in time and not prosper but at the same time there is something to be said about living a simple life. That way of life is nostalgic and really makes you value the important things. When you wander the streets you see the locals just sitting on their porches or looking out their house windows onto the street smiling at you when you walk by- conversing with one another, families hanging out, kids playing in the street, people bringing animals home to their family to cook and eat. Life seemed simple there although I can’t really judge from visiting just a few days. I grew up visiting my dad’s family on a farm in Israel and it reminded me of those times. There is so much beauty in simplicity.
WHERE I STAYED
When we arrived to our Air B n’B, the kind owner said there was a mistake and she didn’t have availability until the next night. She asked if we would mind to stay at her neighbors house across from her for the night and we could move to her place the next day. We said sure and both places ended up being super cute. Homemade breakfast for a few extra dollars per person each morning and totally worth it. I loved staying in someone’s home, it was a completely different experience than our previous stay at a 5-star hotel in Havana and I love both experiences just as much 🙂
THINGS TO DO
Explore the colorful town- We wandered the colorful streets trying snacks and street food from the local fruit stands and carts, and took a tour on one of those bike buggies you’ll see everywhere around the town.
Venture out to Vegas Grande Waterfall- We took a half a day to hike to the Vegas Grande waterfall in Topes de Collantes which is about an hour drive from Trinidad. The hike is about an hour to the waterfall but totally worth it. It was my favorite waterfall I’ve ever seen!
Playa Ancon- Just a short drive from the town center, this is known to be the best beach in Southern Cuba. It wasn’t as beautiful as Varadero but worth a visit if you go to Trinidad.
WHERE TO EAT
La Botija- We had a pretty good meal at La Botija. Located in the heart of Trinidad and also had a nice and lively vibe. Popular with tourists because the food is good and cheap!
We didn’t have time to go to Vinales, which is in the beautiful country side known for making cuban cigars. Definitely have to visit next time and sad we didn’t have the time on this trip, it’s an absolute must when going to Cuba.
If you have the opportunity, go to Cuba! Tourism helps the people and the economy. Try to stay with locals (although they still have to give most of what they make to the government), but it’s better than only staying at government run entities. I did both and am glad I got to experience both. Cuba is such a special place, just be prepared before going and do your research!
To see more check out my Instagram @NicoleIsaacs.