“What we had in common is our restlessness, our impassioned spirits, and love for the open road.” – Che Guevarra (The Motorcycle Diaries)
While I was planning my solo trip to USA & Mexico, the idea of going to Havana also crossed my mind several times since I will be already in the area. But I was ignoring it because I don’t want to do a solo trip there. I was very certain that I will love and enjoy it that much that I would need someone with me to share my joy whilst there.
But as I was sharing the idea to my friend, Zoe, she told me she wanted to join me but I have to join her as well in New Orleans! Sounds like a treat to me, haha! So together we planned our trip, and invited another friend of ours, RH, who happens to be on her work-related trip in California that time and she can still squeeze in Havana for few days before she goes back to Singapore. Just perfect!
The only thing that caused me so much stress during the planning of this trip was how to acquire the TOURIST CARD or if we should still need a Tourist Visa from the embassy because we are all Filipino nationals. I have seen this Wikipedia LINK that a Filipino citizen can enter Cuba with just the Tourist Card IF we have valid visa from US, or Canada, or EU states (that includes UK also).
My friends and I have valid US visas, but there are just a lot of stories I read online that there are some Filipinos that despite having valid visas from these countries, weren’t allowed to board the plane. There’s no Cuban Embassy here in UAE, so I have emailed the Cuban Embassy in Doha to inquire about visa just to be sure, but they redirected me to Cuban embassy in KSA (Saudi) because of the recent conflict in the relations between UAE and Qatar. Cuban Embassy in KSA replied, however they were also not clear and they even insisted that I have to apply the visa despite having valid USA, Canada, UK, and Schengen visas (yes, I have all those valid visas, lol!). I just won’t accept it because they could not even show me any proof of this regulation and it contradicts what was stated in the Wikipedia link above. And I tell you, I have scoured the internet for blogs for their personal experiences, but none of these blogs were helpful, they just say they are not sure anymore of the new rules.
Sooo, to my fellow Filipino friends reading this (and to non-Filipinos who have weak passports, too), I will now end your worries, lol! The most reliable way to find out if you need a visa or just a tourist card to Cuba or to any country actually is to visit the site of IATA (International Air Transport Association) because I may tell you now that we only need Tourist Card but rules may change tomorrow. This is the website given to me by the airline staff of American Airlines when I emailed them and they assured me that they strictly follow what the IATA website’s requires. We bought Travel Insurance but they did not look for that but just in case, it is better if you have this with you also. At the check-in counter of American Airlines in Miami airport, there is a kiosk where you can buy the Tourist Card, it’s around US$50 per day you are spending in Cuba.
I kept all my stress and worries from my girl friends because I was the one who invited them and we were all booked already. So imagine if I tell them that we still need to apply Tourist Visa? One is based in South Korea and the other one in Singapore, so they will still need to go to Kuala Lumpur or Hongkong to apply a tourist visa, and I will have to go to Saudi! Phew! :D
Anyway, enough of the visa issues, lol!
Going to Havana was my husband’s idea when President Obama normalized the US relations to Cuba in 2015. My husband said we need to see Cuba soon before it integrates fully into the world economy, that perhaps seeing vintage cars may not be an ordinary sight anymore. Havana is definitely the most unique place I’ve ever been to, so far. The shabbiness and backward lifestyle takes you to a different era and despite that, you can still see indications that it was once the Gem of Caribbean.
Havana was known as Paris of the Antilles in the 19th century because it was very fashionable. It was very prosperous that it became a famous tourist destination. But after the revolution, the trade embargo of US and the collapse of Soviet Union, Cuba have suffered economically, leaving the whole country like trapped in a time capsule that just stopped progressing since the 1960’s. It still is a famous tourist destination until now but for a more different reason.
When we arrived Havana airport, the queue to change our Euros to CADECA machines were very long. We were advised to bring Euros or British Pounds because US Dollars is said to be very low, but when we were there we noticed that Canadian Dollars has the highest exchange rate, not sure though if it’s always like that, haha!
It’s also better to have cash because most credit cards does not work in Cuba, in my case when I tried to use my card once, it didn’t work because of terrible internet connection, banks are always offline. It’s expensive in Havana so we calculated to spend 500 Euros for 4 days including shopping money just in case.
After changing our money, our pre-arranged taxi driver took us to ETECSA just outside the airport to buy our wifi card. It’s around US$5 for 5 hours and one person can only buy 3 cards each. The queue is very long and slow again that we decided to leave because the taxi driver cannot wait for us anymore.
But good thing we didn’t buy, because even if we have the wifi cards, it doesn’t work anywhere. There are only designated places where you can use it and it’s usually at big plazas or inside big hotels. And if you find these areas, chances are, your 5hours of wifi will only be consumed trying to find signal. You will know which are these areas once you see group of locals just looking at their phones, haha!
My advice is just go to big hotels and buy their wifi, it’s more expensive but it’s efficient. When we went to Hotel Nacional, I bought my wifi and was happy to be able to send messages to my husband. He has not heard from me in 2 days so I was just telling him we are still alive, haha!
We stayed at a casa particulares (private home) I’ve found on Airbnb. It was in Plaza Vieja in Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The name of our casa particulares is Balcones Habana Vieja. Apart from the perfect location to be in few days in Havana because it is close to almost every tourist spots, the colonial design of the house is an experience itself. High ceilings, antique furniture, and the beautiful balconies in every room!
We booked 2 rooms and I specifically requested to have the corner room so we can get 3 balconies, the other room is adjacent to us with the bathroom having the balcony. There were more other rooms in the house but they were vacant when we were there, so it’s like we rented the whole house. The caretakers are always there day and night which is perfect because it felt safer, they don’t live there though.
We have our own mini-bar inside our rooms which is very useful because they replenish the water and beers everyday, same price as outside. There’s no wifi but there are a lot of restaurants around and one nice hotel where you can buy wifi. We didn’t try to buy though so I am not sure if it’s fast or good enough as the one I tried in Hotel Nacional.
On our way to our salsa lesson, we had lunch first at La Luvia de Oro, just halfway between our casa particulares and the salsa school. I just found this paladar or restaurant recommended at Tripadvisor so I wasn’t sure if it will be the best choice because we were warned that finding a good restaurant with good food in Cuba could be quite a challenge, especially with the government-owned restaurants.
Apart from the food ration including lack of access to better ingredients, they just don’t care cooking their best because it is government owned, there’s no growth in their career and they don’t get better salaries if they do their best, they won’t get sacked too because the business owners or government needs them to work, if they leave their work and move to another they will still get the same package. So why bother? Anyway, good thing our very first meal in Cuba here at La Luvia de Oro was good and there was a band playing to complete the Cuban atmosphere to warm us up on our upcoming salsa lesson!
When we arrived at the salsa school, La Casa del Son, there were group of people watching the 2018 FIFA World Cup match at the other room, mostly men. I asked one huge guy for score update and he was happy to tell me that Japan just scored its 2nd goal against Belguim (they don’t like European teams). I shrugged and told him I bet Belguim will still catch up at the end, he just laughed. Then he told me we will begin the class shortly. Wth? So this huge guy and 2 more others were apparently our salsa teachers! Lol!
After seeing the movie Havana Nights (Dirty Dancing 2), I felt that salsa is the dance for me. So I listed it on my bucketlist specifically saying to learn salsa in Cuba. But man, it was fun but it was so tiring hahaha! We met other tourist there who really went to Cuba just to study salsa, some of them for a month, not sure if they are salsa dance teachers back home, I don’t know! One month? But that will be an awesome experience. If I only have the time and money to do that, maybe I would do the same. But no, let me just try the free lessons here in Dubai first :P
After the salsa lesson, we head off to the closest beach in the city, Playas del Este. We only took the bus opposite Hotel Ingglatera then we got there perhaps in around 30minutes. The beach is beautiful! As part of the Caribbean Sea, it is blue and water is warm. We only stayed for an hour because the last bus going back to Old Havana leaves in a hour, perhaps if we were driving then maybe we could stay a bit longer.
It was already late when we got back our casa particulares, so after we showered we just had our dinner at the huge restaurant with lots of tourists and has a good band just few steps below our casa particulares at Plaza Vieja. And that was the biggest mistake we’ve done during this trip, haha! It was a tourist trap, it was a government-owned restaurant so we had our lousiest taste of Cuban food that we were warned about, lol! I believe this is the culprit of our bad tummies few days after!
Since then, we stick to our list haha! There are a lot of good restaurants that we tried around Plaza Vieja, but it’s more of the smaller ones and a bit tucked way from the plaza.
The next day, we had our Free Walking Tours from Strawberry Tours. This 3-hour walking tour is all about the history of Cuba and see old gorgeous architecture by just walking around Old Havana. The places we have covered were:
The Capitol Building
Castle of the Royal Force
Plaza de Armas
Obispo Street – shopping street!
San Francisco Park
Bodeguita del Medio – this is where I had my first of the many Mojitos in Havana. This bar was made famous by Ernest Hemingway.
It was tiring but really worth it as it covered almost everything you want to know about Havana and Cuba. Our guide was very impressive, apart from he is funny, he is also very knowledgeable. This is not surprising for a Cuban who has got a good education.
Even if schools are state-run and controlled by government, education in Cuba remained to be one of the highest ranked system in the world (also their healthcare). Education budget is the government’s top priority because for them in order for a country to be strong, its citizens must be literate.
After our ill-fated dinner the night before, we were just looking forward to our lunch at La Guarida after our long walking tour. La Guarida is regarded as one of the best (if not the best!) paladar in Havana. It is that famous that you MUST book ahead. I’ve emailed them but even if I did not get any response or confirmation from them, we were on their list!
It’s at Centro Havana so we had to take a taxi going there, it was in the middle of decaying buildings around it that we had to ask the taxi driver if that was really La Guarida.
There’s a monumental winding staircase leading to the restaurant and once you reach the main entrance you will be amazed with the colonial interior with old paintings and photos that will surely take you in the past. The food was five star from starters to dessert! Redemption for Cuban food, haha!
After our sumptuous lunch, our next guide, Ruby, picked us up at La Guarida to drive us around Havana using her top-down convertible vintage Chevy! Though this car is too normal in Havana that sometimes you can just hail it from the street, this private tour is a must if you want to do some photo-ops with a convertible vintage car, haha! Because they can stop anywhere you want and take as many photos as you want, too!
We asked Ruby to drive us around Vedado and Miramar because these are the places we haven’t been during our Walking Tour in Old Havana. It was only an hour drive then she dropped us at the most famous ice cream parlour in Havana, the Heladeria Coppelia at Vedado. It’s not the best ice cream I had in my life, but it’s good to try what the Cubans considered their best ice cream hehe.
From Heladeria Coppelia, we just walk towards Hotel Nacional. We were supposed to go to Camara Oscura to see Havana in 360 panoramic views but we weren’t able to go anymore because we stayed until sunset at Hotel Nacional. This is where I bought my wifi, so it was worth to stay here having our Mojitos whilst watching sunset at El Malecon. It’s a beautiful hotel that was once a famous casino in Havana before the revolution.
The next day, we want to take it easy. So we just walked along Obispo Street and did a little bit of shopping. At the end of Obispo, we took a cab going to Castillo de San Carlos dela Habana where we could see the lighthouse, the fort, and to visit Che Museum.
We were supposed to take the ferry, but good thing we took the cab because it took us directly to Paladar El Canonazo to have our lunch first. But since we didn’t have any reservation, they directed us to the paladar just few steps down the road, and it was really good! We had seafood platter and some good Cuban home cooking. We even met the old lady owner of this paladar and she’s very accommodating.
After our lunch, it started to rain, a heavy one! We were soaked and wet we just ditched the idea of going around the fort, it was sad because we weren’t able to visit Che Museum anymore. We took the cab and went back to El Floridita as this will be the meeting point of our next free walking tour again from Strawberry Tours – the Cuban Revolution Tour.
As it was raining hard, we decided to wait inside La Floridita, the bar made famous by Ernest Hemingway again as the cradle of Daiquiri. Daiquiri is another cocktail born in Cuba, but in Santiago de Cuba and not in this bar, haha! But to be fair, their Daiquiri was really good!
After having our Daiquiri, we saw our walking tour guide and it’s the same guy from yesterday! We were like long-time bffs already when we saw him, haha!
The difference of this tour from the previous day’s Historical Tour is that this tackles more about the history of the revolution and the pros and cons of the revolutionary government headed by Fidel Castro, his brothers, and the iconic Che Guevarra.
You’ll be impressed with how the revolution achieved their triumph against their mightier opponent like a story of David and Goliath and how Cuban’s especially the poor benefited form revolutionary government ‘s education and healthcare regulations.
However, by walking around visiting rundown houses, food rations at bodegas and bakeries, few internet access, etc. you’ll feel sorry at the same time of how Cubans survive the consequences of the not so perfect ideologies of a revolutionary government until now.
The other places we have covered were:
The Granma Yacht
It was a long day for us so we decided to just go back to our casa particulares and rest to get ready for the night of some salsa dancing with the locals! Party night as it will be our last night in Havana, time to use those we learnt from our salsa class whilst having Mojito or Daiquiri or Cuba libre.
Unfortunately, we failed on this part. We didn’t research enough that we ended up not partying anymore. I have a list of places to go to but surprisingly nobody knew where are those. It’s too late to check the internet again because we don’t have access anymore!
So we just asked our guides and even our hosts to refer places to go for partying or salsa dancing but they all told us it will be away from Old Havana and that we still need to take a taxi. They all said that the party places around Old Havana are mostly full of tourists only. I find that really impossible but what can we do, we can’t check the internet anymore.
Havana or entire Cuba is relatively safe. Despite hard life, crime is not really rampant here compared to other countries in Carribean or South America. But even if we know it is safe for us to go out at night, we still preferred to just go somewhere close to our place so taking a taxi wasn’t our option. So we just went to few places around Plaza Vieja and sadly we didn’t really find party places that we imagined Havana nights to be.
The first place we went to El Meson D La Flota restaurant we had dinner and has Flamenco dancers for a show, although I’ve seen a lot of flamencas in Spain already, these flamencas we saw were the best flamencas I’ve seen so far! They were very expressive and passionate! The food was surprisingly good too.
After dinner, we went to the bar next to our casa particulares, La Vitrola, there’s band and few salsa dancers but not as wild as I imagine it would be like those scenes in Havana Nights. We ended up sharing a table with an American couple where we spent the whole night just talking about politics. So after few mojitos, we called it a night. Huge bummer, I know!
Perhaps, if we joined the Nightlife Walking Tour, then maybe we’ll know where to go, but we chose not to because we thought it will be easy to find party places, but it wasn’t unfortunately. So when I return to Cuba (hopefully with my husband already!) I vow to make it up to myself and make sure I’ll experience the real Havana nights.
Anyway despite all that, it surely is one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been. I wish we could have gone outside Havana also like in Varadero or Matanzas to see the countryside and visit some tobacco plantations, but I’ll leave it for my next visit.
I still want to go back someday to see a more progressive Cuba, but most of all, I want to experience again the hospitality of the Cuban people. That even if time stood still or abandoned them, the warmth can still be found in their smiles.
With the normalization between US and Cuba relations and the on-going restorations of the housing and other old buildings, sooner or later Havana will catch up to the modern times. That’s why I encourage everyone to visit it now whilst it’s still a place like a blast in the past, and also they rely too much in tourism for the economy so it will be helpful if you visit now.
In as much as it is very exotic as it is now, it’s a bit selfish if we’ll wish Cuba to remain the same, because none of the few locals we spoke to were contented, they know now that they are so behind and that they will be happier if the embargo will be completely lifted.
The revolutionary government gave them independence from foreign domination based on ideologies of equality for the citizens, however it failed on some policies affecting the overall welfare of its people. It’s difficult to say but there should be a balance somewhere between the revolutionary or socialist and democratic ideologies. These past few years, the Cuban government are trying to create balance now, slowly but soon enough, they’ll get there. If change finally happens for Cuba, let’s just wish they would keep their vintage cars around!
I’m glad that my 2 girl friends were able to join me in this trip, we may be in different parts of the world now and occupied with our work schedule and expat lifestyle, we still managed to plan and get together in trips such as this despite our busy lives. We actually have different trip plans at that time also, but we just tried to align our own trips so we could all have this trip in Cuba together.
I guess, we succeeded on creating balance in our lives through finding time for ourselves, a break from our hectic jobs, and spending time with friends through travelling. The latter can be a challenge when you are miles away from each other, however it is NOT impossible because what we had in common is our restlessness, our impassioned spirits, and love for the open road.