5 Things I learned in Cuba
“Have so much fun — Cuba is a dream.”
That’s what a girlfriend texted me in the 48 hours before I left for Cienfuegos, as I was frantically tying up loose ends on some work projects. I was less worried about abandoning my team for a couple of days than I was about going to this place I knew almost nothing about.
I hopped onto a flight deal from American Airlines months ago, and notified a few girlfriends who had expressed interest in going to Cuba about my plans. Within two days, they miraculously committed, bought tickets, and were pumped for the trip – which, as many of you know, rarely happens when you’re trying to rally commitment out of friends for travel.
So, somewhere within that crazy work schedule of mine, I planned a three-day trip to Cuba for four women. It wasn’t ideal, but you know how I feel about flight deals… and, to be completely honest, it was absolutely incredible nevertheless. Like most of my trips, I wanted to see more than just one city – so we road tripped it from Cienfuegos, to Havana, to Varadero, and back to Cienfuegos. And this is what I learned.
1. Cuba is a dream. And… it’s huge. Go for at least five days.
The hardest part about our trip to Cuba was how little time we had to wander. I can’t speak for everyone that was with me, but there was never a moment that I was ready to move on from. I initially allocated about 12 hours in Havana, with my focus being on the beaches and the views on our drives.
Boy, I was wrong.
Havana was teeming with excitement and an infectious energy that I could. not. get enough of. Within two hours of being in Havana, I knew I’d need to plan a trip back. A moment that stands out was our walk to dinner – from the Edificio Focsa, our casa particular, to our paladar for dinner, La Guarida. Over our shoulders, the sun began to set through the streets of Havana, and we got a glimpse of the city in the heat of the night: kids playing soccer in the street, teenage romance, and the overall atmosphere of Havana letting loose once the sun goes down. Salsa music played from open air windows, and a few puppies had a barking conversation from opposite balconies.
I tried to soak up every detail, from every stranger that yelled hello to us obvious tourists, to the visual of the steam that rose from the streets when it started to drizzle.
Side note, Cubans seem to have figured out how make cat calls genuine compliments, as opposed to creepy comments we scurry away from. Every time some guy yelled “HOLA GUAPAS,” Kristen and I would look at each other and say something to the effect of “Ugh! It’s so nice for someone in the world to finally appreciate all of this” — while motioning our hands towards our faces, of course.
2. Cubans are the friendliest people in the world. Befriend them.
Spanish is a must in Cuba – unless you’re going with a guided tour group – and even the feeblest attempts at broken Spanish will help you make some new friends.
Crime is also ridiculously low in Cuba, so the chance of you getting robbed is slim. Scams, however, are common – so don’t be gullible, or prepare to be flexible with your cash.
For the most part, we found it difficult to walk down the street without making new friends – strangers were incredibly helpful and genuine with helping us navigate, and taxi drivers would write down their full names, phone numbers, and addresses for us, inviting us to dinner in their homes for whenever we return to Cuba. One morning, I was on the hunt for about 10 cups of coffee, and we stopped in a makeshift café, located in an abandoned playground. Ernesto (above, left), who owned the café, didn’t have coffee there, but he had some at home, so he disappeared into his own kitchen, and reemerged with four Cuban coffees. This type of hospitality is the norm in Cuba. And… I’m obsessed with it.
3. Don’t stay in hotels. And maybe… skip Varadero.
I cannot begin to describe the contempt in people’s voices when they reacted to us saying we were going to Varadero – to the people we met in Havana, Varadero is not Cuba.
One of the realities of visiting a communist country is that the people don’t have much – so it’s best to not wave luxuries in their faces. While there’s no denying the pristine beauty of Varadero, it’s not exactly what I’d call an authentic Cuban experience. To be completely honest, our day at the Melia Las Americas — while absolutely lovely — didn’t feel any different than a day at a resort in Cancun or Playa del Carmen.
If you really, really want to get the whole resort experience, then by all means, go to Varadero — but if I could do anything from my trip differently, I’d either skip the beach experience entirely, or look into some less touristy options here.
4. Go dancing.
In college, I went salsa dancing once or twice a week – and to this day, salsa dancing is one of my favorite things to do. A life goal of mine since then has been to go salsa dancing in Havana… so there was absolutely no way I was going to skip that while we were there!
After dinner, we hopped in a taxi and asked for all of his recommendations on dancing on a Havana Friday night – and he said Miramar, a neighborhood on the western side of Havana, was the place to be. But since we were in central Havana, Fabrica de Arte came in for a close second. Fabrica de Arte was featured by Anthony Bourdain, and I didn’t expect it to be as awesome as it was. Half art gallery maze, half night club, half patio hot spot – Fabrica de Arte was filled with Cubans and tourists alike, dancing, chatting, and admiring some provocative artwork. Definitely spend a Friday or Saturday night here, and catch a live salsa band. Dance with the locals.
5. Plan the basics in advance – and don’t count on a schedule.
Like I’ve mentioned before, it was really hard to stick to even the most flexible of schedules. A few weeks ahead of your trip, schedule your Airbnbs and make reservations at the popular paladares, but outside of that, the only thing you should plan is to not have a plan.
One of the things I loved about our time in Havana was that whenever we had our sights set on one specific thing, we found three other things along the way that were worth stopping for. Whether that’s ducking into an artists’ gallery in an alley, or stopping for a late lunch on a breezy patio to listen to two guitarists sing Guantanamera – every spontaneous moment was an adventure worth savoring.
Also, budget how much cash you want to spend, and then double it. I ended up being short on cash, partially because of an unexpected hotel expense, and partially because I ended up covering more than I budgeted for our car rental deposit, but you’re better off with extra cash than none at all.