Due to the ease of tensions between the United States and Cuba, more Americans are adding Cuba to their future travel list. While my initial online searches left my head spinning, I eventually found that traveling to Cuba was easier than I thought, I just had to trust the system and abide by the rules.
U. S. citizens can visit Cuba legally as long as their purpose of travel fits into one of twelve U.S. Government approved categories. The most relatable being “Education” including “People to People Contact/Exchanges”. Essentially, this is a Visa that allows and encourages you to interact with the people of Cuba and experience their culture firsthand. The great thing is- that’s exactly what most people want to do while they’re there.
As a Floridian, direct commercial flights to Cuba oftentimes cost less than flying to most U.S cities, which is a huge plus. We landed at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning in Havana and a had a full weekend ahead of us.
Upon arrival we, of course, had no local currently because you can only exchange U.S. Dollars for Cuban Pesos in Cuba. Here’s a few things I learned:
- Cuba has two currencies: CUP (used by locals) & CUC (used by tourists)
- Approx. 1 USD = 1 CUC
- The exhchange rate from USD to CUC is 13% (100 USD exchanges to 87 CUC)
- Bring enough cash for the entire trip, we didn’t find a single place that accepted American credit cards
- You can exchange money at the airport, at a bank or at almost any hotel. I would avoid exchanging money on the street.
3 DAY ITINERARY
Once you’ve exchanged your money, you’re ready to start exploring and engaging with the people. Since we arrived early in the morning, our apartment wasn’t ready for check in, but our gracious hosts let us drop off our luggage so we could explore freely.
We walked straight to the Malecón (officially called Avenida de Maceo) which is a road and seawall that stretches 5 miles along the coast of Havana. There were vintage cars zooming by, fishermen catching dinner and waves crashing over the wall. Be sure to check out Castillo De San Salvador De La Punta along the Malecón and take a few minutes to enjoy the walk and the view. Fair warning, it does get windy. My favorite beach hat now belongs to the shores of Cuba.
After exploring the Malecón, we wandered back to the center of Old Havana. We made sure to stop at El Capitolio, Great Theatre of Havana, Museo De La Revolucion & Museo Nactional De Bellas Artes. We also couldn’t miss La Floridita, Ernest Hemingway’s favorite Daiquiri spot.
The best way to get your bearings is to find a good old-fashioned map and mark a few spots you want to go, including your hotel or casa particular. Another option is to utilize Google Maps, but be sure to “save” all the spots you want to visit before you arrive. There’s no cell service to update those saved locations once you’re in Cuba.
We walked to all of the “Plazas”, visited the Cathedral of Havana, saw Stilt Walkers perform, stopped in souvenir shops and ate amazing street food. At this point, we were able to head back to our apartment, check in and catch a quick nap.
After waking up to a gorgeous Havana sunset, we made our way back to the city center for dinner. Los Nardos is directly across from El Capitolio and has amazing food and drinks at even better prices.
On our second day we planned a trip to Viñales, the tobacco producing region of Cuba. It took about 2 1/2 hours to get there from Havana, but it was well worth the trip. Plus, our own private vintage Chevrolet (with A/C) picked us up at our apartment. Curbside service at its best.
About halfway to Viñales, we stopped at Las Barrigonas, which got it’s name from the big-bellied trees surrounding the area. It was a great stop for a restroom break and a drink.
We drove straight to El Palenque de los Cimarrones and walked through the cave, then onto a Tobacco Farm to see how they make and process cigars. Next we drove to the Mural De La Prehistoria and stopped for a nice outdoor lunch. After lunch we went into the town of Viñales, which was in the middle of their annual carnival. Of course, we stopped for souvineers and a Cristal. Our final stop was Los Jazmines Lookout Point where we got a panorama view of the Mogotes in Vinãles Valley.
If you’re interested in an affordable private tour either around Old Havana or to another city like Vinãles or Trinidad, check out Havana Journeys. This tour ended up being my favorite part of the trip.
Before arriving in Cuba I tried to make dinner reservations at La Guarida, the famous restaurant where “Strawberries & Chocolate” or “Resa y Chocolate” (the only Cuban directed film to be nominated for an Oscar) was filmed. But no such luck, they were booked through the weekend. Because I rarely take no for an answer, I decided to walk to the restaurant and ask in person. They were fully booked, but we were able to snag a late reservation for 9:30 p.m. on our second night. While the food and drinks were great, they were definitely pricey by Cuban standards. If you can’t make it to La Guarida for dinner, be sure to head up to their rooftop bar for a great view of the city and some tasty cocktails.
The plan for our last day consisted of a Pedal Bike ride back to the city center, a Vintage Convertible Tour to parts of the city we didn’t get a chance to walk to, delicious homemade Helado and a tour of Havana Club, where you’ll find the most popular rum in Cuba.
In addition to plenty of rum, which I enjoyed mostly in the form Mojitos, you’ll find that Cristal & Presidente are the two most common beers in Cuba. The best part- they only cost about 1 CUC each.
As we wrapped up the day, our host arranged for a vintage car to take us to the airport. I would without a doubt recommend Serge & Ana’s Centro Havana Apartment if you’re looking to feel like a local with amazing views of the city. We would absolutely stay here again.
I hope this itinerary inspires you to visit Cuba and helps you plan day to day activities while you’re there.