I SPY: Cuba

Sep 2, 2014


Wonder what it's like to step back into time?  Go to Cuba!  As you pull out onto the streets of Havana from Jose Marti Airport you will almost immediately feel like you've been transported back to 1959 when Fidel Castro pressed the pause button.  The awesome old American cars Cadillacs, Chevys, Buicks, Fords, etc. are still plentiful and seen on the roads everywhere. Triple WOW's coming from our back seat!  Then as you drive towards Centro and Old Havana you will notice from the architecture that the neighborhoods are stuck in a time warp. Yes, many buildings are run down and look like they need a good wash.  But look beyond the grime and deterioration and the architectural details will shine.  The facade of the buildings look as if your in London, New York, and Paris.  So beautiful.  I was in AWE looking out the window!

I was ecstatic to finally be in Havana!  I flew from NYC to Grand Cayman Islands, and then on to Havana, and the same route back home.  We flew Cayman Airlines from Grand Cayman to Havana.  A short 45 minute flight.  At the check in Cayman AIrways counter in Grand Cayman they issued us a Cuba tourist visa (a loose piece of paper placed in your passport) for USD 20 per person, that immigration in Cuba stamps.  I used a travel agent who helped me purchase our round trip airline tickets to Havana and pre-paid our hotel room and organized day tours for us in Cuba.  It's not necessary to use a travel agent, however since I was not able to use my US credit or debit card it was an easier option for the travel agent to pre-pay some of my larger expenses like our hotel room so I didn't have to enter Cuba mafia style with a suitcase of cash!  The travel agent I used was:

Lily Tours
T: +1. 345.949.4606

The kiddos and I spent a week in Havana, with a day trip to Vinales and a Hemingway tour.  It was longer then necessary, but with the kids we move at snail pace!  I've learned over the years that it's best with the kids to limit our exploring to the mornings when they're fresh and it's a little cooler, and then after lunch return back to our hotel for siesta - free time, the pool and a nap before dinner.  If you don't require that down time built into your day I would say you could whizz through Havana only in 3-4 days with no day trips.  If you choose to do that then maybe that will give you time to visit Varadero after to relax?  Varadero is the famous big resort beach town that we opted to skip since we spent a few days in Cayman Islands getting our beach fix before and after Havana.  Or you may be interested to visit Trinidad after Havana?  That's what I regret we had not planned to include in our trip to Cuba.  No worries, there will definitely be another trip to Cuba in the near future and I'll visit Trinidad then.  Thanks to the leads from Lonely Planet guide book (which I read front to back a gazillion times and used as my crutch) here is my scoop on HAVANA.  

Amazing architecture; Friendly Culture (despite their political situation and struggles with poverty, they're smiling and happy people); Interesting history; Great music (live music heard on streets, in bars and restaurants - everywhere); It's super cheap; Excluding hotel and airfare less then 1000 Euro a week; No penny pinching; Tipped Large; Ate & drank well; Took taxis leisurely; Didn't hold back on anything we wanted to do.  A fabulous place with so much eye candy!

Be prepared for sweaty crotch (it's hot, humid, and A/C is hard to find, except in hotels and some restaurants that have a A/C enclosed dining room in the back); No seat belts (their cars were made before seat belts were invented); Hagglers (chill - they're harmless as long as you stand your ground, and can say a firm NO thank you); No phone and credit cards (US residents your cell phone will not work, and US credit & debit cards are not accepted); No wi-fi (except in hotel, but you have to buy a pre-paid card for CUC 8 with a password that's only valid for 1 hour, and no wifi connection after 10pm.  Or at least thats how it was in our hotel); Cigar haven (there are few non-smoking areas, but plenty of smoking areas since everyone smokes. Hope your not pro anti-smoking); Poverty (I wasn't shocked since I've lived in Asia and travelled many third world countries, so seen my share of slums.  Cuba isn't any different.  The street life can at times look rough, and there are poor areas especially outside the touristy areas.  It may be outside your comfort zone, but do not feel inhibited.  I never felt unsafe.  Just be street smart and don't walk too far off the unbeaten path).  Watching the street life is always the best way to gain a feel of the local people and culture.  Don't let me paint a bad picture of Cuba - it's a unique experience!

There are 2 currencies: the Peso Convertibles (CUC$) which you want, and the Moneda Nacional (MN$) which the locals unfortunately earn their money in which is worthless.  Make sure you get the right currency!  Don't be a fool and exchange your money on the street.  Only change money at airport, banks and hotels to ensure you don't get scammed. USD can be exchanged in Cuba, but does not have a good exchange rate.  I brought Euro dollars and the exchange rate to CUC was 1.2898.  But the Canadian dollar had the best exchange rate.


If you enjoy architecture then tour around the city and see the different styles of architecture.  To name a few here is what I spotted, with the Bacardi building being my absolute favorite.  LOVE!  The facade and the lobby is oh so gorgeous.  Reminds me of some of the old office building lobbies in NYC.  Which is your favorite?

Art Deco - Edificio Bacardi

Baroque - Catedral de San Cristobal

Byzantine - Russian Orthodox church

Neoclassical - Capitolio Nacional  

Held nightly at the Fortalez de San Carlos de la Cabana.  Think London - Buckingham Palace changing of the guards!  Similar kind of show with soldiers dressed in period costume, ending with a loud bang from a real cannon! If that doesn't excite you then the beautiful grounds and wonderful views of the city from this huge 18th century fort will.

Built by the mafia pre-revolution, known as THE hotel back in the day and now acclaimed a historical landmark.  Gorgeous hotel with some Moroccan details that has been refurbished keeping the original fixtures. Sprawling grounds and gardens to walk through that look over the Malecon, with peacocks roaming around.  Trenches and tunnels to crawl through that were used in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.  Very cool and fun for the kids to walk through.  Then after everyone is sweaty go sit in the garden and have a drink and admire the grounds of this hotel!  I think it would be a very nice hotel to stay in.  However it's located in Vedado which is not easily walkable to everything.  That's my only draw
back with staying here.

This is where the locals get their food.  We stumbled upon this store while I was looking to buy snacks and water for my kids, and the clerks tried to tell me I couldn't shop here!  WHAT? No comprende!  I eventually understood that I needed a supplies booklet 'Libreta de Abastecimiento' which is issued to Cuban citizens yearly, based on the number of family members and their ages.  Different ages get different provisions, for example milk is only given to children under 7 years.  This is how the locals purchase their basic food (rice, beans, bread, potatoes, eggs, meat, sugar, milk, etc.) and house hold amenities (charcoal, light bulbs, matches, kerosene, etc.) that are rationed and subsidized by the government.  I was told all extras such as clothing & electronics is generally purchased through the illegal black market since the average Cuban can't afford to buy these extra items in the 'Mercado Libre' (free market) that sells everything in CUC$, not MN$ the low currency the cubans earn their salary in.  Walked out of here like a dumb tourist, but glad I got to see it!  A foreign concept compare to our Western lives.  Makes you think about how we take things for granted and waste so much.

5 mile stretch of water that the Cubans rave about, but I found to be over rated!  You can either walk or drive along the Malecon and it is pretty if your able to catch the sunset as you pass by.  Otherwise it's like driving along west side highway in NYC - nothing that special!

The former Presidential Palace.  Built between 1913 and 1920, and holds some interesting exhibits highlighting Cuban history, such as  the life of Che Guevara, showing his military uniforms, guns etc.  Make sure you check out the Hall of Mirrors room that was designed by Tiffany & Co. to resemble the same room at the Palace of Versailles.  Do you think they did a good replica?  In the back of the museum they have an outdoor exhibition holding the old battle vehicles, planes and yacht used.  This excited the kids.  Entrance fee is CUC 8.  You must check in all bags before entering the museum and can only carry your wallet, phone and camera, so leave your designer purses at home!  Keep in mind when planning your itinerary that museums are closed on Sunday and Monday.

Each neighborhood has its own character.  Walking on foot is best to get a good feel, especially in the old Havana area.

Havana Vieja & Centro Havana - Known as Old Havana where the most historical landmarks stand and where you can find the best colonial architecture with pops of color that will have you falling in love with the past.

El Barrio Chino - There's a Chinatown with no Chinese people just the Pagoda!  All the Chinese fled in 1960 during the revolution when they realized they couldn't make any money. Would you dare eat Chinese food here?  I didn't!

Vedado & Miramar - Considered the New Havana.  More residential.  Ambassadors, actors, embassies, live here along the wide tree lined streets that adorn large individual homes, Parisian boulevards and parks.  Cruising along Fifth Avenue felt like I was driving around in an American suburb! Your not allowed to stop along the street unless your entering a destination - hence excuse my blurry photo!!

This square is the main base of the Cuban government offices where many political rallies take place.  Here is where you will find the huge famous mural of Che Guevara on a depressing gray building, facing the Jose Marti monument, which is the tallest tower in Havana, with a marble statue of Jose Marti in front of it.  Just a large open space with zero shade.  Imagine how the public could stand out here for hours in the heat listening to Fidel Castro make his speech. 

There are many beautiful vintage cars waiting for you to hop in along Paseo Marti outside the Capitolio Nacional and Theatre!  My boys out voted my choice for the pink cadillac.  Instead we ended up in a topless blue 1954 Chevy.  Should I be complaining?  Nah!  Cruised around for a fun hour with the radio blasting, the sun shining and singing along to Guantanamera one of the few Spanish songs I know. Didn't realize till now that it's a famous Cuban song that made a international hit back in the 60's.  Forgive me - that was way before my time!  Go for a hour joy ride.  CUC 10 per person.  Bring a hat and sunblock to avoid getting burned if you choose to take a spin in a topless car.


For 22 years Ernest Hemingway lived in a villa in the town of San Francisco de Paula.  It's  20 minutes outside of  the city of Havana.  This is where he wrote many of his best known novels!  After his death in 1961 this villa was turned into the MUSEO HEMINGWAY.  Nothing has been touched, and all personal belongings, hundreds of books and magazines, trophies, clothing and art still remain in the house. Everything looks so well preserved.  You can not actually walk through the house.  However they leave the doors and windows open so you can peak into every room. Don't go on a rainy day because they close up the house.  I was surprised to find his house is not ostentatious, and still looks current in decor.  He was a macho man out to prove his manhood, which explains all the hunting trophy heads, bull fighting poster, and a baby crocodile kept in a jar on the shelf in the bathroom.  I kid you not!  Another crazy thing about him was that he was obsessed with his weight and wrote his weight on the bathroom wall by the scale every time he weighed himself.  You can see all the scribble on the wall.  Look closely at the photos.  Do you like his house?  I love it and could move in immediately!  OK, maybe I would switch out the floral sofa!  But otherwise the relaxed, airy and mid century feel is totally my style.

After visiting his villa we drove 15 minutes to Cojimar.  This is the fishing town where Hemingway kept his famous boat 'El Pilar' and where the setting of his nobel prize winning book 'The old man and The Sea' was set.  It is very apparent that he is still remembered in this town because you will see a lot of old photos hanging in his favorite bar and restaurant 'La Terraza', and a monument of him out by the water.  I didn't find any other interest in this village, besides Cojimar being part of Hemingways story.

We did a half day tour privately and hired a taxi for CUC 50 to drive us to Hemingway's Villa and Cojima.  CUC 5 is the entrance fee to enter the villa.

Supposedly this is the closest post card perfect beach to Havana that's less then 30 minutes away from the city, where you can rent chairs and umbrellas there.  CUC 5 if you take the bus, or CUC 20 if you get a private taxi to drive you out.  We unfortunately never made it!  We declared sunday as our 'Lazy Day' and had planned to go to this beach but the weather turned out to not be in our favor.  Bummer!  Instead we just stayed back in our hotel and made it a pool day, so we could easily run into shelter during the sporadic down pours.  Ended up having a UNO marathon, and got my ass whipped by my kids despite my awesome hand…LOOK!  Ha!  When did they get so clever?

Not a fan of big tour groups and coach buses, but this was the only way to see everything I wanted to see in one day with out staying over night.  Vinales is about 2 hours away from the city, so driving time is not bad, and luckily the kids were able to take a good nap on the way home.  Just bring loads of snacks, the iPads to occupy the kids, and a sweater because the coach bus was freezing.  It was a super long day as we were picked up at 7:30am and didn't return back to our hotel till 8pm.  Yikes!  But it was worth it as we saw a good variety in the mountainous country side of Pinar del Rio province, and there was plenty of fun things for the kids to see and do that kept whining at bay.  Tour was CUC 59 for adults and a little less for ninos, and included a typical Cuban Lunch (rice, beans, plantains and BBQ pork). 

Cigar Factory:
Saw the cigar making process from rolling to testing and packaging in a small factory.  I was disappointed to find out when we arrived that photos are not allowed at ANY cigar factory in Cuba.  Whats the big secret they're trying to hide?  I couldn't figure it out!  Interesting to find out that the employees in cigar factories are considered well paid for Cuban standards.  The government offers extra incentives and pays in CUC$ (not typical MN$) for rolling more then the x amount they need to meet daily.  If you want to buy cigars this is the place to do it as they don't get any fresher then this!  The different strengths are categorized by the brand: Light = Romeo & Juliet; Medium = Cohibo; Strong = Partagas

Cueva del Indio:
An Indian Cave made from Limestone discovered in 1920.  Be careful walking through the cave as its slippery and watch out for the low ceilings in some areas.  There's signs outside that warn you of this - but who pays attention to that until one kid slips and the other looses his hat!  When you get down to the bottom of the cave you hop on a motor boat that gives you a short tour of the indigenous dwelling along the river that flows through it, and you can spot natural formations from the rock using your imagination that look like a face, a snake, a dinosaur etc.

Mural de la Prehistoria:
Check out this massive mural painted on a cliff.  AWESOME!  It took 18 people 4 years to complete in 1961.  The mural illustrates the process of evolution from mollusks to the first human inhabitants of the region: snail, dinosaurs, sea monsters and humans.  How cool is this? 

Panoramic look out point:
This is a nice spot we stopped at to admire the beautiful view and get some good shots of the valley.  If your lucky you may run into a farmer like us that will be willing to give you a Buffalo ride.  Not the typical kind of western cowboy ride we're use to!

Tobacco Farm:
They showed us the process of how they pick and seperate the leaves.  Different tobacco leaves determine the different strength of the cigars.  They sell freshly made cigars too.  But since they're rolling these cigars independently they're not allowed to put the paper ring on the cigar as they do in the state own cigar factories.  Outside in the fields the kids enjoyed seeing all the different types of farm animals.  Sing a long...with a buffalo here and a chicken there, heres a goat, theres a horse everywhere a oink oink!  We really did see all those animals!  Will you be singing Old McDonald had a farm too? 


If your traveling with little energizer bunnies in need of child friendly places these are some recommendations in Havana.  I didn't go to any of these places except the Plaza de Catedral we happened to walk through on our way to dinner at Dona Eutimia.  But I kept this list in my back pocket in case my kids had a major melt down from cultural over dose.  Thankfully we never hit that wall!  Our hotel pool saved us.

Want to see Nemo and Dolphin shows?  There's an aquarium!

We were residents at this hotel so didn't need this little secret I'm going to share with you!  Tsk Tsk!! If your not a hotel guest and stay somewhere with no pool you can come use this pool discreetly…just don't say I told you so!  Ha!  I saw others coming up to the roof top pool area, ordering a drink and then taking a dip in the pool with no hassle.  Just bring your own towel because towels are only issued to hotel guests and they record the towel numbers.  Worst case scenario they tell you the pool is only for hotel guests, but you can still enjoy your drink and take in the fabulous view of Old Havana from the roof top.  

We passed by this place a couple of times, even though we never actually went in.  It's a small scale kids amusement park located outdoors by the harbor that has bouncy castles, arcade games, and little rides.  Good for young kids, but not dare devils looking for mega roller coasters!  If only this place stayed opened past 7pm then it would've made a good after dinner treat for my kids before bed time.

In front of the gorgeous cathedral there's a cobbled stone open space with no cars for the kids to run around freely, chase the birds, and play tag, while you admire the cathedral.  Or if it's not crowded why not watch the kids from the side at a cafe along the square and have a drink. You can multi task right?!!

Cigars, rum and coffee…duh, obvious!  Keep your eye out for vintage cigar boxes to use as storage and display in your home.  Those are really the only good quality commodities to buy in Cuba.

Otherwise I discovered along Obispo street there are many little shops and flea markets.  Yes a lot of touristy paraphernalia...but hey! don't you think a t-shirt with Che on it is cool to wear at home?  Found these cute leather oxfords for CUC20 that I plan to wear in Fall, and some cute maracas for the kids that will eventually turn into pretty home decor that doesn't look like Fisher Price plastic junk!

If you do walk down Obispo street, pop into Johnson Pharmacy.  Its old school and unique.  I wanted to buy a apothecary jar, but unfortunately they weren't for sale.  Bummer, because that would've looked so good in my house and been a nice souvenir from Cuba!

To be honest I was not impressed with the food, especially not the desserts.  Are you a fan of flan and tres leche?  I'm not because I don't like the texture, so their desserts didn't appeal to me.  But if you do like that milky wet stuff then maybe you'll love it!  Compared to NYC standards I can't rave about the food.  It was pretty simple, and bland for my taste palette.  It wasn't horrible, but nothing to brag about either. Completely edible, and my lil' guy loves to eat rice so was in heaven eating rice, beans, and steak daily!  We ate out a lot.  Only meal we had at our hotel was breakfast.  But after trying many various restaurants I must agree with Lonely Planet (which I rarely do!) that my favorite places are the same as their best place to eat list.  Ambience in these places were also a plus.  Dinner reservations are required for these places as they're popular, small, and get packed.  Check your bill, many of the more upscale touristy places have already added 10% service charge.  It won't hurt you to tip a little extra if service was good, which it usually is!  The locals love earning CUC$ even if its just CUC 1 because it's worth so much more then their local earnings in MN$.

Swedish fusion food.  This restaurant is run by Swedes and has a calming white and grey Nordic country style decor.  We had the skagen toast, swedish meatballs with lingon berry sauce & mash potatoes on the side, and the mexican beef chili that had a good kick, served with rice.  It was a very nice change of taste to the palette! (CUC 55)

Lealtad No 120
Centro Habana
T: 864.1486

Cuban cuisine.  Set up in a quaint house, with dining tables in the living room area, and a bar upstairs.  We tried the Bistek, Pollo Asado, & Camarones, that comes with family style portions of rice, beans & salad, and for dessert had the Torrejas (their version of French toast).  Enjoyed everything except the dessert which was too soggy and wet.  Extremely reasonably priced (CUC 33)  

Callejon del Chorro 60c
Habana Vieja

International cuisine.  Great ambience.  Sit outdoors in a covered rock garden patio with Tiffany lamps hanging everywhere; Feel the breeze from the fans blowing; Hear the sound of flowing water and mini waterfalls; See the fish and rose petals in the ponds, and smell the wood fire oven & grill burning.  We had the pork ribs, grilled chicken, snapper stuffed with spinach and peppers, which was all good until we made the mistake of ordering the mango ice cream for dessert!  YUCK.  It was too milky and not icy enough for our taste preference. A little pricey for Cuba, but nothing compare to a NYC bill! (CUC 75)

Ave 3A No 305
T: 202.8337

If your adventurous and want to try some local street food I recommend you try the authentic Cubano sandwich, fresh mango juice, and churros.  You see it being sold everywhere around Centro and Havana Vieja.


Yup that black board sums it up!  The basic drink menu served in Cuba everywhere.  Bucanero and Cristal are their local beers.  I can't rave about the food, but I can rave about the mojitos and fresh limonada that we drank all day!  Totally addictive!  So fresh and yummy.  I'm having withdrawal symptoms thinking about it now.  You MUST try!

The party doesn't get started till after 11pm when my ninos are already knocked out, and I'm not far behind.  Yes, I've become an old fart!  So I did miss out on the salsa bars and cabaret night life.  But here's some suggestions that I heard about or saw and looked pretty cool in daylight, so can imagine at night would be HOT!  

On our tour to Vinales I met this young couple from Frankfurt who were staying at the Melia Hotel where this cafe is located.  Crazy fun couple that got on the tour bus at 8am hung over because ended up in Habana Cafe the night before and got hammered!  They raved about this place.  Said there was a cabaret show before, and after midnight the tables flip and it becomes a wild club scene.  Sounds like for the hard core all nighters! 

The famous land of rum!  Unfortunately we were not able to take a tour of the rum factory because it was only open to tour groups that day.  But I bet the bar is a happening scene at night.

Looks like a bar in NYC. Hip and edgy.  But of course touristy and I'm sure not where the locals hang, if thats the flavor your looking for.

We kept running into this random local guy on the street who wanted to take me salsa dancing.  Creep!  The kids love to tell this story!!!  He mentioned this salsa club.  I saw this clubs name in the Lonely Planet guide along with a review thats says "Ferociously caliente (hot!)".  Ha!  So maybe this El Macho knows the good dance spots?

I couldn't resist to drive by Tropicana during the day when I was visiting Miramar just to take a look at the garden and use my imagination to envision the lights, color and costumes.  If you go to Tropicana please send me some photos of the real deal.  I'm sure it's wild and would serve as great eye candy!

If I were traveling alone I think to get the full experience I would've liked to try and stay in a Casas particulares (a private home letting out rooms). I've seen some nice ones.  But since I wasn't sure what to expect of Cuba being my 1st time here and was traveling with the kids I wanted to stay in a place where I knew there would be food and service I could count on if needed.  We were recommended this five star rated hotel by a friend who stayed there a couple of years ago.  Even though it's rated as five stars you can't compare it to western standards.  But its decent, clean, has all the basic amenities and service you need, and a safe in my room that was big enough to fit my 15" inch laptop!  Also it's in a great location in Centro Havana thats easy walking distance to many sights as well as Old Havana.  My friend recommended we stay in the old tower of the hotel and request a room over looking the park.  We did that and had an amazing view of the Capitolio Nacional, even though the decor in our room was out dated.  If decor is important to you then you should check out the new renovated wing which is more modernized.  But thats on the other side of the hotel which means you won't get my pretty view, and will be a further walk away from the pool.  Your preference!

Neptuno, between Agramonte & Paseo de Marti
T: 860 - 6627

There are various transportation options around the city.  We tried them all!

Coco taxi:
Funny?  I guess named after a coconut because of its shape!  Basically like sitting on the back of a motorcycle.  Runs on the meter so what would've been CUC 5 in a regular taxi turned out to be CUC 8 for a 10 minute ride.

Pedi cab:
The cheapest way to get around town!  CUC 3 for what saved us a 20 minute walk home after dinner.  It's not that primitive…we had a radio cranked up in our ride!

There are regular taxis everywhere.  Some old vintage cars, and many regular Japanese models with A/C you can flag down.  They never used the meter!  Is that just with me or everyone?  Be sure to ask what the fare will be before you get moving so you have an agreed price.  Usually fares range from CUC 5 - 10 between havana vieja, centro havana, and vedado.  More to go to Miramar because of the distance.

Private Taxi:
This is a good option if you want to do the Hemingway Tour, go to the beach, the airport, or have something else in mind where a driver and wheels is needed.  Rafael drove us on the Hemmingway tour (CUC 50) and dropped us off at the airport (CUC 25).  He is a really nice guy, speaks great English, knows the history, loves kids, and is always on time if not too early.  He unfortunately doesn't drive a fancy vintage car - Just a normal yellow cab, with A/C that is a blessing for long trips.  Call or email him.

Rafael Arocha
+53 5 283 2865


Airport Departure Tax:
Keep CUC 25 per person as airport departure tax.  That will save you from standing in another long line at the airport to change money.  I wish somebody had told me this before…arrghh!

Coin Purse:
Bring a coin purse or a ziploc bag.  You will be receiving a lot of change, and especially want to keep the CUC 1 coins that come in handy to use as tip, or to enter public bathrooms and get a sheet of toilet paper!  

Potato Chips:
'Papa Fritos' the one main Spanish word I learned was potato chips because was searching high and low for them for days!  They're not readily found.  You will find a lot of cookies and British chocolate as snacks.  But my kids aren't into the sweet stuff.  Ended up finding potato chips in Cojimar with the help of Rafael the driver.  If thats your munchie of choice then I suggest you bring your own supply. 

SOLD?  If you've read this far then I guess your interested in visiting Cuba!  It will open your eyes and have you leaving in amazement that this communist country has survived the past 50+ years being kept in the dark.  I urge you to go before the embargo is lifted and things start changing drastically.  This was our farewell gift as we drove along the Malecon on our last day in Havana.  How rare and beautiful to spot a rainbow.  Do you believe that on the other side of the rainbow is a pot of gold?  I do… CUBA!  

P.S. For those curious we obviously were allowed back into the USA!  No problems or questions asked.  Relax Gringo I'm Legal…Maybe my sons awesome shirt had some pull?  Haha!  

No comments

Post a Comment

i * SPY CANDY. All rights reserved. © Maira Gall.