#PACKyourBAGS - A Trip To Cuba
Now that travel restrictions to Cuba have been eased for Americans, you can get on a direct flight from JFK to Havana (less than $300 round trip) and be in Cuba in less than four hours (and just one hour from Miami). I hopped on a flight and checked into a casa particulares – a private home with a room for rent. Stay in one for an average of 30 CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos – 1 CUC = $1 US) a night, and have a traditional Cuban breakfast for an added 5 CUC. By staying with locals, you learn about how they live, enjoy fresh home-cooked meals, and let your dollars directly help a local small business or family.
I arrived, dropped my bag off, and ran back out to walk along the Malecón – the iconic seawall that protects the city from the ocean - and to explore Old Havana.
Malecón, Old Havana
Locals and tourists alike stroll along this ocean-front stretch, and in the evening, sip Havana Club rum, play music, and watch the antique cars pass.
While here, stop for a daiquiri at El Floridita - – this place claims to be home to the famed mixed drink - and pose for a picture next to the statue of Ernest Hemingway at the bar - this spot was a favorite of the famed writer. Enjoy a three-course meal of fresh seafood here for under 23 CUC . However, if you’re traveling on a budget, have a drink here and dine elsewhere - you’ll find that you can get a fresh seafood dinner for under 10 CUC in restaurants throughout the city, many with live bands so you can dance after you dine. Viva la salsa!
A visit to the Caribbean wouldn’t be complete without some beach time!
Santa Maria del Mar
Santa Maria del Mar is only 15-20 minutes from Havana by taxi, and about 30-40 minutes by bus. Catch a public bus by the Hotel Parque Central in Central Havana for 5 CUC per person, or take a taxi – usually a classic car - for 15 CUC each way.
Santa Clara is a narrow, tranquil sandy strip on the Atlantic Ocean, with crystal clear, calm waters. Rent a chair and umbrella for 5 CUC, leave your stuff, and dive right in.
When you’re back in the city, be sure to visit the many local art galleries. Images of Che Guevara are everywhere – in artwork, on t-shirts, even on baby overalls - paying homage to the famed revolutionary.
Cuban fashion consists of more than just images of Che Guevara, of course. Women wear bright and colorful fitted dresses, skirts, tops and hair wraps in this tropical climate, while men don straw fedora-like hats, loose linen or cotton pants and button-downs, and classic guayabera shirts for more formal occasions. Flat leather shoes and sandals are worn by all for getting around in comfort.
Shop the indoor and outdoor stalls throughout Old Havana, filled with handmade leather wares. Genuine tanned leather handbags and sandals, sometimes handstitched, are sold for less than 25 CUC.
Cuba is an amazing place, and the locals are equally amazing, friendly people.
Here are some insider tips to know before you go:
· Don’t expect anyone to speak English – they don’t. It helps to know basic Spanish phrases before you go, or have a pocket Spanish/English dictionary handy.
· American debit cards and credit cards are blocked in Cuba. You must bring cash – either U.S. dollars (for which you are charged an added fee to exchange upon arrival), or Canadian dollars to avoid this fee.
· Most people don’t have Internet access in their homes, and the Internet is generally scarce in Cuba. Bring a travel guide book and download a map of Cuba from maps.me – it works offline.
· Be friendly, be courteous, and, most of all, be adventurous!