Growing up in Florida, I had always been curious to go to Cuba, but Cuba was known as the forbidden neighbor. So when relations between the U.S. and Cuba had finally thawed from the Cold War and travel bans were lifted in 2016, my wife and I knew we had to get there before the culture changes.
You have to understand that Cuba has been isolated from most the world for the past 50+ years. The cars there are mostly American cars from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, but driving around in soviet-made engines. Internet has only been introduced to the island in the past few years, and the country is still under a communist regime.
My wife and I traveled with some friends to Havana for a four-day stay. When we landed, I was worried about how stringent customs was going be because travel was allowed to Cuba, but only under one of twelve reasons to enter the country. Most people claim they are going for educational purposes, but my wife and I were traveling on journalism visas. Either way, I was under the impression you had to have our story straight before you got there or they wouldn’t allow entry. I soon came to find out that a lot of anxiety was felt over nothing. Things are pretty much free flowing, and the Cuban people are happy to see the influx of tourists and the money they bring with.
As we exited the airport, we were greeted with a scene you only see at a classic car show. There were classic Fords, Chevys, Cadillacs, and more that filled the entire parking lot. We grabbed our bags and hired one of the classic cars for about $30 to take us to our Air BnB. I had never done an Air BnB before this trip, but for a cheap price, I got a three-bedroom condo located right on the boardwalk with a beautiful balcony view. We even had maids/cooks that came to our condo and cooked breakfast for only six pesos each person.
After we got to the condo, my wife and some of our friends were hungry and tired from the early morning flight, so while they took a siesta, I went for a walk. As I went venturing through the Havana neighborhoods, I came across the most beautiful displays of architecture ranging from the colonial and baroque period to the Neo-classical period. A lot of the houses that you see look rundown with paint missing, rusty gates, and foliage overgrowth, but all the houses look like they have very strong bones. I would love to buy a house in Havana and restore it, but I don’t think that will work out in a communist country. These same style houses with a little repair and upgrades go for millions in Miami and south Florida all day long. I then proceeded to grab a straw fedora and a cigar before I went in search of the Hemingway Marina to book our SCUBA trip for the next day.
Once I scheduled our dives for the following day, I came back to the condo to get the rest of the gang. We unanimously decided to discuss our sightseeing plans over some mojitos and cuba libres. Located across from our condo was a shopping mall that carried all the essentials to have a good time in Cuba. I was pleasantly surprised when I went to go to buy rum. I couldn’t believe a liter of Havana Club rum was only $3.50! And yes, it was good-tasting rum. We all had a couple of drinks each and then decided to go wander the streets of Old Havana to become more immersed in the culture.
As we walked through the streets, we came across plazas that you more commonly find in Europe. Like in Barcelona or Florence, people gathered around fountains, and street performers played music for pocket change. We wandered for a few more hours and then decided to turn it in because we had our dive master coming to pick us up in the morning.
In the morning our dive master picked us up in a van and then were headed to a beach entry dive site located 40 minutes West of Havana in a town called Playa Baracoa. On the way out of town, we passed by the Russian embassy in Havana. It is a fortress that resembles a modern-day prison. It was the tallest building that I saw in Havana other than the Cuban capitol building. After getting away from the capital city, I was able to get a sense of what rural life was like in this communist country. I had seen the countryside in China (another communist country) and was curious to see how it compared. It was great to see that the flavor of Cuba did not fizzle off as we drove through the countryside.
There was still plenty of restored cars, lots of sugar cane fields, and military training complexes. After a little while we came a banquet-type building located right on a cove. The facility looked like it was once a really nice place that families used to come to for the weekend, but now it was all boarded and neglected like so many other properties in Cuba that hold great potential. We went for a nice couple of dives and then headed back Havana.
That night we had two missions: one was to find a restaurant that we had seen the night before that served $5 filets and $8 chateaubriand, the second was to find a real, authentic salsa dance hall. We headed back to the Plaza Vieja in Old Havana where we had seen the restaurant mentioned above. We found the restaurant and had a wonderful, cheap dinner. And yes, the steaks were good, but not as good as the Italian. That’s a funny thing about Cuban food; their traditional food is good, but their Italian food is great!
After dinner, we flagged down another beautiful taxi and asked him where the one of the best salsa club is in town that is not filled with Americans. He said he knew of a great place near where were staying, so we all piled into two taxis and then headed that direction.
About 15 minutes later, we came pulling up to a mansion that was converted into one of Havana’s landmark salsa clubs called Casa de la Musica in Miramar. It was a huge teal building surrounded by locals and of course beautiful classic cars. Trip Ddvisor said the entry was “peanuts.” Well let me tell you that peanut prices have inflated since the U.S. has started opening its doors to tourists. Either that or there must have must been a great band playing that night. The entry was $20 USD, but it was worth it to help filter out the other americanos. Once inside, we were immediately thrown back to the 1950’s more than we already had been.
There were signed pictures of salsa legends that lined the entry hallway, which opened up to the dance hall. There was a spectacular band on stage that was exciting the dance hall with people dancing on the main dance floor and couples drinking mojitos perched around small little tables. The walls were lined with concession bars decked out from the sixties and filled with people dressed in that era. Women were walking around with trays around their necks, selling cigars out of them just like the ’50s. We danced and drank there for a few hours and then headed back to the condo so we could be fresh to head to the market for souvenir shopping the next day.
The next morning we woke up to a wonderful breakfast that was once again prepared for us by the girls who maintain the condo. After letting our breakfast settle, we headed out to the Almacenes San Jose Artisans’ Market located at the port of Havana. The market is a completely covered indoor marketplace that has everything from cigars to art. If you are looking to grab souvenirs in Havana, this is the place to be. When buying cigars in Havana, I strongly recommend you do it here. You can buy cigars from anyone in Havana, but buying from a LICENSED vendor is the safest way to go.
After a little shopping, we walked around Old Havana to take in more sites and look for a place to have lunch. It wasn’t long before we came across another 1950s-style restaurant. I keep wanting to refer to them as 1950s “themed” restaurants, but there is no theme that is trying to be relayed here. These are authentic restaurants that have been functioning this way for at least the past 50 years! You see pictures of Castro playing baseball, Che and Castro fishing, and many other pictures that reflect daily life that only exist on the walls of Cuban locals.
Once lunch was concluded, we decided to do the typical tourist tradition and hire a tour guide to take us around Havana in a drop-top classic car. We picked up a tour cab near the San Francisco De Asis Statue in Old Havana near the port.
Our guide was very knowledgable and took us around to see all the big sites in a ’57 Ford Fairlane 500!
We went by sites such as EL Capitolio (National Capitol Building), El Paseo del Prado, El Plaza de la Revolucion (Jose Marti Memorial), John Lennon Park, and then concluded the tour with a drive along El Malecon (Long Havana Seawall). We even went by the North Korean embassy in Havana, which I thought was pretty interesting. That night, we went out for more Italian food and then called it a wrap on our last evening in Havana.
The next day, we lounged around, had a couple drinks over lunch, and then headed to the airport in the afternoon to fly back to Florida. Cuba was definitely a unique trip. It went to a country that has been 90 miles away from my sate my entire life, but I couldn’t visit until now. It was amazing to see where my home state gets its Latin influence from and to step into a country that has been absolutely frozen in time for longer than 50 years. There are very few places in the world that exist like that, and I wanted to see Cuba before it lost that charm. Everything in Cuba was cheap, the people were very nice, the cars and architecture were absolutely beautiful, and the weather was awesome. My wife and I will definitely spend more weekends in Cuba because it’s only $150 round trip and only an hour in the air from Tampa Bay. If you want to see Havana in its purest form, go soon now before it becomes too Amercanized and loses its Cold War charm.