We visited Cuba legally on a people to people tour for one week in 2012. Most of our time was spent in Havana but we also briefly visited Playa Giron, Santa Clara and Cienfuegos. Following are the highlights of our trip as well as some tips for anyone thinking of visiting Cuba.
Havana was hands down our favorite part of Cuba. Here are some of the top things to do in Havana.
Habana Vieja (Old Havana)
Our favorite thing to do in Havana was just to walk around and explore Habana Vieja (Old Havana). The highlight of Habana Vieja is the Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Square) pictured below:
Stroll on the Malecón
Malecón is an oceanfront drive that is very popular for strolling by tourists and locals, The Malecon is long but the most popular section is from Vedado to La Habana Vieja.
Watching a Ballet Performance at the Gran Teatro de la Habana
One activity we enjoyed that was a part of our tour was going to the ballet. We saw a performance of the Cuban National Ballet at the Gran Teatro de la Habana which is located next to the Capitolio. The cost of the ballet was included in our tour but the ticket said the price was 25CUC. Not only is the ballet beautiful but so is the building. If you are not interested in seeing ballet, you can still check out the building on a guided tour.
Where to Eat in Havana:
Make sure to dine at a paladar which is a private restaurant.
La Guarida is Havana’s most famous paladar (the movie Fresa y Chocolate was filmed here) and is located on the 3rd floor of run down mansion. Reservations are required, ideally a few days advance. We skipped one of the dinners that were part of the tour and made our own reservations for dinner at La Guarida. This is more of a splurge as prices are more expensive that most Cuban paladars (our bill came to 130.30 CUC for 4 people).
The rest of our meals were in state run restaurants but the following two restaurants were worth visiting primarily for their location and great views:
La Torre – This state-run restaurant has amazing views of Havana from above. It is located on the 33rd floor of Havana’s tallest building in a more modern part of Havana and has 360 panoramic views. Below is a photo one of us took from the restaurant during lunch.
El Patio – This restaurant has a great location right at the Plaza Cathedral. You can dine at tables inside the restaurant, on the balcony and outside in the square. We came here for dinner and were seated inside but were were able to take good pictures of the Cathedral and Habana Vieja from the balcony.
Coppelia Ice Cream. Another Havana must do is to eat ice cream at the famous Coppelia Ice Cream parlour. Cubans love ice cream and there are usually long lines to get a seat.
Where to Drink in Havana
Bodeguita Del Medio. Around the corner from Cathedral Square is Bodeguita Del Medio which is a legendary bar made famous by Ernest Hemmingway famous for mojitos.
La Rampa. One of the highlights of our time in Havana was visiting this jazz club at night.
Where to Stay in Havana
There are a few great areas in Havana to stay depending on your tastes. Staying in or near the Habana Vieja area is the most convenient area location wise. Vedado is a more relaxed residential area and another option is the Miramar area which has more luxury options. To check out the most recent reviews and prices and save up to 25% on hotels in Cuba check out the reviews on tripadvisor.com.
Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs)
We spent a couple of days in and near Playa Giron. Playa Girón was one of the landing sites of the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
A visit to the Museum of Playa Giron is a must do if you are in the area.
The resort we stayed at had a safe beach for swimming so it is a good spot for those that want to combine history with beach time.
We happened to be in Cuba on May Day, so we participated in a May Day parade. May Day is celebrated on May 1st around the world and is a national holiday in Cuba. The celebration consisted of a parade leading to a stage with singing and speeches.
The highlight of Santa Clara is a visit to the Che Guevara Mausoleum which was interesting.
Cuba Travel Tips
1. Cuba has 2 different currencies -one for Cubans and one for tourists. The 2 currencies are CUP (Cuban Peso) and the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso).
CUCs are used by foreigners and is tied to the US dollar (1.00 USD=1.00CUC). Cubans usually get paid in CUPs and use this currency to make purchases. As tourists, you will only deal with CUCs and we had to go out of our way to find CUPs for our currency collection. 1 CUC is approximately equal to 24 CUP.
2. Internet in Cuba is pricey and hard to find. There was no free wi-fi or internet anywhere. We had to pay for internet (usually 6CUC an hour) but sometimes they would run out of access cards at the hotel.
3. Stores carry a limited selection of food and products. Going to a store in Cuba is unlike going to a store in other big cities. Because of the embargo, there is limited variety of foods or products at stores. This is why you will see Cuban Americans bringing a crazy amount of stuff with them for their friends and family.
4. Bring toilet paper and small change for tips with you. Some bathrooms had no toilet paper and some had an attendant handing out toilet paper (you are expected to leave a small tip or pay a small fee).
Overall, we loved our time in Cuba but did not love being on a tour. Our activities were tightly planned so we were not able to do everything we wanted to do. We would love to go back on our own and see more of Havana and other parts of Cuba.
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