Upon our landing the captain of the airplane announced to the passengers, “Well folks if you are as old as me, this is a day you thought would never come. We have officially landed in Cuba.” The man’s voice expressing the sense of disbelief that most of us were indeed feeling but weren’t actually vocalizing. Although this man is probably 20-30 years my senior, I too felt the sense of amazement of touching down in Cuba and I was excited to see what this undiscovered island would reveal to me.
My first impression was that they (Cubans) were indifferent to our arrival. Us, being Americans. I didn’t get the sense that there were excited or disappointed. It felt like it was just business as usual for them. The one agent who did approach me did seem somewhat intrigued by an American woman traveling by herself, waiting for her luggage to be delivered down the carousel. He flirted and smiled, speaking only Spanish. He was not aggressive, just that latin sense of flirtatiousness that is sort of a default setting. I was feeling a little shy for a moment and he could sense it and he responded by giving me space. I have traveled a lot in latin countries and this is always something you are assessing as a woman. What will the energy be towards me and will it be overly aggressive? I have learned to deal with it pretty well over the years and am able to diffuse it rather well, especially because I can speak a decent amount of Spanish. So this first encounter was reassuring. I love being friendly and it is always a bummer when you feel like that friendliness is met with an aggressive energy.
I wasn’t alone for long as my friend joined me from her flight from Colorado and we were off. First stop was to exchange money which was the first real reminder of the history between Cuba and America. It turns out there is a 13% penalty to exchange american dollars in CUC’s which is what they refer to as the local currency. Well actually it’s what they refer to as the currency that most tourist operate in. There is another currency that is the cuban peso that is a much lower value and is frequently what the locals trade in. The american dollar is the only currency that receives this penalty and I actually felt a little dumb I didn’t do enough research about this ahead of time to realize I should have brought Euros instead which actually receives a higher trading value and no penalty. I did briefly recall The Point’s Guy website saying this, but for some reason it didn’t register and I watched my $1000 cash turn into $870:( However, there was no way to avoid this once I was there. Because there are still officially economic sanctions against Cuba, none of my credit or debit cards could be used in Cuba. So cash is absolutely essential and the country really prefers the CUC over american dollars. So I took the hit and moved on.
Next we checked in our Hotel. Hotel Saratoga which we read about in this review of hotels in Vogue magazine. I mean if it’s good enough for Beyonce and Rhi Rhi, I’m sure it’s good enough for us;) The hotel was nice and quaint. It does boast a rooftop pool that is pretty darn nice and a bar that is open 24 hours which was priceless when we stumbled in nightly at 4 am for our last drink of the night.. or morning 😉 It does have a good view of the capital building and it’s in a pretty centralized area. Just for reference I will say here that we checked out the following hotels (Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Iberostar, Hotel Sevilla, Hotel Florida) and with the exception of Hotel Sevilla, Hotel Saratoga was still our favorite because of the rooftop pool. To be fair. We didn’t see the pool at Hotel Sevilla but the hotel itself was so darling. So much detail and style and the location was perfect.
The first night we had dinner at a restaurant called Cha Cha Cha. Great ambiance and the food was surprisingly good. I say surprisingly because I had heard that the food was not that great in Cuba. We were off to a good start and our waiter was adorable and did speak some english. From there, we headed to La Casa De Musica. It was a great local vibe, everyone was dancing and the energy was spectacular. The cubans can dance so it was amazing to watch them salsa. It is literally in their DNA and it was so fun to watch them do their thing. Even though we don’t know how to salsa dance, my girlfriend and I broke it down in own way and had an amazing time dancing our buts off.
The next day we asked the concierge for a recommendations for a rooftop restaurant to grab some lunch. He sent us to an obscure part of town that was definitely off the beaten path. He made the reservation and then handed me the card to show the cab driver. It said “ La Concordia” Restaurant and Hostel. Hostel? I inquired with him again. Are you sure this is a good place to eat at a hostel? He assured me it was good and I trusted his recommendation. We arrived to a residential street where there was not much to be found except for one yellow sign with the name of the restaurant hanging brightly from a three story building. We went up the narrow stair well still feeling extremely skeptical only to be utterly amazed when it opened up into a beautiful, newly restored bar and restaurant. The single waitress on shift took us up to the completely empty rooftop and we had delightful lunch including an order of patacones that would give Costa Ricans a run for their money. It was precious and our waitress was on hand the entire lunch to get anything we desired with a polite smile and lovely demeanor.
As we left our lunch the host told us that he could not flag a taxi down. Again, we were on a pretty remote residential area so taxi’s were not frequenting this area. He pointed us in the direction of a hotel a few blocks up where we would be sure to find one. However, within a few seconds of walking a petty cab driver arrived and inquired if we would like a tour. I inquired what the tour was and he pointed out all of the different locations around the city we would want to see. When I inquired the price, he responded 10 CUC. We hopped in and he peddle us a round the city for the next couple of hours. I highly recommend the petty cabs as a great way to see the city and to really take in the sites at a slow pace. He even took us to a few places to stop and get drinks including the Hotel Florida and then finally back to our hotel. We paid him 20 CUCS which was well deserved for his services.
Next up, we had reservations for the famous show El Gaulajito. It is a traditional show that reminded me a lot of the dinner show in Dirty Dancing when baby goes with Johnny to cover for his dance partner who is, well let’s say having a medical procedure done. You have seen the movie. Anyway, it has this vintage feel of the performances and dancing and singing that was straight out of the 50’s. However, for us it was a little tough to sit through. I didn’t love it and mostly because I felt stuck in my seat and like I wanted to get up and move. If you want to experience something very traditional then this is cool but if you want to shake your groove thing, skip this.
From here we went to the Fabrica De Arte or “The Factory.” This place was probably one of the coolest night life experiences of our week and the line was the first indication of it’s popularity. We really didn’t want to stand in the line and luckily as soon as we walked up, a guy approached us and said he could get us in for 10 CUC and skip the line. Done and done. He asked for the money up front and we said no way. Again, this was another moment when some Spanish really came in handy. I told him we would pay him after but not before and he said ok. We got in easy breezy and true to our word we found him and paid him after, He was shocked we found him and actually paid him but I guess I wanted to show him that Americans are good, honest people. In case he had doubts;) The Fabrica De Arte was a multi-story huge art and music complex. With galleries leading to different rooms of music, you can find the style of music that fit your fancy and when you wanted to wander, you could walk the art filled walls to the next room. Our favorite room ended up being a room that we assumed was the bathroom. At first glance it didn’t look like the hallway could be leading anywhere important but as we rounded the corner, the most amazing band and room appeared. With an incredible backdrop of a woman with a big afro decorated in records, the vibe was cool, real cool. At first there was a bit of a belligerent guy who really wanted to invade my space but luckily there were some really incredible guys around who gently persuaded him to step off. Then we got our groove on… The band was playing and everyone was into it. Suddenly the entire building lost power. In the total darkness of the room, the saxophone and the drums played on and the vibration intensified. The crowd went wild as the darkness didn’t phase the band one bit. This was definitely a top moment, even with the small nagging thought that if there was a fire we would all be toast. To get out of this place with the lights on would have been tough but in the dark, forget it. Luckily the only thing on fire was the band.
After two nights of all nighters, the next morning we decided to hire a car to take us to the beach. Everyone we asked when inquiring about the beaches said the same thing ‘“Verdado.” The car driver was polite and I had an immediate soft spot for him because he reminded me of my dad. He drove us to the beach but he wasn’t quite sure which beach to drop us off. Then we saw it, Barlovento Hotel. It was perfect and we rented two beach chairs under a little cabana for 5 CUC. The water was incredible. It was clear and warm and truly some of the most beautiful water I have ever seen. It was fantastic experience and well worth the 2 hour ride each way. We left the beach refreshed and ready to tackle another Cuban night.
We had recommendation from my good friend who is definitely a foodie and she recommended 304 O’Reilly. At first glance it looks non-descript. Just a small little restaurant with not more than 10 tables. The food was spectacular. Everything was so fresh and prepared with so many herbs and spices and it was honestly just spectacular. Go there for sure!
After that we went to a club called Sarao. This was probably the closest thing you will find to a night club feel and it was actually a little out of place for us when we first got there. But we decided to stay and check it out and we are glad we did. There was a funk style jazz band that came on that was super entertaining and we had a blast listening to them. To be honest, this is isn’t my favorite style of music but there is something about listening to it in Cuba that just made it so fun. After that, it went latin club style with all of the latest latin top 40 hits playing including my new favorite “despacito” featuring Justin Bieber. Mixed in with some old school gansta rap, we had a regular ol dance night.
The next day we made our way to Calejon De Hamel which was really lovely to look at but unfortunately as soon as we showed up we had a pushy guide rushing us through, pushing us here and there with each corner of the tour a place where he would give us an opportunity to purchase something,. donate, buy, drink etc. It felt a little forced and because we were really the only tourist around, we felt a little overwhelmed by him. The project itself is very cool and the art is cool so it’s till worth a stop and who knows maybe this won’t happen to you.
The rest of the day we just got caught up in wherever the wind blew us which included buying some cigars from a bottle cigar seller, and a few bars and bands and general just flowing with the Cuban vibe which is really where the magic is. In this flow where you don’t have a plan and you just watch the day unfold.
We had heard about the restaurant La Guarida and when we asked the hotel to make us a reservation they said it was full for dinner. We decided to take our chances and go anyway. The hostess said they didn’t have a table but the bar was open seating. Even better. The bar was gorgeous with a great vibe, excellent drinks, and delicious food. This place is a DO NOT MISS in Cuba and the bar is almost a better option then the regular seating.
We went back to La Casa De Musica but I think the wheels were starting to come off the wagon and we ended up calling it an earlier night. Getting back to our hotel at around 2 and then just hanging in our hotel bar until 4pm. We just couldn’t seem to go to bed before 4 am somehow.
The next day we went to the Almacenes San Jose which is a really great spot to do any shopping for local goods and art. We bought a few pieces of art and I of course had to buy some local instruments to add to my music collection.
A quick visit to the National hotel and then our favorite Hotel Sevilla for a drink which was just delightful. Our final night we ate at San Cristobal which was apparently where Barack Obama had eaten on his visit to Cuba. It was just ok. It had really great style but the food wasn’t the best we experienced.
We called it an early night and just slept in as we were exhausted after 5 all nighters. Definitely had a blast but it was time to call it and we were happy to have an early night and watch a movie in the hotel. Overall the trip was fantastic. We had such a great time and the Cubans were really delightful. They are definitely still navigating the waters of working with tourist but overall you feel completely safe and as long as you negotiate things like taxi and pedi cab prices before hand, you won’t have to deal with any surprises. If you can, GO! Drink, dance, and allow yourself to get lost into that Cuban flow and you are sure to have a wonderful experience.