Cuba Vacation– Havana: A First Glimpse

Aug 17, 2016 Avatar Dan Ilves Dan Ilves

It seems every American taking a first-time Cuba vacation does so with a bit of apprehension as to what to expect, what their limitations will be, will the food be okay, and so on. Every American you meet that returns from visiting Cuba seems elated by the experience, and urges you to go now, that it’s wonderful…

Travel to Cuba was not on the top of my bucket list. It’s in the Caribbean, which isn’t a big draw for me, and I just didn’t have high expectations that instilled any drive to go.

Cuba is what’s trending, however, and as a travel professional I was, of course, curious, and I decided I needed to see Cuba for myself.

With the new social impact cruise line, fathom, being launched and the first cruise line to operate regular trips to Cuba from Miami, I decided I could both check out fathom and check out Cuba.

If you don’t read the rest of this, the conclusion is this: Cuba is wonderful and yes, you should go now and see it before it changes dramatically, because in time it will, and then you’ll want to go and see it then, too. My trip, along with other trips a few of my TravelStore colleagues have made to Cuba, has enabled us to experience firsthand arrangements for our clients, and to have the confidence to send our clients to Cuba.

Yes, we’ve been where you want to go…

Havanatur is the Cuban government-owned company fathom uses for its shoreside tours, and they did a good job overall. Things were well organized, and the guides are well trained, friendly, and have a sense of humor. It’s difficult to please such a diverse crowd — and fathom’s guests are indeed diverse — and they tried their best. Likewise, there is much to see, and little time to see it on a cruise; so you have to make choices, and accept the program for what it is. The coaches were air conditioned, clean and comfortable. Water was available onboard.
As for dining — we had a few meals ashore in Cuba, and never had a problem with health issues. Likewise, there were good choices — it wasn’t all rice pork and beans. Seafood was available, vegetarians were catered to, and there was lamb and chicken. (And the black beans were so good, I could eat them daily if I had to.)
As sailed into Havana’s harbor, Cubanos are lining the malecón waving. A couple are jumping up and down shouting out to us. 1950’s-era autos are driving by honking their horns in welcome. First impressions are how unique a Caribbean country this is — while old and fraying, and with buildings like El Capitolio dotting the skyline, one can imagine in its heyday what a bustling cosmopolitan metropolis this was. The next impression is how excited Cubanos are to see us — after all, tourism is quickly becoming the largest source of revenue, and we are, like it or not, the agents of [positive] change to their quality of life.
At the cruise terminal you are hit up with drivers offering rides in their 1950s vehicles. It’s easy to arrange a car, as they are prevalent. The going rate seems to be about 25 CUCs (1 CUC = 1 USD). or 125 CUCs for 6 hours or so.

There’s a big deal made about the currency, and how Americans can only use CUCs, (which are not the same as CUPs, the local currency of Cuba), and which have to be obtained at a bank or exchange counter. A CUC is common rated with the US$, but when you convert them you get about 90 cents on the USD from an official exchange kiosk or a bank.

If you have Euros, the exchange rate is better.

However, I found retailers willing to take Euros or US Dollars, and we made purchases for art and cigars with either currency. Cubans hesitated a bit, but were more than willing to accept them. I was told by our guide the better paladars accept USD and Euros too.

The people are happy to engage with us and entertain us. While Of course, they collect tips so are grateful for the opportunity. Vendors are creative in using discarded materials to create admirable artifacts. 

While Cuba may be a rather new destination for us, tourists are not at all a novelty in Cuba.

A walking tour included four main plazas. At Plaza Armas there is a second hand book market, and many vendors selling “antiques” of various kinds, posters and the like. An authentic old Cuba license plate we eyed was about $25. Books by or about Fidel are either popular or something to dispose of. Five older men sat on a ledge and entertained singing “Guantnamera,” which we heard untold time during our brief visit. You have to peek into open doorways to see there’s a makeshift art gallery here, or an interesting bookshop over there, or a cigar store displaying all the major brands.

We had dinner at La Gauridia. The restaurant is on the 3rd floor, with the bar on the rooftop above, of a decrepit and dilapidated old building in Central Havana. There’s no signage and there are local residents living on the ground floor — a “bouncer” at the front entrance was the only clue. As we took the stairs up to the third floor, we passed scaffolding, lumber and broken concrete. However, the restaurant, with an outdoor patio overlooking the city, is considered one of the best in the city! The meal did not disappoint. My smoked Marlin tacos appetizer was delicious, as was the octopus carpaccio in citrus marinade my tablemate had. We also shared an avocado salad. We had the lamb tikka masala, which while having Indian spices, was definitely a Cuban rendition – the sauce was like a mole in texture.

Chocolate tres leches was a divine finish. With wine and cocktails, the tab for two for the feast was $115 including 10% gratuity! Service was excellent and the venue was certainly unique. The restaurant owner is using proceeds from the restaurant to restore the building.

We headed in our 1950’s-era gold Chevy to Rosalia de Casto, one of the venues in Havana that have Buena Vista Social Club-type live performance. The building was the first palace built outside the Old Town using the stone from the walls that once surrounded the old city. The band played non-stop, with different singers featured throughout the evening’s 2.5 hour presentation. Our ticket included three drinks. We sat next to visitors from Barcelona and shared mojitos.
As we are arranging more trips to Cuba for our clients, I wanted to experience private arrangements through a private company we’re using based in Havana. On the second day, we were picked up in a shiny 1955 Chevy Bel Air for an exciting and art-filled day. In the morning we visited the home and studios of three artists and spent time with each talking about their life in Cuba, and more importantly, their art. Having their perspectives helped me appreciate their art and provided insight into life in Cuba. All three are exhibiting abroad.
We drove through the Miramar area, where the well-to-do largely reside, gawked at the enormous Russian consulate, and later had lunch at Dona Eutimia, which is noted for its ropa vieja, which was excellent, as were the black beans and shrimp in garlic oil. Our afternoon included a tour of the Museum Bellas Artes, an exceptional museum documenting the history of Cuban art, and with a guide, provides much insight into the country. The necropolis was also an enjoyable visit, as it ranks as one of the world’s largest cemeteries.

A few blocks from the cruise terminal is a large warehouse full of handicraft stalls and art dealers.

Just walking through the art on display was a trip, and there was some pretty cool stuff on display. I must have passed 50 art sellers and I didn’t make it past them all. A trio with a sax player was jamming nearby. It started to rain, and a woman guided into the nearby church to be sure I saw the gorgeous contemporary stained glass. A favorite photo was the one up top, of a Cuban sitting on the malecon, looking northerly, perhaps hopefully, across the sea.