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10 Things We Learned On Our First Trip to Cuba

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My recent weekend in Cuba was amazing, as you’ll see in my recent posts on Who Can Go to Cuba?Tips For Traveling to CubaHow to Get to Cuba (and Back): Flight and Award OptionsWhere and How to Book Hotels in Havana, CubaWhat to Do and See in Havana, my review of the Hotel Occidental Miramar, and my review on the Super Exclusive Salon VIP Havana airport lounge. Our journey was also full of surprises, teaching us a great deal about Havana and Cuba as a whole.

Inspired by the recent and exciting news from the White House regarding more relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba, TPG International Correspondent Lori Zaino and I were off to Havana within just a few hours, which didn’t give us much time to research what to expect. As a result, we found many aspects of Havana surprising, educational, and even amidst full of fun and laughter. Read on below to see what we discovered—it may just help you out on a future trip to Cuba.

Outside on the tarmac at HAV for pre-boarding
After a crazy day organizing travel, we ending up in Havana, and had a great time there.

1. Booking travel between the U.S. and Cuba is not an easy feat.

Booking travel to/from and within Cuba is very difficult—especially last minute. We highly recommend organizing your trip in advance and with a travel agency that focuses specifically on Cuba. Canadian agency A Nash Travel helped us get things organized quickly and efficiently (and other TPG readers have reported success with them, as well). Once the new rules are more clearly defined, charter agencies will be able to assist you with booking non-stop flights, as it will likely be quite a while until you can do so yourself online. For instance, although online-travel agency Kayak.com has just announced that they’ve begun to list Cuba trip-planning research, for the time being it still won’t be possible to book hotels or flights through their site.

Despite its state of deterioration, Havana is gorgeous.
Despite its state of deterioration, Havana is a feast for the eyes.

2. Despite its crumbling state, Havana is absolutely gorgeous.

Shabby-chic takes on a whole new level in Havana. The city seems caught in a time warp, a vibrant whirl of artfully-detailed buildings with rusting ironwork and boarded-up windows, all deteriorating in the humidity and warm sunshine.  

The malecon (coastal road) provides blue-green ocean waves to the left and decaying high-rise apartment buildings to the right. Any other city with this kind of scenery would have an abundance of luxury hotels and expensive apartments along its promenade, but here in Havana, everyone gets to enjoy the marvelous sea views—not just wealthy citizens and tourists. This is bound to change in the near future, though, so if you want to enjoy a more sleepy, less commercial version of Havana, visit soon.

Vintage Cars
I feel like I’ve stepped into a 1960’s California suburb. Nope, just Havana.

3. So. Many. Fabulous. CARS.

I like cars—especially modern ones, with air conditioning and automatic locks and windows—but I wasn’t really a car person until I got to Cuba. I had no idea how awed I’d be by the non-stop parade of amazing vintage cars in Havana. Since U.S. imports stopped in 1960, thousands of old ’50s vehicles have been immaculately maintained, with diesel engines installed for future staying power. Some are employed as taxis, like the 1957 Ford Barbie-pink convertible we rode in for about $25, but some locals also use these cars for their own transportation. You’ll see them everywhere in Havana, and they only reinforce the feeling that you’re stepping back in time.

The White House says that credits card usage will eventually be allowed in Cuba—but it isn't yet a reality.
The White House says that credits card usage will eventually be allowed in Cuba—but it isn’t yet a reality.

4. Really, no places accept credit cards. Even foreign-issued ones.

At every restaurant and bar we visited in Havana, I asked: “Aceptas tarjeta?” Each time, though, I got a friendly and apologetic no. During our entire trip, the only business that accepted a credit card was our hotel, and it was Lori’s Spain-issued card rather than any of my own, which were all issued in the U.S. The good news? MasterCard is reportedly allowing transactions as of March 1, 2015. However, who knows if that little marisco restaurant overlooking the ocean will accept your card(s)? Sorry to dash those dreams of foreign-transaction-fee-free spending with your Barclaycard Arrival Plus or your Chase Sapphire Preferred, but in Cuba, it’s better to be prepared with cash.

Some Cuban Convertible Pesos CUC
Some Cuban Convertible Pesos CUC

5. Things are not quite as cheap as one might think.

I had the impression that Cuba would be a bit like Southeast Asia, where everything is ridiculously cheap. However, I soon realized that while it isn’t as expensive as London or Paris, it’s no budget destination. Expect prices similar to those in the U.S., and keep in mind that you’ll get just 87 CUC for each dollar.

LZ and Bk Cristo Blanco 2
Having a fun time hanging out with Cuba’s version of the Christ Redeemer statue

6. Havana has a mini version of Rio’s Christ Redeemer statue.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is one of my favorite destinations, and I was thrilled to see that Havana had a mini-version of Rio’s Christ Redeemer statue, called the Christ of Havana. It’s way less touristy than Brazil’s version and provides amazing city views from its post in the hills surrounding the Fortaleza San Carlos de la Cabaña (known locally as La Cabaña). Created by Jilma Madera and inaugurated on December 24, 1958, the statue’s been through some trauma and survived; the head of the statue has reportedly been hit by lightning a few times, but each time has been lovingly repaired.

Although we didn't get to stay in Old Havana, our hotel, The Occidental Miramar, did have a pretty nice pool.
Although we didn’t get to stay in Old Havana, our hotel, The Occidental Miramar, did have a pretty nice pool.

7. Havana fills up fast, so book ahead.

If you’ve been following my posts, you know that my trip was very last-minute and we were unable to get a hotel in Old Havana because they were all booked. If you want to stay in the Old Havana city-center, definitely book ahead of time. Note that high seasons in Havana are November-March and July-August. April is sunny, May is rainy but often cooler, and June is typically hot, while September and October bring the risk of hurricanes.

They are not a fan of U.S. dollars in Cuba. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
They are not a fan of U.S. dollars in Cuba. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

8. Cubans like U.S. citzens, but not U.S. dollars.

Be prepared to exchange your beloved U.S. currency for CUC—at a pretty crummy rate. In 2004, the U.S. dollar was banned in Cuba, and the country adds an exchange penalty tax of 10%, giving you only 90 CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos) for $100 US. I was told that they love the U.S. dollar in Cuba, but since it’s not usable anywhere in the country, it’s more of a burden to locals.

This plaza could be in Spain, New Orleans, Puerto Rico, but here I am in Cuba!
This plaza could be in Spain, New Orleans, Puerto Rico, but here I am in Cuba!

9. Havana is a delightful combination of many different places.

Havana is such an unexpected, eclectic mix of places. The ornate iron railings remind me of New Orleans, the bright colors and fortaleza bring me back to San Juan, Puerto Rico, the cobblestone streets take me to Sevilla, Spain, and for Lori, the crumbling, deteriorating state of most buildings evoked some spots she visited in Southeast Asia. Despite its similarity to other destinations, though, Havana very much holds its own.

I can't wait to visit Trinidad, Cuba. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
I can’t wait to visit Trinidad, Cuba. Photo courtesy of Anna Jedynak/Shutterstock.

10. I loved Cuba and can’t wait to explore the rest of the country, especially Trinidad. 

I was completely unprepared for how much I would adore Cuba, and the excitement and enthusiasm I would feel about future exploration of not just Havana, but also other parts of the country. My next trip will be to Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage site that dates back to the 1500s and is situated on the south coast of central Cuba’s Sancti Spíritus province. Note that I’ll be avoiding the resort town of Varadero which is set on the north coast of the northern Matanzas province and according to locals (as well as several TPG readers), is extremely touristy. To find the “real” Cuba, I was advised to visit the more pristine, white-sand beaches of Cayo Santa Maria, an island off Cuba’s north-central coast in the Jardines del Rey archipelago. Sounds good to me!

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