The twenty minute ride from the airport to downtown Havana was riddled with memories. Memories of driving to the dry cleaners in the midst of morning smog as a child, the memories of working on the exhaust system of my MGA, or driving my VW Beetle in downtown Detroit. Smog, soot and the real sense that was embarking down memory lane, most of the cars on the road in Cuba were from the 1950’s, but the year was 2019!
Our visa to Cuba was bought right at the ticket counter in Miami at the Delta Desk – $50 bucks moments before we got on the plane.
On this trip we were vacation-crashers! Our brother and sister-in-law made plans to visit Havana, Cuba and stayed at the Hotel Sevilla. Hey! That sounded good to us, so we crashed… Entering the country was a breeze. There was no real military presence except for a check-point for our bus on the route to the southern beaches. More importantly, as Americans, who grew up in Canada, and also have European passports, any anxiousness was overcome by the friendliness of the people and the resourcefulness of our hosts.
We stayed at Hotel Sevilla, at one time the jewel of Havana, along the well-known Prada. Our rooms were filled with period furniture, patina-spotted mirrors, antique pictures and Jamie was looking forward to their pool and cigars. Other acquaintances stayed at the nearby Hotel Iberiostar a block away, with its rooftop pool and restaurant. If you’re looking for accommodations like home then that’s your bet, but we were here for the flavor of Havana and the Sevilla gave us that in spades. Nightly Cuban entertainment in the lobby and Opera on the rooftop, what more could you want? Specials abounded on this Valentine’s Day weekend.
To learn more about Cuba’s history get a copy of Havana Before Castro: When Cuba Was A Tropical Playground by Peter Moruzzi.
There are no bank machines or ATMs that serve any US credit cards in Cuba. You have to take cash with you! We brought US dollars and Canadian dollars with us that we then converted to CUC at the front desk.
The internet, like medicine and housing, is government owned in Cuba and you can buy an hour of internet at the hotel desk for $1.00. Yes, you can turn your use on and off, and save your internet minutes. If you want to look at your bank accounts, stocks, or 401k, beware that these institutions will block your use once they discover you are in Cuba.
Old Havana: It took us a while to orient ourselves to Havana. Our emotions were being affected by the visual decay of period buildings for our first day there. There are, however, pockets of hope for the architectural gems with new government programs. You can easily spend a day or two in Old Havana. Places not to miss include:
- Cathedral de San Cristobal
- Plaza de Armas
- Castillo de la Real Fuerza
- Plaza de San Francisco
- Restaurant Mama Ines
Beaches: We took a day bus from the Prada for 10 CUC roundtrip. You take the T3 Bus near the Capidollo and choose your beach packing for the day: towels and such. Local outdoor bars and other beach venues abound where you can order the Cuban Cristal beer or European brews. Note: the bus will drop you off on one side of the hotel and you need to pick it up on the other direction on the opposite side of the beach hotel and the bus routes stop earlier in the day than you think.
Taking a Vintage Ride: We spent two hours traveling in our vintage convertible for about 80 CUC with a guide who made the ride a blast. The doorman at the Sevilla made the reservation. On that two hour journey we got to see:
- El Cristo
- Castillo San Salvador de la Punta
Saving Money: You do not need to rent a car for a trip to downtown Havana. The Hotel Sevilla offers, like many European hotels, a fine breakfast. We were able to bundle a late morning snack from the breakfast venue and eat large at dinner. The local cheeses and meats made their omelet station a regular destination. Be prepared for exacting doormen who hover over your reservation and table. Be prepared for restaurants to swap out menus when they discover you are tourists. More than once we changed our dinner plans when we discovered the swap.
Dining Out: First of all, we had some fun meals in Cuba which was not always the experience of those who flew with us to Cuba. Be prepared for menus to be years old, for entire food groups to be unavailable – wines or limes or chicken or even bread. Four dining experiences stood out in our travels.
- Mama Ines – We had the most memorable dinner – served by the former chef to Fidel Castro – Tomas “Erasmo” Hernandez at Mama Ines, see picture above. Filled with memorabilia and fine food there is no better place to eat in Old Havana. A little hard to find, but worth the visit.
- O’Reilly Street – We experienced an outdoor courtyard with some typical Cuban food, less limes, bread, and wine.
- Havana Gourmet Restaurantes – Two venues in one location – Italian on second floor and rooftop BBQ with fish and more up top.
- Mediterraneo Habana – As the name suggests, fine Italian with a great wine menu.
Botanical Gardens: Yes we read the tour guides too. The Botanical Garden was a gem in the rough. You pay a nominal fee to enter despite what the guide books say. We had a young guide who shared in detail the gardens and its unique life. Tips are appreciated as his effective savings income is $65 dollars every six months.
Nightlife: Trios, salsa music, dancing lessons, cocktails and opera, Hotel Sevilla was certainly the place to start. Make memories for yourselves and post your experiences in Havana. We expect to be back to Havana next February.
Resources for Those a Stone’s Throw Away from Cuba!
- A Morning Thought For You – You Tube Inspiration Jamie’s University
- Havana (Robert Redford 2013) – The DVD + Digital Movie
- Next Year in Havana – Novel or Kindle by Chanel Cleeton
- Cuba Before Castro: When Cuba Was A Tropical Playground, 1st Edition, 2008
- Save Your Wine – Jamie’s Invention
- Claire’s Music For Portugal – Dan Newton’s Cafe Accordion Orchestra to Download or Pandora (2 CD set)
Other Places to Stay – Sandals