Viva La Cuba! Girls Trip
Viva La Cuba! Although it was a short trip, Cuba is amazing. As We’ve traveled to many countries, we normally gauge the level of excellence a country possesses, by whether or not we would willingly spend money to travel to that location again. That is a pretty short list, with less than 5 countries total, for me, but, Cuba definitely made the list! I would love to go back there again. The vibe of the island was so welcoming and peaceful, we felt really safe and the people were just genuinely nice and helpful. In addition, as an added bonus, the food was great, also. The island had no shortage of good vibes and fun. Read along to gain some insight into our trip and also what was required to head there.
Things we did before flying to Cuba.
After some research, we were made aware that exchanging USD to CUC when in Cuba is horrible! The exchange rate from EUR to CUC (…) is a lot better and more beneficial. The Cuban government charges a 10% exchange fee for USD dollars in addition to a standard 3% service fee. To alleviate the headache of losing that money, we contacted our banks before flying out. We were transferred over to the foreign currency department and informed, the exchange rate for Canadian dollars and the Euro was more favorable in Cuba, ANDDD, we would not have to pay the 10% exchange fee that is levied on the USD. So, we decided to exchange to EUROS before the trip.
Since our trip was so short (2 days) I only exchanged 200 USD to EUROs. With 3 people splitting everything, I actually had money leftover, at the end of our trip! The amount of money you will need will also depend on what kind of souvenirs you expect to bring back. My friend exchanged 150 USD to EUROs and ended up having to exchange 40.00 USD extra, while in the town. To do so was pretty straightforward. Our Airbnb host directed us downstairs in the apartment building to one of the residents, to exchange the amount. The resident was more than willing to help. We also received a favorable exchange rate, and kept the majority of the money!! My friend exchanged 40 USD and got back 37 CUC. That's a 7.5% exchange rate loss, versus the 13% if we went through a bank or the airport, winning!! This is definitely not recommended, but, for us it worked out.
Complete Visa Requirement
In order to enter Cuba from the US, you must hold a "visa". Typically, for Visas, we normally would pay the levied fee either in the airport of arrival, or via the instructions laid out on the county's embassy website. In this case, we called our Airline Carrier and was told we would need to settle the charge for the visa at the ticket counter, the day of departure. That seemed rather odd, and alarmed us, being we've never had to do that before, but, we felt relieved that the steps were simple. During the day of departure, we paid a $50 requirement at the ticket, upon check in. We were given a receipt for the visa and assured everything was taken care of. I'm assuming our names may have been included in a manifest somewhere, because after payment, there was no stamp requirement in our passports or any other indicator that everything was completed with the visa, but, we gained entry into Cuba without a problem.
From the Airport to Town
The main source of transportation for visitors was the taxi. Transportation was the highest expense for us while visiting. Before we arrived in Cuba our Airbnb host gave us an option to have a taxi service to the apartment for 30 CUC. We told our host no because we wanted to take our chance and try and haggle for a cheaper price upon arrival. Once we landed at the airport we went outside of the doors to the taxi area and was able to haggle the price down to 25 CUC. Our Airbnb was 30 min away from the airport.
Around town we didn’t need to use any taxi service since our Air BnB was walking distance to most attractions. However, we did use the convertible taxi old classic car to take a 1hr tour of the city. Our driver was really generous and gave us more like closer to 2hrs worth of tour and free drinks. He took any picture we wanted and provided us information on all of the main attractions around the city such as the capital, museum, university, and Plaza de la Revolucion. We paid 40 CUC (total price for the whole car) for the tour which was well worth it!
The other use of transportation was when we went out at night. The price for transportation there was 10 CUC one way for a 10 minute ride. Once we arrived to the Vedado area we did not like any of the club choices there so we decided to travel a little further to another club called Fabrica de Arte Cubano. For this adventure, instead of taking another taxi, we decided to take the bubble taxi. The cost for a 20 min ride was 10 CUC. Once we left the club, the price doubled to 20 CUC to go back to our Air BnB. So all together the first night we paid 40 CUC for a round trip to the night club, Yikes!.
Travel Note: Along with the conventional car taxis, one of the other popular choice of transportation for relatively close locations was the bicycle taxi. Getting around town pure human muscle. It’s a very cheap but cool way of getting around. Typical price we paid was 3 CUC to drive to the souvenir market which was a 10 min ride from our Airbnb. The initial charge was 10 CUC per person, but, after utilizing our negotiation skills, we were able to haggle them down to 3 CUC per person (Really?! What a big drop!)
Travel Note: After 8:30 PM, the price for a taxi jumped up to almost double, so, after the sticker price shock of the first night, we made sure to take that into consideration when heading out the second night.
Food in Havana was super cheap and delicious! Upon arrival to our Airbnb, our host gave us a lot of great suggestions for restaurants. Of course, we wanted to try authentic food and stay away from food chains, but, to our surprise, we didn't see any chains to choose from. Basic meals simply including chicken, pork, and beef with rice or potatoes was around 5-8 CUC. Specialty dishes such as lobster or ropa veja was slightly more and cost around 10-15 CUC. On our first day there we went to a restaurant called el Enfrente on Oreilly street. The menu offered a lot of great choices but was on the high end for pricing. The ambiance was very nice. We had the option to either eat inside on the second floor or outside on the terrace. I ordered the popular ropa veja dish, which is shredded filet mignon, cooked in a special red sauce with olives and onions, with a side of rice, plantains, and salad.
The portion size was huge and cost me 15 CUC. My friends ordered tacos for 6 CUC and a chicken with potatoes and vegetables dish for 10 CuC. We also each ordered fresh fruit mojitos at 5 CUC each. All in all, this location was very tasty and offered a lot of food for the money paid!
Antojos Comida Cubana & Chacon 162
We tried another restaurant that was walking distance from our apartment that night called Antojos Comida Cubana. This is a great and festive place at night. They had a live saxophone player playing popular R&B and pop songs. We didn’t find anything we liked on the menu so we stayed a few min to listen to the music but went to another restaurant down the street. The second restaurant we went to was called Chacon 162. The menu offered a wide variety of popular Cuban dishes. My friend and I ordered a beef dish with shredded beef on top of tostado with onions. It looked really weird but was very tasty!
My other friend ordered the cerviche dish and said it was delicious as well. She never finishes her plates of food completely. In this case, she did just that! which is saying a lot about how tasty the dish was for her. We also ordered drinks at this restaurant and I ordered the pina colada. This was probably the best pina colada I ever tried. It was made with horchata milk and simply delicious. Definitely a must try.
The second day our Airbnb offered to have his maid come in the morning and make us breakfast for 5 CUC, however, we opted to decline and find our own restaurant. We stumbled upon la Farmacia. It was a brisk 2 min walk away from the apartment and offered a variety of cheap breakfast options. I ordered the American breakfast and paid 5 CUC. It included bacon, ham, eggs, toast, fresh honey, butter, coffee with milk or fresh guava juice, and a Cuban espresso. Everything was delicious. Many people regularly say, you cannot mess up breakfast. Well, let me tell you, YOU CAN.
That evening for dinner we went to a place called B&C it was a more modern restaurant with colorful walls and an upstairs club/lounge. My friends ordered the ice cream (2 CUC)and tacos dish (one pork, chicken, and beef taco 5 CUC) which they said was really tasty. I ordered a beef dish. The beef is thinly sliced and drenched in lime juice. It sounds kind of weird but it was very flavorful! I paid 7 CUC for my meal and 1 CUC for my drink.
On the second day we went to the Santa Maria beach. We were able to purchase pina colada drinks for 1 CUC or a whole coconut with pina colada in it for 5 CUC. We also purchased water bottles for 1 CUC. Make sure to purchase before you sit on the beach because there will be a lot of sales people walking around trying to sell you items for far more expensive.
Cuba has a variety of souvenirs to choose from to take back home for yourself, or loved ones. My husband asked me to bring him back some cigars, how original..right? My friends and I were able to buy a 10 pack of Cohiba Cuban cigars for 50 CUC. The 20-25 pack cigars can range anywhere from 110-125 CUC. We didn’t really need a lot of cigars, so the 10 pack option was perfect. I was also able to pick up a handmade wooden domino set, with the artistry drawn directly on the wooden box, in front of us. On this trip I didn’t purchase any other souvenirs, but they had a lot of different options, such as straw hats, liquor, magnets and more.
The souvenir market we were referred to was called Focina. It was a really large building full of individual stands with tons of different souvenirs to choose from. You're able to haggle for any price you would like, so brush up on your haggling skills and prepare. My suggestion would be to go from 3-5p.m. (they open at 8 a.m. and close at 6p.m.) because at that time they are more likely to go down on the price than when they first opened up.
In Havana there are a lot of city tour options that you can take. There was a double decker city tour bus that you pay 10 CUC for a hop on hop off experience of the whole city. It takes you to all of the top sights. We decided not to take the hop on hop off bus, due to the walkability and close proximity of everything. Instead, we decided to travel the city via one of the old classic American cars, Cuba is known for. We chose to do the classic convertible car and it was such a great choice. We had the option to choose what color we wanted (we chose hot pink) and the driver as stated above was super nice and generous. He gave us more than just an hr tour. We had a chance to drive along the coast area. The drive was such a relaxing but fun experience. We were able to see all of the main points in the city and our driver willingly stopped at all the locations we requested.
The beautiful streets of Havana
Havana also has an option to view the cannon that goes off at 9 p.m. every night called Ceremonia de Canonazo at the San Carlos del la Cabana. We were informed the ceremony started in the 17th century, and the firing of the cannon would serve as a reminder that the gates to the city were closing. The ceremony is a must see. The cheapest way to go would be to take the ferry, which was 3 CUC and then walk up the stairs to the fort area. After the cannon shoots out, the quickest way back would be to take a taxi under the tunnel de la bahia for about 10 CUC, but, if you don’t mind large crowds, you can go the same way you came with the ferry, and share it with everyone who are departing.
There were other attractions that we did not attend, such as cooking classes, and an Afro-Cuban tour. Due to our time constraint, we did not want to lose valuable time commuting to some of these locations. Instead, we wanted to head to the beach! We decided to go to the Santa Maria beach the second day. We woke up at 9:00 a.m. and walked to the capital area.
Once there we took the bus to the beach. The ride cost us 5 CUC for a round trip ticket. We went on a big air conditioned bus. The ride took 30 min on the T3 bus. The best drop off option would be to get off of the third stop, in order to be placed right in front of the beach. The first bus takes off at 9a.m and the last bus is at 6p.m. Its best to try and leave a little earlier than the 6p.m. As you can imagine, the last bus will be very crowded. The buses run every 45 min. Another option if you don’t want to take the bus would be take a taxi to the beach. Of course this is the most expensive option with the min charge being 30 CUC for a 30 min one way drive.
Clubs, clubs, clubs. For us, we wanted to see how the night scene was and decided to go to a club for both of our nights. We enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun.
Fabrica de Arte Cubano
My friends and I went to one night club the first night called Fabrica de Arte Cubano. This was a three story building that offered several different rooms of music. When we went they had a live concert in one room, jazz in another room, salsa in another room, and house music in another. There are also a lot of different art pieces you can take a look at while there. The cost was 2 CUC per person to get in the club. This is actually the cheaper rate out of the other clubs we visited. Most clubs charge 5 CUC to get in and some may even offer you first drink free. The art museum club was kind of lame at first until after 11:30 p.m. They started to play r&b, hip hop, and pop music. Which turned out to be a lot of fun.
The second night we went to a club on 209 aguair street. The charge was 5 CUC to get in with your first drink free. At first it was all salsa music with hardly anyone in the club but after 10:30 a lot of people started to show up and they changed the music to r&b and hip hop. All of the club choices were really fun an they played great music.
We opted to stay in an Airbnb versus conventional Hotel. We wanted to be close to the action, and be among the locals. Our decision paid off. It was such an awesome experience and we were grateful for our awesome host, Oscar. He thoroughly explained everything we needed to know about Cuba, to include, where to go, where not to go, what to watch out for and tips from a local's perspective (He literally spent 2 hrs giving us information!). This particular apartment offered WiFi and an air conditioning unit (which are both rarities in Cuba). Even with the WiFi connectivity in the apartment, we were informed we would still have to purchase an internet card in order to make calls or browse the internet. The cards were very inexpensive, costing 2 CUCs for an hour worth of time. The location was walking distance to all of the points of interest. The place we went to buy the internet cards was only a 2 min walk from our apartment.
Travel Tip: If you decide to buy the internet cards, make sure to have the seller scratch the back of the card to give you the code. Our host informed us, that, many people scratch too hard and erase some of the numbers. Once you buy it and scratch it yourself, you will not receive a replacement and will have to purchase another one. So, it’s best to ask the seller to scratch the card before walking away.