It was mostly a last minute thing: fly to Cuba, eat street food, listen to music then get back home before -45 got the chance to close the US borders on us. As plans went, it was pretty thin, but it all worked out. A quick Southwest flight landed me and my travel partner/super friend, Angela, in Havana at hot o’ clock in the morning, plopped down into the colorful unfamiliar.
One Airbnb host conversation later, we had water in our travel backpack and were strolling through the streets trying to get our bearings. The things we now know:
Change your US dollars to Euros (at home) then change the Euros to CUC’s once you arrive in Cuba. The better exchange rate for Euros is so worth it. And get CUC’s in the smallest bills possible if given a choice.
1 CUC = 25 local pesos. Always get the price of EVERYTHING in CUC before you get the pizza/cab/service. Financial shanking will occur.
For me, Havana was an interesting mixture of the vibrant now and haunting remnants of a glorious past. The men and women in tight jeans with their lightning fast Spanish, ever-present cigarettes, and willingness to help. Young folks passing out flyers for parties on the street and telling you to “check the Facebook or IG page for more info.” The buildings that were once majestic and awe-inspiring but now have old paint curled up on their faded facades and laundry hanging from their high windows.
The food was nothing to write home about but Arca de Noé (660 Avenida 23) can have my babies any day of the week. One of the simplest ways this dulceria got my heart? – they had their prices listed in both local pesos and CUC’s. No guess work. No wondering if you’re getting the “special tourist price.” Plus amazeballs desserts.
For more to do that doesn’t involve eating, take the ferries from Old Havana to Regla and Casablanca. The fare was cheap AF (less than .10 CUC’s) and the ride was short. The church in Regla, just outside the ferry exit on the left, has a black virgin with a white baby Jesus sitting on her lap. And that’s pretty much it for the town. As long as you’re there though, take some nice pics of some gorgeous windows and buildings, and some stuff you’ve only ever seen in old movies.
In Casablanca, we ran into some hard core skateboarders who ripped down the hill like they had wings. Plus a massive statue of Jesus high on a hill that would scare you shitless if you weren’t expecting him. That hilltop also offers a pretty view of Havana. Near or in the ferry terminal, try the boiled corn with all the toppings ($0.25 or $0.50 CUC’s). Soooooo goooood!
SN: Cuba is no Italy, but there is inexplicably “pizza” everywhere.
After Havana, Angela and I hopped on a Viazul bus to Cienfuegos. There’s not much to do in the town except talk to Delia (our groovy Airbnb host of Hostal Delia y Nelson), eat cheese sandwiches, and go to the beach. But we enjoyed the hell out of it.
Don’t bother going to the 24-hour dulceria on Calle 41 near the park unless you want some reasonably priced sparkling or regular water. The desserts there will seriously make you regret your life choices. On the other side of the park, however, is a tasty heaven. A tiny little place has sandwiches for an equally tiny amount of CUC’s (two ham and cheese sandwiches, hold the ham, cost us 1 CUC).
A couple of days later, we took another Viazul (after a frustrating wait in the hot sun for two hours) to Trinidad. The town is gorgeous and we spotted the bell tower there on some tourist posters while at the airport. If you’re into souvenirs, this is a good place to get them—a funky cloth doll that turned upside down to become black or white almost went home with me before I realized I had no money.
Food-wise, Angela just about wrote love poems to Restaurante Marin Villafuerte. She enjoyed the white fish in garlic sauce like no one has loved fish with garlic sauce ever or since. Each entree came with a drink, by the way. The mojito wasn’t bad.
We walked around the city of Trinidad, checked our email on the famous stairs, avoided copious invitations to buy horseback tours to the waterfalls and sugar plantation, and met some guys in a jazz band who allowed us to watch them practice. One night, I tried Nutella crepes at the two side-by-side crepe and ice cream shops not far from Marin Villafuerte. One was good but too small, the other was too thick and not delicious enough. If they’d had a third shop nearby, I have hopes that my Nutella crepe would have been just right.
Biggest tip: Get an Airbnb or casa particular with a rooftop terrace. The city is PRETTY.
Our Airbnb in Trinidad was nice enough. Windowless but it had a fab rooftop terrace with a view of the city. The biggest drawback of the place was Linda. She was a black and white dog (boxer mix?) with creepy human-looking eyes who wouldn’t stop growling at us. Luckily, she couldn’t or didn’t want to climb stairs.
Another tip: If you go to the beach in Trinidad, go during the week. The beach was packed during our weekend excursion and folks dropped trash literally where they sat. Angela and I took in the sun, swam, and read our books under a groovy little palapa for a good few hours until a dirty plastic bag rolled over our faces and basically forced us to call it a day.
A couple of days of cobblestoned street fun and we were ready to go. We got into a taxi and headed toward Havana. My one sadness is that we weren’t able to stop by Arca de Noé on the way to the airport and get one last bite of goodness for the flight home. My taste buds are still crying.
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Great review…planning to visit soon even though many people says it doesn’t worth it 🙁
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Thank you! As far as the trip being worth, it depends. I feel it can be a wonderful visit if you meet someone who lives there and/or is familiar with the area to guide you through certain aspects of traveling around the country. Also, the more Spanish you have, the better the experience. My travel partner didn’t enjoy it very much, and wouldn’t visit again. My experience was so-so, but I would visit again under different circumstances. There were a couple of times when we were cheated as non-Spanish speaking tourists and that left a sour taste in my mouth.
For some reason, I’m just now seeing your message. Did you ever get to Cuba?
I have a friend who goes every year (except for during these couple of pandemic years) and she always enjoys herself and connects with the arts scene in Havana and the friends she made there.
Unfortunately I still didn’t have the chance to visit Cuba due to the restrictions. Waiting for the summer holiday 🥰
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Hopefully, you’ll get to go then. The world (of travel) is even more uncertain these days.