A Journey through Time: Cuban Diaries (Part 2)
Day 2 - JFK → HAV & Havana
The moment I got off the plane, I already knew and sensed the difference between a typical airport in the U.S. and this Havana airport (which is the biggest airport in Cuba). At the same time, I felt a really big wave of relief to once again see and hear everything in Spanish again. If you don’t, I lived in Madrid for a bit 2 years ago. Since then, there’s just something about the sounds and familiarity of the Spanish language that feels like home to me.
First order of business was getting through the Cuban immigration. Now I have been through my fair share of immigrations in foreign countries, but nothing quite compares to this one. The room was very dimly lit and packed with people. So after an hour of waiting in line and eavesdropping on conversations…(solo traveler problems?), I finally got through immigration and surprisingly had to go through security to get out of the airport—that was a first.
Once I got out of the arrivals area, I began my quest to look for my friend RJ who I had planned to meet in Havana. Until I realized that we never actually planned/decided where and when we would meet. Yikes. With no WiFi and no prior planning I essentially had no way of getting ahold of her and was left to hoping that I would some way miraculously find her. Now I have traveled with RJ on multiple occasions and we’re both pretty experienced travelers, so I figured if all else fails she would know what to do. I spent the next hour scouring the airport—which is pretty tiny compared to most other airports I’ve been to—I was ready to just give up and head to my casa. I was walking outside looking to exchange my Euros/Canadian dollars to CUC when I spotted someone that looked like RJ out of the corner of my eye at a phone booth. FOUND HER! Honestly it was a miracle. So plan ahead people! We waited ~1 hour to change my money and headed to our Casa that we booked.
We took a taxi from the airport to Havana Vieja where we were staying for 30 CUC. Getting a taxi in Havana or for that matter anywhere in Cuba is no problem, it’s not getting ripped off and standing your ground on what price you want that is the challenge. Our taxi driver was charging us 45 CUC originally, but I managed to negotiate it down to 30. Don’t be afraid to use those negotiation skills!
We got to our Casa which was about a 10 minute walk from El Capitolio (the capital building and also the center of Havana) settled down and went out for dinner. I had done a lot of research regarding where to go and where to eat before my trip (which is an absolute must to me when trip planning!) so we ended up going to El Chanchullero for dinner where we had a FEAST for a mere 15 CUC (read: 15 USD) each. Man, I ate so well that night. My Cuba trip was already off to a great start! I mean when a mojito only costs 2.50 CUC (after a summer of paying for $24 cocktails—I’m looking at you NYC) who wouldn’t be having a great time?
After dinner we walked to Hotel Inglaterra to get some WiFi and relaxed there for an hour before walking back home and calling it a night. If you’re wondering why I didn’t just use the WiFi at my Casa, in most cities in Cuba, only designated locations have WiFi connection. Most of the time they are hotels. You have to buy a WiFi card (which typically costs $2-$3 for 1 hour) and log onto the WiFi at the hotels to get any sort of connection. The WiFi was pretty slow so don’t back on watching any Netflix, ha.
Day 3 – Havana
Since we went to sleep pretty early the night before, we woke up pretty early the next day (around 6 am), to head to Plaza Vieja to take pictures before all the tourists came. It was a Sunday so nothing in Havana opened until 9 am so we got a realllly early start to our day. Since we still had a lot of time, we went back to our casa for breakfast and café on our beautiful terrace overlooking the Capitolio. Afterwards we left to El Floridita—La Cuna del Daiquiri (the birthplace of the daiquiri) and enjoyed a couple margaritas.
This place is a pretty big tourist attraction because Hemingway loved coming here for daiquiris when he lived in Cuba. After we made our way to Mercure Sevilla Hotel to check out their infamous pink patio where we didn’t stay too long as we wanted to grab lunch before going on a classic car tour of Havana. We grabbed lunch at La Dichosa for a whopping 10 CUC and then made our way to Hotel Inglaterra once again to try to talk our way into getting a tour for 25 CUC. Not the easiest feat since the typical price is 50 CUC, but when you’re a broke, struggling college student you find a way right? Well we did at least.
The tour was great, and I really do recommend it if you can manage to negotiate it down to 25-30 CUC because it really shows you the important sites in Havana. My favorite was definitely La Plaza de la Revolucion. I read the Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevarra so many times and find the Cuban Revolution so fascinating (in a history buff sort of way), so I already knew some stuff about Cuban History before we visited and was so stoked to be in a place where so much history happened. After our tour, we went back to Mercure Sevilla Hotel got our 1 hour of WiFi for the day and made our way to dinner at El del Frente before calling it a night.
Day 4 - Vinales Valley
We were traveling to Viñales on this day so we woke up a early once again to go to the famous colorful buildings in front of El Capitolio before our taxi came to take us to the Viazul bus station—where we encountered our first problem of the trip. We had not bought our tickets ahead of time so the bus ended up being already full. We ended up getting a taxi colectivo (shared taxi) with a couple other backpackers and paying ~17.50 CUC for our whole trip to Viñales—just 5.50 CUC more than what we would have paid for the bus ticket. I personally thought it was worth it because our driver dropped us to the front door of the Casa we rented rooms at.
Once we got to our Casa—yes, I only stayed with the locals during my trip as I wanted the full experience, and I did not feel that a hotel would give that to me—we settled down, got our welcome cocktails and got ready for our horseback tour. We stopped at El Bily for some croquetas, daiquiris and WiFi before our tour. WiFi was a lot easier to come by in Viñales since the town was so small and all the restaurants were by the WiFi spots.
Before my trip, I prebooked a horseback riding tour through Viñales Valley through Airbnb and I am definitely so glad that I did! It was probably my most favorite part of the trip. Our tour included a Criollo lunch (food native to the Piñar del Rio Province—which is where Viñales Valley is located), a tour of a tobacco plantation where the best cigars in the world are made, fresh sugarcane, and the like. For the $30 I paid for this tour, I definitely got more than my money’s worth. I don’t think I would have wanted to see Viñales any other way.