From Little Havana to La Habana

After figuring out how to do it…

Magic, «the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces» but also «wonderful, exciting».

I have always been attracted by strong cultures and unique places; for this reason, one of the highest positions on my list was occupied by Cuba: the country has been closed to the tourism for many years, preventing any kind of cultural contamination and this is what made Cuba so special at my eyes.

It was 2017 when finally Fabrizia and I decided to organize a trip to the Caribbean island; we were looking for a convenient flight when we were suggested to make also a pit stop in Miami, suggestion which we obviously accepted despite the fact that, seen the diplomatic relation between the US and Cuba, until the last minute we were never sure if Delta Air Lines would let us fly: we knew that the Obama’s administration allowed some airlines to fly to Cuba, but to buy a ticket you had to fill a form choosing the purpose of your trip on a list where the simple “tourism” was not contemplated; many travel agencies in Italy told us it was not possible to travel from Florida to Cuba but after searching on the Internet we understood that we could do it as “cultural exchange” (people to people).
We decided to take the risk: we planned two nights in Miami and one week in Cuba (note: after Obama many things have changed, apparently since June 2019 “people to people” is not valid anymore to fly from the US to Cuba so you better check recent updates before eventually arranging a similar trip).
Beginning of August (note: it is not the best time of the year to visit, due to the possible cyclones), Naples-Miami via Rome, ESTA visa in our hands.
I convinced Fabrizia to book two beds in a hostel (it was the first time for her) and it resulted to be a very good choice to save some money, plus the hostel was nice and in a great position, only prob that damn a/c! The room was so cold that we had to ask for a second blanket and still woke up frozen as if we were in Siberia…

Miami is not what we call a cultural place so we were conscious to go there mainly for beach, club, beaches and clubs… In this super busy schedule we were able to fit also a visit to the Wynwood Walls: the place is cool, a graffiti dedicated area where the paintings change periodically and if you happen to go to Miami you must spend a stroll there.

Other highlights in Miami?

Española Way, for a good variety of pricey restaurants;
Virginia Key Beach, for a fantastic sunset over the skyline of Miami (we took an Uber from Miami beach and we had an aperitivo on the marina there with Prosecco and nachos – I know, strange combo);
Ocean Drive, the famous road in Miami Beach full of restaurants and bars, alive both in the morning and in the evening;
Little Havana, the name says it all.

Miami was my first (and so far the only) time in the USA and – even if I didn’t really feel so because I met more Spanish speakers than English ones – I couldn’t leave without trying all the possible junk food seen in the movies, like the burgers of Five Guys, the unforgettable pancakes and red velvet in the typical Diner or the light blue, cotton candy taste slurpee… sooo much sugar!

Time to leave Miami!
After answering couple of questions, we got our Tarjeta del Turista by paying 50 US dollars at the check in desk at the airport (note: you can also apply for it to the Consulate or an agency); boarding passes, baggage check, flight and yuppi! We finally got to Cuba – the adrenalin of not knowing if we would really make it, made that stamp on the passport much more exciting.

I wanted our trip to Cuba to be the most genuine as possible so we never considered to book any hotel for our stay, instead we used AirBnb to book an apartment in the Havana and a casa particular in Trinidad (I will tell you in a while what’s that).

In this digital era where we live, there is something you should know before traveling to Cuba: only when Raúl Castro succeeded his brother Fidel in 2008, the country finally saw changes such as the possibility to buy computers with access to internet connection and sell or rent their homes and cars; when we were there in 2017, Internet was still an issue: I am not sure about hotels, but generally speaking to get some connection in Cuba you have to purchase a card, find a wi-fi hotspot (you’ll recognize it by the many people gathered using their mobile phones), open the browser and type in the user ID and password from the purchased card; you can reuse the same card until the credit is over (our host in Havana provided us with couple of cards at the check in, so we could communicate with family back home quite easily at least).

Second thing to know: there are two currencies in Cuba: CUP (peso cubano, moneda nacional) and CUC (peso convertible) which is the official currency for tourists.

Please be aware that debit cards are mostly not accepted, that you can use Visa and Mastercard to take cash from the ATM but Visa is not accepted everywhere: it is better if you provide yourself with some cash.

Last but not least, don’t drink tap water if you’re not sure it’s purified or not.

We arrived to Havana and took an official taxi from the airport to the flat we rented; the host was a super nice girl who welcomed us with a refreshing lemonade and a list of advises.
After trying the wi-fi, we went out in an uncertain weather – from sunny and hot to grey and rainy – and looked for a place to eat; we were in a very good position, two minutes walk from the Malecón, the seaside road where we find the right paladar to order our first Cuban meal.

The paladares are private restaurants where you can taste genuine Cuban food and they are often placed in beautiful colonial style residences; the Cuban cuisine is quite simple: usually pork, chicken, fish and rice with black beans.

Finished our late lunch, we walked to the Floridita for a Daiquiri with Hemingway
Yep. Check the photo I took with him if you don’t believe me.
This bar is “la cuna del daiquiri”, the daiquiri cradle, which is one of the typical cocktails in Cuba together with, of course, Cuba libre and Mojito (which you should drink at least once in La Bodeguita del Medio); the Floridita was also one of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bars, reason why you will find a bronze statue of him in the corner.
I remember that ordering a drink was truly stressful: the bar was overcrowded and the bartender could barely hear us calling him because the band was loudly playing live music – beautiful atmosphere anyway.

We went on with our walk stopping a moment to photograph the Capitolio and despite the rain I was already fascinated by the old colored buildings we were passing by; the pink, orange, blue and red cars from the 50s and the people smiling around us.

Cuba for me is magic. You stroll around in a poor country where it is hard to find water or milk that for us are common goods; you step in a little store and you realize their history of isolation by seeing almost empty shelves… but them? With the little they have, they are smiling, dancing, singing, laughing in the streets, on the beach; old or young, it doesn’t make any difference, they all do. They are kind to you and they are happy to show you their love for the country.

We were in front of the Capitolio when we heard this guy, Antonio, talking about history to a group of tourists and we stopped to listen to him; he noticed us and said hi, then left us his number; he then became our tour manager somehow: if we needed a car he arranged us a driver after negotiating a price, he took us to the Museo de la Revolución, he told us about the truth of Cuban life and how it was changing, he told us the good and the bad of it; he also introduced us to the driver who will take us to Trinidad and more, but before telling you about this, let me say something more about Havana.

If you like rum and if you don’t like rum, you can’t miss a visit to the Museo del Ron Havana Club: learn about the preparation of rum and taste the national liquor is an experience you must live in Cuba!
Remember also that you’re a tourist, so you must also get into an old convertible for a drive along the Malecón.

Habana Vieja, Plaza de la Revolución, the beaches at the outskirts of the city and why not the Callejon de Hamel… my advice is to visit all you can; walk the streets, talk to people and understand their culture. Get used to the loud compliments but don’t let your guard down because, like in the rest of the world, here also you will find people who want to take advantage of tourists, cheating or charging way more than needed and don’t get shocked if a random someone in a club wants to become your “boyfriend”…

In the middle of the week spent in Cuba, we booked one night in a casa particular in Trinidad, basically a private house where the family rents out a room and offers you breakfast and other meals with a little surcharge; it is a great option to save some money and feel like living the culture.

Antonio drove us together with a “colleague” in a beautiful old black car with red interiors: the car was comfortable no matter the holes on the floor – not like in the Flinstones, don’t worry, but with heavy rain some drop did refresh our feet.
It took us more or less four hours to get to this gem called Trinidad; colourful and silent, when we got there we immediately noticed the difference with the capital city; there is no need of planning a complex schedule in my opinion, walking in the city centre is enough and maybe go on top of the bell tower of the Convento de San Francisco de Asis for a wide view of the city.

Trinidad turns very alive in the evening: choose a place to have dinner then take a seat outside La Casa de la Musica to assist to the live music show – get ready because you will be invited to dance salsa for sure – and find a club when the show is over.

After just few hours sleeping and in hangover, on the second day we enjoyed the rich breakfast offered by the hosts and ordered a taxi to Playa Ancòn: white sand, light water, palms and coconut milk – is that how Paradise looks like?!

That afternoon Antonio and the driver came back to pick us up and here we had a little misunderstanding: we were supposed to make a quick stop in Cienfuegos on the way, but they said that they skipped it because we were sleeping and they wanted to let us rest…. ay.

Gotten back to Havana, we still had two excursions planned and the first one was Viñales: the driver asked us to bring his wife and children because they had never been there before and having us no problems with that, the day after he came to pick us up with the whole crew and we started our two and half hours drive.
In Viñales we visited the Indian cave, we rode a horse in the valle to find out how cigars are made and we ended the day with the visit to the famous Mural de la Prehistoria (you can see some photos in the gallery).

Last excursion on our list, was a total relax on the beach of Varadero, where the same family made us company: we enjoyed that crystal clear water while playing with those children who became our Cuban family and one of the best memories we have of that magic island.

Feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of the page…
I’ll read ya!

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