What It’s Really Like in Havana, Cuba

I remember sitting at my desk nearly three years ago and writing out my bucket list.  It was a tough thing to do at the time, because so many of the goals seemed so far away.  I had no idea how I was going to accomplish most of the items with only 2 weeks of vacation time a year.

There was one goal in particular, that for some reason, seemed particularly unobtainable:

#47: “Go to Cuba before the embargo is lifted and have a cigar”.

Well ladies and gentleman, I can now say that #47 is officially crossed off the list – and it was done in style. However before I talk about the cigar, let’s back up and take a look at everything that led up to accomplishing one of the coolest bucket list goals yet.

The Beginning

Over six months ago, my buddy Nick told me about this idea he had for a gathering in Mexico that he was calling the Skip Winter Conference.  Seven days in paradise with a bunch of other really cool people? No brainer.

To make matters more interesting though, I read an article that talked about how Cancun was the major jumping off point for Americans traveling to Cuba.  It was a totally casual half serious question when I asked my buddy Derek if he had any interest in making a little jaunt over to the communist land.

“Cuba? Hell yeah!”, this was followed a few weeks later with an email from our mutual friend Clay saying:

“So, I’m not trying to invite myself along, but um, I’m totally trying to invite myself along.”

This led to booking our overpriced tickets from Cancun and we were on our way.

In Transit

When waiting to check in for a flight to Cuba you start playing a little game, called “Guess the other Americans”.

Even though thousands of people go illegally every year with no issues, my heart was still racing at a a few key points throughout the trip.  However after seeing no less than a dozen other American passports my mind was temporarily put at ease.

The 51 minute flight into Havana was relatively uneventful, but upon landing it was clear that we definitely weren’t in the US anymore.

Looking out the window the first thing I see was an undead Amy Winehouse look-a-like with full beehive hair and patterned black nylons tossing bags onto the trolley.  Working with her were dudes at least three times the size of me who each had approximately 17 zippers on their jeans – I didn’t know that was possible. Fashion in Cuba is it’s own beast.

Going through immigration, customs, and getting money changed was just as fascinating.  The women were beautiful and each had a very unique style that you just typically don’t see with transportation workers.

We ended up hopping in a car with a very sketchy looking local woman who promised to take us to our Casa Particular.  You see in Cuba, it’s not like you can just call up a friend and invite them to stay with you for a week.  Rather, you have to apply for a license to be able to house foreigners.  Everyone seems know someone who runs one, and everyone is trying to get a little commission of their own.

This was best evidenced by the fact by the woman at the information desk in the airport.  We asked where we should stay and her response was “at my friend’s castle!”.

Skeptical, we agreed.  However upon arriving, we were pleased to see that she had in fact not been lying – the place was spectacular.

One thing to note about Cuba is that you can tell at one point in time, this was the spot. I would have loved to see this place in it’s heyday during the 40′s.  The architecture is beautiful, and while the country is quite clean, there are certainly many areas that are a bit worn.

Courtyard of a house in Havana, Cuba

The courtyard of our abode in Havana

Within 5 minutes of arriving, our host Acello had poured us some of his finest Havana Club Rum, was on the phone finding us cigars, and had his family preparing us a lobster dinner. Oh, and did we mention the room was only $10/night each?

This is living.

After dinner and a couple cuba libres, we were dismayed to find out the cigars would have to wait, so we went out for an evening stroll through our neighborhood of Havana Vedado.  By this time it was close to midnight, and the streets were PACKED.  Havana is a lively city at any time of day, and even though most were just grabbing ice cream or pizza at the local corner, there were undoubtedly a lot of people around.

A Tour of Havana

The following morning we set out with one goal in mind to experience as much of Havana as possible.  Oh, and drink mojitos and smoke cigars.  Ok, so maybe it was more like three goals.

Within minutes of seeing the city in daylight, one thing was abundantly clear about the people here: they were proud of what they had.  Whether it was the incredible pre-embargo era cars, the way they dressed, or the condition they kept their homes, the Cuban people are very proud of their country.

Old Car in Havana, Cuba

This was one of my favorite photos of the trip.

We spent the day criss-crossing the entire city and it seemed around every corner there was something new and exciting.

It didn’t take long to realize that our trip was beginning to have a lot of repetition to it.  In fact, we pretty much did the same 5 things over and over again for 3 days:

  • Drink Mojito
  • Smoke Cigar
  • Eat Food
  • Listen to Live Music
  • Take Photos/videos
  • Repeat

And you know what? I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Cuban Food and Restaurants

One of the things I was most excited for about Cuba was the food.  I knew little about it, but it’s always had this allure to me that I was excited to explore.

The reality of Cuban food? It didn’t quite live up to expectations.  

While there were certainly some great meals and incredible flavors at times, on the whole we found the food to be relatively bland.

That said, the value and experience of eating in Cuba is second to none.  I can vouch for Chris Guillebeau’s observation that there is live music everywhere in Cuba.  As he put it “There is no Burger King in Havana, but if there were, I’m sure it would have a full salsa band at the entrance as customers ordered their Whoppers.”.  This made every meal a great time, even if the food wasn’t always the best.

The value of the food on the other hand, is huge.  For instance one evening we decided to have a nice meal.  We went to a place that looked like a 5 star restaurant from a major metropolitan city (a lot of places felt like this) and treated ourselves to a nice four course meal of steak and lobster.  Total cost? About $15 with a couple cocktails and tip.  Was it the best steak of my life? Nope.  Was it passable given the price? Absolutely – and then some.

The Mojito

In similar fashion to my trip to Brazil a few years back where I tried to search out the best Capirinha in Rio, I had a similar goal to find the best mojito in Havana.  Pretty much anywhere you go you can find a Mojito for 3 bucks.  Havana Club is everywhere and it seems to be the only thing locals drink.

Having a mojito in Havana, Cuba

Our first, ok third, Mojito in Havana

That said, I sampled 3 or 4 different variations of the rum, and I must say each was fantastic – and incredibly cheap. At the store a bottle of 7 year aged rum costs about 8 bucks, $3 if you want the basic light rum.

Also, the mojitos in Cuba are different than the ones you’ve probably had elsewhere.  They are very strong, the mint is not muddled, and the sugar tends to kick it on the bottom of the class. We weren’t sure what to make of it at first, but in the end it definitely grows on you.

Generally speaking, alcohol is surprisingly affordable here.  You could get a 2oz pour of Jameson for about 3 bucks at many places, and even get a glass of Jack Daniels for the same price (what embargo?).

The Cigar

Without a doubt, this was one aspect of Cuba that I was very excited for.  Not that I’m a huge cigar fiend, but the bucket list goal clearly stated that I had to smoke a cigar, so I could’t cross it off the list until I’d done so – that said, this goal was accomplished in probably the most appropriate and awesome fashion possible.

Having Cohiba cigars at Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana, Cuba

Hanging out at Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemmingway wrote the novel "For Whom the Bell Tolls"

It was the middle of the afternoon during our first full day in Havana and we’d finally stumbled into Havana Vieja (Old Havana).  We’d had our fair share of mojitos and meals at this point, but still hadn’t been able to find a fitting spot for that first cigar.

Then we walked into Hotel Ambos Mundos.  This is one of the older more classic hotels in the area, and it’s actually where Ernest Hemmingway wrote the book “For Whom the Bell Tolls”.

The more I learn about Hemmingway the more I realize I think we would have gotten along really well – so to sit in the lobby of the hotel and have a cigar seemed pretty appropriate.

Now, I’ve had Cuban cigars a couple times in my life.  The most notable of which was a Cohiba Robusto that my dad picked up at a duty free shop in Switzerland.  The cost? $80 for 3.  That said, it may have been the only time in my life where I could legitimately say “Damn, thats a good cigar.”

A couple Cuban Cohibas at Hotel Ambos Mundos

The Cuban Cohiba

Now that we were in Cuba, regardless of the price I couldn’t cheap out and get something medicore, so I browsed the menu and found the same one.  This time instead of being close to $30 each, they were closer to $5.

Jackpot.

We sat for the better part of two hours drinking the local Cristal Beer (which was surprisingly good), smoking our Cohibas and pretending like we’d been transported 60 years back in time – as at that moment, it felt like we were.

We smoked a few more cigars on that trip, and almost bought a box to take back to Mexico with us to enjoy during the remainder of our time there.  Would have been a good idea considering the same cigars there were $40 each in Playa del Carmen.

Overall Impression of Havana

At the end of our three days in Havana we all agreed that no matter what fine was incurred as a result of traveling here, it would be well worth it.  Cuba is one of the few places I’ve ever been where I felt like I was truly living in a different era.

The capital building in Havana, Cuba

The Capital Building in Havana Vieja

The people were extremely friendly, the architecture (as you can tell from the pictures) was unbelievable, and the sense of adventure you get from going some place forbidden made this one of the most rewarding trips I’ve ever taken.

If you every have the opportunity to go, I can’t recommend it highly enough, and in fact, I’d suggest you do it sooner rather than later.  I can’t imagine what Cuba will be like when the embargo is lifted, but I’m sure it will be a very different place than what we experienced last week.

Old Buildings in Havana Vieja

Old Buildings in Havana Vieja

The Return

Coming back into Cancun from Havana was a relatively painless experience, made even less painless by the fact that somehow we ended up in first class.  Yep, the first time I’ve ever flown up in the front of the plane and it was on a 51 minute Cubana Air flight – which may win awards for worst first class experience ever (I couldn’t even buy a beer, although they did have free rum).

A common message across Havana

The stress free trip would soon however be interuppted by a momentary feeling of terror upon going through immigration back in Mexico.  While they will never stamp your passport in Cuba, my biggest concern was having the double entry stamp in my passport.  I figured it wouldn’t be a big deal as long as they were on separate pages, so I asked the officer if he would find doing that.

Well I must have said something to piss him off, as I ended up with both of my Mexico stamps side by side on a blank page.

Sweet. I spent the next week going through scenarios of what I would say when asked about the double stamp, and alas it was all for naught as an hour ago a half asleep customs agent whisked me through with hardly a glance through the stamps.

So did Cuba meet expectations? Exceeded

Would I go again? In a heart beat.

Should you go? As soon as possible.

Have any plans to go to Cuba or have you been there yourself?

I’d love to hear your stories as it seems like everyone’s experience there is very different. Have any questions about travel there?  Just leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer.

Marina K. Villatoro February 13, 2012 at 7:14 am

We just got back from Havana. A little different trip from you since I traveled with my 7 year old and 1 year old. But we hit all the same spots and drank plenty of mojitos (put it in my baby’s bottle ;-) and smoked cigars – even my 7 year old joined us on that one.

great city, and truly a surprise to what I expected!

Financial Samurai February 13, 2012 at 7:28 am

What a fantastic experience Sean! The old era charm must have been incredible! The mojitos at $3 don’t sound particularly cheap though, no?

Did you feel pretty safe over there?

This is definitely one of my favorite posts. How much is a RT ticket from Cancun, and what would be the ideal time to stay?

Thx!

Sean February 13, 2012 at 10:16 am

$3 is cheap by comparison. In Bali cocktails were closer to $10. Here in the States a mojito is usually what 7 or 8 bucks? So $3 for a cocktail seemed pretty good to me.

We felt extremely safe. One thing our host told us is that there’s no organized crime there, and very few guns on the island. We were walking around at 1am and never felt unsafe at all.

Our ticket was expensive, because we waited too long and we had pretty specific dates – I think we spent $450 round trip. But you should pretty routinely be able to get it for around $250.

Sharon February 13, 2012 at 8:34 am

Loved it. Wish I could’ve tagged along. More photos please. :)

Reid February 13, 2012 at 10:26 am

Really liked this post, Cuba sounds amazing. Great photos as well – are they from your iPhone or did you bring the Nikon along? Do you still have a Flickr page or somewhere else that you display your photos online?

Also, there’s only one “m” in “Hemingway”

Sean February 13, 2012 at 10:35 am

Reid, thanks for the spell check, I’ll get it updated :)

I brought the Nikon along for this one. Most of the photos were taken with that and a Tokina 11-16 wide angle lens, which was a lot of fun. The rest were from my Canon point and shoot. Dont have a good place to display photos right now. There are quite a few randoms on the FB page, but I need to come up with a better system.

Michael White February 13, 2012 at 12:23 pm

Wow. That looks like it was a nice trip. I hope more freedom, prosperity, and democracy falls upon Cuba. Where there are museums to potentially see? That seems like it might have been interesting, to see their perspective on history.

Drew Jacob February 13, 2012 at 6:23 pm

Sean, I definitely long to go to Cuba. I might take an entire Caribbean boat tour as a sidequest on my walk to Brazil, assuming I get through northern Mexico safely.

This was a great post my friend. And yes, I often wish I could just spend an afternoon – okay, a week – drinking with Hemingway.

Neale February 13, 2012 at 7:24 pm

I’m green with envy LOL awesome post and pictures to boot. Living in South Florida for 13 years Cuba was never far away and is one of the top destinations I want to visit one day.

Chas February 14, 2012 at 2:01 am

This has to be one of my favorite posts of yours, Sean; it has allowed me to take the trip vicariously through you. The closest I have come to Cuba, is sailing on a schooner off of Key West; I hope I can make it a reality to land on the island, someday. I find it ironic that we don’t have relations with this tiny island nation, but, we do with China and Vietnam. Because of my warped American Cultural indoctrination, that photo of the blue car in the street reminds me of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’- funny, the things that pictures can trigger.

Josh February 14, 2012 at 3:31 am

I made a short trip to Cuba back in 2010 at the start of my travels and it was the strangest place I’ve been to.

One thing I notice is absent from your report is how guys in designer clothing would come up to you and try to sell you cigars and women, despite the harsh penalties they could face for talking to a foreigner.

steve wyman February 14, 2012 at 9:33 am

Hi

Really good post on your trip. The images and text really give a great flavour for Cuba and certainly make one want to jump on a plane or at least add to the bucket list :-)

Did i gather you just found a hotel room when you arrived rather than pre-book?

And there really boring IM question…. What about internet access?

cheers

Darlene February 14, 2012 at 11:04 am

Hey Sean, Cuba is actually on my list but as a Canadian I can go there any time I please. So I’ve put together a Photo Tour of Havana for April of this year. I’d love it if some of you that have Cuba on your list joined me! This is what I’ve got planned (shameless self plug) http://www.herviewphotography.com/photo-travel-tours/havana-cuba

As for photo hosting, I can help with that Sean, or give a suggestion anyway. I use Zenfolio and it integrates really nicely with my existing site. I’ve made the two look the same so it’s seamless when people click on my Portfolio link it takes them to my Zenfolio page but it doesn’t look like they’ve left the site unless you look at the URL. The basic package if you just wanna display photos is only $25/yr or if you wanna sell art prints and remove their logo and put yours on (custom branding) it’s $100 a year. You can see my review of it here (yes it is an affiliate link but I only recommend things I use myself) http://www.herviewphotography.com/2012/02/02/recommendations.html

Cheers
Darlene

Jeffrey February 14, 2012 at 11:21 am

Looks like an awesome experience, Sean! I really appreciate your great photography, too. Seems like a great mix of great value and great culture for traveling to Cuba.

David Krug February 14, 2012 at 11:38 am

As someone who loves Mexico I’m not worried about immigration but what about internet access in Cuba.

Is there public internet access ?

This is my only real concern prior to a visit everything else seems pretty straightforward and yes this looks like it’s now moved up to #2 on my bucket list as far as priorities in the next 2 years.

Thanks so much for sharing!

Josh February 14, 2012 at 12:13 pm

When I was there, internet was $6 per half hour, it was incredibly slow and only available in a few hotels.

David Krug February 14, 2012 at 1:30 pm

I was afraid of that. Still need to visit. Just need to do it on a vacation slot. Which only happens once a year.

Derek February 14, 2012 at 12:23 pm

There seems to be pretty much zero internet. We weren’t exactly on the ‘hunt’, but we only came across internet once – it was in the Parque Central hotel lobby (which is beautiful). But if you’re going to be working on important stuff & needing solid internet connection, it’s probably not a great place to be. It’s more of vacay spot I think.

David Krug February 14, 2012 at 11:41 am

Likewise just curious about internet access.

Collin February 14, 2012 at 11:54 am

Is United States >> Cancun >> Havana typically the cheapest route or is there a better connecting city?

Doug February 14, 2012 at 11:55 am

Hey Sean,

Were you able to walk around town without being hassled frequently? My friends that have gone in the past said they loved Havana but were constantly being approached by tour guide type dudes that won’t take no for an answer.

Derek February 14, 2012 at 12:27 pm

There were only a few instances of people hustling & hassling.

Overall, I can’t say it was any worse than Mexico and many other tourists spots I’ve been. I’m just a dick to people who yell at me and shrug it off. Simple as that.

We did have 2 con-artists try to take us to a ‘salsa festival’. Apparently they don’t exist. The woman at our hotel told us to watch out for the scam… and then later that day someone tried to pull it on us. Fun stuff.

Sean February 16, 2012 at 10:14 am

Yeah I’ll second everything Derek said. But overall it really wasn’t bad at all, and it seemed like they were much less pushy than in other cities I’ve been.

Chris February 14, 2012 at 1:33 pm

So what would I do if I didn’t feel like smoking and drinking? Just hypothetically?

Does anyone book tickets to Cuba through a website, or is it done with cash in Cancun?

Sean February 14, 2012 at 3:24 pm

I’d explore the rest of the country. All I’d really heard about was Havana before arriving, and that’s unfortunately all I got to experience. Walking around the city, eating, exploring the architecture, and meeting the local people is a great experience, and I imagine getting outside the city would just enhance that.

You can go to cubatravelnetwork.com and book flights through them. It’s routed through Europe and paid in Euros.

Darlene February 14, 2012 at 3:34 pm

Thanks for that web site Sean! I’ve had other Americans inquire about my photo tour and I didn’t know what to tell them about how to get there. This is good info!

Kevin February 14, 2012 at 2:39 pm

Sounds like a fascinating experience Sean, thanks for sharing it with us!

I haven’t been to Cuba, but I visited East Berlin when it was still behind the Iron Curtain and that seemed like another era compared to Western Europe with it’s drab streets, dilapidated buildings and lack of consumer culture. I also ended up living there – something I’d never imagined possible, when the Berlin Wall came down just a year later.

I then got to travel throughout Eastern Europe in the early years after the end of Communism, something I’m really glad I did because it’s now totally changed and pretty much identical with everywhere else now.

Im pretty sure that Cuba will also change one way or another in the coming years, and will also end up looking like a version of Florida or something, so it’s good that you’ve made the effort to travel there and see it like it still is now. Everywhere is becoming sanitized and standardized!

Sean February 16, 2012 at 10:12 am

Kevin, man that had to be an wild experience being in Berlin during that time. Cuba, while it felt like a different era, and a unique place, really was by all accounts normal.

That’s what I’m really afraid of. If the embargo is lifted, it could be really easy for it to turn into Miami Annex – and nobody wants that.

Mike F February 14, 2012 at 7:16 pm

Seems like an awesome trip!

Tina February 15, 2012 at 9:00 pm

You make me want to hop a plane right now. What a great write up! Thank you so much for sharing.

Turner February 16, 2012 at 7:27 am

hey Sean maybe I missed this point, but what is the money/ATM situation there? I plan to go to Cuba within the next month either via Mexico City or Cancun, but need to book flights, figure out how long I will go for, and figure out he money withdrawal situation. I was thinking about going for 2 weeks but someone told me this is way too long.

What is the ATM /cash situation and is two weeks too long?

Thanks bro,
Turner

Sean February 16, 2012 at 10:10 am

I pulled out around $450 before I went having no idea how much I would used. Over three days of doing whatever we wanted, I spent less than half of that. For long trips, yeah pretty much your only option at the moment is to pull out a bunch of cash and watch your spending.

If you’re traveling all over the country, I think two weeks would be a really good amount of time to spend there. If I go back, that’s definitely what I would look to do.

Darlene February 16, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Turner if I was American going there I’d bring cash only. I’m told that US credit cards aren’t accepted there, nor would you want to do that because then there’s a record for the US gov’t to track you as being there, same with using an ATM. You need cash only pretty much.

David Krug February 16, 2012 at 3:28 pm

Here’s my hint:
If you have a stopover flight. Bring Euro’s and load up some money on a prepaid debit card from Mexico.

Tom Sawyer February 20, 2012 at 11:54 pm

Awesome post Sean!

As an Australian, we don’t have the same restrictions on travel to Cuba, though when we landed in Miami we were quizzed pretty solidly about our time there!

Agree that it was an amazing place and a constant contradiction. The fantastic old cars and amazing buildings immediately draw your eye, but just as quickly you notice the bare supermarket shelves and general state of disrepair.

I would love to return there before the embargo has been lifted – but would really like to improve my Spanish skills before I do so. I’ll also make sure I take a decent Camera – those photos look fantastic – I’d love to see some more!

Michelle February 22, 2012 at 11:42 am

Hey Sean,

It’s been about 3 years since I visited Cuba, but your descriptions and pictures transported me right back there in my mind. Thanks for the vicarious trip ;)

Steven March 4, 2012 at 5:41 pm

Great story Sean, makes me want to add this to the list.

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