Cuba Calling

After many years, U.S. citizens are allowed to travel to Cuba. Ryan, Anthony, and I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to visit the largest city in Cuba at during a very interesting time.

Havana’s historic streetscapes are lined with opulent buildings from another era, most built pre 1930 and a few dating back to the 17th century. The ornate architecture alternates between meticulously maintained, recently restored, and vacated ruins. Classic cars cruise around the city and bici-taxis cart both tourists and locals down the narrow roads. The setting seemed as though we had traveled back to the past, but glimpses of modern ruins sporadically conjured visions of dystopian future.

U.S. travelers must declare a reason for travel to Cuba from a list of twelve approved categories of authorized travel and keep Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and keep a itinerary of all activities during the trip. We selected “Educational – People to People” and have our full itinerary available for the U.S. government and anyone else who is interested. We spent most of our short time in Cuba exploring Old Havana on foot — the ubiquitous street art, colorful murals, numerous galleries and art studios, museums, and historic architecture — and soaking up the rich culture and music that echoes through the streets.

We booked a tour in a 1953 hot pink convertible and went across the bay to the centuries-old fort “El Morro” and El Cristo statue for beautiful view of the city and ocean.

Cuba’s state-sponsored restaurants are typically over-priced and bland, but privately-operated “particulares” pleased our palates. Here are a few restaurants and bars worth a mention:
  • 303 Oreilly: tasty small plates and fantastic mojitos on a hip, relaxed rooftop setting.
  • Ivan y Justo: Tucked away into a side street, an eclectic space with home-cooked delicacies.
  • El Cocinero: originally the headquarters for Havana‚Äôs electricity company, then converted to an olive oil factory, now with open air seating looking into the Fabrica del Arte Cubano. It has a spiral staircase up to a balcony with a bar in a hollowed smokestack. Definitely way cool for school but so much fun.
  • Vistamar: a bit outside the center of town but a gorgeous, quiet view of the ocean.
  • Hotel Nacional: Beautiful grounds of the historic hotel with an excellent view of the Malecon.
  • Foridita: Birthplace of the daiquiri frequented by Ernest Hemingway.

Money is a little tricky. US credit cards are not currently accepted in Cuba, so we budgeted out our expected expenses for the trip and brought cash. While you can exchange U.S. Dollars in Cuba, there is an extra 10% fee, so we saved a couple of bucks by buying Euros in DC before we left and exchanging those once we arrived. In Cuba there are two currencies: CUP which is used mostly for locals and CUC which is a convertible currency for tourists to mainly use. Overall, it’s a relatively inexpensive city to visit, and the hurdles somehow add to the charm of this unique and magical place.

Hasta la vista, Habana.

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