Havana A good time in Cuba with Chef V!
Before you read this, know that we had a great time in Cuba. It was just a lot rougher then we imagined, and we went in prepared to rough it a little. That said, I learned so much about the culture, food, history, and way of life for Cubans. It is a 3rd world Communist country and will definitely change your mind about socialism. So, here is my experience and advice to anyone traveling to Cuba.
APPS BEFORE YOU TRAVEL
First off, download the Triposo Cuba app. Look up the cities you will be going and save them. This way you will have a map and access to hotels, restaurants, liquor stores, galleries, monuments, etc offline. I don’t know what I would have done without this app as wifi is so hard to come by in Cuba and when you do it’s either expensive or very limited.
Make sure you bring enough CASH to Cuba as no credit cards from America work there. Also, look up conversions because we found that Euros had the best conversion rate so we each brought 1,000 Euro and $1,000 USD. The USD is 1:1 CUC (pronounced Cuke, like cucumber) but they have a 10% tax on USD so the Euro ended up being stronger. Literally you can’t get money out with visa or MasterCard in Cuba if you have a US bank so come prepared or you will really be in the hunger games! I heard if you loose your cash you have to go to US embassy, open a Canadian bank account, have money wired there… you get the point. Hide cash everywhere!
The best exchange rate is at the airport or banks not hotels. We waited 30 mins at airport and later had to change more and husbands waited over 1 hr in line at the bank. In the heat! So maybe do it all at airport if line is not long.
You can book Air BnB online but make sure it’s paid through website or if they want money upon arrival. Most hotels have you pay upon arrival and just hold your spot with a credit card.
If you are traveling to Cuba, I would HIGHLY recommend having a guide or being on a tour. We did not have a host or guide. I wouldn’t normally recommend this but in Cuba it’s hard to find ANYTHING! Water, ice, orange juice, toilet paper, feminine products, things we take for granted, etc. so being with a guide will give you much more access to commodities. Beer is the only easy thing to find. So if you can survive on beer you are good.
I would recommend staying in a hotel. Unless your on a tour staying in casa particulars. You can save money by casa particular however your access and ease of living will be jeopardized (unless you have a host or guide). Access to stores, ice, water or juice is limited. Clean towels, toilet paper and everyday commodities are less then normal. We stayed in an Air BnB but I would not recommend it. We had a host who didn’t stay with us but would come every day and check on us, didn’t speak English (luckily we knew Spanish), but did bring us ice, toilet paper, fresh towels, etc. but even this was not enough. With carry-on luggage we were not able to bring enough stuff like shampoo, toothpaste etc for whole trip. I got travel size everything but once out we were out there was no where to buy anything. We went to a store to buy stuff, it was closed. We found another store and all they had was beer, literally imagine a 7 eleven with beer on every shelf, just bottles.. so strange.
My husband woke up one AM to find Orange Juice and he finally found a store after 3 tries that had orange juice with signs saying sorry you can’t buy this. He pointed at potato chips and they told him no sorry can’t buy. He asked the locals why? They said they don’t know why either… so strange, I literally can’t get over this.
Do not check luggage at the airport. Your ease of getting through customs will Be 3 hours less without checked bags. All bags are opened and gone through that are checked so the time is very slow. Customs was easy, I even brought fruit and juices through with no problem. It wasn’t very strict for carry ons.
TRANSPORTATION AND AIRPORT TRANSFER
A ride from the airport to old town Havana, Vedado or Miramar should be ~$20. Always negotiate deals before getting in the cab. Unless you like surprises, arguments and/or being ripped off.
A convertible is more expensive then a normal classic car but always negotiate before entering. A domestic taxi which is yellow cab will be 3x more then a classic car. Use the fun old cars! They make for good pics as well as experience.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RESTAURANTS
Tropicana is a great show, but do not eat dinner there. It’s a burlesque cabaret with 15+ acts that are all amazing! Dinner and show are separate even though over the phone they will tell you it’s the same. Dinner is not good, made for the masses so I would NOT recommend it. Dinner is $25 (includes bread, salad, chicken, pork or steak and dessert) and lobster is $35 (the lobster here is horrible unlike everywhere else in Cuba, so save it for somewhere else). The show is $75-$95/person with $95 front row, a glass of champagne each person and a bottle of rum with cokes. I highly recommend the front row. You get a good seat with great views and action. They call people up on stage to dance near the end and it shuts down with a concert and everyone dancing.
The restaurants are hit or miss we found. I would recommend to Research where you want to eat before you go to Cuba (in US) on trip advisor and call to make reservations ahead of time. Write the address, phone, and names of everywhere you plan on attending or find it in Triposo Cuba app and save it. It will help you A lot Later.
I did a cooking class at Artechef in Vedado for $30/person. It’s a house of international chefs and It was just ok, being a chef I expected more. I’ve done classes all around the world and this was my least favorite one. I learned to make ropa vieja which literally means old clothes. It’s a beef dish made with shredded beef, green peppers, onions, cumin, salt, white cooking wine, olive oil, a little lime and black pepper. I don’t eat beef ever so I made it and tasted but didn’t eat much.
We also learned to make a proper mojito and all the history of it. Hemingway made this drink famous through his books of sitting on a beach in Cuba drinking this rum, soda, lime, sugar and mint drink. A little bitters is added to balance the drink. The mojito, according to Artechef, is the 2nd most popular cocktail on the world after the martini. I wonder where margarita falls on that category?. (Off subject)
After the class they served us chicken soup and it was delicious. It resembles chicken noodle soup in the US but it was a little thicker and more oil. Probably thickened with flour would be my guess. I had the chicken soup another time at a restaurant and it was same style minus the noodles but same broth and very good.
My friends and I didn’t do so well eating out, we constantly were disappointed but we also asked locals and the taste of locals vs Americans is apparently very different. We didn’t save restaurants on trip advisor and the one restaurant I wanted to go which was recommended multiple times was La Guarida in old Havana and I wish we made it there but we just missed out. I recommend reservations ahead of time and enjoy a patio seat, say all my friends and fellow travelers I met in Cuba.
The first night we ate at Paladar Santa Barbara in Vedado. For 4 of us it was $120. I read places switch the menus for Americans and this felt like that kind place. None of us were in love with anything we ate but the live music on the patio was good. However we didn’t expect to be so $$$ for our first meal. The mojitos were good though!
In Havana we went to the famous sloppy Joe’s bar. Don’t be turned off by the name. The famous sandwich was actually named after this 1950’s bar that was made for celebrities to indulge in gambling, cigars, and alcohol that they couldn’t do in the US at the time. It was a place to see and be seen. After the embarcadero was inflicted on the US citizens the bar closed. It reopened in 2013 when Americans were allowed to travel back in. It’s a nice bar with enough alcohol selection for the apocalypse! No other bar was this well equipped. It’s definitely a tourist spot but it is down in old Havana next to the capital building and military site. I recommend stopping in for a drink and taking some pics since it is historic and the famous sloppy joe was named after this bar.
From here walk toward the Malecon (a wall that divides the ocean from the town) you will easily find this wall as it is miles long and all the locals and tourist enjoy hanging out. It’s an easy point of reference. You can grab a bottle of rum and some Romeo and Juliet cigars and head over to the wall to just drink and hang our walk and mingle with locals and tourists.
In the old town there are lots of old cars. We rented a pink convertible to take us back to our air bnb in Vedado (10 mins total ) $20 for convertible. $10 for normal car old car.
We had our only good meal in Miramar(15 min from old Havana) at this Italian place called Rio Mar. They have a special menu nightly.
We had lobster tacos, caprese salad, good wine, nice liquor, pasta and a delicious basil cocktail that was to die for! After this restaurant we went to a place called 1868 (I think?.)
It was a fun dance spot with live music (most places in Cuba have love music). You have to pay a cover charge but for the action and view it’s worth it.
We then ventured to Varadero (2 1/2 hrs away) for our all Inclusive resort. We thought it would be a good idea to do a convertible ride there from Havana but it was the worst idea ever. It was too windy and we all got sunburnt. But it was a pretty funny experience. Half the time I wondered if the car would even make it there. But it did. Our driver stopped off half way at a tiny roadside paladar (local restaurant vs government owned) and it only served beer and ham and cheese so starving we all ordered one and swear it was one of the best things we had all trip!
MELIA VARADERO (LODGING)
We stayed at the Melia Varadero which in my research was the nicest “5 star” hotel. The 5 stars here are equal to a 3 star at best in the US. But it was seriously the best option of over 25 hotels, which is sad but true.
It’s catered to Canadians and Europeans and the level of service is not up to American standards. It was $540 a person for 3 nights with all of your meals and drinks covered the entire time you are there. We upgraded to the Level which is a must to stay here but honestly I am not recommending this hotel but telling you it is the best option in Varadero.
The beaches were beautiful and the water was bluer then I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m trying to be positive in my review of Cuba but honestly I would never go back unless there was a Ritz, Marriott, or some actual 5 star American hotel with American standards. So if this sounds like you, wait until it’s more developed. All the old cars and everything will still be around, just needs more accommodating things.
Upon check-in at the Melia they walk you through the hotel and give you the rundown. There’s a Japanese restaurant (best story of hotel, wait for it…), a steakhouse, an international restaurant (had ok lobster actually but heard it was hit or miss, mine was great my husbands was ok), a cafeteria (24 hrs), a buffet (never made it there),a Cuban restaurant for lunch that serves seafood for dinner, a paella place near the pool with grilled food for dinner, room service, and then a private lounge for level members only that serves booze and snacks. All of the restaurants were pretty bad.
You must have reservations for each restaurant and if you are late they will be rude and reject you.
Because It’s a communist country you find people are Lazy and don’t want to work. They get paid the same no matter what they do so they just don’t care.
We went to the Japanese place and were so excited for a good meal. We were 20 minutes late, there was no one there, and they said sorry we can’t serve you. I went a little ballistic when we heard this and called the hotel manager. I had just lost my patience at this point in the trip. Once the manager got involved they said we could hurry and eat but we’re getting one app and one entree. They served us rice rolled sushi of lox, carrots, and cucumber. I refused to even try it looked so bad.
The hibachi chef made us fried rice and teriyaki chicken. It was ok but the kicker is we didn’t get to choose or look at a menu, and when we were done, there was still NO ONE IN THE RESTAURANT. I had to video it and raise hell as it was literally a joke! Like a freaking joke! Needless to say, I hate that place.
The cafeteria had horrible food and worst service ever, you basically have to wave someone down and watch them roll there eyes to take your order, it’s pretty pathetic.
It doesn’t stop there, basically I’ve never heard ‘No’ so much in my life. It’s pretty simple to make people feel good and say yes but this was not the M.O. Of this place. So have the lowest expectations and maybe you will
Be pleasantly surprised.
Another story, I wanted paella one day so I went to the paella place. It was 90 degrees with 90% humidity and the guy told me I had to sit for 20 minutes in the sun if I wanted paella. I asked if I could order now and come back in 15 minutes he said.. wait for it.. ‘No!’
I about lost it here if not lost it and went to get the hotel manager. Needless to say the manager walked me back and told the guy what was up but we ended up having a drink and waiting 20 mins anyway. I jumped in pool while waiting to cool off, my body and mind. The paella was OK, nothing to write home about. Like everything at Melia. Bare in mind it’s literally the best option.
They offered massages that you pay for and as a level member you have 20% off but they only have 3 people who massage and they were booked every day. How convenient?. Not!
We went to the famous Beatles bar one night in Varadero and thank GOD we did because this was our favorite night. We got there sort of early, maybe 8pm and scored a great table front row. The band was great and played Led zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Beatles, and other rock and roll songs as well as twist and shout, la Bamba, and some fun dance songs. The drinks and service were great here! I ordered mojitos with no sugar.
After we were so hungry from our let down Japanese meal so I asked the door guy where the best ‘comida baracha’ (drunk food) was. He pointed to a bar 2 blocks away called Bar 62. Here a guy was grilling chicken outside for $5 and it was the BEST chicken I’ve ever had in my whole life (especially considering circumstances). It fed 4 of us too. I dreamt about it that night and woke up telling my husband I wanted that chicken again. It was literally that good!!!
The beach in Varadero is unlike any beach I’ve ever seen. My husband and I are both scuba certified but I never saw a PADI certified shop which scares me because I’ve heard risks of getting nitrogen poisoning from sketchy dive shops, so even though I wanted to cross this off the list, I was too scared to get poisoned, and by this point in the trip it wouldn’t have surprised me. If you want you can snorkel for $20 they take you out on a catamaran which is simpler and safer.
The trip was definitely a little rougher then we expected although I’m glad we did it. I learned so much about the culture, food, lifestyle and history of Cuba. Needless to say I don’t think I will ever be returning but glad it’s checked off the list.