For most Americans born after the 1958 embargo, Cuba has remained an island of mystery even though it’s only 105 miles off the shore of Key West, Florida. We know very little of Cuba–perhaps only the 3 c’s–Communism, cars, and cigars, but the destination is so much more than that. The island is alive with art, culture, music, and history. Cuba has a way of seeping into your soul and ingraining itself in your heart. It is one of those places that you’ll not only remember fondly but probably visit more than once.
The following is a list of 10 Things to Do in Havana, Cuba:
1. RIDE IN A CLASSIC CAR
I sailed to Cuba as a guest of Norwegian Cruise Line and one of the shore excursions offered a 3-hour tour in a classic American car. In any other destination, this would probably be considered kitschy but in Cuba, this is a must. Much of the island, especially Old Havana, is frozen in time.
The 1962 trade embargo against established by the United States against Cuba made almost all imports illegal (this proclamation was an expansion of the original 1958 arm sales and subsequent 1960 exports embargos), thereby making it impossible to get replacement parts for the American classic cars that are so ubiquitous on the streets of Cuba. So, instead of gimmicky kitsch, you’ll actually ride in a piece of history–one held together by ingenuity. For those who fly to Cuba (as opposed to cruising), tours are easy to book and there are a number of places where you can do so. Before your trip, search online for a reputable driver or company.
2. HANG OUT AT THE MALECÓN AT SUNSET
Ahh, the Malecón. Officially, it’s called Avenida de Maceo and is the collective name for the 5-mile long esplanade, roadway, and seawall that stretches along Havana’s coast. By day, it’s simply a calm, serene place to fish, sit and enjoy your lunch, or go for a stroll but at night it turns into the social scene. You’ll find all ages here; it’s a popular spot for lovers to canoodle and for people to meet their friends and share a bottle (or three) of Vitamin R (that’s local slang for rum because Cubans swear that it runs through their veins). The Malecón is also a prime spot for viewing the sunset and welcoming nightfall.
3. GO TO A NIGHTCLUB TO PARTY WITH LOCALS
Yes, that picture was taken at Buena Vista Social Club and, yes, the female servers are wearing straw field worker hats. I realize this looks super gimmicky but when I initially told my driver to take me to Tropicana, he scoffed and told me that “only Americans go there” and that if I wanted a better, less expensive show and to party like real Cubans, Buena Vista Social Club was the best place to go. It was 30 CUC$ (Cuban convertible peso–one of two official Cuban currencies) which is pegged at a 1:1 ratio with the US dollar. The price for dinner and a show was 60 CUC$.
For $30, I enjoyed a 2-hour show (honestly, it ran a bit longer than scheduled), dancing, and drinks. (I don’t believe drinks are included but my driver served as my “date” for the evening and whispered something to the man at the front door so drink after drink was brought to our table–beers for him, one virgin piña colada for me).
First things first, the Cuban government does not release crime statistics but available data suggests that the country is safer than its Latin American counterparts. Gun violence and homicide are virtually non-existent (you hear that, US) and petty crime like pickpocketing is the most prevalent. With that being said, let me preface this with the following statement: Although I did this and nothing bad happened, I would not recommend this for solo travelers (especially women). There were definitely times during the ride that I second-guessed my decision.
I found this guy–actually, he found me–at the famous El Floridita (more on that later) and told me owned a classic car tour company. Turns out that “company” consisted of one nearly-broken down
jalopy convertible of an undiscernible year and make. He wanted 30 CUC$ as fare for a car tour for “as many hours” as I wanted. I relented and, though we ended up in alleyways and on side streets that would rattle the nerves of even the most seasoned traveler, it ended up being one of the highlights of my trip and my driver was quite knowledgeable about art, music, and politics. We did a lot of off-the-beaten path sightseeing that included stopping at his friend’s house for an amazing lunch. The friend happened to be a “cigar dealer” selling some of the island’s finest wares in…let’s just say…an “unofficial” capacity. Again, probably best reserved for those not traveling alone.
5. GO ON A COVERT CIGAR-BUYING MISSION
You’re probably wondering how I, a non-smoker, ended up following my driver (see #4) down a dark alleyway into a stranger’s home (that he shared with his teenage, Santeria-practicing daughter…long story) to get my hands on some Cohibas. Yeah, me too. Let’s just say my favorite mementos to bring home from my travels are wild stories. Since Cuba is a Communist country and most enterprises are controlled by the government (including the cigar trade), I won’t post too much information for obvious reasons. Also, for you sticklers, the picture above shows a box of fake Cuban cigars I purchased (on purpose…another long story); I chose not to post a picture of the authentic cigars I bought because Cohiba uses identifiers to confirm authenticity and manufacturing details and I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.
6. HAVE A DAIQUIRI AT EL FLORIDITA
As a writer, I absolutely felt obligated to visit the famous El Floridita. Why? The bar, which is also known as “The Cradle of the Daiquiri,” was a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway who was known to down several drinks here. Speaking of drinks, the daiquiris were pretty strong. Well, at least to me they were. I don’t drink alcohol but I couldn’t trek all the way to Cuba, visit the renowned bar, and not have a drink, right? The daiquiri and complimentary bar snacks (that I never quite figured out what they were) were delicious but, after spending several minutes in the tiny bathroom trying not to vomit with a less-than-amused bathroom attendant, I started to rethink my life choices. I was dizzy and disoriented, but I’m sure this had to do with the fact that my body is not used to alcohol at all. I ended up waiting for a table to become available and listening to the house band Los Hermanos until the room stopped spinning.
(Pro tip: Make sure you take a picture with the bronze statue of Papa in the corner.)
7. EAT, EAT, EAT
This should be a given, but I will say it anyway: Familiarize yourself with the culture by eating local dishes. Cuban food is simple, straightforward, and delicious and, from ropa vieja to pernil asado, it’s all tasty. Do yourself a favor and find a paladar (a privately owned, not government-run, restaurant) and support the island’s budding private sector. The “surf y turf” meal pictured above was from a restaurant called Paladar Doña Carmela; although it is situated in the middle of a residential neighborhood, it is far more expensive than the average local eatery. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the owners have a giant headshot of Beyoncé right at the entrance, boasting the fact that the singer and her family ate there during their 2014 visit.
8. TAKE A DANCE CLASS OR GO ON AN ART TOUR
Dance and music are the soul of Cuba and you can feel a certain rhythm when you walk the streets–it’s magical. Want to learn the basics of salsa? Rumba? Bachata? Dance classes, many of which are free, are offered throughout Havana.
Art is as much a part of the culture as politics and there are so many talented artists on the island. Their works can be found in local community centers (picture above), on graffitied building facades, galleries, and markets; much of it is Afro-Cuban art or political-themed. Buy some art, even if it’s print photos from street photographers, and take a piece of Cuba home with you. Art tours can be booked through a number of organizations like this one.
9. VISIT A TOBACCO FIELD
OK, technically this doesn’t belong on the list because you won’t find tobacco fields in Havana. You’ve got to venture to the countryside for that, but it’s well worth the trip. Even for non-smokers, it’s an excursion you should make to see how farmers harvest what is considered the country’s most important treasures.
Bus trips to Viñales, a rural town in western Cuba, are abundant and if you’re looking for an escape from the hustle and bustle of Havana, this is the place to go. It is known for its languid, carefree lifestyle and makes for a great day trip. Cigar-rolling classes and field tours are quite popular and offer a hands-on experience.
10. TALK TO LOCALS
For me, this was the most important part of my time in Cuba. Again, for most Americans, Cuba is shrouded in mystery and there are still many truths and misconceptions to be discussed. I found Cubans to be friendly, proud people who were eager to interact with travelers. Everyone I encountered welcomed questions about daily life, history, and politics. (Unlike in the United States, there is no taboo about political discussion though you will find some people who will only express dissatisfaction with the Castro regime in private.)
I also brought a large bag of toiletries, little toys, and knickknacks to hand out while I was there. Both adults and children alike are fascinated by American culture so anything–even the toothbrushes I brought–were appreciated. Cuba, certainly by American standards, is a poor nation and a recent battering by Hurricane Irma has devastated many areas. If you are able to do so, bringing along little items is a win-win; it’s good for the soul and is a wonderful way to meet and talk to locals.
Have you traveled to Cuba? What were your impressions? Comment below!