Travel to Cuba: Time Stands Still
(Written recipe at the bottom of the blog)
Time has stood still in Cuba. The plethora of classic American cars lining the streets of Havana are reminders of the 1950s. It’s all about the revolution where Che Guevara, the Castro brothers, and Hemingway are heroic, “larger than life” figures capturing the mindset of the Cuban people. The fascination with Cuba continues to increase, so come join us as we step back in time with our trip highlights to this island destination.
Colorful Old Havana
The first thing you notice is the pride that Cubans take in their cars, houses, clothing, and even hairstyles. If there were a national color, it would have to be Turquoise!
Take in the sites, sounds, and smells by strolling through the narrow cobblestone streets of Old Havana. Much like a videogame, be prepared to dodge pedestrians, bikes, scooters, cars, dogs, and cats.
Here is our breakdown by plazas/squares and sites:
Old Square (Plaza Vieja)
It lays claim to the second smallest street in the world, Calle Enna. You can’t miss this ornate and decorative plaza.
- Hotel Ambos Mundos ~ It is a modest hotel best known for Ernest Hemingway writing the book, “For Whom the Bells Tolls.” Make sure you check out his humble accommodations (room 511). His room has been preserved as if it were a mini-museum. In-between the flights of stairs, is the typewriter Hemingway used for his classic book on the Spanish American War. Cool off at the rooftop bar and sip on their signature drink, Piña Colada.
Arms Square (Plaza de Armas)
Centered in this square, is a marble statue of historical figure Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, “Father of the Homeland.” Peruse the vintage knick knacks of local vendors around the square.
- Old Governor’s Mansion (Palacio de los Capitanes Generales) ~ Made of limestone and once the residence for past leaders, it is now a city museum holding relics dating back a few hundred years.
- Hotel Valencia ~ Located between Arms Square and San Francisco de Asis Square, is the Spanish themed restaurant. It has some of the most authentic Paella west of Spain.
Much of this plaza has been restored and the cathedral starkly stands out amongst the crowds that descend on it.
- San Francisco de Asis Square (Plaza de San Francisco de Asis Square) ~ Dating back to the 16th Century, look for the art exhibits dotting the square as you approach the church. Outside the church, appreciate Cuba’s most famous street beggar memorialized with a bronze statue.
Perhaps, one of the most visited places is the Old Havana Club. Sign up for a tour and walk through the exhibit to learn how Rum is made. The tour ends at the shop, where you can purchase Rum and Cigars. We recommend purchasing Dark Rum aged for at least 7 years; we noticed a big difference in quality and taste. See video recipe in our blog for how to make an authentic Cuban Mojito!
Breakfast at Cafe La Luz and Cafe Santo Domingo
If you are looking for a break from hotel breakfasts, a powerful combo in the morning is an Espresso at Cafe La Luz and pastries next store at Cafe Santo Domingo (Panaderia San Jose). This tiny little cafe is where locals go to get their cup of Joe. For more savory options, go upstairs for a full sit down breakfast at Cafe Santo Domingo. Ask a local for directions.
Additional Foodie Tips
For a taste of Cuba’s most appetizing food and top-notch service, make reservations at privately owned restaurants!
As one of the oldest stone forts in North America, Castle of Royal Force was built in 1648 by the Spanish to ward off incoming pirates. In 1762, the British occupied Havana for 1 year. Since the 1600s, cannonballs have been fired to alert the enemy.
Every night at 9 pm thousands of spectators pack the fort to gaze at Cubans dressed as vintage British soldiers at this ceremonial event. The detailed procession starts with a march, loading cannons with gunpowder, and finally igniting it for a booming finale. Additionally, the fort provides some of the best views of the Havana skyline at night. Get there early to stake out your spot to witness this time honored tradition. Before or afterwards, wander around the perimeter and check out the many exhibits showcasing its illustrious past.
Malecón, Havana Waterfront Walk.
Wake up early for a 5 mile walk on the waterfront from Old Havana (across the way from the fort) to the United States Embassy. Stroll through the field of missile-shaped flagpoles for a metaphoric reminder of the tense relations that these countries once shared. You’ll notice along the way fishing boats, old buildings, and one can only imagine how these dilapidated buildings may one day become fancy hotels and chic restaurants. Walk toward the National Hotel (Hotel Nacional de Cuba) a few blocks away.
The National Hotel (Hotel Nacional de Cuba) is Cuba’s most famous hotel. Walk toward the bar, and in an adjacent room are photos of celebrities, athletes, and dignitaries. Order a refreshment, relax at the outdoor lounge, and enjoy the scenic ocean views or pull up lounge chairs around the pool. Pick your favorite classic car and negotiate with the driver on a price for a ride back to your original destination.
Cuba is one of the few places in the world where artist are well paid; in fact, they make more money (as a whole) than any other profession. On the waterfront, about a ½ mile away from Old Havana, you’ll find Cuba’s most creative art at the Almacenes de San José on the Port of Havana. You can easily wallow away hours of a day meandering through aisles of art. Most pieces are reasonably priced, and you can negotiate with artists directly. Bring home one of these masterpieces as a memory of your colorful vacation.
The Art Factory located on an edgy and isolated side of Havana has an active and interactive nightlife. Once upon a time, this vacant warehouse was transformed into a gritty yet chic destination where well-dressed locals party till 3 am. Weave your way through the crowds congregating at the cocktail bars and art exhibits of racy photographs, paintings, and sculptures. Every city should have a nightclub like the Art Factory, yet we have not seen a scene like this anywhere in Europe or the States!
Optional Time Outside of Havana
Due to travel restrictions as U.S. citizens (December 2015), we were told that we could not hike or explore this UNESCO world heritage site. Nevertheless, if restrictions have been lifted, we highly recommend exploring these unique, limestone hills. The Mural de la Prehistoria is controversial because the face of these rock was turned into a painting and looks a bit out of place in this scenic wonderland.
Our favorite tasting came not from the store but from the Tobacco Farm. Over 50,000 Tobacco plants are grown. While the government claims 90% of the crop, Tobacco farmers get to sell the rest to locals and visiting tourists. An additional benefit is that they are considerably less expensive than the ones sold in stores. We were stoked to watch these farmers show off their hand rolling skills.
One of Cuba’s most famous living artists, Jose Fuster, turned his home into a gallery, working space (for about a dozen masons), and a non-profit for the underprivileged. His ceramic palace should be visited by all tourists. Leaders and celebrities have gone out of their way to see this eccentric place in the town of Jaimanitas. Reserve a table for a surprisingly tasty lunch.
What to Pack
Local markets, drugstores, or convenience stores in Cuba lack much of the basic necessities that you can easily find in developed countries. To make your visit a comfortable one, here are suggested items to bring:
- a map of Havana (especially old Havana)
- a reputable travel book to bring and refer to for restaurants, cafes, etc.
- a roll or 2 of toilet paper
- hand sanitizer
- lightweight rain jacket
- comfortable walking shoes
- bug repellent
- anti-itch cream
- sun hat
- load up with magazines (we passed ours onto a grateful guide)
- lots of podcasts and music for long drives
- anti-diarrhea meds
- any over-the-counter meds
What to Expect
- wifi is difficult to come by; internet cards must be purchased and used near hot spots (hotels and parks)
- bottled water is hard to find so stock up when you find it
- there are 2 kinds of currency (one for locals and one for tourists)
- carry lots of change for tips
- most restrooms have an attendant and expect a tip in exchange for small quantities of toilet paper (bring your own)
- no toilet seats in public restrooms, some hotels, and restaurants
Authentic Cuban Mojito Recipe
1TB of raw honey
½ of a lime
⅛ cup of sparkling water
1 sprig of fresh mint
4 TB or shots of dark rum (not spiced)
ice cubes (10 cubes)
- Pour honey into glass
- Squeeze lime, but leave ¼ slice in, then add mint
- Muddle (crush and mix) ingredients
- Add rum, ice cubes, and sparkling water
- Mix it all together
Although time has stood still in Cuba for more than a half a century, it is quickly changing. As restrictions lift between the U.S. and Cuba, the level of interest is spreading quickly as the “hot destination.” Cubans are rightfully worried about their beloved country becoming commercialized, so get there before it fast forwards into the present.
Written by Debbie Sultan & Photos by Ariel Sultan.