VAMOS A CUBA!

Just 45 minutes out of Miami Florida, 90 miles south of Key West, a thirty-minute cab ride to town and say hello to Cuba!  A beautiful and dilapidated environment basically untouched.  I am fascinated with this tragically beautiful city, and yes colorful city The Cuban people are proud, they're kind, and generous. Don't miss a day without asking a local about Cuban life. 

I think this was the only day we rode in a 'typical' taxi, the rest of our trip we cruised around Cuba in style "old-school" style. Some of the vintage cars are in pristine condition others are simply old and rusty and most are privately owned and shared, meaning the drivers share their cars so other drivers can also make money. 

Checking into the Hotel Nacional was simple and organized. You'll want to exchange your money at the front desk, and you will need cash for everything.  Hotel National has been there since 1930, it had a renovation in 1992 and is considered a 5 Star. The rooms are fairly large, lots of closet space, and clean.

There are two pools and a gym. I suggest walking and dining outside of your hotel on most occasions. 

  Nudz Beachwear  - Use GratefulGardenia30 for 30% discount

Nudz Beachwear - Use GratefulGardenia30 for 30% discount

The hotel has incredible potential, you can't stop daydreaming about what it must have been like 'back in the day.'  In the 50s most likely you would've seen Hollywood royals like Elizabeth Taylor or Frank Sinatra in the bar at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba or find Liberace at the Tropicana Nightclub. The dress code is casual, there's not really a certain style for tourist, the locals wear Caribbean-style clothing, and the men love their Mexican wedding shirts. I suggest simple dresses, shorts, and flats. The streets are a little uneven and you will want to walk after your meal, so comfy shoes are suggested. Cuba at night is a magical experience, when you're walking along the streets, people leave their doors wide open so you can have a peek into their lives and enjoy music playing  from everywhere. The glamor days are gone but the spirit is still lives on.

Oh hello handsome! Morning coffee at Hotel Nationale with my peacock friend.

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Here' our first introduction to Old Havana.  Soon as you step out of the taxi, you'll have a glimpse into the Cuban culture. 

Dance and music are a lifeline in Cuba and it’s the birthplace of classic dances such as the Bolero, Cha Cha, and Mambo. Some famous musicians include superstar Celia Cruz, singer Olga Guillot, musician Arturo Sandoval, and the Buena Vista Social Club. Every street you roam you'll find musicians like these, amazing sounds and smiling faces. 

Our first stop for Cuban food - El Del Frente

Frente is a must along with the fresh mojitos, rice, and beans. There is no shortage of food. I suggest sharing a salad and entre.  My husband and I split a fresh, and I do mean fresh mojito and shared soft tacos and empanadas.  Everything was excellent.

There's good energy here, and the staff is lovely.  The restaurant has an upstairs and a rooftop bar. While the view was not scenic or spectacular, if weather permits I suggest sitting outside and listening to the music and noises of Havana.  We decided to sit inside with the air, it was a little too hot for the rooftop.  Service was terrific, attentive and prompt, and we did tip our servers. 

Your credit cards won't work here, you'll need cash for everything. You can exchange your money in your hotel. Don't forget to do so, you don't want to stand in line somewhere outside of your hotel. The average price for the three of us to eat lunch and dinner cost around $45-$50. If you have wine with dinner it's around $75. Just to be safe take extra cash. We're light eaters for breakfast, so coffee, fruit and toast cost around $20.00 for three.

El Floridita is one of the most iconic bars and restaurants on the island and was often frequented by Ernest Hemingway. It is said that the Daiquiri was invented there. The roots of El Floridita is older than America’s Prohibition itself. In 1820 it was known as The Silver Pineapple (La Piña de Plata) then later became La Florida, which eventually became  El Floridita.

  Because El Floridita is known as the Cradel of the Daiquiri, this is a quote attributed to Ernest Hemingway, who visited on many days at 10am..There is a statue of Hemingway that sits where he sat, in the corner of the bar. Rum and Coke in Latin America (except in Cuba) is known as a 'Cuba Libre' (free Cuba in English. In Cuba is called a ‘mentirita’ (or fib in English) On New Year’s Eve Cubans burn dolls in order to symbolize forgetting bad times and looking forward to new and good times during the new year.

You can negotiate on the taxi rides to and from your hotel into town, I do suggest you brush up on your Spanish, it helps tremendously. Round trip taxi cost about $25.00. If you stay at Hotel Nationale it's about a 25-minute walk into town. 

  Hotel Manzana  is the newest hotel, opening in May 2017 

Hotel Manzana is the newest hotel, opening in May 2017 

Until 2011, the only cars that Cubans can legally own are cars created and bought before 1959. After this year, the Cuban government seized all of the cars and owns them all to this day. Most of the pre-1959 Cars in Cuba are from the U.S. Everyday I absolutely loved stepping into these old classic rides.

We never felt unsafe walking around town day or night, like any new city you travel to,  just make an extra effort to be aware.

Museo de la Revolucion; This museum is a beautiful building and contains exhibits from the revolution. Due to a lack of funds, the museum is not up to par with our usual museum experiences, but the artifacts are fascinating. I would suggest reading up on Cuban history then walk through the museum chronologically, by the end, you'll have a clearer understanding of how everything transpired to the situation we know today. Cuba is one of the world’s last remaining socialist countries, following the Marxist-Leninist ideologies.

The entire pace of Cuba requires patience, so get ready to dial it down a notch or two...or three.

I do suggest you visit the Partagas Cigar Factory, you can purchase your tickets from the front desk of the hotel for $10.00 a piece. The 166-year-old Partagás Factory, hands down, this is Cuba’s best-known cigar factory and certainly the one most frequented by tourists. Standing outside requires a bit of patience. Most likely you will be approached by locals selling cigars... even by the front door. Don't buy them, After the tour, your guide takes you into a private room with your purses or backpacks (I suggest wearing a money belt or something close to your body so you can keep your wallet, phone/camera on you.) Only purchase from your tour guide or the factory, others are sure to be counterfeit. you're allowed 25 cigars a person,  the Romeo & Juliet's (most popular) were $15 a piece.

The factory is clean and very efficient, there’s a beautiful old marble staircase to the left when you enter. The rolling gallery is one of Havana’s largest, with huge windows along either side with natural light shining through for the workers. There are 204 torcedores working here. It looks a bit like the old prisons you see in movies, but it's very organized, and honestly, you get used to the smell of cigars pretty quick.

Havana is the birthplace of the premium cigars The smell of unlit cigar tobacco, earthy and pungent and remarkably intoxicating. These leaves felt like velvet. The production here is unlike almost every place else. Cuban cigarmakers, unlike their counterparts in most of the non-Cuban cigar world, make the entire cigar themselves. Women are considered the ultimate artist when it comes to rolling cigars.

Workers roll about 50 cigars a day and are allowed to smoke 2 cigars a day.

The factory is buzzing with row after row of workers measuring and perfecting every cigar by hand. It's unrushed, antique and an artisanal process, one that hasn't changed for hundreds of years, and yes there is strict quality control. We were told there's no room for error when working in this room. If you've made it to this area, you get only a few bad rolls, then you're out, and there's no shot at a second chance. It's mandatory for each worker to read only classical literature along with Cuban newspapers only. You won't find magazines or billboards anywhere in Cuba.

Here are a few local Cuban women enjoying their cigars.

El Cocinero opened right next to FAC in February 2013. This hot spot has instantly become a favorite. Located underneath the imposing brick chimney of the same name that used to be a vegetable oil factory.

After a wait at the front door even if you have a reservation, you'll be led up  3 flights of circular stairs, similar to a lighthouse, and yes it's worth it. This place has a renovated artistic feel, fun music, nice décor and has attracted a mixed crowd of affluent young Cuban locals and tourist.

 Cuba, an island composed of keys, an installation at Fabrica de Arte Cubano, Havana

Cuba, an island composed of keys, an installation at Fabrica de Arte Cubano, Havana

 

Fábrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory)  Located in Vedado at Calle 26 -This is a must see!  Cuban artist wait for two years or more to be seen inside this space.   It's delightfully hip and unique venue (frequented mainly by young and fashionable Cubans) with a nightclub, live music, live performances artist and anything that might be labeled as artistic, it's here. If you're a traveler who wonders "where do the cool and fashionable locals go?"  It's here.

Making our way to LaGuardia Restaurant was just as exciting as eating there. Fidel's spirit, of course, is felt and seen everywhere you go.

There's something so intoxicating about this vibrant and crumbling city.

Paladares are privately owned restaurants housed in shabby-chic quarters, our first evening we dined at La Guarida, quite a dramatic setting, arriving there was just as exciting as eating there. We had fish, rice, beans, and salad. Simple and stasyfing. 

The city takes on a whole new color at night, if you love the nightlife, you'll come alive in Havana.

While in Cuba you must take a ride to the beautiful beach Cojimar, about twenty minutes from town and visit La Terraza,  a legendary fishing village in Cojímar, another of Hemingway’s haunts; La Terraza de Cojímar Restaurant. The place actually opened back in 1925 as a cheap restaurant called Las Arecas, and it was in 1940 that it became an exclusive restaurant and bar under a new name: La Terraza. It soon became famous with international visitors, and Ernest Hemingway was the most loyal customer of all. He would come here regularly after going out to sea with his loyal and faithful friend, Gregorio Fuentes, the ultimate fisherman who was the first mate of the writer’s boat, the Pilar. Gregorio taught Hemmingway everything he knew about fishing. In 1952 "The Old Man and The Sea" was published. Gregorio passed away at 104 years old, he never read Hemmingway's book. I guess you could say he lived it.

Pictured above is the author’s favorite corner table, which has a picturesque view of his beloved ocean, permanently set for its most famous customer. Picture Ernest Hemmingway sitting right here, visions and words falling into place for The Old Man and The Sea. La Terraza is in tip top condition, an incredibly peaceful place and most likely the spirit of Ernest Hemmingway returns often. Ernest Hemingway lived in Cojimar for some years and this was his favorite restaurant.

The seawall, called the Malecón, is where most of the Cuban locals spend their evenings enjoying the city view. It is referred to as "Havana's sofa."

When you go to Cuba, hit the ground running. Don't miss out on feeling so alive and connected while having no wi-fi connection. Remember the days when you ran out of the house, hopped on your bike or in your car and you felt free? There's something to be said about feeling free in Cuba and what a contradiction that is.

Gentleman's rendezvous.  

The weather was perfect in April, a little humid and balmy in the evening.

Hotel Saratoga - Is beautiful Inside, there is a wait for this hotel so book in advance if you choose to stay here. The Manzana is Cuba's newest hotel that just opened.

 Hotel Saratoga - Hotel Saratoga was finally completed with the hotel opening its doors to guests in December 2005. The Hotel is located just inside the historical center of Havana.

During and after Prohibition, American gangsters made their way to Cuba, mafia heavies such as Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano. The jet-setting glamorous party crowd soon followed, attracted by a tropical haven where drinks flowed freely and gambling and showgirls were all part of the day.

Transported back in time.

We had the chance to meet one of Cuba's top young entrepreneurs; Carlos Garcia the founder of Kewelta. Carlos is leading the way for technology and his office is around the corner from the Hotel Nacional. We were invited to his office to meet his team, and talking with them left you with certainty, that this group of young entrepreneurs are switched on. Carlos can be seen on CNN talking about his vision for what's on the horison for Cuban technology. 

If you want to know about Cuba, ask the people. Cubans are happy to have the tourism, and they truly enjoy talking about their families, their culture and their country.

Even the Cuban coffee is happy to see you. 

Checking in at the airport; The airlines will ask your purpose for traveling, we said "people to people" We were not traveling with a group. You can purchase your visa at the ticket counter -$20.00. Thre was limited paperwork.  There is very limited shopping, you'll spend money on cabs, food, museums, and cigars and tours. Wi-fi is only available in your hotel and it's still a bit challenging, but it was quite nice to be disconnected for awhile.

Gracias Cuba! My family enjoyed our visit and look forward to returning. P.S. love my Panama hat purchased from your market and thrilled to have our son explore & experience Havana. Thanks for the memories!

If you're interested in an organized tour contact; Collin Laverty with Cuba Educational Travel - Providing everything you'll need for a detailed Cuba experience. 

All you'll need for your Cuban trip;