Here we go!
Quick note: Before leaving for this trip, we had downloaded an interactive offline mobile map of Cuba to our phones from www.maps.me. Also, we downloaded the offline Spanish dictionary from our Google Translate apps. These came in handy many times throughout this trip.
If you want more information on how to travel to Cuba as an US Citizen, click here:
We departed from Boston on Saturday afternoon, flying straight to Havana.
Once we disembarked the plane in Havana, we were directed straight to Immigration. This was a painless process really, which we had figured to be a disaster. After Immigration we were shuffled to an X-ray checkpoint, then directed to our luggage carousel. After grabbing luggage there were lanes to Declare or Not Declare your belongings, and exit.
Just another quick note: When you go through the checkpoint for Immigration to check passports, you must go up to the officer one at a time. If you are traveling with children, they require one child with one adult/parent. They then proceed to check passports and snap a quick photo of each person entering the country.
Our plan was to meet up with Mary of Vistalmorro, one of the owners of the casa particular from whom we were renting. The owners offer an airport pick up for a fee, which is a no brainer decision for us, and, it was a great experience. Mary is a very sweet woman, and she greeted us at the airport like we were long-lost cousins.
Before we left the airport, my husband went to exchange our money (they only allowed one person inside per exchange request), so the girls and I talked with Mary. Mary’s English is limited, but she spoke enough for the girls to feel welcome, and for our oldest daughter to exercise her Spanish; she studies it in school. Thankfully, I understand a lot of Spanish and can speak enough to reply (mixed with my Italian hahah). Once we had our money, we went on our way with Mary in her pristine SUV. Her apartment was about a fifteen minute drive through Havana, and it was a great drive!
As we left the airport area, we immediately drove in the local neighborhoods of Havana. Lots of small, colorful, run down homes. People everywhere. Buzzing mopeds, but not many cars on the road. The ones on the roads, however, were cautiously driving. (We asked about that, and she said not many Cubans have their licenses as cars are very expensive). We drove further, entering a busier old world center of the city. It was exciting.
This was the first vintage car I saw after landing.. I WENT NUTS! (I did every time we saw one on our trip!)
Along the drive, Mary pointed out many sights, transportation ideas and street names to help us acclimate. We drove down the Paseo del Prado, a large boulevard with a brick promenade in the middle facing the ocean. The city was hosting an art market in the walkway as we were driving past; so beautiful. We took a right at the end of the boulevard. Parked for the casa particular. This is where Mary’s husband and daughter pulled up. What a wonderful family. Her husband and daughter greeted us with hugs, and they so vibrantly spoke English. We went up to the apartment, talking about all the details of the area.
WHAT AN AMAZING APARTMENT!!
The apartment location is in Old Havana facing the Parque de los Enamorados. between the Spanish Embassy and an Iberostar Hotel. Though the apartment building was a bit run down, the apartment itself was modern, clean-smelled so good, and was spacious. There are two bedrooms, a full kitchen with washer/dryer, bathroom, living area, and balcony. The fridge in the kitchen was stocked with waters, some local sodas and beers. Which was nice!
What made this apartment amazing wasn’t just the amount of space or the convenient location, but the view! The view was of the Havana Bay and the Morro Castle, a fortress built between 1589 and 1630 to protect Havana.
It was dreamy!
Once we had the walk thru of the space with the family, we paid for their car service and they registered our passports in their book. All casa particular owners need everyone’s passport information on the first day for their books. You review what is manually logged in the book then everyone signs their line of information to verify. The book is then taken to the Tourism Ministry for registration.
We hugged and kissed our goodbyes with the family, really we were treated like relatives, and went to get ready. We noticed as we got freshened up to go out that it was dark out. We got on our mobile maps and took off towards Habana Vieja (Old Havana). We had plans to go to a restaurant that we couldn’t get reservations for before departing from home. Initially, walking there was beautiful. We walked through a big square, the Plaza 13 de Marzo, which had statues and flags with the Revolution Museum in the background. It was all lit up, lots of people hanging out together. Families with children riding bikes and elderly sitting on benches. Further down was a street in front of the museum, which was lined with vintage cars; so cool!!
Once we passed the museum, heading left, the neighborhood changed. We started walking on narrow streets with disintegrating buildings. The amount of people was still the same, but they were no longer families, but groups together. There were large overflowing trash bin collection areas every major corner. The TVs shining from the homes were so bright and loud. The locals live street level with their doors open; so you could see everyone lounging inside. Each of their doors and windows had cages/wrought iron coverings on them; leaving you to think this was once a dangerous area…or still may be since they were all being used. Not being able to see the area in the daylight made seeing it for the first time at nighttime a little bit disorienting and nerve-racking. The area seemed run down.
BUT it was safe! Cuba has gone through a lot of highs and lows over the last century. The boom of the first part of the century was similar to the glitz and glam boom of Hollywood or Las Vegas. Lots of people were traveling to Cuba then for vacation. BUT, the lows were unbearable for the people after the restrictions, and there was a lot of starvation and desperation in the later part of this century that produced these ruin-like buildings.
Though I felt safe, there were aspects of what was surrounding us in the dark that I could definitely understand could make someone feel nervous, but as we kept walking through the streets we could also see that it was just the point of view in the dark. Once we started to talk with some local people, that feeling melted away. (Especially, after we explored the area.)
The restaurant we wanted to dine didn’t have any reservations available for that evening, so we reserved a table for the next night. Once we walked a few steps away from the place, we got approached by a local who wanted to ‘assist us’ with a place to go. This is very typical in Havana. There are so many people working hard to make a living, and one of the ways they do it best in Havana is what I called ‘the hustle’. Everywhere you go there will be someone trying to solicit you to their businesses or taxi, or of their peers, most likely taking part in a cut of who they bring to these places. They definitely had an art of talking a fast game to make the sale. I had fun with these folks as they mean well, spoke exceptional English, and had a good sense of humor. Everyone was good at taking my ‘No, thank you’, then moving onto someone else.
This night we went along as it was late and we were starving! We were taken to this bizarre rooftop restaurant, La Familia. It was small, dimly lit, and decorated in shellac fish. A lot of things we tried to order was not available, which apparently is common in Cuba (but this was the only time we experienced it). The drinks, however, were good. So. We made the best of a weird situation, and enjoyed whatever we could eat, some drinks and music. Which is also a ‘hustle’ type thing in Cuba. No matter where you went, if they offered music, the band would come around with a collection hat after a few songs. It’s not a big deal, but it is something to know.
As we were eating, we decided not to go off our researched places to eat again, even if their waits were an hour-long! haha
After dinner, we hopped onto our map to find an ice cream shop we researched beforehand, Helad’oro. This shop offers an all natural artisanal ice cream that uses daily acquired fresh, authentic Cuban fruits and other items. It was such a great stop! Helad’oro was a super cute place, fairly new, and their ice cream was perfection. They offered a lot of flavors. They had the usual suspects like chocolate, vanilla, dulce de leche and Oreo! But they definitely had unusual gelato flavors: moscatel, pineapple, tumeric, mamey (tropical fruit), guanabana, and guayaba!
As we started to enjoy the ice cream, it began to pour outside. Like deluge rain. As quickly as it started it magically ended, and we made our way back to the apartment.
Old Havana/Habana Vieja:
Next Cuba post will be Day 2, exploring Habana Vieja all day!