I’ve wanted to go to Cuba for years as longtime journalist, but never had the opportunity. But, this month I headed to Cuba for the first time as I launch my inaugural travel blog. As I travel around the world, my goal is to share my experiences with you, so it will make your trip a little more carefree when you travel on your journeys.
First, I want to say Cuba is a unique place in the world, unlike any other and the Cuban people I met were kind, family-centered and caring. Life in Cuba is more difficult and it is also much more simple there than in the U.S. They are not obsessed with cell phones, electronic devices and 24-7 entertainment. Cubans on average make $25 dollars a month. Many travel either by walking, bus or horse and carriage. And, the ingenuity of the Cuban people is amazing. They have somehow managed to maintain 1954 and 1956 Chevy’s and other American cars for more than 60 years. The cars are painted bright pink, red and lime green and are a must do on your vacation. Our driver took us in a bright pink 1954 Chevy for a two-hour drive from Havana to Varadero Beach, the most beautiful beach in Cuba. It was a beautiful drive through the Cuban countryside to Cuba’s most breathtaking beach. Traveling to Cuba is truly traveling back in time to the 1950’s. It is peaceful, relaxing and a time to unplug for a few days. A great way to see Havana is to jump into a horse and buggy with a tour guide who will take you to all the interesting stops around town including three Hemingway bars and a French Hotel where Al Capone lived and ran a casino.
But, there are some critical things you need to know before you head out for Cuba as it is different than most places you will travel in the world. Number one, take a lot of cash and cash it in for Cuban Money. You will need it and there are no alternatives. None of your credit cards or debit cards will work, if they have any affiliation with an American Bank. One dollar is worth 87 cents in Cuban money.
- Cuba does not accept American Money, American Credit Cards or American Debit Cards. They don’t care whether you have money to pay for things or not. It is not like Mexico, where customer service is among the best in the world. So, you will need several thousand dollars in cash for a long weekend, if you want to squeeze in the best Cuba has to offer.
- Stay at the Hotel Saratoga. It is a beautiful hotel and we highly recommend it. It is, by far, one of the best places to stay in Cuba. We stayed in the Suite Capitolio, a one-bedroom suite, with a pull out bed in the living room. It was around $500 dollars a night, but you can get a room for $250 a night. The hotel was built in 1933, has high ceilings and windows like a castle, the marble bathroom has a clawfoot tub and shower. Our view looked out over the old Capitol building. One note, is that there is street noise at all hours and that is true all over Havana. Your cell phones will not work in Cuba and the internet is extremely slow, but it will work at the hotel. http://www.hotel-saratoga.com
- Be extremely careful about what and where you Eat! It is safe to eat at the hotel. The drinks are fabulous and the food is good and it is safe. However, when you venture outside of the hotel, you need be careful. In Cuba, the Cuban people run businesses out of their home. Some sell t-shirts and other tourist items, others run restaurants. It is the home restaurants where you need to be cautious. My traveling companion ate a shredded Cuban beef dish at a home in the beach town of Varadero. On the last day of the trip, she became violently ill and when she returned back home to Austin went to the doctor where she was diagnosed with E Coli bacteria. This is a cautionary note, that eating in American hotels is the safest route. There are restaurants in homes that are safe, but you must vet them carefully.
- Take a ride in a 50’s era American Car- the 1950’s is before my era in life, but the cars and the care that the Cuba people have taken to keep them going over 60 years is amazing. We rode in a bright pink 1954 convertible Chevy for the two-hour one-way drive to the beach. It was a blast. The cost for the day is $200 dollars for the round trip, plus we bought our driver lunch and gave him a big tip. He gets to keep the tip for his family, while most of the money for services in Cuba goes to the Cuban government. Tip big and make a Cuban family happy.
- Rum and Cigars- Rum is the drink of choice in Cuba. We enjoyed drinking a variety of rum drinks. One of my favorites is the Ron Collins, which is Cuban rum, lemon juice, sugar syrup, soda water and lime. It is refreshing and great with a Cuban cigar, the best in the world. The perfect place to have a drink and smoke a cigar is the roof-top bar at the Hotel Saratoga where you have a 360-degree view of Havana.
Cuba is an adventure and trip that takes you back in time. It is definitely worth the journey, especially while it is a place that reminds you of simpler times.
Photos from the trip: