A Guide for First-Timers in Havana
I grew up on Cuban culture. My abuelo left Cuba with my grandmother and their three children, including my dad, in 1970. They were allowed to leave with a single suitcase weighing only 70 lbs. One suitcase with any items necessary to care for three children and two adults. Everything else belonged to the government. The plan was to go to Spain, meet up with our cousins, and come to America, which they did. But the journey cost my grandparents a lot. My abuelo reminds me and my cousins, millennials eager to see the motherland, of these sacrifices. Leaving the island was physically and mentally taxing for them.
Tourism is a powerful catalyst that keeps the economy afloat and helps the warm and hard-working Cuban people garner their livelihood, and it's apparent.
"¿He cometido un error?" my abuelo asked,"Why go back after all we did to leave?" My abuelo doesn't want to go back to Cuba. He couldn't fathom why my cousin and I willingly wanted to visit. I don't blame him. Back in Cuba, before they could leave, abuelo was forced to work in a labor camp. When he was in Spain, he struggled to keep my aunt, uncle, and my father from going hungry. My grandparents would encourage everyone to sleep late, just so they could ease any hunger pangs and cut back on one meal for the day. At one point, they sent my aunt and uncle, older than my father, to stay with a family that could afford to feed them. These are just a couple of the sacrifices which were made in order to come to America. These are sacrifices I don't forget. But despite all of this, I grew up with Cuban food, music, and dancing. My dad gave me books about Havana so that I could understand where our traditions come from and where he once lived long ago. I don't like talking about the beauty of the island without acknowledging issues the Cuban people face in the hands of a communist government. Cuba is often romanticized. Truly, the multi-colored buildings with French facades and the 1950 car models roaming around Havana exude a romantic appeal. But Cuba, despite all it's charm, is still a third world country with most inhabitants making as little as $20 a month. However, tourism is a powerful catalyst that keeps the economy afloat and helps the warm and hard-working Cuban people garner their livelihood, and it's apparent. In Havana, you'll notice the slew of workers with jobs dedicated to the maintenance of tourism. But I digress, a trip to Havana is well worth it if you're open to an livening experience. Go to Cuba if you want to be swept away by rumba music playing at night near Parque Central, if you want to be graced by the sweet smell of tobacco leaves wafting from Cuban cigars, or to satisfy your curiosity about the people who will sell food from their doorsteps when it's 10 at night. Just like any other place, if you go to Havana there are just a few things you need to know and a few things you need to do.
Where to stay
A casa particular is the best way to stay in Havana for a fraction of what a hotel room might cost. Casa particulares are homes that offer guests the luxury of privacy, more space to spend leisure time, and a complimentary breakfast. We stayed at Dulce Hostal - operated by the lovely Dulce Maria Gonzalez and her sister, Rita. They are preserving one of the many homes in Havana where the high ceilings, glistening crystal chandeliers, and colorful palettes embody the past and present of Havana's French Colonial architecture. Personally, I loved staying with Dulce and Rita. They were very motherly and willing to practice Spanish with me, and their beautifully upkept home with vintage furniture made me feel like I was in a romantic novela. However, there are many options and different casa particulares to explore in Havana. Might your be interested in Dulce Hostal, which can comfortably accommodate up to three guests, here's the information you'll need:
Dulce Maria Gonzalez
Address: Amistad No 220 Ente, Neptuno Y San Miguel, La Habana
Where to eat
El Asturianito is one of the three eateries situated in a complex across from the Capatolio. Don't be fooled by their specialty, "Comida Criolla y Italiana". This place serves some of the best Cuban food in Havana. It's where local couples and families who are lucky enough to enjoy the luxury of dining out, go for a good - no, a GREAT meal. On the menu you'll notice pizzas and pasta dishes (stick with the Cuban options). I recommend the Ropa Vieja with a side of Moors y Cristianos, and if you're extra hungry, order Camaron Guisado en Salsa de Cubano. Of course, no matter what you end up ordering, ask for a side of mojo - a decadent, yet light, tangy, garlicky sauce served with most Cuban meals. I kid you not, for a sauce I have eaten many times throughout my life, this place makes the best. Here's the info for El Asturianito:
Cost per person: About 8.00 USD/CUC
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner
Address: Paseo de Marti #563, La Habana (right across from El Capatolio)
Phone: (+53) 7863-2985
This next place is just outside the hustle and bustle of the city. Paladar Doña Carmela is a short walk from Havana's famous landmark, El Moro - and it's where Beyonce went to eat during her trip to Cuba! But trust me, that's not the only reason why you should go. Here, guests dine in an enchanting, open-faced bungalow surrounded by nature. The helpings are hearty, live tropical music plays in the evening, and the friendly wait staff will serve some complimentary Cuban classics like yucca con mojo. It's the perfect way to spend a blissful evening. The deets:
Paladar Doña Carmela
Cost per person: About 18.00 USD/CUC
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner
Address: Comunidad nº 1 casa10 El, Morro, La Habana
Phone: (+53) 7863-6048
Where to be entertained and dance
There's no doubt that Tropicana is the most famous cabaret in Havana. It's a beautiful show set outside in the jungle on a grand stage with an array of elaborate costumes; composed of towering feather head dresses and oh so many ruffles. And hey, if you get the ticket for $115 you will get a free bottle of Cuban rum, a glass of champagne, and munch-worthy roasted peanuts. But at El Tablao, a hidden club with speakeasy vibes right across from Hotel Inglaterra located on Boulevard de San Rafael, you can attend a high-quality live performance for just ten bucks. If you're up for an adventure, go there on a Wednesday night. You'll be kindly escorted down a stairway and slowly greeted by lively Cuban beats from classic rumba to contemporary Cuban pop songs. Every Wednesday, El Tablao has a triple set of performances including cabaret, flamenco dancing, and singing, back to back. There, you'll meet a refreshing mix of a crowd from the young and free to the older and sophisticated. Everyone is there to have a good time. And like the entertainment, the hooch ain't bad either. Order a piña colada - I promise, you won't be disappointed.
Address: Across from Hotel Inglaterra, located on Boulevard de San Rafael. Exact location unknown!
Where to get Cuban cigars
Lastly, you can't leave Havana without grabbing some famous Habanos (Cuban Cigars). And yes, they are legal to bring to the USA for personal use. But, you need to know where to go and what to get. The best place to get premium Habanos is Fábrica de Tabaco Partagas near the Capitolio. I recommend that you know your cigars before you go because the no-nonsense manager of Fábrica de Tabaco Partagas is serious about his craft. Customers will quickly come to learn that he does not have time to tell you the history of Cuban cigars or "the best cigars to buy." As he said to me, "I can't tell you what the best is. Cigars are like fine wine or a favorite beer. There are many types and many tastes." So, here's a tip if you're utterly clueless about the type of Cuban cigars to buy. Stick with Serie D No. 5. You can purchase a box of 10 for about 30 USD/CUC.
Address: Calle Industria nº 520, entre Barcelona y Dragones, La Habana
Cost: 30+ USD/CUC
For first timers going to Havana, I recommend you follow these tips and check out these locations for a unique and memorable experience!
¡Buena suerte y viajes seguros!