Manda Travels: Cuba!

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Two weeks ago Brett and I spent a long weekend in Cuba thanks to my older brother, who gave us the flights as an engagement gift. We spent two nights in Old Havana and our third night in Guanabo, a beach town about 30 minutes from Havana. Cuba was unlike any place I have ever been — it was colorful, hot and weird but welcoming.

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We stayed in two different airbnbs and both were comfortable but without any frills, which is exactly what we expected. Our hosts were so friendly and helpful – they arranged taxis for us, made dinner reservations and were available for anything we needed (including when the water stopped working on our first day, and when the power went out on our second day – part of the charm of Havana!) The hotels that we were looking at didn’t have great reviews and were much more expensive than our airbnbs (which were $35/night and $17/night!) — we also were able to walk everywhere we needed, which was nice and convenient.

Cuba has a few “inconveniences” that are easy enough to work around in advance. There isn’t any cell service, and wifi isn’t widely available — I called my phone my “camera” the whole time. We did a bunch of research in advance on restaurants and site seeing. There is a map app that allows you to save a map to your phone, but we actually used a paper map from a guidebook the whole time, which felt fittingly old-school. There aren’t any traditional grocery stores, but you can buy water or beer from little counters in town (that also sell a few other random items like canned corn, tuna fish and rolls).

Cuba also operates only on cash, and there is an extra fee to exchange into their currency from US dollars. We brought euros with us instead, which we exchanged into CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) at the airport and then a second time at a bank in town. We had to wait about 45 minutes at the bank — if you can plan out your budget for a single exchange, I’d recommend just doing it all at the airport. We spent about 100 CUC/day ($100), plus another 100 on the driving tour we did.

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Our favorite eats:
361 – a cute bar/restaurant next door to our airbnb
Dona Eutimia – one of “the best” restaurants in Old Havana, apparently! our host made us the reservation here — it’s at the end of a small alleyway and surrounded by other small restaurants. We had ropa vieja, a giant avocado filled with shrimp and frozen mojitos.
El Cocinero – we had dinner here Saturday night and it definitely had a vacation vibe. The host stand apparently didn’t have our reservation (or the reservation for the group in front of us…) but they managed to seat us anyway. El Cocinero is in a cool old building that use to be an oil factory — we ate outside on the cute rooftop terrace. The food and drinks were great. After dinner we went next door to the Fabrica de Arte Cubano – a super trendy, VERY Brooklyn, art factory and bar.

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Our favorite drinks:
La Bodeguita del Medio – Hemingway’s favorite mojito bar! Super small and crowded, so we grabbed our drinks and enjoyed them outside on the street. Not the best mojito, but a fun crowd and live music, so worth the experience.
El Floridita – Hemingway’s favorite daquiri bar! Also fun and crowded. The shades are all drawn, so it was dark but cool.
Plus we got a surprisingly good and refreshing pina colada inside a pineapple from a street cart – we really embraced the whole “we’re tourists!” thing, in case you couldn’t tell.

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And, of course, we tried three different coffee places:
*iced coffee is a foreign thing there, we ordered it at each place, but were served three different versions. As with everything in Havana, just go with the flow.
Cafe Bohemia – a cute cafe tucked away from the main square in Plaza Vieja. Was my favorite setting, but a little hot because it didn’t get much air flow!
Cafe El Escorial – another place in Plaza Vieja, but on the main square. Good people watching, but wasn’t our favorite.
Cafe O’Reilly – this was the only place we found that was a) open early and b) served breakfast! A cute place, reminded me of New Orleans.

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And how we killed time between meals 😉
We did a 90 minute driving tour with a guide recommended by a friend – he picked us up in Old Havana, drove us to the Morro Castle, then along El Malecon and through the neighborhoods of Havana.
Museum of the Revolution – Brett described this as “highly mediocre” and I couldn’t agree more! This can be skipped.
Playing Card Museum – a cute, free museum in Plaza Vieja, was fun for a quick walk-through
Walked around Central Park, Capital Building and “Jurassic Park” (a place where a bunch of old cars park!)
Played bananagrams and read books 😉

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Our night in Guanabo was so different from our time in Old Havana, it was great to have the contrast. It’s a beach town filled with Cuban tourists – we definitely stuck out, but everyone was really friendly. One guy even introduced himself and shook my hand on the beach! Our airbnb host used to own a restaurant and cooked us breakfast on our last morning – was one of our favorite meals of the trip! For dinner the night before we ate at Chicken Little – the “best restaurant” in Guanabo. But in classic Cuban style they were out of chicken! We had fish instead 🙂

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