Ten minutes after stepping out of our shared taxi (colectivo) on our first day, Ryan and I were dripping with sweat, our clothes already sticking to our bodies as we roamed the streets of Habana Vieja (Old Havana) in search of our Airbnb. After asking around for thirty minutes for the address our host had listed, we quickly realized not one person knew of the address we had showed them nor could they recommend what to do without having our host’s telephone number.
Frustrated, hungry, and drenched in sweat, we decided to shift gears and search for Paul and Alexandra (my brother and his fiancé) who had arrived a day earlier and were planning to meet us at their Airbnb in the same district of Old Havana around 1:30pm. Without wifi or a map of the city, we continued asking people (in our rusty Spanish) where their street was. Finally, about twenty minutes and several conversations later, we found Paul and Alexandra, dropped off our bags at the casa they were staying at and came up with a game plan to find our place.
Although we hadn’t planned to use the internet while we were in Cuba (as we heard it was hard to find and expensive), we decided to go ahead and pay for an internet card (2 CUC), sit in the lobby of one of the nice hotels to try and email our Airbnb host. Sooner than later, we figured out the actual address of our place and realized we were staying 45 minutes away by foot from Old Havana (the neighborhood my brother was staying in). Although we were disappointed we weren’t closer to my brother and A, we decided we had to make the most of our situation and learn from the mistake of booking our accommodation ahead of time. (Side note: It wasn’t hard for us to find a place in Habana Vieja when we returned to Havana at the end of our trip. We just walked up to a few different habitaciones and found a fit after the third or fourth one we visited.)
Needless to say, we definitely got our exercise in while exploring Havana – walking by foot to and from the outskirts of the city to Habana Vieja each day to meet Paul & A. We had a blast exploring the streets, riding in bicycle taxis, admiring the architecture and the vibrant colors and energy of the city. By day three, we realized that some time spent in the sun, an extra splash of rum in our pina coladas, and a warm ocean breeze was all we needed to feel at ease after being in the bustling city.
SANTA MARIA DAY TRIP
One of our first daily adventures in Havana was going to a nearby beach called Santa Maria. We met Paul & A in the center of Havana Vieja near the Plaza Central Hotel and took a bus, the Transtur (T3), to the beach for 5 CUC (converted cuban peso) roundtrip. It took a total of 45 minutes to get to the beach and we were pleasantly surprised how nice the buses were that drove us there.
[Side note:] There are two currencies in Cuba. Tourists are usually charged in CUC for daily activities, accommodation, food, etc. However, if you can find a local to exchange with, you can swap out CUC for CUP (local currency). We used our CUP at local markets to load up on fruits and vegetables and to go to local restaurants for cheap.
We were all amazed at how incredible the beach was when we arrived. I was not expecting crystal clear blue, green, turquoise water with expansive white soft sand all around us. Many people had told us it was this beach was too touristy so I really wasn’t expecting much; however, knowing what tourism looks like growing up in Myrtle Beach and having lived in Hawaii most recently, we didn’t feel the beaches were overcrowded at all. We also went during low tourist season (so that helped too). When we got there, we automatically found some shade under some coconut trees as the sun was blazing up above. The boys (Paul & Ryan) had fun collecting tons of cocos for us. We had local Havana Club Rum with coconut water and enjoyed the rest of the day soaking up for the beautiful weather.
[Side note:] Make sure to catch the bus before 4pm as the bus lines begin to become overcrowded in the late afternoon. Another tip we found helpful was walking down to the bus stop near Hotel Atlantico to catch the bus home. This is one of the first stops the bus makes on its route back to the city and you have a better chance of getting on this way. Another way to get to and from the beach is by taking a taxi colectivo around the same price if you can find 4 or 5 people to ride with you. The taxi driver will have a set time to pick you up and you can avoid the massive crowd trying to get back to the city.
FAVORITE CITY GEMS + NIGHTTIME FUN
1. Roma (bar) – Make sure to order the pulled pork sandwich by the chef! He’s so smiley and beams with pride when you order his precious pulled pork sandwich. It includes chips and the most delicious dipping sauce for $4 CUC. We loved sipping mojitos ($4 CUC) and watching the sunset overlooking the city. There were at least two different DJs who played music while we were there. It wasn’t too crowded either since we went earlier in the night.
2. El Dandy (bar/restaurant) – Finding this little spot was perfect for us – whether it was day or night. The food here was different from the usual chicken, rice and beans we had consistently throughout our trip so we took every opportunity to make several visits during our time in Havana. Make sure to order the sweet potato fries with aioli if they have them! They were by far my favorite food item of the whole trip. Ryan loved the bloody mary, listening to Bob Marley songs, and munching on popcorn as we enjoyed the night time vibes of Havana. We also made a morning visit and loved our Heuvos Rancheros, the natural juices, and coffee we ordered!
3. Art Factory – I wasn’t expecting much from this place, but Ryan and I loved it. It had all you could ask for: music, drinks, food, art, an eclectic and diverse population of people, a fun nighttime energy pulsating throughout every room. Ryan and I loved how there was a different vibe in each room you went into. There was a huge movie playing on the big screen in one room, DJ/club atmosphere in another, artwork all throughout, two restaurants, and yet another room to dance in if you weren’t feeling the club vibe. We also loved the mojito frappe (frozen mojitos)!
4. The Malecon – One of the highlights of our time in Havana was hanging around the Malecon right along the ocean. Whether it was watching the incredible sunsets at night or running/walking along the ocean in the morning time, this was a spot we really enjoyed. As the traffic passes in the background, you can turn towards the ocean and all the noise disappears as you become engrossed in the majestic scene in front of you.