Cuba: Days 1-5

Read about my pre-trip planning and worries in this blog I posted yesterday!

Day 1: Friday

We checked into our Airbnb which actually turned out to be a hostel. We had our own room with air conditioning and a bathroom. We rarely saw anyone else in the building, but there was always an attendant there to buzz us in and sell us water (don’t drink the tap water!) The only difficulty was that they didn’t always speak English, so asking questions was tough. Our room was bright orange and fabulously gaudy. We specifically picked this Airbnb because the decor was incredible!

We unpacked our bags, showered, and embarked on the town in search of dinner. We wanted to go downtown and see the city.

The 20 minute walk downtown was… interesting. The streets were dimly lit and there were cats and dogs prowling everywhere! There were kids playing in the street and a few adults chilling in their doorways. Air conditioning is rare, so everyone leaves their doors and windows wide open. As we walked, I peeked into homes and everyone was doing the same thing: watching TV. Entire families were crammed in tiny living rooms, surrounding the TV. I don’t know the exact layout of a typical Cuban home in Centro Habana, but it seems like there is one 10’x6′ living room, a smaller kitchen in the back, and then maybe a bedroom upstairs – or maybe a tiny cot in the tiny living room that also functions as a couch. Our 300sq ft hostel room suddenly felt like a mansion.

As soon as we reached downtown (Habana Vieja), we saw many many more tourists. We walked along the Prado – a lush median down the center of one of Havana’s busiest streets. There were lots of other couples walking, too. The large hotels and historical buildings were lit up beautifully!

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We consulted our map and picked Restaurant Van Van. It was in the heart of downtown, among the winding cobblestone streets. We were immediately seated and ate a mediocre dinner. We were warned that the food in Cuba isn’t exactly delicious. I got chicken curry (I know, not really Cuban food, but it sounded tasty!) and Shan got a beef/lamb dish with interesting potato scoops around the plate.

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On the bright side, there was live music! Unfortunately it also included the band going table to table to sell their CD. Afterward we were exhausted, so we went back to the room to have a long night’s sleep.

Day 2: Saturday

The main point of this vacation was to relax, so we decided not to set alarms or wake up early. As a result, we slept in until 11am! We awoke well rested and left our room in search of coffee. There was a cafe on our list, so we walked downtown. The streets seemed much less intimidating in the day time. They were still as busy and everyone seemed to be working – repairing a bicycle or selling tamales. Havana is a very loud city. People roam the streets advertising their services (cleaning, repair) by scream-singing in Spanish. There are no stop signs, so cars always honk when approaching an intersection. The bicycle taxis are always trying to get new passengers, so they yell, “TAXI! TAXI!” at everyone they pass.

We made it to the cafe and it was totally empty, except for a group of guys chatting and jeering loudly outside. We decided to pass. We kept walking and stumbled upon the San Francisco square. It had a cool statue and fountain and lots of pigeons.

We walked along the water and decided to eat at a waterfront restaurant. Again, the food was mediocre. We ordered iced coffee and were given two espressos with cups of ice. We made it work, but definitely not what we expected. I ordered “pork with BBQ sauce” and it turned out to be ribs! Shan got a Cubano sandwich. During all of our meals, the waitstaff was extremely friendly. They all spoke limited English but were determined to make sure they understood (mostly) what we wanted.

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We continued walking around the city. To the north of Havana, there is the Malecon. It is a long seawall that runs along a busy street. During the evenings, locals get alcohol and sit along the water and hang out. We walked this route and laughed at the number of cars that passed and screamed “TAXI????” It was never ending! We spent the day walking the city. I think we walked 11 miles total that day!

The stereotypical photos you see of Cuba always feature two things: colorful buildings and old cars. There are definitely plenty of old cars in Havana, but we couldn’t find the colorful buildings. There were some painted unique colors, but all were dull and falling apart – not the vibrant, new buildings featured on magazines. I think some heavy Photoshop was used… or we spent our entire vacation in the wrong areas!

We discovered that the best restaurant in Havana was located in our modest neighborhood. It is called La Guarida and the famous Cuban movie “Strawberry and Chocolate” was filmed there. We wandered in and asked if they had an opening for dinner. We knew it was a long shot. Indeed, they said they were full. We made reservations for Wednesday evening and instead went to their rooftop bar.

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It was INCREDIBLE! A total 360 degree view of the city and extremely modern touches. The menu of drinks was extensive. We managed to get a table and drank mojitos as the sun set.

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We had heard about Factoria de Artes. It is a giant factory building that has been converted into a party warehouse. Some floors have contemporary art. Some have club dancing. Some have tables for drinks. The novelty is that you get a punch card when you enter and bartenders give punches as you order drinks. Then, they tally up your card when you leave and you pay then. I had heard nothing but rave reviews from friends. It’s the best nightlife spot in Havana, however it is a 15 CUC taxi ride away. We tried to negotiate lower, but ended up walking half of it to save some money. We finally arrived and it was closed for renovations until June. I had checked their website before leaving America and there was no mention!

We tried a few more bars on our list and they were all sketchy or filled only with men. We couldn’t seem to find a good place to go. We chalked the night up to a loss and went home.

Day 3: Sunday

We tried again to find a cafe for coffee. We found a nice little plaza square and went to a cafe. It was highly rated, but filled with old men watching sports inside. I ordered an iced coffee and Shan got a banana liqueur coffee. We sat outside on the square and it was nice until it started to rain! We scrambled across the square to a restaurant where we wanted to get lunch. Every table seemed to have a platter of meat skewers. We thought it might be their specialty and almost ordered them, but decided to look at the menu first. Good thing we did, because they were almost 25 CUC for 4 skewers of meat! By far the most expensive thing we had seen. Most meals were 5 to 8 CUC and “fancy” places were 15 to 20. We opted for two burgers and beers instead. The burgers we got were the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen. A bun, a patty, one piece of lettuce the size of a golf ball, and one slice of cucumber. At least it came with 5 French fries!

We waited out the rain and then walked around a bit more. It was so humid from the rain. All we wanted was a cold drink and more food! We discovered an adorable and modern cafe with air conditioning. I ordered a mojito (not my favorite drink but no one in Cuba knew what a vodka soda was!) and looked at the menu. It was entirely in Spanish. Shan ordered a fried appetizer of some sort. I saw the word “Sopa” and it reminded me of “Sopapilla” which I thought was a breaded dessert. I assumed sopa was a type of flatbread appetizer.

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I was wrong. I had ordered piping hot vegetable soup on a 100 degree day. Oh well. It was delicious and at least we were in air conditioning! We hung out at that cafe for awhile and had a long conversation about school. We went through each grade year from kindergarten to college and shared our teachers name and most memorable moment from that year. It was definitely a relaxing afternoon!

That evening, we showered and then got ready to go to dinner at Atelier. It is a fusion restaurant that has been featured in several foodie magazines. We walked a few blocks to the Malecon and hailed a cab. We were lucky enough to get a convertible! We enjoyed the sunny ride to the restaurant.

We didn’t have reservations, but they squeezed us into the patio area. It seemed to be where they put all the foreigners. There were four tables and we were all seated around the same time… and then promptly forgotten about. We had ordered water when we were seated, but it never arrived. The waiter hadn’t even come back to the patio. It was probably 30 minutes before we got water and ordered… and another 20 before we got our food.

The food was pretty bland. We both got meat dishes that didn’t taste like much. But they came with a bowl of white rice and a bowl of black beans and sauce. WHOA. Those beans were the second best dish I had in Havana. They were seasoned so well! I ordered beans at every other meal, hoping to find some as good and never did.

After dinner we walked around, trying to find a bar to get a drink, but failed again. All of the “bars” were more like restaurants with bright lights, quiet music, and everyone sitting at tables. There are salsa clubs, but we weren’t looking to dance. We hitched a ride back to our room and fell asleep.

Day 4: Monday

Beach day! The weather forecast predicted rain, but we decided to risk it and go. We went downtown to catch a bus that would take us to the Santa Maria beach and back for 5 CUC. Such a deal. The only bad part was waiting for the bus that came every 40 minutes on an unpredictable schedule.

Once we made it to the beach and forked over 6 CUC to use the umbrella and beach chairs, it was heaven! The sun was shining and the water was perfect. After awhile of playing in the water, we went to the beach bar. Coconuts were free, but it cost 3 CUC to fill them with rum. Yes please! There were at least 3-4 shots of rum in each coconut. We drank them all afternoon and then caught the bus home.

We caught dinner at El Chanchullero. It was a little spot in Habana Vieja with a very punk beach vibe. We ordered the two most expensive dishes on the menu and they were still only 8 CUC each! Shan got lobster and I got shrimp. One interesting thing about Cuban food is that each dinner came with a “salad,” but it wasn’t your typical veggie dish. It was usually a mix of raw and wilted cabbage, scraggly carrots, and a few slices of cucumber and tomato. There was no seasoning or dressing, except for some olive oil on the table. As someone who loves vegetables, I was always disappointed and quickly learned that even the entree salads are this pathetic! Vegetables must not be something prevalent in the Cuban diet. We finished our meals and went home.

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As soon as I showered, I knew I was burnt. Badly. I always burn once at the start of the summer but it’s never too bad. This time was different. I had applied sunscreen +30 SPF repeatedly, but not often enough. My entire body was lobster red, except for my face, luckily. I put aloe on and wore my loosest fitting pajamas since everything else was painful against my skin. It felt like I had the flu. I was wearing a hoodie and had 3 layers of blankets and was still shivering while trying to sleep. Halfway through the night, I started sweating and had to lower the AC. My body definitely was angry I was sunburnt!

Day 5: Tuesday

It was supposed to rain all day, so we planned to visit the Museum of the Revolution. We walked downtown and went to a small cafe nearby. It was definitely a local place. Everything was in Spanish and they didn’t have a clear menu. Shan ordered a croissant with ham and cheese but I was content with coffee. As we were eating, we saw other people eating much larger sandwiches. Shan was starving, so he tried to talk to the cashier and order an actual sandwich. The hoagie he received for a few bucks was definitely worth the language barrier!

Before we left, I had to use the bathroom. I noticed there was a woman guarding them and accepting money each time someone used them. I had read about some places charging customers to use the bathroom and figured this was the case. I gave her a few coins and she gave me toilet paper. I went into the bathroom and the light didn’t work. I did my business and then realized the toilet didn’t flush! Probably a good thing I couldn’t see what was in there. After I left, she went in with a bucket of water to manually flush the toilet. Definitely worth the price not to have to do that myself.

We walked to the Museum of the Revolution and paid the entrance fee. The museum is in the old Governmental building that housed Fidel’s regime. We saw his office and several artifacts.

The true gem was the grand ballroom. I was excited to photograph it as it looked amazing on other travel blogs, but it was under construction when we went! I managed to get a few photos between the scaffolding.

After the museum, we tried to find lunch in Chinatown. I had only had coffee and my sunburn was draining my energy. I desperately wanted my skin to heal, so I had worn a long sleeve flannel as a shield from the sun. We wandered around in the heat for 45 minutes. Chinatown was filled with crowds, but no restaurants that looked decent. I felt like I was going to pass out from lack of food and heat. We walked back to the main square and went into an air conditioned hotel. I typically avoid hotels and tour companies at all costs, but I desperately needed quality food and cold air.

I ordered the “salad with tuna” and hoped for 12 CUC that it would be filled with fresh veggies and protein. I received a small cup of olives and a small cup of tuna salad with mayonnaise. Not what I hoped for, but I did feel much better afterwards. We hung out at the restaurant for awhile and drank so much sparkling water.

We went back to our room and got ready for dinner. We wanted to go to Miramar, the farthest west region of Havana. There was a paladar (family own restaurant, as opposed to state owned) called Paladar Miramar that looked incredible. It was in a modern home on the water and overlooked an infinity pool. We had called ahead and made reservations for 7:30 so we wouldn’t be disappointed.

After a cab miscommunication where the driver tried taking us to Street 22 in Vedado instead of Miramar, we made it to the restaurant! We told them we had a reservation and…. they couldn’t find it. We insisted we called earlier that day and they seemed confused. Nonetheless, the sat us at a table on the upper patio, overlooking the water.

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This was our splurge dinner, so I ordered an expensive dish that had octopus, lobster, and fish of the day. We also ordered a couple appetizers like fried yuca! It was so delicious. The octopus was spicy and incredibly tasty. I’ve had better lobster in the states, but it was still good. We snapped a couple photos by the sunset and then went downstairs to sit by the pool and drink Tequila Sunrises. It was definitely the most picturesque vacation moment and a perfect halfway point to our trip.

Read about days 6-10 here!

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6 thoughts on “Cuba: Days 1-5

    • We just stayed in Havana with the exception of a few beach days. We definitely could have taken a day trip during our 10 days but didn’t want to overcommit! I would have loved to have gone to Vinales!

  1. Pingback: Next Stop: Cuba! | Adventures in Portland and Beyond!

  2. Pingback: Cuba: Days 6-10 | Adventures in Portland and Beyond!

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