Day 6: Wednesday
Another beach day! The forecast was supposed to be totally clear, so we were excited for another sunny day. We woke up a little bit late and didn’t make it to the beach until around 1pm. It was very overcast with foreboding clouds. The first beach we went to had lifeguards telling everyone to stay out of the water. There were red flags planted in the ground along the shore. We looked farther down the shore and plenty of people were swimming at the next beach, so we walked down there and paid our umbrella and chair rental fees.
The waves were gigantic! We had way more fun splashing around in the whitecaps than we did on Monday. We exhausted ourselves swimming since the current kept pushing us so far down shore. After awhile, we realized there was chair-side restaurant service! The waiter said there were no menus, but they had fish. I opted for grilled fish. Shan asked if they had sandwiches and the guy seemed to understand and said yes. Soon, we received our meals. Shan’s was a simple ham and cheese sandwich on wonderbread – the kind you’d find in a kids school lunch. Mine was an entire fish with the head and skin still on! It was pretty good, but picking out the bones was a pain. It was also difficult to eat the rice as the wind kept blowing it off of my fork!
We settled up (Shans was 3 CUC and mine was 14!!) and headed back to Havana. We had fancy dinner reservations at La Guarida (the place with the cool rooftop bar) at 7:00pm! They are located on the top of a building in Centro Habana, so it provides great views.
We showed up for dinner and were seated at an amazing balcony seat overlooking the street. Shan ordered his favorite drink, a Gin and Tonic, and I got a Daiquiri. We ordered “Smoked Marlin Tacos” to start. Oh My God. They were the best thing we had on the entire trip.
I was skeptical when Shan said he wanted to order them. I had seen them on the bar menu on Saturday and didn’t think tacos were a fancy dinner staple, but he deserves to get what he wants, so we ordered them. Best decision ever. They were so balanced. The tuna was smoky. The fried shell had a fattiness that the citrus aioli cut perfectly. There was a subtle heat at the very end. I wish we could order those again!
Dinner came and I wanted to order the famous Cuban dish Ropa Vieja. It is essentially “old clothes” or shredded beef and shredded sautéed veggies. Our waitress informed us that they were not able to get beef for the evening, so all of those menu options were not available. I opted for the rabbit, instead. Shan got suckling pig.
The dinners were pretty good. Definitely high quality Cuban food, but only “good” compared to what we are used to. He let me try his gin and tonic and it was incredible! Easily the best cocktail on the trip. We ordered another round and debated a third.
After dinner, we were tired, but went upstairs to enjoy some sparkling water and the view. It was clear the La Guarida was a tourist destination. Everyone was American or European. We finished our drinks and headed home.
Day 7: Thursday
It was supposed to rain so we decided to postpone our third beach day and explore western Havana and the Vedado neighborhood. We set off to get breakfast at Topoly, an Iranian spot that had fantastic TripAdvisor reviews and photos. We trekked through the University of Havana and down the famous La Rampa street. It was interesting to see more middle class Cubans who were attending school and working at the hospital. It felt more relatable than the people who were living in squalor in our neighborhood.
We made it to Topoly and immediately got a seat outside by their lush garden. We ordered a large appetizer mezze platter and then two lunch entrees. It was so much food that we had to get a to go box! We tried to order iced coffee again, but this time we received room temperature coffee without ice. But it did come with mini chocolates!
We continued our adventure to the Plaza of the Revolution. There’s a large memorial dedicated to Jose Marti and a building with the silhouette of Che Guevara.
We snapped some photos and started to walk to the famous cemetery and gardens but got caught in the rain. We found shelter under a bunch of trees in a residential area. Two men came out of their house and motioned to us to come inside, but we didn’t feel comfortable going into a stranger’s home. We also had our rain jackets so we were prepared!
I was surprised how awful the drainage system was in the streets. It was a torrential downpour, but the streets flooded almost immediately with inches of water. Cuba definitely has a rainy season and has to deal with hurricanes, so I’m not sure why they don’t have better infrastructure.
We hailed a cab and immediately went home as we were drenched and it was still coming down. It continued to rain all evening so we had a quiet evening at home and went to bed early! We didn’t eat much except our leftovers from breakfast. We debated going down the street to the corner pizza store located in someone’s home, but wanted to eat healthy instead. Vacation is funny like that – I spend weeks beforehand eating healthy so I can splurge, but after a few days of vacation, I end up craving healthy food and feel so gross eating out for every meal!
Day 8: Friday
Third beach day! It was supposed to be clear skies, so we took the same bus out to the beach. I wondered if the workers started to recognize us. I definitely got tired of the same playlist of music videos they played on repeat!
We went to our favorite spot and played in the water. There were ominous clouds looming in the distance, but we didn’t think much of them. We ordered drinks, but suddenly the sky let loose and started pouring! We grabbed our stuff and ran to the little beach restaurant nearby. We got a table and looked at the menu, but they didn’t have many options other than pizza or ham sandwiches. We waited it out for 30 minutes until it cleared up.
We laid out for awhile and ordered pina coladas. We started swimming again as it began to drizzle. We decided it wasn’t bad enough to leave the water, so we had a lot of fun swimming in the rain. Luckily all of our stuff was still dry! After awhile, a stray dog showed up and sought shade under my chair. He wouldn’t leave us alone! Even when we started walking to the bus stop, he followed us all the way there.
Around 5pm, we headed back home. We showered and headed back downtown for dinner. We had mainly been taking taxis, but there were also bicycle taxis! They are basically adult tricycles with 3 seats on the back. We realized we had to try it once before we left! We hailed one and had a very bumpy ride. It started to drizzle and the driver said he had some rain gear at his house around the corner. He stopped to get it and affixed it to the bike. He had an interesting speaker system set up that blasted music from his phone. It was certainly a wild ride.
We wanted to try the second best restaurant in Havana called Dona Eutima. It is at the end of a long alley. Many restaurants will hire poachers to grab tourists from the street and convince them to eat there for a commission. This alley was filled with poachers. We walked by and one started talking to Shan. He asked where we were going and we told him Dona Eutima. He said he would show us where it was. I was worried he would take us to the wrong place, so I refused. He continued nagging us until we basically had to hide to avoid him. He kept following us around for 5 minutes until he got distracted by other tourists.
We went to Dona Eutima and were informed they were full for the evening. We made reservations for the following night. Wanting to avoid the poachers, we ran out of there as quickly as possible. We walked around and consulted our restaurant list. Nothing was close. We ended up at La Mina. We sat outside and saw they had a 15 CUC pre fixe menu that included two cocktails, an appetizer, rice, beans, an entree, dessert, and coffee. We opted for that!
The waiter took our order and was not very friendly. Our entrees were delivered and Shan had rice and beans mixed together… but I only had white rice. I figured it was the end of the night and they were out. We were also promised creamed corn on the menu, but were served a domino sized brick of dried, flaky corn paste. Plus some vegetables that I’m pretty sure are Kroger frozen vegetables. So unappetizing.
Finally, dessert came and it was a delicious flan. We enjoyed that, but there was no coffee or second cocktail after we waited 30 minutes. We were so fed up and wanted to leave. I am definitely writing a poor review!
It was Friday night and we wanted to go out, but had no clue where to go. All of the bars on our list turned out to be lame and we couldn’t seem to find any hip ones. We ended up getting strange ice cream and hailing a taxi home.
That evening, I suffered from the worst stomach cramps and sickness. I’m not sure if it was food poisoning (not surprising) or if my body was simply rejecting all of the non healthy food I was ingesting. Definitely not a fun evening.
Day 9: Saturday
Since banks are closed on Sundays, we had to wake up early to exchange our CUCs back into Euros! We also had signed up for an “Experience” through Airbnb, the company we booked our lodging through.
“Experiences” is their new attempt at excursions guided by locals. They have them in several cities, but Havana was one of the first. We signed up to tour a local paladar (family restaurant) and learn about the difficulties of running one. We also got a meal out of it!
He first difficulty was finding the place. The address our guide, Ariel, sent us was pretty vague. We ended up having to ask the currency exchange office to show us on a map. It was a paladar named La Cathedral in Vedado. We arrived at 11am and met Ariel and the two other Americans who signed up for the tour.
Ariel quickly launched into how he has spent the last 5 years starting a company that has an app to show tourists where the best restaurants and bars are. He was definitely a passionate guy who has a lot of love for Cuba.
We started off by learning how to make mojitos! Shan and another girl went behind the bar to make them for the rest of us. The formula is simple: a tablespoon of sugar, enough lime juice to cover it, a spring of spearmint muddled, fill the glass with ice, 6 count of rum, fill the rest with soda water, and top with more spearmint! The mojito Shan made was definitely the best I had in Cuba!
Afterward, we went outside to meet the buyer of the restaurant. He is employed full time by the restaurant and his entire job is to make 3-4 trips per day to local markets to get meat, beer, vegetables, sauce, and any other ingredients they might be low on. Servers are trained to know what the inventory is and how to stall on certain items or brands of alcohol until the restaurant gets more stock in a few hours.
Then we toured the kitchen. There is one sink and one man washing dishes for the 1500 plates that are used daily! We tasted their famous tomato sauce and saw the process of making one of their most famous lamb dishes. Guy Fieri has even visited and made that exact dish! We tasted it at the end and it was simply delicious: Tender lamb marinated in white wine and cooked in red sauce with peppers and onions!
We went out to the patio and ordered lunch. Shan got a steak and I got pork with pineapple. They were only okay, but our table shared an appetizer of the dish we made in the kitchen. Still so good!
The best part of lunch was the conversation. Ariel explained how he grew up poor, but since everyone has free education in Cuba, he was able to make a name for himself. He’s a successful app developer and works with several talented Cubans. We asked if he ever wanted to move to America or Europe to work and he said he’s considered it, but quickly realized he would be taking a valuable asset away from the workforce of Cuba and making it harder for his country to develop. He wants to help Cuba and prove that success is possible within the country.
I asked about the vegetable production within Cuba and he asked why I was dissatisfied. I explained that all of the fresh vegetables we have been served are very small and wilted and generally poor quality. I asked if vegetables were not a profitable crop in Cuba. He laughed and said Cuba has the best vegetables of the region and I am simply used to GMO Vegetables that are gigantic. I didn’t want to argue with him, but I know that is not true since I only buy organic. Cuba’s vegetables are simply not good in Havana. I took the rest of his nationalistic bravado with a grain of salt. I do admire his passion for Cuba and making the experience as good as it can be for tourists. His favorite motto is “In Cuba, having fun is mandatory!”
After the tour, we walked around Vedado in the heat and got some ice cream. Still not great. The entire thing tasted like the foamy bit that is left over after you finish actual ice cream. We walked all the way home and rested our sore feet.
We headed to dinner at Dona Eutima. We sat outside on the patio in the alley. It was an adorable area with lots of umbrellas and lights. Occasionally a band would play some soft music. We were within view of the hostess stand and it was amazing to see how many people tried to get tables without a reservation and were turned away. The poachers would even lead them to the restaurant, knowing full well that the restaurant was full! We couldn’t figure out what the point was.
There were so many cats prowling around and begging for food! They were cute at first, but soon after we ordered, one caught a bird and ran under our table where it began to torture and eat it. The bird was squeaking and all of the customers were staring and gasping. The employees rushed over and tried to shoo it away from my ankles. I was terrified of the cat biting me or the bird guts getting on my feet. I was almost in tears. Suddenly, the cat got out from under our table and ran into the middle of the alley. A woman was so angry at it that she kicked it in the head and sent it flying! It was such a traumatic experience, but none of the restaurant staff apologized or seemed sympathetic. They simply threw water on every other cat that tied to get close. I couldn’t help but think how if that happened in America, we would definitely have a free meal!
Our food was bland as usual. I ordered Ropa Vieja – the traditional Cuban dish. We settled up and debating trying to find somewhere to go out. I still wasn’t feeling well and my stomach was still cramping, so I didn’t want to go on a wild goose chase, so we just went home. Cuba definitely doesn’t score points for fun nightlife!
Our Airbnb had a TV in the room, but on the first night, we discovered it only had Spanish channels. Tonight, I decided to try again and there was MTV Classic! We stayed up watching old music videos and packing so we could sleep in.
Day 10: Sunday
Our check out time was noon, so we naturally woke up at 11:30am.
We checked out and wanted to get food somewhere before the flight. La Guarida was close, so we decided to go there for lunch. Shan wasn’t impressed by his dish and I got duck salad with onion soup. Both were only okay. Seems like even the best restaurants are hit or miss! It was also frustrating how I ordered coffee, but it wasn’t delivered until AFTER I was done eating. I guess Cubans consider coffee a dessert whereas Americans think it’s an appetizer!
After lunch, we got a taxi to the airport. Our flight was at 6pm, but everyone said to get there 3 hours early. We arrived super early at 2pm. Of course we were “randomly selected” for additional screening. So much for having global entry which is supposed to prevent that! Luckily the “extra” screening was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, the entire Cuban airport was a joke. There was no line for the security check. The employees were sitting on the conveyer belt and chatting when we walked up. We had to ask them to move so we could put our bags on it. The woman who was wanding me with a metal detector was so caught up in a conversation with her friend that she forgot she had asked me to spin around so she could scan my backside. I simply walked away after waiting and she didn’t notice.
Finally we boarded the plane. Unfortunately we weren’t upgraded to first class for Havana to LAX, but we were upgraded to premium seats with unlimited alcohol! And we did get first class for LAX to PDX! Score. We were both still dealing with stomach issues, so we hadn’t eaten much. Shan was starving so he ordered two entrees – hamburgers being the only option. His little tray table was filled to the brim!
Overall, the trip was unlike any other. It definitely took me farther out of my comfort zone (language, weather, conditions), but I simultaneously felt like I didn’t get a good grasp of the culture. We didn’t have the chance to interact with many Cubans (except for Ariel) due to the language barrier – and because they were constantly trying to scam us. On the surface, they seemed very kind and accommodating. No one catcalled. No one threatened us. No one said anything racist or anti-American. Everyone we encountered was friendly and wished us “Happy holidays!” which I assume means vacation. They are a lovely nation of people who deserve far better than the stereotype they are given and the poor condition of their nation. I hope that increased American tourism opens up jobs and boosts the economy so that if I ever visit again, the dilapidated buildings will be replaced by more paladars and local businesses. Cuba has a rich culture that I would encourage any adventurous traveler to visit, but definitely don’t look forward to the food!