Jim's Journal: A Week in Havana, Cuba

by  Jim Sherman | Jun 21, 2016
Havana / iStock

If you are seeking a Caribbean vacation with a serious dose of culture, then Cuba makes for a great getaway. And it’s never been more accessible, thanks to regularly scheduled flights from the U.S., which are expected to begin in the fall.

My trip was amazing. For now, it’s still necessary for American travelers to Cuba to go with a group on a cultural, educational, or religious trip. A group could be as small as four people, but mine was made up of 20 friends and acquaintances from New York.

From the moment of arrival, Cuba seems like a country caught in a time warp. Upon leaving the airport terminal, you’ll notice the lines of vintage cars from the 1940s and 1950s in the parking lot. Chevys, Fords, Oldsmobiles, and even the occasional Lada (manufactured in the former USSR) are a common sight on the city streets. We paid 35 CUCs (Cuban convertible pesos; more on this later) for a one-hour tour with a driver. Many of these old cars are also taxis, so you’re often able to flag down whichever style and color you like. Ten CUCs will cover a trip between the new and old cities.

Beyond the unique fleet of old autos, you’ll also notice the city’s buildings, which have not changed or been renovated since the revolution of 1959. Most buildings are crumbling (we were told that three of them collapse, on average, each week); but the architecture, with its “old bones,” still feels glamorous and elegant.

As in old Soviet Russia, you won’t see much outdoor color except for the cars. In keeping with Communist regulations, there are no advertisements or signs on the few storefronts. The exceptions to the monochrome surroundings are the paladares -- or, privately owned restaurants. These are multiplying quickly as Cubans jump into free enterprise, and they are a great experience -- infinitely preferable to poor-quality, government-owned restaurants. My favorites included Starbien, which has amazing food and a lovely terrace, and Versus 1900, which is located in a gorgeous mansion owned by an Italian national. The food -- not surprisingly -- is Italian. I also liked Ivan Chef Justo, which has just a few tables and excellent paella, and Doña Eutimia, both located in the old town.

When it comes to currency, the country has two. The first, the peso, which has been highly devalued and is not convertible into any foreign currencies. The CUC is convertible into foreign money (dollars, euros, etc.) and is the currency used in private restaurants and bars. This dual currency system replaced the old Soviet-inspired system of having shops and restaurants just for foreigners. Now, rather than restricting access to private establishments, the dual currency effectively limits access to foreigners and those Cubans who work in jobs, such as tourism, which pay in CUC.

Since there are virtually no ATMs, and the few that do exist in Havana are unlikely to accept a U.S. bank card, it is necessary to bring cash along with you, and keep it secure in the hotel safe. Then, you can change money as needed into CUC. I brought $800 for 8 days, an adequate amount given that most of my meals were included in the tour package. I used cash for drinks at some bars and for taxis, small purchases, and tips. (Read our complete guide to using money in Cuba.)

Havana’s highlights include the old colonial section of the city, the Museum of the Revolution, the Contemporary Fine Arts Museum, the baroque Cemetery of Colon, and the Hemingway Museum. The Playas del Este beaches, located 20 minutes outside town, are also worth a visit.

Hotel options in Havana are limited at the moment, though this will change in the future. (See our guide for where to stay.) I stayed at the centrally located Hotel NH Capri La Habana, which offered basic rooms, solid service, and breakfast. Internet here, as in most places in Cuba, was spotty, despite the odd requirement to buy an Internet access card.

As part of the current guidelines that allow U.S. travelers to visit Cuba for the purposes of education or culture, we visited with artists and saw a dance performance; a highlight was spending two hours with a former judge, with whom we debated economic and political rights. It was a lively exchange, to say the least.

We also arranged an evening at the Tropicana, a large-scale cabaret club that’s been running since 1939. Included in the price of a ticket is a bottle of rum and mixers, per table. If you’re looking for Cuban music and dance done on the grandest of scale -- complete with outrageous of costumes -- this is the place.

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