A place frozen in time—that’s what everyone says about Havana. You hear stories and see images of gorgeous classic cars in pristine condition, attractive people who embody warmth and depth, and decaying buildings that were once incredibly grand.
That still doesn’t prepare you for any of it.
The first night we had dinner at Henky’s, a neighborhood restaurant in Habana Vieja, we felt like we were in a dream. Old cars rolled by like it was no big deal, adding to the casual magic that reminds you: “You’re in a place unlike any other. You’re in Havana.”
“Both for Havana’s beauty and decay, it’s very hard to restrain yourself from staring everywhere you look.” – Brin-Jonathan Butler
This was the farthest I have ever felt from home. I say “felt” because I have been further away geographically.
Experiencing Havana was so different from what I knew—what I thought I knew about the place and its people, and what I thought I knew about my life and myself.
A Digital Detox Not for the Faint of Heart
There are few places we can travel to in the world anymore where there isn’t the “convenience” of WiFi.
Before we arrived in Havana, we visited Mexico City and Holbox Island. We were still very connected in both places—less so in Holbox, a remote island off the Yucatan Peninsula. But we still had internet access when we needed it…actually, it was more like when the island gods decided to allow an hour or two of WiFi when it suited them.
The appeal of destinations where the WiFi sucks—or is nonexistent—is becoming more popular for adventure travelers who truly want to disconnect. It’s understandable with how dependent we’ve all become, addicted to instant gratification behind a screen.
How long will WiFi-free places be around? Probably not too much longer. Even in Cuba.
Many of the people we talked to are more than ready for the very thing we’re all running away from, WiFi. Many of them have Facebook accounts that they access when they can. They want to be more connected with the rest of the world, they want to learn more and find new opportunities in life.
For those who visit Cuba before that day comes, this is a legit digtal detox. Even if you’re a fly by the seat of your pants type, you’ll want to plan out a few things before you get there.
We didn’t do a lot of planning beforehand, but thankfully our neighbor at our casa had a guide book. We borrowed it and quickly took pictures of addresses and activities.
When we left Cuba, we didn’t know whether or not our flight was departing on time because we couldn’t check. We hopped in a classic car taxi, went to the airport, and hoped for the best. When was the last time you had that kind of faith in the airlines? Exactly.
Let Go of What You Call Convenient
I’m not usually a practical travel tips kind of writer, but I will give you some right now because visiting Cuba is a unique adventure. The first thing you need to get in your head is this: Let go.
Already, you won’t have your smartphone conveniences. But, there are many others. Americans, you won’t be able to use your credit or debit cards, which means you have to take out enough cash to last during your trip. While there are ways to get cash, the fees are terrible.
There are two kinds of currencies in Cuba: the CUP for locals and the CUC for tourists. The CUC was 1:1 with the US dollar when we went. Meaning, Havana was not a cheap date. We did our best to budget for the four nights we were there, but taxis were expensive and prices were inconsistent everywhere.
We paid $20 for a teeny-tiny pizza from a window when we were desperate. This was definitely a tourist price, since prices were not listed and the line was full of locals. Expect to pay more as a tourist, even if you can speak Spanish.
Everyone is trying to make a buck, however they can. Being that you might spend $10 for a hair dryer back home and they have to spend four times as much for that same appliance, you can begin to understand where they’re coming from.
Toilets flush, for the most part. We had a good system going on in our casa, with water bottles by the sink to fill the tank. By the evening, the water tanks were low and you had to get crafty.
So, yeah. Things will not be like they are back home, or in most westernized places you have visited. If you’re going to a place like Havana, clearly you don’t want things to be like that anyway. So, don’t try to make Cuba something it isn’t.
Settling Into the Havana Rhythm
Once you get past the creature comforts shell-shock, that’s when the magic happens. That’s when you start to settle into the rhythm of Havana.
There is music and dancing everywhere—inside the cafe, outside the cafe, by a park bench, inside a crumbling building, in the middle of the street. People sing on their way to the market, or for no reason at all.
You realize how much of that is probably missing wherever you’re from…the joy of singing and moving. You also start to realize that maybe you don’t have as much as you thought you did. There are people “with less” in Havana who—in many ways—have plenty.
There were startling moments when I realized I was the one with less. Less celebration, less music and movement.
It felt good to change that with salsa lessons from Lianne, who owned the casa we stayed in with her Dutch husband, Patrick. She and her partner are professional salsa dancers who run a dance school and give lessons on the casa rooftop.
This was the first time Mr. H and I had ever taken a formal dance class together. We had a slight language barrier with the instructors, but once we got into the lesson we learned and laughed in no time. Salsa lessons on a rooftop in Havana—not too shabby, right?
The structural reinforcements you see on the roof were in place because of the neighboring building. The beauty of the crumbling architecture we all marvel at in Havana comes at a price.
The people there do need our help. When you visit, it’s a good idea to donate anything you can. If you’re an American citizen traveling to Cuba, donations might be one of the reasons you have for entering the country.
We went as travel writers, but we left toiletries and clothing behind…including the skirt I wore when we took our salsa lessons. I’d had it for years, but it would always be the rooftop salsa skirt forever after. The skirt belonged to Havana now.
Lovely People You Might Get to Meet
I say you might get to meet them, because it depends on how you decide to experience Havana. If you stay at a hotel that caters to tourists or if you take too many tours, you will likely miss out on meeting locals.
The tendency for people visiting Havana is to play it safe, because of the aforementioned inconveniences and the great unknown with what to expect in Cuba.
First, I will tell you that the city is very safe. We were told that the government has strict laws in place to protect tourists—safe for tourism equals economy boost.
The two restaurants we frequented, Henky’s and Crêperie Oasis Nelva, had excellent food. Mainly we went to both places because of the service. The bartenders, chefs, and servers were friends by the end of our trip.
To put it into perspective, we were only there for five days. Do you make friends with people at restaurants at home so quickly? Um, neither do we.
Casas are cropping up all over the city, and they are a great way to have a genuine experience, and meet locals and fellow adventure travelers. Bonus: many casas are on AirBnB, so you can scoot around the credit card issue by paying in full through their platform before you arrive.
We felt like part of the family at the casa we stayed at, and I can’t recommend Lianne and Patrick’s place enough. Situated right in the heart of Habana Vieja, there is a friendly staff, picturesque balconies, and air-conditioning—which you will probably need.
Of course, a welcoming attitude toward tourists doesn’t happen everywhere, with everyone. It just depends on the experience you’re going for. Smiling, trying some Spanish, and showing gratitude go a long way here.
Do Things and Don’t Do Anything
You can’t talk about Havana without talking about Hemingway. I’m a writer, so I paid my respects to Mr. Hemingway by trying two of his preferred drinks at his preferred bars, a daiquiri at El Floridita and a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio.
I also visited his home, Finca Vigia. My real reason for going there was because he first bought the house when he was married to Martha Gellhorn, the first female war correspondent and one of my longtime heroes. (You can read about that obsession right here.)
Other than the Hemingway pilgrimages, we had no plans for things to do. Luckily Havana is one of the most captivating places in the world, so you can truly wander and enjoy and not “do” anything.
A stroll along El Malecon, the endless boardwalk along the port, is a must.
As is getting lost among the stunning, tragic architecture and stumbling upon art you won’t find in the guide books.
I’ll never forget the day we got stranded in a torrential downpour and took shelter at a restaurant patio on the Port of Havana. We sat there for hours, watching these troublemakers dive off the pier over and over. The owner of a nearby store kept chasing them off. They would return a few minutes later and carry on with the fun.
Of all the amazing moments I had in Havana, this very simple one stands out to me. These children captured the Cuban spirit, with their carefree energy in the diesel-scented rain. It was so free and beautiful.
Havana really moved me. It reminded me that I need to live with more abandon, to move more to music, and to infuse more joy into the ordinary.
The city may change one day—become westernized, commercialized, neutralized. Until then, the experience is there for the taking if you’re ready to change something inside yourself.
For more on Havana, stop by Intrepid Travel to read a piece that is very special to me…