WHY I VISITED:
I’ve always been fascinated by Cuba, and when the White House announced plans to normalize relations I knew that it was now or never.
Cuba’s clock is ticking, and change is coming fast. So I flew there to admire the island’s classic cars, and vintage architecture that make you feel like you’re in a 1950s movie set.
I’m not the only Californian to visit Cuba during the 50 year embargo, of course, but suspect I’m among the few who have never traveled with a group or tour guide sanctioned by the Cuban government. I used my Mexican passport to get into Cuba, so I didn’t have to deal with crabby immigration officials when I returned to the U.S.
WHERE I STAYED:
I booked my stay with AirBnB, which is the only American company currently conducting business with Cuba right now. The family I stayed with a sweet couple who treated me like a member of their family. Their neighbor owns a car, and he drove me around Cuba for a cheap price. You can check out their place here.
WHAT I DID IN CUBA:
I loved doing all the touristy stuff, like going to the plaza de la revolution where images of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro Cuban adorn buildings.
And feeding pigeons at the Plaza de Las Paloma’s in old Havana. My favorite cultural activity was the checking out El Morro.
Since it was built in 1589, the fortress has been Cuba’s defense system. Every night at 9 o’clock, Cuban soldiers participate in a cannon firing ceremony. Get there early! You’ll have to walk a bit, and find a good spot to see the blast.
I also visited the Colon Cemetery. It’s a half-a-mile long and wide, and it’s filled with a million elaborate headstones dating back to the 1800s.
And check out the us embassy decked out with the us flag for the first time in decades.
And speaking of America, does this look familiar?
El Capitolio was modeled after the one in Washington, D.C.
And check out the stage setup for the Rolling Stones! Just days before they became the first Major international rock band to play in Cuba!
I also made the 2.5 hour drive to enjoy Varadero beach and its glorious turquoise water and powdery white sand!
On the way to paradise I stopped at the Bellamar caves. The natural crystal formations were well worth the visit. I even drank from the natural fountains inside: the “Fountain of Youth” and “Fountain of Love.” I recommend making a quick stop. Not convinced? Read more here.
They say the best things in life are free… And this was the cheapest and most amazing form of entertainment I found in Havana:
Chilling at the Malecón.
Watching the sunset, chatting with the crowds of locals who gather there to enjoy the simple splendor. I could sit there for hours pondering life, politics, human nature, envisioning a better future for the Cubans who want more freedom, but hoping foreign companies don’t change their country too drastically. No matter what happens, I’ll always love Cuba, as the saying goes… “Hasta Que se seque el malecón” or until the Malecón dries up.
HOW YOU CAN GO TO CUBA:
Although President Obama’s administration is working to open trade between the U.S. and Cuba, and allow Americans to travel there unrestricted, it’s still not easy to get on a plane and fly to Havana.
What worked for me was to travel to Mexico first, then book a flight to Havana. This is cheaper than flying from the anywhere else in the United States, unless it’s Miami. Once in Mexico, buy a VISA at the airport. This will cost you about $15. Once you get to Cuba, ask immigration officials to only stamp your VISA not your passport. This way, you’ll avoid answering questions when you return to the U.S.
I also recommend you bring plenty of cash! Cuban banks and businesses still won’t recognize your American bank and you’ll struggle to get access to cash.