Exploring Havana, Cuba

I really wanted to begin this blog post with, “Havana, ooh, na, na,” like a basic girl, but then I realized that I already did that with my Savannah blog in 2018.

I miss The Good Place.

After three days in Ciego De Avila, we hopped in our rental and headed back to Havana for the remainder of our trip. Following our arrival at Habana Libre Hotel, we headed up to our bedrooms to change and walk around the city.

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Our hotel was the high-rise in the background.

That evening, I made the fateful decision of ordering a piña colada. For days I avoided drinking tap water and did not order cocktails or ice with my drinks. Well, I am convinced that the crushed ice in the piña colada at Hotel Nacional wrecked my stomach. That or the amount of pork we ate the first three days affected me. Either way, I suffered from a stomach virus, complete with intense cramps, vomiting and the works for the remainder of our trip.

As you can imagine, it is incredibly difficult to find medicine in Cuba, especially as a tourist, so I had to just grin and bear it. Hilariously enough, my stepmom, who because of an injury was not able to travel with us, called me a few days before the trip, reminding me to pack medicine… which I forgot to do.

During our brief visit to Varadero, I was able to locate a tourist pharmacy that sold Sal De Andrews, a powder medicine that can be mixed with water.  It was a gamble. If I drank just the right amount, it would alleviate my stomach pain. But if I was too heavy-handed with the pour, it became a laxative. So if my stomach didn’t turn on me because of the virus, it was sure to do so because of my anxiety surrounding the circumstances!

With that being said, hold on to your butts. It’s going to be another long blog post!

Where We Laid Our Heads To Rest:

We stayed at Hotel Habana Libre, a 25-story property and one of the larger hotels in the city. Interestingly enough it actually became Fidel Castro’s headquarters when he first took over, and he lived in the Continental Suite for three months. He gave his first press conference in the hotel’s ballroom and frequently took interviews from international journalists there.

We had a wonderful view of the city below and the ocean on the 19th floor. And because I was sick and writhing in pain most nights, I was able to see the gorgeous sunrise every morning on my hourly trip to the bathroom. See? There’s a silver lining in everything!

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Forgive the quality of this picture. It was taken from behind our window.

Americans traveling to Cuba are allowed to stay in hotels, as long as they are not on the State Department’s restricted list. The list includes hotels, travel agencies, stores, and other businesses that are under the control of, or acting on behalf of the government. But really, at the end of the day, the government has a stake in everything, regardless of whether it is 100 percent owned by the government or not. Our hotel, a Melia property, along with many other approved foreign companies in Cuba, is 49 percent owned by Melia and 51 owned by the Cuban government.

Nomz:

As I mentioned, by this leg of the trip I was under the weather and repulsed by pork, so most of my half-eaten meals consisted of fish (or seafood), rice, beans, and yuca. The prices were higher than they had been in Ciego De Avila but were still reasonable.

  • El Tablazo
  • 3D Cafe
  • La Piña de Plata
  • La Vitrola
  • La Rambla
  • La Cocina De Esteban: I was too sick to enjoy the delicious soup I ordered, but it is worth mentioning that this restaurant was the only one featuring a live musician not playing Guantanamera.
  • El Floridita: This bar is credited for inventing the daiquiri and was known to be one of Ernest Hemingway’s haunts. So naturally, we stopped for a daiquiri and live music. Havana is a city for tourists and this, along with La Bodeguita Del Medio which we couldn’t even walk in to, happens to be a popular stop for travelers.
  • Hotel Nacional de Cuba: This is where I drank the fateful and lackluster piña colada, overlooking the ocean. The historic Spanish property has hosted many illustrious guests throughout the years, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, or Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. Edward famously abdicated the throne to marry the American socialite divorcée, which draws parallels to Harry and Meghan’s story, except the latter aren’t Nazi sympathizers. Yes, I am royally obsessed!
  • Hotel Paseo De Prado: How I wish this hotel wasn’t included on the restricted list, because it is gorgeous! It recently opened and overlooks El Malecon and Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro, the fort. We took a break from the heat at the bar where I had a Bellini. Halston and my dad both ordered daiquiris which smelled and tasted as if someone had spilled the entire contents of a perfume bottle in them.
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Hotel Nacional De Cuba

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Fun Stuff:

For fun, I mostly just rolled my eyes at tourists standing on the back seats of vintage cars taking selfies, while their tour guides endured them walking all over their private vehicles and sole source of income and transportation.

Just kidding. I did that throughout the whole trip, not just for fun.

  • Exploring Havana: Havana is similar to most port cities along the Caribbean, featuring plenty of dining and shopping options for travelers, while artisans sell their paintings and creations along the street. Most tourists who arrive by cruise spend the bulk of their time walking around Old Havana and El Malecon. There are also plenty of museums and performing arts centers to visit. I was hoping we would catch a performance of The Nutcracker but the dates didn’t coincide with our trip. We also traveled around Havana on a double-decker bus tour and saw universities, monuments, the world-famous Colon Cemetery, and the very creepy Russian embassy.
  • Finca Vigia: On my list was visiting Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban then 15-acre estate, which he bought for $12,500. It is located in a municipality about 30 minutes from the heart of Havana. The home, which is now a museum, is so well-kept it looked as if Hemingway could walk in at any second and continue working on a manuscript. His bathroom gave us a small glimpse of his personality, with his weight diligently tracked on the bathroom wall and a lizard that became entangled in a fight with his cat, preserved in a glass of formaldehyde. While beautiful, I could not help noticing the conditions of the homes and businesses surrounding the estate. To me, it was sad that Hemingway’s estate took precedence over the needs of Cuban citizens.
  • Fusterlandia: According to an iPhone Note I wrote to myself in early 2017, Fusterlandia had to be on my list of stops if I ever made it to Cuba. My dad, who was not convinced that it was a worthwhile stop and had never heard of it, had to eventually swallow his words because even he had to agree that it was a unique place! Fusterlandia is an ongoing public art project started decades ago by Jose Fuster, where he turned his home and neighborhood into masterpieces of tile work. I’m convinced that he is the happiest person in Cuba. There is no cost to visit, but it is recommended to leave a donation. Fusterlandia is located about 30 minutes from our hotel and five minutes from Marina Hemingway. My one regret after visiting Fusterlandia was not buying an original art print, but I’m sure there will be other opportunities.
  • Marina Hemingway: If you haven’t guessed it by now, Hemingway was very chummy with the Cuban government, so there are a lot of places inspired or named after him. And traveling with my boat-obsessed father anywhere means stopping at a marina to look at boats, which there weren’t many of at this marina because… Cuba. There is an old hotel there, that has since closed, named The Old Man and the Sea.

 

  • Varadero Beach: I can probably say that Varadero Beach is one of the most pristine beaches I have ever seen and pictures do not do it justice. It is located about two hours away from Havana. However, driving through the resort town of Varadero was a jarring experience. Everything from the streets to the landscaping to the bus stops was immaculate. It didn’t even feel like we were in Cuba. In fact, we did not see any Cubans enjoying the area. You could tell this resort town catered to foreign travelers.

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I understand that my dad intended to show us his hometown before our visit to Havana so that we could see what Cuban life was actually like, however, the knowledge I acquired there did not leave me as we traveled around the island. It did not escape us that each person we interacted with was not making enough. Being there was fascinating in a completely bittersweet way, but I do hope to return in the future and look forward to learning more about the island.

Cuba is a paradise to many, but I’m not sure it is a paradise for Cubans.

Have you traveled to Cuba? What is your next travel destination? 

xx

 

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