Editor’s note: This story was first published in the April/May 2017 edition of TAMPA Magazine
A few months ago, a friend and I were trying to decide where to go for a weekend vacation in late January when we had a thought – why not Cuba? The island is so close to Florida that it makes for the perfect Friday to Sunday getaway. Visiting Cuba is surprisingly easy and is an experience no Tampa resident should miss. Here are my tips for making the most of your trip to Cuba.
Stay in Style
I only spent time in Havana, so I chose to spend the weekend in a rental from Airbnb. I stayed in a condo in Havana Viejo – Old Havana – and had an amazing experience. It was just outside the “touristy” area of the city, which was perfect for seeing a more authentic side of Cuba. Before booking, read the reviews of potential rentals carefully to ensure you know what to expect when you arrive. Be sure to set up your arrival with your host before landing in Havana, as you won’t have internet to access the Airbnb app.
If you would prefer to stay in a hotel, there are a number of luxurious options. Make like Beyoncé and Jay-Z did in 2013 and snag a room at Hotel Saratoga. Go more modern at the IBEROSTAR Parque Central, or take a trip back in time at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill all stayed. Even if you stay in an Airbnb or other privately owned lodging – known as a casa particular – stop by the hotels to admire the views and enjoy a nice meal.
While you might be told before your trip not to expect an amazing culinary experience, there are absolutely delicious meals on the island. I had the arroz con pollo at Hotel Saratoga, and it was worth the 45 minutes it took to prepare. The following day, I enjoyed a four-course lobster dinner at Hotel Armadores de Santander for 20 CUCs (Cuban convertible pesos – about $25 in U.S. dollars). One must-try restaurant is La Guarida. The building appears to be a destroyed mansion, but up the stairs you’ll discover the beautiful rooftop restaurant.
There are also plenty of great drinks in Havana. Delicious piña coladas and mojitos can be found just about everywhere, and don’t leave without trying a famous Cuba libre. For Cuban coffee, stop by Café O’Reilly and bring some beans home with you.
Bring comfortable shoes and light clothing so you can take in the ambiance of the Cuban streets on foot. For longer distances, hire a driver by the hour to take you around the city in a colorful 1960s Chevrolet convertible. While knowing Spanish is not required, being able to ask basic questions is incredibly helpful, and the locals appreciate you at least trying to communicate with them in their language. They also expect tourists to barter with them on prices for services. Be prepared to ask “¿Cuánto cuesta?” – how much does it cost – before committing.
Plan Like a Pro
Now is definitely the time to visit Cuba (Editor’s note: see below for more information on current travel regulations), as it still remains almost completely untouched by western commercialization. The best way to ensure your trip runs as smoothly as possible is to prepare. American debit and credit cards are not accepted in Cuba, so exchange your dollars into Cuban convertible pesos (CUCs) at the airport.
We carried only as much cash as we would need each day and kept the rest in a safe in our room. Internet is only available by purchasing access cards from places like hotels and the airport, so print out a map before you leave and mark the locations you want to visit to gauge whether walking or hiring a taxi is the best way to travel between them.
My 5 Favorite Things
- Riding around the city in the backseat of classic Chevy convertibles
- The view of Havana from the IBEROSTAR Parque Central rooftop and bar
- Enjoying coffee and breakfast at Café O’Reilly (which does not open until 9 a.m.)
- Piña coladas from the roadside stand near El Morro, a fort in Havana
- Walking around the streets and stopping in the squares, museums and parks
Know Before You Go
-When I traveled to Cuba in January 2017, Americans could apply for a people-to-people visa because you could not get a visa exclusively for travel. Under new regulations passed in June 2017, individuals can no longer apply for people-to-people visas and must travel to Cuba with a group. As of October 2017, the State Department recommends Americans do not travel to Cuba. Check with the State Department for more information.
-I flew on Southwest Airlines because they, as of this writing, have the only direct flight from Tampa to Havana.
-The flight itself took just one hour.
-Southwest partners with Cuba Travel Services and provides a link to the visa and travel insurance application, both of which are required to enter Cuba, after you purchase your ticket. The process was simple — I filled out my information, paid a total of $50 for both the visa and the insurance, and picked them both up at the Southwest ticket counter at Tampa International Airport.