Being a frequent business traveler comes with some perks as accruing miles with airlines. For years I have wanted to visit Cuba, and end of May I was able to do my first visit to Cuba.
Cuba is still trying to figure out how to stand on its feet in the post-Fidel era. Even travel for Cuban people are now less restricted, from what they told the functional changes was not much over the last 57 years.
Flying from Miami to Cuba is a short flight – 45 minutes, but there are decades of difference in life in Miami and Cuba.
Even the flight experience from Miami to Havana was different than usual experiences. There was confusion about how many people were supposed to be on the flight. And the crew seemed just to accept that the numbers did not match. Landing in Havana, the flight attendant announced that the local time might be 09.05am. It made a good laugh.
Immigration was easy, and there was not a long wait at all. We exchanged some money at the airport – where they also had an ATM, and took the taxi to the hotel. We stayed at Be Live Copacabana hotel. Checking into the hotel, we learned that our Norwegian Mastercard was not accepted as they touched some systems in the US. Luckily our Visa cards were not touching the US, and we could use those to pay for the hotel. The hotel was clean but somewhat dated. From what we learned though, it should be one of the better hotels at a three-star pricepoint. They had a huge sea-based swimming pool – and plenty of room to relax.
There was not much to do directly around the hotel, so we got into a taxi and headed to the Old Havana. Old Havana was amazing. It’s easy to walk around, and the place has a lot of colorful people and cars, as well as cafe’s where you can sit down. We spent two days just hanging out in Old Havana.
For sure we visited El Floredita and Bodega Del Medio, but those places were crazy crowded touristy places, and we did not spend much time there.
Streets of Old Havana
What we found to be a great walk through Old Havana was starting at San Jose square. Here you find lots of art and souvenirs. Then we walked our way down to Cathedral Square, spending time around Old Square as well as Plaza de arma. It’s easy to walk around, you find places to hang out for a drink or food, and just observe. There is many must see places, but we had the best time just walking around. The views, the atmosphere, and feeling is unique.
It felt very safe to walk through the streets, and you get a feeling how life is by watching the locals.
You cannot visit Cuba without driving around in an old American car. We did that all the time, and got guided tours around Havana.
As I prepared for the trip, I learned that access to the internet could not be taken for granted in Cuba. I got the pdf “Cuba2day – Havana Like A Local” to help prepare. Even sometimes just getting to an ATM is not easy. Luckily we found one in a hotel next door. The exchange rates are not really great, and I never like to carry lots of cash. But traveling to Cuba, I will recommend bringing some hard cash, preferably Euros as you still have to pay the extra 10% penalty on USD.
Bartender preparing Cuba Libre at one of our stops
One day we booked a taxi and went to Varadero. Varadero is situated on the Hicacos Peninsula, as close as you get to Florida. It is approx 140 km east of Havana. On the way to Varadero, there were at least five checkpoints with Police, and we got stopped twice.
Varadero had a huge, beautiful, white sandy beach. There were few people around, and it was relaxing to stay at the beach. The water was crystal clear, and the sand was pure. The only challenge was that you had to walk far out before there was any depth for swimming. The sea was calm, and this is definitive an excellent place for kids to play in the sea. Warm, though not as warm as Indonesian water. After some hours of sunbathing, swimming and relaxing, we headed for some late lunch, and back to Havana.
Back in Havana, we enjoyed the evening at the Fort – Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro. This is the fortress guarding the entrance to Havana bay. At 9 pm they will fire the canon. We arrived there around 8.15pm and spent some time walking around a small outdoor market inside the fortress before we watched the staff prepare for the canon firing. Somehow it gave me some pirate feeling that I enjoyed. But beware, the place get crowded, and you should be there at least 30 minutes early if you want a great spot to watch the canon firing.
Leaving Cuba was also an experience. Getting to the check-in of the flight they asked to see our ESTA as we were flying to the US. I don’t carry a paper copy of my ESTA, as I know I can get in online. And I have never been asked to show it before, even I fly quite regularly to the US. Had to use roaming on my phone to get the ESTA, and was then cleared to exit Cuba.
Visiting Cuba was an enjoyable experience, but somehow I got mixed feelings. For me, it was like staying in a museum, and I got mixed feelings because people actually live there. Don’t get me wrong – it was a beautiful place with great people.
Recommended books if you plan to travel to Cuba: