Photos and Travel Review by Jon Sevenker
My dad and I hadn’t been on a “guy’s trip” for over a decade. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, were in the habit of taking long road trips, often to revisit places my dad had spent time in his younger years. Places like Hayden Lake, Idaho and Taos, New Mexico. We’d also ventured on a Southern music trip, hitting Austin, New Orleans, Memphis, & Nashville. The last of these trips was in 2005, so another one was long overdue. When my dad asked if I’d ever thought about going to Cuba, I replied that it was near the top of my list.
We booked our airfare in May 2017, about a month before President Trump announced his intentions to roll back President Obama’s Cuba policies, which had opened the door for individual American travel to the island. We booked a fully refundable apartment via AirBnB, just in case Trump his new policies would be retroactive. Luckily, we wouldn’t need to cancel our accommodations.
The two bedroom, two bathroom apartment we rented cost us $627 total for four nights. For comparison, one night at the Iberostar Parque Central Hotel, about four blocks away, ran $500 per night. Our apartment was next to the Hotel Saratoga and catty-corner from the Capitol building, which proved to be a great location for walking almost anywhere in Old Havana. In addition, we had a balcony that overlooked a busy turnaround, which was a popular spot for locals to hail a cab. This provided hours of evening entertainment for my dad and me.
Since we officially traveled to Cuba under the “support of the Cuban people” designation, we ate entirely at paladars, or privately-owned restaurants rather than government-owned establishments. One such place was Paladar San Cristobal, where President Obama dined during his visit to Cuba in 2016. The food, service, and establishment were all top notch. We also enjoyed our dinners at San Juan Bar & Grill, O’Reilly 304, and El Dandy. Good food throughout, with dinner and drinks for my dad and me usually in the $35-$45 range, including tip.
We also hired a private tour guide (Humberto Mesa) to show us around Havana our first two full days. The $70 per day we paid him was well worth it, as his knowledge of the city and surrounding areas as well as his English were superb. After a thorough tour of Old Havana and Vedado on Day One, we hit some of the outlying areas of Havana on the second day. This included the Hemingway Museum, which we had learned the day before was closed until November due to hurricane damage. The house itself wasn’t damaged, but trees on the property were. Considering they get around 1,000 tourists on a typical day, each paying $15 to enter the Hemingway grounds, and the hurricane hit 40 days prior, they’d missed out on quite a bit of dough. Not to mention, this was the #1 sight my dad and I wanted to see.
We took it upon ourselves to try the mojitos at the bars we stopped in. Our favorite spot was the rooftop bar of Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway lived for seven years in the 1930s. Second favorite mojito was at the Hotel Nacional. We also tried them at Sloppy Joe’s, as well as at Las Terrazas in Cojimar, a small fishing village east of Havana that inspired Hemingway to write The Old Man and the Sea.
I’ll finish with some random observations about Cuba:
- We did not have internet access for the better part of five days. To some, this would be terrifying. Is my family okay? How will I know what my Facebook friends had for lunch on Friday? What did Donald Trump tweet today? For me, the opportunity to unplug was liberating. It allowed me to stop looking down at my phone and instead look up and take notice of the world around me.
- A lot of capitalists for a communist country. Unless you’re in the military or on the police force, chances are you barely make ends meet living in Cuba. The average income is $25 a month. From tour guides to cab drivers to cigar salesmen to restaurant barkers, it seems everyone has a side gig. The economic system in Cuba seems to be a combination of black market and barter.
- The Cuban people were very friendly and not anti-American in any way. The issues between our countries are at the policymaker level, not the individual level. The more Americans that travel to Cuba, the more classic car rides and income for the Cuban people.
- My dad and I walked around most of Old Havana as well as some in the central part of the city. At no time did we feel threatened or in danger. The cobblestone road do present some walking challenges. Comfortable footwear is a must, and most Cubans wear tennis shoes, including a fair amount of Nikes.
- I don’t know what the future looks like for American travel to Cuba, but I’m hoping the two countries can work things out and open their borders to each other again. Eventually, I’d like to return and visit Trinidad and Varadero, as well as experience more of Havana.
If you’re still wanting more information about traveling to Cuba, check out Dan’s review here from his trip in late 2016.