With travel there now easier than it's ever been (for most of our lifetimes, at least), Cuba should definitely be on your list. Photographer and our Fave Chelsey Boatwright traveled to Havana as part of an educational tour, and soaked up the vibrant culture of our nearest neighbor. She's here today sharing a few travel tips and the snaps she captured as she explored the city.
While it's now much easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, there are still some hoops to jump through - I found this NY Times article pretty helpful in breaking down the lingo. Going with an organized tour is the popular stress-free choice, which is what Chelsey opted for; the operators set up the itinerary and accompanied them throughout the trip, helping with any language barriers or issues that came up. Flights were booked through Cuba Travel Services, which arranges trips from both Tampa and Miami to Havana.
Something to remember when packing your bags: bring everything you will need for the trip. Finding what we consider to be common necessities (bug spray, sunscreen, power cords, prescriptions, and other toiletries) will be next to impossible. There is also very little toilet paper in Havana, so bring a few extra packets.
GETTING AROUND & GETTING BY
A plethora of transportation options - from the yellow tourist taxis to horse-drawn carriages and bici-taxis - fill the streets of the city, but the vintage versions steal the show.
Fixed and re-fixed over the years, the cars have become a tourist attraction in their own right. Says Chelsey, "When you are walking around the city you almost feel like you have stepped back in time. The old crumbling buildings give hints of glamorous and profitable times in Cuba when it was the place to be."
A few more travel tips from Chelsey:
- US cell phones won't work on the island, but you can purchase wifi access in many hotels and cafes. You can also rent a cell phone once you land.
- Tap water can have the usual tropical troubles to northern American stomachs; use bottled water for both drinking and brushing your teeth, and avoid ice.
- Tipping is normal and expected in the hospitality industry; most restaurants include a service charge, and leaving 5-10% on top of that is appreciated.
- Restroom attendants, sometimes waiting there with toilet paper, also expect a tip.
A FEW IDEAS
Touring the city with her group, Chelsey enjoyed two areas the most: Malecón, the waterfront area, with a roadway stretching along the coast; and Habana Vieja (Old Havana), the historic part of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is now being renovated and updated with hip shops, restaurants and cafés.
Plaza de la Catedral, one of the five main squares in Old Havana, is also the site of the Museo del Arte Colonial and is buzzy with street musicians, vendors and cafes.
Chelsey dined mostly at paladares, small family restaurants (counterpoints to the state-run establishments) offering authentic Cuban dishes and local interaction. Two of her suggestions: Atelier and San Cristóbal.
Hotel Nacional, Havana's iconic historic hotel by the sea, offers tours as well as a swanky, be-a-part-of-history place to stay. South Floridians will recognize the architecture, as it was built as a replica of The Breakers in Palm Beach. The hotel also hosts a nightly show, the Cabaret Parisien.
Another historic property, Hotel Sevilla, with its Moorish architecture and storied past, is also worth a visit.
Finally, Chelsey suggests taking a quick trip outside the city to explore: ten miles east of Havana, in San Francisco de Paula, lies Finca La Vigía, Hemingway's Cuban home.
Definitely adding Havana to my list - thanks, Chelsey!