The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts: David Lee of Cultural Cuba.
David fell in love with Cuba on a humanitarian trip many years ago and has nurtured his on-the-ground relationships ever since, regularly leading private and small groups on cultural-exchange missions. He specializes in creating one-of-a-kind trips for up to ten people, a size that ensures access to the small private restaurants, intimate music venues, and behind-the-scenes experiences that larger groups or big-bus tours cannot access. He can get you into the best hotels in Old Havana—the perpetually sold-out favorites with rooftop pools and 360-degree views—and arrange a seamless visit that can be done in a long weekend, with a quick flight from Miami, three days in Havana, and a day in the country, either at the beach at Varadero or exploring tobacco plantations. David has tapped into the country’s underground art scene, and his trips include visits to renovated mansions-cum-art galleries, special unadvertised music performances, and private art studios. David selects his guides for their knowledge and dynamism, as well as their willingness to give an honest assessment of daily life in their native country, opening the eyes of visitors to what it means to be a Cuban in Cuba.
NOTE: Though sanctions are easing, the U.S. ban on general tourism to the Caribbean island remains in force, which means “tourism” is still not a valid reason to visit Cuba. The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control still requires that all documents related to travel to Cuba (including a preapproved schedule, a record of appointments, and all receipts) be documented and kept for five years post-travel. Cultural Cuba manages the entire process including all of the documentation, reservations, and transportation so that clients can enjoy exploring the culture of Cuba without the worry or hiccups of travel in a communist country.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best splurge hotel
The 90-room Hotel Saratoga in Old Havana provides the closest thing in Cuba to true five-star service and amenities. It’s the only hotel with reliable Wi-Fi 24/7 included with your room, and its central location is within walking distance of top sights, restaurants, and plazas. Most celebrities and VIPs choose the Saratoga, and it’s worth a splurge if you can get in, but it’s usually sold out up to a year in advance. Cultural Cuba has secured rooms, which are available on specific dates every month.
Restaurant the locals love
Dona Eutimia is a paladar (a small private restaurant) that consistently serves the most delicious authentic home-style fare in Havana—lamb stew, spicy shrimp with rice, perfectly seasoned roasted chicken. It is located at the end of an alley near Cathedral Square and next to El Taller Experimental de Gráfica (see “The hidden gem,” below). There are only about ten tables inside and four outside, so make your reservation well in advance. Beware of the salesmen, strategically positioned in the same alley, whose job is to lure tourists to inferior neighboring restaurants.
Ropa vieja is a Cuban stew made with tender shredded meat, onions, and peppers. The dish reaches perfection at Dona Eutima, where the traditional pork or beef is replaced with lamb.
Meals worth the splurge
Most restaurants in Havana are not expensive compared with prices in the U.S. At the slightly higher end of the scale is La Guarida, the first of the great paladars (it opened in 1996), so famous it could rest on its laurels, but it doesn’t. The building, a former tenement house, is a faded beauty where the acclaimed 1994 Cuban movie Strawberry and Chocolate was filmed; restaurant-goers climb a marble staircase to the top floor’s intimate rooms. Try the suckling pig, and allow extra time to have a drink on the rooftop terrace. (Reservations are a must.)
A close second is Ivan Chef Justo, located near the Museum of the Revolution. Ask for a table in the dining room with a view of the kitchen or the romantic rooftop table for two that you have to walk through the kitchen to access. (The rooftop can be a bit chilly and windy, so bring a sweater if you opt to eat there.) Dishes are a modern take on traditional seafood and farm-to-table fare with a Spanish influence, including delicious paella and bouillabaisse. The wine selection is excellent.
Things to Do and See
El Taller Experimental de Gráfica is a graphic design and printing studio at the end of an alley off Cathedral Square. Printmaking is an important traditional art form in Cuba, and the studio has helped preserve it, turning out etchings, lithographs, collagraphs, and woodcuts since 1962. You can talk with the artists as they work, and there’s a gallery and shop on the second floor where you can buy prints.
Visit the studio of Roberto Fabelo, whose paintings and sculptures draw viewers into a fantasy world of bird-headed nudes, human-headed cockroaches, and urns teeming with mermaids and forks. The artist, who is delightful and down-to-earth despite his celebrity status, will talk with you about his work and show you his sketchbooks, which illustrate his attention to anatomical detail.
Attend a private performance by Habana Compás Dance, a group of classically trained dancers and musicians who use castanets, hourglass-shaped batá (the drums of Cuban Santeria), and even chairs as percussion instruments—think Stomp! mixed with flamenco. In the Q&A session that follows, you’ll learn how the choreography, a mix of traditional and modern, is derived from the dancers’ Spanish, Cuban, and Afro-Cuban roots.
Tour a medical facility and have lunch with American students who have chosen to go to medical school in Havana, for a unique and no-holds-barred perspective on the state of socialized medicine in Cuba.
Learn to distinguish the different flavors of rum and methods of aging at the leading distillery in Cuba. At a private tasting with the head sommelier you will sample rum that is not available in the U.S., accompanied by the best cigars in the world.
The Instituto Superior de Arte, Cuba’s top fine-art and music school, is housed in a suburban architectural complex that tells a fascinating story: The innovative brick and terra-cotta buildings, conceived soon after the Revolution as part of a utopian vision, were later deemed incompatible with Soviet utilitarian architecture, and the site was never completed. Today, the complex is recognized as a national treasure, and visitors can observe music rehearsals, student art exhibits, dance rehearsals, and more. Tours are by appointment only and must be government-approved.
La Bodeguita del Medio, the place where the mojito was allegedly invented, is so overrun with tourists that the quality of the mojitos has declined. Sure, pay a quick visit and take a picture, but go elsewhere for the actual drink.
Havana is full of hidden gems. Make sure you explore beyond the renovated sections of Old Havana—insist on this time in your itinerary—and don’t be put off by the dilapidated buildings and streets. They are part of the experience and completely safe. (Do remember to look down as you walk to avoid tripping on potholes and uneven pavement.)
Late October through early April, when temperatures are cooler, and the air is less humid. If you want to visit the tobacco-growing region, come between December and April. The beach is best suited for May through November.
There is no true low season in Cuba anymore, but as a Caribbean destination, it does get hot and humid in the summer months, especially August. The rainy season is at its peak in September and October, but unless there is an actual hurricane, it rarely rains all day.
Failing to plan far enough ahead. Cuba is not a last-minute destination. If you don’t plan your trip well in advance, the best hotels won’t be available.
That said, Cuba really isn’t ready to be an unguided destination, and independent travelers do themselves a disservice. The country is bursting at the seams at its current annual visitor level, and the best hotels are sold out months in advance. Overbooking by guides, restaurants, and other services is commonplace, and the lack of reliable phone and Internet service makes coping with such problems a real challenge. Factor in flight delays, mechanical issues with cars and buses, and hotel cancellations or “rerouting” and you can see why expert planning is crucial.
From the rooftop pool deck of the Hotel Saratoga, you have a clear view of the ocean and an almost 360-degree view of Havana; come here in the evening for glorious sunset colors.
The best time to capture the intricate façade of the neo-Baroque Grand Teatro de la Habana, home to the National Ballet and Opera, is after dark, when it is showcased by dramatic lighting.
Tip: Cubans appreciate U.S.-branded candy and gum, not available in Cuba. Bringing a bag or two of miniature candies from America is a good way to spread the smiles that often lead to nice photographs.
Rarely accept the first price offered by taxi drivers. Taxis are not metered; it shouldn’t cost more than 10 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) to go just about anywhere.
Leather goods, hand-carved wooden items, and canvas folk-art paintings are especially good finds, as well as anything at Almacenes San José, the large covered artisans market near the marina. (Slightly better art is found in the back right corner.) Look for leather tubes for the single cigars you plan to bring home as gifts and also hand-crafted humidors—the prices are much better here than at the Partagas Factory Store. After walking down one or two rows, you are done—the aisles tend to keep repeating. For those who hate souvenir shopping, plan to meet your traveling companions at the brewery pub next door.
Many U.S. apps are blocked from full use in Cuba. The fix: A VPN (virtual private network) app, which will allow you to use all of your apps when connected to Wi-Fi.
Unless you are going on a long trip, it is a great idea to go “carry-on only.” The Havana airport is a busy one, and when several planes arrive at once, it can be a very long wait for baggage.
Any drug-store products you might need. Even ibuprofen is hard to find. When in doubt, pack a small supply just to be safe.
Good walking shoes. No stilettos, ladies! With cobblestone and potholes, you’ll encounter uneven pavement wherever you go. Comfortable footwear is the rule in Cuba.