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5 Days in Cuba: Havana and Varadero

As soon as relations between Cuba and America were “normalized” and direct flights to Havana became available, I booked my ticket to this isolated island nation. I have always been fascinated by this isolated nation. The recent flood of Instagram photos of Havana only increased my desire to visit Cuba even more. Planning this trip was a bit difficult since there is limited information for Americans and requires a lot of research. My original plan was to explore Havana (Wednesday, Thursday and Monday afternoon), Viñales (Friday) and Varadero (Saturday through Monday morning). One thing I did not account for was the heat and humidity at the end of May, which according to Cubans is temperate for spring. The heat takes a toll on your body and I ended up not doing as much as I had planned, so I saved Viñales for another time. This is my 5 days in Havana and Varadero.

Note: With President Trump’s reversal of the Obama Cuban policies, travel to Cuba may become restricted again. I recently searched for JetBlue flights for July and August and there are still multiple direct flights a day. I would suggest going to Cuba sooner rather than later if it is on your list.

Day 1: Wednesday – Havana (Old Havana/ Malecon/ Cathedral Plaza)

I arrived in Havana at approximately 1pm on a direct JetBlue flight from NY-JFK. Exiting the airport took another hour and I was finally at my hotel, Iberostar Parque Central, by 3pm. Within 2 hours in Havana, my cab driver tried to scam me by giving me change in CUP instead of CUC, but I was ready for it. (Click here for Cuban Basics) Nothing says welcome to a third world country like being scammed.

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After settling into my gorgeous suite on the 5th floor with the view of the parque central populated by classic cars in rainbow colors and restored colonial buildings, I started to explore the surrounding area. The hotel is conveniently located in the epicenter of all the tourist destinations as well as next to Old Havana. My stomach was growling as I had not eaten lunch and I tried to find a place to eat in the sweltering heat. I navigated through endless small streets lined with buildings in varying stages of decay. It was an eye opener to see how the average Cuban lived, at a level of poverty that was greater than my initial expectation. As the sun and humidity beat down on me, I finally gave up on finding a good place and stopped by the ChaChaCha Restaurant that screamed tourist trap. I was not even that surprised that I had the blandest lobster salad ever at this restaurant.

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After lunch, I tried to visit the Museo de la Revolución only to find that it closed at 4pm. I then continued my endless walking in Old Havana all the way to the Malecon and eventually to the Cathedral Plaza and back to the hotel. I was surprised that I had walked most of Havana’s points of interest in one afternoon and was rewarded with a dusty and sweat-soaked dress. During my wandering, I was approached by two friendly teenage girls showing great interest in me who then led me to a café where a “famous” pianist from the Buena Vista Social Club was giving a “free” concert to locals. The girls insisted that it would cost me 60 CUC to go to his concert later at an entertainment hall. Needless to say, I could tell that the friendly girls were trying to scam me and I politely walked away.

Once I returned to my hotel, I made a bee line for the rooftop pool to cool off from the insane heat. This would be my ritual around 5pm every day in Havana. My two friends finally arrived from Mexico City later that evening and we had dinner at El Carbon. Luckily my friends had made a reservation as this restaurant does not take walk-ins. The décor was eclectic and the menu reflected that diversity as well. I did not have high expectations of Cuban cuisine after my lunch experience and from the general feedback that I got from people that recently visited Cuba. However, I was happy to be proven wrong. The food was excellent and I had the best suckling pig ever. The pork was so tender and moist on the inside and the skin was extremely crunchy. My friend ordered the grilled langoustines and grilled squid that were delicious. The menu was in English, but our waiter only spoke Spanish so it may be hard for English speakers.

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View of the central Havana from the rooftop of Hotel Parque Central

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Day 2: Thursday – Havana (Art Museums)

After breakfast at the hotel, we made the first stop of the day at the National Museum of Fine Arts (commonly known as the Cuban Art Museum). This museum houses Cuban art from the 1800s to the present. The paintings were hit or miss for me, but it provided a look into the country’s volatile history. More shocking is how poorly the arts are preserved. The building does not have air conditioning and some paintings and the frames had mold growing on them. The museum does not allow anyone to take pictures even in the hallway and will yell at you as soon as they see a phone. We spent two hours at this museum and then headed to the Palacio Belle Artes Museum.

The Palacio Belle Artes Museum is located in a gorgeous mansion that used to be a social club. Surprisingly the collection was not extensive or interesting. A lot of the arts are unsigned and not much thought was put into the description of each piece. However, the building itself is worth a visit for the architecture. My friend remarked that both museums could have fit into this building and the conditions here were better for all the paintings.

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Around 2pm, we negotiated for a classic car to drive us 10 minutes to Paladar Gaurida in Old Havana. The short ride was just enough to enjoy the experience. There was no air conditioning and the seats were wrapped in this hard plastic resulting in an interesting and uncomfortable experience. When we arrived at La Guarida located in a crumbling building, I knew I was in for an adventure. We climbed up three flights of stairs passing gorgeous rooms in different states of disrepair and hallways that resembled slums. Once we were seated in a room that appeared to be a bathroom at some point, I realized that we could not escape the heat. There was very little breeze in the stuffy room making it sometimes agonizing. The menu has a selection of European influenced dishes. Our favorite was the octopus ceviche as it was tender and refreshing. An interesting part of our meal was the origins of our dishware. We had flipped them over and one was made in USSR and another was from England in the 1950s. Of all the restaurants that we had been to in Cuba, this paladar felt like we were guests at someone’s house. La Guarida deserves its popularity and requires a reservation.

After a late lunch, we strolled around Old Havana on our way to the Cathedral Plaza once more. By 5pm, the heat and humidity was unbearable and we raced back to our hotel rooftop pool for a respite from the tropical weather. Prior to our dinner reservation at Dona Eutimia, we ventured next door to the rooftop of the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, a new 5 star hotel, for drinks. The rooftop is thoroughly modern and would fit right in Miami. Unfortunately, the rain poured on us after 15 minutes so we did not stay long. This would be a great venue after dinner to chill out and take in the inviting views of the theatre, classic cars and luxury hotels.

Paladar Dona Eutimia was the cheapest place that we dined at while in Havana. The menu is basic Cuban and the restaurant is known for Ropa Vieja de Chorro or shredded lamb and “selected spice in a red sauce”. The waiter also suggested that we order the fish croquette and tostones rellenos (a fried plantain stuffed with various seafood and meat). The ropa was very good, but the plantain was surprisingly tasteless. I would suggest skipping anything that has bananas at this restaurant. The paladar was located in an alley with other restaurants so it has a lively atmosphere to people watch. Eating our meals while listening to street musicians was a festive way to end the long day.

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View of the theatre from the rooftop of the Gran Hotel Manzana

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Day 3: Friday – Havana (Museo de la Revolución/ El Morro/ Gran Teatro

We arrived at the  Museo de la Revolución when it opened and for once, the museum allowed us to take photos…of all the propaganda. The building was mildly interesting and has a lot of bullet holes with questionable authenticity. Most of the exhibitions are lacking in detail and historical interest. For example, one exhibit was a uniform of this person related to this person who fought in the revolution. By the second room, my friends and I found the windows to be more interesting than the exhibition…coming from people who love history. I would recommend skipping this museum altogether.
Next we took a cab to El Morro, the main fort by the Malecon. The fort is collectively unique, but there is not one particular feature that wowed us. We spent 1.5 hours strolling around and enjoying the ocean breeze. There are many ramparts, tunnels and rooms to explore in this site.  I would recommend stopping by this attraction for the colonial history. Our stomachs started growling so we searched for places to eat for lunch. We ended at La Terraza next to our hotel and were not disappointed. The food is a mixture of casual American Cuban cuisines and well-executed. We had fish ceviche, ribs and grilled lobsters. All were delicious, especially the finger licking melt-off-the-bone ribs. Yum!

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After a quick lunch, we walked under the blazing sun around the El Capitolio surmising the differences between the sparkling white and landscaped colonial buildings to the crumbling houses across the street. The poverty is startling and unsettling. The capital building was closed for renovations. A few minutes later, we found the Habano store behind the Capital building and purchased some souvenirs to take home. Along the way, we were targeted by random people asking us to follow them down some sketchy alleyways for cheap Cuban cigars. We promptly walked in the opposite direction.

As the heat became unbearable (a recurring theme), we walked back to Parque Central Hotel and passed the gorgeous Gran Teatro de La Habana (the Grand Theatre). We ventured in and luckily, there was a performance later that night so we purchased tickets right away. This turned out to be a quaint way to spend an evening. The modern dance performance was much better than I had anticipated and the theatre is wonderfully restored and boast beautiful architectural. I would highly recommend checking out the theatre to see if there are performances when you arrive in Havana.

We also had planned to go to the Fabrica de Arte Cubano but it was closed for renovations while we were in town. Additionally, we tried to go salsa dancing at the Hotel Inglaterra’s rooftop recommended by our taxi driver, but the rooftop was rained out that night. These two places are not to be missed as they are on everyone’s must-see list.

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Day 4 to Day 5: Saturday to Monday- Varadero

I had a reservation for Iberostar Varadero for a short beach stay. Getting to Varadero was an experience in Cuban travel. I had a ticket for the tourist bus that picked me up at the Plaza Hotel, located next to my hotel, for a 9am departure. The bus did not show up until 10am. I had assumed a two hour drive would be at worst three hours, but turned into a 4 hour expedition. Once I got settled at my resort, the stay was like any other beach stay. It was relaxing and a nice change of pace from Havana. I would highly recommend carving out a few days at the beach before heading home. One thing I will note is that hotels are general older in Cuba so 5 stars hotels are generally 3.5 to 4 stars internationally, especially outside of Havana. If you come with lower expectations, you’ll have a great time. Staff are very accommodating and try their best to help you as much as possible.

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Day 5: Monday – Havana (Hotel Nacional)

Learning from my experience, I booked a taxi for my trip back to Havana. This was a more efficient option. However, my driver did not speak English and the hotel staff did not communicate with him properly, so he assumed we were going to the airport. I realized this after we overshot Havana thanks to my map app and had him turn around. Once I got back to the Parque Central Hotel, I went for a late lunch at Chansonnier in Vedado. I wished I had discovered this gem earlier. This is an upscale French Cuban restaurant housed in a converted mansion in a residential neighborhood. The décor and atmosphere are elegant and it felt like I stepped back in time to the 1950s. The food was wonderfully flavorful and I ranked it as one of my top choices of the trip.

Thunder started roaring, the sky opened and flooded Havana’s streets. Luckily for me, I had my driver picking me up, otherwise I would have been stranded without an umbrella and a ride. After lunch, I made my way to Hotel Nacional to wait out the rain. The lobby felt as if time stands still. The large outdoor veranda was a perfect spot for afternoon drinks and people watching. I shared a seating area with two American professors and had an interesting discussion on Cuba and the impact of tourism on locals and the future poverty level. After the rain stopped, I headed back to my hotel to rest for the day. At this point, I had seen all of the attractions in Havana that were interesting to me.

For dinner, I made a reservation at Paladar Menderes, a small restaurant hidden in the alleys of Old Havana. My driver had a hard time finding it and had to walk me to the restaurant as the area did not allow for car traffic. Once I was there, the atmosphere was lively with acoustic music and the restaurant was jamming. I would highly recommend this as one of the dining options, especially if you are a solo diner. The specialty of the house was the filet mignon with three sauces that my neighboring tablemates raved about. I had the octopus with black ink rice which resembled squid ink risotto and was delicious. This was a great way to end my stay in Cuba.

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Cuba is a mysterious country that is rapidly changing and engaging with the outside world. Even with the high level of poverty which can be hard to see, it is a relatively safe place to visit. Cuba is a destination that should be explored as soon as possible. US policies are constantly changing and it is only a matter of time that the 1950s aesthetics become solely for tourism.

Restaurants Recommendations:

  1. Al Carbon (Calle Aguacate No. 9|  A Chacon, Havana 10100, Cuba)
  2. Le Chansonnier (Calle J No. 257 e/15 y Linea, Vedado, Havana, Cuba)
  3. La Guarida (Concordia. No. 418 | Gervasio y Escobar, Havana 10700, Cuba)
  4. Paladar Los Mercaderes (Calle Mercaderes #207 | e/ Lamparilla y Amargura, Havana 101100, Cuba)
  5. La Terraza (Prado 309 Esquina Virtudes, La Habana Vieja, Havana, Cuba)
  6. Dona Eutimia (Callejon del Chorro # 60-C | Plaza de la Catedral, Habana Vieja, Havana, Cuba)

Restaurants to Avoid:

  1. El Cocinero – The food is just average.
  2. El Rum de la Habana – My friends ended up with food poisoning.
  3. Café Opera – This is a gorgeous restaurant adjoining the grand theatre that served inedible food, but it would be a nice place for drinks.
  4. ChaChaCha Restaurant – Mediocre food in a tourist friendly setting.

Rooftop Hangout

  1. El Surtidor Pool Terrace and Bar at the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski
  2. Hotel Parque Central Rooftop
  3. Hotel Inglaterra Rooftop

For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang

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