Our location was perfect, right off the Plaza del Cristo and a 5 minute walk to the main Capitolio road or the main tourist road in old Havana. We set our things down and immediately set out in search of food, we ended up not venturing too far. Right on our corner was El Dandy, a lively bar/restaurant with a great atmosphere. We ate a quick lunch and then we were off on foot exploring Havana.
Read on: Restaurants you can't miss in Havana
Both Matt and I love wandering a city with very little plan. We walked towards what interested us and it was a new, and slightly scary, feeling to know we didn’t have the Internet as a back up plan to point us in the right direction. This is how we spent the remainder of our day and the entire next day. Walking down roads, turning down side streets, exploring alleyways of old Havana and beyond.
As dusk set on our first day we made a pit stop at the Iberostar Parque Central and used their wonderful concierge to book seats at The Tropicana, Buena Vista Social Club and acquire tickets to the Nacional Ballet as well.
Read on: How to get tickets to shows in Cuba
Our first night we rested our tired feet for about an hour before heading to dinner at 361 Lamparilla. We ate some of the best ceviche I’ve ever had and then headed to the Tropicana.
What a way to start our time in Cuba! The club is an open-air venue set inside a six acre estate with the performance space completely surrounded by lush tropical trees and bright stage lights. It originally opened in 1939 and the show is 2 hours (10pm-12am) of highly trained and brightly costumed performers singing, dancing and performing the occasional acrobatics. The tickets were steep but rest assured the show was 100% worth the price. Here is a complete guide to getting tickets to a Tropicana show.
They finish the show by bringing many people on stage to continue dancing to a live singer and DJ until 1am. We danced the night away and returned home in disbelief that we had 4 more days in Havana – we had seen so much on day one!
The next day was more wandering in the city and hitting the biggest tourist spots:
- La Floridita for a famous daiquiri
- Malecon for sunset
- Obispo Street for people watching
We finished the day with dinner and music at Buena Vista Social Club. This was another historic venue and music group - but quite different (more intimate) than the Tropicana. The original venue was closed in the 1940's and then reopened in the 1990's with new music and a huge following. The night of music was fantastic even though we barely understood any of the songs they sang.
Friday in Havana brought a more relaxed sense of wandering and we slept in and started the day by heading to Salsabor a Cuba for a 2-hour salsa lesson. I wish we had done one every day we were there – this sounds crazy but actually many tourists take lessons every day while in Havana and I can see why. Our 2-hour lesson flew by and Matt and I learned so much!
We booked another lesson for the next day and stopped in at La Guarida - a famous paladar that everyone must eat at – more Havana restaurant recommendations here. We made a reservation to eat there the next day after our dance lesson.
We then grabbed a cab and then headed to Vedado – a smaller neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana.
Vedado is actually where my father grew up before he left Cuba at age 8, never to return. It was a weird experience walking streets he may have walked 60 years prior and thinking about what life was like back then. I am forever grateful to my Abuelo and Abuela who had the foresight to send him to the US as Castro was taking power. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren't for them and all they went through. I try to imagine it, but I just can't.
That night we ate at El Cocinero - a rooftop lounge in Vedado and wandered the streets. We ended the evening with a Mojito at Hotel Nacional de Cuba, an old historic and massive hotel sitting on a hill that overlooks the Malecon.
After a beautiful sunset we headed back to our Casa to change for the Ballet. Being a dancer myself I was beyond excited to see these world-renowned dancers perform and they didn’t disappoint! Even though it was late January the company was still performing The Nutcracker (or Cascanueces as they call it) which I found a bit odd. Nevertheless, the performance is hands down the best I have ever seen – and I have seen The Nutcracker way too many times to count, this was actually my third viewing this holiday season.
The first act was comprised completely of older, more professional dancers including Clara and Fritz. Usually these roles - as well as the young children in the party scene - are played by kids and teenagers who are good (for their age) but not great. Cuba's version casting these rolls as older dancer was a vast improvement. Clara was mesmerizing and the changes they made to include more duets due to the higher skilled dancers kept me on the edge of my seat.
Around intermission disaster struck.
I started to not feel well and ran to the bathroom to throw up quite violently. (TMI? Maybe? If so, sorry!) I, unfortunately, have a very sensitive stomach and I am used to dealing with nausea frequently, especially while traveling. I told Matt but quickly insisted we stay for the second half. Nothing would stop me from watching, and enjoying this beautiful ballet.
We stayed the entire time but at the end of the show I threw up again. I was annoyed with my body and trying to shake it off while constantly apologizing to Matt on the way home. I felt awful that it was Friday night and we couldn’t go out. He, of course, insisted it was fine.
Once home, within 30 minutes Matt started to not feel great. This was a big red flag – Matt has an iron stomach. He never gets nauseous. Ever. By the next hour we were both extremely ill and spent the whole night awake with what we assume was food poisioning.
So, on our last full day in Cuba, we were confined to our tiny room – both of us sick as dogs. We had to miss our salsa lesson and our reservation at La Guarida that I was very much looking forward to. We only left the apartment once very briefly to get a small dinner of bread and water.
Thankfully on Sunday morning we woke up feeling mostly back to normal and having slept most of the day before we wandered the city streets at sunrise taking in our last bit of Cuba before heading to the airport and back to New York.
This trip was one of the best experiences of my life and I walked away from Cuba hoping to return soon. Now that I have seen a glimpse into this wonderful island that half my family is from I want to see more of it. I want to visit the UNESCO city of Trinidad and see the jungles of Santiago. I want to talk more with the locals and find our more about my great grandparents families.
I do hope that the government changes things for the better soon. Although the people seem happy enough it is hard to see them living on so little. Yes, they have healthcare and schooling but they do not have the freedom that you or I know. Being in a country like Cuba makes you realize all the privileges that we constantly take for granted. In the states we have so many choices in everything - from food, to clothing, to where we want to live or what careers we want to pursue. Sometimes, it is overwhelming and choice paralysis sets in. But then you see people who get such little choice in how their day to day lives are spent and you realize how you should never take any of your freedoms for granted.
As I said before I am forever grateful to my grandparents who made a great sacrifice in sending their son away to America without them. Luckily, they only spent two years apart. But they didn’t know it would be that short at the time. They made a selfless decision for him that I think any parent would rightfully agonize over. They enabled my father to move to America, become a citizen, meet my mother and have me. I will never truly understand the hardships he or my grandparents faced on a daily basis. All I can do is say thank you.
If you are heading to Cuba soon, researching ahead of time is great, but I definitely recommend bringing a guidebook along with you. Here are some books I recommend...
A super common question I get is what camera do I use for my travels. The body is a Nikon D3300 and I mostly use this wide angle lens made by Sigma. It's awesome for travel photography - I am seriously obsessed with it.