Getting to Cuba
Booking the flight
Cuba was one of those trips both Matt and I had been dreaming about for a long time. There were so many times we sat down to book the trip and we just couldn't make it work. Mostly it was due to US regulations that were in place at the time. It made it physically harder to get to Cuba. Before, we would have to fly through a third party country to get around the laws. Our flight path looked like this: Nashville to Miami to Mexico to finally Cuba. Not only would this take a long time but it was stupid expensive.
Finally, we heard the good news that Obama was beginning to normalize relations - #ThanksObama (no seriously thank you for everything you have done). Right before thanksgiving, we booked a nonstop flight from Newark to Havana with United Airlines.
We were still worried about visas (more about the visa process here) and the night before we left we even joked that if our visa was denied we would rent a car and drive to upstate New York. Just spend the week skiing or something.
Checking in & getting a visa for Cuba
Thankfully, we got to the airport and the visa process was so incredibly smooth. We choose to go under 'support for the Cuban people' - we paid our $75 and checked into our flight with no complications.
The flight over was particularly uneventful and I slept most of the way since I am an expert on sleeping on flights. We debarked in Havana and walked out on the tarmac in perfect 75 degree weather. Coming from NYC it felt amazing. Salsa music greeted us while we waited in the short customs line. Hello vacation!
Going through customs was again uneventful – no hard questions on why we Americans were coming to Cuba and what our intentions were. Just a quick picture for the government and a fresh stamp in our passports. (The first in my brand new passport – how symbolic is that!)
Taking a taxi from Havana to Varadero
We walked outside and immediately set to work finding a taxi to take us to Varadero – a small beach town on Cuba’s slim Hicacos Peninsula. Constantly said to be the best beach in Cuba the white sand stretches for 22 km and is lined with palm trees. We had read online that private taxis are between 90-140 CUC. We immediately got an offer for 100, so we took it without haggling. We converted $150 of our Euros (more on why we had Euros here) and set off on the 2 hour ride.
As we left Havana, the drive was pretty and set our expectations high. We whizzed past green mountainous land that wuickly turned into white sandy seaside. The windows were down and reggaeton blasting from the speakers. Our drivers/companions (three people total) were friendly and we spoke broken Spanish to them on the way there.
Casa Particular in Cuba
We arrived at our Casa Particular (which I highly recommend over a hotel - more Cuba travel tips here) with no problems and as we checked in full of excitement.
Unfortunately, that feeling quickly turned to horror as we realized it was 4:55 on a Saturday and very few banks were open to exchange our US money to CUC! If we didn't get to a bank fast we would only had 50 CUC to last us till Monday. We (literally) ran out of the house and to the closest bank only to get there and realize that, of course, you need your passport to exchange money. So we grabbed a coco taxi (small tut tut looking cabs) and raced back to the house, grabbed our passports, and jumped back in the same cab to return to the bank. Thankfully, we exchanged most of our money and breathed a very deep sigh of relief. If you can learn anything from us, please don’t be afraid of the exchange rates at the airport and exchange more money than you think you need. Or simply don’t be stupid and forget it is a Saturday night and banks are closed on Sunday.
Dinner in Varadero
Anyway, after that fiasco we spent the remainder of the night wandering the main road, Avenida Primera taking in our first real sights and sounds of Cuba. After way too much wandering we settled on Varadero 60 for dinner our first night.
We sat outside in the cool crisp night air and filled ourselves with traditional Cuban food sipping mojitos and daiquiris while a band played soft tropical music. I am not the greatest planner sometimes and had no idea when we walked in that this was literally the best restaurant in Varadero. It's highly recommended by Lonely Planet, Fodors, and so many locals we ended up talking to. If you can, I highly suggest you go there.
Day Two Varadero Cuba
The next morning we woke up early to book scuba diving for the following day. Our lucky streak continued and we learned the only tour tomorrow was to the famous Bay of Pigs AND they had room for us. Thank god. We booked it immediately, excited to see this famous location. We then spent the cool morning walking up and down the beach alternating between relaxing and taking photographs of this unreal location. (I’m not good at just sitting on a beach).
As mid-day started setting in, it got increasingly hotter and hotter. We attempted to rent scooters for the remainder of the day to explore the rest of Varadero. But, quickly learned this is something you should do first thing in the morning. Even though there were many scooters available in the parking lot at CubaCar (government owned car and scooter rentals) they could not rent anymore for the day. Even for a couple of hours. We were extremely confused (and this definitely became an inside joke the rest of the trip) but didn’t press the situation. **shrugs shoulders**
Instead we let ourselves wander by foot and continued to relax and take it all in. That night we went to another amazing Cuban dinner and took a vintage car home. While driving we passed the Beatles Bar. Every night they have a live band who performs with full wigs and costumes. Apparently, this was the place to be if you want to party (like a tourist - and there is nothing wrong with that!).
Day three Varadero Cuba
The next morning was a bright and early wake-up call to head out for a day of diving.
You can read all about how to scuba dive in Cuba here.
After a full day of diving, we got back to Varadero close to 8 pm (11 hours total) certifiably exhausted. We grabbed some dinner and crashed hard.
Varadero to Havana
Our last morning in Varadero we woke up even earlier than the day before to pack and eat our filling breakfast which was included in our Casa Particular booking. Our car (the same driver who took us to Varadero) arrived at 8 am to take us first to Cueva (cave) de Saturno on the way out of Varadero and then back to Havana.
Saturno Cave was ridiculously amazing and I am so happy that we bit the bullet and woke up early to get there. It is so much more special having the place to yourself before the tour buses arrived at 10am. We (along with our driver!) swam in the icy blue water and took our time enjoying the cave with only 4 other people inside the huge cavern with us. As we were ascending the stairs back out of the cave a tour group of 30+ people passed us by. This is why you wake up early.
Our ride back to Havana was pleasant and we spent the majority of the time gazing out the window wondering what was in store for us next.
Final Thoughts on Varadero
Even though researching ahead of time is great, I definitely recommend bringing a guidebook along with you. Here are some books I recommend...
Also, a super common question I get asked constantly 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.