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 regulations the US had in place at the time that made it harder to physically get to Cuba. We would have to fly through a third party country so usually, 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 and spend the week skiing or something.
Thankfully we got to the airport and the visa process was so incredibly smooth. We went under support for the Cuban people paid our $75 and checked into our flight.
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. 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!)
We walked outside and immediately set to work finding a taxi to take us to Varadero – a small town on Cuba’s slim Hicacos Peninsula with 22 km of white sand and perfect palm trees. We had read online that private taxis are between 90-140 CUC and when we immediately got an offer for 100 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.
The drive was pretty and set our expectations high as we left Havana and rolled past green mountainous land that 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.
We arrived at our Casa particular (more on why you should stay in one coming soon) smoothly and as we checked in full of excitement 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 50CUC 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 back in the same cab to return to the bank. 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 than you need. Or simply don’t be stupid and not remember it is a Saturday night you are arriving.
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, mojitos and daiquiris while a band played soft tropical music. (side note – we had no idea when we walked in that this was literally the best restaurant in Varadero recommended by Lonely Planet, Fodors and so many locals we ended up talking to. If you can I highly suggest you go there.)
The next morning we awoke early to book scuba diving for the following day. Our lucky streak continued and we learned they were going to the famous Bay of Pigs and they had room for us. 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 getting increasingly hot we attempted to rent scooters for the remainder of the day to explore the rest of Varadero. We 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**
We instead let ourselves wander by foot and continued to relax and take it all in. That night we went to had another Cuban dinner and took a vintage car home passing by (in the car) 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!).
The next morning was a bright and early wake-up call before our day of diving. You can read all about that day 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.
Our last morning in Varadero we awoke even earlier than the day before to pack and eat our filling breakfast. 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 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.