I ran the Havana Half Marathon in 2014 and hunted down the best places to eat, stay and visit while in Cuba. Read more about my race and my adventures here.
Traveling to Cuba
So, you want to know how I got into Cuba? Well, first of all, let me be very clear. I did not pay a travel agency to get into Cuba. And you don’t need to either! You can save yourself a lot of money by traveling there on your own. My husband is a fearless travel wizard. It had been his dream to go to Havana for quite some time. Like me with running, he likes to do the impossible when it comes to traveling abroad. The challenging part at the time (this was the fall of 2014 right before Obama began opening US relations with the Cuban government) was that, as an American Citizen, it was legal to go to Cuba but against the law to spend money there. Therefore, Americans were effectively out of luck. A bit of a conundrum for us. However, one of the ways it was legal to go (and spend money) was to participate in an international sporting event. We noticed that Havana hosted a marathon and half-marathon in November. How timely!
Our family and friends were very apprehensive about us going on this trip. Everyone was scared for us as if we would never come back. People actually thought we would get kidnapped. And I was beginning to think that too, which really made me have second thoughts about the trip. No phone, no internet, and we would need to bring a stack of cash because American credit cards don’t work there. Although, I guess that’s what made it more mysterious and exciting. Julian (my husband’s name) and I were about to do something no one else we knew had done before.
We did not fly directly into Havana because there are no direct flights from the United States, unless you go on a government sanctioned charter. First, we flew from NYC to the Cayman Islands, where we stayed overnight at the Comfort Inn and Suites Seven Mile Beach, a reasonably priced hotel at $135 dollars a night. It was the perfect overnight location on the gorgeous coral sand of Seven Mile Beach. We had arrived at sunset. We walked across the street from our hotel to have dinner at a funky local Caribbean hangout called Peppers Smoke House. We woke up early to take a nice stroll on the beach. Then we relaxed with our toes in the sand and a calming dip in the clear blue sea. We packed up our bags and then headed back to the airport. There, at the ticket counter, we bought our visas to Cuba for $20 dollars each. We then took a quick one hour flight with Cayman Airlines to Havana. Our flights in total were about $550 round trip in 2014.
When you get off the plane in Havana, you are welcomed into a cylinder block building which serves as its International arrivals terminal. Thankfully, there is a bathroom inside because you will be standing and waiting in here for at least an hour. Make sure you have some tissues on hand in your carry-on or purse. We Americans have been spoiled with our toilet paper. The Cubans ration this resource that we take for granted, and it’s a bit on the rough side. If you use any public restroom in Cuba expect to have some change on hand to buy a couple of sheets of paper from a bathroom attendant. The immigration line is very long and it moves at snail’s pace. If you are lucky the immigration agent might speak a word of English. Don’t be intimidated when they motion to you to stare into a camera to take your picture. The officer will shuffle through your passport quite a few times. Then finally you will be allowed through. You will then be ushered by officers to go through a metal detector. They will scrutinize everything you have. The man in front of us was surrounded by several immigrations officers. Apparently, his six tins of chewing tobacco set off the medal detector. It appeared to them that he was bringing in drugs. They quickly confiscated the tobacco tins for themselves. Then we waited for our luggage, which in 2014 came out very quickly. In 2015 it took forever; at least another hour.
In 2014, before we left, I made a connection through a friend of a friend with a local Cuban named Javier. He agreed to to pick up my husband and I from the airport and be our driver during our stay in Cuba. He only charged us $40 dollars a day to do this and he thought he might have been overcharging us with this amount. We struggled a little with the language barrier, but he knew a fair amount of English and I pulled through the best that I could with my ancestral Spanish tongue. Experiencing Cuba through the eyes of a local was priceless. Although I had never met Javier before, immediately we felt safe with him. Cuba is a very safe country. Crime is low there because of the strict government they have. It’s about a 45 minute drive from the airport into downtown Havana. The first thing you will notice is the 1950’s vintage cars. This is when you realize this country really has stood still for decades.
Running in Cuba
Race bib pick up was at the hotel Melia Cohiba, which was one of the nicer hotels in Havana, although it’s a little further out from the race start. It sits right along the beautiful Malecon – Cuba’s iconic strip along the Caribbean Sea.
The bib pick-up is in a hotel conference room. There is not an expo. You will need to bring your passport to pick up your bib. You won’t have to wait too long. They have lots of volunteers checking in runners and make the process go smoothly. The past two years that I have run the race, I received a very colorful Adidas race shirt and my medal in the same bag. This is the only race in my life where I got the medal before I ran the race!
Although this race takes place in November, it is on a tropical island, so be prepared for hot and humid weather. I didn’t know what to expect as far as water stations. This was a concern of mine going into the race, considering it is a third world country, and I was afraid of getting sick. I did bring my own bottle of Gatorade for the start of the race. The food is really hit or miss in Cuba, so be sure to bring the snacks you like to have on race morning.
In 2014 the race was very hot and the sun scorched me! 2015 was humid, but slightly cooler with overcast skies.
One of the most poignant memories I have of the race is when I saw local runners taking the bags of water and sports drinks for the race and handing it off to the local Cuban children who were watching the race from the side lines.
The water stops were not your usual tables with cups of water and Gatorade. They consisted of volunteers taking mini, vacuum sealed bags of water and sports drinks out of garbage bags.
I finished off the Gatorade I had brought with me pretty fast, which lead to no other option than drinking the water that was being handed out. I asked myself whether I should risk passing out during the race or getting sick from the water. I choose to drink the water so I could finish the race. Thankfully, my fear of getting sick never happened and the water turned out to be perfectly safe to drink.
Staying in Cuba
Our first year in Cuba, we stayed at Hotel Inglaterra, an old world hotel situated on Parque Central right next to the start and finish line of the race. This place was basic, no frills and cost $100 a night. Although it wasn’t much, it was clean. The furniture was very old and none of it matched. The bed was a rock, the pillows paper thin, sheets were a far cry from the Egyptian cotton we are use to back home in NYC, but we didn’t care. We made it to Cuba.We had a roof over our heads and safe place to sleep. It was so different from anywhere else we had been in the world.
I was amazed to find a large air conditioner in the room that was clearly from the 1970’s. I looked at Julian and said, “Do you actually think this thing works?” It did! Cuban people are incredibly resourceful. I noticed this the entire trip.
We loved that the room also had a balcony that looked out on to a large open square where the locals gathered. It also had a birds eye view of the start of the race. Sadly, a couple of cockroaches had come through the shower drain into the bathroom. I screamed so loud when I was in the bathroom washing my face! Julian, of course, killed it with the trash can..So gross!
In 2015, we stayed at Hotel Iberostar Parque Central, one of the few Havana’s 5 star hotels. It was definitely a big upgrade from Hotel Inglaterra, and cost us $200 a night. It was also still pretty close to the race start. It had a beautiful roof top where you could truly admire the views of Havana. You could get massages here and I tried to book one, but unfortunately they were booked solid. The room was simple but much bigger and modern than our first hotel, although the bed and sheets were exactly the same.
Dining in Cuba
Paladar Los Mercaderes
Located in the heart of Old Havana is a charming dining experience. Upon entry, the foyer of the restaurant is littered with red rose petals. You must walk up a long stair case to reach the spanish style dining room.
The entire dining room is filled with antique furniture. You really have to admire the resourcefulness of the Cubans. Not one thing matched. All the chairs and tables were unique. The place settings were a different style from one table to the next. The food is quite tasty and the ambience is romantic.
A musical violin and guitar duet played during our meal. We paid about 30 CUCs each, which included a bottle of wine with our meal. We also received a complimentary shot of some very strong Cuban rum while we waited for our bill. Paladar Los Mercaderes gets 5 stars from us!
This restaurant really surprised me. We came here for dinner and it wasn’t on a very well-lit street. From the outside it appeared very run down with jail bars on its windows, which at first didn’t strike me as appealing to go into, but Javier our tour guide said it was one of the best. He was right!
When we entered into the modern all white dining room I definitely had a, “Cynthia, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover moment.” The ambience was very pleasant. The tables where decorated so nicely with each place setting having a beautifully folded napkin that read “Casa Miglis.” My favorite was the toast skagen, a traditional swedish dish with a cuban twist. It’s not to be missed while dining here.
The mojitos, of course, were on point! The service was impeccable and there was even some evening entertainment at the bar.
This is the place to go for a post-race meal, which I did each time I finished the Havana Half Marathon. We actually ate here twice during each trip because we love the Cuban version of the Sloppy Joe. What’s the difference, you ask? Well it’s not as soggy as the American version. The bread isn’t drench with that “Manwich sauce.” It’s a perfectly seasoned ground beef burger that has olives in it to make it more savory than sweet. Have this delicious burger with a mojito and your belly will be singing!
Going out in Cuba
Fabrica De Arte Cubano
Our guide took us to the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, an eclectic nightclub that combines art, music and mojitos! Apparently Javier used to work there as a bouncer, so the people at the door knew him, which was nice because the line had at least a hundred people waiting to get in. This was one of the hottest places to be! There, you’ll walk around an art gallery, sipping the drink of your choice, and listen to various bands scattered throughout the old factory building.
Have a Cocktail at Hotel Nacional
Sit out on the balcony overlooking the Malecon and the Caribbean Sea at the Hotel Nacional. At only $3 a drink, you can enjoy one of the best mojitos in Havana while watching the sunset and breathing in the fresh sea air.
Actually you’ll find that $3 is the going rate for most alcoholic drinks you find on the island! The Hotel Nacional is definitely one of my favorite memories! It has a lot of history and has hosted many illustrious guests from around the world including Frank Sinatra, Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway. When we go back to Havana, I would like to stay here. It has breath-taking views.
A high energy show full of endlessly colorful entertainment. The Tropicana is like going to watch the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in NYC during the holidays.
Be ready to be transported back to 1950’s Cuba. Your senses will be overloaded from the sights and sounds of this cabaret show. The dancers are mesmerizing in their colorful and elaborate costumes. It is relatively expensive at $75 dollars per person. You will receive a large bottle of rum with coke and some snacks to nibble on.
Day Tripping in Cuba
To escape the city life of Havana visit Veradero Beach. Javier our tour guide drove us two hours outside of Havana to get to this heavenly paradise. In order to get there, you will have to drive through a couple of government checkpoints. At one of the checkpoints, the police questioned Javier about his relationship with us. We were obviously gringos, and the police gave him a $20 summons for being an unlawful tourist guide (of course we gave him money for the ticket).
Cuba is a contradiction. The people seem to not have a care in the world, but the government is always there showing that they’re in control. The drive and bureaucracy were well-worth it. Veradero, has endless breath taking views that stretch for miles and crystal blue waters that feel like a luxurious bath. There are many good restaurants and souvenirs to choose from!
A trip to Vinales, the cigar growing region of Cuba will take you a full day. Be sure to get up super-duper early so you can take full advantage of the sunlight. We arranged for a guide to take us to Vinales through our hotel concierge at Hotel Iberostar. The cost of guide plus driver was $200 for a full day The drive was a long one, but the guide did a great job of making entertaining stops along the way, one of which was a tiny road side fruit stand where we had fresh guava, pineapples, and bananas.
The infrastructure, lighting, and roads in Cuba are very poor. Expect a bit of a bumpy ride and no lights when it becomes dark. Seeing daily life gets quite fascinating the further you go outside of Havana. Expect to see lots of farmers on horse drawn carriages and rickety old carts being pulled by donkeys, along with billboards that are not advertisements, but Cuban propaganda that share reminders of the Revolution and the socialist society.
The Cueva del Indio, just north of the village of Vinales are underground caves with a river flowing through it. At the end of the walking cave tour, you take a boat ride through to the end.
One of the most memorable stops during our tour in Vinales was the restaurant, Casa Barbaro. A tiny little shack tucked away into nature, it is surrounded by the natural lush island vegetation.
Everything about this authentic gem in the woods was truly Cuba. It felt like grandma’s home where you were fed the best of the best she had to offer. We were given a full spread of lobster, rice, beans, yucca, and avocado.
The lobster was divine! Please note that ALL LOBSTER in Cuba is amazing! For four people, which included our driver and tour guide, the cost of the meal was $110. That was with mojitos and beers included! The meal was amazingly cheap!
Cayo Jutias Beach
A true adventurer’s private paradise! This skinny crescent-shaped beach is located at the very end of a road that runs up along a long peninsula. Although very difficult to get to, it is so worth the trip. Our driver and tour guide thought we were crazy for wanting to go out of the way for this beach.
Hardly inhabited with tourist or locals, it’s one of the cleanest beaches I have ever been to in the world. The water is picture perfect blue, the sea so calm, and the sand so fine. We brought our own towels and rented beach chairs for $2.
There are very clean bathrooms on the beach. Be sure to bring your own toilet tissue or you will need to give the bathroom attendant a tip for some toilet paper squares. There is also a bar and seating area with a wonderful live Cuban band. This was one of the most memorable beach experiences I have ever had.
We went to Cuba twice and I’m here to tell you we never got kidnapped! Cuba is very safe and the people are so genuine. However, if you need the modern comforts of America, this may not be the trip for you. On the other hand, If you want a cultural adventure that will take you back in time and bring you out of your comfort zone, Cuba is not to be missed!