Kai Lawson

Must See | Cuba

Kai Lawson
Must See | Cuba

Country Location:

Cuba

Continent:

Caribbean/ North America

Recommended Duration of Stay:  

4 Days or Less

Currency:  

Cuban Peso & Cuban CUC

Currently 1 US Dollar = 1 Convertible Peso | CUC (Tourist Currency)

Currently 1 US Dollar = 24 Peso (Local Currency)

Cuba has a dual currency system. The original currency is known as the Cuban Peso (CUP) and is widely used among the Cuban people. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUP) was implemented into the financial system in 1994, and set to equate to the US dollar. Initially this currency was used for transactions specific to the travel industry, however overtime the currency has become widely used by locals, as well.

 

How much money should you carry:

For a 3 day trip you can definitely get by extremely comfortably on $250-$300, especially if you are traveling with a group of 3 or more. However, if you plan to get a little fancy, or rely heavily on taxis for transportation, It doesn’t hurt to carry $400-$450 with you.

My suggestion would be to start off with $300 and if you think you’ll need more money, you can exchange your cash (Dollars or Euros) at a Casa de Cambio or CADECA. Here you can exchange your foreign money for Cuban money. I personally found the exchange rate to be better than exchanging at a hotel or a bank.

 

Where to Stay:

 

 

If you have the opportunity, stay in the historic neighborhood of Vedado. Vedado is a modern neighborhood with old ass French & Spanish charm. As far as my bougie ass is concerned, it’s absolutely to DIE for! The aesthetic of the neighborhood reminded me of the areas in New Orleans which line St. Charles Avenue. Basically beautiful mansions (many under reconstruction) bars, restaurants and cafeterias. In layman's terms, it’s poppin’! In Vedado, you’re also very close to the nightlife which Havana has to offer, outside of Old Havana itself. ALSO, if you’re feeling adventurous or just looking to walk off the extra pounds you’re guaranteed to gain from all of the pork and rice you’re likely to eat, you can stroll along Malecon wall and end up somewhere in, Old Havana.

 

What To Do:

 

Tour Old Havana: Now that Cuba has opened up for direct travel from the United States, you’d be a real dick head for not taking the time to learn about the culture and it’s people. Old Havana at first can be extremely overwhelming. There is a lot to see and even more people to bump into while you’re trying to see everything. It’s a busy place, and now that ALLLLL the Americans want to take a visit, there likely to be be no slowing down anytime soon. So do yourself a favor and put your big girl panties on and get out there!

 

 

 

Walk along Malecon: In Havana, the walkway of Malecon stretches for 5 miles along the coast of Havana. On any given day you will find locals hanging out, exercising or making their way across town, along this walkway. As the weekend approaches, this walkway becomes more of a venue of entertainment then a pathway. Cubans of all ages gather along the wall to play music, dance, meet with old and new friends, watch the sunset and essentially parking lot pimp without the parking lot. If you happen to be a Howard University student or Alum you’ll understand what I mean when I say this is the mother of all “booty walls”. This is the place to be if you want to see and be seen and also have a seat.

 

Fabrica de Arte Cubano: Visiting this place was THE dopest thing I’ve experienced in my life. If you’re into the international art scene think Miami’s Basel. If you live in New York, think Brooklyn Museum’s Target ® sponsored First Saturday’s. If you’re not sure what the hell i’m talking about, google those things and imagine if you can preserve the physical aesthetic of those events, extract the bougieness from them and throw the bougie away. Every Sunday at Fabrica, it becomes a function where the old, the young, the local, the foreign, the haves and the have-nots gather for food, drinks (big ass mojito drinks), dancing and more. Here you’ll see performance art, music, sculptures and paintings. For the $2 CUCs cover,  it’s worth the visit.

 

Beaches: The beaches in Cuba are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, in my travels. The water is exceptionally clear and the sand a beautiful pasty tan color. Right outside of Havana you can catch a taxi for $12-$15 each way, take a 30 minute scenic drive outside of the city and travel to the Santa Maria Del Mar Beach. The beach is clean, pretty and filled with local amenities. For a small fee ($2-4) you can rent umbrellas and chairs and pay someone to bring you food from the local food shacks. Even more amazing than that, there are men, who walk along the beach with coconuts, just to cut them open for you and pour rum inside of them until your heart's content. There’s not much more I need out of this beautiful life than money, and since I don’t have employment in Cuba, this beach was my special slice of heaven in havana.

 

 

Go see Cuba: Obviously there is more to Cuba than the capital of Havana. If you do decide to stay longer than 3 days, I suggest taking a road trip to any other province within the island. I had the luxury of visiting the towns of Varadero and Matanzas. Varadero is a resort town which caters to a large influx of expat visitors from Canada, Australia and the UK. The beach is gorgeous but due to the number of foreigners that visit the region, food and drinks are more expensive than in Havana. Matanzas is about 30 minutes outside of Varadero and quite charming. The locals in the area are great company and there are a couple discotheques/ clubs to keep you entertained for an evening or two.

Other areas which I plan to visit in the near future include the town of Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara and Holguin.

 

What to Eat:

Full transparency, here. I found most of the food in Cuba to be a hit or a miss. Since my family is largely latin/caribbean, I have a standard of flavoring that I require in my food, for me to appreciate my plate. Unlike many of its Caribbean neighbors, Cubans are not huge fans of spicy heat, and are not heavily influenced by their West Indian neighbors. So many of the seasonings which you may find commonly used on the islands of Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Jamaica, do not make it to traditional Cuban tables. So what does this mean? It means take everything you think about Cuban food based on your experience in Miami, and just consider Miami Cuban food to be the Tex-Mex of Cuban cuisine. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a different thing. The presentation of the dishes will be similar, but the execution of the culinary process is different.

Below, I’ve listed my favorite dishes and some restaurants which I would absolutely visit again.

Ropa Vieja: Well seasoned shredded beef served with shredded onions, peppers and often tomatoes (all mixed in). Just freakin DELICIOUS!  It’s usually served over a bed of arroz blanco (white rice) or arroz mojo (black rice and beans).

Arroz Moro: This is the cuban version of black rice and beans and GOOD LAWD, have mercy, THANKYABIGGAWD, it’s so good! For the record, I’ve read that the traditional name of the dish is Moros y Christianos or Moors and Christians. If you’re well versed in your history you can guess that the black beans = the moors and the white rice = Christians (how’s that for imperialism… eye roll). It’s also often referred to as Congri, which is an African tradition which both rice and beans are cooked together. Either way, after you side eye the dish, make sure you face plant in it. It’s delicious. I’m personally a sucker for all things garlic and pork and this dish is well seasoned with both. Que Rico!

Pork: If pork is your thing, this is definitely your place. In Cuba, you can’t go wrong with the pork. Grilled, fried, roasted, shredded this is definitely the hit of all of the hits and misses.

 

 

Restaurante El Maguey (Old Havana)

 

Cost: Moderate (6-20 CUC)

Portions: Large

Flavor: DAMN GOOD

Views: Somebody’s Mama’s Living Room

Thanks to the guard Edward, whom I met after grabbing drinks in the Gran Teatro de la Habana, I found the ABSOLUTELY DELICIOUS in home Cafeteria! It’s literally somebody’s mama, cooking food in her house, and we sat at a dinner table in her dining room. The food… TASTES LIKE SOMEBODY’S MAMA, COOKED FOOD, IN HER HOUSE, and told me to sit my ass at her dining room table. The food was delicious, well seasoned and portioned for a great food coma, which I indeed succumbed to a few hours later. They close around midnight, so if you find yourself wandering around trying to find food, ask a local to point you in this direction.

 

Habana Mango (Old Havana)

Cost: cheap as hell (2-5 CUC)

Portions: Super Large

Flavor: DAMN GOOD

Views: Middle of Old Havana

One night, on my way to Reggae night at The Palermo Cabaret, I saw people lined up, outside of this spot, like the newest Jordans were about to drop and I smelled the most delicious chicken. So I knew I needed to comeback and sweet baby JESUS I’m so glad I did. Habana Mango is located near the “Boulevard” area of Old Havana, and it’s similar to your local fast food restaurant in set up. The menu consists of everything from Pizza and French Fries to Arroz Moro and Yuca. The portions can honestly feed a small family, and the food is just so damn good! Also, for 1 plate, you’ll probably break the bank for less than 4 CUC. They close at midnight, so if you  have the munchies after a cuban rum bender, try to find this place.

 

El Cocal (Santa Maria Del Mar)

 

Cost: Moderate (1-15 CUC)

Portions: Medium

Flavor: DAMN GOOD

Views: Right on the Beautiful Beach

This is the only restaurant on the Santa Maria del Mar beach. LUCKILY it’s fantastic. Before you order, you’re going to want to do yourself a favor and ask what’s available for the day. I’d hate for you to get your feelings hurt before you’ve had the opportunity to put some pre/post beach  goodness into your body. Unlike many of the places I’ve had the opportunity to eat at in Havana, I can WITHOUT A DOUBT tell you the seafood here is FANTASTIC! Freshly fished from the nearby beach and cooked very well. If you love yourself at all, you’ll ask for a mojito on the side, and thank me later.

 

La Torre (Vedado)

 

Cost: Expensive (15-50CUC)

Portions: Large

Flavor: Just Good

Views: Panorama Views of the city of Havana

Ok, so sometimes you just want to see and be seen. This is one of the places to do it. The vibe is classy and upscale and the food is “Just OK” but the views from the restaurant are ridiculous. La Torre is located at the top of a high rise apartment building and overlooks most of Havana. During the day you see the ocean and the bustling city below, and at night you see the twinkling of the city lights. It’s beautify and very bougie. Come here, take your pictures, grab a cocktail, if the live band is here go ahead and get your little two step on, and if you’re hungry, sure… you can eat, but just know nobody’s mama is in the kitchen cooking up magic for you.

 

Casa Miglis (Old Havana)

 

Cost: Expensive (10-30 CUC)

Portions: Small

Flavor: Just OK. It’s Swedish/Cuban mix (don’t worry I judged myself)

Views: Beautiful Ambiance in the heart of Old Havana

This place was so pretty. The food a different story. It wasn’t terrible. It was actually palatable. My problem is, in Cuba, I want my Cuban food to have some soul. This didn’t have it BUT it was super sexy! I ended up here after being turned away from the upscale and highly sought after La Guardia Restaurant. Apparently, this is the hot spot for a good salsa, so I would suggest get here after 8pm, grab you a quick bite and get ready to dance your ass off.

 

Nightlife:

 

La Bodeguita Del Medio

It’s as Habana Vieja (old havana) as it gets. Vintage looking bar, with amazing bartenders in aprons mixing mojito’s because everyone’s life depends on it and the live band in the background making you get your salsa on! Around sunset the party usually spills out onto the street and it becomes reminiscent of a poppin’ house party. If get a chance, make the visit, get your rumba on and grab a drink or 7 while you’re there.

 

La Gruta

Everybody told me about La Gruta. Literally as soon as I asked, where’s the party, the response was always unanimous-- La Gruta. Basically, If you’re into nightclubs (which on a good day I am), this is the place you go to party. It’s very similar to any big & popular nightclub at home. You know, strobelights, dickhead bartenders, hundreds of sweaty people, all the mixxys you see to be seen.  I had a great time. Minus the asshole bartenders, it was amazing. The DJ played lots or reggaeton, but also mixed in some Hip Hop, Dance and Techno. There’s a 5 cuc which is pretty expensive for a Cuban night out, but well worth it. Just be sure not to travel with a purse if you’re not comfortable checking it in coat/bag check. Seriously, that’s a thing there.

 

Palermo Cabaret

 

I came here on reggae night (Friday) and had all the fun! Mainly because I’m into roots reggae and it was amazing to see the rastafarian culture in Cuba. The Palermo is definitely another spot that people frequent in Havana, however it’s a lot less pretentious. This has more of a hometown feel, than a big city night out. I came on a reggae night, but I was told they play reggaeton and salsa as well. ALSO, this place is near Habana Mango. So after drinking all the rum in juice boxes your liver and kidneys can handle, do yourself a favor and go get the fried chicken and moro rice platter… You can thank me later!

 

How to Get Around:

 

So here’s the thing. They have busses, but I just wasn’t that brave. And not that I don’t take busses in other places, but I just wasn’t feeling the insane sardine trick everyone seemed to be playing on the busses. At any given moment I saw busses LITERALLY BURSTING at the seams. Also, the busses were doing this rolling stop thing, and people would jump off during this rolling stop, and I just couldn’t do it. I’m not there in my life yet to do stuff like that. So I took taxi’s everywhere.

The taxi situation is pretty simple. If you get a shared taxi and travel anywhere in the city limits of Havana, you’re likely to pay 1-2 CUCs per person. If you don’t want to share a taxi, you’ll pay $5 each way. Whatever you do, DO NOT PAY MORE THAN $5 for these rides. Much of the taxi scene is a negotiation here, much like everywhere else. So be sure to stick to your guns, and confirm/affirm you’re only paying $5 for your ride. If you’re going to the beach the ride should be about $12-$15 each way and if you’re headed to the Airport the ride should be about $20- $25.