This past January, we took a week-long trip to Cuba and had such an incredible experience. We decided to spend the entire week in Havana, and I can't tell you how many times we'd be walking down one Instagrammable street or another and say, "I feel like we're in a time warp." Really, it's like nowhere else we've been, and now is the time to visit if you've not. That said, Cuba is one of those places in which it helps to do a bit of research and planning before you leave (unlike some of our trips where we totally wing it). Luckily, I gleaned loads of valuable info from my fellow travel writers. Here, a few of our favorite reasons for visiting Cuba right now.
The People: The residents of Cuba are some of the nicest people we've ever met. And not only are they incredibly welcoming to tourists, they're vibrant and fun, and know how to throw a party. On a random Saturday afternoon, we happened upon what seemed to be the entire city of Havana having a massive dance party in the middle of the streets. Plus, Havana is safe, and we felt totally comfortable walking around all hours of the day and night--and there's always a friendly local to help you out if lost or in need of anything at all. The people truly make this place.
The Drinks: Anyone who visits Cuba will tell you that the food isn’t very good. And they're not too far off most of the time; government-run food distribution results in fewer deliveries, often leaving people feeling underwhelmed with restaurants. Go in with low expectations and you might be pleasantly surprised (we had a great meal at Dona Eutimia). What visitors often leave out is that the cocktails are fantastic. From the signature mojito and the daiquiris to fancy cocktail bars, you could plan an entire trip around the drinking culture in Cuba. One of our favorite afternoons was spent sipping way-too-expensive gin and tonics on the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski rooftop that has the most stunning views (and people watching) in Havana. But inexpensive and delicious drinks can be found around every corner.
The Hotel Lobbies: Nate and I are hotel geeks, but staying at a hotel in Cuba isn't always the best option. That said, the hotel lobbies are knock-out gorgeous and great for whiling away a few hours of the day—especially in the hot, humid afternoons. A few favorites: The Nacional de Cuba, Saratoga Havana, and Iberostar.
The Cigars in Vinales: You can't go to Cuba without smoking a cigar, right? We took a day trip to Vinales, home to Cuba's famous cigars and while we were content to be in the city for the entire week, this area provides some respite from bustling Havana with lush greenery and fresh air. Plus, it’s really cool to watch the cigars being made on-site. I took a puff and didn't want to puke, and Nate loved them enough to bring home a bundle (totally legal). We also went zip-lining for just $2 per line.
A Classic Car Ride: You also can't go to Cuba without riding in a classic car. Yes, this is super touristy, but it's so much fun, and I loved the pretty pink color of our car (my choice of course). You can find these everywhere in Havana, and they should cost about $50 for an hour, which will include an English-speaking tour on wheels. Our guide owned his car, which he named the Pink Bull or something along those lines. He was hilarious and this proved to be a great way to see historic Havana. I'd recommend doing this on your first day to get acquainted with all the sites.
Our Casa: Hotels in Cuba are government-run and often very expensive and outdated (think, musty bedspreads and nasty carpets). Most visitors will rent a casa particular or AirB&B, instead. Ours--run by a lovely Cuban family--felt more like a chic boutique hotel with breezy all-white decor, a semi-private rooftop, and super-personal service. It was inexpensive and I'd highly recommend it. Bonus: They served hot dogs for breakfast and amazing mojitos come cocktail hour (but skip the dinner).
And a few tips: Bring cash (and more than you think you'll need); you can't pay with a credit card anywhere in Cuba. Carry a small packet of tissues in your pocket or purse as businesses may not always have toilet paper. Bring snacks like granola bars or individually bagged nuts. Be cautious with tap water (we did end up sick). Download Maps.me on your iPhone, which is a lifesaver for getting around without internet. Visit the FAC; we won't ruin the surprise, but it was our most-loved part of the trip. Finally, go in with a carefree and laid-back attitude--you won't have the luxuries that you'll find in the U.S. (for instance, we didn't have hot water most days in our casa and there's zero internet aside from at parks or cafes), but that's all part of the incredible experience. It's Cuba, not an all-inclusive resort.