The Smart Yogi’s Travel Guide to Cuba : September 2018
Dying to check out Cuba but not sure how?
Here’s everything you need to know
The long and the short of it is this, Americans are still allowed to travel to Cuba with groups (you can actually go individually as well if you go through a little red tape but who needs the hassle?!). Flights are still offered directly from the USA to Havana daily. And many, many Americans (and loads of other foreign travelers) are enjoying the uniqueness that is the largest and most interesting island in the Caribbean, Cuba.
Here are the 3 things you need to know:
- Your tourist visa. When you enter into most countries you receive a tourist visa or some kind of stamp in your passport that allows their government to track your whereabouts and how long you’ve been bopping around. Some are included in the cost of your plane ticket and some you have to pay for directly when entering the country. The case with Cuba is that you must buy your tourist visa (valid for up to 4 weeks) at the last port of departure in the USA. So if you have a flight from NYC that has a stop-over in Miami, you’ll be buying your tourist visa for Cuba in Miami on the layover. I’m finding that in most cities in the US you’ll be charged $100usd for the convenience. There is an option to order your tourist visa online in advance if you have the time and it costs a fraction of the price in the airport. Consider your options…
- Your Support for the Cuban People/People to People license. We provide a full schedule incorporating the restrictions imposed by the US government for our yoga retreat participants under the category of People to People Non-Education 515.565(b). This means that with our programs Americans are legally allowed to be in Cuba following our outline for supporting those who need it most in the country, the Cuban people. There is a full list of companies that Americans are not allowed to support including many large hotel chains and some restos (who wants to be in those monstrosities anyway?!) We stay in a private home, enjoy meals with local private restaurants (did we mention how many the food is where we dine?!! it is!) and use only locals for activities and transport.
- Your safety. Cuba is safe. Period. It’s hard to find even the slightest complaint in this department…the closest I’ve come to being ‘bothered’ is being smothered in compliments on the street by men (both young AND old!), women, and children. The people are kind, curious, complementary, and fun-loving. No one in Cuba is allowed to have any kind of firearm or weapon so violent crime numbers are very low (maybe more Americans should consider this as a travel option–or living for that matter!) Walking down the street at any time of day, taking a ‘taxi’ (which is usually a private car driven by a guy and his girlfriend riding in the front seat, likely keeping an eye on him!) at night after a night out, or simply wondering the streets prove to be completely safe and typically more than interesting, especially if you speak some Spanish.
Overall, a trip to Cuba will likely flip your mind on end. The way things are done, the beautiful vibe of the people, and the pulsing rhythm of Havana will force you to reconsider life as you know it. Cuba is nothing short of an eye-opening experience. Travel to and getting around are part of the profound experience.
The hottest spot since Williamsburg in the late 90’s…
Fabrica de Arte Cubana (FAC) or La Fabrica, as most locals call it, is a unique nightclub created with style and creativity (of course) by a group of hip Cuban artists. The space itself is an old factory used for refining cooking oil, turned into an art space for mixed media, several bars, a VIP lounge, two dance clubs, a variety of restaurants and snack bars, and a couple of cute little pop-up shops sprinkled in for good measure.
A night at the Fabrica for me usually looks like dinner at one of the restos depending on my mood :
There is a fine dining restaurant outside the club called El Cocinero that offers excellent food, drink, and environs. I’ll go here on a date or with a friend for an intimate dinner indoors or on their adorable roof terrace. The food and service are great.
Then there’s the larger restaurant and bar on the roof that offers more tapa-like plates for groups or an informal night out with cocktails in the open night air before heading into the club. A couple of my favorite dishes here are the cheese plate, the tomato salad, and the octopus if they have it.
If you choose either of these for dinner you’ll need to wait the long line for entry into the Fabrica so either get there early or choose to eat inside to avoid the crowds.
Inside the club you’ll find a variety of kiosks for quick bites, there are sammies pressed to a nice warm toast, creative and yummy finger food and a couple places for something sweet. Lately, a new resto has opened inside the club called Tierra located inside the entrance to the VIP lounge. As the name indicates, the food is from around the globe as interpreted by the local chef (for you American craving a taste of home try the Kentucky Fried Chicken). Choose to eat inside in the AC or in either of 2 terraces al fresco. Their special mojito offers a champagne topper and is served in a pint glass…you’ll only need a few to be set for the night!
Beyond the food and drinks, the club itself has a rotating art gallery every few months. Local Cuban artists are typically featured from painting to photography to sculpture to video and mixed media. The main gallery closes around 11pm. Two stages are featured in different areas of the club for live performances. The music is incredible on any given night and draws a fun crowd. After so try to get through it before they rope it off for the night. Other art pieces are scattered throughout the space so there’s no shortage of eye candy. The show the DJ sets up and the dance party ensues. The smaller of the two spaces has AC so keep that in mind on a hotter night! My favorite dance spot though is the small one right by the entrance that usually has a house DJ and reggeaton thumpin’, but that’s just my style.
Ladies, a word to the wise, bring a little packet of tissues with you as the bathrooms are far from the lap of luxury. Also, consider bringing a Sharpie and following the trend of signing the walls, do the same. If you look close you’ll find Michelle Obama’s signature too! A local hero obviously…
A note on how this place works, upon entrance you’ll pay around 3cuc for an entrance card. At each spot, you’ll be asked for your card and they write the cost for the drink or snack you are ordering. No money is exchanged inside the club unless your card gets to be more than 30cuc at which time they’ll ask you to settle up and give you a new one to start over. The only time a card gets that high (as drinks are typically no more than 4.50cuc for a large mojito!) is when you buy a round for your friends on your card or start to order some food in the VIP lounge (if you’re lucky enough to get in with a local). Otherwise, upon exiting the club there will be another line for settling up the bill. This can be a long wait if you stay until closing so follow this pro tip and find the pay station at the bottom of the stairs by the snack bars and settle up there and then you can fly out the door showing you’ve already settled up. They collect your card outside on your way to the taxis waiting out front. If you lose your card you’ll be charged 30cuc so hang onto it and have the best time!
Other awesome excursions and sites in Cuba :
Take the Mafia tour around Havana!
Did you know that Havana was being prepped as the ‘other’ Las Vegas back in the 50s? The Italian mafia in New York was looking for a new base where they could take care of their ‘business’ outside of US jurisdiction and Havana was just the place. Tons of wealth, perfect weather year round, easy to get to for Americans and the world, and the perfect place to do all things mafia…
Our mafia tour includes a stop through the city at the hottest spots for mafia activity, favorite bars, casinos, and a drive through the forest of the city on the way to the famous Copacabana ‘the hottest spot north of Havana’, just like the song indicates…or at least it was back in the day.
Ernest Hemingway wrote The Man and the Sea in a small fishing village just outside of Havana. He also loved a good Cuban daiquiri and made several places famous for just ordering his favorite icy cold beverage but namely La Floridita near Central Park in Havana Vieja. Other super interesting stops along this tour are his house outside the city where he collected taxidermied animals of his hunts and other collections this eccentric man gathered.
We take the Hemingway tour on our Yoga + ART retreats included in the package for some inspo and fun around town.
The tobacco route where the famous Cuban cigars are born is just outside of Vinales in Pinar del Rio. Every four months tobacco leaves are harvested and cured/dried to be sold to various cigar brands like Cohiba, Romeo and Juliet, and Montecristo to name a few of the best. Take a tour on a small, local tobacco farm
to learn about the process, witness the rolling of a pure Cuban, and take a puff (remember, don’t inhale!!) to sample this local product in its habitat.
The kids who live in the region take 3 months of their junior year in high school to learn the tradition that is passed down in the area. The boys go out into the fields with the men training in picking and growing and the girls stay inside the drying barns with the women to learn the skills of sewing the leaves onto a drying rack using the spoke of a bicycle wheel as the needle.
The Museum of the Revolution & The Museum of Modern Cuban Art
Learn about the rich history of Cuba from the Spanish Revolution to Fidel at this stunning example of colonial architecture in Havana. See the yacht nicknamed ‘Grandma’ that brought over the Revolutionaries of Fidel’s movement, the tanks, and planes of the military and other examples of Cuban history.
Round out the afternoon with a visit the Modern Art Museum of Havana which offers a fine collection of modern Cuban art. Both located in Old Havana, it’s the perfect day paired with a cold mojito or Cuban coffee afterward to take in the day.
Our Favorite Eats in Havana
Smoked Marlin tacos at La Guarida have a crispy sweet potato shell.
El del Frente & O’Reilley 304 are a must for lunch or dinner in Old Havana. Get a watermelon mojito on the roof and ask if they have the crispy octopus appetizer that’s off menu. Trust.
Lamparilla 361 for typical Cuban food in a cute environ in Old Habana.
La Guarida for lunch, dinner, and rooftop cocktails any time. Famous for its architecture and the home of the film Fresa y Chocolate. Take your camera and dress up. Make sure you hoof it up to the roof for the epic views.
El Dandy for coffee, a beer or a light bite. Around the corner from Clandestina, a clothing and accessories shop with the quintessential ‘Actually I’m in Havana’ shirts and bags and pillows…
Il Rustico for great pizza if you’re in the mood. Sorry GFs…this isn’t your place.
Helad’oro is an ice cream shop with great flavors. Try the mamey if it’s in season and don’t forget to add a squeeze of local honey on top from the counter!
Mas Habana should be packed..I don’t get it but I do get their paella, pumpkin soup, amazing cocktails like the maracuya daiquiri piled to the sky and the live jazz played by young hipsters in the evenings on the weekends.
I could go on and on and on and on…the food in Cuba is actually amazing and the cocktails are primo. Don’t eat at gov’t establishments…head to the private restos where the creatives are behind the scenes show their talents. A few other favorites outside of Old Havana are Marea, Bella Ciao, Tocamadera, Corte de Principe, Maradentro, Eclectico, and Amigos del Mar.
Casa particulares and boutique hotels
Always stay in a private accommodation. The government-run hotels lack the love that you’ll find everywhere else on the island. Nothing gets you in the flow of Cuba like staying in a gorgeous home or a fabulously appointed boutique hotel. If you decide to extend your stay after one of our retreats these are a few spots that we adore!
La Reserva in Vedado is so well done we just can’t. Book ahead. It’s pricey but if you love art and design you’ll likely think it’s worth it!
Casa Vitrales in Old Havana is adorbs and you can walk right out your door into the beautiful chaos. Breakfasts on the roof are sweet.
Utopia Havana is a new yoga B&B opening soon in Havana…sound familiar?! Stay tuned for these exciting deets!