2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

R&K Insider: Pro tips for visiting Havana

Let’s talk Cuba.

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This week, we’re going to take a break from our regularly scheduled mishmash of Interesting Stuff. The news is largely terrible and since next week already has dibs on terrible stuff, I’m not even getting into it right now.

On the other hand, I’ve received about 10,000 emails asking for tips on traveling to Havana and have responded to precisely none of them. So, let’s talk Cuba. Last summer, the R&K crew headed down to Havana for a week of eating, drinking, and sweating. I like to divide the trip into two parts: Before We Got Our Shit Together and After We Started Drinking in Earnest. During the BWGOST era, we ate some terrifically bad food, got stuck in some horribly boring tourist traps, and, for whatever reason, always seemed short on coffee.

However, after a couple of days, we emerged from our under-caffeinated, overheated fugue state and had a very weird, very good time AWSDIE.  So this, for all my dear friends, family, and beloved readers, is an in-no-way comprehensive and entirely subjective round-up of tips for visiting Havana.

For lodging, I recommend finding an Airbnb, of which there are many. We mostly stayed in a residential section of the centrally located Vedado neighborhood, which was great. Airbnb is huge in Havana; as of this year, Cuba was Airbnb’s fastest-growing market ever. And the hotels, even the nicest ones, aren’t anything to write home about. One sort-of exception: I absolutely recommend spending an afternoon poolside at the Hotel Habana Riviera. This incredible hotel, originally conceived of by American mobster Meyer Lansky, is a temple to mid-century excess. It’s now a weird Miss Havisham of a building, everything preserved during a moment of glory but now a bit faded and disconcerting. For a small fee, non-guests can sit by the huge salt-water pool drinking Cristal beer, then jump off the questionably safe, architecturally beautiful diving board. This is a seriously fantastic way to spend a few hours (or, if you’re deeply hungover, an entire day) in Havana.

If you’re American, the cash situation is not great. You can’t take money out of an ATM and it’s nearly impossible to use a credit card. I ended up taking a bunch of cash with me and converting it at the Havana airport to CUCs, the exchangeable currency that tourists by-and-large rely on. Then, when I inevitably ran out of money, I begged my non-American friends to take out cash and give it to me. Americans can have friends stateside send money to the embassy via Western Union, but that obviously sucks. So I’d think about how much money you plan to spend, assuming that every dinner, whether it is good or terrible, will cost about $20. Then add about $200-$500 on top of that, because you’re lying to yourself. You are. Havana is not cheap for tourists. Finally, make friends with the first Canadian you meet.

If, like me, you’re a disorganized packer but figure you can always pick up what you need upon arrival, re-think that mentality. It’s rather difficult to find items such as sun screen or other vacation ephemera, so try to come with everything—really—that you anticipate needing.

Clearly marked cabs are easy to flag down in touristy areas (and an Airbnb host will be happy to call one for you), but you can also make use of the collectivos, informal taxis that cover major arteries like the Malecón, Linea, Avenida 23, and Avenida 3ra. Stick your hand out purposefully and one of these cars will stop, dropping off patrons in the order they get in. Point to the ground to continue along the same street, or point toward the street you’re trying to get to to move to another main road. Agree on a price before you set off.

Wifi is available in public parks. Here’s a map and instructions. Again, I’m not getting into the complicated internet situation in Havana. If you go to one of said parks and walk around looking hapless, you may be approached by a young Cuban man looking to sell one of the cards providing an access code that allows you to get online. I’m not recommending you do this, since it is illegal. I’m just saying it may or may not be an option. You can also buy these cards at official shops, I’m told.

Now on to the fun stuff. Cuban national cuisine is a fantastically complex subject that I’ve read a lot about; almost no one I spoke to in Cuba gave one shit about it. As one man told me, “We express our culture through music, not food. Food is a necessity, to keep you going.” And that man was a food blogger. Great food in Cuba is not necessarily waiting for you on every corner. (The exception being little paper cones of peanuts that are available on every corner. Eat those.) But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a ton of great food coming out of the vibrant, if not entirely widespread, Cuban food scene.

The best meal I had in Havana was at Le Chansonnier, where we feasted on crab, lobster, malanga fritters, and flan served in an elegant Colonial-style house. To mingle with the cool kids, check out the rooftop at El Del Frente, where the cocktails are loaded with unnecessary fruit garnishes that look garish but taste great and the roasted goat is melt-in-your-mouth tender. For a quick bite while wandering the tourist-y Old Havana neighborhood, stop by Bianchini for baked goods to take on the go. For a memorable meal, take a cab out to the Santa Fe neighborhood for ceviche along the water at Santy’s. Everyone mentions the “river sushi,” but the ceviche is the way to go. Pro tip: for a small fee, you can skip the line at the Coppelia ice cream shop; do it.  A colleague adds, “Don’t eat the pizza until it’s time to eat the pizza.” When you see these strange little cheese-covered cracker-y things that cost 10 cents, you’ll know what she means.

For drinks, head behind the enormous capitol building for a nightcap or six at Siakara on Calle Barcelona, where Havana’s art-world gliteratti cluster around tables surrounded by contemporary Cuban art and Place Pigalle signs. During the day, get a tower of beer at the hulking Cerveceria Antiguo Almacen de la Madera y El Tabaco, a microbrewery of sorts in a converted tobacco warehouse along the water. And definitely check out the excellent shows at Fábrica de Arte Cubano (there’s also a bar and restaurant upstairs).

However, my favorite drinking evening took place on Havana’s famed Malecón. A colleague and I stopped by a distinctly disreputable looking gas station, where she told the man behind the counter, “I would like all of your rum boxes, please.” The man handed over many tetra-boxes of cheap rum, which we sucked down while sitting on the sea wall, listening to musicians sing as they walked past amorous teens and smiling families. The Malecón’s busiest congregation spots are outside the Hotel Nacional and at the end of Avenida 23.

And before you go, check out some of R&K’s Cuba coverage. Here’s Brin-Jonathan Butler on the complicated history of Havana’s sports champions. And the incomparable Mitch Moxley on the city’s most incredible sex performer, now lost to history. Cuba’s ministry of rap. Fishing in Guantanamo Bay. Or if fishing isn’t your thing, how about surfing? And for further reading, I recommend sticking a book in your bag. For nonfiction, try Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba.  For fiction, check out The Man Who Loved Dogs.

Wait, you may be asking. What about the Floridita? Old Germans and thumping music are not my scene. What about the city’s world-famous music scene? Definitely check it out, but I’m not the one to ask. Havana is a beautiful, swirling mess of a city, with a thousand things to see and eat and listen to. Jump in a collectivo, find some good music, drink lots of beer, and I’ll see you next week.

That’s it for this week. See you next time for the best politics, food, and travel from around the web. Tweet the stories you want to see @caraparks.

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