American models from the 50s are truly omnipresent in Havana's streets.

11 Surprising Things About Traveling Cuba

Last week I shared my favorite highlights from my trip to Cuba and this week I’ll share some of the most surprising parts of my travels through the country.

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1) Rum in tetra-briks – Ah, Ron Planchao. It’s dirt-cheap rum sold in what looks like a juice box. For some reason vendors give you this look of respect when you buy these boxes, like, “Ha, he/she is the real deal”. When you’re walking in the Malecon, you see all the ladies with their cans of Cristal, and all the dudes drinking straight rum from these little cartons. It’s not too bad – we had some with Coke, I believe, once we were back home in the Dominican. It’s just funny because all these tough dudes just look like they’re drinking from a juice box.

Sample of Planchao.

Sample of Planchao.

2) The Granma yacht is completely sealed away – you can’t get a good look at it – That was the most disappointing part of all the sightseeing we did. For those of you unfamiliar with Cuban history, the Granma is the yacht in which Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and the other expedition members arrived in Cuba to begin the Revolution. The yacht itself is a permanent exhibit at the Revolution Museum…but it’s kept on a metal structure, which is heavily guarded at all times. There is what looks like a metal ramp around it, so I naturally assumed we would be allowed in (since we paid for access to it) to walk around it and take pictures. Nope, you pay for the right to see it, apparently. We had to exercise our camera’s zoom to get some shots.

3) The exorbitant prices at the Museo de la Revolucion – first you have to pay your entrance fee (which of course is more expensive if you’re a foreigner). Then, if you want to take pictures, you have to pay extra for that. Was it worth it? In my own humble opinion, no. The exterior is much more interesting than the interior. Two people’s entrance fees plus a picture fee put us back $16CUC.

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4) Havana is surprisingly clean (there is always someone cleaning up on the streets, sweeping, picking up garbage), and there are more people showing signs of obesity than you would think – I don’t know what was I expecting – maybe my mind image of Cuba was stuck in the early 90s, when, after the collapse of the USSR, Cuba went through a serious crisis of goods and people were going seriously hungry. But there was a lot more pizza and burger eating than what I would have ever expected, and well, let’s just say that there was a lot of people on the streets of Havana who should never wear spandex.

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Paseo del Prado, Old Havana. Very tourist heavy. Still very clean.

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5) There are also more Americans visiting Havana than you’d think! – One afternoon while chilling at the lobby of the gorgeous Hotel Parque Central, we ran into a group on English-speaking people…that didn’t sound British or anything like that. Upon asking them, turned out they were alumni from an Ivy League school on a class reunion trip. These days, it’s easier than ever for Americans to get licenses to go to Cuba – bear in mind, however, that these licenses come with a hefty price tag and you will be subject to a schedule. If you thought you could get a license to go hang out at the beach, think again.

6) Morning drinking in coffee shops – It was always funny to see people drinking Cristal (the Cuban beer of choice) at 9 am at the coffee shop. Maybe it’s because it’s hot the majority of the year, but apparently drinking in the early morning is perfectly acceptable. To be honest, though, we did not see anyone drunk stupid at any hour of the day, so be respectful and take the necessary measures to not make an ass of yourself.

7) Cinnamon rolls are called coffee cakes – “Coffee cakes” became our favorite snack after walking all day. Our two favorite pastry spots became Café Santo Domingo (no relation to the Dominican coffee brand but they also made very good coffee) and Café Zana, a small coffee shop on the bottom floor of the Sociedad Asturiana building (see Best Decisions)

8) Best mojitos of the trip: Bilbao Sports Bar – I won’t even go into the first mojitos we had while in Cuba. It was like drinking straight NyQuil. Yuck. We made Bar Bilbao (at Calle O’Reilly in Old Havana) our afternoon spot to cool off and hide from the crowds, as well as our post-dinner hangout. The bartenders are very nice and will take their time in making a perfect mojito. Not too sweet, minty enough, and packing a good Havana Club punch. Bask in the cheapness of Havana Club. Enjoy it. It’s superb quality rum. O’Reilly is parallel to Calle Obispo, which is the main commercial street of Old Havana, so impossible to miss. Calle Obispo is also an important one to remember because it has a CADECA that opens late. CADECAS are where you exchange money – please do not run out of cash in Havana, as ATMs are not very common and many foreign cards do not work there. American cards won’t work at all.

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9) The tipping culture is quite strong – depending on how much or how little you tip, people can be either super friendly or super jerks, quite frankly. In a country where income-generating opportunities are scarce, one can easily understand why Cubans have high expectations about the money tourists should spend, but I could never shake off the feeling that a lot of people would not be nice to you unless there would be a tip involved. My husband was actually yelled at by a guy who had two spectacular 1963 (or so) Ford Thunderbirds parked outside the Capitol. The cars were in immaculate condition, so of course we had to take pictures. The guy yelled, “you think my cars are here for you to take pictures?” and was starting to come at us, so we just decided to turn around and walk away. We got plenty of shots anyway.

10) Coppelia Ice Cream was sweet and a little sour – Coppelia Ice Cream is THE Cuban ice cream shop and almost the center of Vedado’s universe. I had read rave reviews about it so I decided that since at this point, Coppelia is a much a Havana landmark as Hotel Nacional, we should go. One day we decided to follow the crowd to do some people watching and see what the locals’ side looked like. Not allowed – we were asked by the guards to please go to “our section”. Tourists are not allowed where the locals are, just as locals are not allowed in 5-star hotels. That was possibly the most uncomfortable fact about Cuba for us. The ice cream, however, is quite good, even if they don’t have a lot of flavors anymore. We only had vanilla and chocolate. The LA Times published a story many years ago explaining the significance of Coppelia to Cubans (and the Cuban government).

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11) Factoria Plaza Vieja – Should be on the Favorite Things part but it was such a pleasant surprise! It was a little baffling to me how is it that in Santo Domingo, a completely service-oriented economy where essentially every American trend is eventually adopted there are no microbreweries yet. Havana, with its lack of resources and dependency on tourism, had that little gem called Factoria Plaza Vieja up and running, inviting you to take a break from all the walking and sip the sunset away while Plaza Vieja and its characters pass you by. Prices were pretty decent: $2CUC for a house brew, with choices between lager, amber or dark. While I love me some cold Presidente and Bohemia (the quintessential Dominican pils beers, both owned by the same company), variety never hurt anybody so many of our afternoons in Havana ended with a pint at Factoria before heading home or moving on to dinner plans.

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Plaza Vieja from our late afternoon seats at Factoria.

Last but not least, my best piece of advice if you’re going to Cuba is: keep your answers short but sweet at Immigration. When I get nervous, I ramble. And to make up for the fact that I’m rambling and probably not making any sense, I ramble some more. Follow the universal principle and do not offer any information you are not being asked for. And for the love of whatever God you believe in, do not say you work at an NGO – you will not hear the end of it. This was my one big rookie traveler mistake (our other mistake was getting ripped off by a tuk tuk driver in the rain). Cuban immigration is by far the most nerve-wrecking immigration experience I have ever had! After collecting our bags, I was interrogated 3 times over an approximately 90 minute period. Guards kept saying they had to check with “the boss”, who was a short dude in a t-shirt and jeans that did not look official in any way – he was taking notes on a scrap of paper and chased us down after “clearing us” twice. I’m pretty sure they were trying to get me to put my foot in my mouth in some sort of incriminating way, but how on Earth do you explain what direct peer-to-peer lending is to Cuban military youth? Won’t be trying that again.

Nevertheless, while looking back at our thousands of pictures when trying to pick a few to share on this post, I couldn’t help agreeing with a friend of mine who went to Havana a few weeks before I did: “Havana is a dream”. It truly is.

Havana skyline at sunset, dominated by Hotel Nacional. Havana waterfront.

Havana skyline at sunset, dominated by Hotel Nacional. Havana waterfront.

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Analin Saturria

Dominican Republic born. Adopted by the Pacific Northwest. A microfinance enthusiast, now training and managing volunteers for Zidisha Inc., and taking my first steps into teaching. Located in Shanghai, China.

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  • Immigration doesn’t sound fun, but Cuba is def a country I need to experience first hand. I’ll make sure not to tell them I just work from my computer…I don’t think they’d like that.