President Obama’s monumental visit to Cuba this week marked a new era in relations and travel interest with the mysterious and alluring island that appears to be stuck in time. Many adventurous Americans have already made the trip: According to Reuters, the amount of U.S. visitors to Cuba rose 77 percent in 2015, which was even before travel restrictions were further relaxed this year. And with investment from Starwood and other hotel operators in the works, that number will continue to rise.
My trip was organized with the help of Cuba Educational Travel, a tour operator that can curate different experiences based on your interests and desires. Before you plan your trip, check out some of the secrets I learned while getting there—plus where to shop, stay, sip, and savor everything the island has to offer once you do.
1. The Basics
The First Family’s stylish visit involved flying in on Air Force One and a security and logistics team handling their every move, but it won’t be that easy for most Americans. You’ll still technically need to organize a visa and plan a trip that includes some form of cultural immersion. Flying direct is a possibility, but only on charter flights from designated cities. Once you’re on the ground, you’ll want to forego renting a car and hire one of the almendrones, classic American cars that operate as taxis and get their name from looking like an almond. Fares are relatively cheap by American standards (you can hire a private driver for $25-40 for the day) and your guide will know how to safely get you around the island despite Cuba’s sometimes difficult roads.
2. Where to Eat
Some of the best grub I ate in Cuba was a home-cooked meal, literally. A paladar is the name of a restaurant that is privately operated out of an owner’s home, and you’d be missing out if you didn’t make this foodie experience part of your trip. With costs for an entrée only ever nearing $15 at the priciest of places, there are all types of paladares to check out, like San Cristobal (San Rafael No 469, Havana), which will leave you marveling at its classical architecture and furnishings; Café Laurent (Calle M #257, Havana), where white tablecloths meet an open-air rooftop containing views of Havana’s lively Vedado neighborhood; and Atelier (Calle 5ta., #511, Havana), where Cuban and French food fuse just as stylishly as their elegant surroundings.
3. What to Drink (If You're an Adult)
Cubans may be known for the mojito and the equally delicious Cuba libre, but the planchao is a magical juice box concoction filled with rum and juice, which locals—and some daring tourists—line up in markets and on the street to buy after a long day of work. I tried it, and it’s strong and cheap and will certainly iron you out (planchar means to iron or “press out” in Spanish), so you can imagine why this juice drink is not safe for kids.
4. Where to Stay
With limited hotel options (getting even more limited by the day with a new influx of travelers) that are frankly not that great, I think your stay will be much more stylish in an Airbnb or rental home (known as a casa particular). There are lots of options, some with classic, formal furnishings, some contemporary even by American standards, and some where the charm is found through paint-chipped walls, cracked moldings, and a hodgepodge of bathroom tiles. Do your research to find out if you’ll have the space to yourself or be sharing (usually with the host family), and make sure to give yourself additional time for communicating with a host since they have limited access to Internet. If you can’t live without a concierge, try booking at the historic Hotel Nacional (Calle O & Calle 19, Havana) where I found out that all types of celebrities and political figures—from Ava Gardner to Winston Churchill and Paris Hilton—have rested their heads over the years.
5. Where to Find Rare Gems
Make sure to look carefully at the stalls of Plaza de Armas, one of Havana’s four main squares, where you can find all types of different treasures, from antiques, jewelry, and silkscreen posters to books printed in Spanish and English. Amongst libros on Fidel, Che and Cuba’s history, the best finds are often mixed right in. My friend scored a first edition of her favorite book, Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, for $15.
6. Where to Find Wifi
You may have heard that Internet access in Cuba is hard to come by—and while I can confirm that fact is very true—it's not impossible to get online. Most hotel lobbies in Havana have wifi, where an attendant will usually sell you a card in half-hour increments, even if you’re not staying there. (In my experience, they’ll just sell you smaller increment cards.) Don't expect broadband speeds at all, but it was my best chance for making sure all those FOMO Instagrams got posted.
7. Love and Lust
With a lack of LTE and dating apps, Tinder takes place directly on street corners. And while you may subtly notice greater amounts of PDA in Cuba (especially on Malecón, the shore-hugging road where people congregate at night in Havana), don’t feel like you have to personally respond to any unwanted attention or flattery. For women, the cat calls will be nothing more than complimentary. For my one pretty friend, it was not uncommon to have three or so men trying to pursue her at the same time, but as long as you don’t engage with a suitor, they won’t push it. For men, if a woman tries to follow you home (and especially if she takes your hand), chances are she’s looking for a business transaction rather than a romantic connection, if you know what I mean.
8. Getting Lost
Though it was sometimes frustrating to be perpetually disoriented and lost, the best way to experience Cuban life is without a plan—or a map. Take an afternoon like I did to wander through Old Havana, where you can peek inside slightly ajar doorways to find magnificent courtyards, stumble upon a religious procession, join in a band of trumpeters or bailarines en zancos (stilt dancers), or watch men in the back of an alleyway being groomed before their Friday night out.