Cuba Part 3: Good Vibes Only.

To Trinidad or Not To Trinidad? 

That is the question.

D: Ok so you know how I said we planned this trip fast, right? Don’t judge, but it came back to bite us. We had planned to spend one night in Trinidad, Cuba to see the beaches, amazing waterfalls and cobbled streets. We really thought it was right around the corner, but uh, it was more like 4 hours away. Yikes. We hadn’t seen all we wanted to see in Havana yet though, so decided to cancel the Trinidad trip and stay.

The problem now was we were homeless?! Well... Not quite. We could technically book our hotel for another night, BUT since we wanted to stay in a Casa Particular all along, this was our chance! We huddled up in the hotel lobby to use the expensive wi-fi and found ourselves one in old Havana.

Best. Decision. Ever. 

We decided on Casa Vitrales, which was the cutest town house on a delightful street, walking distance from almost everything (And it had a plethora of outlets to charge electronics – It’s funny the things we take for granted!) Breakfast on their rooftop would be the perfect start to any day. 

Rain, Rain, you don’t have to Go Away.

Whenever we needed to go a distance (Like to Casa De La Musica, Havana's premiere dance spot) we rode snazzy, old American taxis to our destinations. For about 20 miles it costs around 5 cucs - The equivalent of about 5 Dollars or 1,500 Naira. And even that was negotiable, so as true Naijas we bargained even lower like serious professionals.

S: Dein, are you sure you were seriously bargaining? Seems far fetched, seeing as I'm usually the one that helps you out. Lol

D: You really couldn't just let me have this one. Fine.. Meks and Ife were the true G's. I sha supported. I'm working on those skills.

Anyway,

In one particular taxi ride, we had an experience to remember.

Picture us hailing down a bright blue Classic 1950's American Convertible - Pretty fancy on the outside, but eh... just all right on the inside. We had managed to bargain with the driver down to just THREE cucs, so we were feeling quite proud. Although the car was pretty old, the car had banging, state of the art speakers... complete with bass, vibrancy, everything.

As usual in Havana, music was blasting. 
From real salsa to Enrique Iglesias to Justin Bieber, 
this driver had aaaaall the jams.

But get this… We’re about two minutes into our ride and it starts to rain. Not drizzle, not a slight sprinkle, but a real downpour.

So far we had been enjoying the breeze with the top down, feeling very cool with ourselves, but now motioned to our DJ/ driver to help us close it.

He starts to laugh and shake his head.

Whaaaaat?!

Apparently the top was stuck. And by stuck, I mean we were also now stuck... with the rain slapping us.

We just looked at each other and burst out laughing. What else could we do??

We continued singing, jamming
and getting drenched.

GOOD VIBES ONLY.

S: I still can't believe you don't have any pictures of that. Come on!  

D: Sorry, the rain was not the kind of rain you bring cameras out. Just imagine. It was actually pretty epic. Now I'm trying to live by this Good Vibes Only motto. I wonder how this will go when I'm back in Naij! 😳😂

Cuba Part 4: I've got the keys.

....Keys, Keys, Keys.

Yes, I know what you're thinking, "Four posts on one trip? Sheesh, is it that serious?!" BUT you seeee, I started writing and kinda got carried away. And then realized there were still bits of information I wanted to put out there - Some major key points so to speak. Ha!

So this is mostly just an FYI post.

If you're going to Cuba or just purely interested in Cuba, this ones for youuu!

(For my personal Cuba stories mixed with other travel info refer to my other Cuba posts- 1. Border Controlla,   2. Nee-haaayria! and  3. Good Vibes Only).

Ok, The Key tips.

1). Don't expect spicy, flavorful food. (Ignore the fact that it might look peppery, like my platter here. It's photoshop. Jk. But really, local cuban food is typically on the more plain side, especially when compared to other Caribbean countries.

The mojitos on the other hand are pretty zesty! So that sort of makes up for it?

Cute dinner options, however, are Vistamar (seafood restaurant with amazing terrace views), La guarida (charming ambience, they require reservations) and San Cristóbal (Obama and Queen Bey dined there during their Havana visit - Snazzy).

Ah for lunch, there's a quaint pizza spot we loved near our casa at the intersection of Cuartes and La Habana streets in Old Havana. The owners were just fantastic!

2). There are two currencies used in Havana. The Cuban peso (CUP) for locals and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) mostly for foreigners. Generally speaking, the locals pay significantly less than foreigners for the same product

3). Make friends with locals - this personalized touch makes for a more exciting and authentic Cuban experience. Plus! If you successfully accomplish this, you might be able to save a few bucks here and there considering #2.

4). Check out Museo Revolucion and the Cuban art wing of the Museum of Fine Arts to get schooled in Cuban History.

5). Spend some time people watching on Paseo del Prado, the pedestrian promenade that stretches from the ocean to the Capitol. Strolling down La Malecon (by the water) would also be a good option. They are both great ways to see "Cuban culture." 

6). As you roam the streets, wander into courtyards for their breath taking architecture (...and for the live bands, and random conversations and more mojitos). 

I'd suggest the courtyards at Hotel Marqués de Prado Ameno, Hotel Conde de Villanueva, Hotel Valencia, Hotel Florida and Hotel Telegrafo to name a few. There really are so many to see, each with something different to offer.

Hotel Marqués de Prado Ameno.

Hotel Florida.

7). Casa de la musica (Havana's music house/ lounge) is good on almost every night.

8). Definitely plan well. But also leave room to veer from that plan. Spontaneous occurrences are inevitable. Embrace them because they can easily make the best memories!

9). Relax! There is a lot to see and do, but try to take some moments to just chill. If you have access to a pool, take advantage of it! I mean, you're on vacation after all.

Click to play.

*Printable version of these tips here.

 

Special Thanks To:

(I can be so dramatic, but they really deserve it!)

Brian – The Hip Hop fanatic that introduced us to other locals and kept us so entertained as he constantly "freestyled" in Spanglish.

Juan – The dark chocolate Afro-Cubano who didn’t speak a word of English, but somehow managed to be a fantastic tour guide and got us discounts using the local currency.

Yusuf-Mikael– The Cuban-Canadian Muslim (such a rare combination) who knew the ins and outs of Havana streets including the history.

Lorenzo – The dance instructor who tried to get us to replicate scenes from the "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" movie. Lol no comment.

Our trip would not have been the same without their cheerful energy and direction!

 

Any questions or comments about my trip? I'd love to hear from you! Simply Like, Comment, Share or all the above :D

Cuba Part 2: Nee-haaay-ria!

THE GOOD,   THE BAD,  AND THE LACK OF SNAPCHAT.

I confess, one of my favorite things about staying in a hotel was it included very limited, pretty expensive, BUT nonetheless existent Wi-Fi!

Pardon my excitement, 
but Wi-Fi in Havana is comparable to
tomatoes in Lagos right now – 
It's SCARCE!

So you’ve got to get it whenever you can.

They have only a couple of areas designated for Wi-Fi use in the entire city so if you’re walking around and see a sea of youngins all crowded around on their cell phones? Wi-fi spot!

Think of it as a social media party. Facebook and Instagram are the cool ones hosting the event. And needless to say, Snapchat is the needy friend that isn’t even invited. Awkward.

Yeah, Snapchat is not yet allowed in Cuba. I’m sure this will change soon enough, but till then - Instagram stories?!

HOTEL SITUATION

We initially wanted to stay in an AirBnb (or a Casa Particular as they call itto get a more local Cuban experience. But as we planned the trip so close to our arrival, our options for those were pretty slim. Melia Habana hotel ended up being fantastic for us though. Apart from Wi-Fi, it came with access to lots of amenities and numerous opportunities to meet fellow travelers while lounging in a pool and simultaneously sipping on a mojito. Yeah, Melia Habana was it.

Look at this plate and tell me it doesn’t make you hungry!

$$$ - In regards to currency exchange, we brought cash. This was easy to convert at the hotels concierge, but be warned:

ATM machines do NOT work with foreign cards… like, at all. 

And you also can’t swipe your debit/credit card to pay for things. So whatever currency you bring with you to Havana, that is literally all you have to spend during your time there.

Sheeeesh!

Good thing we had decided to ball on a budget, right?! –
Cause that was now our only option.

 

Viva La Revolucion

The first half of the trip was spent doing mostly “touristy” activities. We visited quite a few museums and plazas and learnt so much about Cuba (and why they have had a huge problem with the United States). It was really thought provoking to get a different perspective on the vendetta. If you’re interested in their side of the story, look it up! It’s definitely worth a google.

To be honest though, the entire city is like a museum.

Although deteriorating, it boasts stunning architecture from different periods, most notably Art Nouveau, Beaux Arts and Art Deco, as well as almost every other Western architectural style including the French and Spanish Renaissance. The design of each building is impressive, but looking at groups of these buildings together? Beyond magnificent! It really does feel like you were transported to a different time period.

Driving along Le Malecon - Click to replay. 

At an intersection in Habana Vieja (Old Havana).

At the historic Hotel Sevilla.

I admit, I’m also quite obsessed with doors, entryways and intricate architectural details and Havana met and surpassed my expectations. Gorgeous, colorful doors and details at practically every corner! It was phenomenal to witness.

NEE-HAAAY-RIA!

Our interactions with locals were probably THE best parts of the trip. 

We quickly found out that Cubans are probably one of the happiest people on earth. Every one we met on the streets of Old Havana was singing, dancing or both. So we joined them.

Click to play.

Music is undeniably a huge part of Cuban culture - In the streets, markets, and restaurants… everywhere. You can always hear music. I mean even the bicycle-taxis have speakers! Can you imagine? And if they didn’t have, the drivers would play music on their phones and sing along as they drive. It was really quite hilarious.

Most people we interacted with did not speak English, but were very patient and happy to talk with us. Between the three of us our Spanish was probably at the level of a 5 year old. But whenever we were in doubt, we spoke French and pieced the rest together. And it worked! – about 48% of the time.

Initially we would tell people that we came from our respective cities, NY, DC and Dubai, but quickly realized Nigeria (Pronounced Nee-haaay-ria!) is were it’s at.

From then on anytime someone asked, 
“Where you ladies are from?” 
We would scream in unison, "Neehaaaaaayria!" 
and our new buddies would get so excited and proceed to show us to the
next restaurant or salsa location.

We met a few Afro Cubanos who believed they originally came from Yoruba land in Nigeria so every now and then we would exchange a few words in Yoruba to keep things interesting. Even though I'm not Yoruba, cheers to Mr. Adeolu Ademoyo, my Yoruba Professor at Cornell – some of his lectures actually retained! Ese, Ojogbon.

The second half of the trip had a turn of events… We were faced with seemingly annoying incidents that could have a way of dampening moods. Check out my next post to hear about how we tackled them. – Cuba Part 3 – Good Vibes only.

Cuba Part 1: Border Controlla.

Remarkable architecture, street dancing, snazzy cars and beaches - I didn’t really need more selling points. I was sold. Cuba had been on my list for a minute, but with all the country restrictions, it kept getting pushed further down.

But now all of a sudden, it seemed like the absolute, perfect time. Two of my friends were determined to go and had started a “Cuba, it’s going down” email thread, complete with a Whatsapp group - so clearly we had to find a way to make it happen. I was already planning a 4 city US trip sooo I thought, eh why not toss in another trip?

$$$. Because it costs money, that’s why.

But shhh, I had already been sucked in. So my only request now was that we ball so hard… within a budget. Seriously.

 Ceviche at Paladar Vistamar - C uban seafood r estaurant.

Ceviche at Paladar Vistamar - Cuban seafood restaurant.

The Logistics

Although most restrictions have been lifted, flying in from the US to Cuba can still be a little tricky. Tourism is technically illegal in Cuba so we had to choose a "meaningful reason" to visit.

We chose the “people to people” category, did some research and planned an itinerary that would cover almost every hour spent on Cuban grounds.

Because very few airports within the US fly directly to Havana, we figured we’d squeeze in another mini vacay between the vacay (smh) and booked our flights through Cancun to stay a couple of extra nights. We planned to get our Cuban visas from Cancun. (One of my friends flew directly from Miami to Havana and got her visa in DC first for $70, so that’s also another option).

Getting our visas in Cancun was rather straightforward.

We literally just told the airline rep at the ticket counter where we were going – Havana – and showed them our passports. We then paid 20 bucks for the visa slip. And that was it. No stamps. Nothing else. We were good to go.

The Arrival

The Interjet flight from Cancun to Havana was short and sweet (About an hour). As we waited in line to cross the border, my friend Ife and I started going over our carefully written plan on what to say to the officers. For real, we had a whole speech memorized and everything.

No one wants to get deported, abeg!

After a few minutes in line, it's finally my turn to speak to the immigration officer. She looks up at me, and asks what I'm doing in Cuba. I start my rehearsed lines, "Good afternoon. I am an architect interested in…." And she cuts me off.

"Ok"

I'm over there thinking omg that was easy. I'm such a G, they don't even need to ask me anything!

But no. The party in my mind is shut down as she continues, "Have you been to Africa in the last 30 days?"

Kai! Nigeria is about to ruin everything.

What does she mean 30 days? I just came from Lagos last week! It's like she could still smell Murtala Mohammed Airport on me. 😩😩

 

I thought about lying and disowning Naij, but ugh… I love my country too much and answered boldly, "Yes. Yes, I have." 

And then asked sheepishly, "Whyyyyy?"

She ignored me and continued, "To Liberia?"

"No"

"To Sierra Leone?"

"No"

"What about Guinea?"

"No"

"Ok you're free to go. Welcome to Cuba!"

Ah! Nigeria was not on the X list!

I felt like I had just received an award and quickly responded "Gracias Señora!" 

I considered asking her why she asked about those countries, but then stopped myself. I didn’t want any story about how she forgot to mention Nigeria. Loool

I later checked and found out that they still ask questions because of Ebola. So for any of you that have been to those countries recently, umm... Good luck! 

JK. All they do is take you to another room for additional screening, but you should be ok.

Great, so I was in.

I got my luggage fast and got a taxi from one of the airport vendors. They were relatively cheap, but in hindsight, we should probably have gone outside and hailed a taxi.

As we drove into town, I was in awe. Havana is definitely one of the most unique cities I have ever visited. 

Everything outside the car window was insanely colorful. 
The grass appeared greener and even the clouds seemed to be a more vibrant blue.
Could this be what it's like to live in High Definition? 
I was mind-blown!

We had only been in Havana for about an hour, but I was already convinced, “Cuba, it’s going down!”