Havana, Oh Na Na
Havana, Oh Na Na
7 people, 6 days, 5 nights
Up until September 2017, I had spent time in 25 states and 15 countries be it to work, live, or travel. I have visited countless cities and each hold their own special place in my heart for one reason or another, but only a select few go in the pantheon of truly epic experiences. A group of seven friends and coworkers descended upon Havana for six days, less than two weeks after Hurricane Irma had swept through the Caribbean, and none were prepared for how much it would mean to us.
First, how we decided to go deserves an honorable mention. In June some friends forced me to watch all of the Fast and the Furious movies because I had never seen them. We had a BBQ, watched #2, #3, and #4 and I was hooked. I watched all of them within a week, and at the following company happy hour, I marveled at how such a franchise actually seemed to get better with each installation. Fast 8, the most recent of the series opens with a car race in Havana on the infamous Malecon and I casually mentioned that going to Cuba was a dream. A few others agreed and said we should go. It was one of those moments where people say things you think they don't really mean, but I was a dog with a bone and went home to do the legwork. I researched how Americans can go, flights, visas, and Airbnbs for a group of three. Next thing you know, the three of us had everything but a place to stay booked. One of those three basically went around the office with a bullhorn mentioning we're going and within a few days seven people were fully booked. I've never seen anything like it.
Then the hurricane hits the Caribbean, the Cuban northcoast, and the US. The malecon floods the center of Havana and even into other neighborhoods, including Miramar where we were scheduled to be in 10 days. The city is also without electricity. Our group of seven had quite a few meetings to figure out what we could do. Do we cancel? Go and volunteer? Try to find a last minute sunny alternative for a large group? People were constantly in and out. Then, on the Saturday before we're scheduled to fly on Thursday, I get a call that everything is back to normal in Havana, electricity restored, and the house is fully stocked. We shouldn't worry, and if anything the people could really use the tourism dollars.
We split up and flew out of JFK and Newark where you do all the paperwork upfront. From the moment you book you pick a category, and you pay your entry fees at a special gate when you leave. Once you get to Havana, there's a bit more paperwork including a health form (very basic info) as the country requires everyone to have health coverage when visiting. Fortunately that's taken care of by the Airlines in your ticket. It's a pretty bare bones airport, and I'm almost certain I saw chickens walking around near baggage claim. Also - do not expect much from any cuban bathroom. Even toilet seats. I've spent time in Asia and even I wasn't prepared for this.
We hopped in a cab, driven by Ernesto, and while I don't speak Spanish and he didn't speak much English through some translation by my friend we were having a great ride to our mansion.
Yes I said mansion. We got this *bomb* Airbnb. Seven bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a pool, a security guard, a chef, a staff, and within walking distance to some of the area's best clubs. Anything we needed at any point we got. And they set up some really cool things for us to do as well. They had two drivers in classic cars take us everywhere, and they were fantastic tour guides.
We spent a lot of time relaxing at the house in the mornings and early afternoon as the heat was quite oppressive. But we did get out and visit the Havana Club and Habana Vieja on day 2, a walking tour by our own design ending at the Hotel Nacional on day 3, wandering the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, and some markets on Day 4.
We didn't have any access to wifi or internet for six days, which caused all of us to be more focused. We spent time getting to know each other as we didn't know each other well before this, and we took time to plan out where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do. No one said no to anything, everyone was on board to try new things, and we were all so interested in the people we met. It was a fantastic group, and an incredible trip.
If you're thinking about going, things to consider:
- Bring Bug Spray
- The food is terrible. If you want great Cuban food, head to Miami. ;)
- SPF, the sun is strong!
- Bring more cash than you expect. American cards, credit or debit, WILL NOT work on the island.
- You can buy a sim card on amazon for 100mb for $25. 3G is new as of May 2017, and this worked for me for all of 5 minutes. Don't recommend the purchase.
- You must speak Spanish, or bring someone who is fluent. It's nearly impossible to get around without a translator, and if you can, it's not nearly as enjoyable.
- Get to know the people! They're the best part.
- Tip. Americans tip well, but others are not known for doing so well. Everyone we came across made between $20-$40 a month. A few bucks means the world to them.
- Bring over the counter meds - aspirin, tums, cold meds, imodium, etc. Hard to find if needed.