While political and economicnegotiations are underway to end the stiff US-Cuban relationship, the world is flocking to Cuba to experience the surreal time-warp of this tropical nation.
Business Insider decided to do the same and sent three reporters to Cuba’s capital, Havana. We’ll have lots of stories about our adventures on the island, which you’ll be able to find here. Keep scrolling for an overview of our week in Cuba.
Graham Flanagan and Tyler Greenfield contributed to this report.
We booked our visa with Cuba Travel Services and paid $900 for a roundtrip charter flight with Sun Country Airlines from JFK in New York City to José Martí in Havana. We noticed a lot of people on our flight brought flat-screen TVs and other large electronics for their Cuban relatives.
We arrived five hours before our flight and needed every minute to pick up our tickets, visas, check in, and go through security. Here we are moments before we boarded our flight to Havana.
I ate half of the ham and cheese sandwich that was served during the flight. I kicked myself later for not finishing my food because we were in for a real surprise at the Havana airport.
After grabbing our carry-on luggage we went through passport control. We were asked three questions by the officer in the booth: Have you been to Africa? Have you been in contact with someone from Africa? What are you doing in Cuba?
Our passports and visas were stamped and we proceeded to the security screening. After we passed through an ancient metal detector we were told that not only did we have the wrong type of visas but that microphones are illegal in the country without prior permission from the Cuban government (we had 2 microphones on us to shoot videos). Hmm, ok.
All of our belongings were laid on a table for search and seizure. We spent the next three hours standing in a corner, then we were searched again, interrogated again, separated from each other, and I, the only Spanish speaker in the group, was told not to translate everything that was being said to my colleagues during the process. By the way, welcome to Cuba.
Our microphones were confiscated and we were finally allowed to leave the airport after four and a half hours. We exchanged some of our money into convertible pesos also called 'CUCs' or 'dollars,' one of the two currencies in Cuba. Between alternating exchange rates and two national currencies, Cuba's money made no sense to us.
From the airport we drove 30 minutes to our downtown Havana 'casa particular,' a traditional Cuban private home we found via AirBnb. We were so pleased to see that each of our bedrooms had an air conditioner and a fan as it was more than 80 degrees at nearly midnight. This is what my room looked like.
The next morning we were stunned by the amount of 'coche Americanos' that passed us on our way to breakfast. The frequency was comparable to being in Manhattan and watching yellow cabs go by. Here's a video from the corner of our street.
Eager to touch base with loved ones at home, we walked to the Habana Libre hotel, which we were told had Wi-Fi for sale. We paid $10 for a login that gave us an hour of shoddy internet and sat in the hotel lobby while quickly typing up iMessages and researching information on Havana.
Attached to the hotel was a small diner we ate breakfast at as we flipped through various maps to plan our walk around Havana. Here's my first meal: delicious Cuban coffee, fruit juice, eggs, ham, toast, watermelon, guava, pineapple, and French fries (I only ate the fruit and bread because everything else was cold and tasteless).
We decided to walk on the 'Malecón,' a long path between the seawall and a major Havana roadway. The Malecón was like the Central Park of New York City, where we saw locals playing games, drinking, fishing, and couples kissing.
Instead of stores, cafes, and luxury hotels lining the seaside views of the Malecón, there were colourful abandoned buildings that we couldn't stop photographing.
We ventured into the colourful neighbourhood of 'Centro Habana' and later realised we were in one of the poorest areas of the city.
Our next stop was 'Habana Vieja' which we travelled to by way of 'bicitaxi,' what we call 'pedicabs' here in New York City. Our drivers gave us a short tour and showed us some places we should come back to, like Ernest Hemingway's favourite bar to drink mojitos, 'La Bodeguita del Medio.'
We took a 'coche Americano' back to our AirBnb and walked to a nearby 'paladar' an authentic family-run Cuban restaurant. The three of us ate and drank like kings and spent a total of $18. I had a few Cuba libres, rice, beans, and pork chops for dinner.
The next day we discovered our favourite way of getting around Havana, the 'cocotaxi.' We crammed into this three-wheeled egg shaped scooter and rode along the Malecón to spend the entire day walking around Habana Vieja.
We slowly made our way through the streets of Habana Vieja stopping every few minutes to take pictures of stunning classic cars ...
We also thought it was culturally important to check out Hemingway's other favourite bar, 'El Floridita,' known for inventing the daiquiri. We raised our 'Papa Hemingway' daiquiris in view of Hemingway's statue.
We took our bicitaxi drivers' advice and stopped in at another of Hemingway's favourite bars, 'La Bodeguita Del Medio,'and had our first Cuban cigars in Havana while alternating between mojitos and Cuba libres.
The next morning we drove almost two hours away to spend the day at Santa Maria del Mar, the beach all the locals told us to go instead of the better known beach Varadero. Our impeccable view of the turquoise water came with a waiter, a giant straw umbrella, and three lounge chairs for $5.
We bought fresh coconuts from a man on the beach and filled them with rum and pineapple juice for a massive piña colada. I ate my $3 lunch as close as I could to the warm Cuban waters.
After the beach we went to what is considered the Whole Foods of Havana to buy a few groceries. The store was very strict: We weren't allowed to bring in our bags nor could we take photos while we were inside. I quickly took this photo to show that the store does not have a variety of products. There is one brand, flavour, or type that is stocked from floor to ceiling ... so take it or leave it.
All of the frozen vegetables and meats were kept together in this one freezer. A lot of the meat looked like it had severe freezer burn and it was expensive ($6 for unpackaged old meat...no gracias). We were disappointed, grossed out and walked out not buying much.
We would later discover that these tiny stores off the side of the road were much better options for grabbing bottled water, rum, and fruit.
There were several freak rain storms while we were in Havana and since we didn't have access to the internet we didn't know when they were going to hit and how long they were going to last. We used that time to dip into a small cafe and share a table and a few cigars with some locals.
Later that night, our driver and friend Carlo invited us to his home for a traditional dinner with his family. He picked mint leaves from his garden and made us the best mojitos we had in Havana.
Spending time with him and his family in their home was the highlight of our trip. This was the happiest and safest we felt the entire time in Cuba.
We bought tickets for a 20-minute tour of the Partagás cigar factory. Like the grocery store, we were not allowed to take pictures in this non-air-conditioned three-story cigar factory. I snuck this photo of the entryway anyway.
The only floor we were allowed to visit was the third floor, where we watched workers in small school desks quickly roll cigars. We were allowed to view the process for a few minutes and were given different types of cigars to sniff and hold.
And of course we bought some cigars to take home with us. The cigars in this particular box are enclosed in a cedar tube to preserve the tobacco. Each of these cigars cost almost 5 CUCs and a box would cost 122.50 CUCs (or $125 USD).
That evening we went to 'Cabaret Parisien,' the more affordable version of Havana's 'Tropicana' club. We paid $30 per person instead of $90 each at Tropicana. The 2-hour show was a lot of this:
We slept three hours and were at the airport by 5 am to start our journey home. We ran into more trouble with our visas, which took 2 hours to sort out, and then quickly dashed to the plane where we took our last 'Cuba selfie.'
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