A month ago, I spent one short week in the island nation of Cuba. It's true what they say - the country looks as if it's stuck in time. There are no advertisements whatsoever, wi-fi is extremely hard to come by, and 1950's era-style cars fill the country. Most buildings look decayed but there is a beauty to it all. The people are incredibly kind, honest, and open. In fact, the men are very flirtatious and of course, I did get the funny racial remarks that I often get when traveling ("China!", "Ni hao!", "Konnichiwa!"). The nice thing is people don't really flinch when you photograph them but that only really applied to men. Some of them even asked me to photograph them.
Surprisingly, the visa process (for a US citizen) was an extremely easy process. You purchase your $50 visa at the airport before you depart. In my case, I had a layover in Fort Lauderdale, so I was required to purchase it there. That's all it took! Something very important to note though is that Cuba is a primarily a cash only country - just like many other countries around the world. So bring plenty of cash, a little bit more than you need. Another important note, Cuba charges a 10% penalty fee and another 3% fee just to convert USD to CUC (their local currency). They do not do this with any other currency, so I recommend exchanging your USD to Pounds or Euros prior to departing for Cuba and exchanging that into CUC when you arrive to Cuba. Cuba also has 2 currencies: CUC and CUP - US citizens need CUC, which is a 1:1 with the USD. Make sure to exchange any left over CUC back when you leave because the CUC is worthless and not convertible in the US. You can read more about this complication here. I've heard Cuba accepts credit card transactions as long as your card was not issued from a US bank but most places aren't even equipped with credit card machines. I used cash for every transaction.
I did not have wifi the entire time there except for when we were at a restaurant in Santa Clara where they offered 2 hours of wifi for $2. We thought, "Why not?" since it was so inexpensive. The problem was that connection was incredibly slow. I honestly didn't mind going without Internet access for the week. It was actually quite liberating and there is no media coverage there, so you are completely sheltered from what is going on in the world.
Everything is very affordable in Cuba, especially the food. Hotels and taxis, particularly the 1950's style cars, are a bit more expensive. Keep your expectations low. A 5 star hotel there would be equivalent to a 3 star hotel in the US, so be weary of room costs. They have plenty of hotels and casa particulars (similar to a bed & breakfast), which you can find on AirBnB. Rooms are usually around $40/night or even less but if you want more space and are traveling with friends like I did, you could spend a little more but note that quality will likely be the same in each accommodation.
Being in Havana is like being in another world. We stayed in Old Havana, which I highly recommend. Many sights are within walking distance to there and to get to nearby areas like Vedado and Miramar, a quick taxi ride will cost roughly 10 CUC each way. Cuba's cuisine is a meat heavy and portions are humongous but delicious. Expect to pay around 5ish CUC per meal on average. Fancier and posh places will charge double or more.
I walked everywhere. I find it's the best way to explore. I loved wandering through the small side streets and finding all kinds of architecture, street art, and friendly faces. The local metro bus is very cheap (and crowded) but they only accept peso coins. Taxi is always an option and if you are traveling in a group, you can split the costs. I did walk the Malecon from Old Havana up to a very far distance my first day in the city. It's an excellent place to catch a sunset and to stop and photograph all the amazing cars that pass by.
Vedado is a business district and city center of Havana. Thus, it has less of the old town feel than Old Havana. It's more spread out and feels less run down. There are plenty of restaurants and a local farmer's market, which I stumbled upon. Food is known to be cheaper here than in Old Havana. The famous jazz club La Zorra Y El Cuervo, the historical Milan Theater (Cine La Rampa), and the well known Coppelia Park are located here. There is an AMAZING ice cream parlor inside Coppelia Park that is definitely a must visit. It is a state-run institution with interesting history. But for 5 CUC, you are served a few scoops of pretty amazing ice cream topped with cookies. There are massive lines but for some reason I unknowingly walked to the front of the line and was seated immediately... oops.
Miramar is the Miami of Havana. It's their more flashy neighborhood that I did not spend too much time in. There are salsa clubs - 1830 is the famous one. Another jazz club called Jazz Cafe is in the area and reservations are required. La Fábrica de Arte Cubano is an old cooking-oil factory that houses a bar, art gallery, and performance space. You can see the works of some of Cuba's best artists and photographers. It also has a bar downstairs with great food and drinks. Unfortunately for us, it was closed for renovations. There is a very cool bar and restaurant in a tower next door that we spent our evening at instead.
Hemingway House is located about 9 miles away from Havana in San Francisco de Paul. The house was purchased by Ernest Hemingway in 1940. In 1961 after his death, the government took over his property and kept it the same shape. It is now open to the public and is beautifully maintained. I highly recommend visiting Hemingway's old Cuban home.
To travel to neighboring cities that are over an hour away, you can either hire a taxi to drive you there (negotiate the price first!) or take the Viazul bus. The Viazul is a very common way for people to travel across Cuba and but takes twice as long as hiring a cab driver to get to your destination. So plan accordingly. My friends and I hired drivers to take us to Santa Clara, Vinales, and Veradero, which are all outside of Havana.
Santa Clara is a 3 hour drive by car from Havana. I only recommend spending one night here. It is a very quaint and small, sleepy town but it is where Che Guevera is buried. There is a huge monument dedicated to him here and underneath the monument is a mausoleum with a section of it dedicated to the burial grounds for him and his guerrilla. No photography is allowed there but it was pretty surreal to stand there. Santa Clara is a much smaller city than Havana and instead of the fancy 1950's style cars, you'll see many bicyclists and horse and carriages transporting people and things. There is a small city center with a few museums and the food is also great here. The city is not a tourist destination but a pretty and slow paced, small town. I do think the Che's mausoleum was impressive and worth visiting.
Vinales is a roughly a 2-3 hour drive by car from Havana. I recommend spending 1-2 nights here. This is where you will find nature. There is a large cave system located in this area. I personally think the cave tours are a bit touristy and can be skipped. However, the Mural de la Prehistoria is a pretty awesome sight. It is a 120 meter long painting designed in 1961 on a rock wall. Another popular activity in Vinales is horseback riding at sunrise. Vinales is also a very small, pretty town but more tourists are starting to visit the area since it is well known for its natural landscapes.
Varadero is a beach destination about 2 hours away by car from Havana. I recommend a day trip or staying 1 night here. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't hot enough to sunbathe when I visited but the beaches are a sandy white and quite peaceful. There are markets with locals selling souvenirs along the main road. We found that there weren't many restaurants in the area. However, there are plenty of water activities (which I did not partake in due to weather). You can go diving, snorkeling, and caving here. There is a famous Beatles Bar next to Josone Park.
Honestly, there is so much to see Cuba that I will have to make it back again. Other places I did not visit but have been recommended to me are Trinidad (supposedly it's very touristy), Cienfuegos, Gran Parc Nacional Sierra Maestra, and Baracoa. If anyone has been to these places, please let me know what you thought!