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Hot Havana

Spending four nights in exotic Havana

Text and photos by Mia Nazareno

Where do you go when the best beach in the world is just an hour plane ride away from home? (Shout out to Coron, Palawan!) When Manila already enjoys the modern benefits of skyscrapers, trendy restaurants, and our favorite, Wi-Fi? I bet it wasn’t on your radar, but Cuba is the escape you need to detoxify from the comforts and stressors of a metropolis. Cuba is where to go to unplug, and simply marvel.

Specifically, the city of Havana looks like the backdrop of a vintage film. Imagine pastel-colored classic convertibles and rundown Spanish-style buildings that look even more beautiful with age. Without a McDonalds, Starbucks, and credit card reader in sight, this is the getaway you didn’t know you desperately needed.

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  • Plaza de la Catedral (Manila Bulletin)
  • The streets of Havana (Manila Bulletin)
  • Striking buildings are some of Cuba's biggest crowd drawers. (Manila Bulletin)
  • The vintage cars of Cuba (Manila Bulletin)
  • Art Deco buildings (Manila Bulletin)
  • Cayo Playa Santa Maria (Manila Bulletin)
  • View from the inside of Cuevas del Indio (Manila Bulletin)

 Planning Your Trip

First, you’ll need a visa, so make arrangements with the Cuban embassy before booking any tickets. Before you get on the plane, here are a few tips. Make a rough itinerary before you depart. Since the Internet access is limited, you’ll need to have an idea of spots you want to visit while you’re there. Diverting from your plan may be difficult once you get there especially since most Cubans aren’t 100 percent fluent in English.

Next, brushing up on basic Spanish definitely won’t hurt. It is also a good idea to exchange your money into dollars or euros. Cuba uses two currencies: Cuban Peso (CUP) and Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). For the most part, the locals use the CUP while foreigners use the CUC. One CUC is equivalent to one US dollar, so keep this conversion in mind when scanning prices.

For accommodations, many tourists opt to stay at Casas, which are homes that the locals are licensed to rent out to visitors. This option is typically less expensive and can offer an authentic experience. Check out websites, like AirBnB, to see what’s out there. But I cannot say enough good things about my four nights at Hotel Inglaterra, which is a boutique-style hotel with high ceilings, chandelier lights, ornate fixtures, and walls lined with colorful tile. It is located in Old Havana, so many attractions were walking distance. The best part? Rooms start at a reasonable $97 a night.

Other than that, there’s not much else to prepare for, but that’s where the fun begins.

 Old Havana

When you think of Cuba, your mind flashes to the whir of classic cars against the backdrop of old, yet still striking Spanish-style buildings. Get up close and personal with exactly what you imagined by taking a walking tour of Old Havana. You can book a tour with a Cuban guide before your trip, so you have something to look forward to on your first day. I personally recommend Havana Tour Company, which was favorably rated on TripAdvisor. A good guide will take you through each of the plazas, where an assortment of shops, boutique hotels, and cafes line the streets. Along your tour, you’ll encounter postcard-worthy buildings and a bunch of attractions to bookmark to visit later. Some tours even offer a ride in a convertible to further cover the city sights in style. Notable stops on the tour include a few museums, the seaside harbor called The Malecón, and El Floriditida, a bar where American author Ernest Hemingway sipped on daiquiris.

After taking a tour of Havana, you’ll have an overview of places you’d want to come back to, so I suggest getting it done first on your trip.

 Beaches

The great thing about visiting Havana is how it combines the charms of both a centuries-old European city and a Caribbean beach town. Once you’ve taken in what the city of Havana has to offer, you’ll want to cool off at the nearest beach Cayo Playa Santa Maria, which is roughly 25 kilometers away from the capital. If you’ve been to the Boracay shores, this Cuban beach is what you remember Boracay to have been back in the day. Warm and clear water. White sand. Not too crowded. Sip on a piña colada while you’re at it.

 Beyond the City

Save a day for the countryside. Three hours away from the capital, Viñales provides the rustic counterpart to the city experience of Havana. If you decide to visit Viñales with a tour group, the bus makes a pit stop to a few uniquely Cuban sites. On my tour, we made a stop at a tobacco farm replete with the farmer rolling Cuban cigars to pass out. We also saw the Viñales Mural Del Prehistoria, a mountainside painted by local farmers and artists who artistically interpret the stages of evolution. The last stop is the Cuevas del Indio. Visitors take a boat ride on a river that runs through ancient caverns while admiring the rock formations within the cave. The experience is comparable to the underground rivers in Palawan, but the Cuban version is not as expansive.

 Art, Culture, and Food

Spend an hour strolling through the National Museum of Fine Arts, and get a glimpse of Cuban history through its collections of paintings and sculptures. The museum boasts of an extensive gallery of pieces by older to more contemporary Cuban artists.

If you’re on the hunt for something to do at night, the cabaret show at the Tropicana Club is worth your time. The show echoes the Moulin Rouge in Paris, but instead, the entire show at the Tropicana is in Spanish with locally inspired choreography and costumes.

Out of all the amazing things I saw and did in Cuba, the food and drinks were most memorable to me. Fellow foodies, rejoice! For restaurants, my top three picks are: Café Laurent, Casa Miglis, and Paladar San Cristobal.

What makes Café Laurent special is where it’s situated. The restaurant is on the rooftop of an apartment complex, so your meal comes with a complimentary panoramic view of the entire city. If you end up here, go for the sticky rice as you take lots of cityscape pictures.

Casa Miglis is also not to miss. Walking to this restaurant may seem a bit scary at night, but it’s definitely worth it. The restaurant is somewhat hidden among the Cuban apartments that line the streets. Once you enter, the modern interior will take you by surprise. The dining area is dimly lit with white tables, chairs, and curtains. The rooms are decorated with modern art and industrial-style lights. The back room has a stage for musicians to serenade guests. For food, the Swedish meatballs and steamed white fish were excellent.

Lastly, the official and unofficial first families of the US (The Obamas and the Kardashians) dined at San Cristobal. With excellent service and a wide selection of steaks and seafood, dining here is an experience to remember. The walls are covered with Catholic-themed pictures and antique clocks. It’s almost like dining at your Lola’s house. To start, go for the appetizer sampler that showcases different kinds of ceviche and Spanish tortillas. For the main course, any of the steaks are tender and flavorful. You can’t go wrong with the lobster, either. Don’t skip out on the dessert because the fruit bread pudding is moist and tastes like an upgraded version of leche flan. After the meal, the waiter offers a taste of the best rum you’ve ever had along with a free cigar.

After dinner, cap off the night with Cuba’s national drink, the mojito. After spending a few days in the country, you’ll soon find out that the rum is oftentimes cheaper than water. Reserve one night for drinking at Bar Chanchullero. The first two floors serve tapas and small dishes, but the bar gives off an urban vibe as it sits on a tiny rooftop that blasts Spanish music and serves a menu of killer cocktails for about two American dollars a pop, so here’s a Spanish phrase that’ll come in handy: “¡Uno más, por favor! (One more, please!)”

 Last Minute Reminders

Lastly, expect the question: “¿De qué país eres?” In English, “What country are you from?” Cuba’s top tourists are from Canada, England, Spain, and other Latin American countries, so Asian visitors are somewhat of a novelty for the locals. My sister and I were bombarded by this question five times a day on our vacation. As we walked down the cobbled streets, we’d hear someone yell, “De qué país eres?” Oh, but Havana, you’re the one I’d want to know more about. With its rich history and the recent patching up of US-Cuban relations, Cuba is moving toward uncharted territory, and we all want to know where it’s headed.