cubaan grocery store. / sfgirlbybay
i’ve returned from my trip to cuba and i’m still editing the gazillion photos i took to share with you, so please induldge me a bit — there’s just too many photos not to share! i thought i’d break down the trip a little at a time because honestly, this trip was so magical, it’s taking me some time to process all that we saw and did. havana, cuba is this strange mixture of colonial, Caribbean, art deco, spanish and americana circa 1950’s all tossed together — it’s eclectic in every sense of the word. it’s one part crumbling decay, one part colorful cornucopia, and one part architecture of a bygone era. as i explain cuba to you as best i can, i may sound discouraging, but i don’t mean to be because the beauty of cuba and the experience of being there far outweighs missing any of the comforts of home. sure, you miss modern conveniences, but you get used to it, and it becomes a lighthearted part of the experience to live like a local cuban and i loved every minute of our trip. it’s about setting your expectations to being flexible, compassionate, open-minded and patient. after all, cuba is a socialist country ruled by a Communist ideology so you’re about to experience something completely different than what you may be used to.

colorful cuban store front. / sfgirlbybaycuban architecture. / sfgirlbybaypastel pink building in cuba. / sfgirlbybay

we went to cuba with a tour company called coast to costa and i can’t say enough good things about that experience. i don’t think i could have navigated the complex country that is cuba without their guidance. first of all, there is little to no wifi so if you’re lost or you want to figure out where to eat, you can’t simply log on and check your apps. it’s just non-existent in the streets of havana, unless you go to a major hotel or a wifi hotspot in the centre of old havana. you buy an ETECSA wifi card from one of the gentlemen roaming the streets for about 3 cucs for 1 hour and you stand in one area to use it. it was faster than i might have imagined it would be, but it also went out quite often. so any thought of navigating around town with wifi you can forget. note: try to carry small bills with you because getting change can be challenging. the cuban currency is cucs (Cuban convertible pesos) and our tour company exchanged our money for us when we arrived at the best rate possible, so that was another major convenience of going with a guide. cuba is very inexpensive as well, so your dollar will go far. you can probably get away with spending $50-100 per day on food, drinks, transportation, and a bit of souvenir shopping.

bright colorful buidlings in cuba. / sfgirlbybaytraveling through cuba with coast to costa tours. / sfgirlbybayfood stand and colorful gate in cuba. / sfgirlbybayman walking in front of cuban architecture. / sfgirlbybay

our guides andrew and brandon from coast to costa have been to cuba countless times and know the city inside and out and speak spanish fluently which is invaluable if you don’t speak any spanish (they’re also super fun!). they had drivers to take us from place to place when we weren’t walking the beautiful streets, and on our first day there they had organized a wonderful local guide to show us the city on foot so we’d get a good feel for old havana. from there, it’s pretty easy to navigate with the help of an old school map and a decent sense of direction. and havana is completely safe, even though it may not look like it. laws are strict in cuba so crime is next to nil. the city is centered around various squares and wandering the neighborhood streets in-between is a colorful dream come true. watch for cars, motorbikes, and carriages though because they do not stop for you!

vintage car in cuba. / sfgirlbybaycuban pastel building exteriors. / sfgirlbybaytouring the streets of havana, cuba. / sfgirlbybaypink cuban building exterior. / sfgirlbybay

there are of course, hotels big and small to stay in but we opted to stay in people’s private homes which are called casa particulares because the money then goes directly to cubans rather than the government. our hosts were as kind and gracious as can be, and breakfast was included. our hosts served us piles of fresh fruits like pineapple, watermelon, guava and papaya; eggs, ham, french bread and sometimes a crepe or a hotdog thrown in for good measure. also, sweet hot coffee with warm milk. i’m going to be clear here – set your comfort expectations a bit lower than usual if you plan on staying in a casa particular because these lovely people live quite poorly and very simply, in very clean, but sometimes crumbling old colonial homes. the electrical wiring is crazy looking and the power sometimes goes out. the toilet may break (and be sure and bring an extra roll of toilet paper because it’s a luxury there) and hot water may or may not be working. it’s just the way it is in cuba, and you can’t expect it to be like home. beds can be hard, too. we had both a really hard bed and then a softer foam mattress. when we told andrew our tour guide that our accommodation was a little less than ideal, he moved us immediately — one of the great things about being with a tour company is they have backup resources available and coast to costa really delivered making sure we were well taken care of. we traveled in a group of 18 and got to know some really lovely and interesting people from all over the country which was the bonus part of our trip!

colorful painted buildings in cuba. / sfgirlbybayinteresting mural on building in cuba. / sfgirlbybaysights from my trip to cuba. / sfgirlbybay

there are also not a lot of convenience stores (if any), so in addition to toiletries, pack yourself some snack foods like nuts, chips, power bars etc. our casa particulares hosts offered us bottled water and sometimes beer for about 1 cuc each, and coast to costa made sure we had fresh bottled water, too. i was also told to bring hot sauce and salt because the food can be bland. we had a lot of great meals, and some that were just so-so and some that took hours to come to the table. you’re on ‘cuba-time’ which means there’s really no method to their madness and you just have to roll with it. cuba is an experience not to be missed and considering the political climate of late, i think it may be wise to go sooner, rather than later because the doors could close, or the atmosphere could become considerably more touristy and commercial depending on which way the political winds blow. the last day we were there fidel castro died which was a quite moving and surreal historical moment to experience while traveling. the city became somewhat subdued and then entered into nine days of mourning with no dancing, drinking or celebrations of any kind, so we probably left at just the right time as i’m not certain what stays open and what closes down for the period. i hope you can visit this incredible, vibrant and beautiful city soon. more to come on our travels outside the city of havana to stunning trinidad, Cienfuegos and Viñales. i’m sure i’ve forgotten a few details, so please ask away!

a few places not to miss:

Paladar Doña Carmela is a charming restaurant on the outskirts of havana with a private back garden patio (beyonce and jay z ate there!). we had the most delicious seafood luncheon there.

• have a cocktail where ernest hemingway used to imbibe at Hotel Ambos Mundos – take the elevator to the top floor for fantastic views, but walk down the stairs to take in the gorgeous tiled floors. also check out his other two favorite watering holes, floridita for a daiquiri and La Bodeguita del Medio for mojitos.

• we had an amazing family style meal at restaurante partenon in Miramar (a little out of the way, so take a taxi). the tapas were delicious!

• for the closest thing to a flea market experience visit the plaza de armas for some great vintage books, posters and antique trinkets like jewelry, cameras, pins and watches. it’s fine to negotiate prices here, too.

La Fábrica de Arte Cubano is a ‘concept’ type space — part art gallery, nightclub and restaraunt. if you watch anthony bourdain’s parts unknown on cuba (which is agreat watch prior to your trip anyway) you’ll see a taste of it.

• we stumbled upon galería casa de carmen montilla where there was an amazing exhibit of photographer Paulo Simonazzi’s work. the back garden is not to be missed either.

• if you need to chill, grab one of the pre-1959 classic car taxis for a ride around the city (it’s about 50 cucs for 1 hour). we took a 1957 hot pink Chrysler new yorker for a ride and ended up at the hotel nacionale for daiquiris on their outside patio (complete with wild peacocks) at sunset. the perfect end to a day on your feet.

• also, check out the new york times 36 hours in havana for some great recommendations.

gorgeous green casa particulares. / sfgirlbybaysights of cuba. / sfgirlbybaypops of pink on cuban building. / sfgirlbybaytravel photography of cuba. / sfgirlbybay

• all photos by victoria smith for sfgirlbybay.