Ever since I found my great-grandmother’s ashes in a closet, I’ve been sort of obsessed with the idea of honoring her dying wish: to have her remains returned to her native Cuba. My grandmother, who emigrated to the U.S. from Havana when she was seven, had been storing her mother’s ashes next to boxes of photos and knitting supplies since the 1970s. My grandmother was afraid of making the trip back to Cuba because she was convinced the government wouldn’t allow her to leave.
This month I got to lay my great-grandmother to rest in the family tomb in Havana, which happens to be in the Necrópolis de Colónce. See the picture of me buying flowers to lay on her (and my great-grandfather’s, and some great-aunts and uncles and cousins) tomb?
I wrote down a bunch of notes about travel in Havana for when I go back. I definitely want to go back, partly because it’s an amazing city and partly because we only brought a portion of the ashes (we were afraid that Mary Thomasina would get confiscated in the airport). So here are my tips.
- 1. Convert dollars to euros, then convert euros to CUP in the airport. Bring more than you think you need, because you can’t withdraw money from the bank, and you lose $ when switching currency.
- Cuba is not inexpensive. Cabs, meals, accommodations are all roughly equivalent to what you find in the US.
- Bring reading materials, paper, and pencil. A Spanish dictionary and physical guidebook are helpful also.
- Download maps.me. It works even without wifi.
- Don’t follow the suggestions of strangers on the street, no matter how much of a rapport they create with you.
- Book an itinerary ahead of time via Airbnb experiences or a travel agent.
- It helps to have some Spanish at your disposal. Most Cubans speak limited to no English.
- Bring Imodium and Pepto Bismal.
- Find a water source ASAP. Americans get sick when they drink Cuban tap water, and stores selling bottled water are few and far between.
- Break large (20 CUC and up) bills when you can, because it can be hard to find small bills.
- Always ask “how much?” before agreeing to a taxi ride. It should cost $25-$30 to get from the airport to your accommodations in old Havana.
- Cuba is not a consumer culture. There is very little shopping to be had. I shopped for souvenirs is the airport. It’s the same stuff that is sold on the street, and you don’t have to carry stuff around everywhere. I bought cigars and bracelets, and coffee beans from a coffee shop in old Havana.
- Write down all your travel information (airline, flight number, departure time, confirmation number) in multiple places so you don’t lose it.
- Wear a watch. You won’t have a phone for the time and clocks are scarce.
- Cubans find locations via the nearest intersections rather than the numeric address. Drivers had trouble finding my Airbnb when I told them 17 Consulado, but they had no trouble when I gave them the street intersection.
- The fresh juices and coffee are uniformly good.
- Utilities are expensive and AC is very limited. Wear comfortable sandals, light dresses. I brought Birkenstocks, Born sandals and Trashy Diva dresses, plus a light cotton scarf to keep the sun off my shoulders.
- Make sure you have a long layover when flying to Cuba, because flights there are limited, and if you miss your connection, there may not be another Havana flight until the next day. This almost happened to me twice.
- Use Mardi Gras rules during bathrooms (always use one when presented with the opportunity). Bathrooms can be scarce and often cost money to use.