Havana - where to stay, eat and find Wifi
We found a villa we liked through our new friend Rocio who arranged it and it became our favorite spot. We did not stay in a hotel because staying in a home is more of an adventure and we are all about that! You can stay in a hotel everywhere else. Also, this is not luxury. This is what I'd call mid-range, not hostel backpacking and not five star luxury. It is basic and honest yet clean and enjoyable. This was our stay at a "casa particular" as it works in Cuba to be able to visit on a cultural person-to-person program. It is called Villa Malimbo and run by a Cuban-Italian couple. They met over 25 years ago and the man from Rome married the woman from Havana. Their daughter, Belkys Amalia, happened to be in town from Rome and she was absolutely the most lovely mix of them. We loved talking to all three of them. She is rarely there though as it is seldom she is able to visit from her life and career in Rome. Talk about people who love to help and care so much - the daughter is a child therapist who helps children with special needs - the couple go out of their way for their guests as well.
Located in Vedado, the villa has the typical local covered veranda out front which serves as the living room. Just inside the door is the dining room and down the hall are the bedrooms. They are spare and basic but the bathrooms are being updated and upgraded, so what more could you ask for in a transitioning country and economy preparing to receive more tourists. If you speak Spanish, you can communicate well with the Italian gentleman as he speaks a mix of Italian and Spanish which is fun. He loved my friend Sejal - she needed to bring back the best cigars for her brother and had a list - he took it and we left for the countryside a few days; we returned and the boxes of the exact cigars were waiting for her. The couple will help you plan and organize any arrangements you need. They and some of their staff are on hand 24/7 so someone is always present in the villa. They make home cooked meals and I loved the lobster. Breakfasts are a big spread too - Belkys was able to accommodate the vegetarians and other non-meat or cheese or egg eaters and provide fruit and coffee. I loved drinking her mango juice every morning. The coffee was made american style (weaker) or european style (stronger) as her Italian husband prefers, naturally! I took a photo of the couple with my friend - I wish I had gotten one of the daughter as well, as they are one of the most lovely host families I have encountered. Belkys was so thoughtful too - she arranged a young woman to come and play piano and sing for us one Sunday afternoon - what a powerful and up close not to mention personal glimpse of Cuban talent and culture. Belkys was also the one to plan our walking tour of Habana Vieja with the two young architects because she knew them. This is how things work in Cuba - we were so happy with everything that she planned. It is also because she lived abroad for years in Rome with her husband and traveled extensively. Unfortunately, not all Cuban hosts will have had this experience as they are still learning how to accommodate tourists, so Belkys and her husband are rare birds.
I highly recommend them and their Villa Malimbo as it is extremely affordable - when you look at their website, you will see the costs for the rooms and food. For example, two people sharing a room paid 40-50 cuc (cuban pesos) per night, which is around 40-50 US dollars, so 20 to 25 bucks a piece. You can't beat that compared to other Caribbean countries. It may still be basic, but think about why you're visiting Cuba in the first place! If you want luxury, go to the mega resort. This style allows you to meet people and see real life taking place in the street.
If you book with them and mention my name - Amanda from My Green South - she will give you a discount. www.villamalimbocuba.com
Another favorite joint to grab a bite to eat not to far away from the Villa is called Locos as in Locos por Cuba. You will find it on trip advisor, but we only learned that when the owner handed us a card to give them a review on our way out. It's located near the university and on the second floor of an old house. It is tiny and tight but fun and good food, not to mention cheap. The vegetarians in our group loved their tostones and maduros along with rice, beans and some salad. Don't expect salad like elsewhere - this is Cuba and a local joint, so it usually means some cabbage, maybe some green strips and maybe tomato. Still, wash it all down with beer which is what we always did and you will enjoy and be just fine.
You aren't going to Cuba to stay online the entire time, so you might as well enjoy what it was like in the world before we all became so dependent on Wifi. You can get it in spots, but you have to go to a kiosk where they sell cards that are pretty cheap - a 3-4 pesos depending on how many middlemen there are. You scratch off your number and use it to log in. You will know when you come upon Wifi because it's usually in a public park or a tourist area where there are tons of tourists with heads glued to phones and typing and scrolling furiously. It's quite a site and amusing for sure. The connection isn't always the best, but hey, you're in a place that's still real and not homogenous and plastic yet. It's like you entered somewhere from 50 years ago but with a mix of modern touches. It all adds to the experience.