TRAVEL GUIDE: HAVANA, CUBA
As you’ve probably seen on Instagram, Facebook and here on the blog this Christmas I decided to escape the cold weather in Europe and visit two beautiful – and much warmer – destinations, Cuba and Mexico. Looking back at all the things I saw, learnt and tried, I can safely say that this trip was the experience of a lifetime. Although I tried to plan as much as possible in advance, there were quite a few unexpected things along the way, so below you’ll find practical tips I wish I knew before landing in Havana.
While travel restrictions are being loosened in the US, it’s very likely that Cuba will undergo radical changes within the coming years. I really hope that any future development will be sustainable but if you wish to discover all those special things that make Cuba a unique destination, book those tickets and go as soon as possible. Enjoy and feel free to ask if you have any questions!
• The Old Town (“Habana Vieja”) is the ideal starting point for those who wish to explore Havana. A good plan is to follow a route structured around the four main colonial squares of Havana Vieja. There’s beautiful architecture, lots of colour and plenty of museums to explore. I fell in love with the beauty of colonial buildings and was struck by the huge contrast between the preserved parts and the rest of the city, which sadly seems to be falling apart. Havana Vieja is like a rough diamond – dusty, a bit blurry but absolutely stunning; no wonder why it’s a Unesco World Heritage Site.
• One of my favourite parts in the city was the Malecon, an 8km boulevard that runs from Havana Vieja to Centro and all the way to Vedado. The original purpose of the Malecon was to protect Havana from the sea. Nowadays, it’s a place where locals hang out, go fishing and swimming. Watching the sunset by the sea was also one of the highlights of my stay in Havana.
• Another must when you visit Havana is the old forts of the Parque Histórico Militar Morro-Cabaña. They’re located on the opposite side of the harbor and offer spectacular views over the city. A good time to visit is around sunset to watch the ceremonia del cañonazo, whereby actors create a representation of the firing of a cannon over the harbor.
• When strolling around Havana, you’ll come across the so-called “jiniteros”, i.e. hustlers who will try to sell you guided tours, cigars, rum, etc. Just say no politely and move on, most of them just leave you alone.
• Dance is a core part of Cuban culture, so Havana is filled with dance studios where you can take courses with Cuban dance partners. My partner in crime and I took some salsa courses at La Case del Son – we had a blast and it’s hands down one of the best memories from our trip!
• No visit in Havana would be complete without riding a vintage car! You’ll find lots of them in beautiful shiny colours lined up along the Malecon, waiting for passengers to hop on. Make sure you negotiate the price and route in advance and enjoy the ride – it’s a truly great experience.
Given the extreme poverty, don’t go to Cuba expecting anything fancy in terms of food. Aside from street food which is ridiculously cheap, you can choose between State-owned and “paladares”, namely privately run restaurants. The latter are family houses turned into restaurants, a trend that began in the late 1990s and evolved over the years past the initial government restrictions to accommodate a larger number of guests, employ non-family members and serve more than certain types of food.
• If I visited Havana again, I would eat every single day at Doña Eutimia, a small paladar tucked into a cobbled alleyway next to the Taller Experimental de Gráfica, an artists’ print workshop in Old Havana. The restaurant has taken its name after a local woman who used to cook for the artists. On the menu you’ll mostly find Cuban specialties that come in generous portions and affordable prices (well, for tourists that is). My favourite dish was include ropa vieja, i.e. pulled beef with sliced peppers in tomato sauce – not to be missed!
• Another good choice is Mama Inés, a paladar just off Plaza de San Francisco in Old Havana. The owner used to prepare Fidel Castro’s food for many years and now runs this cute restaurant that makes the most delicious camarones al gratin. Price-wise is a bit more expensive than Doña Eutimia (around 15€ per person) but still good value for money.
• Last but not least, a spot that I have the best memories from is the Jardin del Oriente which you can find just steps away from Plaza de San Francisco in Old Havana (12, Amargura street 12). The courtyard is full of leafy trees, cheap as chips and makes the meanest platano chips ever. Couple that with a Cuba Libre and you have one happy S! If you’re looking for a nice place to eat in a budget try it and order the grilled chicken with boiled yucca con mojo.
Accommodation in Havana is another challenging issue. Due to the legislation in force, hostels as we know them are non-existent. A very common practice for local families is to rent out a room of their home to tourists. These are the so-called “casas particulares”, which are registered by the owners who need to meet certain requirements (e.g. hot showers) and pay taxes to the State. In reality, this is not always the case and if you’re found to be staying in an illegal room, you may get into trouble with the police.
When researching for accommodation, I was initially keen to help some locals and maybe pinch some pennies by renting a room at a casa particular. I found this website which is supposedly the most dependable but none of the listed rooms were available or what I was looking for. Therefore, I opted for the less budget-friendly yet safer option of renting a room in NH Capri. Now, taking into account that Cuba is a special country, the NH Capri did not live up to my expectations considering its price and reputation. Sure, one cannot expect Western-style luxury but moldy smell, broken appliances, constant noise and rude staff who could barely speak English are not acceptable in my books.
While you’re in Cuba, be prepared to say goodbye to Internet connection. Connecting to the web proved a mission impossible from the very beginning, not to mention a really expensive one. After resisting for a few days, I did purchase an internet card which cost me 5€ for an hour of several unsuccessful attempts to actually connect. My advice? Forget about Google and rely on your printed map instead. Although you can get good reception almost everywhere, roaming charges will also set you back quite a few quids if you decide to use your phone for anything else than sending texts.
• Once in Cuba do as the Cubans do. Drinking and buying lots of rum was on top of my list. While in Havana, I visited the Havana Club factory and took a tour which was actually mandatory in order to enter the premises. The tour involved a rather sketchy tour of the distillery and was a total waste of time. Luckily, I managed to get hold of a bottle of Ron Anejo Santigo de Cuba which is rumoured to be Fidel Castro’s favourite rum and quite hard to find outside Cuba.
• Second on my shopping list was to buy Cuban cigars. In Havana you can visit the “Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás“, one of the oldest and most famous cigar factories. I was advised to skip the visit to the factory, where you can watch some 400 workers roll Montechristos and Cohibas, as it is too rushed and instead visit their shop where you can buy authentic cigars (and not the scams you are offered on the streets). I did so and found some good deals – maybe not as cheap as you get outside Havana but still much more affordable than in Europe.
• Having read how difficult is to find medicine and sanitary stuff in Cuba, I took with me things like painkillers, toilet paper (you actually get charged for it in restaurants, etc.), sun screen, tissues, hand sanitiser and a water filter. My precious supplies were in my bag at all times and actually saved the day on more than one occasions. Before leaving for Mexico, I passed on whatever was left to some nice Cuban folks I met and was really moved by how much grateful these people were for things we take for granted in our every day lives.
• As I mentioned above, I had more than my fair share of rum in Havana. My partner in crime and I would order at least one round of Cuba Libre or piña colada in every cafe or restaurant, so we didn’t have to go to bars as such. My favourite spot for rum cocktails and tapas was El Chanchullero in Havana Vieja. Sloppy Joe’s, an iconic bar where José García served liquor and iced seafood, back in the 1930’s, was not too bad either although it is fully renovated and lacks its original charm.
• Another spot that kept popping up when researching about nice bars in Havana was El Floridita, one of Hemingway’s favourite hangouts and the place where the daiquiri was invented. When we went the whole experience felt too touristic: the bar was packed with people taking pictures, the drinks were overpriced albeit tasty and the staff far from kind.
• When we landed in José Martí in Havana, Cuba’s largest airport, we were tired but very happy. Our luggage arrived quickly but then we had to wait at least 2 hours standing to pass through controls. I guess that upon arriving you have to get in terms with the fact that people really take their time here. After finally getting through, there was no taxi station but rather what seemed at the time as chaos. No worries though, after the first day or so, you’ll get used to it! Taxi drivers may try to trick you in paying more than you should, so make sure to negotiate a price before you enter or ask them to use the meter. Most of them aren’t willing to do so because without the meter everything goes into their pocket. Apart from the regular taxis there’s also the so-called “Coco mobil”, a cute yellow three-wheel vehicle, which was really fun but as it turned out, more expensive too.
• Cuban currency is not traded internationally, so you won’t be able to buy in advance. There are two currencies used, namely the Cuban pesos (CUP – what the locals use) and the Convertibles (CUC – the tourists’ currency). Given that 1 CUC amounts to 25 CUPs, everything costs much more to visitors compared to the local population. Throughout our trip we didn’t need to use CUPs as this is reserved to very few things for tourists, like street food or goods that you can find in local markets where Cubans shop as well. We exchanged our euros at the airport and then at Cadeca exchange houses in Havana where you’re asked to show your passport. Be sure to calculate in advance the money you’ll need: you can only withdraw a limited amount of times per week and if you end up having a big surplus at the end, you’ll have to reconvert them at a high cost. Cash is the most common way of payment, so I wouldn’t rely on debit cards.
• Apart from the entrance visa you may need, remember that everyone pays an exit visa (25CUC in bank notes only) at the airport before leaving the country.
• Since Havana is not well connected with other Cuban cities (there are no public buses and the trains are not reliable at all in terms of punctuality), I booked two-day trips to the Provinces of Pinar del Río, Cienfuegos and Sancti Spíritus with Cuba Travel Network. My experience was really good with both tours: although there were activities I would skip weren’t I travelling with a group, the guides were really nice and well-informed and we got to see the main sights in the cities we visited, namely Viñales, Pinar del Río, Trinidad and Cienfuegos.