What’s Cuba like?
Cuba, as you can imagine, is like nowhere you’ve ever been. It’s like time stopped there in the 1930s. The mix of the old and the new in Havana is quite unique- Cadillacs and Buicks line the streets, which are also home to many ornate buildings that look like they belong in the likes of Madrid, we’re talking serious grandeur. Contrast this with the crammed, bustling side streets of colourful villa-style houses with 6 people living in a tiny 2-room house, alongside buildings that look like they belong in a post-war movie, and it’s enough to leave you very confused as to what real Cuba is like, and how you feel about it.
I’d advise you not to venture to Cuba unless you’re the type who welcomes all types of experiences and new cultures- like any developing country Cuba has its nuances. The streets in Havana don’t smell great, it’s dirty, aaand there’s a lot of (harmless) cat calling. But Cubans are full of joie-de-vivre, are passionate and friendly, welcoming and willing to help when you’re lost in the maze of Havana’s side streets. They have a valuable lesson to teach about minimalism- which really made me ponder the over-availability of options we have back home. During our stay, three times we walked into a store to get a drink and the only options on offer were water OR beer. The Cubans live a life of simplicity, and so, a life of easy choice. We really don’t need 27+ options of drinks back home, but such is the commercialisation of the era and countries in which we live. I’m not saying I’d love to live in a truly Communist country but a balance would be nice – and sometimes we really don’t realise how fortunate we are or how all we really need is beer and water 😛 Our final casa owner said she was sorry she couldn’t offer us a ham and cheese omelette, but that they weren’t available in the market at the moment. I asked if it was perhaps because of the hurricane, and she gave a non-committal maybe – which made it seem not unusual. But this is life in Cuba, choices are limited, you make do with what you have, and life goes on.
As there isn’t a whole lot of up to date information on Cuba available online, I’ve detailed some helpful tips and info below and plan to follow up with a post about insights into life in Cuba. If you’re heading out – enjoy the adventure (it’s incredible) and if you’ve been, let me know your thoughts and if you think there’s anything I could add to the below.
Before you depart for Cuba
- Make sure you have everything you need – all toiletries, toothpaste, sunscreen, etc! Medicines: rehydration salts, decongestants, pain killers, anti-histomine, mosquito repellent and bite relief, P20 sunscreen is handy as its long lasting sunscreen – lasts up to 10 hours (for all that wandering!)
- Tell your bank you’re going, so that your card works at ATMs when you arrive. Bring euro to change (crisp notes only!), DON’T bring US dollars (there’ an extra 10% surcharge on $). You cannot get Cuban money outside of Cuba, so no need to check with the bank. I personally found it easier to use ATMs than exchange money, and the rates were often better this way.
- Print off all your reservations, print tickets, maps, restaurant recommendations – as your internet access will be intermittent. Absolutely bring the address of your first hotel, Air BnB or casa.
- Download podcasts, audiobooks, Netflix for offline, trip advisor recommendations, and some Spanish phrases.
- Buy a Chillys / thermos bottle!!!!! (You can generally pick up cheaper ones in TK Maxx)
- Buy a Digicell SIM card online, if the idea of a digital detox doesn’t appeal to you (it’s quite refreshing to be honest).
Tips to bear in mind for your stay in Cuba
- There are two currencies in Cuba – one for the locals (CUP) and one for the tourists (CUC)- the conversion rate is roughly 24:1 CUP:CUC and 1 CUC is €0.84 – you’ll be trading mostly in CUC but watch out that you don’t get ripped off when you get change in CUP (it should be large quantities, not 1-10 really. Watch the coins as the 3 CUP coin (with Che Guevara on the back, looks very like the 1 CUC coin but is one eight the value (we got given these as change a few times unbeknownst to us).
- Don’t buy cigars/ tabacco from people on the street (god knows what they put in it to bulk it up / if it’s real).
- Don’t go to restaurants with randomers on the street (as they’ could well be on commission)
- Don’t change money outside the bank with illegitimate traders (as they could give you CUP instead of CUC and ergo rip you off).
- Don’t change money at the airport, the rate is not great. The ATM in the departure area (upstairs) is quieter than the one downstairs in arrivals.
- It’s best not to change money at hotels either as the rate’s not ideal- change in banks or there is an exchange place at 368 Obispo in Old Havana which has good rates.
Getting from the airport: A taxi from/ to the airport is currently set at a fixed price of 30CUC (Sept 2017) and takes 25-30 mins to get to the centre, regardless of area you are going to (Havana Vieja, Havana Central, Vedado).
There are 3 types of taxis: Private taxis, state taxis and collectivos. Collectivos follow a set route, they don’t drop you at the door but near enough to your destination, charging 10CUP per person. State taxis (yellow ones) should use the meter (but won’t always, especially if they’re trying to rip you off). Private taxis will try to overcharge you- so make sure to bargain and always agree the price in advance. In general, taxis should charge according to distance, not time.
Local buses costs 1 CUP but are jam packed, with no air conditioning (get it for the experience only, if you insist).
Where to stay
Honestly, I wouldn’t bother staying in a hotel in Havana- book a casa particular in old Havana (Havana Vieja) or central Havana (Havana Central), close to old Havana – where you can walk pretty much everywhere, soak up the atmosphere and experience real Cuba.
We stayed in Casa Meyly, booked through Air BnB, and I can say it’s like most Casas Particulares people experience in Cuba – basic but clean, well located, minimalistic plus it had a great roof garden where breakfast was served every morning from 09.00, with rocking chairs and a hammock on hand to relax when desired. Our host, Landy, who spoke excellent English, greeted us the night we arrived, provided us with a map, circled the main things we needed to see and gave us some tips.
Upon our return to Havana the second time around, we stayed in Terraza Vista Havana, booked through Air BnB which is located just off the main street in Old Havana, really close to O’Reilly where there are a host of good restaurants, and within walking distance of all the main sights. It had a fantastic roof top terrance, with rocking chairs and served up breakfast for us each morning (fruit, eggs, bread, coffee, juice) for 5CUC – would strongly recommend (and not just cause they have a puppy!!)
Havana bucket list
Walking around Old Havana is a must- stroll between the four main square, stroll around Obisbo, snap pics of the Capitulo Nacional (the Capital) and the Cadillacs which are lined up in front of Parque Central. For a more authentic experience of how the locals live- I’d recommend a stroll around Havana Central as well – our first casa was in Central and I thoroughly enjoyed peaking down from our balcony and roof top terrace and people watching in the morning.
- We got the tour bus for 10CUC each, on the advice of some others staying in our casa – it was good to get your bearings – but as I was also keen to rent a Vintage car, which I later found out is 25CUC for one hour, you should consider doing that instead (although there are opportunities to use them as taxis too)
- Join a free walking tour at 09.30am or 16.00 at Parque Central provided by Free Walking Tour Havana (look for the umbrellas!). This takes three hours and gave us an excellent insight into the history, culture and current situation of all aspects of Cuba. The tour is divided into pre-revolution, revolutionary and modern Cuba. I highly recommend it. It’s free but our guide really earned his tip- we gave 20CUC between two. He was willing to answer any and every question we had about Cuba, openly and honestly. He recommended local places to eat and shop to save some money and gave tips on what to avoid.
- Go see the Afro-Cuban Rumba, live music by locals in an Art area where murals and quotes lined the wall Sundays from 12pm-4pm in Callejon de Hamel
- Head to Fabrica del Arte Cubano for a nightclub experience unlike any other – in an art exhibition building, we live music and clubbing every night from Thursday-Sunday. Drinks and food are cheap, you’re given a drink card when you arrive and pay on the way out. Consider booking in to El Cocinero next door for great food beforehand if you fancy a nice local meal (book to avoid 1 hour long queue). Get to Fabrica early- at 19.45- to avoid long long queues and risk of not getting in to the Club. This is allegedly the best night club in Cuba, and much of what lies inside embodies the culture of passion of the Cuban people. Check the website to make sure it’s open whilst you’re in town- as they close for a few weeks at a time a few times per year: www.fac.cu
- Head to the Fortaleza de San Carlos: by taxi (it cost us 10CUC each way but allegedly should cost 5CUC) in the evening to explore the fort and watch the firing of the Cannons (so loud!) at 21.00 inside the fort (8CUC entrance fee), there’s a great view of the whole city and port – I recommend getting there early to watch the sunset, and encompass a visit to the Castle into the trip to get even more value out of the evening.
- El Floridita: The birthplace of the daiquiri, and Ernest Hemmingway’s watering hole for daiquiris during his time in Havana. It’s beautiful inside and there is regularly live bands, but the daiquiris cost 6CUC. Great for the experience but they’re not all that impressive.
- La Bodeguita del Medio: Where Ernest Hemingway visited for Mojitos- again, fine but 5CUC for a mediocre mojito. Great live bands once again, with people spilling out onto the street all through the day.
- El Museo de Chocolate / the Chocolate Museum & Cafe (09.00-21.00 corner of Mercaderes & Amagura, Old Havana): More emphasis on the chocolate cafe element of this (the staff didn’t seem overjoyed I was looking around!) but it’s great to experience some Cuban chocolate – a glass of cold chocolate is 1CUC, Aztec hot chocolate is 55CUC (€0.50) and chocolates start from 0.15CUC (€0.12!). The service is slow, so I reckon it’s state owned but air coned and something different to do in Havana.
- To buy gifts: Patio de los artesanios- 405 Obispo, great souvenirs- bracelets, rings, earrings,, cigar holders, wooden cars, clothes, etc – I bought all my gifts for family here, all made by locals.
- To buy cigar, head to El Habano next to El Floridita, at the top of Obispo. These are genuine, certified cigars, pricier than on the street but authentic and reliable – and a fraction of the price of at home.
Where to eat
Despite popular opinion, the food in Cuba isn’t awful- albeit plain and quite bro-food-ish at times (rice and chicken!), my advice is that you should research where to go in advance- here are a few great spots we found after a day or so:
- O’Reilly, 304 O’Reilly, off Obisbo (near Parque Central/ Old Havana). This is a great tapas and cocktail bar- albeit a little pricey, but we shared the Tacos o’Reilly (3 soft tacos- pork, chicken, crab) and papas bravas (potato wedges), and that was plenty- teamed with killer Mango Dairquiri, (made with natural fruit) and a Mango Mojito. The place is small but has a nice ambience and the bartenders are super friendly. The place was full, and most people there had made a reservation (we walked in, and voluntarily sat at the bar).
- El Del Frente, 303 O’Reilly: More focus on main courses than O’Reilly 304 – think pastas, meat dishes etc – great if you’re hungry, very tasty and good quality.
- C&T – a cute, cheap place near the Malecón (Waterfront) that does local food very well. We shared chicken with ginger, carrot and onions which came with rice, beans, plantain chips, avocado and cucumber & a bread basket – enough for 2 for sure. This and four drinks (2 Tu Kola (local cola), 1 beer, 1 water) came to 13.45… which is about €10!
- San Juan (San Juan de Dios, between Habanay Aguiar, Old Havana) : Cheaper than O’Reilly 304, not quite as delicious. The tuna salad is super fresh, and beef fajitas (Fajitas de Res) are super flavoursome- but really just a beef stir fry (they don’t come with wraps?!!) Cocktails are amazing – just as good as O’Reilly 304 and almost half the price – 3.50 for a mango or grape daiquiri <3!
- El Chanchullero: Tapas & wine bar – we never made it there but it came highly recommended by others we met travelling. www.el-chanchullero.com
- To buy cheap street food, hit up the holes-in-the-wall on Obispo where pizza and ice cream cones are offered for 1CUC each (that’s a main course and dessert for €2!). If you see carts selling coconuts filled with ice cream, I implore you to purchase one and try it – it’s ice cream made from coconut water, coconut milk and shredded coconut (ie deeeelicious) and shouldn’t cost more than 2CUC. You can also buy a whole chilled coconut filled with coconut water for 1CUC on the street.
Internal travel in Cuba
Havana to Varadero by bus
The bus from Havana to Varadero cust us $40CUC each. I’ve heard and seen many people say how you have to get a taxi to the bus station (which is on the outskirts of the city) to buy bus tickets at least 48 hours in advance but luckily we met a couple who let us in on a secret to save us the time, bother and money. Head to Plaza Central to the Iberostar hotel and pop downstairs, beside the business centre there is a travel agent where you can buy bus tickets (and organise tours if you like). The bus we opted for was a first class bus (Transtur) and took about 2 hours. We purchased only 1 day in advance and they collected us from the Iberostar lobby in the morning for the transfer – and dropped everyone on board at their various hotels in Varadero – it was very smooth and uncomplicated – ergo I recommend it!
Trinidad-Havana by collectivo
Trinidad-Havana: if I had one tip, it would be to do this by collectivo! It cost us 35CUC each and was easy to arrange via Cubatur – sharing with two others (two Chinese guys :D) the morning of our lunchtime flight to Mexico. The trip took 3-4 hours, saving us an extra 2-3 hours on a bus, and I gather it wasn’t much more than the Viazul (which I believe costs 25CUC and leaves early morning), the bus can also be purchased via Cubatur. They won’t recommend or quote for a collectivo unless you ask- but they have a local company they can call to arrange it for you (I felt this was more reputable than buying off the street). A 10CUC deposit was required, and they collect you from your casa (which is handy when backpacks / luggage is involved).
Gallery of Havana Snaps
Next post: Trinidad, Cuba – everyone’s favourite (coming soon)