HAVANA, CUBA IN A NUTSHELL: DENSELY POPULATED, BEAUTIFUL ARCHITECTURE, CARS AND GOODS MOSTLY FROM THE 1950’S, FRIENDLY RESIDENTS, HEAVILY POLLUTED, POOR INFRASTRUCTURE, AMAZING AND HUMBLING.
If you’re planning a trip to the Havana area (or just want to know what it’s like there), continue reading below for everything you need to know! If I miss something, email me at KellyNicoleTravel@gmail.com and I will be glad to answer your question(s)!
PRIOR TO TRIP
MONEY: Money sounded a tad bit confusing before I went because Cuba has 2 different currencies (CUC & CUP), but it’s actually very easy. CUC exchanges exactly 1:1 for the US dollar, which makes it simple to know you got the right amount back. That is the only currency I exchanged for when I went, and I was totally fine. CUP is a more “local” currency that I was told I would want to use to buy small souvenirs or food in markets with, but it was definitely never needed. You will be fine exchanging just for CUC. HOWEVER, the exchange fee is highest for the US dollar. Depending where you exchange (your hotel, landlord, a ‘bank’, etc.) the fee is between 10-15%, meaning you will get like 90 CUC back when you give 100 dollars. If you want the best bang for your buck, you could exchange your US dollars to Euros before you leave the US, and then exchange the Euros for CUCs for a lower fee. Depends how much you care 😉
WHAT TO BRING: Depends where you stay (see “where to stay” section below), but if you choose to save money and stay in an apartment or local place like we did, bring a good pillow, any medicine you may possibly need, and water. There are stores around town but they won’t be what you are used to. If you stay in a hotel such as Hotel Parque Central or Hotel Inglaterra, you should be fine with the smaller things.
Of course bring your passport, and bring CASH. There are no ATM’s around, so bring as much spending money in cash that you think you’ll need!
PASSPORTS: Passport is all you need, no special VISA.
WIFI/PHONES: As of 2016, it is still widely illegal for residents to have wifi in their homes or workplaces. The only places with wi-fi are select hotels and public parks. At these places you have to buy a wifi card for 3 to 5 CUC (3-5$) which will only last 1 hour online. After an hour, you must purchase another card. Any service will work on this wifi. Otherwise, AT&T did not have any type of service over there (no international plan so don’t waste your money buying one) but those with Verizon did work. Go over there knowing you might not have much communication with “home”.
*GETTING THERE: I was fortunate enough to ride to Cuba by private boat. If this is you, please email me if you have specific questions about how the customs process was. It was generally very smooth and easy. They took everybody’s temperature (literally with a forehead thermometer) and if you have a fever you are not allowed in the country. They did board the boat and search but very briefly. You have to fill out a form as you would on a plane and then step into a room to get your picture taken. We had NINETEEN people on our boat and the only person that had to answer any questions was the captain. Private boats coming into their shores from the US is new to them, so they charge all types of arrival and departure fees, but it is what it is. We docked at Hemingway Marina (customs is actually located at this Marina) and the boat was safe there (which is a great hotel to stay at outside of the city) and about a 20 minute (and $20 taxi ride) outside of downtown. Their website is: http://www.hemingwaycuba.com/marina-hemingway-cuba.html
*Edit: So, the above portion was my take on customs as a passenger on a private vessel. Yes, we waited an hour or 2 to get through customs process, but I didn’t know the details behind it until now. When I said they only asked questions to the Captain (in a private room when we were departing, so I didn’t hear/see any of it) that was true.
After just speaking to the Captain of boat, here is a note from the Captain himself:
“What you don’t know is that the customs process was anything but smooth. The Government officials refused to help me (and in fact threatened to delay us without thousands of Dollars in bribes and ‘tips’). Upon our departure the short guy demanded an extra thousand bucks or was going to make us wait ‘several hours for the drug dog to come back and search our boat!’
I was tired of paying illegal extortive bribes! Alas, I gave in and paid yet again so we could be on our way safely…Also, just remembered.. You are NOT allowed to get out of your boat (swim/snorkel/dive) while there by boat. I was told we would be shot if we did… (I don’t know who would have shot us as no one was out there but I didn’t really want to argue..) Fishing was extremely costly and difficult, also. They treat you like a criminal as you clear customs both incoming and outgoing just to go fishing for a few hours… Terrible experience!
Never take a boat to Cuba! They see it as Dollar signs when originating port is from the USA… They will eat you alive with required ‘tips and bribes!’ I can’t stress this to you enough. When we go back we’ll just take the plane over. Way easier-and customs is easy breezy at the airport because they handle a much much higher volume of people.” End quote.
If you’re arriving by plane, please refer to their official website so I don’t give any inaccurate information. It is: http://havana.airportcuba.net/customs.html
*WHERE TO STAY: You basically have 2 options: either pay more to stay in one of the few “modernized” hotels, or pay less to stay in an apartment with less amenities.
We opted to stay in an apartment, that we surprisingly actually found on airbnb.com (picture below- called “America” of all things..). It was in a great location with a 5 minute walk from the center of the city and Capitol building. The apartments ranged in size from 1 bedroom to 3 bedrooms. A 1 bedroom was $50/night, and 2 bedroom (my 2 bedroom had 4 queen size beds) was $100/night. Our group was large so I saw all sizes of them. They are definitely “old” and don’t have any amenities, but will save your wallet and give you a real Cuban experience. There are a couple of rooms with kitchens that come equipped with a refrigerator, couch, local TV channels, etc. There is air conditioning in the bedrooms, but not in the living areas. This was actually nice because that allowed the bedrooms to be cold to sleep. There were a few problems such as leaking toilets, broken showers, tough mattresses and flat pillows. But if you’re traveling to Havana, I assume you already know not to expect luxury. Those things did NOT bother me personally, but if you are hard to please and expect nice things, then opt for the hotels.
If you opt for the more modernized hotels, 2 Hotels that I went to to eat meals and use wi-fi were located right in the center of Havana. These hotels were Hotel Parque Central & Hotel Inglaterra. Hotel Parque Central has a rooftop pool and bar that overlooks the Capitol building, Parque Central, Theatre, and a bunch of other places.
Their websites are:
Hotel Inglaterra- http://www.hotelinglaterra-cuba.com($100-$300/night).
Hotel Parque Central- http://www.hotelparquecentral-cuba.com (about $300/night)
THINGS TO DO
Walking around town will give you plenty to see and do, but you also MUST take a tour at least once. We took 2, both in convertibles for the experience and breeze, but to different parts of town. There is a double decker bus tour you can take as well that is cheaper (but you can’t choose where you go on the bus). Either way, here are things I recommend either walking to or asking your guide to take you to:
CAPITOL BUILDING-You really can’t miss the Capitol Building. It is right in the center of Havana and if you walk anywhere at all, you will walk by it.
COLON CEMETERY-You will see this on the bus tour or request it on your car tour. It is the 3rd oldest cemetery in the WORLD, holding over 2 MILLION bodies. It is huge.
HAVANA FOREST, AKA ALEMENDARES PARK-Located just outside of Havana near the Miramar district, it was nice to breathe the smell of nature and greenery for a moment at this park. There were so many trees (huge banyon trees), a river, and the locally known “elephant tree” pictured to the left. A beautiful stop that you must get out of the car for a second to take in.
PLAZA DE REVOLUCION-This plaza is most known for being the location where Castro gave his speeches. He would attract up to a million people to listen to him speak for as long as the entire day
HEMINGWAY HOUSE-Although there is also a Hemingway house in Key West, FL, the one in Cuba is a tad different. There is a cool lookout tower that you can see the city from. And the best part was seeing how they take fresh sticks of sugar cane, and press them through a machine by winding it, and voila, sugar cane juice falls into the bucket. (Sidetone: sugar cane is my enemy as I am super allergic, buuuuut it was still really neat to see, and everyone else said it was delicious!!)
LA CABANA HILL-Located in a Havana suburb Casablanca, this park was amazing because you could literally see the entire city of Havana from above. The picture to the left does not do it any justice at all. It was a park with benches, trees, wild goats, and a view. Not to mention the huge Jesus statue (“The Christ of Havana”) that looks over Havana up there. (Unfortunately the light inside Jesus’ head was under construction when we were there, but it was still a neat statue regardless.)
A CONVERTIBLE TOUR IN AN OLD CAR– Ok it’s not a necessity, but YES, yes it is. I liked it so much the first day, I went on a different one again the next day. How often do you get to ride around in a working 1940’s or 1950’s car, wind in your hair, while seeing cool stuff? You get to choose where they take you, and if you’re not sure they’ll recommend cool places. If you’re in Havana, you just have to.
The first one I booked on OldCarTours.com and had it reserved and chose the day and time I wanted in advance.
The second one we just asked a hotel who they recommended and we walked outside and got in. If you walk up to someone on the street, make sure to negotiate with them on price!! They will try to rip you off otherwise;) I think I paid 60 CUC for 2 hours the first day and negotiated cheaper the second.
*Other random facts about questions you may have (language, residents, tips, etc):
1. Suprisingly a lot of people speak English. If you have the most basic Spanish knowledge, communicating won’t be a problem.
2. Everyone was SO friendly and welcoming, even to us Americans. If you just take the time to talk to them, they are very nice people.
3. Downtown was really dirty. As to be expected because of their current status of government and economy, the streets are filled with garbage, ripped up concrete, and even fecal matter. It often smells of garbage or sewage, so I recommend wearing shoes you don’t necessarily care about.
4. If you want to see the old classic cars, they are literally on every corner and every road, so you can’t miss them. They make up like 90% of their cars, at least in the Havana area.
5. When using a restroom in a restaurant/bar/public place, expect to be given ONE SHEET of toilet paper to use when you go. There are no rolls in the stalls as you may be used to. Learn to wipe minimally, ha.
6. Even though everyone was really nice (refer to #2), they still will try and get money from tourists any way they can, as they have to make money to live…. so if they can rip you off, they will. NEGOTIATE with taxi drivers, LOOK AT all of your restaurant bills and bar tabs, and always offer a lower price. If not, they will charge you more than they should.
7. FOOD= It is much cheaper than you are used to. So that should be the least of your worries. In most places you will get a large portion of food anywhere from $4 (4 CUC) for chicken to $12 (12 CUC) for prime rib. They are known for their RUM.. costs $5(or cuc) for an entire BOTTLE. Food and drink will definitely not hurt your wallet there. (unless you drink a lot … like we may have ;))
7. Lastly, a lot of people told me to “be safe” and everything along those lines. But let me assure you I never once felt afraid or in danger there, even as both a female and an American. Guns are illegal and nobody has them. Our landlord even told us at 2am in an alley nobody is going to do anything to you, he just reiterated to be aware of people scamming you for money. So please don’t worry about it being a “scary” place, yes it needs a lot of work, but scary isn’t the word to describe it.
THANKS FOR READING. IF YOU HAVE ANY SPECIFIC QUESTIONS, FEEL FREE TO CONTACT ME USING THE CONTACT PAGE AT THE TOP OR BY SIMPLY EMAILING ME AT KELLYNICOLETRAVEL@GMAIL.COM