11 things to do while in Havana – Cuba

cuba

Havana was the first city I visited in Cuba and was definitely one the highlights. Everything hear about Cuba comes alive in this city, but you realize it’s much more than what you heard! Riding from the airport I couldn’t help having my eyes open like an owl watching the old buildings and the colorful cars. It’s like a different world, no, more like being in a different time, almost 70 years ago.

11 things to do in Havana

Walk around Havana Vieja

One of the 15 municipalities of the city, Havana Vieja (Old Havana) is probably what will stay in your mind as the postcard of Havana. All I recommend is walking, walking, walking and getting it all in. This is the most touristy place of the city so you’ll find lots of restaurants and souvenirs.

Admire the beautiful Capitolio and then walk through the Parque Central where you’ll be able to get a ride on a Taxi Particular. These are the famous 1950 cars that make Cuba what it is. These taxis are shared so don’t be surprised if someone gets in! Take a good look at the buildings at Plaza de la Catedral. Next to it you’ll find the Castillo de la Real Fuerza. After that, go to the Plaza de Armas where you’ll find a book market full of hidden gems from the times of the “Revolución”. My favorite photo spots were the Plaza Vieja, and the Museo de la Farmacia Habanera which is an old but pictoresque pharmacy.

Plaza Vieja - Havana
Plaza Vieja

Take a stroll along the Malecon

El Malecón is a 5 mile seafront esplanade which spans through Havana Vieja to the neighborhood of Vedado. You can enjoy El Malecón all day. During daytime you will find eager fishermen looking for the catch of the day. At sundown the locals will start popping up for a twilight promenade, and you may be able to enjoy some live music as well! What I liked the most was looking at the beautiful, sometimes crumbling, buildings lined along the seafront. Among them you’ll find the majestic Hotel Nacional.

El Malecon - Havana
El Malecon

Visit the colorful Callejón de Hammel

This funky, street art rich alley was built to represent the afrocuban culture in Havana. I have to say it was music for my eyes, one of my favorite places in the city, and as it’s visually rich, a treasure for photographers.

Callejon de Hammel - Havana
Callejon de Hammel

Drink many mojitos!

The mojitos you’ll have won’t be special because they are from Cuba, but because you’ll drink them in special places! Your mojito stops:

1) “La Bodeguita del medio” a typical Cuban restaurant which has its walls filled by memorabilia of the visitors who made it famous: Pablo Neruda, Salvador Allenda, and tons more. Although it’s said Hemingway, who lived many years in Cuba, wasn’t a regular you can find his inscription “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita” in the restaurant. 2) “El Floridita”, were Hemingway was a regular, have a mojito or a daiquiri, whatever you fancy! 3) “Hotel Ambos Mundos” where Hemingway resided. Its terrace has a restaurant where you can enjoy a mojito while you take in the view of the city of Havana.

La Bodeguita del Medio - Havana
La Bodeguita del Medio

Stay at a Casa Particular

As explained on my previous post there are many reasons to stay in a Casa Particular instead of a hotel. My casa in Havana was amazing. I not only had a great stay but made a friend and learned loads of interesting things about the city. This is the casa I stayed in. Tamara is lovely and she’ll help you with everything you need. Be mindful that she books really in advance.

Have an ice cream at “Coppelia”

Although it’s not about the ice cream! Coppelia is a state run Cuban Revolution ice cream parlour built under modernist influence in 1966. It’s one of the largest ice cream parlours in the world serving around 35000 ice creams a day! Its construction was instructed by Fidel, a propaganda move with the aim of bringing the dairy delight to the masses. You’ll find the queues to be eternal – locals can wait more than 3 hours to get ice cream. Luckily, tourists have a fast track queue but pay a higher price.  Although the ice cream is not bad, the experience is about the place as a symbol and it’s wonderful architecture.

Ride on one of the 1950’s cars

Ok so the 1950s cars are the only cars in Cuba, there aren’t new cars, they simply do not exist! And therefore these cars are all you see. The cars belong to the people or descendants of the people that bought them before the revolution. Anyways, if you need to go somewhere, go on a ride on one of them. You can get help from someone in your casa particular. Make sure you are not being ripped off if you are taking a longer ride, and negotiate the price. If you are traveling shorter distances you can also take a coco taxi (a coconut shaped yellow motorbike powered taxi) as it’s cheaper.

Vintage Car - Havana

Learn about Cuba’s revolution

Visit the Museo de la Revolucion. Although a little overpriced and worn down for what it offers, you can’t go to Cuba without understanding the revolution and why Cuba is what it is and looks how it looks like today. So do try to pop by the museum early on your visit. After that, don’t forget to pay a visit to the Plaza de la Revolucion, where you’ll find Che’s and Fidel’s famous murals.

See “el cañonazo de las nueve”

Make your way to the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, a huge fort built by Spain in the 1700 and used throughout Cuba’s history as military complex and prison. This is were Che Guevara established himself as a commander in 1959, and where he ordered the executions of Batista’s supporters after the Revolution. You’ll find a lot of content about Che here. I’d recommend you visit the fort towards the evening, to see “el cañonazo de las nueve” or the tradition to fire a cannon everyday at 9PM. In the past, this signified the opening of the gates of the city. Today, the tradition lives on to amuse tourists and locals.

Walk or ride through “la 5ta avenida”

…or 5th avenue, located in the exclusive barrio of Miramar in Havana. This exclusive neighborhood was where the Cuban high class used to reside before 1959, and it’s filled with sumptuous mansions with pools & patios, yatch clubs and social clubs. This street, considered one of the most beautiful in Cuba, makes for a nice walk or taxi drive, as it’s quite long. Look out for the Fuente de las Americas (America’s Fountain) and the Torre del Reloj (Clock Tower).

 Buy some souvenirs on an artisan market

Pop by Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market for some original art or some cheesy Che Guevara souvenirs! I found this place to have good variety and options.

 

 

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Traveling to Cuba for the first time? Everything you need to know!

cuba

Cuba is a history-rich destination which, like all travels, will open your eyes and view of the world like probably never before. You will find that the rumors you have heard about this destination are true. It does feel like time in Cuba stopped in early 1959 when Fidel’s revolution succeeded and Batista had to flee the country. Here are the things you need to know if you are traveling to Cuba for the first time and are planning to explore farther than the all-inclusive hotels.

Traveling to Cuba for the First Time

traveling to cuba

You will most likely need a Visa

Check here if you need one although only a few countries are exempt. You need to get a Tourist Visa from an agency or the Cuban embassy directly.

There are two currencies

The peso CUP and the convertible peso CUC. The CUP is the national currency, in Spanish moneda nacional. The CUC, paired with the US dollar, is mainly the “tourist” currency. Currently, 1 CUC is 25 CUP. Before going there, I thought locals couldn’t access the CUC and vice versa. However, I saw many locals handling CUC and I was able to change CUC to CUP on a currency exchange office, which was useless as essentially almost everything is listed with both prices on tourist areas, but I did get a 3 pesos Che Guevara note which I wanted.

Takeaway: don’t try to get CUP, and don’t confuse the currencies when being given change. Here is a picture of both for reference, as you can see CUCs say “pesos convertibles”. The best place to exchange money is the bank, not an exchange office and beware, if you take USD to exchange you will be charged a 10% fee so try to exchange any other currency.
traveling to cuba

“Casas Particulares” are the Cuba’s Airbnb and a gem!

Since 1997, long before Airbnb existed, the government has allowed Cuban homeowners to rent rooms in their house for a fee. Houses have typically 2-3 rooms and the price ranges from 20-50 USD or CUC, sometimes including breakfast. Now that Cuba made peace with the US, you might be able to book a casa via Airbnb. Otherwise use TripAdvisor, it does not disappoint. As casas can’t accommodate many guests, they sell out in advance so book with time either emailing or calling the casa which is the preferred option.

In my opinion, a casa is the best way to experience Cuba. If you pick one with good reviews, the hosts will be most surely be lovely. This will give you the opportunity to interact with locals and have a chat about the Cuban way of life. I was lucky to stay in this lovely casa in Santiago de Cuba where three generations of the family were present during my visit. The difference of opinions depending on the generation was mind blowing. Talking to them, definitely one of the highlights of the trip. Just to put it into perspective, I’m still in touch with the casa owners.

You wouldn’t imagine the things casa owners have done to make our stay better. From gifting us a rum just because, to taking us to the hospital and convincing the doctor to not take us to another city in an ambulance and buying medicine for us so it would be 10 times cheaper!

Getting internet is a costly feat, so plan in advance

Forget about free Wi-Fi wherever you go, and say hello to internet cafes like back in the day! Internet is severely restricted and internet access controlled by the government. In a 5 star hotel I’ve had to purchase a small piece of paper with a code to get Wi-Fi access for 5 CUC an hour. In smaller towns, I have had to go to internet cafes where I had to pay a high price for timed usage. And yes, most of the times I’d have to queue, as Cubans also want to get on the internet.

It’s similarly expensive for telephone calls. So if you are going to make calls from one of your casas make sure you pay them. This is part of the reason why a Cuban holiday is good, you really do disconnect! Make sure you download the maps you need on Google Maps and print any other documents you might need to show.

Cubans have their own way of queuing

This is important, you’ll avoid potential arguments with Cubans/annoyance with yourself for being ignorant. Cubans don’t queue on a straight line. They arrive to the queue, and ask “Quien es el último?” or just “el último?”. Someone will say “yo” and you know that’s the person who goes before you. You are essentially asking who is the last person in the queue. If you don’t do this, you are not considered as being in the queue. This is for real. Always ask for “el ultimo”.

There is no crime. Well, depends on how you define crime…

Cuba is a communist country, and therefore capitalism is almost null. This means no advertising other than propaganda and no consumerism. This results in almost all Cubans not being able to access most of the items we use on a day-to-day and on our trips, like a GoPro, Nike shoes and other really basic stuff you wouldn’t believe. As an example, it took me ages to find somewhere that sold a lighter. However, unless you are very unlucky it’s unlikely that you would get mugged. As always, take care of your belongings, but Cuba is safe enough for you to fully relax.

However, I did notice some cheeky innocent crimes. For instance, in the famous restaurant “La Bodeguita Del Medio” I was overcharged in various items in my bill, by small amounts like 1 CUC or 0.5 CUCs per item, twice – and I went twice! This happened in other restaurants as well (the bill is handwritten most of the times). Other similar things happened and, in all cases, the people involved almost didn’t apologize which kind of led me to believe it wasn’t really a mistake. Just keep your eyes open, sometimes you may let it go and consider it “extra tip” for how friendly they are, but let it be your choice. Also, get away from people talking to you on the streets specially in Havana. Although they look like they want to be your friends and are super nice, I’m afraid it’s probably a scam.

Food can be a little bit meh

As said before, buying options in Cuba are limited as it’s a closed country. You’ll be amazed to see in supermarkets how there is only one (or two) options of each item. And, if you check the labels, you’ll realize they belong to local companies which are government owned.

Similarly, there are not many food options: the fruits you’ll get will be the ones in season. There will be a lot of “moros con cristianos” (rice with beans) with pork, chicken or fish, sometimes with plantains or sweet potatoes. Beef is scarce, and even in 5 stars hotel I’d suggest you avoid it, you’ll be at risk of intoxication (it happened to my travel companion, and it wasn’t fun). And last, milk is mostly available in its powder form as fresh milk is very scarce. The best food you’ll get will be at the Paladares, which are privately owned restaurants. These, compared to their government owned counterparts, need to make a bigger effort to survive so they are generally much better quality.

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