Cuba Guide Part I: Havana

I’m finally getting to review my notes and photos from my awe-inspiring trip to Cuba. My experience was so incredibly meaningful that I feel I must divide it into multiple parts and do some narration. Part 1 consists of my time in Havana as well as some helpful tips for first-time visitors and those looking for some ideas and inspiration. So keep reading for my experience or skip to the bottom for bulleted tips on what to see/where to stay/where to eat!

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Getting There…

We flew from Charleston via Ft. Lauderdale on jetBlue. Because Ft. Lauderdale was our gateway city, we needed to collect our $50 Cuban visas from a help desk and sign our lives away under the ‘people-to-people’ license. As we arrived a bit early to our gate, we were surprised to find it blocked off by tape with different stations being set up just beyond our reach. Slightly confused, we approached airport personnel to find out that a party was being held for our flight to Cuba! Our flight was the inaugural Havana flight from Ft. Lauderdale and marked the 100th destination on jetBlue’s route map.

Some tastey pulled chicken, rice & beans, and a 4 Leches later, some high-ups of jetBlue and the Ft. Lauderdale airport welcomed us all with a short speech and ribbon cutting ceremony. We boarded the plane, everyone buzzing with excitement, including ourselves. A gift bag welcomed us with treats at our seats and a short 45 flight later, our Cuban captain announced our landing with tears and applause.

The Mourning Period of Fidel Castro…

Our flight was scheduled to depart November 30th, 2016. On November 25th, Fidel Castro passed and the country of Cuba went into a period of mourning. But what exactly did this mean for Cubans and for visitors? To start, the country went dry. The selling of alcohol to anyone was banned by restaurants, hotels, and shops. We found a total of 2 places that would sell to tourists, but even then they only had weak mixed drinks to offer. Beer was unattainable, even in the tiny rural towns, and we suspect it was because the businesses weren’t allowed to purchase or possess it until the ban was over.

Music and dancing weren’t allowed throughout the country. Since it was our first trip to Havana, we’d heard that the city was lively day and night, but we didn’t see this at the start. Ricshaws, taxis, and food stands that would normally blare Afro-Cuban music, Rumba, and Reggaeton were silent. It wasn’t until the end of our 12 day trip and our return to Havana that we realized the true nature of the capital city.

Working with limited Spanish, it was difficult to distinguish locals’ verbal declaration of sadness from their true sentiment on the matter. When asked how one local felt about the death of such an influential leader, he explained that he was indeed very sad because Castro “did some bad things, but did some very good things too.” Whether the citizens had seen it coming for years and were already desensitized to the subject or whether they were just too reluctant to share their genuine opinions, I can’t say for sure. Let’s just say, I didn’t see anyone crying.

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– What to See –

Habana Vieja : The first thing you should know is that Havana is old, as this section of Havana’s name suggests. Just walking the streets is a sight in itself – the people living their daily lives, the juxtaposition of modern and dilapidated buildings, the buzzing cafes, the music (when the people aren’t in mourning). My number one suggestion is to get lost in this part of town. Wander every street, dip into bars and shops, sit and watch the life of this part of town.

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Habana Central : A bit less touristic, this neighborhood has some really good Paladares to visit for dinner. It’s also a fantastic location to have a long wander and people watching session. Since the cruisers don’t usually make it this far from the port, it has half the amount of tourists and a better view of local life. Roaming this area at night is safe and it seems far rougher than it is because of the dilapidated buildings. The locals all sit in the streets in the evening and their gazing eyes may make some passersby feel uneasy though they generally mean no harm.

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Museo de la Revolucion : I’ll admit, this museum is still under construction, literally. It’s lacking in charm and organization but it’s still a great starting point in learning about the political history of the country. I suggest starting here on day 1 to spark your intrigue about what the country has been through, then continue your research via a travel guide, chatting with locals, and visiting more museums. Though it does have a fair amount of information inside, some sections aren’t translated to English yet and the layout is not well marked.

Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas : This legendary tobacco & cigar shop has been visited by many celebrities and fabulous people. It sells a large variety of Cuban cigars, all legal and ranging in price and strength. If you don’t have time to make it to Viñales (the tobacco plantation 2 hours from Havana), I suggest stocking up here. Just remember to check the legal amount you can bring back to your home country. Also, ignore the jineteros that try to guide you to a different shop!

“Jineteros” are people who try to intercept you on the street and offer/sell you their products. They will tell you the shop you want is closed and will try to guide you to their shop around back. They’ll also tell you the casa you’re looking for is actually full and try to lead you to a different one where they’ll make commission from that owner. They’re usually harmless and don’t intend to do anything more than sell you their product and make a commission. It’s more annoying than anything else, but still should be remembered when on a mission for a specific shop.

Streets ‘Cuba’, ‘Obispo’, North ‘Aguiar’, & ‘O’Reilly’ : My four favorite streets in Habana Vieja! They have so much personality, life, restaurants, and treasures. Most of my favorite restaurants and patios are on these streets and again, they’re the best for people watching and soaking in the city.

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– What NOT to See –

  • The Bolivar statue – suggested by Lonely Planet and in a popular location, you’ll walk right past it and not even notice it. It’s nothing to go out of your way for and offers no explanation upon arriving at it.
  • Edificio Bacardi – an Art Deco building once owned by the Bacardi family, this now hotel is off-limits to tourists wandering in. The lobby offers no furniture or decor and the security guards are quick to shoo you away. 

  • Coin Museum

– Where to Stay –

“Casa Particular” : A locally run guesthouse where you can rent a room for a standard 25-30CUC per night. These casas are the most common method of stay in Havana. They offer you the chance to get to know a local family and most come with all the necessities for your stay: AC, private room with a bed, hot water, shared bathroom, linens, breakfast, COFFEE, and a mom to help you find your way around the city! *Airbnb is becoming quite popular however, and is a great option for booking ahead so as to not worry about bringing extra cash for accommodation*

Casa Pablo & Lidia : Actually the last place we stayed, we loved this place the best! The character of the house is colonial and elegant with some small quirky charms and a rooftop for relaxing. The location is absolutely prime in Habana Vieja, yet just nestled into the building enough to be free from noise off the street. The breakfast was perfect and their help grabbing a last minute airport taxi in the early morning was a lifesaver.

Boutique Hotel Ambos Mundos : Claimed to have housed Ernest Hemingway, this Spanish Colonial hotel is in a fantastic location. Minutes from the pier and smack in the middle of Habana Vieja, you can wander for hours with your accommodation as the center-point. It has a downstairs restaurant and the rooftop bar is the best I’ve found for watching a sunset so far. Another key pro… it offers coveted WIFI connection. {more about this below}

– Where to Eat & Drink-

“Paladar” : Mostly family-run businesses, paladares are the counterpart to state-run restaurants. They’re run by self-employers instead of the government and are perfect for a more local experience and traditional homemade Cuban food.

Sia-kara Cafe : I ADORE this small café we dipped into on a whim. The tarnished sign painted on the wall outside is hardly legible, so mapping it out ahead of time and asking around once you’re near is your best bet for finding it. It’s vintage charm drew me in and it’s espresso stole my heart.

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Cafe Oreilly : A more modern coffee shop with a nice lunch menu downstairs & a whiskey bar up the spiral staircase. 

La Bodeguita del Medio : This place claims to have made the original mojito and to also have been a popular drinking spot for Ernest Hemingway. It’s probably the most popular cafe in the city, which draws a lot of attention. If crowds and a wait aren’t your thing, just pass by and pop your head in.

Restaurante Farmacia : Great mojito selection and location for a patio sit-down.

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Paladar San Cristobal : This restaurant was across the street from our first accommodation and we wanted to visit the entire time. We finally tried to stop by on our last night and it was packed full. The waitstaff instructed that we needed reservations, as they only allow a certain capacity each evening. I can’t say whether the food is as good as it looked, but it was certainly a top choice among locals and tourists alike.

– What to Know –

  • National Dish : ‘Ropa Vieja’ – a stew-type dish containing shredded beef, peppers, onions, and spices served over rice.
  • National Drink(s) : Rum, Mojito, Daiquiri, Cuba Libre
  • Currency : Cuba has two forms of currency – the Convertible Peso (CUC) & the national Peso (CUP). Tourists are given the CUC and it’s accepted everywhere, but you will get better ‘deals’ by using the CUP. Ask for change back from vendors and taxis in this currency since exchange booths won’t give it.
  • Exchange & ATMs : Credit cards from any country are not accepted anywhere, same with US ATM cards. This may change soon as tourism is rapidly growing, but it’s smartest to bring extra cash for the whole trip and exchange it at the airport or at booths. *Bring more than you think you’ll need: we spent about $800 per person for 11 days.
  • WIFI : This is the main cause of anxiety for people traveling to Cuba. However, wifi is actually available for a fee in certain hotels and key points of major cities. One can log into Wifi by purchasing a Nauta card (Nauta cards are sold by the only Cuban phone company, named ETECSA) which is good for 1 hour.
  • Tipping : 10% is the rule of thumb in restaurants, but the country has not yet grasped the true definition of a tip. It seems that everyone doing any sort of service from singing to giving directions will demand a tip, though tipping is traditionally voluntary. A tenant will guard the restrooms and allow you in but will ask for a tip when you exit and will often get upset if you don’t give it. Some may not give paper when you enter if you don’t pay something in advance.
  • Bargaining is generally acceptable… for taxis and shopping. Casas, restaurants, and museums are usually standard rates.
  • Wandering pays off : There are plenty of recommendations in guidebooks for top spots to see in Havana. However, the best part of Havana is the overall personality and liveliness of the city. I recommend putting the map down and roaming the streets, peeking into alleys and down any interesting streets.
  • Practice your Spanish : If you already speak the language, great! You’ll get along easily since it’s the native tongue. If you don’t, don’t be shy! Any little bit helps when trying to communicate your needs or directions, and locals will greatly appreciate the effort.
  • Ask for help : Don’t be afraid to ask a local for help if you’re lost. Cubans are some of the friendliest and hospitable people I’ve ever met!

“Cuba junky” app – a great app for finding and booking casas with their description, ratings, and directions. Keep in mind, you’ll need an international phone that has service in Cuba to be able to book via the app off wifi.

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Part II coming soon!


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