I did the research before going to Havana, both concerning my travel plans and the history of the island. However, no amount of research could have prepared me for my four days in Havana, Cuba. Everything you’ve probably heard is true–the Malecon is beautiful, the buildings are colorful, and classic cars are mesmerizing even for those not typically interested in cars (like me). The architecture, remnant of Cuba’s colonial past, is striking, and the rum flows freely and cheaply. However, there is a general sense of disrepair in everything. The paint is chipped and fading, the streets and sidewalks are broken in many places, and the people linger outside, clinging to their community in the fresh, Caribbean air. As a woman walking on her own, there was not a time that I passed a man or a group of men without being spoken to or kissed at. And when you pass the paques, they glow with the laptops and phones connected to the island’s limited wifi. It’s a strange place, but no one can really tell you how it’s strange. You simple have to experience it for yourself.
Street art in Havana Vieja.
cuban visas for americans
Although travel to Cuba is finally open to the Americans, that doesn’t mean the US. government is happy about you hopping down to the Caribbean Island for a vacation. I assumed it would be pretty easy when I bought my flights, but then I freaked myself out, trying to verify the paperwork and information I needed to have with me for the visa. But relax. From my experience, the visa is nothing but something you have to pay for and not lose while you are in Cuba. I applied for visa under “Support for the Cuban People” as did several other Americans I spoke to. Go to Cuba Visa Services, buy and have the visa mailed to you. Don’t fill it out, and make sure you pack it for your trip. From there, just follow the instructions given to you by the airport and Cuban immigration. Note, I went to Mexico after Cuba, so I’m not sure if the US immigration presses you about the visa. BUT, the nice woman I spoke to at Cuba Visa Services just said to not mention holiday, vacation, the beach, etc. Basically, don’t be a dumbass. ALSO, I flew American Airlines, and I bought my visa from Cuba Visa Service through AA because they give you a nice discount: $80 for a $150 visa.
*travel date was February 2017
There is a lot of information out there about Cuban currency, so here is my English Major summary of the economics. A CUC (Peso Cuban Convertible) is what you will get at the airport. 1 CUC is about 1 USD. The national currency that the Cuban people have is the CUP (Cuban Peso). 1 CUP is worth about 24 CUC. If you buy street food or take the “machine” (see below under transportation) the locals will make change in CUP. But a lot of tourist-places won’t accept CUP, so be mindful of that. Some of the really touristy places, accept USD and Euros and credit cards. Be careful with this as well because they estimate the exchange rate in their favor.
A street near my hostel in Vadado.
where i stayed
I stayed at Hostel Casa de Ania in Vadado, near the Havana University. They were great and help arrange your travel. I got a cab from the hostel to the airport, and the front desk helped me negotiate a cheaper price. Other residents–lucky dogs–were planning trips to Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba, etc, and the hostel helps arrange shared rides to those places so the trip only cost $15 to $20 USD.
Warning about AirBNBs: I heard several horror stories from other visitors to Havana about their AirBNBs, from the location people rented not even existing to the host being completely absent and unreachable at the time of arrival. Remember that Cuba is a discounted country, so if you are going to use AirBNB, make sure you get a phone number for your host; don’t depend on the app because it literally will not work in Cuba.
Taking cabs around Havana can get expensive. Lucky for me, I had my friend who, by the time I arrived, was pretty well versed in how to get around cheaply. Along Calle de Neptuno, you can hail a car–not a marked car, just a random car that is packed with people that will stop when it sees you–and you tell the driver where you’re going. If your drop off is convenient for them, they will nod you in. I paid 1 CUC for each ride, about 1 USD. Not only was it cheap, but taking the machine gave me a sense of community and empowerment.
A classic car driving the Malecon.
get on wifi
It’s tricky, but not impossible. Though I managed, I’m not an expert. Here are better resources than me:
- All WiFi spots in Havana on a map
- How to Get Internet and WiFi in Cuba
- What you need to know about wifi and Internet in Cuba
what to do in havana centro
- I’d suggest your first stop on Havana Centro be the Saratoga Hotel. It’s a green building on the corner past El Capitolio if El Capitolio is on your right. From there, you can buy tickets to Partagas Cigar Factory and meet a free walking tour of Havana at 11 (I think it’s at 11; I never made it there close to 11, so I missed the walking tour.)
- El Capitolio
- Havana’s Gran Teatro
- Museo de la Revolucion
- Partagas Cigar Factory
what to do in havana vieja
- Plaza de Armas
- Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña—canon firing ceremony
- La Catedral de la Virgen Maria de la Concepcion Inmaculada
- The Plaza de la Catedral
- Peruse Almacenes de Depósito San José—arts and crafts fair
what to do in vadado
- If you are around Vadado, try to find a Havana University student to talk about their studies.
- Havana Libre, the hotel synonymous with the Cuban Revolution, in nearby, which is useful for questions, currency exchange and finding a cab (if the machine freaks you out).
- Cabaret Parisien–beautiful hotel
- Plaza de la Revolucion–the memorial to José Martí and that steel memorial to Che Guevara you see everywhere.
- Callejon de Hamel–open-air art gallery
- Opera de la Calle—showcase of Havana talent
One of Hemingway’s offices at Finca Vigia
what to do outside of havana
- Finca Vigia was Papa Hemingway’s house
- Marina Hemingway
- José Fúster/ Fusterlandia
- Tropicana nightclub (Salon Bajo Las Estrellas)
- Yes, beaches are a big thing in Cuba. But I didn’t venture there in my limited time. But I’m sure you won’t have any trouble finding information on this on your own.
what to eat + drink
- Fabrica de Arte Cubano–Really fun night with several stages of live music and three floors of Cuban art. Go early (like 8-9 pm) or be prepared for long line.
- Cabaret Turquino—dinner, views and open-air dancing
- Torre Restaurant—dinner and views
- Casa Miglis–good food
- Casa de la Musica–music and dance
- La Bodeguita de Medio—Hemingway’s mojito with great food.
- El Floridita—Hemingway’s daiquiri (and tourist trap, but still worth going)
- Cerveceria Antroguo
- The Lonely Planet’s Guide to Cuba
- How to Travel to Cuba: Guide for Americans
- 40 Things You Must Know Before Traveling to Cuba
- 14 Best Things to Do in Cuba Before it Changes
- 18 Things to See and Do in Havana
- Hemingway in Cuba
- 10 of the Coolest Things to Do in Cuba
Download Google Trips! I used it for the first time in Cuba and it was fantastic with offline maps and offline self-guided tours.