GUIDE TO HAVANA
Guide for the best of Havana and highlights of Cuba
Cuba is one of those rare places that can't be pinned down and no amount of pre-planning will be sufficient since nothing is what it seems. Enjoy the adventure and be open to the unexpected.
Preparing for Cuba
Before You Go
1. Visa. Many countries have visa requirements for Turkey, if you go through Mexico, it's a simple process and airport officials take care of it while you're in line to board your flight (for a fee).
2. Currency. American credit and debit cards will not work in Cuba. The best currency rates were found in local casas with the hosts, however, do exchange some money at the airport for the taxi ride. Most visitors report better rates exchanging from Euros or British Pounds instead of US Dollars. There are two types of currency in Cuba, the The National Peso (CUP), and the Convertible Peso (CUC), and confusingly, both are referred to as "peso." Tourists typically use the CUC and have an easier time, although I've heard of travelers using the CUP to enjoy the local experience and local foods.
3. Tours and Excursions. You can book tours and vintage car rides when you arrive, however, it's a good idea to look up prices and frequency ahead of time to go into your haggling with some preparation.
4. Snacks. Take some of your favorites with you. Power bars, nuts, and other snacks will get you far and come in handy if you can't find a quick bite to eat.
5. Technology. Don't expect too much. Print documents before you get there and don't plan to rely on your phone at all. Internet cards and internet hotspots are somewhat stable but not very common. Also, don't forget memory cards, camera tools etc, do not expect to buy things like that in Havana.
6. Spanish. Learning some basic Spanish will go a long way, brush up using Duolingo.
7. Trading. Many people will ask to trade for goods and services. If I were to return, I'd travel with some gently used sneakers, electronics, and other items, even to leave as gifts for the generous casa staff.
8. Scams. You'll be approached but very friendly people who are inquisitive and insistent on taking you to their favorite joints, be firm and walk away. Known as jineteros, "jockeys," but more correctly "street hustlers." Overall, Cuba is safe, but scammers are all around and very good.
9. First Aid kit and tissues. Some basic necessities will help since it's hard to find those things in Havana. Women: bring your own menstrual supplies. Important: While in Havana, for any important needs, medical, wifi, etc, visit Hotel Sevilla, National Hotel, or Hotel Havana Libre. These major hotels have all the important necessities for visitors and are very helpful.
10. Adapters. US sockets so no adapters needed if visiting with US electronics.
Where to Sleep
There are a range of accommodation options, with the most popular being Casa Particulars.
1. Casa Particulars/B&Bs. Many websites offer a selection of casas to choose from and they come in varying levels of comfort. Keep in mind that AC's are not common in Cuba and most mean "high powered fans." Water temperatures are also not standard. Usually a home prepared breakfast is included in these prices. Make sure to read reviews thoroughly and be prepared for the unexpected.
2. Hotels. There are limited offerings in Havana but are all pricey and government owned. Some of the most popular are Hotel Sevilla, National Hotel, and Hotel Havana Libre.
What to See and Do in Havana
While most tourists stick to Old and Central Havana, leave time to venture into Vedado and other neighborhoods to get a feel for the other side of Havana.
-Plaza de la Catedral
-Plaza de Armas (vintage and book stalls closed Sundays)
-Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revolución)
2. Centro Habana
-Grand Theater of Havana
-Museum of Fine Arts (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana)
3. Sunset on the Malecón.
4. Vintage Car Tour. Around $50 per person, be sure to negotiate prices before getting in the car, and do not add anything on to the ride once you're in the car.
5. Drinks at the National Hotel.
6. Mansions in Vedado and Miramar
7. Fabrica de Arte. Art and performance space in an old oil factory and now one of the coolest places to hang out.
8. Four Plazas of the Revolucion
9. Santa Maria Beach
10. Fusterlandia. A neighborhood of tilework and street art.
11. Cayo Hueso & Callejón de Hamel. Visit on Sundays for live music and dancing.
12. Castillo del Morro. Great for sunset views.
13. Salsa. Many options for watching salsa, the best being the local establishments. More popular options include: Casa de la Música de Miramar, Don Cangrejo, and Salon Rosado de la Tropical Benny More.
14. For Hemingway enthusiasts: Cojimar, Finca Vigía, Hotel Ambos Mundos, and La Floridita.
Where to Eat
Eating in Havana
Traditional Cuban fare is rice, beans, and pork with seafood and beef being rarer. Many paladares, private owned restaurants, have opened up in recent years making the food scene more interesting.
-Sloppy Joe's Havana Bar. Cuba invented the Sloppy Joe and you kind find the Cuban spin here.
-El Cocinero. A hipster favorite, and located in the same abandoned factory as the artsy La Fabrica.
-Los Naranjos. Cuban fusion and live music.
-La Guarida. Make reservations, one of the most popular and priciest of paladares.
-Amigos del Mar. For seafood.
-San Cristóbal. Known for desserts.
-Dulcería Bianchini. Long standing Cuban favorite for pastries.
-Helad’oro. For ice cream.
Outside of Havana
Leave enough time for one or more trips outside of the busy city. Tourist buses are convenient and cheap to ride, with the most popular being Víazul. Collectivos (shared Taxi's) are also an option but keep in mind that they're not comfortable on long journeys and will most likely to be a full car with no AC.
1. Viñales. Many spend more than a day here for good reason; horseback riding, rock climbing, limestone caves, and good country living.
2. Playas del Este. A few beaches to choose from, with Santa María being the most popular.
3. Varadero. The most popular beach getaway, for good reason, with clear waters and soft white sand.
4. Las Terrazas and Soroa. A beautiful ecological reserve, transportation can be booked via Cubatur.
Other Destinations in Cuba:
-Baracoa. Popular for hiking and it's laid back beach life.
-Trinidad. Well preserved and still looks like it did in the 1800s, full of colorful colonial buildings and only accessible by foot or by horse. For a beach fix, there's the popular Playa Ancon nearby.
-Playa Paraíso. The ulitimate beach getaway.
-Santa Clara. Revolutionary history and Che Guevara's final resting place.
-Cienfuegos. The coastal "Pearl of South" and heavily French influenced.