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Havana: A Destination Guide

Introduction

 

I’ve always had a sort of curiosity about Cuba and I’m big into the country count so a mere 90 miles off the coast of Florida seemed too close not to.  It’s true what they say it truly is frozen in time and it’s completely captivating as a result.

Know Before You Go 

  • Currency – There are two different types of currencies in Cuba, the Cuban Peso, CUP and the Cuban Convertible Peso CUC.  Tourism is conducted pretty much exclusively in CUCs
  • Credit Cards vs. Cash –  Unfortunately, American credit cards and debit cards won’t work/ aren’t acceptable so you’re going to need to bring enough cash to cover your for the duration of your journey. Once you land in Cuba, you can find a Currency Exchange counter at the airport or exchange money at the Hotel Nacional.
  • Transportation to/ from the Airport
    • Taxi – My Airbnb arranged a taxi to come pick me up at the airport.  I found this to be super convenient. I told my Airbnb host that I would be exchanging money and the taxi driver came into the currency exchange area looking for me, carrying a sign with my name on it.  The taxi was about 35 CUC to get to where I was staying in central Havana.  The price was negotiated beforehand with the Airbnb and I just paid the driver once we arrived. There were however a line of taxis waiting in front of the airport, so I would imagine it would be relatively easy to just jump in one curbside as well.  
  • Language – Spanish is the official language in Cuba. While it’s definitely easier if you speak/ can understand Spanish or another Latin language, you can get around with English. While it might be challenging at times, you can make it work in Havana at least. People are unbelievably friendly though so whenever we had an issue we just went into a bar or to our Airbnb host and asked for help.
  • Wifi – Internet is very hard to come by in Cuba.  You can buy internet passes which look like calling cards but for the amount of time you get on them they’re super expensive.  Service is very spotty and only available in certain areas, often by large hotels.  You’ll know it when you see it – people are stopped in their tracks and are on their phone.  There are usually people selling cards in those locations as well.  
  • Getting around
    • Download a Guide – Definitely download an offline map app before you go and download maps of where you’ll be.  We downloaded Havana from maps.com  and pinned all of the recommendations that we’re given to us in advance which it made it super easy to get around.   The pin even follows you around in real time like you’re using Google maps – blew my mind.  
    • Modes of Transportation – We mostly walked although at times we took rickshaws, tuktuks and of course the old fashioned cars.  In almost every case to get from one part of the center to the other we ended up paying about 15 CUC, it was unclear whether that’s because there were 3 of us or because that was the going rate.  Whenever anyone quoted more we attempted to negotiate back to 15 CUC.  
  • City guides
    • I used Lonely Planet Cuba and thought it was relatively helpful.  Especially with the lack of internet access it was nice to have a low tech option on hand to look up context or where to go next.  
    • La Habana is apparently a local city guide that’s released monthly (I didn’t see it in my recs until after the trip but wish I had downloaded it). Click here for more information. 
  • Must Eat/Drink –  Home of the mojito, virtually every couple of blocks you’ll pass an amazing bar where everyone inside is drinking one – jump in and join them.  
  • Things to pack 
    • Medicine – Stomach medicine like Imodium and Pepto Bismol. As you can imagine, finding medicine from home will be tough to come by in Cuba.
    • Snacks!! Especially of the breakfast variety e.g. Granola bars.  I found grab-and go-breakfast options and travel snacks hard to come by – I wished I had supplies at the ready.  
    • Hand sanitizer & toilet paper –  a lot of the public bathrooms don’t have toilet paper and when they do it’s quiet sparring. I carried a roll around with me everywhere I went.
    • If you’re staying in an airbnb like I was, I suggest bringing a travel towel/blanket (bedding was minimal and I liked having reinforcements).
L-R: My Cuba travel pack, Crowds gathered at a wifi spot, Taxis in Havana

Skip Ahead:

See & Do

Havana

The city is divided into 3 main areas of attraction:

  • Old Havana (Habana Vieja) – lively historic district with Colonial-era houses
  • Central Havana (Centro Habana) – a bit quieter, more local
  • Vedado – slightly more modern quarter, where the Hotel Nacionale is

 

We basically just meandered through the winding streets in awe of the colorful buildings and cars taking a million pictures of both.  But here are some noteworthy stops along the way:

  • Malecon – A beautiful seaside promenade. Definitely take a stroll along it (avoiding parts where the tide comes up and splashes), but equally fun to hail a convertible old fashioned car and have them drive you along the boulevard.  I did both!
  • Museo de la Revolución – Historical museum detailing Cuba’s history, with especial focus on Castro. Admission is CUC 5. Located in Old Havana, it is housed in what was the Presidential Palace up until 1959. The museum has two parts, an indoor space, where you’ll find artwork and displays, and an outdoor exhibit, which hosts several planes, boats, tanks, and other vehicles significant to Cuban history. Worth the experience.  
L-R: Sunset over Malecon, Driving by the coast, Inside the Museo de la Revolución, Outdoor exhibit at the Museo de la Revolución
  • Plaza Vieja – Very charming piazza filled with live music in the evenings and people sipping on cocktails. Located in Old Havana, the plaza was built in the 1559 and called “Plaza Vieja”. Over time, it has served numerous functions, from an open-air market, to host to an underground parking lot (regrettably). Today, the space is a vibrant central gathering space, with several cafes, a fenced in fountain, and even a microbrewery.
  • Hotel Nationale – If you’re checking out the Vedado neighborhood Hotel Nationale could be an easy pit stop.  The historic hotel has hosted many notable guests over the years ranging from movie stars to mafia.  There’s a terrace bar in the back that looks out over the Malecon where we grabbed a quick drink and took in the view, but what you’re paying for is that view, plastic chairs and tables adorn the cafe, with standard drinks served in standard glassware.  A nice to see but not a must in my opinion.
L-R: Plaza Vieja at night from above, A bustling cafe scene at Plaza Vieja, The famed Hotel Nacional, Seaside view from the Hotel Nacional

Viñales

Viñales is the westernmost region and is where the tobacco plantations are. It’s about a 3hr drive from Havana. Mostly highway driving aside from the last half hour or so, which are smaller country roads. I absolutely loved this portion of the trip and can’t recommend it enough.  

  • Getting there from Havana The Airbnb host hired a shared taxi (“taxi colectivo”) for us, which functioned similar to Uber Pool (without the app) and is pretty common there.  The cost of the shared taxi was 65 CUC for the three of us.  It was an old fashioned station wagon and while incredibly charming, it was very uncomfortable for such a long trip.  On the way back we sprung for the private car 100 CUC and it was well worth the expense.  
  • Biking – There are tons of outdoorsy activities possible including horseback riding, hiking and mountain biking.  We opted for biking because we wanted to cover a substantial area in the short amount of time we had.  We went up to a guest house, Casa de Don Tomas, and asked where we could rent bikes.  The woman who worked there called one of her friends who owned another guest house in the area and they walked three bikes over to us within 10 minutes.  Everything seemed to work like that there and it was relatively painless.  The bikes cost about 10 CUC a person for as many hours as we wanted.  They then pointed us in the direction of the tobacco farms and off we went.  There are some really nice trails, which if you follow them around basically make a clear loop.  We passed several other hikers and horseback riders in the process so asking directions and recommendations was very easy.  
  • We passed a tiny little baseball stadium with a game on, as we were heading out of the town and into the fields.  We didn’t have much time, but would have loved to hang around.
  • Cigars – We passed one Tobacco farm as soon as we set off on the trail and the farmer invited us to come see how they roll their cigars which we did.  It was really interesting to see the farm and chat with the farmer and his wife, who were very friendly and welcoming, about the curing and drying process.  To thank them for their time we purchased three cigars for only a couple of CUCs.  
L-R: Walking and biking trails, Trails running by the water, Bar off the side of the trail, Tobacco farms

Drink

While I was visiting, I exclusively ordered mojitos or beer. The main beer brand there is called Cristal – it’s super light, a very easy drinking lager. Whenever they mojitos with fruit I had them with fruit I had ordered the flavored ones (watermelon and passion fruit were popular options) otherwise I just ordered the standard version.

  • La Lluvia de Oro – My favorite bar laid back bar with great old world atmosphere.   We ordered a couple of mojitos and enjoyed watching and then dancing with the band that was playing.  
  • Azucar – Lovely lounge bar overlooking Plaza Vieja with another live band. Have a fruit infused mojito – you won’t regret it!
  • El Cocinero – Stunning bar right next to Fabrica de Arte Cubano (another spot which also came highly recommended but was closed for the month we were there). 
L-R: La Lluvia de Oro, Dancing with the band at La Lluvia de Oro,  A margarita at Azucar, El Cocinero

Eat

The best restaurants in Havana are Paladars, basically tiny eateries run in locals’ homes.  While it’s possible just to walk in places I would recommend making sure you have places scouted out in advance and make reservations as much as possible.  Restaurants are small and the popular ones book up well in advance. 

  • Somos – My favorite traditional Paladar.  Family run, the owner is the nicest guy you’ll ever meet and takes tremendous pride in his food.  In the short time we were in Havana we went there twice!  They give you a variety of options including fish, vegetarian and chicken –  we went chicken both times because it was just that good.  He gives you a huge plate with rice, beans, fruit, and a salad plus a large portion of chicken in a delicious sauce all for about 12 CUC per person including soft drinks and dessert.
  • El Dandy – Great stop for tacos, enjoyable vibe and buzz about it.  We ordered the pork tacos, which came with amazing beans.   Small portions but great for a snack.  
  • 304 O’Reilly – Super cute, great atmosphere.  We ordered the grilled lobster and some appetizers along with the fruit mojitos which came in large mason jars.  Our meal cost about 20-30 CUC per person, depending on how many mojitos each person ordered.
  • La Guardia – Came highly recommended but we couldn’t get in without a reservation.  Place looked beautiful, very old world, tucked away in a building where you’d never know it was hiding. Check their website for details on reservations. 
L-R: My fantastic chicken dish at Somos, Exterior of El Dandy, Drinks and snacks at 304 O’Reilly, La Guardia

Stay

  • Airbnb – I would recommend staying at an Airbnb over a hotel.  Old Havana is probably most convenient although Central Havana is certainly walkable. We stayed at a wonderful Airbnb in Central Havana which was about a 15 minute walk to the Old city.  I loved our hosts who were there for anything we needed and also happy to sit around the table and talk about culture, food and life which was really interesting.  We shared 1 modest room amongst 3 people with a bathroom for $30/night. Airbnb link here.
  • Hotels – Ever since Cuba opened its borders to visitors from the United States, American hotel chains have rushed to set up shop in the country. Though many European hotel brands have long been in operation, most of the amenities at hotels in Cuba may not be at the level one might expect in comparison to hotels in other countries, and tend to be fairly pricey. Some popular hotels include Hotel NH Capri, Iberostar Parque Central, Four Points by Sheraton Cuba, and of course, the famed Hotel Nacional.
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