Everything You Need to Know Before You Head to Havana, Cuba!
Okay here it is! The highly anticipated guide to everything you need to know for your trip to Havana, Cuba!
1. Block time off in your calendar. 2. Breathe... 3. read!
Now if you follow me or keep up with my blog you know that I like to give the REAL DEAL. When I travel I try my hardest to skip super touristy spots and really try to ask locals where to go and what to do to truly experience the culture. So be prepared for that!
Vince (@vincejamael) and I spent 4 days and 4 nights in Havana, Cuba which was just enough time to explore the city. If you want to do more than one place, I suggest staying at least 6 days so that you can truly experience everything.
First things first let me give you a little background on Cuba. I feel like so many bloggers post pretty pictures and where to go, but hardly any tell you what would be helpful to know and research before you go so that you aren’t completely oblivious of the political climate.
History lesson – it will be quick I promise:
In 1958 the US implemented an embargo on Cuba, prohibiting all foreign trade between the US and Cuba. This is why you will see only American cars made before 1958, they keep them up using other car parts and pieces. It is not uncommon to see an old American car broken down on the side of the road for a few seconds, or for your driver to stop and put oil in the car quickly. Don’t trip it is totally normal! Also you will see newer cars they are just not American made.
Fast forward to the Obama era (in denial that it is over) in efforts of mending relations with Cuba, B.O. decided to loosen the strict restraints on the embargo therefore allowing Americans to travel DIRECTLY from the US to Cuba under certain a generic license. Aside from travel, if things go well this could yield great opportunities for Cuba as a nation.
How to get there – just get on the plane! No, Seriously…
With the Embargo loosened there are direct flights from JFK, Charlotte, Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale etc. by way of Jet Blue, Delta, and America straight into Havana. You can buy a visa at the gate after you check in. It was around $50 USD for me on Delta. It’s really not a big deal. Go to the airport, check in like normal and when you get to the gate they (official Delta peeps) will come around selling visas. DON’T lose this piece of paper. You need it to get into Cuba and more importantly back into the US if you are not planning on staying there for good.
Now for the 12 categories thing. Let me explain. You know that embargo I was talking about? Okay so now the government lifted the embargo a little, traveling to Cuba is permitted by general license for certain travel related activities. Basically what this means is that it is still not technically legal for Americans (yes only us, Europeans and everyone else have been going to Cuba, we’re late) to be TOURISTS in Cuba. Who said I was a tourist? I told you I live like the locals, right?
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
- Certain authorized export transactions.
As you can see they are very vague. Literally all you do is pick which one “best suits your travel reasons” and write it down on your visa paper, sign your name pay your 50 bucks and BAM you are on the plan, on your way to “not vacation”.
I chose journalism as my category for obvious reasons. Seriously no one in Cuba was checking for me, when I came back to the US and skipped the dreadful customs line (get the mobile passport app now if you haven’t already) no one asked us a thing.
Delta has even made this super easy FAQs page to help you get through the process. Trust me don’t stress about it at all!
Okay now on to what you really care about…
There are 3 major Areas of Havana:
Havana Vieja (Old Town)
Vedado (New Havana)
All of them are so very different in their own ways but equally interesting to visit. I suggest walking around all 3 to get a feel of the culture and to discover local spots along the way. Generally, Cuba felt safe walking around during the day and at night. Like always be cautious and aware. Practice normal travel safety and don’t commit obviously touristy acts (Don’t go prancing around with your DSLR around your neck or iPhone held high) and you will be fine.
Where to stay:
Again, you know how I like to travel, submerged right into the local culture. This is why we stayed with a Cuban family in a Casa Particular. Casa Particulars are very popular all over Cuba and most houses rent out rooms to couples or 2-4 people traveling together. If you are going in a larger group, it might be best to get a hotel or try your hand at Airbnb. Keep in mind Cuba is still a developing country, don’t expect lavish luxury. We stayed in a simple room with AC, our own private bathroom and a living room and balcony right off the room. Casa Particulars are regulated by the government, don’t worry it is legit. They may ask you for your passport to write your info for their records. Don’t fret it’s standard protocol. Cuba Junky is an app that is about $5 (worth it!) and has tons of Casa Particular houses and rooms to choose from. You will communicate with them over email, don’t get frustrated if they are not super responsive. WIFI in Cuba is not a commodity, so relax.
Our hosts were awesome. We had a Cuban breakfast served each morning and they helped us with directions and even reservations for restaurants. To me this is the best way to do Cuba it is more authentic and just a fun experience.
If you do go to the hotel route (totally fine) just expect what would be a 2-3.5 start hotel in the states even for the nicest most touristy ones. Again this is CUBA!
Money – listen up!
If you are coming from the states, transfer your USD to EUR or CAD before leaving the US. Do this at your bank to avoid being ripped off at the airport. Once you get to Cuba convert your EUR or CAD to the local currency, you can do this at the Havana airport but expect a line. They do not accept USD in Cuba. Period. Remember Americans aren’t technically supposed be “touring there” which means spending money. That was the point of the Embargo. There are also no (not that I had seen) ATMs there. You need to take plenty of cash, more than what you think you will need because once you run out of cash that is it! I took $400 for the home stay, cabs, food, drinks, souvenirs etc. I would recommend 100-150 a day just to be safe. Of course you don’t have to spend that much a day but just for security and so that you are able to enjoy without worrying about running out of money. Make a daily budget and stick to it.
There are two currencies:
1. CUC – most commonly used by tourist. 1 CUC = 1 USD so the conversion requires no math!
2. CUP – mostly used by the locals. .25 CUP = 1 USD
Just be sure in transactions that you are both speaking the same currency. Most Cubans will know that you are a tourist and will use CUC.
Mojitos: 2-5CUC depending on where you go
Local beer (Cristobal): 1-2CUC
Bottled Water: 1CUC
Cabs: 5-10CUC around Havana with negotiation. Keep in mind everything is about 1-2 miles from each other, so if you want to save cash – walk!
Meals: 6-15CUC depending on how fancy you dine, I stuck to mostly local joints where drinks and dinner ran me about 10CUC total
Wifi/Internet – don’t even bother! Disconnect and enjoy.
Wifi in Cuba is very, VERY limited.
The government controls the internet and is actually illegal for civilians to have Wifi in their homes. Knowledge is power, so it is just another way to keep their people from being overly informed by ways other than the government. It’s quite crazy.
Once you walk around and get your bearings you will notice large groups of people just standing around on their phones, this is a park where there is a Wi-Fi connection from a business or hotel. You have to buy a card to log on (you can get this at the airport, or from a local in the park) average price is 2 CUC for 1 hour. No guarantee that you will actually connect, so good luck! Alternatively, can go to the big hotels like Hotel Florida, Hotel Habana Libre and Hotel Inglaterra and pay 5CUC for 1 hour. Mind you 5 CUC can get you 1-3 Mojitos depending on where you go. Guess it depends on how much you value wifi. My advice: don’t spend all of your time stressing to connect to Wifi, IG and snapchat can wait – trust me.
Communicating – habla Espanol?
I always think its respectful to know some words in the language of any country you are visiting. Don’t always assume everyone speaks English. People don’t come to US not knowing how to say “hello” and “thank you”. I am not saying you have to be fluent in Spanish but know common phrases. It will take you a long way and will just show the people of Cuba you are trying to experience their culture and not being so completely American. It won’t kill you to brush up on your Spanish and write a few words down in your notes to reference.
Also download the google translator app and select “use offline” for Spanish. That way without Wifi you can still translate. Life saver I know.
To Tour guide or to not? – that is the question!
There are a lot of locals who are fluent in English and showing tourists around is their job. If you are the kind of travel that wants no hassle and someone to guide you everywhere, go for the tour guide route. Just to caution a lot of the guides will point you into the more touristy places i.e. Buena Vista Social Club which will run you about 60CUC for food, show and drinks. I would strongly recommend stepping out of your comfort zone and exploring on your own. It is totally worth it and safe. Locals are super nice so if you need help you can just ask someone on the street or at a restaurant/museum etc. to get you back on track. Don’t be afraid of getting lost!
Getting around - uber who?
Our house was in Central Havana so it was easy to walk to both old and new, between 10-20 min depending on where you want to go. I live in NY so walking is nothing but if you aren’t used to getting in 5-10K+ steps a day everything is a $5-$10 cab (old car) away – just negotiate.
Download the offline maps app Galielo – don’t be cheap this $3 maps app will save your life I PROMISE! It uses Bluetooth to track where you are and will show you the little blue Google type of dot. Enter in the locations you want to go to, save them and start walking! The arrow will show you if you are going the right way or not. I also used this for cabs, I would show them the address and map on my phone and they would take me right there. Save and write down the address of where you are staying. It will eliminate a lot of confusion. This map made our trip 10x better, we knew where we wanted to go and how to get there. Walking and figuring out on your own allows you to become more comfortable with the area and feel more familiar and self-sufficient vs. relying on someone to tell you how to get to every single place. It build character!
What to do – just a few things to get you started:
Walk walk walk! Trust me you will learn and discover so much just by walking.
Malecón – a major roadway/seawall that spans most of Havana. walk along it or hire an old convertible to ride down the highway and enjoy the breeze. At night this is a chill place to enjoy the sunset, sit on the wall with a bottle of Havana Club and listen to the music around you while you people watch.
Callejón de Hamel – this is a street near Vedado that celebrates Afro-Cuban. On Sundays from 12-3ish there is a huge party with music drinks, drums and art! Drink the Bilongo an old local Cuban drink with rum, lemon and honey. Some locals may try to give you a tour and explain the art. It is totally fine but if they ask for money at the end you don’t have to pay for anything you don’t want to.
Ice ceam park Coppelia – there is a separate line for tourist but stroll around the park. It is pretty popular among the locals and offers various types of ice cream. Located in Vedado across from Hotel Habana Libre on Calle 23.
Walk along Avenida Simon (Bolivar) – in central Havana. You will see people working, businesses, the general hustle and bustle of the city. Not much to do but good to see how people live their daily lives in Havana.
Walk down O’Rielly and Prada street very cute and romantic
Plaza de Arms market
Souvenirs – don’t jump at the first thing you see, you will stumble upon dope vintage shops, book stores. So hold off on the cheesy shot glasses, unless you are into that kind of thing (my mom loves them).
Night life - salsa your life away!
La Fabric de Arte (FAC) – I am told that this a super cool hip unique experience in Havana. It is an old factory that has been converted into an art, music club venue. Hard to explain but check it out. Just note it is closed in Jan for renovations (so we missed it L) It is located in an area called Miramar, where a lot of the rich Cubans live. If you have time check out the area and see the huge mansions.
Corner café – live band with a lot of cool trendy kids, gets pretty packed so get there before 12.
Sarao’s Bar – nicer more upscale ~10CUC to get in live band starts at 1am
Obispo street in Havana Viejo –street of bars, live music, drinking walk around here and you will find something to do!
El Pahchanka – bar with live music 2CUC mojitos cool local vibe with writing all over the wall
Where to eat/drink:
The most common dishes in Cuba are: Fish, Chicken, and Pork (A LOT of pork and ham) served with rice, beans and plantains. The food is really dependent on what they have available. There may be lobster on the menu but if they don’t have an abundance of lobster, you get no lobster. Understand?
El Cocinero – right next to FAC, so do these in the same night to avoid more cash in cabs, this is a newer more upscale trendy spot with a rooftop. You will need to make a reservation
El del Frente – loved it here, reminded me of Brooklyn a little. Cool kids, big drinks. Ask for Watson one of the owners – cool dude.
Sia Kara Café – located near the capitol, good food and drinks, another trendy spot that I loved.
Notre Dame des Bijoux – Obama ate here! Traditional Cuban food, very eclectic house, go upstairs and eat on the roof. Great for lunch.
La Gaurdia – I didn’t eat here but it’s on a lot of lists. Supposed to be really yummy and one of the top restaurants in Cuba. You will need a reso here. The building is nice but the plates are super small.
La Cocina de Esteban – Great cheap Ropa Vieja in Vedado also cheap bottles of wine (15-18CUC)
El Dandy in Plaza de Cristo – cute spot for drinks, good vibey music
Art Pub – nothing crazy special but they have HH from 6-7 we paid 1.50 for the best caphrinia’s I’ve had in a while!
Ps. bottled water only!
Buildings / Places to see:
Hotel Nacional – super country clubish and expensive drinks but the building looks like it is straight out of the 40s. Strikingly beautiful and sits on the Malecón
Saratoga Hotel – apparently Bey stayed here
Revolution Square –home to the José Martí Memorial and the mural of El Che and Camilo Cienfuegos, major figures of the Cuban Revolution
Monuments, murals and statues (just walk and you will run into so many of them)
Outside of Havana - quick get aways:
We took a day trip to Viñales, the countryside where the tobacco farms are. They show you how Cuban cigars are made, let you smoke one and take you on a horseback ride through the tobacco fields. The cigars are about 45CUC for 15 at the farm. Don't buy any off of the street.
It takes anywhere from 2-3 hours to get there. It was about 160CUC round trip in an old car. We left at 7am and returned around 7pm. Long day! There are hotels and Casa Particulars there as well if you want to stay a few days. There is plenty to do there if you do make it into a stay; cave tours, cave parties, restaurants.
Viñales was one of our favorite part of the trips. It was so beautiful and slow there. If you go to the coffee and sugar cane farm ask for a guy named LA he's super cool and his english is great.
If you have the time, check out other cities like Trinadad, Santiago de Cuba and Cienfuegos. I hear they are amazing and I definitely will be back to see for my self!
Wait! What about the beaches?
The beaches in Cuba are gorgeous. I mean it is the Caribbean. I limited my trip just to Havana and a day trip to Viñales due to time. It was also when the snow hit the east coast in January so there was a slight cold front (65-70 degree, perfect weather to me). However, there are plenty of options like Santa Maria or Varadero which is more all-inclusive resort type.
What to pack?
For the most part it is super hot. It could rain at any time so be prepared for that. Bring comfortable walking shoes as there is a lot of walking. I wore wedges one the first night then ditched them the rest of the trip, you be the judge.
Bring a converter just in case your Casa doesn't have US outlets.
Spare pack of tissue paper for when you are out, because you never know.
Handsan. and wet wipes
Extra copy of your passport
Travel insurance - I was told you had to have this but no one ever checked. It is good just in case, last thing you want is to be in a Cuban hospital with a bill higher than your trip x3. I used RoamRight.
Check out more sources from a few of my faves before you go:
Suitcase sponsored by: Away Travel
Camera bag sponsored by: Lo and Sons
If you have any questions please leave a comment below or DM me on IG. I am happy to answer questions, provide you with specific names and or contacts! Just ask! If you found this helpful please pin the image below :)
xoxo - Jakiya The Traveling Fro