Visiting Havana has always been a dream for me. The colourful buildings, vibrant culture and vintage cars are all a photographers dream. I wouldn’t say I had high expectations for my visit but I did expect to encounter the “picture perfect” Cuban life that I saw depicted in videos and Instagram photos.
What I actually saw and what I learnt the most from my visit, was actually how uneducated about the history and way of life in Cuba I actually was.
We had planned to visit a lot more places in Cuba during our 9 day trip but were left questioning our trip entirely after Hurricane Irma declared war against the Caribbean. We were due to arrive just 3 days after it hit Cuba and were warned to keep clear of the East of the island, where it has unfortunately hit the hardest. We had to decide whether to go at all and cancel our trip or just to stay in Havana the whole 9 days.
Havana had also experienced 30ft waves; destroying some buildings along the Malecon as well as the Malecon itself. Streets were flooded and half the city had lost electricity. I emailed the Airbnb host the night before who assured me that our street was OK and that we had no flooding or loss of power. So we packed our bags and left for Cuba, with absolutely no idea of what to expect.
We flew with Interjet (my first time flying with them and it has to be one of the best short flights I have ever taken) and even while queueing at the airport for check in, the line was quiet and there was hushed mumbles of people asking where everyone was staying and if it was safe. The plane itself was more than half empty and upon arriving in to Havana Airport, the usual hustle and bustle of people arriving was nothing more than a few groups of people.
TIP: You have to pay for a tourist visa, which costs $20 USD. We were issued this at Cancun Airport before flying. They will fill out the form for you.
While waiting for our luggage to arrive, the power cut out and left us all in complete darkness. A few nervous laughs later and it powered back up, only to cut out again, for even longer. This seemed like a bad start for our 9 day trip but still, we kept positive and when leaving the airport, a German couple found us and asked if we wanted to share a taxi to Havana and share the cost. Great, a usual $25 CUC taxi only cost us half the price!
Ideally I would recommend 3-5 days in Havana for a comfortable stay. I would also recommend that if you are not aware of the Cuban history and way of life, to read up a little before you go. Maybe our stay was tainted a little as we saw the destruction of Irma and the desperation of locals when there was no tourists. Restaurants were empty and for the first few days, I saw hardly any other tourists out and about. Which is great for us but not great for the people who make a living from us.
So here is a little breakdown of things to know before you go to Havana;
CUP is the local currency and CUC is the convertible peso used more for tourists.
I can’t recommend enough to bring either euros or GBP with you to exchange. The USD to CUC conversion rate is RIDICULOUS!
1 USD = 1 CUC
But be aware that there is a 10% penalty charge for converting USD to CUC and then an extra 3% exchange fee. So really, you are loosing money when exchanging with USD.
Also, if you somehow manage to find CUP, it really makes no difference as most of the time you won’t be paying any less. They will still charge you the equivalent CUP to CUC.
A handful of people warned me to bring lots of cash with me. I just gathered this was because ATM machines were probably few and far between but in actual fact, the ATM machines were just fine and easy to use. It’s how quickly you can spend money here that is the problem.
Breakfast – $4-6 CUC
Lunch – $5 -8 CUC ( for a sandwich)
Dinner – $8 CUC
Cuba Libre – $3.50 CUC
Can of Cola – $1 CUC
Taxi from Airport to Havana Central – $25 CUC (they don’t allow private Taxis to pick up from the Airport, so you will need to pay for an official yellow cab)
Museum of the Revolution – $8 CUC
Classic Car Tour – $35/45 CUC (you can haggle with these guys)
I recommend staying in a Casa Particular or booking somewhere through Airbnb. I stayed for 9 nights in a Casa Particular advertised through Airbnb. A cosy double room with en-suite bathroom and aircon for $135 dollars for the whole stay. For an extra $5 each, the family would cook us a HUGE breakfast of toast, omelette, ham, cheese, fruit (pineapple, papaya, mango) cuban cakes, coffee, fruit juice, milk.
While walking the streets of Havana you can see so many buildings with a sign outside, advertising themselves as a Casa Particular; so if you have arrived with no place to stay then these are these are the signs you need to look out for.
Things to do
The beach is about 30 mins from Old Havana (to Santa Maria Beach) and I would recommend going by a colectivo. You need to walk to the train station to find the colectivos that go to the beach and they should cost you around $2 CUC each.
Santa Maria beach itself has beautiful Caribbean waters but the beach itself has to be one of the most littered beaches I have ever seen.
It is covered in empty glass bottles, plastics, food remains, old clothes, broken chairs, discarded pushchairs…It looks like a dumping site for rubbish. I actually saw people in the water drinking beers, then just tossing the empty bottles in the sea.
Callejon de Hamel
This quirky street is a perfect place to visit for those artsy types. It’s an Afro-Cuban art project, many things here are made using recycled materials and the vibe here is very different of that of the surrounding area. The Afro- Cubans are super proud of their roots and culture and it really shows here.
There’s music, bars, shops and lots of art to immerse yourself in.
Tip: Every Sunday between 12pm-4pm you will find this street filled with Rumba dancers and bands. Be aware that this place is notorious for people trying to sell to you or to hassle you, a polite ‘No gracias’ should ease them off.
Totally touristy but totally worth it. There is a square in Old Town where you can find loads of different vintage cars in different colours. You will get hassled a bit by the drivers, who will of course want to sell you their car.
“You want a pink car? But why when you can have my green one?” is how it went. We walked past this square many times during our 9 days in Havana, and every time we were hassled by the sellers, in the end we just steered clear of it all together.
On the second to last day of our trip, we decided to do a car tour and paid $30 CUC for an hour’s drive (which actually went over by 20 minutes in the end) and it was great! Taking you to the revolution square, Havana forest, Cemetary, past the capitol, the John Lennon memorial square…
Havana Vieja/Old Havana
The Oldest part of Havana and arguably the most touristy but the best place to people watch. We bought a bottle of Havana Club Anejo for just $7 CUC and sat on the walls of one of the parks and just watched Cuban way of life unfold before us.
We spoke to locals, bought churros, and listened to the salsa band play behind us. I recommend this option over sitting in a café and sipping a mojito (but you do have to do this at least once!) although their mojitos are AMAZING, a few of them can set you back a few bucks and there is nothing better than doing it like the locals and sitting on the street walls.
Old Havana has endless streets lined with the typical cuban architecture that you’ve seen in all those dreamy Instagram posts. Vintage cars are in abundance and there is enough arts and crafts shops to keep you going for hours. You could probably dedicate a whole day here as there is also many museums to explore too.
I would also recommend a quick mojito in a bar called La Bodeguita del Medio while visiting Old Town.
Museo de la Revolución
Like I mentioned earlier, whether you are clued up or not about Cuba’s history, there is no excuse not to visit this museum. The museum is actually in what used to be the Presidential Palace and still wears some of it’s bullet holes.
Food is actually not as bad as everyone had made out but still wasn’t great. A problem we would always come across, was that most restaurants didn’t have most of the stuff on the menu. Nearly every single café/restaurant we went too, were missing 80% of their menu.
I guess this is just to do with the fact that private restaurants are a completely new thing and trying to acquire certain items in in Cuba is really difficult.
Where to Eat
- Café Brown – The best place we visited for food and drinks. The family is super friendly and helpful and their cocktails list is HUGE and super cheap. We also ate here a few times and the food was delicious! I highly recommend paying this place a visit while in Havana.
- Boulevard ’57 – This is a great square in Havana that has cafes, restaurants, a children’s play area and a bakery. Lots of good choices here for places to eat and drink.
…and that’s it really. We found some other cheap (ish) places but the food was BAD but we never ventured in to the more touristy restaurants. I guess if you pay more then you might get better quality but expect to pay $15-20 CUC+ more.
We also ate at a place in Old Havana called Don Puncho, we met a guy who coaxed us into eating here, selling us the deal of two main meals and a drink for $15CUC each. The food though was beyond terrible for the price, my shrimps and rice took about 45 minutes (we were the only people in the restaurant) and came out rock hard. There are such better places to eat.
If you also want to find cheap places to eat then I recommend eating at “Cafeterias” but again, our experience of the food was pretty bad.
Also…Havana has a CHINA TOWN! Didn’t eat there so can’t comment much but it looked pretty cool! Totally check it out!
My Overall Thoughts
There are now two places so far that have given me that uncomfortable feeling, first Marrakesh and now Havana. There is a huge difference between the two though, the difference being that Marrakesh was a culture shock, my entire senses were pushed to the limits, leaving me feeling overly sensitive to my surroundings.
Havana though, just shocked me. The despair and sadness is seen from the faces of the Cubans to the streets that have been neglected by the government for so many years. Did you know that nearly all Cubans get paid the same amount? Just $35 CUC a month, and that they have their food rationed? It’s 2017 and they actually have food stamp books.
They thrive on tourism and why not? When you can sell a vintage car tour for the same amount as you get in a month for just an hours work. They can be pushy and they can hassle you but that all seemed to come from a place of pure desperation. The streets are filled with rubbish, huge mounds of it just dumped on nearly every street corner, the signs that they are not cared for by a government. The whole city is just like you are stepping back in time.
There was just no way I could feel like I could be a tourist, enjoying myself in a place that was just about hanging on to life.
I want to visit again but I would like to see more of the country itself and to learn more about the history but I think next time, it would just be a flying visit to Havana.