When we found out we were heading to Coachella, we knew we had to make the most of being on that side of the world so we decided to do a stop in Havana, Cuba before heading to Guatemala to visit my family.
I had seen a few photos on lookbooks & Intagram hence my excitement to finally visit! After doing some research I felt a bit wary. I was mostly worried about romanticising the struggles Cubans have endured.
Given the embargo, Cuba has had limited exposure to the outside world and even though this gives cubans a very unique sense of self it has also deprived them of growth. This is what in my opinion makes Cuba’s beauty also very complex and maybe the reason why I struggle to find the right words to describe how unique and special this place is, without feeling conflicted. Most importantly, Havana has a vibrant spirit that you won’t find anywhere else.
Before you travel to Cuba I would recommend learning a bit more about the history and the current political situation. This will help you experience Cuba fully.
What you need to know before your trip to Havana
Since we were in the states we bought our Visa (Tourist Card) at the check in counter from Delta airlines and it was USD$50. Check with your airline beforehand as there are other ways of obtaining your tourist card in advance, depending where you fly from.
There’s 11 travel categories you can choose from, we chose “Support for the cuban people”
By Cuban law everyone requires travel insurance to enter the country. We used our credit card complimentary insurance.
There are 2 currencies in Cuba CUC & CUP. CUC (1 CUC = 1 USD ) is the one for tourists and CUP for the locals. It is also legal for tourists to use CUP but is harder to come across. 1 CUC = 25 CUP
We didn’t bring any cash with us and we only used ATM”s to get CUC. ATM fee was 3% + your bank fees. This was the easiest way for us to get money out.
Please note that American cards are not accepted in Cuba.
Also, if you are taking cash I read that it is better to carry EUR or Pounds to exchange as USD exchanges are subject to an additional 10% tax + the regular 3 % commission fee.
You can exchange money at Cadeca or any of the big banks. There is also an ATM and currency exchange at the airport. Another option is to bring all the cash you need with you.
Getting to Havana
Taxi to and from the airport to old Havana cost us $30 (30CUC). Both times it was arranged by our Airbnb. (Usually they take a commission )
The rumours are true, Wifi in Havana, Cuba is not easy.
Wifi is available at most hotels & some designated public parks. Speed is best in the morning. To access the internet you required a wifi card.
Cheapest way to access the internet in Havana is to buy the pre-paid Nauta (WiFi) card by ETECSA from any of their stores. Expect to wait minimum of 30 min in line for this. Make sure to take your passport with you. You are only allow 3 per person. The card should cost (2019 prices) CUC/$1.00 for one-hour of internet access, I’ve also read there is a 5hr card for $5CUC.
You can also purchase them at a premium price from the hotels without lining up or in some instances some of the cubans will sell them in their house or at the local parks for double the price.
Airbnb’s vs Hotels
We only stayed in Airbnb’s. They are not only the most affordable option but also one of the ways you can support the Cuban people. Even though hosts need to pay most of their income from Airbnb to the government, it is still a way for them to earn an independent income.
We are not the best planners so we tend to book our accomodation last minute, if you are booking well in advanced this Airbnb was on my wish list!
As a couple we always felt safe in Havana. In saying that you should always be vigilant. Don’t trust people who approach you on the streets or taxi drivers. As a general rule don’t accept any unsolicited help or recommendations. Cubans are very friendly but there’s also a lot of people who will take advantage of tourists just like other places. All you have to do is keep your wits about you.
- Save some money and buy water from Harris brothers (Calle O’Reilly No 526) you can get 5L for $2.
- Don’t follow any people who approach you on the street as they will ask for a tip at the end or take you to a place where they get a commission from.
- Bring your own snacks as you won’t find many at the local shops.
- Get to the airport early. There’s usually long lines & wait times. Play it safe and get there early.
- Avoid being scammed by the “cigar/salsa festival” where you might be tricked into buying fake cigars or paying for salsa lessons, another common scam is being asked to buy baby formula for people.
- Pack comfy shoes as you will be doing a lot of walking
- Always negotiate a price in advance and have the right change when getting into a taxi or a bike taxi.
- Map things in advanced. We dowloaded the offline map for Havana and saved a few locations we wanted to visit.
- There is really a lot to explore in Havana. Do your research before hand so you don’t miss out. We came back and regretted not doing more research in terms of restaurants & bars. Remember you won’t have the luxury of just “Googling” something throughout the day.
Things to do in Havana
1. Classic car tour
A tour in a classic car in easily one of the best things to do in Havana. We did this on 3 different occasions. You can opt out of the default city loop tour and go to any specific location you like, just talk to the driver in advance. Prices vary from USD$30 – $50
2. Sunset at Malecón
This was such a wonderful experience. We walked down the sea wall and there were people dancing, fishing, music playing & art displays. Experiencing sunset along the Malecon here is a must while in Havana
3. Salsa lessons
Cubans have a reputation at being the best in salsa dancing and they deserve it! If you are ever going to take salsa lessons this is the place.
We walked past Salsa Estilo and it looked like a nice spot to learn.
4. Rooftops & Mojitos
Mojitos in Havana are strong! but ohhh so good! We don’t usually drink but I have to admit that I loved Mojitos in Cuba. I was drinking them every day. Another favourite was Canchanchara (honey, lemon juice, aguardiente (fire water), still water, ice).
Favourite rooftops – La Guarida, Hotel Kempinski (buy a day pass and spend a day at the pool), La concordia, Jesus Maria 20, El del Frente.
5. Explore old Havana
Get lost in this beautiful city and walk it’s charming streets. Do explore the touristy areas but I highly encourage you to explore further as the most picturesque areas are outside.
6. Visit Teatro Nacional de Cuba
This building is a work of art. The details are amazing, the views from the balcony are something else!
There is an entry fee for 5CUC and it includes a guided tour of the theatre and access to art exhibits on the upper floor.
7. Overnight trip to Viñales
The Viñales valley is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and this title is well deserved. Famed for its tobacco plantations and stunning landscape.
We did 2 nights in Viñales but you can easily just spend one night here. We took a “colectivo” (shared taxi) from Havana. Prices start from $20 CUC. This is a a door to door service.
The town is very touristy and there are plenty of restaurants & accomodation available. Also, we were surprised to find free wifi in some of the cafes.
We did a horseback tobacco plantation tour and it was so much fun! I tried the best piña colada ever straight from a hollowed out pineapple. The scenery is just magical!
Note: Make sure you ask for healthy horses as sadly sometimes they don’t look after their horses.
8. Party like the locals at 29 Agiar
Most noteworthy night in Havana, it was like stepping into the set of a music video. You’ll need an invite to get in (they hand them out in old Havana streets) otherwise you’ll have to pay a small cover charge but you get a drink included. They have a no flash policy so I don’t have any clear photos but trust me when I say you won’t regret spending your night partying at this place. Party doesn’t star until 10pm
9. Convento e Iglesia de la Merced
We came across this place by accident while taking a photo at this spot. The church is absolutely stunning and definitely worth the visit!
Where to eat?
As a result of Cuba’s political and economical landscape the food situation in Cuba is a bit complicated. It’s hard for them to import a lot of foods and sometimes there’s a shortage of certain staple ingredients so things sell out fast or at times are just not available.
We didn’t get breakfast at our Airbnb but we would strongly recommend to take this option if it’s available at your accomodation. As there are not many breakfast options around town.
La Ksita at Compostela #203 A corner of O’reilly & San Juan de Dios. A true local spot, this was our to go to for breakfast every morning mostly because the owner Joaquin and his wife were really kind & helpful, also, the omelettes & toasted sandwiches were really tasty!
Jesus Maria 20 Fairly new place with a really nice vibes & a cool rooftop
El del frente another great place for cocktails, food & rooftop.
Il Rustico Not bad pizza, a good option if you want something easy.
La concordia is another stunning terrace with nice cocktails & tapas.
Esquina de Cuba we only had coffee & dessert here. The place has good reviews for food too.
La Guarida certainly one of the most famous spots in Havana! we only had a few small dishes and a couple cocktails, the building is quite photogenic and the views from the rooftop bar are beautiful. Definitely a must when in Havana.
Hope you found this helpful. If you have any questions please leave them in the comments below.
While here you might also enjoy my guide to Hội An Vietnam.