My good friend Jill (the same one who hiked Mount Kilimanjaro!) recently planned a post-medical school graduation trip to Havana Cuba for herself, me, and our other friends Lauri, and Amy. We went under one of the 12 federally allowed reasons to visit Cuba — education. Learning about the culture, the history, the people, the food, etc.
I won’t lie, when we finally touched down in Havana, we all just looked at each other just thought, “Oh wow…we actually pulled this off!” We spent an incredible next five days walking around parts of Havana, particularly Havana Vieja and Havana Central experiencing a country that has been effectively cut off from the US since 1963 (click here for the history on the travel/trade/etc embargo against Cuba).
You could definitely tell, walking around Havana Vieja and Central, with super old cars lined up on the side of roads lined by a mixture of modern and dilapidated buildings, that the country would most likely benefit from future business and trade transactions with the US. The infrastructure could be updated, there would be an influx of travelers from the US (with their money to fund the economy), etc. This is the key reason I’m really glad we went now — not only is a historical moment when the all but symbolic embargo against Cuba has been lifted, but also because it is one of the few cities that is essentially “frozen.”
The old cars, the old architecture, the lack of reliable internet, the culture — all of it is what we wanted to see and experience.
I highly recommend going and going soon if you can. As I did in my post about Peru (Arequipa/Lima/Colca Canyon), I’m going to list out some tips that we realized as we were going there and during our trip to hopefully make your trip a little easier!
- Travel Clinic – set up an appointment, you’ll need at least the Hepatitis A vaccine and Typhoid vaccine depending on where you’re travelling in Cuba. Travel clinics can fill up fast, so call 2-3 weeks in advance. Also make sure that you bring proof of vaccination with you. This is just good practice when going to another country, most don’t care at all, but some want you to prove that you’ve gotten the vaccines (honestly, this has only ever happened to me when re-entering the US from another country)
- Weather – depending on when you go, you want to look at the weather forecast. When I did, it said it would be raining in Cuba every day and it didn’t rain once, but the temperatures weren’t off. Definitely remember that it is tropical climate and therefore very hot and humid. I packed shorts and long sleeves (because I have a tendency to get my arms a little burned), but definitely know how you do in that kind of weather and pack clothes accordingly.
- Booking your ticket and getting your visa – So Jill booked our tickets through Copa airlines, which was great. As of now, you can’t get your travel visa to Cuba in the US (or at least we couldn’t), so you have to fly through another country, like Panama (which we did). In Panama, for $20-25 US dollars, you can buy your tourist visa that you must not lose for the entire duration of your Cuba visit. Our issue with that – we had a very short layover in Panama that was shortened even more by our initial flight being delayed. When we got to our gate, where we were to buy our tourist visa, they had run out. We had to run, literally run, across the airport to get another tourist visa in time. So if you can, plan a little bit of a longer layover — if not, just be prepared that they may run out at one visa selling station, and you’ll have to buy one at another that may be all the way across the airport.
- Buy a travel book – if only because it will give you a lovely detailed map of Havana. I also printed off some google maps ahead of time. You won’t have internet, so to get around you’ll need to rely on your map reading skills to tell you how to get places. The travel book is also really useful in helping to decide what places to visit and particularly where to eat — Havana has a growing food scene, but there are definitely a non-trivial number of misses with regards to restaurants.
- Cuban Currency – Cuba has two different currencies they use. One is the Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) and the other is the Peso Nacionales (which I will refer to as CUPs). They are both called pesos when you are in Cuba. The CUC is pegged to the US Dollar. That means 1 CUC = 1 Dollar. The CUPs are worth much less than a CUC, in fact 25 CUPs = 1 CUC = 1 Dollar. Most restaurants, museums, etc. will have prices listed in CUCs (i.e. entrance fee of 5 pesos = 5 CUCs), so most of the money you’ll spend in Cuba will be CUCs. However, if you are looking to buy souvenirs at some of the small shops that line the streets, buy some street food (coconuts, corn, churros, peso pizza, ice cream, etc.) you can use CUPs for this. I recommend only exchanging a small amount of your money as CUPs, with the majority of your money as CUCs.
- Cash Economy – Currently as a tourist in Havana, you will live in a “cash economy.” What I mean by this is that you will be paying for nearly everything in cash. So the advice of carry as little cash as possible on you in a foreign country, doesn’t hold for Cuba. Perhaps in the future credit cards will be accepted, but currently they are not (for the most part — fancy hotels are a different story). I budgeted 330 CUCs for 5 days (around $66/day), and just barely had enough as at the end I decided to purchase some Cohibas Cigars and some perfumes from an awesome store. I felt comfortable with this, as I was going with friends who I know would not leave me hanging. I recommend budgeting for around $80/day. You will likely not spend that much as food/drink is relatively inexpensive, but you never know what you might want to purchase. Just know that whatever cash money you bring to Cuba is the likely all the money that you will have for the trip. Better safe than sorry.
- Exchanging Money in the US – this could also be under the headline of Pre-Cuba. Currently the Cuban government levies a high exchange fee for changing over USD (US Dollars) to CUCs, around 10% + a transaction fee of 3%. This means for every 100 USD you exchange, you will get back 87 CUCs. This is not true for euros, there only exists the 3% transaction fee. So what does this mean? If you can, I recommend exchanging your USD for Euros in the US. I did this at Bank of America (some BoA carry euros on site, call to find out if yours does) or at a currency exchange shop (they usually have them in the mall). You will initially get hit for converting your USD to Euros (currently it’s 1.13 dollars = 1 euro), but since CUCs are pegged to the US Dollar you will get most of your money back in Cuba. Also, try to not exchange money at the airport, as they will extract a much higher conversion rate from you…because well…they can.
- Exchanging Money in Cuba – when you get to Cuba, you will need to exchange some of your euros to CUCs at the airport to pay for a cab into Havana (around 25-30 CUCs), and for any activities you want to do that day. I do not recommend exchanging it all at the airport as the conversion is the city is much more favorable. You can ask your Airbnb host or your hotel concierge where you can exchange money. Be careful exchanging at hotels — from what I have read, they tack on extra charges, though I do not know if this is true first hand as we exchanged at a bank in Cuba.
- Weather and Clothes – take a look at the weather and the season before you go. We went right before the rainy season hit and it was HUMID and HOT. I mean, the kind of humid and hot where you sweat out a large portion of the water you are taking in. You’ll want to pack accordingly…light clothes, hats, sun screen, sun glasses (critical). I wore long sleeves and shorts almost the whole time because I did not want to any shoulder exposure to the sun (where I tend to get a little burned). In terms of footware, make sure you have shoes you are comfortable walking around in. I brought sneakers, boat shoes (sperry’s), and flip-flops which I never wore. My friends wore flip flops, but I just wasn’t comfortable with it given my clumsiness and the pools of questionable liquid on the ground.
- Non-clothing items – again, I recommend bringing baby-wipes, you can wipe your face, hands, and your bottom (they double as toilet paper)! If you are not comfortable with baby wipes as toilet paper, then bring a roll yourself, many of the public restrooms do not have TP or charge you for it. Next, ear plugs: Havana is noisy, if you are a light sleeper, ear plugs are clutch. E-book: to save on space, pack some e-books on your phone/kindle/nook. Medicines: Make sure you pack any daily meds you take, as well as some you might need (i.e. Ibuprofuen, Tylenol, Claritin (which I needed there), antibiotics, bandaids, Pepto bismol, etc.). Sunscreen: Super, super important. It was sunny there, and even me with my natural skin-based sunscreen applied every 2-3 hours. Guidebook: Like I said, you won’t have wifi in Havana, a guidebook really helps figure out where you want to eat/visit, etc.
- Chargers – the outlets fit both European and American plugs, however the voltage was 220V. Most new chargers can handle 220V, however you should check (it’s written on your charger somewhere). If you it’s not, don’t plug it in, you can easily fry your product, but I recommend going to wirecutter.com and buying an adapater.
- Spanish-to-English dicctionary on your phone: I would say that I speak moderate Spanish, but having a pre-downloaded translator on my phone was awesome. If you are an android, you are in luck — download google translate, and you can then download the spanish-to-english and vice versa translator offline. Apple people, I think there are a few apps you can download that will let you access spanish vocab offline.
- Nalgene or other water bottle – staying hydrated is critical in the humid heat. I brought my Nalgene with me everywhere and made sure (much to the chagrin of my peers) that I was pounding water (in addition to Daquiris) to make sure I kept up with my losses. I’ve had heat sickness before growing up in AZ and it is no fun. Drink a lot of water. If your urine is coming out dark yellow, or you are only urinating once a day or so, you are not drinking enough. Additionally, the water will help prophylax against potential constipation as it can loosen your stools.
- Safety – Something people were concerned about when I left was the safety. I don’t enjoy commenting on safety, because it seems like a loaded question, but I can offer general advice. It is a city — like in all major cities, be cautious: don’t wave around expensive electronics, be aware of your surroundings, etc.
- We walked most places in Havana Vieja and Havana Central. It’s not too bad, however again I recommend comfortable shoes. For some farther off places, like the famous Coppelia ice cream shop in the Vedado district, we took an old classic car along the Malećon (the waterfront/esplanade area) there, and a cab on the way back. The prices are not set, particularly for cabs. You can and should negotiate the price down. There are so many cabs around Havana that if one doesn’t budge, you can go to another, no hard feelings. But when you’re a tourist, they’ll quote you a high price. For example, we were quoted 15 CUC to go about 5km (a little over 2 miles) and we bargained it down to 7 CUC pretty easily.
- If you are hoping to go the beach (which is beautiful), you can take a cab there and then request your cabbie to meet you back at the beach at a certain time. We did this when we went to Playa del Este and it was great.
- Water – the tap water is not potable, so you must drink bottled water. We had trouble finding a grocery store or market near where we were staying in Havana Vieja, so we just went to our corner bar and ordered several 1.5 L bottles of water and carried them back home.
- Drinks – initially I was concerned about the ice/water used for making drinks — how would I know if the drink was safe? I quickly realized that the water used in restaurants was filtered and boiled, or bottled. So in general, if you are drinking drinks from a restaurant or a well known place (i.e. La Bodeguita del Medio, home of the best mojito I’ve ever had and also frequented by some famous peeps in the past like Paola Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Hemingway), you’re safe drinking what they give you. It’s simple business – if you get sick from what they give you, you’ll tell others, and they’ll loose business.
- Food – really hit or miss. I’m speaking as a vegetarian here, but there were definitely some places we went where there was either nothing on the menu (we were literally told by a disgruntled waitress that their fried chickpeas had meat in them, I still am interested in seeing how they got meat into fried chickpeas), or the food was just…not good. After about two days we found some places that we really loved though that had tons of options for my omnivorous friends, and tons for me:
- D’Next – a fantastic little breakfast/lunch spot. We were able to get a great breakfast there for around 5-6 CUC with coffee, fruit juice, cheese, omelette, etc. I highly recommend the fruit plate if you like frutabomba (papaya), guayaba (guava), plátanos (bananas), and piña (pineapple).
- O’reilly’s 304 – possibly our favorite place. We went back there twice, and once to their sister restaurant across the street, Frente, that had a lovely roof deck. The food was delicious. I ordered a giant vegetable platter for 2 CUC (vegetables salteados) and the brusqueta (bruschetta) for 4 CUCs. It was some of the best food I’ve had. Hands down. And this says nothing about the drinks…the drinks were out of this world. Without a doubt the best drinks I’ve ever had. If you sit at a table on the ground floor, you can watch the bartender work his magic with spirals of fruit, red-sugar rimmed glasses, roses and rose petals, fruit and rum, and all the other deliciousness he put into those enormous drinks. It was like watching art. I highly recommend this place.
- Street food – peso pizza, I’m not sure if that’s what it’s called, but there are lots of little shops that sell pizza for around 10 CUPs, so less than a dollar. It’s not pizza in the traditional sense, but good none-the-less. It’s almost a sour-doughy bread with cheese melted on top, with a spritz of tomato sauce swirled on it. Definitely a good late-night snack. I also recommend the coconut water, the street churros, and if you can, snag some street corn — I missed my opportunity, but I’m looking forward to trying some when I go back.
- Le Mariage – it’s a little piece of France in Cuba! But really though, they have delicious wines, cheese, and olives for reasonably prices. The cuban cheeses are interesting, I can’t describe them, but I really liked them. Try it out for an awesome night.
- We used AirBnB to stay in casa particulars, which are basically apartments that the host rents out, where you can pay for breakfast as well. It was great, we really felt like we were living in the city, getting to know Havana through the sounds at night, early morning, mid-afternoon music, and the guy who yelled “arepas, arepas!” down the street at all hours of the day. Our hosts were helpful and accommodating, selling us bottled water when we got there initially and telling us the best places to eat and see. I highly recommend casa particulars for your stay in Havana. They are definitely cheaper than a hotel as well.
- There are definitely a several high end hotels in Havana — Hotel Inglaterra, Hotel Parque Central, and Hotel Raquel to name a few. They are quite pricy, but they are beautiful hotels. They offer many amenities, and to be honest I wonder if we would have left the hotel that much has we actually stayed there. A few tips about the hotels: Hotel Parque Central has an incredible view from its roof deck of Havana. We went up there for a quick afternoon drink (they have a roof bar) to soak in the ambiance and take a look at the views. I highly recommend it. Hotel Raquel has a great stained glass roof and some interesting artwork that you can enjoy even if you are not a guest. Hotel Inglaterra has some delicious sandwiches in its cafe, and access to wifi. You can purchase an internet card from there for 2 soles; it was a fantastic signal, but we were able to send a few message to our families.
Places to Visit that we thought were cool
- Museo de la revolución
- Museo de ron (rum museum)
- The Malećon – beautiful walk along the ocean
- Paseo del Prado Art Exhibition – artists come from around Havana to show their interesting artwork. It’s a beautiful walk and a great place to buy art.
- Plazas – there are many different plazas, and it’s pretty easy to see many of them. I recommend Plaza Vieja and Plaza de la catedral
- Havana 1791 Perfume Shop – you can meet the chemist who makes the perfumes, and she’s a fascinating lady. You can smell all her different perfumes and purchase some if you like. They really are outstanding. You can also take a look at the small lab she works in to extract scents.
- Gran Teatro de la Habana – Havana has trained some great ballerinas over the years, and they have performed at the Grand Theater. The inside of the museum is beautiful, and they have an art exhibit on one of the floors that is pretty cool.