Cuba is a very special destination… Beautiful landscapes, paradise coastline… And also a country that has a very special (and controversial) history. Armed revolution and mystical Che Guevara are part of it.
The Caribbean island offers a unique cultural mix and an impressive musical scene. Cuban music is indeed as its people: rhythmic and joyful. In spite of the day to day struggle, Cubans enjoy life, they smile, dance, and always look on the bright side of things.
The home of the “Guajiros” has many places prone to be visited: Varadero beaches, Viñales, Trinidad, Cienfuegos bay, etc.
Since I only had a few days, I focused on visiting its heart, Havana. I had wanted to explore this city for a long time. And the recent changes in Cuba’s situation made me hurry.
Indeed, one of the intriguing sides of Havana is its relation to time. Between the 1960s and 2000, the city changed very little. But since then, things have changed rapidly. Old American cars from the 50s, the Cuban cliché itself, are being replaced by more recent models, and will soon become a collection object. Regretting these changes would be a non-sense: we shouldn’t forget that Cuban people have suffered a lot from the embargo and good rationing. Economic precariousness is still one of Cubans’ main concern. Things can only get better with the gradual ending of the embargo.
Anyway, let’s move on to the very purpose of this article: A practical guide to Havana.
Preliminary note on Cuba’s currency: Cuba uses a dual monetary system: the CUC (convertible peso, at parity with the dollar) and the CUP (Cuban peso, local currency). All prices in tourist areas are in CUC. Only local buses and restaurants are in CUP. There’s a striking difference in prices: items priced in CUC are not much cheaper than in Europe/the U.S. The CUP version is absolutely different… Don’t worry about the exchange rate: it is the same everywhere. Avoid dollars because you’ll face a 10% extra tax. I also recommend changing CUP (1 CUC = 24 CUP) in case you want to enjoy local prices because otherwise, you’ll get ripped on the exchange rate.
8 MUST DO:
- My top advice: Explore the city center through a free walking tour.
Organized in Spanish and English, this tour of approx. 3 hours will show you the main city sights (among others: The Plaza Vieja, the Floridita, Capitolo, the Plaza de Armas, the Plaza San Francisco, the Universidad,).
There are 2 itineraries: Habana Vieja and Centro Habana. Departures are at 9:30 and at 4pm from the road junction next to the Inglaterra hotel, located at Parque Central (hang around and enjoy a coffee at the hotel’s terrace while listening to Cuban rhythms).
The tip you’ll leave at the end of your tour is really valuable for your guide (the average salary in Cuba is $30 per month!).
- Meet Afro-Cuban culture and enjoy its rhythms at the “Callejon de Hamel”
Located in the area of Cayo Hueso, near the University, this colorful and artistic neighborhood will surprise you with its unusual frescoes. It is the work of the Cuban sculptor Salvador González Escalona, who gave a second life to this popular district.
And if you are around on a Sunday, join the crowd and enjoy Afro-Cuban music!
- Wander around Plaza de la Revolucion
One of the largest public squares in the world, dominated by the monument to Jose Marti (entrance fee 1CUC). On the opposite, you will see the famous steel image of Che Guevara and Camilo Cien Fuegos. Located outside the city center, expect a 30-minute walk to get there or a 10-min drive (5 CUC by taxi).
- Walk around Vedado’s neighborhood
It is an old residential area where you can have a closer look at the pre-revolution architecture.
- Visit one of the city’s museums
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Parque Central, 5 CUC) and Museo de la Revolucion (Avenida Belgica, 4 CUC) are your best bets.
- Enjoy the Malecon (seaside).
Sea breeze and nice views of the Castillo del Morro and Castillo de la Real Fuerza. The best way to get around: ask the owner of one of those old American cars to take you on a ride (10 CUC for 30 min).
- Have a mojito at La Bodegita del Medio:
Habana’s history is intimately linked to Ernest Hemingway who spent several years in Cuba. One of its favorite bars was “Bodegita del Medio”. A colorful place where crowds gather. But I’d rather warn you: you won’t have your best mojito here!
- Take Salsa lessons:
Remember that you are in the birthplace of salsa music and as you may know Cubans are true salsa masters! There are many salsa schools spread around town. You can choose either group or individual classes. A top pick: La Casa del Tango (Calle Neptuno). Individual classes cost around 15CUC. Don’t forget to practice your skills in one of the many “Salsoteca” (nightclubs playing only salsa music) the city has to offer you. Locals will be happy to help you improve your body movements.
What and where to eat?
Cuban food is not very famous. Needless to say that the embargo and rationing did not help (options available in supermarkets are so restricted!). Remember that Cuban people eat to live and not the contrary!
That being said, here are a few Cuban dishes: Congri (rice and black beans), Moro y Cristianos (black beans), Plantin banana, Pork fricassee, Yuca (cassava), salsa mojo (oil, garlic, and orange gravy).
The historical center has decent food options, as Dona Eutemia (typical Cuban dishes between 7 and 15CUC, located a few steps away from the Cathedral-Callejon del Chorro) and San Cristobal Ladar (in an old restored mansion, main dishes at around 20CUC)
On the other hand, almost all restaurants located downtown are touristic and priced in CUC (which means not cheap).
If you wanna go more local (and get the related prices), stay away from the tourist areas and look around. You’ll see small signs offering daily dishes (the classical rice/beans/plantain/pork or chicken) for 30 to 35 CUP (1,5$)!
If you want to make sure you are at the right place: ask if the price is in CUP!
Where to stay?
One of the advantages of Cuba’s recent economic opening is the development of some kind of “competition”. During ages, options were limited to beach resorts in Varadero (applying European prices (from 50 CUC upwards) and “Casas Particulares” (Guesthouses) costing around 25/30$ per night.
Nowadays you can stay in dorms starting from 10$ (although these keep the form of casa particular, so do not expect a classical backpacker with bar and pool).
After a quick search on Booking and Hostelworld, I went for Hostal Corazon del Mundo, located in Calle San Jose (12CUC per night in a 6-bed dormitory). Clean and decent. The location was ok (a 10/15 minutes walking distance from the center, in a very popular area).
As you ‘ve probably understood, Cuba is not cheap!
But if you do it right, you can still make it on a decent budget.
Example of a daily budget (be ready to walk):
- Dorm accommodation in a casa particular: $10
- Breakfast in a shopping center: $4
- Daily dishes in local restaurants: $5 (2 meals)
- Mojito in a bar downtown: $3
or about $22 (in thrifty mode)
How to get there?
Many flights options from Europe and Latin America. I flew from Brussels to Varadero for as little as €200 with Tui Fly.
My flight out: Habana-Cusco (Peru) with a stopover in Bogota ($330 with Avianca).
Interjet operates daily flights from Cancun and Mexico city (approximately $100 per way).
Return flights from Canada cost approximately $300.
Arriving at the airport:
In Varadero, the bus company Viazul has bus connections to Havana (more or less 3 hours). The cost is 10CUC ($10). Very irregular service (don’t trust the official schedule listed online).
From Habana International Airport: Taxi is almost the only option. $25 from/to the center (try to share the cost with other people if you are travelling alone). It is possible to get to the airport using local buses, but I was strongly advised to avoid it with luggage.
Once you are in the city: the historic centre of Havana is a very pleasant walk. There is also a “Habana Bus Tour” which costs 10CUC (for the entire day). Very useful to get to “Plaza de la Revolucion”. There is public transportation, but it doesn’t look very well organized, and having only a few days, I skipped it.
Last tips: Enjoy the country and its people but remain aware that many Cubans have suffered a lot. Poverty and the embargo have struck them (although they will not openly admit it). Show empathy. And if you can, leave them some basic items (toothpaste, shampoo, cosmetics, etc.).