If you have been following my blog posts or Instagram, you know that I recently traveled to Havana, Cuba! Visiting Cuba was so exciting and really a lifelong travel dream (dramatic, I know)! While everyone except Americans have been able to travel to Cuba for the last 50 years, Americans were just allowed to visit Cuba without crazy government oversight in 2016. Thanks, Obama! When United flights dropped to $250 roundtrip, Dan and I pulled the trigger and purchased our flights to visit Havana, returning right before inauguration day in the US.
HABANA, CUBA (or Havana as we call it!)
Havana is a fabulously interesting city that is truly stuck in a time warp. As US relations continue to open up (hopefully), Havana will eventually pull itself into the modern age, and it just will not be the same! GO NOW if you want to see Havana in its 1950s glory! Its gorgeous, terribly interesting, and totally safe! Here’s a sneak video from my drive through Havana Centro in a classic pink convertible:
For most visitor’s purposes, Havana is split into three areas: Habana Vieja (Old Havana), Habana Centro, and Vedado. Old Havana is the most famous and picturesque area of Havana, and it contains all of the tourist sites and museums, as well as Havana’s cruise port. If you are in town for a short time, Old Havana is probably where you will spend most of your time. Old Havana is very safe and there is something going on in Old Havana at all hours. Since it Old Havana is the most convenient area for tourists, accommodations in Old Havana are often the most expensive.
Habana Centro (Central Havana) is large neighborhood situated between Old Havana and Vedado, and in all honesty parts of Havana Centro are quite run down (its the area in the video above!). While Habana Centro is still extremely safe, it contains many old buildings that are literally falling down. That being said, parts of Havana Centro are extremely close to Old Havana (and others aren’t – consult a map) and provide a great location at a lower cost than staying in Old Havana proper. Havana Centro also, despite is old buildings, contains may large, “modern” hotels (Cuban modern is very different than plain modern). Many locals also reside in Havana Centro, and Havana Centro contains one of Havana’s most interesting neighborhoods to visit, Barrio Chino – Chinatown! All things considered, Havana Centro is very interesting and provides a central location for your stay in Havana. One word of caution, wear closed toed shoes and be on guard for uneven sidewalks!
Compared to Old Havana and Havana Centro, Vedado is more residential, more upscale, and more spread out. In addition to residential homes, Vedado is home to numerous bed and breakfasts, some small hotels, lots of foreign embassies and recently, to some of Havana’s trendiest restaurants! We stayed at an Airbnb in Vedado and it was great. Our apartment was located on the beautiful and central Avenida Paseo, felt local, and was totally safe. Vedado is generally less expensive than Old Havana. For example, our entire Airbnb apartment only cost $31 US dollars a night. However, Vedado is an hour walk from Old Havana and you will likely take taxis between Vedado and Old Havana, which run around $15 a ride for two people. This can really eat into your budget if budget is the reason that you are staying in Vedado…
The Malécon: While not really a neighborhood, the Malécon bears mentioning. The Malécon is Havana’s waterfront promenade (and highway) stretching from Vedado to Havana Vieja. Walking the entire route takes over an hour. The Malécon is interesting in that it is a pretty walk along the water and brings you by the brand new US Embassy, but I recommend visiting only a small portion of the Malécon – you do not need to walk the entire strip! Also, if a hotel and/or restaurant lists itself as being located in Malécon, that just means that its near the waterfront, which, while beautiful, does not contain a beach! If you plan to walk the Malécon, know that waves often splash over the barrier and soak visitors (wait for it below)!
WHAT TO SEE AND DO!
Old Havana is filled with lots of museums, which is perfect if the purpose of your trip is people-to-people travel (probably the easiest way to get to Cuba legally)! Some of the most famous are the Museum of the Revolution, the National Museum of Fine Arts, and Havana’s newest and trendiest art museum, Fábrica de Arte Cubano (closed until February 2017). If you plan to visit the Museum of the Revolution, there are often long lines and at this time, there are no English translations.
Havana’s squares. Old Havana has four squares, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas and Plaza de la Revolucion, and its squares are a great place to people watch and people meet, especially Plaza Vieja! You can easily visit all four in a couple hours. Plaza Vieja is particularly fun in the evening!
Havana Cathedral. One of 11 cathedrals in Cuba, the Havana Cathedral is the most interesting cathedral in Havana (in my opinion!) and is located in the Plaza de la Catedral. Entry is free but you must cover your shoulders and knees (coverings are available to borrow). Lots of street performers frequent the area near the cathedral. If you take a photo of or with a street performer, you should tip them (and preferably not in USD).
Hemingway’s bars. Just around the left side of the Havana Cathedral is one of Havana’s most famous bars, La Bodeguita del Medio. According to legend, Hemingway loved this bar for its mojitos. I did not find them to be anything special, but its worth a quick stop. Hemingway’s other favorite haunt in Havana, El Floridita, is much more interesting in my opinion and has better drinks! Both are worth a quick stop, longer if you are a Hemingway fan!
Shopping: All of Old Havana is filled with shops selling Cuba trinkets to tourists but one of the best streets for tourist shopping in Old Havana is Calle Obispo. There is a small market there called Patio de los Artesanos that sells handmade souvenirs, such as cigar ash trays, mugs and plates, magnets, and jewelry, and its open everyday! Another great place for Cuban handmade goods on the weekends is Paseo del Prado, the street dividing Old Havana and Havana Centro. Paseo del Prado was also the location of the Chanel fashion show!
If you are looking for the famous Cuban cigars, they are sold in special cigar shops. Prices are the same throughout the island (regulated by the government) and the only difference between the shops is what brands are sold therein. Of course, you can also buy cigars in fancy hotels and at the airport. While much cheaper than elsewhere, Cuban cigars are by no means cheap (bring lots of cash). Rum on the other hand, is super cheap! Bottles were selling for around $5 CUC a bottle at the Havana Club store inside the Museo del Ron Havana Club in Havana Vieja.
Classic cars: Classic cars are everywhere in Havana; they operate as taxis throughout town. One of the most popular activities for Cuban visitors is to take a classic convertible tour through Havana, covering a bit of Old Havana, Havana Centro, and Vedado. The official cost is $40 CUC but the going rate is currently $50 CUC. Here are Dan and me at the Plaza de la Revolucion next to our car! To set up one of these tours, go to the Hotel Inglaterra or the cruise port. Classic convertibles line up in both places for these tours. Be sure your driver speaks English if you don’t speak Spanish and want a commentary (very worthwhile!).
Plaza de la Revolución. Plaza de la Revolución is a stop on every classic convertible tour (and a wifi spot!). Plaza de la Revolución is also the place where Fidel Castro, and other political figures have historically addressed the country, and its pretty interesting. Definitely an “I’m in Cuba” moment! Flanked by a statue of Jose Marti and the facades of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos with the quote “You’re doing fine, Fidel,” Plaza de la Revolución is certainly a must-stop for tourists seeking to understand Cuba’s history.
In addition to these things, one of my favorite things about Cuba was meeting all of the wonderful people who live there. Seriously, Havanans were some of the nicest people I have ever met. I hope this does not change with the opening up of the country to foreign investment. We did a lot of walking on our trip, and that really allowed us to see the city and meet a lot of locals! Since Havana is so safe, walking is really a great way to get around. One of the most interesting neighborhoods to walk through in my opinion is the Barrio Chino, or Chinatown! While the Chinese Cubans left when the US embargo commenced (there is only one Chinese restaurant left), the legacy remains. It was so interesting to see these Chinese aspects in Cuba!
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK: I am going to do other posts about our food and drink but, I must admit, Cuban food in Cuba was sadly lacking. The food was fine but, as I had heard before I left, Cubans have a hard time getting quality ingredients and they can only work with what is produced on the island. I found the best meals to be those made with ingredients from Cuba. For example, an awesome Caribbean lobster for $15 CUC done in local peppers. If you are a picky eater, I recommend brining lots of snacks – they are impossible to find!
SAFETY. For whatever reason, safety was a big concern of mine before traveling to Cuba. Would Cubans like Americans? Would Cubans speak English? What will I do without my phone?! Rest assured, my fears were absolutely unfounded! First, Havana, particularly the touristy part, is super safe. We walked everywhere, at all hours, and never once encountered any trouble. The riskiest part about walking around Havana is that there is a distinct lack of street lights and the sidewalks (where there are sidewalks) are not paved very well. Second, yes, a good number of Havanans speak English. And others speak enough to communicate with English speakers. Don’t worry! Finally, phones. While T-Mobile and AT&T technically work in Cuba, calls are $2 a minute and internet is $2/MB if it even works. Buy a good old-fashioned map and mark it up before you leave home!
SHOULD I GOT TO CUBA? For me, Cuba was a fabulous long weekend. It was close, not too difficult to get around, and incredibly interesting. That being said, I would not recommend Cuba to an unseasoned traveler. Having been segregated from much of the world for the past fifty years, nothing in Cuba is modern and traveling in Cuba can be much more difficult than traveling in other Caribbean countries, and this is compounded by Americans’ inability to stay in an all-inclusive resort. If you are up for a challenge and feel reasonably comfortable traveling off the beaten path, then I would certainly encourage a trip to Cuba. However, if you idea of the perfect Caribbean vacation is sitting on a beach on an all-inclusive resort, I recommend putting off Cuba for a bit longer!
STEAL OUR TRIP
Airbnb: We stayed at the CA&FÉ Vedado Indepemdent Apartment through Airbnb for $31 USD/night through Airbnb, which allowed us to book and pay online. The apartment was located on Avenida Paseo in Vedado and was clean (but basic, as is much in Havana). We booked transfers to and from the airport through our hosts and arranged (once we arrived) to have breakfast prepared in our apartment each morning at a cost of $5 CUC/person, which was THE BEST deal!
Havana Tour Company: The English-speaking tour company that we used for two tours. You can pre-pay online!
Havana Map: The best map of Havana that I bought on Amazon for $7.27. The map reminded me a lot of Streetwise Maps (my favorite maps!). I used a Sharpee pen to mark up my desired stops before leaving home! Definitely get a map before you leave – good ones are hard to find in Havana and the internet does not really work! However, my offline Google maps did work (but I would not rely on that to get you around).
The Ins and Outs of Traveling to Cuba: Another blog post on Cuba, explaining all you need to know about getting to Cuba and back from the US, including exemptions, Visa information, and money and wifi information!
ON A BUDGET
Whether one should visit Cuba on a strict budget, at least as an American, is quite the interesting question. On the one hand, Cuba can be extremely cheap (even more so outside of Havana). For example, our Airbnb was only $31 USD/night, total. On the other hand, you need to bring all of your money in cash to Cuba, which is an upfront cost, and if you run out, it is extremely difficult to get more money from the US (it is slightly easier from other countries). If you are a seasoned traveler on a budget, Cuba is definitely a viable option. Book via Airbnb online, skip the organized tours (no longer required for US visitors) and be mindful of taxi costs depending on where you stay (at around $15 USD a ride, they can really eat into your budget!). If you are really on a shoe string budget and are not a seasoned traveler, I would skip Cuba for now. There is just not enough of a safety net if you run into trouble and without extra money to “bribe” your way out of trouble, you could really get stuck. Also, do not forget about the cost of a Cuban Visa at the airport.