Date: March 2013
Type: Solo, Backpacking
Average Cost Per Day: N/A
Spanish is the main language in Cuba. Outside of tourist areas, finding someone who speaks English is very difficult.
Internet in Cuba is rare and very expensive so do think about whether or not you’ll need your laptop/iPad etc. Do not travel with US dollars as there is a fine for all conversions – the dollar is only worth 0.87 there. Remember to keep 25 CUCs which is the departure tax at the airport.
Regarding currency, all tourists are given Convertible Pesos (CUC: kooks) while the Cubans have normal Cuban Pesos (CUB). Their currency is worth a lot less so make sure you’re dealing in the correct currency when you’re making exchanges.
Getting around is easy. Most private car-taxis rides around town will be between 3-6 CUCs. If you take a share taxi with local cubans, price should be around 25CUPs (you can still luck out and get an old school shared convertible mustang). Always make sure you negotiate/know exactly how much you’re paying before hopping on a car. I’d recommend avoiding yellow cabs if possible. Then there are the Bici-Taxis – your Cuban equivalent of a Thai tuktuk. The driver basically bikes you around.
In case you get sick, I was recommended by a friend to go to Clinica Cira Garcia, a hospital for foreigners.
Cuba is very safe! Obviously keep your travel/foreign county alertness on, but the Cubans I’ve met are some of the most helpful and friendliest people ever. Be respectful and most importantly, open-minded. Cubans are generally very happy and simple individuals. Do not go there thinking they’re “wrong” politically or are “silly” for thinking a certain way economically. Have discussions – they’re important for self-growth – but remember that everyone’s entitled to their own point of view and therefore, your job is not to convince someone they’re brainwashed or wrong.
Many tourists like to stay in Old Havana (Habana Vieja). This is a beautiful area that’s close to the water and filled with coffee shops, shopping, hotels and old cars. This is, however, also the area that has been redeveloped the most in efforts to ramp up tourism. In other worlds, it has be remodelled to look old. It’s exactly what you’d imagine Havana to be. Freshly painted 1800s buildings that look safe to enter. Nothing wrong with staying here apart from jacked-up prices. I personally would recommend staying a little out of this tourist hub so that you can really experience the way locals live.
Havana is famous for their home stays called Casa Particulars– you basically rent a room for ~$25/night in the house or apartment of a local. This is definitely a more authentic experience than a hotel. I looked for places in Centro Habana, an area close enough to be a 15-20min walk from Habana Vieja, but just far enough to really experience the local lifestyle.
Since I do not speak any Spanish, finding a host that spoke English was rather important. I spent half my time at Casa La Terraza with a lovely lady called Nora and the other half on the roof of Nicolas’ beautiful colonial house, Casa Nova Guest House. Both come with my highest recommendations
Cuba does not have a lot of good food. If you go to a nice restaurant, the prices are not cheap (literally New York).
Just like Casa Particulars, Cuba’s two (arguably) best and most famous restaurants play the whole hospitality card and are in private flats. La Guarida only seats 18 people at a time so a reservation ahead of time is important. The walls are lined with photos of famous people who’ve previously dined there. Calle Concordia (right opposite where Nicolas lives) is another beautiful apartment themed restaurant. This is the place where the movie Fresca y Chocolat was filmed. Another restaurant a friend recommended was a homey private restaurant called La Cocina de Lilliam that’s based in the Ambassadorial district of Havana.
If you have a sweet tooth like me, Coppelia is an incredibly delicious and cheap al fresco ice cream parlor. It’s right near the University’s campus which is beautiful at night.
Havana’s music scene is just as incredible as their art. Definitely check out Basílica Menor del Convento de San Francisco de Asís for some great classical music in an old church. For salsa/reggaeton, stop by a hotel and ask for a guide of the week’s concert. Or even better, meet locals on the street and see where they’re heading! Cubans are very friendly and always open to inviting people along to their plans.
Cuban art is probably some of my favourite in the world. It’s so creative and just so different. When in Havana, definitely go to the Art Museum- there’s a Cuban section and a Foreign section. Both are definitely worth it. Near the Plaza de Catedral, there’s an active workshop that sells engravings and prints made on the spot called Taller Experimental Grafica. Visit Estudio 5 and hang out with the owner, Kamyl. He is passionate about his art (big fan of Jose Marti) and will show you his workshop upstairs.
The best places to shop in Cuba are in their open air markets. Check out Plaza de Armas Secondhand Book Market for some hidden gems. Plaza de Catedral also has an open market twice a week. You can barter and fine great art, old photography, jewellery.. etc. Cine Yara has a great selection of old movie posters and Suchel is a small little shop where you can mix up your own body lotion/perfume.
Paseo del Prado is the dividing line between Habana Vieja and Centro Habana where on weekends, there are local artists lined up along the strip looking to chat and sell their art. A more touristy area you can buy souvenirs and arts from is from the renovated warehouses, Centro Cultural Antiquos Almacenes San Jose, on Port Avenue near the water.
Note: when buying art, make sure you get a receipt otherwise it could be confiscated at the airport.
Trips out of the city:
Varadero – I personally did not go here but some of my friends did and loved it. It’s a resort/beach town with is apparently gorgeous. A lot of foreigners go here for it’s pristine beaches and inclusive hotels.
Vinales – this is Cuba’s country side that I find absolutely stunning. It’s a 4 hour bus ride from Havana. Here, stay with Maceo y Gladis. They don’t speak English but they will pick you up from the bus and treat you like their child. The couple lives in a bright pink house with a beautiful courtyard and grows their own fruits. During the day, do a horseback riding trip around the countryside to explore. The tour will take you through tobacco plantations (roll your own cigar), to waterholes, to little family-run farms, and end on the mountain top, overlooking the city, with the best mojito in the world. Vinales is very small and there aren’t a lot of backpackers but try to make friends and do a collective biking tour with a local – you’ll see everything from hidden caves, to old, huge spiritual trees, to waterfalls, to ancient murals. If you want Cuban cigars, definitely get them here.
Other areas to consider: Pinar del Rio, Sol Cayo Santa Maria, Trinidad Cuba.
Download an offline guide of the city – Havana Good Time. It is an extremely updated and comprehensive guide of things to do in the city. Best $3 spent.