YOUR ULTIMATE GUIDE TO VISITING HAVANA CUBA
There isn’t enough of your time for me to waste writing about how much I loved Cuba, but let be clear, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVED IT! It isn’t because it’s a very flashy part of the world, in fact it is quite the opposite.
Cuba is a country stuck in a 60s time warp; it’s a little raw, a little dirty, full of energy and has a lot of personality.
Even though we were there for only 5 days in total, we managed to see a lot of Cuba. Here’s some recommendations if you are planning to visit Cuba.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
• Get lost in the streets of Old Havana. You can spend hours getting lost in the streets, wandering from bar to bar, and market to market drinking, eating and enjoying music. There are also several cathedrals, museums and historic sites that you can visit.
• Take a ride in a vintage car. All the major squares and public areas will have a selection of classic cars. From hot pink Fords to metallic blue Chevrolet’s, you’ll find a car to suite your fancy. You can hire them at any time of the day and get them to take you anywhere you please. On our first day, we hired a bright pink Buick to take us around the main sights of the city and paid $50 USD for 1 hour. On the second day, we got a purple Ford to take us to the El Cristo de La Habana statue and back to our hotel and only paid $25 USD. Take your time choosing a car, as there are plenty of options. Don’t get roped into the first person who asks you.
• Visit the Museo De La Revolución. This is a must see if you’re visiting Havana. It’s only a small museum which you can see in 30-40 minutes, but it contains a lot of history. The first thing you will see as you walk into the main entrance is the bullet holes in the wall. These were caused by the unsuccessful attack on the palace back in March 1957. A revolutionary student group attacked the palace and attempted to assassinate then President, Fulgencio Batista. Once in the museum, you’ll see several types of propaganda materials, pictures and outside there are some of the planes and missiles used in the war.
• Learn to Salsa. See my other post on learning to dance in Cuba.
• Visit the colonial town of Trinidad. The design of La Havana is more eclectic, whereas Trinidad is a colonial city. From the city, you drive almost 4 hours and pass by old crossings, country side and people on horse and carriage- no kidding! If you can spend a couple of days there it is recommended because it’s a fair distance from Havana, but if you choose you can do it in one day. Be prepared though it’s a long drive there and back but it’s worth the visit.
• See a show at the Tropicana or Buena Vista Social Club – this is the real deal show with all the famous old singers and musicians still cranking at 75+ and they do 5 shows a week. This is a must if you like Cuban music and most hotels / tourist agencies will sell tickets to it. Get the full dinner / drinks package and go to the venue early so you can get a good table close to the stage.
• Havana Rum Tour and Partagas Cigar Factory Tour – they only take about 1 hr. Each, so you could knock these both off in one afternoon and it’s interesting if you like Rum and Cigars (If you don’t then why are you going to Cuba for?). Some of the factory tours are not open on the weekend at all, so if you’d like to go to the cigar place, go on a week day.
• Walk the Malecón. The Malecón is a broad esplanade, roadway and seawall which stretches for 8 km along the coast of Havana. Every afternoon / evening heaps of the locals go here with bottles of liquor and drink and chat. It’s known by some as the world’s longest bar and if you want to get in the mix and chat with locals, go here for a few hours of fun.
BARS & CLUBS
• Fábrica de Arte Cubano (F.A.C.) – this place is epic, it’s a modern art gallery merged with nightclub/ bar / lounge where all the Cuban upper class and university students go to socialise. This is a must on a Friday or Saturday night.
• La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio are two famous drinking spots in Havana made famous by Hemingway. La Floridita is much larger and famous for its daiquiris. Despite being very touristy we found the daiquiris sensational and the music always jamming, regardless of what time of day it was!
• Bar Roma is owned by Cuban DJ Alain Dark and it’s considered Havana’s hottest bar right now. They have DJs from around the world who play there and a rooftop bar overlooking old Havana. They open from around 10pm and stay open overnight and it’s located on Agucante and O’Reilly Street.
• Other party bars to look out for listed by some of Havana’s insiders include Fantaxy, Sarao, Espacios and La Esencia.
• Bar Oro was right in the hub of old Havana and had an amazing band playing during the day. Even in the sweltering heat these guys rocked out for around 30 minutes per set.
I have a very good list of the places we ate at during our stay in Cuba. Be sure to check out my other blog on Eat Out In Havana Cuba.
WHERE TO STAY
Stay anywhere in Old Town Havana, ideally choose somewhere close to one of the major squares or plazas. If you stay in this area, you can spend a good day roaming the streets looking at different markets, stalls, outdoor music and drinking at various bars.
Hotels can be expensive in Cuba, around $250 US per night for something nice, but we found them worth the money. We stayed at the Hotel Saratoga, which had a stunning rooftop bar and pool overlooking the city. The rooms were nice and comfortable and it was close to all the action.
The other thing I liked about Hotel Saratoga was their concierge. Leading up to our visit we found it hard to prebook things to do, but the hotel was amazing. They helped us to book Salsa lessons, which I found almost impossible to do from home. They booked all our restaurants with little notice and helped give us with guidance on general things to do.
The other option is to stay in a Casa, which is basically like a bed and breakfast run by a Cuban family. This only cost about $40 per night and are a good option if budgets are tight or if you want to hang out with a family for a few days.
• If you are listening to live music then you need to tip, no exceptions, not even in a restaurant. The band works off tips and plays such fantastic music that you will want to anyway. Some bands went over and above and played for longer amounts of time so we left bigger tips, but in other places they only played a couple of songs.
• Get to the airport early because there is always a line of people or only one counter staff person serving an entire airline. In either case, it’s a pretty slow process so just make sure you allow yourself enough time.
• Connectivity for the Internet in Cuba is very limited. In fact, for me who was travelling from Australia, it was nonexistent. I’m heavily reliant on apps such as Google Maps because of my general lack of sense of direction, but after a few hours I figured it out. I went back to the good old paper map and found that it worked just fine. After the first day without a phone, I really started to enjoy it. I’m saying that sometimes you need Wi-Fi to research what you’re going to do next and you can buy Wi-Fi cards at most major hotels. You’ll normally notice where there is a WIFI spot because you’ll see a group of random prople huddled around an area with their mobiles in hand and heads buried.
Cuba has two different currencies, one for the locals and one for the tourists. You must exchange currency either at the airport or at the hotel if you have pre-arranged transport. To do this you will also need cash, as there is no ATM at the Cuban airport. What we did is exchange a couple of thousand USD in LAX and then exchanged into Cuba CUC at the airport. If you can take EURO, do so as you’ll get a better exchange rate than exchanging USD. Unfortunately, you also can’t exchange CUC outside of Cuba, so make sure you plan or you can get caught running out.
The other thing to be aware of is that Cuba revolves around cash. You won’t find many places that accept credit cards, in fact the only place we saw was at our Hotel. For that reason, plan to have enough cash to last you the entire holiday or be prepared to exchange money again at your hotel.
YOUR ULTIMATE GUIDE TO VISITING HAVANA CUBA WRITTEN BY MELANIE DUCA