I just returned from a long overdue trip to Havana. Cuban culture and history were a big part of my teenage years — I devoured books and movies about the rise of communism, the embargo, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. I found it all very fascinating, from a social and historical perspective. I never thought about going to Cuba to find a great restaurant or hotel (though they can be found!) I wanted to go to Cuba to experience the rich culture, to have conversations with old people on stoops, to drink Rum on the malecon, and to revisit sites from the revolution.
So I went, with no planning. So little planning, in fact, that I didn’t have an address to head to from the airport until an hour before my flight. Since my return to the states, a lot of people have asked me for Havana tips. Where to eat, stay, dance… but I think the real tips to be given in this case are the things a lot of people forget to note about Cuba. Who they are as people? Why do they do certain things the way they do? What are their customs? They mannerisms?
The goal is to offer the relevant information that will leave you well versed enough to discover everything on your own. This way, you will be welcome, you will make friends with Cubans, and you’ll be your own travel guide.
Cubans are old school.
That means, common courtesy should be considered. Extra pleases, thank yous, hugs, notes, and personal interactions go a long way in establishing trust. The caretaker of the house I rented came over so many times that by the end of my stay I was at HER house getting her personal information because she insisted we keep in touch. My taxi drivers not only opened the door for me every time I entered and exited a taxi, one of them also went inside the airport terminal to find out where my flight would be leaving from so he could drop me at the door.
Point being, they will treat you like family, so be aware, make eye contact and be nice.
No politics and no porn
Two topics to avoid. I was tempted to get into political conversations every time I met someone, but I quickly realized it was impolite and invasive. Wait until they bring up the subject, and try not to be judgmental, for your own sake. They know how different things are in your country, no need to brag. As for porn… Fidel prohibited it a long time ago.
And yet… the creative class in Havana is booming, try to get to know the young movers and shakers, it will be more constructive. Less about the past, more about the now.
Cuba does not have enough crops to produce food for its citizens, let alone for the hundreds of thousands of tourists flooding their cities. The soaring cost of agriculture imposed by the government has done little to provide good, affordable produce for Cubans. Instead, goods are allocated to the commercial market, where farmers and vendors can fetch higher prices, keeping food out of the hands of the people. So, when you go to a restaurant and they say they don’t have lettuce or onions, don’t frown. Order something else, lower your standards, and try to stick to what’s on the menu.
The amount of times I saw tourists complaining about the food made me cringe. This is not a culinary destination, beware.
Though buses are reliable and fairly comfortable, they are slow. Definitely feel free to take the bus, but allow yourself extra time. Taxis are reasonably priced and drivers are more than happy to give you their numbers, so that you can pick one person you feel comfortable with and stick with him the whole trip. They will come pick you up and drop you off promptly in their old vintage cars.
That’s my favorite way to get around and make friends with the locals. Don’t forget to tip.
Airbnb works, but…
Yes, AirBnB has arrived in Cuba. But note, you must book before you get into the country. Booking from inside the country is difficult as there is very limited wifi service and no credit card usage allowed. Make sure you have your bookings done before taking off. An alternative is booking “casa particulares” once in Havana — which must be done with cash in hand. Get a sim card or calling card that works, it will make communication with your hosts much easier.
Cash is king
There are no credit card machines in Havana and no atms for american cards. Most people know this and still don’t bring enough cash. You think you have enough but you never do… Then everyone else gets stuck having to lend you money or you have to request a western union transfer… Avoid all this. Reserve at least $120 for each day, it will fly once you get started on mojitos. The exchange rate right now isn’t the best, 1$ equals about .87 CUC, so you get a little less than what you bring. Take extra.
Don’t be that person who can’t get home because you have no money for a taxi. While we’re on the subject: a taxi from the airport to Vedado is about 20 CUC, 25 CUC to Old Havana.
As the most popular, postcard worthy part of Havana, most people automatically flock there. However, I recommend staying in more local areas such as Vedado or Miramar, which are residential but full of good restaurants and galleries. Old town is beautiful to see, but crowded and short on decent food options. It’s normal to see hangry tourists running around for blocks on end searching for a restaurant strip. There are not many to be found.
Flying and Visas
Jet Blue, American Airlines, Delta, Alaska, and Frontier all fly direct to Havana. That’s huge, considering that none of these options even existed last year. Most airlines will contact you as soon as you book your flight to make sure you are informed on visa requirements and other particularities. However, if you want to do it on your own, this site is easy and quick. I got my visa within a few days. It’s an easy way to avoid airport lines and extra fees.
Please don’t try to go without a visa and make sure your reason for visit falls within one of the 12 categories. “I want to hang out” is not one of them.
When I was in Havana last month, so were Google and Spotify. What does that mean? Hard to know. I’m guessing wifi is going to be installed in public places very soon, but for now, the most efficient way to get online is to stock up on wifi cards at the airport and use open wifi zones in the big hotels (Capri, Nacional, Presidente). You will see wifi zones pop up on your phone, but they won’t work without a card and a code. You can get a wifi card for 2CUC, it will last an hour. If you have an international plan on your phone, it probably doesn’t work in Cuba. Double check to make sure. My AT&T cell phone worked, but the roaming charges were not the usual. Everything is an exception in Cuba, so double check.
Cuban men are huge flirts. But they are also very nice and very chivalrous if you do end up needing them for anything.
With that said, catcalling can go a bit overboard, but they don’t mean it in a bad way. They genuinely think you are gorgeous. I’m not saying it’s okay to whistle and shout at every woman who walks by, I’m just saying it’s part of the culture and probably won’t cease to be any time soon. I felt extremely safe in Havana, as a matter of fact, the men there are the first ones to warn you about other men there. Go figure. They are also the first ones to not let you out on a dark street and to make sure you’re always accompanied. They’re great dancers too.