Havana, Cuba

*Scroll down for tips on how to survive and enjoy travelling in Cuba

  • Visited December 2018

Havana is a city of contrasts and for me there are two faces to the city: ‘Havana Pretty’ and ‘Havana Sh*tty’. Some parts are chic, some parts are shabby chic and some parts are just plain shabby, but that’s Havana and I loved it, flaws and all. Most tourists come to Havana and they never really venture beyond Habana Vieja, the old town, but that’s a real shame. There is much beauty to be found amongst the areas of ‘real’ Havana and if you choose not to explore them then you haven’t really experienced the city at all. At no point did I ever feel unsafe in any part of Havana so I encourage you to leave the touristy old town and roam the whole city. Havana is a large, widespread city, so I would recommend focusing on exploring the sites area by area. Transport options include old American cars, bike taxis, Coco taxis (a yellow motorised vehicle for two passengers), public bus and walking. Havana does have a bus tour, which I think is a hop on hop off service but I didn’t bother with this as I prefer to walk everywhere as much as possible.

Suggested Activities

  • Visit the Jose Marti Memorial at Plaza de la Revolución. The best views of the city are from the top of the tower. It’s 1 CUC to walk around the base and 4.50 CUC to access the tower. The famous Che Guevara mural is opposite.
  • Visit the cemetery – El Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón – which is huge and has some stunning tombs and memorials. 5 CUC entry.
  • Visit the Hotel Nacional de Cuba which is steeped in mafia and old Hollywood celeb history.
  • Tread in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway – visit the Hotel Ambos Mundos to see the room he used to stay in and write (5 CUC entry), drink a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio or a daiquiri at La Floridita (he is credited with helping to invent both).
  • Spend time people-watching in the plazas: my favourite one was Plaza Vieja but the other key plazas are Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza de Armas.
  • Take a stroll along The Malecón – if the water is calm enough. When I visited the Malecón was off limits.
  • Stroll along Calle Oficios and Calle Obispo – you will find historical buildings, old pharmacies etc, and restaurants/bars offering excellent live music.
  • Visit Callejón de Hamel, especially if you are an art fan like me – it’s a cool alleyway showcasing the work of artist Salvador Gonzáles Escalona: Afro-Carribean street art murals and sculptures.
  • Museum hop – Havana has excellent museums: Museo de la Revolución, El Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes etc.

Recommended Restaurants/Bars

There is more to Havana than the tourist traps of La Bodeguita del Medio and La Floridita….

  • Azucar – Plaza Vieja – serves good food and amazing cocktails. I splurged on a bespoke gin and tonic on one occasion and it was fantastic! Nab a seat on the balcony to catch the sun and people-watch to your heart’s content. There is a tapas bar on the corner next to Azucar (the name has escaped me…) which is also good.
  • El Chanchurro – a cool place with the tongue-in-cheek slogan that Ernest Hemingway never visited. Tasty food and decent cocktails. It’s only a small place so expect to queue outside to get a table.
  • La Cava in the Teatro – touristy but my friends and I had a good time here. We had the set menu which included a main meal and a drink but if you want to treat yourself you can indulge in the after-dinner package which includes a cigar, rum and coffee. The lovely thing about this is the server comes to table, presents the cigar and smokes one with you whilst giving you information about Cuban cigars, how they are made etc.
  • La Taberna – Plaza Vieja – fab little place to grab a snack, cocktails and enjoy live music on an evening.

Travelling around Cuba gives you an insight into what travel must have been like back in the day when travellers didn’t have constant access to WiFi, smartphones and Apps that make life easier. It’s not always easy though so here are some tips to help you.

TIPS: How to Survive and Enjoy Cuba

  • Read up on the history of the Cuban Revolution before you go and make sure you are familiar with Jose Marti, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro – all three men are revered in Cuba and it will help you to know and understand their roles in Cuba’s history before going.
  • Download the Google Translate App and download Spanish offline – or take a Spanish friend with you like I did 😉
  • Download Google Maps offline or Maps.Me to help you navigate your way around the country.
  • Take a currency other than US dollars with you – preferred currencies are the British Pound, the Euro or Canadian Dollar.
  • There are two currencies operating in Cuba but the reality is tourists are expected to use the CUC whereas locals use CUPs so you don’t need to worry about trying to use two currencies at the same time. Always check the change you are given though to make sure you haven’t been given CUPs instead of CUCs (one CUC is roughly 25 CUPs).
  • You can use your bank cards in some restaurants etc but expect to pay in cash everywhere else.
  • There are ATMS in Havana but you may not find many others in the rest of the country. When using an ATM, know that some only distribute 5 CUC notes, or only 10 CUC notes, or they may limit how much you can take out in one go (if your transaction is declined for example it does not mean you have insufficient funds, it just means if you want to withdraw a large sum that you may have to do it in more than one transaction and pay a charge each time).
  • Book your first night’s accommodation in Havana using HostelWorld, Booking.com (see my home page for a promo link…) etc and then your casa will help you book accommodation in the next place you want to go to.
  • Contrary to rumours there is food available in Cuba and you can eat very well here. The only difference is there are no convenience stores like 7Elevens for you to grab a quick drink and snack and no fast food places like McDonalds so you will always eat in restaurants/bars.
  • It can be difficult to find and buy bottled water. Believe it or not, beer and cocktails are easier to find. Get water when you can. Your casa may have water for you to buy or buy bottled water when eating out.
  • Most public bathrooms do not have toilet seats because post the collapse of the soviet union, Cuba underwent a time of extreme hardship and toilet seats are expensive to buy and considered a luxury. Expect to pay to use toilets in most places – 1 CUC is the usual cost – and you may be given toilet paper when you pay, though it’s a good idea to always carry a packet of tissues to use when travelling.
  • Solo travellers – hostels are not really a thing in Cuba though there are a couple in Havana (I’ve heard they are not good…). You will have to stay in casas and when travelling alone that can get costly as you will have to pay for the whole room, rather than just pay for a bed.
  • You are expected to have travel insurance and a return ticket to enter the country. If you are not sure of your plans, just book any flight out of Cuba that you can cancel within 24 hours of buying and then book the flight you really want when you are there.
  • You will need a tourist card to enter. We bought ours at Cancun airport for 360 pesos.
  • Take any toiletries and medications you need with you as you may find them hard to get in Cuba.
  • Download the Culture Trip App – a great site that recommends things to do, places to eat and so on, and you can save articles offline to use when you are in Cuba. I found this to be invaluable.
  • Overall, just have realistic expectations and understand that the people of Cuba are very proud people that have experienced times of poverty and hardship. There are still times today when you may not have bread as part of your breakfast buffet because there is a shortage of flour or no eggs because the host hasn’t been able to get them. Cuban people are warm and welcoming and if you reciprocate that attitude, you will enjoy excellent hospitality and hopefully make some new friends during your time in Cuba.
  • Cuba may not be the Caribbean paradise that most tourists envision before visiting but it is an incredible country and only by travelling around (rather staying put in the Varadero resorts) will you see all that it has to offer.

Selection of pictures from my stay:

Trinidad and Santa Clara, Cuba

  • Visited December 2018

Keen to see more of Cuba, after Viñales, we chose to visit Trinidad and Santa Clara before returning to Havana. We spent two nights in Trinidad, one night in Santa Clara and that was the perfect amount of time for both places.

Trinidad

Trinidad offers visitors a picturesque colonial old town, cobblestone streets, museums, decent restaurants and bars and the obligatory souvenir shops. You can easily get round it all in a day or two. We enjoyed our visit but didn’t like it as much as Viñales. Highlights include the Casa de la Musica, a music venue just steps from the historic Plaza Mayor lauded as the best in Cuba, and the excellent views from the top of the Bell Tower.

Suggested activities:

  • In the evenings catch live music and dance with locals at Casa de la Musica
  • Watch the sunset from the Bell Tower
  • Visit Playa Ancon – a lovely beach 15 minutes drive from Trinidad
  • Visit the Topes de Collantes National Park
  • Enjoy tasty food at restaurants Monte y Mar and Casa Shango.

Selection of pictures from my stay:

Santa Clara

Capital city of the Villa Clara province, Santa Clara is one for the history buffs. Here you will find the final resting place of the revolutionary Che Guevara. The Che Guevara Mausoleum, topped by a large statue of the man himself, is free to enter and contains a museum with pictures and artefacts relating to Che’s life and his role in the Cuban Revolution, and a memorial room with an eternal flame and commemorative plaques for all of the key fighters of the Revolution. Well worth a visit.

Other highlights include the Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado, which honours the Battle of Santa Clara, and the Cafe-Museo Revolución, a fab little cafe/free museum that pays homage to the Revolution. The walls are covered with pictures and mementos, including original letters signed by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Go and enjoy a Copa Revolución ice cream sundae!

Selection of pictures from my stay:

 

Viñales, Cuba

  • Visited December 2018

Located in the Pinar del Río Province of Western Cuba, Viñales is a small town blessed by natural beauty that should not be missed. We intended to stay two nights here but loved it so much we extended our stay to four nights and I could have easily stayed here longer. In complete contrast to the hustle and bustle of the capital city, Viñales is rural Cuba at its finest and is the perfect place to unwind after busy days exploring Havana. Famed for its magotes (steep limestone hills) and tobacco fields, the town consists of colourful one-storey wooden houses with porches that the locals sit out on to watch the world go by and chat to passersby. You may not find as much English spoken here as Havana but if you make the effort to speak some Spanish, you will find the people to be welcoming, engaging and keen to help you make the most of your time in the area.

The town has one main street running through it with multiple restaurants and bars primarily catering to tourists. Many places offer WiFi (which you can access with a pre-paid WiFi card) and Mojitos ranging from 1 to 3 CUCs. There is not a late night drinking culture here but after a day of activities, you can eat well, imbibe cocktails and watch amazing Cuban dancing at Patio del Decimista Centro Cultural. Cave raves do happen in Viñales (not something I did) and if you ask local bar staff they will be able to let you know details of the location if interested.

There are plenty of places to eat in town but our favourite place to have a meal was a restaurant away from the main street – conveniently opposite our casa – called Restaurant Agroecologico Sunset. The food for the restaurant comes from the garden beside it and it’s all organic. With every main meal order, multiple side dishes are provided – yucca, pumpkin, a salad, rice and beans and saffron rice – and they were all delicious. The view from the restaurant is stunning, the service excellent and we absolutely loved their coffee daiquiris. Can’t recommend this place enough.

Suggested activities:

  • Horse-riding in the valley – we paid 20 CUC for four hours. Before the tour we were shown the tobacco plantation and taught how to roll a Cuban cigar. We were given a cigar to smoke before going riding. We had one guide for the two of us, which was great and he was good fun. He took us to a coffee plantation (to sample coffee and rum), a viewpoint (we drank Coco Loco cocktails in coconuts whilst enjoying a magnificent view) and a lake (where we could go swimming if we wanted to). Unlike in some tourist places I’ve been to, the horses here are obviously well taken care of and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
  • Trip to the beach – we went to Cayo Jutius (about an hour and 30 mins from Viñales town). We paid 15 CUC for the shared taxi (picked up at our casa and dropped off in town). Nice clean beach. Only do this trip if the weather is good though as there is not much to do at the Cayo except sunbathing and swimming.
  • Visit to Cave Santo Tomas – we paid 25 CUC for the private taxi and 10 CUC entrance to the cave (included is a safety hat and a guide takes you though the cave). Many tourists visit Indian Cave (which I think involves a boat trip through the cave) but Santo Tomas is the largest and arguably most interesting cave in Cuba so that’s why we chose to do this one instead.
  • Chill out and enjoy living life at a slower pace…

Selection of pictures from my stay: