Guide To Havana, Cuba: Everything You Need to Know
"One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things." -Henry Miller
Famed for its colorful streets, sought after cigars, and its antique Cadillacs, Cuba is an island very different from the rest of its fellow Caribbean neighbors. But who said different was bad? With differences come unique preparations that you may not be prepared for regardless of how seasoned of a traveler you are. Due to its strict governmental rule paired with its antiquated ways of life there are a few things anyone traveling to this gem should keep in mind. If you are intrigued enough and willing to leave your comfort zone, Cuba is one of the most mesmerizing places you will every travel to.
Although the visa process has caused much angst for many, it is probably the most seamless processes of the Cuban experience lol. As you know (or should know) there are 12 guidelines in which you must qualify for as an American to travel to Cuba that range from journalistic activities to visiting family. If you are American and don’t meet these you pretty much “can’t visit” lol.
The visa is $50 and can be purchased at the airport via most airlines. I personally traveled to Cuba on Delta Airlines, and I bought my visa when I dropped my bag off to be checked. The entire process took no more than 5 minutes. The airline agent asks for your passport and boarding pass, and then they give you a form to fill out and you write in which of the aforementioned 12 qualifiers you are requesting to fly under. Once that is completed you pay for it, and the agent stamps your visa and you can go on about your day. No questions asked, no proof needed, just moolah and a passport. What they don’t tell you at the gate is your visa is a two-way pass. It is perforated and when you go through security you show it and they give it back to you (do not let them take it from you because you have to show to Cuban customs to leave to enter back into your country.)
Places to stay
I might as well work for Airbnb based on the way that I promote for them on a regular basis. I think Airbnb is genius and I will choose it every single time over a hotel or resort. In Havana there are many options for Airbnbs and they are all over Havana and surrounding towns. I personally love Airbnbs on a morale stance because you are giving back to the owner of the house whom is typically a native to the country as opposed to a hotel or resort that often are owned by people from other countries so those profits typically are going back to their home country as opposed to the country where it is located. I will always and forever give back to the country that I’m residing in, and that reason alone is why I am #teamAirbnb. In addition to Airbnbs there are also hostels, hotels, and casas particulares. Casa Particulares are like Airbnbs but not through Airbnb and the owner lives in the same house with you usually and they will cook breakfast and lunch for you at a small cost (usually $5 CUC or less). Casa particulares are great options for the traveler who doesn’t want to live somewhere alone, and wants immediate access to a native who can help them with any questions they may have.
When traveling to Cuba one of the most important things you need to know is that there are two currencies. There’s the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) and CUP (Moneda Nacional/Cuban NON-Convertible Peso). The CUC is the governmental currency and is the strongest currency in Cuba. 1 CUC = 1 USD and 24 CUP = 1 CUC.
If you are traveling with USD there is a 10% tax placed on your conversion so you will not receive as much money back as you submitted. How to get around that you ask? I took out money in The States then converted it to the Euro while still here, then converted the Euro to the CUC once I arrived in Cuba. If you are a procrastinator and run out of time, you can always convert in the airport, however if you want the most out of your money you should convert at your personal bank or credit union. Technically the CUP also called Moneda Nacional is strictly for locals; however that rule is not really enforced so you can pay in CUP if that’s what you have. Both currencies are accepted everywhere so it truly is personal preference. I chose to stick to CUC for 90% of my trip just because it was the easiest mental conversion for me since it is 1:1 to my local currency. To convert from your local currency to Cuban currency you can exchange once you arrive in the airport (however lines are usually crazy long) or you can go to hotels in the city. I personally went to Melia Cohibá Hotel which is near the Plaza de la Revolución.
Tip: If you are traveling from anywhere other than the United States the following doesn’t apply to you. There are ATMs and banks throughout Havana, however if you have a debit/credit card from an American bank you will not be able to withdraw money from their ATMS. If you aren’t American, but your bank is through an American bank, you too will not be able to withdraw money. My suggestion is to bring more money than you plan to spend just so you aren’t ever without money, because I can’t personally think of anything worse than being stuck in a foreign country with $0 to your name lol.
How to get around
There are many ways to get around Havana from my personal favorite of walking, to taxis, and buses. While in Havana I took all 3 means of transportation, but I know everything isn’t for everyone. Depending on where you’re staying in Havana you can walk pretty much anywhere, but if you aren’t comfortable with your knowledge of where you are or don’t have a good sense of direction I would not suggest walking anything more than a few blocks in any direction lol. There are 2 types of taxis in Cuba. There’s the local taxi and the taxi that is run by the government. Most people scrolling through their Instagram accounts who see the antique cars assume those are just for tourists and city tours, however the taxis that the natives take every day are these antique Fords as well. These cars are local run and very inexpensive. They typically cost $0.50 CUC to $1 CUC depending on where you’re going (and who you are) because if they can tell you’re not a local they will charge you more which will cost approximately $1 CUC to $2 CUC which still isn’t expensive. Luckily I was perceived as a native with Spanish speaking + my brown skin. 💁🏾💁🏾 When taking these taxis think of Uber Pool and riding with strangers, but not as regimented because you can be picked up anywhere on the street and dropped off anywhere on the street. Also, the drivers speak to you through hand signals before they pick you up. They will hold a 1 out the window which indicates they only have room for one person, so if you’re more than 1 you have to wait for the next taxi. They also have a signal that means they are only traveling up and down the main street so if you need to travel off the main road you will have to wait for another taxi. Speaking to natives coupled with paying attention to detail I was able to pick up on these tricks so I wasn’t stuck outside in 90 degree weather wondering why I’m not being picked up. If you’re not into sharing a taxi you can get a personal one and those typically will cost approximately $5 CUC, but that’s not fun, live like a local! Lastly, there’s the bus. If you don’t speak Spanish I highly suggest you don’t take the bus. The bus is the local way to get around the city and it moves very fast. You get on fast, and get off fast and you need to know where you’re going. However, the bus is the most cost efficient way to get around costing approximately $20 CUP which equals approximately $0.84 CUC.
This is the biggest question I’ve been asked about (while I was in Cuba and since I’ve been back). How were you posting every day on your story and on your page on IG? Well if you’ve done your research you know that internet is not a thing in Cuba. Reason being, Cuba is a communist government meaning their government wants to monitor what they do and do not have access to. So if there was internet everywhere throughout the country what would stop the natives from going to Google like the rest of us to do their own research as opposed to having to listen to what is being told to them? Nothing. Only within the last 2 years has internet become more available to the natives; however it is still very scarce. There are parks throughout Havana where you can purchase wifi cards. These cards cost $3 CUC for 1 hour of usage. As you can see $3 CUC is very expensive to a native based on their salaries so although there is access, they have to be intentional with how they use the internet they buy because $3 CUC adds up very quickly. The parks wifi radius gives a range of about a block and a half. Once you walk outside of those parameters your wifi cuts off. The good thing about the cards is that you don’t have to use the whole hour in one sitting. Once you’re done using wifi you can just turn off your wifi, and your wifi clock will stop and when you choose to use again type in your code again and your clock will pick back up where you left off.
As a travel blogger I needed to have internet just because I wanted my followers to see everything I was seeing as I was seeing as opposed to one massive upload once I returned back to the states as I’ve seen from others. I know I personally can’t watch your 4 day trip in one sitting lol and eventually stop watching. What I did is I would go to the park in the morning and post to my story about my plans for the day and answer any texts/DMs I had waiting for me then while I was out I would document everything on my IG story and just upload it but obviously it wouldn’t upload. Then once I returned home before I went out for the night I would go back to the park and upload my entire day then repeat for night time events. So I would typically use wifi for 20 minutes or less in one sitting. I actually enjoyed disconnecting from the outside world which I understand isn’t for everyone. But what’s the fun in traveling to a new country if you don’t embrace their day to day life? One day I know I didn’t use internet at all because I was literally out all day just living my best life. So who has time to go sit and a park just to connect to internet? Just embrace the lack of internet and you’ll realize that you don’t really neeeeddd it, it’s just a luxury.
Tip: [iPhone users] the first time you try to connect to wifi don’t be alarmed because it may take a second to load. Most people in Cuba don’t have an iPhone and when I tried to connect my phone it didn’t connect like the other phones and when I asked the wifi card seller he hit me with a 🤷🏾♂️. So don’t fret my dear iPhone users, once you connect and select the name wait like 15 seconds or so and a new window will pop up and it will ask for the username and password that’s on the card you purchased. Once you enter all of that, hit “connect” (obviously will be in Spanish) and your time clock will start right away. Once finished, swipe up and hit the wifi icon to turn off and your clock will stop.
There is an endless supply of food in Havana. There are fruit and vegetable markets everywhere and you can buy anything there and fruits are as cheap as $10 CUP. There are plenty of restaurants in Old Havana. As you walk up and down the street you will see food everywhere you go. I personally am an advocate for going to Cuba to get Cuban food lol, however there is Italian, Chinese, Arabic, and many other options. My favorite restaurant I went to is called El Cimarron. It is in Vedado Havana and the food is amazing and the vibes are great. When I went there were professional salsa dancers and a live band. They also bring out the guests to dance with them in the front. I had a great time!
There are also great bars that are amazing vibes, good food, and perfect drinks. FYI: Cuba is King of Mojitos and the sugarcane alone is reason enough for you to only drink mojitos while you're there.
Espacio- super cute outdoor space with non stop music. It has multiple rooms that play different types of music. They have food, but I went just for drinks.
Escencia- it's a different type of space because it's actually a huge house. It's been renovated and is divided into 2 sections where there's a bar on one side with seating and the other side is just seating. They have a plethora of food options, and of course their mojitos are awesome.
Local Cost vs. Foreigner Cost
When you go to most places you will notice two set of prices. The local price and foreigner price (extranjeros). The local price is pennies to the foreigner price. Before you get outraged you must understand that the average monthly salary of Cubans are $35- $50 CUC. So to put this in perspective for you my Uber to the airport was $35 USD from my apartment. So my one-way ride to the airport was their entire monthly salary—so hopefully you now understand why they can’t afford to pay $8 CUC to go to a museum and should only be charged $10 CUP instead.
Cuba is an island so there’s obviously a plethora of beaches to go to. However, if you are staying in Havana or surrounding towns the closest beach to get to is Playa Santa Maria. This is the beach that all the locals go to and if you ask them this beach is “dirty and not pretty” however, if you don’t live on an island for a living and a beach isn’t your backyard, you will get to Santa Maria and think that it is beautiful. The water is clear, you can see the coral reef and the sand is white. As soon as you get to the beach you will be met with sea water and salsa music. Like I said this beach is where the locals come, so everyone brings their speakers, coolers, and lays out on the beach just vibing. I liked this beach personally because they rent out umbrellas and chairs for about $2 CUC each and it’s a good choice if you don’t need complete quiet and are down for a mini turn up depending where on the beach you are.
Transportation: If you go to Old Havana there are taxis (they aren't the classic car taxis they're jeeps) that you can take straight to Santa Maria for $2 CUC or you can take a taxi that will make multiple stops before it gets to Santa Maria and those cost $1 CUC.
This beach is a dream. If you go to Varadero first then to Santa Maria you will understand why the locals call Santa Maria “dirty and not pretty” lol. Varadero is pristine. Tranquil. Empty. Blue and white. Getting right to the point, Varadero is the tourist beach. It’s 2 hours from Havana and it is well worth the trip. It’s the resort/touristy part of the island. Driving up all you will see are hotels and resorts lining the streets. In my opinion Varadero is a must see and one of the most beautiful beaches I've ever been to. There wasn't anywhere to rent umbrellas or chairs, but outside of that I have no complaints. There's shops and restaurants right outside the beach so if you want to grab souvenirs, cigars, or food it's all readily available.
Transportation: There's a bus that leaves Havana and it costs $12 CUC. I personally did not take a bus so I can't speak to the experience of it, but after speaking to locals it's the most cost efficient option to get to Varadero. I had a personal taxi (with A/C- true keys to success 🔑). It costs $140 CUC (split between 2 people is just $70 CUC which isn't bad considering the distance). I preferred taking a taxi because I was able to make stops as we drove down the coast and stop if I ever wanted to see something closer up and my driver was able to tell me the history of everywhere we stopped.
Places to Go
Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC)- This was definitely one of my favorite places I went to in Cuba! It's an art gallery with a twist. Their gallery is full of art from artists from all over with themes ranging from women, to sports, to abstract art, to Afro-Cuban. Every floor is something different. Along with the art, there are several bar spaces and you're able to get food also. There's several rooms that have live music playing from Salsa, Rock, Reggaeton, and Hip-Hop. It's only open Thursday- Sunday starting at 8pm. I suggest you get there early before it gets crowded because once it's crowded it will take a while to get in. FAC costs $2 CUC.
Callejón de Hamel- Another favorite of mine. This is an area in Central Havana that is dedicated to the culture of Afro-Cuban religions through the art created by Salvador González. Every Sunday starting at 11 there will be live performances by Rumba groups of song and dance paying homage to our African ancestors. There is great crowd participation and all are welcome. The event is free however they accept tips. The buildings are lined with brightly-colored paintings, murals, sculptures and objects, which depict rituals and deities.
1830 - This is an outside salsa club that is a great time! They have live performances on the stage while everyone dances right in front. There's a lot of seating so if you aren't the dancing type you can definitely be a spectator. There's a bar and restaurant as well. When speaking to locals they call it: Un Mil Ochocientos Treinta as opposed to diaz y ocho treinta. This costs $5 CUC.
Museo de la Revolución- This is definitely a great museum to go to. It chronicles the history of Cuba pre and post their revolution times. It's a very pretty space and definitely worth the trip. It's located in Old Havana and it costs $5 CUC. You're allowed to bring a camera in and take pics, but you have to check your back when you walk in and that is free.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes- This museum had some of the prettiest artwork ever! There are two sections, one for Cuban art and another for international art. This museum is next door to Museo de la Revolución. You cannot take pictures here, so it's in your best interest not to try because they are eyeing you down lol. Me being the rebel I am I got a few snaps but not of everything I wanted lol. This museum costs $8 CUC.
These are just a few of my favorite places, but there's definitely much more to do. I hope this touched on all of your Cuba questions, but if you have anymore questions definitely leave me a comment or send me a DM!
Cuba is definitely one of my favorite countries that I've traveled to! If you haven't gone GO! You won't regret it!