Havana Holiday

What to expect on your first trip to Cuba

December 19, 2014
December 19, 2014

With the news this week that the US and Cuba will resume diplomatic relations for the first time in over 50 years, many will want to visit Cuba for the first time. It’s important to note that while the US is indeed loosening travel restrictions to Cuba, it is not yet officially allowing tourism. In order to fully lift the embargo and permit all travel, Congress will have to get involved—and that could be a long and messy fight.

But it’s now easier for Americans to travel there than before. This guide, intended for the first-time traveler to Cuba, was created with the help of Marcos Pérez, a Spanish PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University and a Cuban-American who has visited Cuba many times, as well as Joe Diaz, co-founder of travel magazine AFAR. I’m also drawing from my own experience—I lived in Havana for a month in January 2013, as part of a licensed study-abroad program.

Money

There are two types of currency in Cuba: the CUC, or the Cuban convertible peso, an artificial currency pegged at a 1:1 ratio to the US dollar that fuels the tourist economy; and the CUP, or the regular Cuban peso, which most everyday Cubans use. The Cuban government announced that it will do away with the dual currency system, but that has yet to take effect. Expect to be dealing with CUCs until something changes.

Until now, Americans needed to bring cash to exchange, but the new policies will allow Americans to use debit and credit cards. It’s still advisable to bring cash, and Diaz says expect to allocate around $100 a day. The best exchange rates are at banks. Hotels usually have decent exchange rates, but will charge you for the convenience. Expect to tip reasonably everywhere you go—cab drivers, waiters, hotel employees, and most other Cuban workers earn extremely low salaries.

Americans can now legally bring alcohol and tobacco products back to the US, so you no longer have to worry about being stopped for bringing anything legal back to the states. Just keep your hoard under $400, and alcohol or tobacco souvenirs under $100.

Transportation

You’ll most likely be entering Cuba via José Martí International Airport, a few miles outside of Havana. Don’t bring a laptop or other electronic devices. Communications devices are not allowed in; although laptops technically are permitted, customs officials probably will give you a hard time. And in any event, the internet in Cuba—if you can find access to it—is so preposterously slow that it’s essentially unusable (though this may change soon).

The most common mode of transportation in and around Havana are taxis. There are two types: state taxis with blue license plates, and private taxis bearing yellow license plates. State taxis are metered and generally are considered nicer and more reliable than private taxis, which have fixed rates. That said, you can sometimes negotiate the price of a private ride. Pérez says to never get into a taxi without first knowing where you stand with the fee. “Don’t be afraid to walk away,” he says. “Cars are aplenty in Havana.”

If you’re based in Havana, most taxi rides that stay within the city shouldn’t cost much more than 10 CUC. A ride from the airport to central Havana should be around 20 to 25 CUC. And a trip from Havana to Trinidad (335 km) should be roughly 100 CUC. That same trip to Trinidad costs 25 CUC on the Viazul public bus.

Pérez says that using public transportation is an option, if you want to save money and are feeling adventurous. “Although it’s the cheapest and perhaps the most fun, it is unreliable,” he says. Standard fare on the MetroBus, Havana’s principal bus system, are 0.05 CUC. There are some hop-on, hop-off buses that cost 5-10 CUC for a full day pass. For shorter trips where you know exactly where you have to go, it’s best to just grab a cab. If you want to travel long distances, and don’t want to to use public transportation, you’ll probably have to rent a car, which can cost as much as 100 CUC per day (including insurance).

For Americans traveling to Cuba legally, you’ll have a government-sanctioned itinerary with a tour guide. But Diaz says it’s easy to still do your own thing. “If you tell your guide that you’re tired and don’t need him anymore, you send him home and go off on your own adventure,” he says.

Food and drink

Cuban food runs the gamut from Caribbean to Spanish to African cuisines. You won’t have too much trouble finding Italian, French, or even American-style sandwich shops either. The only McDonald’s (for now, that is) in Cuba is on Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

The average meal in Cuba will cost you around 8 to 12 CUC. “The best meals to be had in Havana are either at places cheaper, or pricier than that,” says Pérez. Indeed, street food provides some of the best meals you’ll have in Cuba. A hole-in-the-wall joint around the corner from our hotel in Havana sold all sorts of interesting pizzas for what was the equivalent of 30 cents.

A good strategy for tourists (and what I usually did) was to eat breakfast at the hotel, snack on various cheap meals off the street for lunch, and plan a nicer, sit-down meal for dinner. Pérez recommends Le Chansonnier, a French restaurant in Havana with “mind-blowing” dishes.

You probably don’t want to drink the tap water. Stock up on bottled drinks when you arrive: they’re often cheapest at liquor stores. The one adjacent to our hotel ran out of bottled water numerous times, leaving us to live off of soda (and beer) for a day here and there. Tap water at most restaurants should be okay as they’ll boil it before serving, but you should ask beforehand, and if you’re hesitant, drink something out of a bottle or can.

Rum is the staple drink in Cuba, and you can’t leave without sampling a variety of mojitos or cuba libres. Havana Club is the rum you’ll find most often (it’s not spectacular, but still better than most rum sold in the US). And though Bacardi no longer makes rum in Cuba, its building in Old Havana is an architectural marvel. It’s one of only a few buildings to be recently renovated. Try a “Ron Collins”—the Cuban version of a Tom Collins.

Accommodation

There are plenty of quality hotels in and around Havana, and in other cities. In Havana, the neighborhood of Vedado is centrally located and a good point of departure for seeing all the things the city has to offer. Vedado is where we stayed, at the Hotel Habana Libre. It has the same amenities you’d expect anywhere else: multiple bars and restaurants, a pool, a cafeteria, an internet cafe, meeting rooms, and event halls. In peak season (December and January) a standard room at a place like the Libre will cost you $130 a night per person. But from August to October it could cost as low as $60. The Libre is about in the middle of the pack—there are five-star hotels that could cost you upwards of $400 a night, and there are more dingy spots that go for less than $40.

There are a number of all-inclusive beach resorts on the Jardines del Ray, an archipelago in the central part of the country. While Havana is right on the water, there are no accessible beaches in the city itself.

If you’re on a tighter budget, or want to further immerse yourself into Cuban culture, you can stay at a casa particular—essentially a private homestay. These range from full homes or apartments, to apartments attached to private residences, to rooms in private homes. They’re safe, but Pérez says to make sure you have an updated guidebook when choosing which one to book. Most casa particulares cost between 10 and 30 CUC per night.

Scams, crime, and security

A friend of mine ventured—perhaps, irresponsibly—late one night to the Malecón, a popular esplanade along the Havana coast. He was approached by a group of people dressed in drag who moved in close and then proceeded to dance around him. Before he knew it, they were walking away with his wallet. We were told later that he was the victim of a “Magic Circle,” an infamous ruse that sometimes targets tourists.

The Malecón is not necessarily a dangerous place to be at night—it’s often filled with people dancing and singing, or just hanging out—but you should be careful, especially if you look like a tourist.

Don’t buy cigars off the street (they’re probably fake). Don’t exchange currency with someone off the street. When buying anything, make sure your change is in the same currency as what you paid with. Do not engage with a man who is offering to help you meet a woman: he is probably a pimp.

All of that being said, Cuba is less dangerous than most Caribbean countries, especially for violent crime. Havana especially has a large military and police presence. Nearly all crime that a tourist might experience is of a petty nature, but be vigilant. The “Magic Circle” incident was the only crime any of us experienced during our month-long stay.

The majority of Cubans have no hostility toward Americans or other tourists. Quite the contrary, they are extremely kind, open, and curious about culture outside of Cuba. One man who approached us was absolutely obsessed with the New York Yankees, and wanted to know if any of us had ever been to a game or had seen Derek Jeter play.

Recommended things to do

Havana

  • La Zorra Y El Cuervo jazz club
  • Hotel Nacional bar
  • Museo de la Revolución
  • Watch the Industriales baseball team play at Estadio Latinoamericano
  • Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
  • Colon Cemetery
  • Explore Old Havana (Habana Vieja)
  • Morro Castle
  • Tropicana Club

Elsewhere

  • Las Terrazas village and nature reserve in Candelaria
  • Ernest Hemingway’s house (Finca Vigía), San Francisco de Paula
  • Che Guevara Mausoleum in Santa Clara
  • Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata in Mantanzas
  • Casa de Diego Velazquez in Santiago

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