Last December, I spent a week in Havana exploring the city and the architecture. I left the US seeking colorful Cuba, yet, quickly upon arrival, I found it is so much more than that. Havana is vibrant. Entering the city--surrounded by the streets, the buildings, the cars--feel like going back in time, at least 50 years. My home base for the trip, sponsored by Airbnb, was a 1925 family-owned mansion. Modern day conveniences like safe tap water, one-stop-shop markets or convenience stores, and an easily accessible internet are not available.
It's also a city of paradox. Culturally rich, but often structurally in ruins, it's a place where an up-and-coming artist supports his doctor parents because they make only $60 a month each. The country is well educated, because of subsidies, and everyone has a roof over their head. Overall, it ranks high in human development, but the average salary in the state sector is $20 a month.
But Habaneros are creative, and are able to make a life in a city whose infrastructure hasn't evolved. They adapt.
Each person I met, from 25-70 years old, versed me in culture, history, politics, food, rations, and everyday Cuban life. Conversations in Havana were like nowhere else I’ve ever traveled.
And while life is slower in Havana, there is an undeniable energy. It’s infectious. The streets are full of personality and flecked with a rainbow of color. Music pours into the streets, coming from open windows, restaurants, and cars at all hours of the day. Havana is anything but quiet, it’s raucous and charismatically fills a room where talk is an art form.
Take your time here and soak it all in; you have to be prepared to move at the pace of the Habaneros. The city is slow and sultry. But Havana is changing and it won’t be like this forever.
American travel to Cuba is still restricted, but it is possible. The US and Cuba have opened up commercial air travel as of January 2016. The US has a comprehensive set of trade and travel restrictions in place with Cuba, commonly referred to as the Cuban Embargo.
There are twelve specific categories of travel to Cuba that are authorized, one of which is referred to as the People to People exchange. A travel agency, like Cuban Educational Travel, can set this up for you and you often pick it up at the airport. Under this exception, entities are granted permission from the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to organize short term educational and cultural exchange trips to the island. Tourists can spend 30 days in Cuba with a 30-day extension but need a target de Turista (tourist card).
You can now fly directly to Havana from many major US cities. If you aren’t flying direct, allow 3-4 hours between flights for a commuter flight from Miami. You need all of this time. There are a number of steps to get from the US to Havana and Havana back to the US that take much longer than traveling anywhere else.
Busy season in Havana is December - March and good places book quickly. I spent a year hosting through Airbnb and it’s always the first place I check when I travel to a new place. I like the local perspective and staying with a host family can give you inside info on what’s happening in the neighborhood or the city. The majority of the hotels, especially the bigger ones, are run by the government and I, personally, would rather support the local families.
Habana Viejo is a lively, urban and more touristy section of the city. Vedado is tree-lined street and mansions turned into casa particulares. From my experience, stay NE of the Necropolis Cristopher Colon (the cemetery) and East of the Miramar neighborhood unless you are ready to commute to all of the sites.
I stayed in Hostal Silvia - the pictures don’t do it justice - you can see more here. I rented the upstairs apartment of the carriage house with my own deck, private bath, and air conditioning. If this doesn’t work for you, check out the airbnb Havana wishlist I created while planning my trip.
WHAT TO PACK
Pack things like sunscreen and toiletries, they are difficult if impossible to find. Bottled water is abundant, so don’t worry about going thirsty.
WHILE YOU'RE THERE
US credit cards and ATM cards do not work in Cuba. Cash is king. Don’t bother with traveler’s checks either.
Cuba has two currencies, the CUC and the CUP that are rumored to be combined as one currency but as of December 2015, both were active. Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) are 25 times more valuable, but this does not completely eliminate the confusion: since goods bought in national pesos have controlled prices, tourists are sometimes confused by prices perceived as "too cheap.” Don’t worry about the CUP, you’ll likely only be dealing with CUC.
The official exchange rate (at the time of my trip) for dollars is .873. There is an extra 10 percent tax on USD that Euros, CAD and other currencies do not incur. Depending on how much money you plan to exchange it might be more cost effective to take Euros unless you have a high bank fee for exchanging money to Euros.
The easiest place to exchange money is at a large hotel. The Hotel Nacional has a currency exchange desk in the main lobby. Stop in, exchange your money, and have a mojito on the patio that overlooks the Malecón. You might even see the majestic peacocks on the lawn. I took American dollars to exchange. I didn’t have enough time for my bank to order Cuban currency for me (not sure this is even possible) and the airports I went through (Portland and LA, I forgot to ask in Miami) were not able to exchange money for me because they didn’t have the Cuban pesos. When returning, I forgot to exchange my pesos back to dollars and my local bank wasn’t able to exchange it for me either. So try doing this before you get on your flight.
Say goodbye to connectivity. The larger hotels have wifi but it’s not reliable and it’s regulated. If you see three to five teenagers standing on the street all looking at their phone, this is a wifi spot. There are a number of spots around town and you can buy a card off the street for 2-3 CUC for an hour of use. It feels a little sketchy and is considered illegal because the people selling the cards wait in line to buy them then mark them up for resale, but I only needed to do this twice during my trip and it seemed safe enough.
Havana, for the most part, is a very safe city, especially during the day. Locals are friendly and will often approach you to you/ask where you're from. From my experience, they are more than happy to give tips on whatever you are looking to do.
Plan to spend a day walking the colorful streets of Habana Centro and Vieja. Lonely Planet has a great walking tour that takes you through the plazas and most of the big landmarks like Plaza Vieja but, if you are like me and like to wander, just let your intuition guide you.
Life in these two neighborhoods is lived out in the street. Kids are playing, men and women are selling fruit and meat. Friends are conversing. Life is lived out in the open, not behind closed doors.
Vintage cars are a big part of everyday transportation. Most prevalent are 1950s American and 1960s Russian cars. You can hire a barbie pink convertible for an hour or a day and tour the city. If that’s too flashy for you, hop in one of the well-worn chevy taxi’s that have been painted a bright color and ride from neighborhood to neighborhood.
Make some time to visit the Cuban Art Factory, La Fábrica de Arte Cubano. It’s a reimagined peanut oil factory in the Vedado neighborhood that is home to some of Cuba’s best artists and creatives. There’s a bar downstairs with amazing mojitos and it regularly hosts bands like the Rolling Stones.
Walk along the Malecon, the shabby seawall that stretches from Habana Vieja to Miramar. Also known as Cuba’s largest sofa. You’ll see families, lovers, teenagers all hanging out and watching the sunset.
Casa de la Amistad and the Decorative Arts Museum are both in the Vedado neighborhood.
Take in music at La Zorra y el Cuervo, Gato Suerto or the state run Casa de la Musica
EAT & DRINK
The quality and price of food vary wildly in Havana. Many ingredients that are second nature basics in our cooking are hard to come by on an island with limited resources.
It’s been said that Cuba is having a restaurant moment. Many restaurants are privately owned. They're called Paladares. Some are in old mansions others are smaller and out of the owner’s own home. In most, plan to expect simple, wholesome fare. At some of the top paladares, make a reservation. Even if they aren’t busy, they won’t seat you without a reservation. See my list below.
Rum based drinks are common and delicious. I had some of the best mojitos of my life while in Havana, not the sugary, overly sweet versions you get in the US.
Rice and beans (moros y cristanos) are a Cuban staple. Moros y Cristianos means “Moors and Christians”. "Moors" refers to the black beans, and "Christians" to the rice. The name of the dish is likely a reference by early Cuban settlers to the Islamic Conquest of Spain (early 8th century) and subsequent Reconquista (15th century) which both had a profound effect on the Spanish culture and language. How’s that for a metaphor?
PLACES TO TRY
- Atelier Paladar
- La Guarida
- San Cristobal
- El Cocinero - next to the Art Factory
- El Dandy - cafe
- Eat at your Airbnb/Casa Particular, breakfast, and coffee each morning
- La Floridita - Hemingway's hangout - have the grapefruit daiquiri (his record is 13 doubles in one sitting)
- Parque Coppelia ice cream
- La Factoria Plaza Vieja - Havana's original microbrewery