I’ve been to Cuba twice now for a total of a month, about two weeks of that has been in Havana. The first time I was lucky enough to be there for my old job, working on the Havana Club Gap Year Experience, and I tagged a few weeks on to holiday with my ex-boyfriend (herein, ‘friend’) at the time. We travelled round for a week exploring Cienfuegos and Trinidad, going all the way up to Playa Ancon in the end.
The second time I was with my mum and we stayed at the Iberostar all inclusive up in Varadero with a quick day trip to Havana. We sunbathed, we swam and we drank pina coladas all day long. It was brilliant.
Cuba is one of the most popular places in the world to go right now, so seeing as I’m asked for my Havana tips all the time, here they are in a quick list for you.
1. Don’t be scared
You’ll hear stories of “bad food”, “dodgy cleanliness”, “no salt or pepper”, etc etc. I travelled Cuba independently for three weeks – travelling Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad – and most recently for a week all inclusive in Varadero and didn’t have a problem. Not a person problem, a food problem, not even a toilet problem.
2. Go to Havana
May seem obvious but some people we met in the hotel in Varadero weren’t even bothering to make their way to the capital. Havana is of course the epicentre of Cuba and if you just stay in your hotel you won’t get a sense of the true Cuba, and what’s the point in that?
3. Take dollars or pounds
Take as much money as you think you’ll need, but don’t worry if you run out as the cashpoints do work (most of the time).
You can’t get Cuban Convertible Pesos in England so either take dollars or pounds to change while you’re there. I changed pounds at the bureau de change at the airport with no problem. I queued for about 10 minutes and there was a security guard there keeping control of things. We changed the rest of the money at the hotel bureau de change, which was just a matter of handing over the pounds and getting the CUCs back.
There are of course cash points too. The first time I went I used these all the time. Sometimes there are queues but there are in England, maybe twice out of the approximately 8 times I used it it didn’t work but there was always another one to try down the road.
4. The food is good!
Cuba could be cited as a blueprint for sustainable food with a known provenance, before all that kind of stuff was fashionable. Their eco mindfulness has come from necessity rather than fashion – seeing as they were cut off from the world and so all the food they needed had to be grown on the island.
I can definitely recommend a meal at Floridita, above – we had a yummy chicken curry with rice and soup for starter. As long as you like chicken, fish, rice, peas, ice cream, pizza, fresh fruit, sandwiches, lobster and / or all the usual breakfast items you’ll be fine. The idea that Cuba has bad food is an outdated urban legend in my mind and as I say, I’ve spent a month in total in Cuba and didn’t get ill (apart from on the plane on the way back – which we decided was the nuts we’d bought off a street seller, so don’t do that).
5. Go in the old cars
Our hotel told us not to, and to use the new resort hoppa bus instead, but I was determined that mum was going in an old car.
The first time I went we took them all the time and went on a two-hour Havana tour on the first day just by hailing one off the street. We went up one of the richest street, round the John Lennon Park, to the Revolution Square and back to the main tourist area. On another day we also got one of the coco taxis to take us to Hemingways’ House, which I’d recommend if you have time. I can’t remember the price but it can’t have been much or we wouldn’t have done it.
When I was there with my mum we took one down to Varadero from our hotel, and then a different one back again. Originally I was determined we were going to go to Havana in one but mum didn’t seem so keen, so we took the bus which was probably a good move as they are pretty banged out when you get inside. I’d recommend you do it with only the usual worries of getting a taxi, nothing more.
The incredible cars in Cuba are one of the first things that come to mind when you think of the country. Anyone who presumes they’re just a tourist draw to be found in the commercial areas is wrong – from outer Havana to inner Cienfuegos the cars were relics of art and a regular sight on the roads. Coming back to the Toyotas and Fords of London has been a big come down.
Driving down the Malecon in a soft top beaut like this is an absolute must when you visit Cuba, and only around £20 for an hour. The taxi drivers will take you on a tour of the city which includes a look around super fancy Miramar and time for a few snaps in Revolution Square and John Lennon Park in Vedado.
You can order the Gran Cars from your hotel reception, but you’ll have no control over which one you get. Thankfully we ended up with the red Chevy below. This first yellow one was to be our final taxi ride in Havana and took us to the airport, again for just £20. We picked him up in the street and he was happy enough to take our suitcases in the boot, which by that time were full to the brim with rum.
6. Drink at El Floridita, Bodeguita and the Nacional
El Floridita and Bodeguita: the two most famous places to drink in Havana. Ernest Hemingway, the legend of Cuba, once said:
My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita.
So, follow his lead. And go for one up at The Nacional overlooking the Malecon too.
7. It’s easy to explore the island
Cuba is the biggest island in the Caribbean so there’s plenty to see. We used the Vizaul bus service to get to Cienfuegos from Havana and then to go onto Trinidad. The journey was fascinating and beautiful, nothing to be scared of. I seem to remember both journeys were about £20 each and the bus was the same standard as you’d find in England, but more fun, because you’re in Cuba.
8. Stay at a Casa Particular
If you’re in Havana for a while don’t be scared to try the Casa Particulars. They’re basically rooms in Cubans houses that have been certified for use by tourists – they invented airbnb before it was a thing. You can stay over for £25 each per night and the money goes to the locals, rather than some big boss at the top. I spent about four nights in these in total the first time and wished I’d discovered them earlier.
9. Bring loads of Havana Club back
A litre of Havana Club in Cuba is less than £5. Pack your suitcase accordingly!
Technically you’re only allowed to bring back two litres, which of course when I was with my mum we did. When I was with my friend we bought back a lot more than that. Note though, we had a stopover in Madrid and they took all the rum off us that we’d bought at Havana Airport and trashed it. Right in front of us. We were gutted. Make sure to book a direct flight to avoid the pain!
10. Havana Airport
There’s not much at Havana Airport. One shoddy duty free full of booze, crips and crappy souvenirs and a shop selling Cuban paninis – that’s it.
11. Stay in Havana and see the Malecon
When I went all-inclusive style I didn’t have time to stay in Havana, but if we’d have planned our day there better we could’ve viewed the Malecon from the Nacional. It’s the main stretch of waterfront down the front of the city where everyone hangs out at night.
When I went three years ago one of the guys from Havana Club told us how the locals had been told not to talk to tourists down there for fear of scaring them off. I don’t know if that still counts but if you’re an all inclusive traveller you may find it a little intimidating, if you’re a backpacker, crack on.
First time I went in April / May and it was beautiful sunshine every day. Hot enough to feel like you’re on holiday but not too hot that you couldn’t move. Second time we went first week of September which is low season and showed as rain and storms every day. In actual fact we only saw rain once (may have rained in the night) and it was beautiful sunshine all day that we sunbathed in.
If you any questions about Cuba, let me know, I love the place!
More on Cuba
Visiting Hemingway’s House in Cuba
Getting Snap Happy with the Incredible Cars in Cuba
Trinidad in Cuba is Incredible: the Proof is in the Pictures