Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Travel Guide for Havana, Cuba.


With the relaxing of the embargo between the USA and Cuba, I thought now would be a good time to write up my Havana Travel Guide. There's no doubt about it, Cuba will change with the latest progress, so the best time to visit will be within the next year. Cuba is a beautiful country, I completely fell in love with it and it's surprising how cheap it is when you get there. It's also really easy to get there, you just have to be organized and make sure you plan everything before you go.

El Floridita daiquiri in Havana Cuba


Flights

From the UK only one airline flies direct to Havana; Virgin Atlantic. However they only fly on Thursdays and Mondays, which are really awkward days to fly. KLM (change at Amsterdam) and Air France (change at Paris) fly there on a more regular basis, we flew with Air France and really liked it. The food was probably the second best airline food I've had after Cathay Pacific. Flight prices vary, May seems to be the cheapest time to go (it's on the verge of the rainy season which starts in June) which is why we went in May. Our return flights cost us £606 each, however when Virgin Atlantic have a sale on I've seen them for just £500.

Visas

You must have a visa (Tourist Card) to even get on a plane going to Cuba. If you don't have a visa, you won't be allowed to board the flight. You can go to the embassy in London, or you can do it all online. Despite working in London I found it easier to do it all online at Visa Cuba. The visa costs around £30 online (around £15 if you buy it from the embassy). I ordered ours about a month before we left, because once it's issued it's only valid for 180 days, When you enter Cuba it's only valid for 30 days, however you can apply for another 30 day one when in Cuba. 

Hotels

You must put down the name and address of the hotel you're staying at on your tourist card. Even if you're backpacking, always book the first 3 nights of your accommodation for this purpose. In Havana the best luxury hotels in the centre of Habana Vieja (Old Havana) are the Saratoga and Parque Central.

On our last night we stayed at the 5* Melia Habana, which was fantastic, but in the more exclusive residential area of Miramar rather than Old Havana. This was great, mainly because by the end of the trip we really just wanted some junk food. There's a tiny cafe opposite the hotel that sells amazing huge pizzas for just 2CUC each. It was so, so good. It was also interesting to see a different part of Havana.

However, if you'd like to meet some real Cubans then I can highly recommend the Casa Cristo Colonial, which is a beautiful Casa Particular right in the main part of old Havana. We stayed there for three nights and really loved our stay. We had a lockable triple bedroom with an en-suite, fresh towels each day, a safe, a beautiful fresh breakfast each morning, and bottled water all for just £15 each per night. They even woke up at 3am to make sure we got our taxi OK to our early morning flight. Casa Particular's are the Cuban version of a B&B, and they're a great way for Cubans to earn a living and for us to have an insight into their lives.

Casa cristo colonial breakfast cuba



Resorts & All-Inclusive Packages

A lot of families and Brits do a travel agent organized 'all-inclusive package' which includes a night or two in Havana, and then a week or so in Varadero. I was adamant I didn't want to do this, I didn't want to have a week in a resort full of other Brits. We decided to do everything ourselves, so we had 3 nights in Havana, then four nights on Cayo Largo Del Sur, and then one more night in Havana before flying home. Cayo Largo was insanely beautiful, and was very quiet (there are only 3 resorts on the island), with only Canadians and Argentinians for company. It was so refreshing not to be surrounded by Brits drinking the bar dry. We stayed at the only 4* hotel on the island (there are no 5*'s), the Sol Cayo Largo, and I booked our flights through CubaJet.

Playa Sirena Cayo Largo Del Sur Cuba



Currency

There are two types of currency in Cuba; the CUC (Cuban convertible peso, pronounced 'cook'), which is the tourist currency, and typically has a conversion rate of £1 to 1.5CUC, and the CUP (Cuban peso) which is the local currency and has a typical conversion rate of £1 to 40CUP. You cannot buy Cuban currency outside of Cuba, so you must take all the cash you need (I took £350 for 10 days) with you and convert it when you arrive.

When you get to Havana airport (Jose Marti International), come out of the airport and you will see the Cadeca, make sure you go straight there when coming out of the airport, because a long queue will form very quickly. I transferred £325 into CUC, and £25 into CUP. This was way too much CUP, I'd recommend only exchanging £10 max into CUP. You can only use it for street food and paying at restaurants if you tell them before you sit down to eat. It's the local currency and they hate tourists using it, however make sure you do get some for street food (which is delicious and totally safe btw), as it'll work out much cheaper.

Taxis

We booked our taxi from the airport to the Casa in advance at the same time as paying for our Casa Particular on cubaaccommodation.com. A guy was standing there at the airport entrance with my name on a sign, and he patiently waited for us to get our currency from the Cadeca. He was really lovely and when he couldn't get to the Casa due to all the roadworks digging up the roads in Old Havana, he got out, ran to our Casa, and came back with the owner who helped us with our bags. 

In Havana taxis are the quickest and cheapest way to get around (aside from walking), they're everywhere so easy to find, and really cheap. Always get the yellow ones, that's the general rule in Havana. However, when we arrived at Playa Barcoa airport from Cayo Largo, we hadn't pre-booked a taxi and there was one outside that wasn't yellow. The guy was lovely and we liked him so much we asked him to pick us up from the hotel and drop us off at the airport again the next day. Sure enough he was there bang on 5pm when we asked him to be. Just be careful with taxis and make sure it's safe.

Eating Out

Before we went to Cuba I heard loads of stories about how awful the food is there, but actually, I had some of the best meals of my life. To be fair all of them were at one restaurant; Paladar Los Mercadares. This place was the highlight of our trip, so much so we went back twice. Each meal was sublime. The lobster that cost only £20, oh my. The veggie lasagne, oh my. The mojitos, oh my. 

Always eat out at a Paladar rather than the touristy government restaurants. The government restaurants tend to be bland and boring although on our first night we only paid 5CUC (about £3) at one of these for a huge meal of rice, plantain, and meat. Paladar's offer you real Cuban cuisine as they're essentially a restaurant in a local Cuban's house. We also ate at the Paladar Dona Eutimia, which was good, but not as good as Los Mercadares. The street food in Havana is really good, their ice-cream out of the little windows is so delicious and if you pay in CUP, it's only around 6p. Yep. six pence. pennies. six of them.

There are some supermarkets in Havana where locals can use their rations, but tourists aren't allowed in these. We got into trouble when we walked into one looking for bottled water, we explained we wanted water and they just gave us some bottles and shooed us out.

Pineapple Lobster at Paladar Los Mercadares in Havana Cuba


Public Transport 

We didn't use any public transport as we heard that tourists weren't allowed, however this isn't actually true. They just advise tourists not to use them as pick-pocketing is rife on them.

Safety

I have never felt so safe in a country. Honestly. We were three young women alone, and we never once felt in danger. Everyone was so friendly, we never had any issues whatsoever, and if you do there are police everywhere anyway. Granted we were sensible, but I always had my DSLR slung around my neck and people just wanted us to take photos of them and were intrigued by where we were from. I could't get over how friendly everyone was, they just wanted to chat and find out about life outside Cuba. The two guys below were selling eggs on the street and asked for photos with us.

Locals on the streets of Havana, Cuba


Politics

Naturally people aren't too keen on discussing the political situation. Only two people were willing to discuss it and they were two rich kids whose father's worked in the government. They told us they wanted to move to London and Canada. Every 'normal' Cuban however, refused to discuss it and swiftly changed the subject.

Also if you make a phone call at a hotel, you must give them the number of who you're calling. If it's a local call, the person on the desk will 'tap in' and listen on the call. We experienced this twice when arranging to go clubbing with one of the rich kids we'd met.

Internet and Phone Service

There is no internet. Nada. No 4G, no 3G, nothing. You'll only find Wifi in the 5* hotels, and often you have to pay for it. There's also very little phone service and you'll only have it on certain phone networks (I'm with O2 and I got phone service the whole time I was in Havana). There are internet cafes, but they're heavily guarded by security, very expensive, and there are massive queues for them.

Using Credit Cards

Nope. No can do. Take all the cash you'll need, because the only places you can use a debit or credit card is in hotels and resorts. You can only withdraw cash from a bank or ATM with a debit card that has absolutely no affiliation to a US bank (which includes the majority of British banks). 

Drinking Water

Whatever you do do not drink the tap water in Cuba. Even the locals don't drink it. Make sure you always buy bottled water. You can get them from little corner shops that sell bottled water, cans of fizzy drinks, cigars, and rum. Bottled water typically costs 1CUC a bottle.

Scams

Do your research and do not fall for these. Ignore or politely decline anyone who asks you to go to the Buena Vista Social Club, the Casa de la Musica, or the Tropicana. If you want to go to the Tropicana then take the official route and get tickets through the Parque Central. You gradually get used to just walking without stopping while politely smiling at the scam artist and saying 'no gracias' very firmly.

Tropicana Havana Cuba


Going Out 

Going out in Cuba is easy, there are so many cool places and random parties that kick off in bars and clubs. Avoid the overpriced tourist trap Casa de la Musica, and head to the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, also known as the FAC, to see how real Cubans party (trust me, it'll surprise you...).

Classic Cars

You can take a tour in a Classic Car, which I highly recommend. Head to the Hotel Nacional or the Parque Central, and you'll see dozens of Classic Cars all lined up. Choose which one you want and negotiate a price. We paid just 25CUC for three of us to have an hour's tour. They took us through Chinatown, to the John Lennon park, to Revolucion Square, and they even spent aaaages taking photos for us. They thought it was hilarious. 

Classic Car tours in Havana, Cuba














Cuba is such an amazing country. It's like no where else I've ever been to before. It was without a doubt one of the best holidays of my life, and I'm desperate to go back ASAP before it changes. Even when we were there we noticed some modern aspects coming in, like brand new Mercedes' and Audi's driving around. I honestly can't recommend it enough, even if you've never thought of it as a holiday destination. It's so colourful, so beautiful, and the people are so nice and welcoming!

Obispo street in Havana, Cuba


If you have any questions, please do ask 
Click the links below to see my Cuba blog posts!

Havana, Day 1 (Exploring Old Havana)
Havana, Day 2 (Riding in a Classic Car)
Visiting the Tropicana Club, Havana
Cayo Largo Del Sur, Cuba
Playa Paraiso & Playa Sirena, Cuba
Frabica de Arte Cubana (clubbing in Havana)
Havana, Cuba Day 3 (our last day in Cuba)


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18 comments

  1. Ahhh this makes me so nostalgic! I miss our Cuba trip - I don't think I ever blogged about a holiday as much as I did with Cuba! I'm so glad we got to see it before the embargo lifted or as my American friend said 'before American tourists turn it into Disneyland'! x

    Jasiminne | Posh, Broke, & Bored

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    Replies
    1. I know, I miss it SO much! Our photos are so amazing, I always look at them longingly haha. So many amazing memories - we can reminisce tonight!

      C x

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  2. This makes me want to just jump on a plane and fly there now - super useful info!! One of my friends has spent a lot of time in Cuba and I can't wait to go there with her one day to see the country.

    Rosie xx

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  3. Really interesting post! Such beautiful pictures xx

    Abi | abistreetx.blogspot.co.uk

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  4. Omg this is so thorough and I'm highly contemplating getting Ben to book us a trip to Cuba for our holiday this year. I can't pretend to be terribly knowledgeable on the politics, but I know I'd definitely want to get there before it all changes!

    Katie <3

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Haha, you must do it!! It's such an incredible place!

      Have a read up on the politics before you do go, it's fascinating but awful!

      C x

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  5. I'm actually thinking of going to Cuba soon so this was super helpful, thanks girl!
    www.diamants-au-chocolat.blogspot.ie

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  6. Thanks for the great info. Any other nightlife recommendations?

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  7. Awesome post! Is the public transport convenience there?

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  8. Did you get flagged coming back to the US Border and Customs Patrol because you went to cuba? I am going there in April.

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  9. Great article - just wondering how much you guys budgeted per day?

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  10. Hey Tash, Oooh I'm afraid I can't remember to be honest! I took £300 spending money with me though and that paid for the Casa Particular, all taxis, all activities, and all food and drink over 9 days! Our other hotels were pre-paid.

    C x

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  11. World In Color Tours02/05/2016, 23:45

    Thanks for the all the tips and recommendations! The article is very thorough. www.worldincolortours.com

    ReplyDelete
  12. you write very well this article, i got good info after read your effective writing style. there are a lot of good resource here, i hope you will continue this work. usefultravelsite.com

    ReplyDelete
  13. Fabulous pictures and great post. Travelers who would like to go cheaper can consider staying in homestays in Cuba. Not just the stay, but meals are also more economic plus you can experience the authentic Cuban family lifestyle. http://www.cubasolidays.com/ also has a wide selection of B&Bs, guesthouses and casas available in Cuba and you can make direct bookings www.cubasolidays.com/

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  14. Great post! As you mention casas particulares are the best way to explore the real Cuban lifestyle and cuisine spending less money than in hotels in Cuba www.cubasolidays.com/

    ReplyDelete

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