During a recent first-time trip to Havana, Cuba, Louise Chandler discovered the beauty and challenges of the bustling city for herself. In this article she describes some of her favourite things to do and travel tips that visitors to Havana really ought to know about.
Popstar Camilla Cabella sings “Havana oh-na-na, half of my heart is in Havana, ooh-na-na!” and having recently returned from the city, I understand why! Walking around the capital city, inspired by Spanish colonial history, it is unsurprisingly easy to fall in love with the place.
There’s no getting away from the fact that Havana is a busy city! At any hour of the day or night, cars rush around the city – sometimes at cruising speeds and at other times in a flurry. I soon discovered the myriad ways that people travel about; huge crowds of people, mopeds, bikes, coaches and many horse and cart combos, each vying for position.
Whichever way you choose to travel around Havana, be sure to not miss taking in sights such as the baroque ‘Catedral de San Cristobal’ and ‘Plaza Vieja’, in the old town both of which reflect the city’s vibrant architectural mix.
If you are staying in the surrounding areas of Havana, schedule in a walk along the ‘Malecon’ – a promenade that runs for miles, to experience Havana ‘Old Town’. This was a pleasant pastime that I thoroughly enjoyed.
One of my favourite memories was sitting with a mojito in hand, watching the world go by in ‘Parc Centrale’. Take up the opportunity to spend a few hours learning about one of the country’s great exports: rum! The Havana Club museum teaches you why the traditional drink has been inextricably linked to the country since 1934, thanks to mass sugar cane farming and production.
It’s not by accident that Havana has a reputation of being a party capital. As you wander around, you can’t help but be seduced by live performances blaring out of most hotels and bars. Pop in to enjoy live bands for shoulder-shimmy style dancing. I loved hearing the musical notes drifting through the side streets to lure people into venues. Be open to enjoying impromptu percussion playing, singing and dancing sessions of salsa music.
A visit to Havana would not be complete without a tour of the city in a vintage convertible car. This experience was great as I was able to see undiscovered areas off the beaten path. The bubble-gum pink Cadillac car I chose was built in 1952 and still offered a smooth and comfortable ride allowing me to take in the sights and scenes of Havana. I particularly enjoyed learning about the country’s political history involving Che Guevara.
In spite of the city’s recent tourism boom, the sad fact is that in many areas you will notice that quite a lot of buildings need TLC and have fallen into extreme disrepair. However, I was able to see past this and marvelled at the grandeur of the buildings. It was easy to imagine them in their former glory and appreciate their splendour.
For those looking for an idyllic beach stopover, from Parc Centrale you can take a bus to Santa Maria beach which is only about 40 minutes (buses run at certain times). This will make a cheap and cheerful excursion as it costs just 5 cuc for a return journey. What you get? Aquamarine, tranquil waters, and the gentle, shallow sea gently lapping over a golden sandy beach. Heaven.
I really enjoyed my trip to Havana but like any new travel destination, having a few insider tips and advice would be the extra icing on the cake. I have compiled a few tips and advice for anyone planning a trip to Havana.
When you arrive at Havana international airport, you will need to exchange your British pounds into Cuban Convertible Pesos (aka CUC), the currency for tourists. There is a separate currency for locals that is not widely accepted so steer clear of it. Otherwise, you have to find a ‘Cadeca’ which is an exchange terminal to obtain money. Banks are available but tend to have extremely long queues (not how you want to spend your precious vacation time).
Cash is king
ATM machines are rare and even when you find one, they rely on a good internet connection so they may not work. Cash is king in Havana so take enough to last your whole trip.
Park your British reserve and be prepared to haggle
Be prepared to haggle for most things such as taxis and souvenirs, for example (apart from places like bars and restaurants that come with a priced menu) you’ll find that a lot of times people are open to negotiation.
Be ready to enjoy seasonal food
Food is seasonal. This is great if you’re flexible about what you eat. Seafood is plentiful and fresh with lobster being a reasonably priced dish, delicious fruits, meats vegetables. Some places offer vegetarian options, but I didn’t see vegan or gluten free options if you have those dietary requirements. There are no fast food chains or coffee chains so be prepared to take time to eat and savour your food in Havana.
Some cafes / restaurants have free WiFi (at certain hours). You can also buy an internet card that allows you to access the internet for an hour (in one go). Depending on where you buy it – it will cost 1-3 Cuban Peso (cuc) per card and most hotels and Casas (aka B&Bs) sell them. Using your data roaming will cost you a fortune so avoid using it. Also, text with caution – using emoticons on my text messages racked up a bill of £26 because emoticons apparently make messages longer according to Cuban telecoms companies, so they charge you extra for the pleasure to be expressive! Sigh!
Collective taxis and Ubers run 24/7 across Havana, just hail them to be taken where you need to go. Don’t be surprised if you jump in and there are people already en-route to somewhere so you’re sharing the journey, and this makes the drive cheaper albeit somewhat confusing.
Beware of the “promoters”
We came across friendly and helpful people in main squares and roads offering to take us to bars, giving information on where to buy gifts and souvenirs etc. Beware of these street sellers and ‘happy helpers’ because we found their true motivation was to ask for money in exchange for their temporary friendship. They call themselves “promoters” but my advice? Politely say no and refuse their help because it will most certainly come at a cost.
Visit the official Havana tourism website