What You Should Know Before Going to Havana, Cuba

My girlfriend and I took a self-guided Educational trip to Havana, Cuba earlier this month for 4 days, so I want to share my thoughts and learnings to those that may be interested in going now that the country has opened up.

What I did in Havana:

First, we spent most of our time in the old town area of Havana. The buildings were quant, debilitated, and beautiful. The people there were kind, and the city was safe at night.

  • Day 1: Our first stay focused on getting settled in. My girlfriends spoke Spanish, so getting a cab at the airport ($20-$30 pesos) and giving the driver the address to our Casa Particular (hostel/host) wasn’t difficult. We lived on the westside of old Havana in what was essentially a 2nd floor basement (very bizarre). We spent most of the afternoon and night wondering around the city looking for good food (there wasn’t any).
  • Day 2: We hit up the beach (Santa Maria). We got a cab near the hotel area and drove ~20 minutes out to the beach ($15-$20 pesos each way). Unfortunately we left too early (9:30am) and the weather was cloudy. So none of the restaurants/shacks were opened, and it was pretty cold. But it was empty, so you had the beach yourselves. We spend the evening back in Havana, exploring more of the museums, castles, and street alleys. We asked a few locals on what there was to do in Havana and outside of Havana, but to little avail. After a full day of walking (~5pm), we headed back and simply passed out.
  • Day 3: Without any plans, we spent the morning going through more museums and cathedrals. We thought about joining a tour group (the bane of traveling) and renting a car (but no GPS, WiFi, or LTE!), but couldn’t get either. By the time 11am rolled around, we ended up going back to the beach (Santa Maria). This time we went, it was sunny and crowded, with shacks and stalls setup everywhere! It was a much better beach experience. Afterwards, we got back into the city and wondered a bit more, then took a nap. At 10pm, we hit up one of the popular Jazz venues (La Zorra y el Cuervo). We sat there listening to live music for about an hour behind a beam and looking at a live TV screen, sipping on really bad Mojitos, then left. Right outside we sat at another restaurant and listened to a live band of women that sounded just as wonderful and ate some grilled fish.
  • Day 4: We ate breakfast buffet at a hotel, then went to the airport in a shabby cab our host called for us ($25 pesos). He dropped us off at the wrong terminal, even though in the car we confirmed he was going to drop us off at Terminal 2. So it was another $10 pesos to get a cab to drop us off at the correct one.

Overall, I’d say Havana, Cuba was pretty boring and difficult to enjoy as a tourist/visitor even if language isn’t a barrier. However, with that said, I think I would still go back because there are a lot of things I didn’t get to do.

Some of the things I wish I had done:

  • Planned trips outside of Havana. Cuba seems untouched. I reminded me of a lot of the places in Asia in the 90s. No one in Cuba really has the luxury of going out and exploring, hitting up beaches, hiking, exploring caves, etc. So I think I would have really enjoyed this aspect of it (though this carries its own set of risks, so properly planning required).
  • Engaged more locals. My girlfriend is shy, so she didn’t really have the tendency to speak with strangers. I would have enjoyed striking up more random conversations (even through a translator) with taxi drivers, restaurant staff, etc).
  • Engaged with more travelers: There were all sorts of travelers in Cuba (lots of families, too), and many spoke English! This probably would have been easier to do if I was backpacking alone, but I think it would have been a wonderful setting to meet new people around the world in a similar situation. My girlfriend is more of the sit at cafe and drink cappuccino, while people watching type, so we did that a lot….
  • Ate more local food. Food in Cuba was overall pretty awful. A few restaurants stood out, but it compares to nothing you’ll find in Miami or Southern California for similar prices. Pork is king in Cuba, so most of the local places served some form of pork. Pork makes my girlfriend sick (PTSD from Afghanistan), so we avoided those places, but these food cafeterias looked so raw! Would have wanted to experience the flavoring of the locals (besides all the spam sandwiches).

Where Cuba stood out:

  • There is Che Guervera everywhere!
  • Lots of rickshaws
  • Transportation is expensive
  • Food sucks (especially the expensive and larger, nice looking establishments)
  • Beaches are somewhat dirty
  • Old cars cause a lot of pollution so air quality is awful
  • There is a lack of entertainment
  • Lots of old people and family tourists
  • Lots of Italian tourists
  • People there are nice
  • People there still haven’t perfected the art of tricking tourists
  • All the state-hired women (immigration/TSA) wear short skirts and black stockings with heels

What you should know before going:

  • Get a Visa through Cuba Travel Services: After you book your ticket, go onto the CTS website and purchase a visa (I paid $50, but heard others paid different prices). I picked mine up in FLL, my connecting flight gate, and filled out a bunch of forms. No one checks why you’re going, so just put Educational.
  • Convert money in the USD to Euros at your bank, then use the Euros to convert to Cuban Pesos when you land. The reason for this is because Cuba charges USD conversions a 10% fee on top of the 3% conversion fee. Euros do not have the 10%  fee. When you convert back, there is no fee.
  • Bring comfortable walking shoes. Havana has dirty streets a lot of old roads.
  • Do your due diligence on where you’re staying. The place we stayed was pretty depressing, even though it was on the 2nd floor. Not sure if there is anything better out there beside a hotel, but I would have much rather lived outside of Havana.
  • Plan ahead. There really isn’t a lot to do in Cuba, nor is there the infrastructure to support going to/exploring places. Simply going there and hoping for the best (like I did) will be pretty boring (unless you have a lot of time). So plan on what you want to do and explore, and figure out how to do it ahead of time.
  • On average, I spent ~$80 pesos a day (excluding hostel fees). Taxi transportation was the majority of the cost.
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