Havana is only a 44 minute flight from Miami but feels a world away. The color and vibe of the Caribbean may fool you for a while, but within your first couple of hours something is bound to smack you in the face and remind you it is still a Communist country.
Cubans are now allowed to rent rooms and apartments to foreigners, very similar to Air BnB. This is what I did and I would do it again. I rented a room in Central Havana in a simple plain apartment. The apartment had a small living area, kitchen, and two rooms (each with their own bathroom). My friend and I paid 220 CUC for a week. This is less than a single night at a large hotel.
However, if you would like to stay in a hotel, there are some fantastic options. The government has recently renovated half a dozen hotels in Old Havana. However, if I were to stay in a hotel, I would recommend staying on the edge of Old and Central Havana somewhere like Hotel Inglaterra (oldest hotel in Cuba) or Hotel Plaza. Hotel Nacional is fabulous and I would splurge to stay here if it wasn’t so far from the Old City. However, regardless of where you stay, remember location, ambiance and amenities do not all go hand and hand like they might in the west. I stopped by Hotel Saratoga for a drink one night. The hotel was beautiful, Beyoncé stayed here when in town, rooms cost hundreds of dollars, and I could not find a scrap of toilet paper anywhere.
However, Hotel Saratoga is wonderful place to go for their breakfast buffet (15 CUC) or a nightcap on the rooftop (5 CUC) overlooking the city. Other great spots for a drink include the Sloppy Joe bar, La Bodeguita del Medio, Hotel Nacional, and the Floridita where you can still find Hemingway sitting at the bar under a photo of Castro.
Two places to try in Centro Havana for lunch or dinner include Paladar San Cristobal (469 San Rafael) where President Obama dined while in Havana or a smaller less well known establishment, Paladar Asahi (from San Rafael turn right on Letad and it is less than a block on your left).
Eat fruit early in trip or you’ll regret that you didn’t do it earlier. I had pineapple and bananas every meal & every day. The pineapple juice tasted more like a dessert than something healthy for breakfast.
Basics of Cuban Travel:
When leaving the States, you will need to check in at the “Cuba Ready Desk” where they will ensure you have all of the required documents and permissions to travel. But once arriving in Havana, the airport was fairly standard and I was through immigration, customs, had my bags and was out the door in less than an hour from landing.
Foreigners cannot use credit cards or ATMs. Over estimate what you think you will need. You can change it back at the airport. Cuba operates on a dual currency system. CUCs are used by foreigners. All prices will be listed in both Cuban pesos and CUCs. There is an extra “fee” for changing dollars. If going for a while or you need a lot of money, you will save money by changing Euros. However, if only going for a short trip, it is probably not worth the hassle or the loss with the double conversion.
I was unable to use the phone or internet all week. I had some friends who locally purchased an internet card, but usage was spotty and not worth the trouble. Some hotels and bars advertise Wi-Fi but I was never successful. I used my phone as an alarm clock and a camera but nothing more.
Bring tissues and hand sanitizer!! I know that is always said for travel but outside Africa, it has been a while since I used my stash so frequently on a trip. I even ran dangerously low on both after a week.
Maps were hard to find but I finally was able to buy one downtown at the Post Office for 4 CUC.
I only saw 110 electricity but told also 220 is used.
Rum and Cigars are available at the airport duty free. Rum was slightly more expensive than in a local grocery store but nothing insane if you don’t want to pack it in your luggage. Depending on size and quality, you will pay 3-20 CUC for rum. Ironically, the best place I found as a novice to buy cigars was the Rum factory in old town – the selection was less overwhelming. A cocktail will run between 4-6 CUC.
Movies / TV / Books: I am Cuba, 1964 and 1995 remake is a moving portrait about Cuban diversity (both are in Russian with English subtitles.) Viva, is a 2016 Sundance film about a young boy who dreams of being a drag queen. The topic may not be your cup of tea, but the scenery was wonderful and you really get a feel for life in Havana. Guys and Dolls – you may remember that Sky Masterson and his Mission Dame go to Havana for dinner. In the 50s Havana was a playground for rich Americans and this was one of the grievances of the revolution. I Love Lucy, episode 9, season 6, when Lucy visits Cuba and tries to hide in a cigar factory by posing as a cigar roller.
Waiting for Snow in Havana is true story by Carlos Eire which tells of his experience before and after the revolution. Wise Women of Havana, Jose Raul Bernardo, is the fictional story of several women in Havana during the late 1930’s. Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana is the story of Isadora Tattlin an American who moved to Cuba in the 1990s. Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway.
Only because I usually prefer Lonely Planet, for Havana I thought Rough Guide did a better job of telling me about the city.
I didn’t leave Havana, but when I asked the question, the answer was unanimous, I should have made it to Trinidad. Next trip….