Oh, hey there...
Go! go quickly. Go this weekend. 3 days is all you need. You'll marvel at the strangeness of how things are done. Almost every spot has a killer mojito. You will dance everywhere and at all times of the day (& night, of course). I hope you like AfroCuban, salsa, & romantic rhumbas - music is everywhere. Don't be afraid to go into the dilapidated homes - in fact, you will be welcomed. Locals are lovely. As always, what sounds too good, probably is. You will feel and be safe walking at all times of the night. Travel solo or grab a friend. Don't compare Cuba to anywhere that you're coming from. This is an adventure! Don't expect a relaxing getaway. Be curious and poke your head everywhere.
[Note: This is a compressed review of my highlights in Cuba. For a detailed and comprehensive guide, please reach out]
But first, let's plan:
To Purchase - I'll never underestimate the power of a great travel guide book. I highly recommend Lonely Planet's 'Cuba' edition which features a pull-out map of the city and beyond. When WIFI fails, and it often does - you're good.
To Learn - Remeber those Spanish classes you took for granted in school? Yup - time to brush up on your basic Spanish. Although the majority of Cubans speak English, your casa mama will probably not. Get your basics together to avoid frustrated communication.
You will dance whether "you can" or not. Boost your confidence by taking some dance classes and getting the basics of salsa and bachata. Google a Ballroom dance studio near you. Not only is it a great skill to have for life but it's a great bonding experience (especially if traveling with a significant other).
To Pack - The comfiest pair of sandals, trainers, and light & flowing clothing possible. Put your high heel puppies away (or squeeze in one pair, just in case).
To Exchange - The currency exchange bureaus in Havana have brutal lines and operate at peculiar hours. I recommend flying in with Euros and exchanging EUR to CUC immediately at the airport. The exchange place is right outside of the airport. You'll get your first feel of Havana then. Cuba has 2 currencies, the convertible peso (CUC, “kook”) and the national peso (CUP or MN, “moneda nacional” or just moneda). Tourists used the CUC while locals use MN. be careful here! A simple ice cream cone on the street should technically be less than 1 CUC.
To Reserve - Besides booking your flight, Airbnb is the way to go when it comes to accommodation. You're doing yourself a disservice to the experience by staying in one of the major hotels. Don't worry, you can always grab lunch or a mojito when the Cuban experience starts to feel a bit much. Don't stress if you didn't get a chance to book a room. As you walk by you'll notice that many of the buildings have signs that show available rooms. There's a chance that you'll get an amazing price by just walking and asking around.
When in Cuba:
To Eat & Drink - a mixture of my favorite local, touristy, fancy, casual bars and restaurants.
1. Bodeguita del medio: A classic. Large portions of authentic Cuban food served with live music & happy locals. Neat historic relevance - a favorite of E. Hemingway & P. Neruda.
2. El Chancullero: Probably my favorite at any time of the day. Almost always a line stretching out but so worth it! A great crowd in the evenings with a cute little rooftop. Charismatic and hilarious servers!
3. El Del Frente: Feeling slightly posh? This is the spot. Located on the 3rd floor of a walk up, this is the place for atmosphere. Delicious food and drinks as well.
Check out these other gems: Cafe Laurent, El Beduino, Hotel Nacional (must have mojito), Nardos, La Guarida
To See & Do - a mixture of my favorite museums, activities, and must see.
- Fabrica de Arte Cubano: This is such an experience and a wicked one too. Food, live music, art and interesting people all packed into a swanky multiple level warehouse feel. Once again, prepare for extensive lines or come early. (Although we did pay 10 CUC pp to skip a majority of it, a luxury offered to tourists only. Don't worry - a young man will approach you and offer you options). I haven't met a person who did not rave about this place. [New Yorkers - think of a meatpacking club feel mixed with a Williamsburg warehouse party] A gem for sure.
- Havana's Old Plaza: Hello touristy activity. Either way checking out the numerous art galleries and beer museums is a must.
- Museo de La Revolución: This museum resides in the former Presidential Palace constructed in the early 1900's and is a place you have to check out. If you're not into Cuban history, one of the floor covers the present day socialist regime.
- 1830: What an amazing place to have dinner and dance outdoors on a hot night!
- Visit Viñales: I've had mixed feelings about Viñales but I know many people who rave about it. Highlights include tobacco plantations (you witness the process of rolling a cigar), horse riding and witnessing a life outside of Havana. Try to catch dinner at Finca Agroecologica. This is at least a day trip.
Check out other activities: Casa de la musica, VIP Havana, Bolabana (nightclub), La Flauta Mágica (fancy rooftop)
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What you're wondering:
- WIFI - Wifi in homes isn’t a thing. It wasn’t even legal until 2013. Internet connection is available in most major hotels by purchasing an internet card. Prices vary depending on where you go. Internet is available in many parks around the city. You'll recognize crowds of people on their phones.
- Gals - catcalling is definitely a thing. A lot of it can be vulgar but rarely guys will try to grab, so just ignore when possible and be aware.
- Always negotiate beforehand - you should pay 20-25 CUC getting anywhere from the airport.
- Try all modes of transportation (fancy American cars, bicitaxis, regular buses, coco taxis (super fun).