Havana is one of the few capital cities left in the world which has the ability to send the most hardened traveler into a head-spinning culture shock. One of the fastest growing holiday destinations in the Caribbean, Havana is an absolute cacophony of sights, sounds and smells. It’s captivating culture, complete with infectious friendliness, enlivening music and delectable cuisine, is what Cuba’s capital is most renowned for and by far its most fervent lure. Yet the effervescent city also suffers from some serious issues; the blatant contrast between the long-suffered socialist rule of the country, and what foreign visitors are used to, makes Havana the epitome eye-opener for anyone who strives to be a traveller rather than a mere tourist.
The amount of poverty and daily struggles visitors are privy to can certainly be distressing to the uninitiated wanderer, but it may be comforting to know that times are definitely changing in this effervescent city.
Recent reforms made by the other Castro have resulted in the most exciting economic developments in decades. Cubans can now revel in private ownership (both residential and commercial), benefit from the tourist influx and are venturing abroad more than ever before. As per usual, however, all this is coming at a hefty price; whilst locals are embracing modernity with fervent ardor, they are also starting to experience inequality for the first time in their lives. There may now be a chance for them to make an extra buck and improving their living standards, yet this is mostly true only for those with good contacts and a healthy amount of ingenuity.
If you love contrasts then dare we say you’re bound to fall madly in love with Havana! Among the ruined buildings and struggling locals you’ll discover a people with a contagious gusto for life, an upbeat fatalistic mentality and some of the most incredible hospitality in the world. Coupled with simply outstanding architecture, eye-catching sights and sublime food, you may also discover just how contagious Cuban Fever can really be.
Making the most of your visit to Havana
All-inclusive guided holiday packages are always alluring for people venturing into enigmatic foreign lands; yet experiencing Havana and its most eclectic traits independently is by far the most rewarding option. To be honest, it’s also not nearly as scary as it sounds! Sure, it helps if your Spanish is up to scratch and your scam-antennas freshly polished, yet if you’re a seasoned traveller you should have absolutely no problems holidaying here on your own.
Cons are widespread in Havana yet your biggest danger will come in the form of very petty crime. Pick-pocketing may not be rare, but violent crime (especially against tourists) is almost non-existent, so unless you specifically go out looking for trouble, the chances it will find you are negligible. When you consider that a 70 year prison sentence awaits anyone caught attacking a tourist, the low crime statistics are not surprising.
If you want to get the most out of your trip consider skipping the hotel reservation in favour of a casa particular, or private home stay. This most popular accommodation option is priceless in every which way you look at it! You get to experience the real side of life in Havana with a local family, relish in the renowned Habanero hospitality and benefit from inside tips on what to see and do and, in return, locals will benefit directly from your imported holiday funds.
Moreover, most people don’t realize just how expensive Havana can be for tourists and find hotels to be prohibitively costly. Casa particulares offer a greater and invaluable cultural experience for a lot less dough.
Where to stay
Most tourists choose to stay in and around the city’s UNESCO listed heritage centre, the incredibly striking Habana Vieja, and this is definitely our recommendation if you’re travelling to Cuba for the very first time.
Once you get your bearings you’ll realize that the whole city is rather compact and easily navigated on foot, collectivo or mini-bus, so reaching every nook is pretty easy if you’re a little adventurous.
If you’re after a few relaxing days lounging by one of Havana’s lovely beaches, then look no further than Playa del Este or the beaches of Santa Maria.
Making sense of Havana’s currency
When the country was first opened up to tourism, the government had the genial idea of introducing a dual-currency system: the CUC (Convertible Pesos) for tourists and CUP (Cuban Pesos) for locals. The CUC is set on par with the US$, whilst the CUP is 24 times cheaper.
Most tourists steer clear of the CUP erroneously believing they’re not actually allowed to trade in the local currency, but this is a fallacy. Having a healthy stash of CUP on you at all times (especially for public transport and certain peso-only bars and restaurants which only trade in the local currency) will result in a cheaper and much more enlightening experience. CUPs can be bought in most banks, but remember than this local currency is not exchangeable for US$, so travel here with Euros or Pounds if you can. US$ currency exchanges in CUC also incur hefty fees so ditching this currency altogether when travelling to Havana is a good idea.
The other major hassle in Havana is that due to the US embargos on the state, credit cards issued by American-owned banks are not accepted. Don’t make the unfortunate error of assuming your bank is not American-owned and check with your provider before you leave home. ATMs are fairly widespread in Havana’s city centre and become much less frequent in other parts of the isle.
Jose Marti International Airport is Havana’s main landing port and is located about 15kms south-west of the city. It’s currently undergoing a massive and much needed expansion to deal with the more than 4 million tourists the island attracts every year, so expect extensive delays from the moment you step off your plane. Make sure you know what you’re allowed to bring in and out of the country (read all about it here) and you’ll make your transition through the airport a much smoother one.
Once you’ve dealt with the Havana airport ordeal it’s fair to say you’ll want a smooth and easy ride into town, in which case hopping on an air-conditioned metered taxi from the airport to your hotel or casa particular is by far your best option.
Getting Out and About
Using Havana’s public transport system can be a lot of fun, except when you’re stuck like a sardine in a cock-full rickety old bus in 40’ heat; strangely enough, that’s one cultural experience most tourists don’t rave about. Moreoverpublic buses, called guaguas(pronounced waa-waas), are not only slow and ever-crowded,but their itineraries seem to be shrouded in mystery so most visitors tend to overlook them in favour of metered taxis or one of the many unmetered and iconic 1950s style Chevys Cuba is known for.
Make sure you bargain hard for your route and consider hiring one for a whole day if you want to explore the island’s gorgeous countryside.
Havana has recently welcomed the introduction of its first ever tourist hop-on/hop-off bus which will get you to all the main sites in and out of town. Itineraries change regularly and, as reliable internet info is hard to come-by, your best bet is to check with your host family or hotel concierge as soon as you arrive in Havana.
Havana by night via Wiki
Havana Grand Theatre via Wiki
Classic Havana car