The ultimate Havana travel guide – video inside
Cuba is a magical place and it was one the top of our bucket list. It’s one of the destination that you need to visit right now because it’s constantly changing with the political update. It’s one of the only destination where I prepared before because I knew that I couldn’t’ rely on internet and I tried to summarise all the information that I gathered before and during the trip in this article. It’s basically the kind of information that I would’ve loved to find myself before we flew to beautiful Havana.
At the end of the article you will find another video of the “Moments” serie with most of the activities that we did there and the Riva fashion outfits that I traveled with.
Before you go to Cuba
This will be your visa for Cuba. It’s a two form documents that you need to fill with your information. You will give one at your arrival and one at your departure. There are several agencies that can deliver them directly to you if your order in advance, it costs 30-50 $. Just type on google “Cuba tourist card (name of your country)” and it will direct you to an agency. If you’re a last-minute being like ourselves, make sure that your flight company can provide them at the airport gate. We flied with Delta airlines, and they charged us 50 $ each for the tourist card at the gate. Note that they don’t take cash, make sure that you have a debit card.
Make sure that your travel insurance covers Cuba. It’s requested on arrival. If you want to buy online I recommend World Nomads.
Don’t rely on ATMs, they often don’t work for International currencies, and even when they do the lines are very long. Euros are better rated than dollars, I believe that the US dollar is still penalized. There are two currencies in Cuba: CUC (touristic) and CUP (local). The touristic places only take CUC, CUP is recommended if you want to go to the market or buy street food.
Book your accommodation
Internet is only available in few public hotspots in the city and you have to buy an hourly card. You don’t want to figure those thinks out while dragging your luggage around the city don’t you? So book your stay before you fly to Cuba. I highly recommend “Casa particulares” over hotels that you can book either on Booking or Airbnb.
Book your airport taxi transfer
Ask your casa particular, they can usually order a taxi for you. It costs 30-35 CUC
Download an offline map
Again you won’t have internet most of the times. I use Here app or Google maps. Both are online maps, but you can choose to download an offline area before you go. I also advise you to buy a Lonely planet to learn about Cuba on the go, remember life before internet? With those things called books? 🙂 I had a great reminder myself!
Learn basic Spanish
Don’t expect people to speak English, unless you’re in a resort and don’t come out of it. I love using Duolingo, otherwise download an offline translation app before your go.
Buy an anti-mosquito and an electric adapter if your devices are European standardised.
What to pack?
Cuba is hot and humid, so I would advice light flowy clothes with breathing fabrics like cotton and linen. Pastel or bright colours, dark colours attract the heat even more. It’s a picturesque city with a photo op almost everywhere, so bring your cutest summer dresses and off-shoulder tops. A hat and sunglasses are highly recommended, the sun is really hot!
As for Cubans, they dress casually denim shorts and tank tops. Showing skin is really no problem in the Carribean.
In my case, I had the chance to travel with Riva fashion’s last collection that was perfect for Cuba, you can see all my outfits in the video below and shop on their website: here.
Definitely pack comfortable shoes, Havana is very walking-friendly and the mood is casual, you won’t need anything fancy.
Most of the people that will talk to you out of the blue, asking where are you from or whatever will suggest a tourist scam of some sort, so:
– There is no such thing as a salsa festival!
– Only buy cigars from official shops, otherwise you will end up with an overpriced banana leave roll.
– Leave a minimum 10% tip for a service
– Be careful of the imaginary taxes and hidden costs added to your restaurant bill.
– Always recount your restaurant bill.
– Learn to say “No gracias” with a smile and don’t be disrespectful. Cubans stay cordial and polite no matter what and won’t insist if you say No! firmly but nicely and continue your way.
– If you’re on a budget learn to buy in the local currency CUP, and have some CUPs on you to buy fruits or street food. Cuba is expensive for tourists. Ask your hosts at your Casa particular, it’s the best way to know the real prices and tips.
– Count your cash at the money change counters.
– If you find yourself in a queue, either at a grocery shop, wifi cards counter or a bank, always shout “ultimo” which means “the last”. Insist until someone shows and you’ll know that your turn is after this person. Otherwise you will wait for the whole day.
– If you order a fresh juice, the default option is with added sugar. So specify it when you order if you don’t want sugar in your juice.
Highlights of Cuba
Cuba is the safest country I have ever been to. And we know better, because we often wander around with cameras and DSLRs that can drawn unwanted attention.
Happy and positive people
Despite the political situation (and I won’t pretend to tackle the problem in my week long stay), Cuban people are the most lively and happy beings! Well it’s the Caribbean, so the mood is naturally festive, but I think a lot of it has to do with the internet not being easy to get. Everyday people go outside to play, dance, chat, flirt, eat, laugh. Young crews often walk with portable speakers with music on. It instantly puts you in a good mood too.
From what I witnessed, Cuban people are kind to animals. At many occasion I saw kids or people taking care of a stray dog or kitten, and many people have one or more pet. I even spotted stray dogs wearing a collar with a label with their name and neighbourhood, saying that they were sterilised and advising not to mistreat them.
Simply the best cocktails on earth!
Cuban coffee is the best in the world. I never had a bad coffee in Cuba, either in small hole in the wall grocery shops or more upscale places.
The pineapples are delicious, your can get them at 0.5$ if you learn to buy in CUP.
Cuban women carry themselves with confidence and strength.
A beautiful and unique country
Follow the rest of my travel guide and don’t listen to anyone telling you not to go to Cuba!
Downsides of Cuba
Well if you want to visit Cuba do it now, I am sure that it will get worse. You will have someone suggesting something at every corner. Maybe it’s not a big deal for some of you, but it is to me, because it annoys me enough in Morocco. So, when I travel I want an escape from this. It’s energy draining for me to have to say “No” constantly, dealing with situations, and being disturbed every two seconds while I want to enjoy my walk in Havana streets. And it breaks my heart at the same time to say “No”, I’m afraid to be rude. That’s why I often accompany it with a smile and it works.
Catcalling and street harassment
It’s pretty wild in Havana, even traveling with my husband I had my fair share of it. Whenever Omar went few meters away either to shoot or buy something, I had someone whispering sweet words in Spanish in ear, or shouting something from afar. So, if you’re a female solo traveler expect to deal with some of this. It’s funny (sad) how Cuban women don’t even pay attention to it anymore.
Cuban food is delicious! But you will not come across traditional Cuban food easily. The cheap street food (to buy in CUP) is often a ham and cheese sandwich or a pizza with a thick dough.The rest of the restaurants are for tourists and often overpriced, making Cuba not easy to travel on a budget, unless you cook.
If you’re on a special diet, have allergies or are very picky about food in general, definitely bring some groceries and snacks with you.
Support for the Cuban people:
You probably came accross a lot of guides and articles recommending to bring gifts to the locals. Things as basic as soap and toilet paper. I personally find this practice tricky and a little bit disrespectful. One, you don’t know how to evaluate if a person is “poor” by the Cuban standards and you may end up offending someone. Two, coming from a country where I see those practices, it never helps impoverishment, it only encourages tourist scams and a begging culture with an organised mafia. I spoke a lot about the matter with our host and her friends, and just like in Morocco, you rarely donate to the people in real need. Those asking you for things are usually the ones that make a business out of it revolving around tourist spheres. People in need are usually busy dealing with daily life and too pride to wander around touristic areas asking for trinkets.
If you really want t do a good deed, look for an effective volunteering program like Global Volunteers and support concrete projects instead of putting a band-aid on a bullet wound.
I’d rather treat people with respect instead of pity like I’d do anywhere in the world. The people that I spoke to outside the tourist areas don’t like the victimised image that is given to them all over the world. Cuban people are proud and often very happy to know that you genuinely love their country and their culture. I prefer offering my friendship for meaningful conversations instead of trinkets. It goes a long way and you can learn a lot.
Things are certainly not perfect, but most of the Cubans admit that they have all the basic needs covered: Education, food, healthcare, housing (I never saw a homeless person or someone sleeping on the street). Cubans also state that everyone is treated equally regardless of their earnings, family name or academic achievement, and I can’t say that much about a lot of countries… including my own!
This is an apolitical platform with my own perspective, I would be happy to know more if you can provide respectfully.
Wifi in Cuba is only available near few public hotspots over the city. You pay an hourly fee from 1 to 5 CUC per hour depending on where you buy the cards.
Option 1: The less expensive option is to buy directly from the telephone company ETESCA on Obispo street, but there is usually a long queue and you can only but 5h and more.
Option 2: Near the hotspots you will usually have someone selling them, you don’t have to look for them, they will come to you. But it’s the most expensive option.
Option 3: The last option and my favourite is to buy the card(s) at the Hotel Sevilla reception! It costs 3 CUC and you can either join the crowd outside the hotel or if you need to sit with a laptop you can have a coffee or a cocktail at the beautiful hotel patio with live music. Coffee costs 1.5-2.5 CUC and cocktails 5-6 CUC and they really good!
How to find a hotspot? If you see a crowd with their nose on their phones somewhere, you’ll know there is a hotspot. The ones that I used were: Hotel Sevilla and near El Dandy bar at plaza del Cristo.
Where to drink and eat?
Follow the locals and the students to find the best spots. Cubans love their street food, they always nibble on something while they walk. If you learn to buy in CUP you can buy meals for 1-3 $. But the choice is limited, it’s either a ham sandwich or a thick dough pizza. Unfortunately I didn’t find any local restaurants with typical Cuban food. The only way to experience Cuban food is within your Cuban hosts if you ask them to cook you a meal. Otherwise, there are a lot of local ice cream shops in CUP as well and juiceries. CUP can save you budget!
My personal favourite snack was coconut (1-3 CUC depending on how touristic the area is). After drinking the water I ask them to chop the coco off for a delicious and nutritious snack. I was surprised to discover that they don’t extract nor use the coconut milk because coconuts are in abundance in Cuba.
Sandwichera la Bien Paga
A fast food with a variety of options and reasonable prices in CUC if you don’t want to deal with CUP. It’s located in a small street on Calle Obispo.
Panaderia dulcería San José
A local bakery if you have a sweet tooth or want to enjoy a breakfast at home. You can find a variety of stuffed turnovers either sweet or savoury. I love their pastel de coco! I don’t recommend the coffee place upstairs though, it’s one of those who sneak imaginary taxes in your bill and overcharge you if you don’t pay attention.
Breakfast formulas are decent. For around 5 CUCs you have eggs, coffee or tea, bread and fresh juice. It’s near Plaza Catedral and looks like a Trattoria from roma.
My absolute favourite for drinks and meals! But expect to wait, there is usually a queue at the entrance and it totally worths the wait. Their cocktails revolve around 3-5 CUC and they are the best! The meals are usually a base of either traditional cuisine or lean meat with a big and well welcomed salad.
My second favourite! Located near Plaza Vieja, they also offer well balanced meals with a protein base cooked Cuban style and an assortment of salads and sides such as sweet potato chips, so delicious!
Café El Dandy
The interior decor of this café can compete with anything from le Marais in Paris or any hipster café in the world. It’s gorgeous! Their cocktails are decent, the coffee and the tapas amazing. It’s right near El-chanchullero if you are too hungry to wait, it’s a good option as well. I bought one of their fabric tote bags (6 CUC).
If you want to splurge on fine dining and eat in an iconic place. I only had tapas there and they were extremely delicious.
For the rest, we had a few bad experiences that I don’t remember. So we ended up going to the same good places, instead of rolling a dice at each meal and dealing with situations.
Mojito at El Dandy
Local fast food… Better than Mcdonalds!
Ropa Vieja and salad at El-chanchullero
Pasteleria Sand José
Where to stay?
I can’t stress enough on staying at a Casa Particular instead of a hotel. First of all, staying with a local family is the best experience and will help you understand the Cuban situation better and from a more reliable source. Second, it’s the best and most honorable way to “help” Cuban people. And last, the hotels are overpriced, not very good and mostly owned by the government.
You can book your Casa particular on Booking.com or Airbnb.com. We stayed with Isabel and Stefano and we can’t thank them enough for their hospitality and useful information: here. Their house is in Centro Havana right near El Malecon and Prado boulevard.
Get 30 USD off on your first Airbnb booking with this link: here
Where to shop?
For souvenir shopping I prefer markets over independent shops where I sometimes can feel pressured. Adding to that you have much more options in markets and a certain competition vibe for better deals. If you prefer independent shops, they are all over Havana and they will come to you don’t worry. I spotted two markets in Havana:
San José Market: The biggest one at the end of the Malecon. You will find everything from miniature vintage cars to handmade bohemian sandals, cigars, rum…
Calle Obispo market: near ETESCA with the same variety and more handmade goods and jewellery.
Piscolabis: A bazar/ concept store if you want an elevated design version of your souvenirs displayed in a hipster shop.
What to buy in Cuba?
Cigars, rum, crochet fashion is gorgeous and all handmade, leather sandals, art and paintings, Cuban hats….
Things to do
I covered most of the topics in my article about the best photo and video spots: here, with a map. Otherwise, here is a video with most of the activities that we did during our trip. We will continue the “Moments” video series during our travel and I really hope that you like this format.
The last thing that I would say is, walk as much as you can because every street is a surprise. I know Havana is hot, but there is nothing better to dive into the culture and discover things for yourselves. For example, we randomly discovered in old Havana a museum with a Moroccan corner: berber jewellery, maritime plans and a lot of fascinating things. Apparently Moroccans were doing maritime commerce in the area. That’s crayzy given how far it is from Morocco!
I am listing all the places on the video as well and let me know if you need any additional information.
As usual thank you for reading the article and enjoy Cuba if you are going there.
xo xo Dalal
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