If you know me, you know I did my research before heading to Havana. I am a strange breed of tourist, I do lots of research and then show up on foreign soil without even a guidebook in my hand. Luckily for me, my travel partner is the same. Improvisational tourists. That’s how I describe us. We aren’t big planners but need to know the bigger picture before we get there. Usually I have access to wifi when I travel at least at some point throughout the day and that can generally soften the blow, it is my crutch, my go-to bail out when we forget something really important. Not this time. With wifi scarcely available and usually a long walk to find any – we had to wing it.
But a few tips can never hurt no matter where you are off to.
How to get to Havana? Since Trump made his announcement in June it has become convoluted for those contemplating the trip, whether it needs to be or not. While we await the verdict on his plans, travel to Cuba hasn’t really changed much since Obama opened things up. We had purchased our tickets in March 2017, but were still apprehensive about what to expect. As long as you read through the 12 legal reasons to visit Cuba and decide on the one that works for your trip, you will be fine (for now).
If you are ok with adventure, then just buy your ticket and head to Havana. When we traveled this past August we took United non stop from Newark. Other airline options were Jet Blue, Southwest, Alaskan, etc. Taking a cruise is another option. Since Trump’s announcement it seems that organized trips to Cuba have become the go to option.
How to get from the airport to Havana? No need to prearrange transportation unless you are a large group. We just grabbed a yellow taxi outside the airport once we passed through baggage claim. Ask the driver the price ahead of time, just so you agree and aren’t surprised when you get to your destination. We paid 30CUC, exactly what we expected.
Should I worry about safety? Absolutely not. Havana is hands down the safest place I think I have ever been. There was not one moment, one interaction or one incident that made me think about my safety. From walking out of the airport (yikes if anyone has ever walked out of the airport in Kingston, Jamaica knows what I mean) to walking down a quiet street with $5,000 in camera gear wrapped around my neck, there was no one shaking me down with a scam, no one trying to sell me something, no one asking me for money, no one that made me (or my kids) feel uncomfortable.
What about the currency? Make it a priority to change enough dollars to CUC at the airport to cover the taxi and your first day’s expenses. It is relatively easy to change money once in Havana, hotel lobbies and the Cuban Change Bureau (CADECA) but since you will not know immediately the lay of the land, it’s just easier to have some CUC in your wallet. Keep in mind that the exchange rate is identical no matter where you change your money. Also remember that the US dollar is penalized 10% (the euro and other currencies are not). So for every $100 you change, between the exchange rate and the penalty, you get back about 86CUC.
How do I deal with the two currencies? As you walk around Old Havana you definitely get a feel for what is state run versus what is a tourist option. The main difference is that the state run shops accept the national currency, the Cuban peso and is therefore a very affordable option for local residents. Really the only place Cubanos can afford to spend their hard earned money. The Cuban Convertible Peso or CUC is what we foreigners exchange our money for. Not quite as affordable. Drinks, food, etc is much less expensive then NYC or Paris but on par with what you might be used to spending in small town in the US. We spent double what we expected to spend. Make sure you have extra cash on you as US debit or credit cards CAN NOT be used anywhere (as of August 2017). If you don’t have enough cash with you then you are out of luck. (The occasional place does take US Dollars, but not any plastic).
How is the food? Better than we expected. We are vegetarians so there were not as many options – but surprisingly there was always several dishes on every menu for us to choose from. There are some very pleasant restaurants and cafes throughout Havana.
Vegetarian Eats: 5 Esquinas Pizza + Italian, several veggie options, inexpensive and good. Right around the corner from our Airbnb, it was the perfect spot for breakfast as well. They serve a breakfast buffet of sorts for 4 CUC, including fresh juice and coffee. Address: Habana #104 Esq Cuarteles Habana Vieja.
Around a different corner from our apartment was Donde Lis, a bit more upscale yet still casual. The service was outstanding, the waiters had fun with the kids demonstrating a few little tricks that impressed them and the food was so good that we ate here twice. The kids enjoyed the Cuban soda (although American beverages are available everywhere, Coca Cola products, etc), Gabby who will not try anything new anywhere even tried the incredible Malanga fritters (root vegetable with a really tasty dipping sauce), the rice and beans as simple as that sounds were outstanding. Give this place a try. Address: Tejadillo No. 163
entre Habana y Compostela. Habana Vieja.
Our favorite spot was hands down Chacon 162, directly across from our apartment. Situated right on the corner, outdoor tables filled with tourists eating and drinking from morning till late in the evening. The inside had a great vibe as well, American music, engaging waitstaff, oversized glass jars filled with handmade mojitos. This spot had such a great feel, the food was good and the drinks delicious it is easy to see why we began our day with an espresso and ended it with a night cap each day. Address: Calle Chacon. Esquina a Callejon de Espada. Habana Vieja.
What should I bring with me? If you are a snacker, especially if you are staying in an AirBnb make sure you pack along whatever it is you like to nosh on. I always travel with a bag full of goodies anyway, but it will just be easier if you have a few things on hand. There are some very thinly stocked stores but if you need something specific, bring it with you. We made sure to have dried fruit, nuts, bars, fruit strips, etc. Things that are easy to keep on hand and will not go bad.
If you need water, beer or soda, there are little store fronts set up in people’s houses where you can grab what you need. You will see these little stores as you are walking in residential areas, sometimes they have little Christmas lights on their windows to draw your attention. If you are looking for wine or spirits, there are little shops around town that sell liquor.
To make it easy on yourself, just bring anything that you think might be hard to come by or that you need a particular brand. For our family I made sure we had a first aid kit, sun screen, shampoo, conditioner, women’s products, Tums, etc. you get the idea. Most likely you would have these items with you anyway but if your kid wakes up with a fever in the middle of the night you aren’t running to the 24 hour store for Children’s Tylenol. Just be prepared.