I traveled to Havana, Cuba, right after Art Basel Miami in December 2017, for five days. I don’t speak any Spanish but can understand some. I didn’t have a plan other than this Airbnb and a camera. My goal was to take a million photos, my favorites below. I also wrote up some travel tips at the bottom of this post.
Should I go?
Havana is a time capsule where everything is a little bit broken, even after it has opened up a little with Obama. It’s the Soviet Union, circa 1985. I cannot recommend any more enthusiastically that you travel to Cuba, if you can, before someone attempts to fix it. Buy a ticket right now. If you have a Cuban relative, buy an apartment in Havana, too.
Visa and Legal
I paid $50 for a people-to-people visa in FLL at the JetBlue counter and was in Havana 45 minutes later. It seems that the visa rules for Americans have changed again, so don’t take my word for it and make sure you you’re able to travel and get a visa in the US. You may need to jump through some hoops, but you can definitely, absolutely, positively, travel to Cuba, and even come back!
Locals and Friends
I got exceptionally lucky and made a half-Cuban friend on my flight to Havana, who helped me tremendously. I am very thankful. You should make friends, too.
Where to Stay
I recommend staying in Havana Vieja (Old Havana) in either an Airbnb (mine was noisy, but amazingly charming) or a hotel (the Party is watching you). Pay attention to the location - I don’t recommend Hotel Nacional de Cuba, for example, which is very famous but very far from old town where you’ll spend most of your time.
My first problem was cash - American cards do not work in Cuba, at all, so bring enough money or get stuck like this guy. Plan a few days ahead - one of my cards had problems right before flying out, and I almost landed in the same situation and was saved by a generous human who accepted that I Venmo them some money in exchange for cash at the airport. A $100 a day should be enough, and you can exchange money officially for CUCs, a currency pegged to the dollar, at around 87 CUCs for 100 dollars (10% tax). That rate gets much better if you can find someone in the street to change the money for you, maybe for 96 (I wasn’t able). There’s also a national currency called Moneta National, but it’s worthless and you don’t need any.
A cab from the airport costs 25 CUC. This is the price of a very nice dinner in Havana.
If you don’t feel like haggling, arrange an old car taxi with these people for 35 CUC ahead of time.
Otherwise change some money in the airport and be patient. You’ll get approached by a lot of people and will see a mix of yellow cabs, exotic American cars and broken Russian ones. The official yellow cabs will always give you an exorbitant price (they don’t have a choice), ignore them altogether and never take them. Find a good looking old car or a driver that says they have an old car, and tell them “25, Havana Vieja”. Always agree on the price in advance, there are no meters. If they don’t want to, go to the next one. I learned to announce my price first, sticking to it and had no problem finding a cab from anywhere in Havana for the price I felt was reasonable (5-10 CUC across Havana depending on distance). If you like your driver and speak Spanish, take their phone number and use them later, especially outside of Havana.
I’ve never seen a seatbelt in an old car in Havana.
Internet, Phone and Maps
There’s no free Internet in Cuba. Your phone company will send you aggressive messages about how expensive your cell phone service will be in Havana, so just turn it off. There’s no working data roaming either way.
Download Maps.me, an offline map and make sure to get the city data while in the US. Open these bookmarks on your phone, they will come handy. Your GPS will work in Cuba with this map.
You can access the Internet via public wifi in parks or hotels. You need to buy a card, which apparently gets sold for 1 CUC if you are willing to stand in line for an hour somewhere, or for 2-3 CUC if you want to buy it from the street. Don’t pay more. Find a group of Cubans sitting around with their phones and ask them who sells cards around there, I got lucky a couple of times and bought 2 cards for 5 CUC more than once.
You will scratch the card and punch some numbers into an official login page once you’re connected to the wifi, if it works. You have 1 hour per card, and you don’t need to use the entire hour right away, just turn the wifi off when you’re done and restart the process with the same card next time until it’s out of money. Wifi is usually decent.
You can buy a Sim or a phone card apparently more easily than Internet cards, but I had nobody to call in Havana. The phone cards don’t give you any Internet access anyway, you must go through the official, government-controlled portal.
Fábrica de Arte Cubano, opens at 8pm and can’t be missed. It costs 2 CUC to go and is a big gallery and performance space with two shows, one at 9pm and another at 11. I saw a breathtaking Cuban orchestra playing music from American films there. They were also running videos produced by KEXP! There’s a really nice and well hidden restaurant on the water across the canal from there called Amigos del Mar.
Roma is a cool bar on top of Havana.
Casa de la Musica de Miramar is a club with two separate spaces, mostly for salsa. It opens at 11pm, costs 10 CUC to go and wasn’t that great.
Lots of restaurants will have live music every night in Old Havana.
Restaurants and Food
Don’t expect exceptional food in Havana. Daily life for Cubans can be hard, even with money, and you can get a taste of that by shopping for groceries, if you want. I challenge you to buy any kind of oil, vinegar, butter, eggs, bread, milk, ground coffee or lettuce that doesn’t look too sad. If there’s anything you absolutely can’t live without, bring it with you. Markets all over the city have decent produce, but the stores are fairly empty.
Café El Escorial in Plaza Vieja has excellent coffee and will grind it for you, albeit very slowly. You have to ask who the “ultimo” is in line and wait forever as the grinders are 100 years old and take their sweet time. The very nice restaurant above the cafe overlooks the plaza and has a lot more food variety than the majority of places in Havana that serve primarily fried chicken.
Nazdarovie is a fantastic Russian restaurant. They don’t speak Russian though.
Hotel Inglaterra often has music outside in the evening. It’s a nice spot with decent service to sit down to eat and drink, located opposite Parque Central. They also have a working wifi, most of the time.
Default to drinking Cuba Libre’s, and don’t worry about anything.
I bought two amazing lithographs for under 50 CUC at Taller Experimental de Gráfica in Havana. There’s a bunch of beautiful museums and galleries and quite a few artist studios. If you are a serious collector, feel free to drop me a note and I can recommend you someone who will help you visit them.
The international terminal has a stocked Duty Free where you can buy Cuban rum or cigars. If you aren’t checking in bags, that’s the way to go for sure and prices don’t seem to be that different from the stores. It’s still unclear to me how much you can bring back - Cubans say 50 cigars and 3 bottles of alcohol, but I found no evidence of these limitations in any official American documentation.
People are much nicer to Russians in Cuba than to Americans. Don’t be this Yuma.
Tell me about your travels!