After travelling for seven months through Latin America I have had my fair share of frustrations. None of these places were communist run and all had ATMS and the Internet, which are both very helpful when travelling. To be honest I was equally as nervous visiting Cuba, as I was excited.
In Cuba, the cars are from the 1950s, the food is less imaginative than two minute noodles, the lines at the bank are longer than a freight train and something as simple as booking your next nights’ accommodation is extremely difficult. All character building stuff though.
We arrived early evening to our humble little home for the next six nights in the city of Havana. After our hour-long journey from the airport, our 1959 taxi pulled up into a dark, poorly lit street and stopped outside a rundown three-story building with architecture trying to replicate the London Blitz. I was not feeling too confident and at this point I turned to Holly and said “Did you book us into a gangster area?” with distaste. Shortly after that I realized that this was just Havana. Debris and decrepitated buildings three stories high surrounded us whilst we stood in the dark streets of Havana with everything we owned and a smiling Cuban taxi driver standing next to us holding his hand out for payment. He barely said a word the whole hour from the airport. This is going to be fun.
As soon as the door opened, Havana’s appeal greeted us a warm and welcoming ‘Hola’. This is the beauty of Cuba; you must look deeper than the surface, much deeper, for its superior side. Our accommodation in my assumed ‘gangster’ area was a beautiful casa (family run home) built in 1932 and made you feel just like the door behind you was the entrance to a time machine. Our new best friend and host Louis welcomed us with an icy beer and a 3-course lobster dinner in a dining room filled with relics from the last century in Cuba. This was just the beginning of the kind hearts that are customary to Cubans. When in Cuba, hotels do exist but only for the wealthy short-term travellers, your only other option is a casa particular. This is a home, opened by the family, but heavily controlled by the government. When you rent a room within their house you are there guest, although they would have you believing you were their king.
The next morning Holly and I woke up well rested and ready to explore the unique and peculiar city of Havana. We wonder the streets visiting Havana’s main plazas that were full of grand and decayed stone architecture that couldn’t hide it’s Caribbean past. Weaving through a constant flow of classic 1950’s American vehicles and splitting through the bank lines. All our senses were stimulated. Music bounced off the colorful walls, cigars filled the air with their distinct smell and ice cream enlightened our taste buds while we wondered in and out of the culture packed streets that make up Havana. Like any city, Havana is packed with history, but the thing that sets this city apart is that the landmarks you visit are completely original and have been untouched since they were famed. It’s just like looking into a crystal ball, but not crystal at all.
Twenty minutes out of the city is Playa del Este, a beach, and if you would agree with me from the photos it is absolutely flawless.. We had a good day for it. It was five miles of Caribbean perfection, with the clearest water I had ever seen. We spent the day swimming in the sea and being offered every ten minutes beers and mojito’s by a fine but crafty Cuban with our friends Matt and Kim.
Here are a few things to get you started:
• Walk around Old Havana / Havana Vieja
• All of the old squares & plazas – it’s easy to do a walking tour on your own
• Playa Del Este – catch the bus from the main square in town, it takes you directly there, don’t miss the last bus!
• Hop in as many old cars as possible!
• Head to the Fort
• Walk along the Malecon
• Museo De la Revolucion – a great museum and will give you a complete summary of the history of Cuba
• We did a day trip to Vinales from Havana and were able to split it with another couple
Eat / Drink:
• Where you can! Food is scarce.
• We were regulars of the beautiful tapas bar – El Chanchullero – super cheap, amazing food, and delicious rum. Be careful, it is easy to get smashed.
• Enjoy a cold drink and the sunset at Hotel Nacional (at the end of the Malecon)
• Casa 1932 – owned by the lovely Luis. We found his place on Trip Advisor, and were able to email him (very rare!), get in quick, he books out quickly! All casa’s are roughly $30/night. We loved it here and he was extremely helpful.
Tips & Hints:
• Get out money as early as possible in the day. Throughout the day the banks get busier and busier. Try to get as much as possible; it’s a real nightmare going to the bank so best to stash away a large amount if you can. You’ll need your passport at the bank too.. Something we learned the hard way.
• The Cubans are extremely lovely. We never felt threatened or scared. They are genuinely really lovely people and are really patriotic of their country.
• Be prepared to be scammed… always! Double check everything.
• There are 2 types of currencies = the tourist and the local. Try to get onto the local. It’s SO cheap if you can. Restaurants / hotels / taxis ONLY accept tourist money. Head to supermarkets and you will be able to trade in the local currency.
• Buy a big container of water when you see it. Water is hard to come by. The water bottles only come in 600ml, and in the Cuban heat, you need a lot more than this. Head to a supermarket and buy a big 5L one.
• The food is tragic. Be prepared to get skinny. If you are on a budget, like we were, expect to go hungry. It’s hard work finding something good and healthy. It’s best to ALWAYS take the breakfast option at your Casa’s. Its only $5-10each, and well worth it!
• A taxi from the airport to Havana town should be roughly $30.
• It’s a tiring city, and you’ll need a nap most days!
Enjoy. It’s a funny place, full of history, lovely people, a beautiful culture, zesty cocktails, and some of the most interesting buildings I have ever seen. It’s honestly a different world.