Are you thinking about heading to Havana in the near future? If yes, you are in luck! The following post is a short guide on how to survive your first 48 hours in the city.
How To Get Here & Visas
The main airport serving Havana is the José Martí International Airport located 30 minutes south of Havana city center. There are numerous flights serving this airport from North America, Central America, South America, and Europe.
In order to be granted permission to enter the country, a visiting tourist must be in possession of a Tourist Card. While there is some debate on whether or not you can get one at arrival, it is highly advised to get one before coming to Havana or any Cuban airport for that matter.
Prices for the Tourist Card vary wildly depending on where you buy it from. I've heard of third party agencies selling them for 100 USD! I had a short layover in San Salvador on my way to Havana and I was able to purchase a Tourist Card at my TACA Airlines departing gate for 15 USD. The gate agent only accepted cash in US Dollars.
Once you are in possession of the card, fill out the front and keep it safe until you land.
The busiest time in the Cuban tourist season is December - March. During these months, expect the streets in Havana to be filled with Western tourists carrying very expensive cameras around their necks. Accommodation will be quite limited with a lot of the more affordable options being booked up rather quickly. Also, expect prices for everything to be at their peak.
During the months of May - October, expect the heavens to open up and the rain falling down on the city. Temperatures, however, remain rather temperate throughout the year.
There are two currencies in Cuba - Moneda Nacional (CUP) and Convertible Pesos (CUC). 1 USD is 24 CUP or 1 CUC. As a tourist, you'll be dealing mostly with CUC.
CUPs look like this:
CUCs look like this:
Make sure the note says "Convertible" so you know you have the right ones.
If you are bringing cash with you, you can exchange your currency with the official currency exchange located just outside the arrivals area at Havana International Airport (where the taxis are located). Expect long lines here as a lot of people are changing their money to CUCs (Convertible Pesos).
The exchange rate is 1 USD = 1 CUC but Cuba levies a 10% tax on US Dollars exchanged in the country bringing the exchange rate to 1 USD = 0.9 CUC. With that said, the currency of choice then for exchanging are Canadian Dollars or Euros. If you exchange money here, remember to take your time and count the money you get. The tellers are notorious for shorting people. I was shorted about 10 CUCs when I exchanged some money here and I rushed to get out.
If you want to save a bit of time and get the best rate, head up the escalator to Departures and find the line for people trying to change their money back to their home currency. A lot of them will sell you their leftover CUCs since it is strictly forbidden to leave the country with local Pesos as well getting out of that long line. USD is the easiest to exchange since it is a 1:1 exchange, 1 EUR is 1.12 CUC, and 1 CAD is 0.75 CUC. Since US Dollars are taxed 10%, this will be the best way to avoid the tax if it is the only currency you brought with you.
Line at the currency exchange in Departures
When using credit/debit/ATM cards, the rule is as long as the issuing bank does not have any US affiliation they should work. Most tourist places accept Visa or Mastercard only. There are plenty of ATMs around the main tourist spots if you are looking for one. Finally, larger hotels can also serve as an official currency exchange and you don't need to be a guest to take advantage of this. If you try to exchange US Dollars at a hotel, expect them to levy the 10% tax.
Even in CUCs, things are pretty affordable. The following are some sample prices for common things I did during my visit:
- Taxi to old Havana from Airport: 25 CUC one way
- Taxi to Playas Del Este: 15- 20 CUC one way
- Casa Particulares (Private Room, 2 People): 30 - 40 CUC/night
- Cuba Libre: 2.50 CUC
- Beer: 2 CUC
- Local Food: 0.5 - 5 CUC/meal
- Fancy Food: 5 - 15 CUC/meal
- Bottled Water: 0.7 - 2 CUC
Here is a menu for an amazing restaurant I went to called La Taberna Del Pescador in the Vieja square.
Cocktails are super cheap!
Havana has a large array of low to high end hotels for you to stay in. I was in the city during high season and I saw hotel rooms going for around 200 Euros per night (Yikes!).
Some are the best known hotels are:
- Hotel Inglaterra
- Hotel Telegrafo
- Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana
- Hotel Sevilla
- Iberostar Parque Central
- Hotel Nacional de Cuba
A great thing to do when looking for accommodation is staying at a Casa Particulares, a homestay with a Cuban family. This is a source of income for Cubans and is a great way to meet and interact with a local. You can book high end homestays online on sites like AirBnB or even go door to door once you've arrived and ask the home if they have a vacancy. The latter being more suited to those on more flexible schedules.
When you go door to door, you can get the best deal for accommodation since you are dealing directly with the property owner. In order to find out if the home is a casa with a room to rent, they will post a sign with this symbol up front:
If you do decide to knock on doors, you will need to be armed with some Spanish when speaking with the owner. You might get lucky and the owner of the house speaks some English but I wouldn't count on it. Expect to pay 30 - 40 CUC per night for a private room for most places. Depending on the season, it may go higher or lower than that. Before you commit to anything, ask the owner if you can see the room they are renting out and then go from there.
Hola! ¿Tiene una habitación por tres noches? Tenemos 3 personas.
(Hi! Do you have a room for 3 nights? We have 3 people.)
¿Cuánto cuesta por una noche?
(How much for one night?)
¿Puedo ver la habitación por favor?
(Can I see the room please?)
Even with my ultra basic Spanish, I was able to secure a private room in a casa and even brought the price down to 30 CUC per night from 35 CUC per night just by asking nicely. The room came with an air conditioner, mini fridge, private bathroom, and a comfortable bed. Most casas will even prepare you a home cooked meal for breakfast or lunch for an additional fee for 3 - 6 CUC. You will need to arrange it with your casa owner in advance.
I highly recommend the casa I stayed in that is located on #632 Concordia. The Señor of the casa is also named Nico and spoke English. They call the casa Hostal California. New friends I made in Havana were staying in a placed called Asahi that is located on #364 Lealtad and after taking a look at their room, I can recommend staying there as well.
Email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
For budget conscious travelers, there are a number of good dorms available in the city. There are places that are bonafide hostels, while others are casas with shared dorm rooms. You can get a bed in places like these from 7.5 - 15 CUC/night and is perfect for solo travelers looking to save some cash.
Food & DRink
Cuban cuisine is anchored by traditional beans and rice along with a cooked meat of some kind. If you are looking for local food, expect that to be placed in front of you. There is a lot of street food from pressed sandwiches to fried chicken if you are looking for something quick and cheap. Food of this nature can be really affordable from 2 CUCs for a sandwich to about 5 CUC for a plate of chicken, rice, and beans.
There is also a large number of more high end food options that aim to please the Western palate and those restaurants are located along the highly tourist trafficked areas of town. Expect to pay around 5 - 20 CUC per plate at these restaurants.
Original Sloppy Joe from Sloppy Joe's Bar (6 CUC)
How To Get Around
I spent a lot of time walking around Havana and found it a good way to see the core of the city. The fact that walking the streets is really safe and cars don't drive erratically makes walking quite pleasant. If you are walking around, I recommend downloading the smartphone app Maps.me (iOS/Android) in addition to the Havana map for it before arriving. Once you have it all set up, you will have access to an offline map you can refer to when walking around.
There are also numerous pedicabs and taxis that will ferry you around for a price. A real treat is to take a vintage taxi car to get to a destination or hire one for a half day city tour. Many vintage car drivers are also expert mechanics and keep the cars in tip top shape despite being made in the 1960s and 70s.
Your mobile phone provider will probably not work properly in Cuba even if you have international roaming enabled. It is very difficult to get a local SIM card unless you are Cuban so expect to be without a phone during your stay.
There are paid wifi spots all over Havana that are run by the state called ETECSA. You can buy a 1-hour access card for 1.5 CUC from hotel receptions or the ETECSA kiosks located in big parks that serve as wifi spots. Cards sold at official ETECSA locations tend to run about by mid afternoon so plan on buying one earlier in the day to avoid being sold out on. Enterprising locals roam these public wifi spots hoping to resell the cards to desperate tourists who don't know the real price. I met someone who paid 10 CUC for a 1 hour card. 🙄
Here is what a card looks like:
The wifi hot spot is usually called WIFI_ETECSA and you enter in the Login and Password information printed on the access card in a screen that pops up. The connection is decent most of the time but don't expect to be streaming video because a lot of people are on at once. You can access the wifi access point as many times as you like as long as there is still unused time left in your card. Once the access time on the card is exhausted, you'll need to purchase more time.
Things To Do
- Go cigar shopping. Even if you don't smoke, visiting a famous cigar shop can be quite an experience to learn about Cuba's most famous export product. A shop that I found really fascinating is the Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagás that has knowledgeable English speaking staff.
- Take a walk along the iconic Malecón sea wall to see the ocean thrash into the wall and artifacts from colonial times.
- Go to the big plazas, such as Plaza Vieja, to catch some rousing live dance performances in the evenings.
- Take a day trip to Payas Del Este to experience some pristine Caribbean beach just 30 minutes outside of Havana. You can get a taxi to take you to the beaches in Playas Del Este (about 25-minute drive) for about 40 CUC round trip or 20 CUC one way. Tell your driver to take you to a hotel called "Villas Los Pinos" and you can hang out on their beach front and order some food and drink as well.
- If you’re in Havana as a tourist, locals see you as one big dollar sign. If you speak to one or one engages in conversation with you, expect that there is a monetary end game.
- There are lots of touts everywhere asking you if you want taxis, cigars, or anything else. Try and block them out as soon as possible.
- Learn how to count to 50 in Spanish. The more Spanish you know, the less likely you’ll get ripped off.
- I've mentioned it already but it is really safe to walk around the city, even at night. The smaller streets are not as brightly lit but I never felt uneasy walking on them.
- Keep a few 0.50 CUC and 1 CUC coins handy to pay for access to public toilets.
Enjoy your stay in Havana! If you visited this beautiful city recently, how did it go?
About The Author
Nico Atienza is a third culture kid who took a year off from his life to make his dream of circumnavigating the globe come true. Apart from his love of travel, he is making videos for his Youtube Channel, an award winning volunteer who knows how to travel for free using miles & points, and is also probably trying to figure out how to tell his next story.