Preparing for Cuba
Currency: One of the first things American travelers need to be prepared for is the fact that American currency is difficult to use in Cuba. Although it’s not impossible, it is certainly challenging. For the most part American visa cards (debit/credit) were not accepted anywhere in Cuba (restaurants, shops, airport, etc.) Government run exchange houses or casa de cambio, are available if you need to exchange USD to Cuban currency. However, I opted to skip the trouble and convert my USDs to Canadian dollars (or euros) before traveling, then exchanging to CUCs in country (which is one of two national Cuban currencies). The best advice is that you need to plan on taking enough cash to get through your travels, and additional money in case of emergency!
Weather: Prepare for humidity! Lots of it! Humidity can get as high as 94%, combined with the heat, you’ll need to be ready to dress light and drink lots of water.
Internet: Pretend that it’s 1984 – you have no consistent Internet or data and very limited access to the outside world. But this is the beauty of visiting Cuba – totally unplugging. You will be able to purchase wifi scratch off cards, which you need to purchase at designated ETECSA locations. ETECSA is a state-owned telecommunications company and the only provider of this service.
The wifi cards will cost you $1 per card (1 hour usage), but make sure to have your ID with you in order to buy these. There is a limit of 2 or 3 per person, but that changes. You can only access internet at Wifi parksor high-end hotels. The hotels charge an inflated rate of $8 per hour so make sure to come with your own cards!
Maps: Remember you don’t have internet, so getting around Havana can get a little confusing if you have specific destinations in mind. I downloaded both Cuba Travel Guide and Maps.me – both great offline map applications.
GUIDE TO HAVANA
Where to Stay
Old Havana (Habana Vieja): The most central and tourist friendly neighborhood to stay. Our casa particular (listed below) was very close to Chinatown, Havana Vieja, and most museums. But anywhere you stay you’ll have plenty of vintage cars, colorful buildings and photo ops on every corner.
The Hotel Situation
The best way to get an authentic experience in Cuba, specifically when staying in Havana is Airbnb. There are some strict restrictions for booking Airbnb accommodations while in Cuba, but as long as you do so before traveling you’ll be set! Locals share their homes or casa particular, typically offer you a private room and bathroom for very affordable prices. I stayed with Felix & family at Casa Maíta at their beautiful home – you can book it here! You can also use my referral link if you’re a first time Airbnb user and get $20 off here!
What to See
Old Town Havana (Habana Vieja) – walk walk walk! Discover the narrow streets of old havana, the architecture, the culture, the food. Everything is worthwhile, every corner is colorful and the architecture is mind blowing.
Malecón beach strip – I found that our stroll down the Malecon was the most rewarding during sunset. You’ll find a lot of Paladares or family owned restaurants along the way and mini kiosks offering refreshments, and especially mojitos!
Gran Teatro – you cannot by any means appreciate this building until it lights up at night! Beautiful sight. Take a stroll around and you’ll land in central downtown by the Capitol. Along the way you’ll find Taco Bembe (below).
Capitol – central hub of tourists & where the Capitol is located. You’ll also find a stretch of vintage cars ready to be ready for a tour. Haggle! We were able to get the price down to $25 for one hour. Others were offering the ride for up to $60.
Plaza Revolución – The political and administrative center of Cuba where you’ll find a large statue of José Martí, and steel portraits of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. You’ll need to take a taxi tour or rent an old school car to get here. Plan for a 20 minute trip from downtown.
Mercado Artesenal San Jose – Grab a bike taxi for a few dollars and head to the market for souvenirs, coconut drinks, art, and more. Spot the antique train outside and walk across the street to tour Iglesia de Paula.
Museo del Ron Cubano (Cuban Rum Museum) – quick stop & shop for Cuban rum, a posed picture with a local in Cuban attire and a kiosk with cocktails.
Hotel Sevilla – ready for lunch, wifi, pool and ambience? Here you are in the middle of a Moorish revival structure.
The Saratoga Hotel – the rooftop is a must see! You get a full panoramic view of Havana, specifically the Capitol and enjoy the pool.
Art & Music
Fabrica de Artes Cubano – get there around 7:30 before the line gets long. This is a trendy art center with drinks and small bites. A bit far from central Havana, so you’ll need to take a taxi for close to $15 to get here – but well worth it.
Sia-kara Bar – we literally stumbled upon this hole in the wall and enjoy every minute of it. Very close to Bembe, so if you stop for some tapas head to Sia-kara for drinks. The decor is amazing, with personalized walls to write notes for future visitors, decorated cocktails and live music by amazing artists.
Where to Eat
Bembe Tapas & Bar – so good we went twice! This little gem is hiding around the Gran Teatro and has the most delicious Ropa vieja and fresh empanadas.
Habana 61 – modern Paladar & a little high end but arguably the best restaurant in the Malecon neighborhood.
SANTA MARIA DEL MAR BEACH
If you ask any locals, they’ll tell you that Veradero is the most beautiful beach in Cuba. That’s if you’re willing to drive 3 hours each way to get to a beach. I found a much more flexible option if you’re tight on time. Santa Maria del Mar Beach! Only 30 minutes from downtown.
How to Get There
Take Tourist bus number T3 (near the Capidolio picture belwo) for $3 or CUC. The ticket is valid for the whole day and is roundtrip! You’re heading to Playa del este specifically the Santa Maria del Mar stop.
You’ll be dropped of in front of this cocktails hut and yellow building across the street. The beach trail is right behind those coconut structures!
Where to Eat
Ranchon don Pepe – The only restaurant in site by the bus drop off, and the best grilled lobster you can eat! Coupled with live Cuban music, and tropical vibes – this is a must!
Before you leave. Get on a rooftop. Whether from a rooftop pool/hotel, your airbnb, or a historical building. It’s worth it.
Highlight of my Cuba trip was the two days we spent in Trinidad. It’s a small post-colonial styled city with a ton of activities.
Trinidad is only about a 4 hour ride from downtown Havana. With plenty of beautiful narrow streets, shops, music and adventures. Check out 9 things to do in Trinidad, Cuba here.