Havana allows you to not only step back in time but step into a time where we live in the moment. Besides the colourful classic cars which are the obvious indicator of the time warp. It’s a place where music is live on the streets and not heard through an iPod. Chatting with a neighbour means actually walking over and knocking on their door or picking up a pay phone and there is a palpable sense of community. Havana really is a city like no other.
I absolutely loved Havana and would return in a heartbeat now knowing what to expect and that there is nothing to worry about. But hindsight is 20/20. Before I left I did a myriad of research, quizzed anybody that mentioned that they had been there, and tried to plan and be prepared for any eventuality. Based on my experiences I have condensed all the questions I had before travelling to Havana for the first time as well as what I discovered through the hours of research that turned out to be immensely helpful.
Tips for first time travellers to Havana
But honestly, I was being paranoid. As a first-time traveller to Havana, there is nothing to worry about. Keep your wits about you, arrive with an open mind, no set expectations and let the city’s magic capture you.
A tourist VISA is required for all travellers. Most flights and vacation packages to Cuba include the cost of the visa and you will be given it on the plane. Do not lose it as you are required to produce it on exiting the country again.
You have to have a valid passport, return ticket and proof of health insurance to enter Cuba.
Currency & Banking
Cuba has a dual currencies system CUP are reserved mainly for locals and the CUC for the tourist. 1 CUC is equivalent to 1 USD. It is a country where cash is king. Try and reserve the use of your credit card for hotel and large tours and pay with cash for everything else.
Getting hold of CUCs is really easy, every hotel and bank exchanges. There is also no additional forex or handling fee, they simply convert your currency based on the rate of the day. Some banks give slightly better rates than hotels, but you need to decide if hunting down a better rate outweighs the convenience of converting at your hotel lobby. At the end of your stay if you have a pile of CUCs left, for a nominal fee you can convert them back at a bank or hotel.
Don’t take USD as there is an additional fee to exchange USD, rather stick with Canadian dollars or Euros. Also, don’t attempt to use a US issued credit cards like Amex or City Bank as they simply do not work.
Flights and accommodation aside, we spent an average of 80CUCs per day per person. that included all food, snacks, taxis, classic car tours and tipping.
Tipping is expected by everyone that offers you a service. From taxi driver, housekeeping, waiters, tour guides and even those that you don’t ask for help from. Don’t take a picture of a local if they offer unless you plan on tipping them.
Locals will try to shake every penny from your purse as getting access to tourists and their tips is the best way for Cuban locals to supplement their basic government salary.
There are free wifi parks across the city. But this doesn’t mean you have instant access to the internet. You have to first purchase a pre-paid internet card (they are fairly inexpensive) and then you can login and have access to the internet. Most hotels or at the very least hotel lobbies have wifi.
Spanish is the country’s official language but English is widely spoken and understood, especially whilst in Old Havana. The restaurants even have menus with English translation.
I can assure you that finding a taxi and getting around Havana will be the least of your problems. Everywhere you walk you will be offered a taxi. There are also a multitude of options available, Havana has yellow cabs similar to New York City, there are also the classic cars, cute little three-wheelers called Coco taxis for short distances, horse-drawn carts, rickshaws and then any local with a car will also act as a taxi. The taxis are not metered so ensure you negotiate the price before getting into any taxi.
A great way to orientate yourself with the city is to use the open roof tourist Hop on Hop off bus. It cost 10 CUCs per person and a ticket is valid for the entire day although there is no audio commentary like the normal tourist hop on/hop off buses. There are three bus routes, only the T1 makes stops in Old Havana. Make sure you get on the right bus as we spent a lot of wasted time on the wrong bus waiting for it to pass by Old Havana.
There is a public bus system which is used exclusively by the locals. Although a very affordable way to travel, it is confusing to navigate.
Like with anywhere in the world you need to always be vigilant with your belongings and use your common sense. The streets are clean and safe to walk, I never felt threatened or unsafe once.
Scams to Avoid
There are a few common scams they try and pull in Havana that you should be aware of. If someone is being over friendly or wants to take you somewhere, its best to just politely decline and walk away.
- If you pay with CUCs ensure you get change in CUCs, some will try and give you CUPs instead which are worth significantly less. The two currencies look almost identical.
- Only buy cigars from reputable sources, often the vendors on the streets are just selling you rolled banana leaves or stolen cigars.
- You may be approached in town by a local that strikes up a conversation and they may tell you; Today is National Day of ____ whatever – fill in the blank. This is just a way for them to lure you to a store or sell you black market goods/services.
- Check your restaurant and bar bills carefully, some just like to sneak additional items onto it.
- Make sure you agree on a price with your taxi before you get in.
- Politely decline any beggars, or those asking you to help them buy their baby milk.
We never had a problem with food in Old Havana, with the introduction of private restaurants, the options are endless. Make sure to pursue the menus at the door and be realistic, keep in mind you are not in New York City. I am a very fussy eater and a vegetarian and I never had a problem finding something to eat and I didn’t find the food bland.
Maps.me – Before you go, download this app and the Havana map. It uses GPs to track and guide you, so no need for any internet access. It worked perfectly and was a real help in navigating the tiny streets of Havana, it also has markers of where restaurants or points of interest are on the map.
Cuba – The app is just called Cuba, by Triposo. It is also an offline app that details, places to eat, drink, hotels, and activities in the area.