A city full of passionate people, colourful buildings and care-free living. Havana in the day and Havana in the evening are two very different experiences. It’s very strange because we started our day on Friday at around 8:30am, nothing was open. We were then told everything would open at 9am. Streets were empty and there were no tourists in sight. By noon, on our way back to the city, it was like tourist central. Left and right, tourists everywhere. It was crazy, it’s like, in the evening, all the tourists leave and noon they all come back. An hour starting with no one in sight, with the second hour starting with way too many people in the streets. We were told this is due to the perception that South American countries are seen to be high in crime, but after a few evenings walking late in Havana, it felt safe, even the locals says its safe.
Cuba reminds me of the Philippines – not because both countries were colonised by Spain – the way of living, the waiting for public transport, everyone knowing everyone in one area. Its all so familial too. It reminds me so much of the chaos in the barrios in Bulacan and the houses next to each other in the province.
Cubans are very friendly people. They are happy to help anyone, speak a bit of Spanish and they will do their best to help you. They love flirting and sometimes you just got to flirt back to get the price you want for the item you want to buy. Most of them can speak English, no problem, however some cannot, and here a bit of Spanish would prove helpful. They clearly love their country and are very passionate about it. They love music, dancing and overall just a very lively country.
It allows me to be grateful for what I have when Cubans explain to me the way they live. They always explain to us that they have it better than the other Latin American countries, with their free education, low crime rate and depression-free perspective of life. They say regardless of how their lives are going, they just learn to ADAPT. It’s amazing to hear stories like that from the locals, and we’ve heard it more than twice from various tourist guides we’ve met in the week we were in Cuba.
Places To See:
- Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás – was pretty excited to see this, however was a proper let down as the current factory is up for restoration. The Cubans believe it will take a few years before this can be visited by tourists again. However, there’s a little store here to buy your cigars.
- Book market of Plaza de Armas – we went on a Friday, there wasn’t anything there. No book stalls can be found, it’s probably a weekend thing. However just around the corner, two old ladies wearing their Afro-Cuban outfits are ready to take a photo with you for a price. You name the price, they don’t want a lot, a few coins will do.
- Grand Hotel Nacional – what a hotel! Massive, with loads of tourists checking the place out. Though the outside looks like the Tower of Terror from Disney. The “backyard” of the hotel was pretty chilled out with good views of the Malécon. People getting drinks and just relaxing.
- Ride a Classic Car – a must do in Havana. It was just grand and beautiful. For two hours we rode through the Malecon and the different sites in Havana. And ended the trip in the Cojimar restaurant. I think an hour is more than enough, just explain to them all the key places you would like to see.
- Callejon de Hamel – Apparently on Sundays, streets would be filled with Afro-Cubans dancing and singing with music along this area. Unfortunately, this Sunday we’re off to our excursion so wouldn’t have a chance to witness this. I was quite disappointed at this place, it seems very run down and not quite a lot to see to be honest. Not worth seeing if you have limited time in Havana in my opinion. Though the vibe must be quite different on Sundays.
- Catedral de San Cristóbal – we passed this cathedral twice and both times it was closed, this is the 1st and oldest cathedral in Havana.
- Revolution Plaza and Memorial Jose Marti – this was close too when we went to see the silhouettes of Che Guevarra and Fidel Castro, it’s in the middle of nowhere, so worth getting this included in your city tour or Classic car ride. Apparently this place has the perfect views of Havana.
- Iglesias del Espiritu Santo – can’t seem to find this place on the map, not quite sure why.
- Cabaret Parisian – based within the Grand Nacional Hotel, you book this with the hotel and pay in the evening. You have a choice to just watch the show with drinks or dine and watch the show. Both varying in price, depending on your choice.
- Havana Club – Rum Museum – again, another one that’s closed when we visited. Most places in Cuba seem to close by 5/6pm, so worth getting organised with all of the places you’d like to visit before they all close.
- O’Reilly Street – there’s only one example that comes into mind when I walk in O’Reilly during the peak times: “I feel like this must be what every street in New Orleans has!” Music everywhere, people everywhere, stalls everywhere and restaurants everywhere. Chaos but wonderful chaos.
- Oscura – a view of the whole of Havana through a digital camera. Plus amazing views from a rooftop. Only costs 2 CUCs to get in.
- El Cañonazo de Las Nueve– as it would translate, Cannons at 9pm – this is the firing of the cannons at 9pm everyday. A tradition the Cuban do, soldiers dressed in traditional clothing of the 18th century and shoot off a cannon to state that it is time to close the city gates. From 6pm-10pm, you can visit the fort for 6 CUC and watch the tradition go by, visit Che’s Cultural Centre and so some souvenirs shopping as stalls line up the walls of the fort. I’ve never heard a real cannon be fired before, apart from what we all see on TV. It was so loud but also so brief. The wait leading up to the that brief fired moment, it was pretty cool. But I do wonder where all those cannon balls end up in?
- Capitol Building – another place that’s on our list but we didn’t get a chance to enter, entrance times seems to be unknown and a number of renovations going around within the building. Outside views is enough for now.
- Chinatown – we drove past this area, but didn’t walk by foot, nor dined in the area.
- Museum of the Revolution – outside for all to see, you would see army tanks, planes and missiles around the main road of the museum. We didn’t get time to actually go inside this museum, but was told a good museum worth vising in Havana.
- John Lennon Park – there was a Facebook post about this once. About a woman who goes to this park and make sure that John Lenin’s statue is kept clean. Now I think they have someone from the government who stand across the statue to make sure no one vandalises it or sits on it inappropriately. When we were there, a woman decided to sit on John’s lap and suddenly you could hear this whistle and this old man telling this woman to stop sitting on him. Haha…
Places To Eat:
- Paladar (Unknown) – Private Dining place, usually owned by a local and their kitchen changed for tourists and other people to eat in. Had lobster stew, grilled lobster and rice with beans here. Probably the most authentic Cuban meal we’ve had so far. But this paladar was hidden under some stairs and some buildings, as such, we didn’t even get a chance to find out the name of the 1st paladar we dined in. But we were told, all paladar are worth trying as it’s a family-run business.
- La Imprenta – we had the pork sirloin here and the spaghetti fruitti di mare. The sirloin was so so, however the spaghetti was alright. The restaurant is an outdoor venue, so it was quite humid when we ate.
- Cava Wine Bar – pretty much a random stumble upon this underground wine bar. As I asked the gentleman by the door the best place to get to the Cigar Factory, he said there was no point and instead go downstairs and try the cigars downstairs and learn all about them. It’s was pretty cool, was told the different strengths of the cigars, how to cut it, different brands and so on. Great bar to drink cigars and just relax. There is no fee to learn about the cigars from the ladies, but we did tip to say thank you as she gave us some pretty good tourist tips.
- Cojimar La Terezze – this is apparently the restaurant Ernest Hemingway would hang out in when writing his books and is considered one of his favourite restaurants. This is the place we had lunch after our Classic Car Tour. We had lobster stew again and it was alright. Nothing special. Their lemonade was pretty good.
- Coppelia – the Cubans love their ice creams. They just love it! Between two people, we only managed to eat 3 scoops, the table next to us, seems to be eating 3-4 scoops of ice cream EACH. I know. The plates seems to have some sort of money coding, similar to Yo Sushi! I think yellow is 5 CUP, however the orange colour, I’m not so sure.
- La Bodeguita del Medio – remember I mentioned Ernest Hemingway’s favourite restaurant just now. Well this is Ernest’s favourite pub to drink a mojito in. They make it look easy creating a mojito here. Just some mint, lemon and sugar, sparkling water, Havana Club and ice, and you’re done! It was very refreshing after a long day out in the sun. It would cost you 5 CUC for a cup.
- El Floridita – the daiquiris are yummy! We had pineapple, strawberry and the original lemon flavours. Very very good and very refreshing. It costs 6 CUC for one. Quite a busy bar, but stick around and you’re bound to get a sit at the front if you are patient enough.
- Ambos Mundos Bar – great views of Havana, apparently a great place to get a drink too but this was part of our Havana Walking Tour.
- Azugar – lunchtime spot by a plaza square, as recommended by our tour guide. Lobster here is pretty good and if you get a place by the balcony, its worth a great lunch spot.
- Paladar Los Mercaderes – another family run restaurant above La Imprenta. I had squid black rice here, it was ok. It wasn’t the best I’ve had. But the balcony seating was pretty good.
- Suiz – Breakfast place and had Café Bombon (like Vietnamese Coffee with 3x the sugar!), simple place in O’Reilly just to get when in the rush.
- Esio No Es Un Cafe – in our attempt to try and get a table in Paladar Doña Eutimia, we had to resort to just going to the next best thing recommended to us by our AirBnB host. The area of both restaurants are in one little cul de sac. All stating they have the same quality of food however word from locals is that Paladar Doña Eutimia and Esio No Es Un Cafe are the top 2. We had lobster with rice and beans here. By far the best lobster I’ve had in the trip, all costing 15 CUC.
- Café Arcangel – this is near our AirBnB place by Galliano and Neptuno. This is the last place we had breakfast. You can describe this place very hipster, ambiance is pretty good and food is good too.
- If you can speak a bit of Spanish, it’s probably better to polish up on your Spanish to help you with basic sentences before the trip. I took Spanish in IB so I remember a few words here and there, I wish I polished it up a bit before my arrival here. But so far it has helped a lot in explaining things to Cubanos or to fellow Spanish travellers. It brought a new challenge for me and it is somewhat motivating for me to get my Spanish up to speed and polished for future Spanish-speaking destinations. Also with a little mojito on an empty stomach, your Spanish can be up to speed with negotiating the prices of a quick taxi ride to the other part of the city.
- Cuba has two currencies: 1 CUC = $1, 1 CUC = 24 CUP. Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) are commonly called ‘kook’, and convertibles. Cuban Pesos (CUP) are also called Moneda Nacional. So far, everything you come across as tourists, would ask you to pay in CUC only. The only place we have managed to pay in CUP so far is Coppelia, and this is only because we decided to queue in the local queue. Most stalls will even say they would like you to pay in CUC, however there are obvious stalls that is requiring payment in CUP, i.e. Pizza Stall asking you to pay 24.00, this is definitely a CUP charge rather than CUC. There is also a massive cafeteria looking area in O’Reilly which we didn’t get a chance to go to, but this cafeteria seems to only be taking CUP too.
- ATMs and Cash – do not ever change your USD, they take 10% commission and you end up losing more than what you wanted. My advice would be, to just get as many Pounds or Euros out before the trip. Most of the time, if your card is an international or US-affiliated bank, it won’t work on the Cuban ATMs. So my advice is, depending on the duration of your trip, to budget for the whole trip but also to include in your budget an extra £200 for emergency money, should it be required.
- Worth checking the opening times of some of the places you want to go to as there were 3 things we wanted to see and visit but given the timings, we didn’t get round to it or it was closed.
- Walking around Havana is advisable, but if you are currently in the Capitol Building and need to get to the Grand National Hotel, you can haggle yourself to get there for 5 CUC.
- Expect the music to start at 23:00 outside your apartment. If your Airbnb is in the Old Havana or central of Havana. You will hear music, just be prepared to hear it until 2/3am. This isn’t always the case, our 1st AirBnB is in Old Havana and the parties start around 23:00 onwards. However, our 2nd AirBnB is just by Galileo Calle and it was in the 8th floor of a high rise. No sound can be heard.
- Queues – there will always be queues. Cubans love queuing up, in banks, in internet places, in Coppelia, everywhere. They just love it. They’re all so patient about it too. The queues go by quickly and it’s all organised – there are 5 queues surrounding the area of Coppelia and it went by quick.
- “Es complicado” or It’s complicated. Cubans love saying this phrase when explaining the processes of how things work in Cuba.
- Bring tissues – in both instances of accommodation and some public or restaurant restrooms, there are bad quality tissues or limited number of tissue rolls. Be sure to bring enough for your own usage and avoid paying the toilet lady some money to provide you with tissues.
- Worth checking the custom rules of your destination on how much cigars/rum you can bring back to the country, we heard in our trip that Australians cannot bring in cigars from Cuba to their country.
- Most of the tours we had in Havana were organised by our AirBnb Hosts. Usually your host will have side businesses with friends when it comes to private tours, so check with your host on what deals he or she can get you on tours or souvenirs to take home.