The Ultimate Travel Guide to Havana, Cuba

The Ultimate Travel Guide to Havana, Cuba

Last week, my girlfriends and I took the most amazing 4-day trip to the homeland of croquetas and coladas—Havana, Cuba! Being half Cuban from my father’s side, I was already prepared to have this be a special trip, but I wasn’t ready to fall completely in love with the forbidden fruit of the Caribbean.

Of course there were plenty of vintage cars, bright colored walls, Cuban cigars and freshly made mojitos, but the real fun came when we strolled through La Vieja Habana, aimlessly wandering those unchartered streets of a city frozen in time and reconnecting with our long lost neighbor, just 90 miles from our shore.

I could go on and on about how much fun it was and how gorgeous the old-fashioned cars were, but instead I thought it would be more useful to run through the major points of the travel + planning and offer any tips and tricks I found now having experienced the island first hand. As a preface, if you would like to skip my explanations, just scroll to the bottom of every section to the Too Long; Didn’t Read, or TL; DR, snippet to read the main point. With that being said, let’s kick start this post with:

Ultimate Travel Guide Havana Cuba Red Vintage Car

FLIGHTS

We we’re planning on exploring Havana during our entire trip, so three of us booked direct flights from Miami to Jose Marti Airport in Havana and the last one of our friends got her direct flight from New York, all via Spirit Airlines.

Although the flights were super cheap to begin with, only $145, Spirit charges for many extras like carry-ons and choosing your seats, so it’s probably easier to just go with another airline like Delta or Jet Blue and have all those details included in the overall price. After taxes and a carry on for each, our flight total came in right at $204 for those of us coming from Miami. Still, a relatively inexpensive flight.

Side Note: When booking your flight, they will ask you your reason for coming in to the country. We all chose “support of the Cuban people” as our answer with several other options like “education,” “visiting family,” and even “journalistic activity” to choose from. Regardless, airlines make it very simple and will give you no problem once you are at the airport, so no need to worry too much on what to check off.

TL; DR – Find a flight. Book said flight. Check off “support the Cuban people” as your reason for travel. Start downloading every Celia Cruz and Gente de Zona track to get you hyped.

 

VISAS

This was the most confusing part of the entire planning for us. Ultimately, no matter what airline you book with, you have an option of purchasing the visa at the airport through your airline.

Depending on what airline you fly with, visas to Cuba can range from $40-$100. For reference, Spirit charged us $100 each for our visas. If you buy it in advance or through a third party, you can probably get a visa for $75 but it was just easier for all of us to purchase it the morning of our flight at the airport.

The visa will last you 30 days, so feel free to return to Cuba within that timeframe to take advantage of only paying the $100 fee once. If not, you will need to purchase a visa every time you travel to the island.

Side Note: For Cuban Americans (those born in Cuba but are now an American citizen) wanting to travel to Cuba will need to either apply for a Cuban passport or get an HE-11 visa. According to the US Embassy in Cuba website “the Cuban government requires U.S.-Cuban dual citizens who departed Cuba on or after January 1, 1971 to enter and depart Cuba using a Cuban passport…Cuban-Americans who departed Cuba before January 1, 1971 may travel to Cuba on their U.S. passport but must apply for an HE-11 visa from the Cuban Embassy.”  More information can be found at https://cu.usembassy.gov/.

TL; DR – Buy your visa at the airport and save yourself some prep work.

 

PACKING

Correction, THIS was the most difficult part of the entire planning. I knew no matter what, I wanted to pack for heat, for humidity, and for photo ops-so anything that might seem excessive, with frills, and just screams “Throw me in a vintage Chevy with Celia and a cigar” went straight in my bag.

The weather forecast showed it would be sunny during the day and breezy at night, with a small cold front rolling through the island (our trip was in the beginning of February, technically still winter) so I packed a chambray shirt to layer over anything if necessary. This came in handy as I woke up cold most mornings and the wind picked up throughout the day. Other than that, typical tropical outfits like rompers and shorts with flirty tops are ideal for Cuban climate.

A quick rundown of what I packed for four days and three nights include:

  • Four day outfits
  • Four night outfits
  • Pajamas
  • Two sandals
  • One pair of comfy heels (very appropriate to wear heels to go dancing, so don’t feel bad if you want to bring a pair!)
  • One bathing suit
  • One beach towel
  • Travel sized toiletries
  • Makeup
  • Jewelry/Accessories
  • Shower supplies
  • Dry Shampoo (this will save you at least two days of not washing your hair and is a necessity, trust me)
  • Undergarments
  • Sunscreen
  • Mosquito Repellent

Honestly, we could have gone for simple shorts and tees and called it a day but instead we chose to look like four lost Tropicana dancers on the loose throughout Old Havana. Excessive? Maybe. Worth it? Completely.

Don’t disregard the number of pictures you are going to take every day-those vintage cars are EVERYWHERE and so much better in person. You’re going to want a picture in and around ALL of them, so just dress the part and leave your worry in the States.

Ultimate Travel Guide Havana Cuba Best Friends Red Vintage Car

Side Note: Stick to one day outfit and one night outfit. Roll all your clothes when packing to avoid wrinkles. Check the weather before you pack.

TL; DR – Dress up as vivacious as you want, just be aware that you will be a walking attraction but hey, la vida es un carnaval!

 

MONEY/EXCHANGE

The first thing to know about exchanging your money is that it is best to take out all the cash you want to use prior to getting on the island. ATM machines are few and far between and will most likely be empty if you’re lucky enough to spot one. Just to be safe, I budgeted $100 per day but ended up only spending about $70 per day, including cabs, drinks and food.

Cuba has two different currencies: CUP (their official currency) and CUC (their tourist currency). You will only be dealing with CUC and should have no reason to use CUP anywhere on the island, so be careful of cab drivers and shop owners that give you change in CUP instead of CUCs. The CUP is extremely devalued, so just something to be careful with.

At the time of my trip, the banks were trading 87 CUCs for every US dollar, so relatively close in value. The good thing was that the price of everything is reasonable (i.e. a plate of food is 8 CUC, a bottle of water is 1 CUC, a one hour cab excursion tour is 30 CUC, and so on).

You can exchange cash at most of the hotels in Old Havana. I ended up doing all my exchanges at Hotel Inglaterra, also a great spot to start your stroll through Old Havana.

Side Note: When you land, skip the long line to exchange at the airport and ask your cab driver to stop by one of the hotels on their way to drop you off where you’re staying so you can exchange there. Some cab drivers don’t even mind taking US dollars, so make sure to ask before waiting an hour in line to exchange!

TL; DR – Bring all the cash you want to spend with you and exchange your currency to CUC at the hotels in the city center.

 

STAY

In Havana, there are three different options for accommodations: a hotel, Air BnB, and a Casa Particular. Each stay provides different options for different budgets but all will give you an overall enriching experience.

Cuba Havana Travel Guide El Malecon View

 

Different boutique hotels can be found throughout the city center as well as some larger chains like Hotel Saratoga and Melia Habana. While they are the most expensive options, you do often get amenities like room service, air conditioning, and most notably-Wi-Fi. Hotel prices range anywhere from $160 a night up to $400+ and will offer you the most comfortable experience.

Air BnB was our preferred option. There are tons of apartments to choose from in Havana, all at reasonable rates and with the security of having Air BnB as the familiar middleman. The good thing with an Air BnB is that you do feel more immersed in the culture and can take advantage of feeling like a local, even for just one weekend. We all fell completely in love with our 2-bedroom alcove and the terrace overlooking El Malecon (the boardwalk-like wall along the water). We were on the third floor of a walk up building, a 5 CUC cab ride into Old Havana, 4 blocks away from Hotel Nacional and a hot Wi-Fi zone (more on this below), a home-cooked hearty breakfast was made every morning for 5 CUC and overall it just had the most amazing view and space to wake up in every morning. As long as you check out the reviews before booking, I always recommend Air BnB. If you’re curious or would like to book the Air BnB we used, follow this link.

Breakfast Havana Cuba Air BnB El Malecon Fruit Bread Rolls

The final option you have is called a Casa Particular, or Private House. These accommodations are apartments or rooms for rent in Cuban family homes, somewhat like a bed and breakfast or a hostel. They are privately owned (meaning the government does not take a percentage of money from these businesses) and are similar to an Air BnB except there is no singular database to find them all. Instead, they are spread throughout several different websites like:

Side Note: Wherever you decide to book, don’t always assume you will get Wi-Fi, air conditioning, or breakfast. Make sure you have all this information cleared prior to going so there are no surprises.

TL; DR – You can choose between a hotel, an Air BnB or a Casa Particular for your stay, it all depends on your needs, your wants, and your budget.

 

WI-FI

Cuba has very little access to Wi-Fi and usually, when you do find some Wi-Fi connection, the signal can be slow and/or patchy. Regardless of where you find Wi-Fi, all connections require an access card that can be purchased throughout the city in little bodegas called ETECSA Telecommunications Centers or at most hotels. Our group, however, ended up buying our access cards from a random gentleman selling them near a Wi-Fi zone 3 blocks from our apartment for 3 CUC each (don’t be alarmed if they offer to sell you cards too. Not all street vendors are scammers and we never had issues with our cards).

Each access card grants you one hour of Wi-Fi and will walk you through a pop up window to activate your connection that looks like the below. Once connected, you should stay in the area where Wi-Fi is accessible for the signal to stay strong, so it is a good idea to come to these spots either at the start of your day or as a break in between your tours.

Havana Cuba Travel Guide How To Wi Fi Nauta

Side Note: You’ll be able to quickly spot where the Wi-Fi zones are by the dozens of people sitting around said area and looking down on their phones. Other than that, enjoy the time you have disconnected from the world. It’s a cool experience to not rely on your phone so much and even left me comfortable enough to leave my phone in our room when we went out at night. So, go ahead and embrace the limited access.

TL; DR –: You will need to purchase a Wi-Fi access card to connect to the internet and should only cost you 3 CUC for 1 hour of connection. If not, enjoy the time disconnected from your socials and your emails.

 

NIGHTLIFE

During our entire trip, we relied on our Air BnB hosts, as well as people we met throughout the day, to point us in the direction of the best places that were more underground and not so tourist-heavy.

When it comes to nightlife in Havana, there isn’t yet a street of bars or a plaza with several places to hop in and out from, so instead most people will tell you to check out Fabrica de Arte. Although I’ve heard the most amazing reviews of this place, Fabrica de Arte is basically a tourist trap that plays rock, pop, and maybe some dance music at night-completely the opposite of what we all wanted.  Instead, we checked out the four spots below that gave us a little taste of some alternative nightlife in Havana:

  • La Gruta: we spent the first two nights at this hot spot called La Gruta on la Calle 23 by the Malecon, a 5-10-minute walk from our apartment and my absolute favorite place we visited the entire trip! They play a mix of reggaeton and salsa and have a spacious layout with plenty of tables and chairs to grab a seat while you relax and watch the couples dance around you. Entry was 3 CUC, a drink is another 3 CUC, but the vibes in that place are priceless.
  • 1830: On the third night, we wanted to try a new place so we ended up at a salsa club called 1830, about a 10-minute cab ride from where our apartment was. This club was amazing, all outdoors and by the water with a stage for a live band and plenty of space to either grab a seat and watch or jump in and dance salsa. Just get ready to be put to shame, these Cubans know how to dance better than anyone I have ever seen!
  • Sarao Bar: Maybe it was the night we went on or maybe we got there a bit early (around 10pm) but as soon as we walked in to Sarao Bar, Maroon 5’s This Love was playing (great song, but not what we were going for) and the room was packed with a pretentious and frankly boring crowd all packed in to booths or by the bar. It did have the feeling of a typical, American bar with an all-white décor, a 2nd story VIP section and an extensive bar offering, so if this is what you prefer, it could be a great place to check out. Unfortunately, for our group, we got one drink and went straight back to La Gruta.
  • El Floridita: Earnest Hemingway loved this little joint and was a popular regular during the 30’s. Located right in the heart of Old Havana, El Floridita is the perfect spot to stop and sip a few drinks after walking around the plaza all day long. Drinks started around 6 CUC and there was an amazing 5 piece all girl band playing music (everything from Selena to Marc Anthony) to start warming up the night for the guests. It can get slam packed so get there earlier (around 5 or 6) to secure some seating or grab a spot by the bar.

Cuba Havana Travel Guide Nightlife Clubs Salsa Reggaeton

Side Note: Be aware, each club we went to made us check our bags in cubby holes monitored by an attendant. Although it looks alarming or may feel uncomfortable to leave your bag with a stranger, it is the club’s way of minimizing any theft while you’re dancing and was the biggest relief to not have to constantly be checking or clutching onto my valuables.

Also, DO NOT DRINK THE ICE. Unfortunately, when traveling to developing countries like Cuba, their plumbing and filtering systems haven’t been upgraded or properly maintained in decades and so the water is not the most sanitary. We all drank bottled water but forgot about the ice in our drinks and all came home extremely sick for days after. It was the worst, so again-AVOID DRINKING THE ICE AND THE WATER.

TL; DR: If you want pure salsa, go to 1830. If you want a mix of salsa and reggaeton, go to La Gruta. Either way, enjoy your time and don’t be shy! Dance until 5 in the morning and  burn off every bit of rice and beans you’ll indulge in. Most importantly, don’t drink the ice.

 

While a lot of this prep work may seem overwhelming, I found it helpful to go more open minded and ask around for the local recommendations while you’re there. Many of the museums and monuments we wanted to check out were closed for renovations, so it left our days open to explore without a timetable, my preferred way to travel. Plus, most of my favorite places were recommended to me by my cab drivers, so it’s okay to just go with the flow here. If you want somewhat of an idea of what to do, I’ve compiled a quick list of some of the highlights of our trip:

  • Sunset drinks/dinner at La Guarida: La Guarida is tourist heavy and will require a reservation to get seated for dinner, but with a gorgeous rooftop bar that overlooks the entire city of Havana and some of the most delicious food I tried all weekend, it’s a must-see while visiting Havana. The beautifully unfinished inside has spiral staircases leading the guests up four floors with plenty of marble flooring and wrought iron banisters to photograph throughout.
  • Vintage Car City Tour: When you reach the center of Habana Vieja, you’ll see a line of vintage cars and their drivers waiting and pitching their car tours to all the tourists walking about. At first, we were apprehensive but ended up paying 40 CUC for us four to go on a 1 hour tour of the city that highlighted several of the major monuments and buildings on our list and left us feeling completely impressed with the tour. By far, one of the highlights of our trip.
  • Los Nardos: Some of the best Cuban food we had all trip was at Los Nardos, a restaurant right by Hotel Saratoga in the center of Old Havana. Be prepared though, there is ALWAYS a line to get inside so you’ll most likely have a bit of a wait, regardless of the time you go by and eat. The portions are MASSIVE, enough to split between two or three people, yet the prices are very reasonable-about 8 CUC for a plate of pork, congri and yucca.
  • Café bon bon: Oufff, café bon bon. Simply put, it is cafe con leche sweetened with a splash of condensed milk. This treat was the highlight of all my meals. I was hunting down café bon bon wherever we went and although it’s a bit hard to find in local cafes, once you get a taste, the hunt will be worth it.
  • Playas de Este: We wanted to check out the beaches while we were in Cuba and were torn between visiting Veradero Beach or Playas de Este. We ended up choosing the latter based off the recommendations of our hosts and our cab drivers, advising that both beaches are basically the same except Veradero is 2 hours away while Playa de Este is only half an hour away. But man, what a great choice we made. Even just to get away for a couple hours, the beach gave us the perfect bit of relaxation for our trip. Plus, a beach chair and an umbrella were only 4 CUC, a bargain compared to Miami’s prices. So, I would take advantage and enjoy their powder-like sand a bit while you’re in town.

 

All in all, four days in Cuba felt like a week in paradise. This wasn’t an all-inclusive resort and of course progression has stood still for the past 50 years, but something I learned on this trip is that no matter how little the Cuban people have, they love life and live it to the fullest every day. The song that kept popping in my head was Marc Anthony’s Vivir Mi Vida, because just like his lyrics profess “y para que sufrir, pa que si asi es la vida, hay que vivirla la la le.” This song embodies the spirit of the Cuban people, not to dwell in their troubles and instead live and love life every day because there is no point in wasting time to wallow. I was so happy to experience Cuba and so proud to be a part of such a beautiful culture. I can’t wait to return and hope you all get a chance to visit sometime soon! Let me know if this post helped you and if you’ve traveled to Cuba recently, let me know any other tips or tricks in the comments section below!

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