Havana was only an hour plane ride from Cancun Mexico but it felt like you're making a 50 year journey back in time. I did not realise Havana was such a hub for many airlines and was surprised to see flights from Spain, Canada, Peru and ofcourse Mexico land here. 

At the moment there are no direct flights from the U.S due to the long time embargo but soon that will be lifted and no doubt the Americans will swarm there.  One of the reasons I wanted to go to Cuba now to experience what it's truly like to be in a non westernised communist country and see how people live. I think once the country opens up, it might lose some of its relaxed charesteristics...but I hope not!

Check out my article and video of my thoughts and tips for Cuba below:

As soon as you walk out of the airport you see all the old style taxis dominate the taxi queue but occasionally you do see a 'modern' car less than 10 years old but you have to pay more for those.

But first thing's first. Money!!

Cash is King in Havana.  Not many places will take visa card so make sure you're loaded up with U.S, Canadian or Euro dollars before going to Cuba. I tried to get Cuba dollars before going there but nobody has it as its not a major currency.  Before leaving the airport there's a money changer outside and you can change your dollars there.  There are also money changers in old Havana and general tourist areas so you shouldn't have trouble finding one.
You'll also get touters coming up to you saying they can change money for you.  But don't do it with them as they'll give you a lower rate.

The Cuban $ is 1 to 1 with the U.S but the government takes 13%.  So for a $1 U.S. you only get .87 cents.  Average meals in cuban dollars cost between $6 (lunch) to $15 cuban (for dinner), $2 for coffee and $4 for a mojito/rum and coke. 

Taxi from airport to our hotel cost $30 but found out it should only be around $25.  Taxis around town is pretty cheap if you go with one of the old taxis and you should ask the taxi first how much it should cost.  Go for the little Lada taxis, sure they take in heaps of exhaust fumes but they're the best value.  Taxi guys are very friendly and they'll always try to speak to you but alas I didn't know much Spanish and their English was very minimal but they understood where we wanted to go.

Almost forgot about VISAs to get to Havana in the first place.  The Cuban Embassy charges $80NZ to get a visa in NZ but you can actually buy your visa at Cancun Airport.  Its really not a big deal and travellers buy it from there all the time. 

Driving around Havana was like being part of a live car museum.  A car lover's dream!



Hotel.  The hardest part about travelling to Havana was finding accommodation.  Google didn't come up with many options, our travel agent recommeded Trivago as their site has Cuban hotels as Booking.com didn't.  Trivago only showed 4 or 5 hotels so we had to go with what came up. Left pic: view from hotel room.

When we (my partner Grahame and I) booked this one, 'The Riviera', we did not know it was such an iconic hotel so no wonder it was expensive. We baulked at the fact the 4 night stay here was probably the same price as a cheap return fare to LA!  But we didn't know any better at the time but now we see there are so many other hotels around the old Havana area, we might stay there where it might be cheaper.  But generally the hotels in Havana are charging around 100 euro which is still pretty expensive.
The hotel always has security guards at the door and Roberto was lovely.  Inside the lobby.
Back in the 60s before Castro took charge, alot of rich Americans use to come to Cuba and revel in their version of the 'Riviera'.  This hotel used to be a casino and judging from the decor, it was pretty luxurious in its time but these days some parts are a bit drab but at least its clean and has power.   However Cuba being Cuba, we didn't have hot water the last 2 days we were there and they didn't give us any reason for it. One saving grace of this place is that it has a gym - albeit old equipment but it was great to train there a couple of times. More on the gym in another update. 

Furthermore about Hotels.  We had a good drive around Havana and saw various hotels and their locations and I'd recommend you not stay in the Marina (sure it sounds nice) and Playa area as its way too far out from the main attractions and getting a taxi in and out to city would chew into your travel budget.  Recommend around the Riviera and Old Havana for best feel of the city.


Getting your bearings.
I'd really recommend going on half day city tour to familiarse yourself with Havana.  This one only cost $20 and the guide (the one in red) was very helpful in telling us about the city and taking us to all the historical spots.  She also took us to sample some cuban rum, place to buy cheaper cigars and some pretty good coffee.
BTW there is a Hop on Hop Off bus that does a loop of Havana and its attractions.  But really, there aren't many attractions (yet) and most of them are in the city anyway so don't waste your time going on it.


Food, Internet and Mod Cons
Food in Havana was great and generally you can eat quite healthily.  Most meals come with salad and rice.  I had alot of chicken and the white fish here which was delish.  However the downside is that people are still allowed to smoke in restaurants here so I get wafts of smoke while I'm eating which spoils the meal.
You'll also get music touters coming up to you while eating.  I gave this guy (left pic) a dollar to seranade me and he was ok with that.

If there's a band playing where you're eating, you're guaranteed they'll come up to your table asking for tips.  Most people survive on tips here and they have to be entrepreneurs as there's no welfare system here so people will do whatever to get a dollar.  Many will dress up in national outfits and come up to you and ask if you want to have a pic with them. This will cost a couple of dollars. 

If you say no, they'll go away not like other countries where they'll hassle you for a few more minutes.  So generally Cubans are friendly and I've felt safe there.

I asked the hotel about internet and they said there's a card but they weren't too helpful as to where I could get one.  Although I did see a few people around town with cards logging something into their phones.  Actually I didn't mind not having internet as it was better for my mind and felt relaxed to focus on having a good time enjoying the city.

But there was Sky TV!  Wow how happy was I that we could get CNN and ESPN to check out the news and the Australian Open.  I'd resigned myself to a week of bad Spanish programmes but seeing those channels gave me a nice surprise.

Be prepared to spend at least a dollar to go to the toilet as there's usually a lady outside the door to 'give' you toilet paper. However I always carry toilet paper as not all toilets have paper as its a sought after commodity in Havana. Also I got a good leg workout everytime I go to the toilet as I squatted as toilets don't have toilet seats!

BTW always drink from bottled water and not from the tap.   I don't think the Cuban sanitation and water system is too trustworthy so best not to take the chance drinking tap water or cooking in it.  They probably used tap water cooking our food but somehow I survived with little gut ache and I'm super sensitive so I think they do have reasonably good cooking practices.


Shopping. But not as we know it!

Sure, this shopping centre to the right which was opposite to our hotel looks flash from the inside but looks are deceiving. 

This is no St Lukes Mall! Inside there's no escalators, no decent lighting and is a pretty grim place to shop.  Shops here aren't like in NZ where you can wander the aisles and touch products and read the labels.  Most products are kept in a glass cabinet or behind the counter and you have to lineup to check it out.  By the time you get to the front your product may have gone and you miss out.  Again most shops are cash only and credit cards are not the norm here.
Shops aren't easy to find either so its best to be prepared with your own personal items like shampoo, toothbrush, soap, medication, electricity adapters so you're not running around town finding them.

Surprisingly there was a NIKE and Adidas store here, albeit a small one.  The shoes were pretty pricey with most being above $120US so I don't know how the locals afford them as I'm sure they don't get paid that well. But I did see some of our room attendants wearing Nikes so I'm sure they know where to get fake ones!


Dogs walking themselves!
Now I'm not sure what the deal is with the dogs around Havana but they seem to walk themselves.  Or at least they have an area they belong to and they go round various shops, taxi stands, restaurants and get food castoffs from them. 

Whatever's happening the dogs seem to be in good condition and generally well adjusted to people and aren't aggressive.  There were so many dogs and I couldn't help but take pics of them as they add to the vibe of the city.

In Summary

I had a fantastic experience in Havana despite a few challenging issues like the hot water problem and we had no power for a few hours on another day. But that's Cuba and what you get on a Communist system where nothing is maintained like in the west.
Supporting the economy
with some essentials from Cuba

Walking around the streets and seeing some of the houses people live in you can see there is great poverty here but that doesn't stop the Cubans from being as happy as they can.   Tney are general friendly to tourists.  Sure they want to make a buck anyway they can but they're not nasty or be overtly pushy to get you to buy something so I felt quite safe there.

The locals still don't speak that much English but most in the hotel, restaurant and tourism industry will know a little and generally you can get by with sign language.  It all adds to the adventure and joy of travelling right?!

If you get the chance, get to Cuba before the Americans invade the country en masse and perhaps change some of the spirit of Cuba.  Hopefully they won't invade with their McDonald's, Starbucks and other chain stores as Cuba has pretty good vibrant coffee culture of its own.

It was winter when I went so it was cool and had highs of only about 19-20 degrees so I still had a jacket on some days.  On final 2 days we were there it was raining and very windy.  I'm glad I went at this time though as summer would be way too hot and since some aircon may not work in some hotels, it would make the nights way too uncomfortable.

Hope this helps expand your understanding of Havana!

Go Figure


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