When I first mentioned that I had decided to travel to Cuba for part of my holidays, people, family and friends, seemed hugely concerned for my safety. I wasn’t entirely sure what these remarks were based on, but I was admittedly partially swept up in the negative hype and felt a little unsettled, second guessing my decision to travel there alone.
Up until recently, there was very little interaction between the outside world and Cuba due to the U.S Embargo. In fact, Cuba was not even on my travel radar up until a cheeky scroll through a friend’s Facebook after they had visited a year ago.
I was completely mesmerized by the few images of what felt like a city stuck in another time, a complete alternate world that I simple could not comprehend or fathom as a reality until I saw it for myself.
And just like Dorothy in the wizard of Oz, stepping out of the outdated airport in Havana leant the feeling of ‘Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore’. This was exemplified by my ‘por quito español’ (a phrase I’d use that would lead several poor attempts at communicating in Spanish from hereon in)
Public transport is abysmal in Havana. And a ride into the city centre is best taken via an official taxi from the airport. There is the option to take a collectivo (i.e. the fancy retro cars Cuba is famous for), but I would say to reserve that special ride for later.
The air is sticky and hot in the thick of the Cubano summer. And for someone infamously known to not sweat, it takes under a minute to break out a few beads of perspiration on my forhead.
It’s hard not to get excited when you see a classic car on the street. I had my iPhone out, filming and snapping away at every one I saw in that ride to my hostel, but by the end of my 30 minute journey, I quickly realized there was truly no shortage of these iconic vehicles, and my opportunities to capture them would continue exponentially outside of this particular taxi ride. This was no novelty attraction. This was very much embedded in the Havana way of life and I tried not to get caught up in this image which was the sensationalised projection of Havana.
Of course on arrival to my hostel in Centro Habana, I was left on the side of a street with my regretfully excessive luggage. It was almost cinematic, there I was in Havana heat inappropriate attire gawking up at a daunting set of about 40 stairs to the reception entry,.I painstakingly lugged up my bag with maximal effort.
The receptionist was younger than me, and warm, and though she spoke little English, assured me that hospitality would be a priority of my time here. The accommodation itself was basic, hostels are a new concept in Cuba. Stepping into my dorm was akin to walking into a sauna, and I was disheartened by the absence of the air conditioning, (apparently this was reserved for the night alone). My quick post flight siesta was largely uncomfortable in the humidity.
Night falls and I wander up to the rooftop of my hostel for a classic Cuban dinner, which wasn’t too tantalising given I had come over from a surplus of tasty tacos, quesadillas and margeritas in Mexico; the embargo dominated the majority of cuisine here, staples like your starchy potato and basic meats with minimal seasoning. You can expect a few unseasoned vegetables and salads as a vegetarian. Rum, for which Havana is known for, was plentiful and disbelievingly cheap. My new hostel friends take turns at the bottle till it’s volume swindles down to zilch.
That night we decided to head to a locally recommended joint known as Fábrica de Arte Cubano. I was skeptical initially about nightlife in Cuba but our night here was easily one of the best of my life. I wish I could take you there, words cannot describe it astutely. There were several rooms playing different types and styles of music, art galleries, food stalls all inside this complex. It was packed full of eager and artsy young locals and a few gringos. We danced into the early hours of the morning.
Havana, like all cities, is best explored on foot. The cat calling from Cuban men is persistent and pestilent, and makes strolling through the cityscape at times frustrating for the inner feminist. If you do manage to drown out the failed wooing attempts, the city itself is interesting and quirky and a site to absorb, every corner sports something different. Walking through I could just envision what it used to be like in all its glory. Somehow, in it’s tattered state, with peeling paint from walls and the characteristic chaos and bustle of many third world countries, the city is still imperfectly beautiful.
Cubans are salsa addicts, and I was fortunate enough to be in town for a salsa festival where I had no option really but to dance with a dark and tall Cuban man who literally swept me up in a twirl and taught me a few moves. It was an incredibly fun and liberating experience, all Cubans can move!.(though he was probably a bit opportunistically handsy at times).
And what of the famed absence of wifi? When I was there, internet was slowly coming into effect (this was not the case for friends who had visited under a year prior), with several open air public areas sporting Cubans selling internet cards where you can log on for about an hour after entering a numeric and alphabetized nonsensical and ridiculously long access code and surf the net. Some of the exxier hotels boast wifi however, for us millenials, this is a frustratingly slow and tedious experienceand not worth the sub par Cuban sandwhich you will purchase in order to get connected.
As someone who can be quite addicted to social media at times, I would recommend minimizing the time spent on the net. I actually relished the forced lack of constant connectivity to the rest of the world. It allows you to be present, enjoy the company of who you’re with, pay attention to what’s being said, rather than focusing on curating the perfect moment to share with those back home, or comparing yourself to others on social media, or burying your face into the vast internet scape.
I would highly encourage you to place Cuba high up, perhaps even at the top of your bucket list and visit sooner rather than later. As with all things, the increase in tourism will bring with it changes to the currently preserved authenticity of what is such a unique experience.
You see right now, Havana isn’t trying to be sexy. It isn’t trying to win you over. It is just as it is. And when you visit, you will understand what this unexplainable vibe is. There is something about the city, the people, the simplicity in their way of life. I hope you can get yourself over to Havana before the tourism boom that is bound to change things sooner rather than later.
1. Plaza de revolucion and Museo de la revolucion
2. El Capitolio
3. Fábrica de Arte Cubano
5. La Bodeguita del Medio for a mojito and El Floridita for a daiquiri
6. Hotel Nacional
7. Collectivo’s lined up opposite El Capitolio
8. Rooftop Hotel Saratoga (great view over the city)
9. Paseo del Prado (the colourful buildings you see in my header! – opposite the Capitol)
10. Plaza Vieja : for that alleyway shot framing El Capitolio
Visa/Tourist card: you will need one of these prior to entering the country and your depature destination generally will have a desk where you can purchase your tourist card (LA/ Cancun/ Mexico City did). Inexpensive at about 25 AUD.
Currency: Cuba is ‘cheap’, however the local currency is not what gets used by tourist. They use an essentially fabricated currecny called the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) which is equivalent to 1 USD. Make sure you withdraw currency prior to arrival to convert or withdraw some cash at the airport (There is both an exchange office and an ATM just as you head out of the airport to the right – ask someone if you’re unsure) . I would suggest drawing as much as you think you will need here as finding ATMs can be difficult once in Havana. Also make sure to re-exchange your CUCs prior to leaving. The currency is largely useless anywhere but in Cuba.
Internet: as I explained in my article above, you can now access internet with cards purchased for 1-2 CUC for an hour of browsing. If you head to a lot of the popular squares, you will often see a whole bunch of people eagerly on their phone. Look around for a local selling cards. Alternatively head to the hotels around the El Capitolio area which often have wifi in exchange for a cheeky sandwhich or drink!
BUDGET: Rolando’s Backpackers (good social atmosphere, bar up top, young travellers from all over.
However, this can book out quickly, it is the most popular hostel in Havana.I had an instance where my friend reserved a bed prior to our mini trip to Vinales, only to come to find they had double booked which left her with no bed.
This happens often as Cubans try to ‘spread the business’ but is obviously highly unprofessional and frustrating when they give you their word and you leave a deposit.
It’s a shame this happened because the hostel is actually great, great bar tender and friendly staff but that incident tainted my opinion overall. To prevent this, might be better to book in advance via email so you have something on paper rather than their word which means nothing apparently!). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Paradise Backpacker Hostel (right next door to Rolando’s): clean rooms, airconditioning, better showers than Rolando’s and you are still able to head next door and use the bar for more of a social atmosphere if Paradise is quiet.
EXXY: bear in mind hotels in Havana that are exxy aren’t as fancy as 5 star hotels in other countries. They remain at times outdated but if you like the whole retro vibe, you will enjoy staying in one of these places.
Iberostar Parque Central
1. La Guarida- the best rooftop and cute interiors leading up
2. Museo de Chocolate – as the name suggests
3. El Floridita
4. La Bodeguita del Medio
5. Roadside churro stands – yummmmo