Havana, mi amor
I’m very excited about this post, since visiting Cuba was, probably, one of the best decision of my life. When Sebastian told me he wanted to go for two weeks, to enjoy the country and shoot some beautiful tile floors, the first thing I felt was the fear. I did not know Cuba and my opinion about the country was completely different from what is it now. I could not avoid to think about practical things. I was afraid of everything and I had my doubts if I should go or not. From today’s perspective, I can assure you, Cuba is one of the best destinations I have ever visited. First of all, it is such an unique country! You can’t find anywhere else what you’ll see in Cuba. It’s like traveling in time. The beautiful architecture, old vintage cars and music everywhere will make this experience absolutely unforgettable. I have never seen so many beautiful buildings together in my entire life.
Yes, some of them are old and in bad shape, since the humidity affects them a lot, but they are still gorgeous and with a little help, they will keep being it. Cuban people are the loveliest people in the world. They love to share their thoughts and experiences with you. They are very PROUD of being who they are and this made me respect them even more. It’s a known fact Cuba has some economical problems and yes, their struggle because of imposed restrictions is real. They don’t have access to a lot of things, but Cubans are very creative to find solutions to their problems. POSITIVITY is the state of their mind and that’s how they keep theirselves happy. Highlighting their free education and health care system, which is one of the bests in the world! After my 2 weeks stay there, I came to the conclusion that it is one of the best places to live and have a calm life. As I’m not gonna be able to live there, I’ll make sure to visit it soon again. Meanwhile I leave you some tips in case you decide to travel to this beautiful country.
General info on travel to Cuba
For me it was my first time going to Cuba and I didn’t really know what to expect, but I did my research before and I want to share some of my findings with you. There are a few things that come in handy to know beforehand:
- You’ll need a Visa ( Tourist Card) to enter the country. You can get them easily online through agencies or at the cuban embassy. We got ours from CubaVisa, a dutch agency, and within 3-5 days we had it in our mailbox. We have extra travel health insurance that covered Cuba, but weren’t asked to present it on arrival.
- Bring enough cash! Credit Cards aren’t commonly accepted in Cuba. Some of the hotels do, but don’t expect to pay with your card at a restaurant or shop. So make sure that you bring enough cash. It’s advised to bring Euros instead of Dollars, as you will have to pay an extra fee for changing Dollars. We calculated 100€ per day for food, gifts and transportation for the 2 of us and in the end we spent a little less than planned for the 2 weeks.
- Be prepared. Bring your travel medicine, suncreme, toiletries and hygiene products and have enough for your trip, because all these products are very expensive in Cuba and can be hard to find. Also bring a beach towel, which we couldn’t find anywhere for sale and as we didn’t stay in Hotels we didn’t have a spare one.
- Use an offline map app for your travel in Cuba. The mobile network hardly works or is very expensive and it’s easier to use an app that allows you offline navigation and search. We used the offline app “Galileo” (iOS – free for 7 days, for longer trips get the paid version). We marked our favourite spots, accommodations before in the map and after it was easy to navigate and find the locations once we where in Cuba.
- Mobile Internet hardly works in Cuba or is very expensive. Our provider quoted us 9,70€ per MB! It’s a good chance to do an online detox or if you really need to check your mails, stay in contact with your family or upload a picture on Instagram, you can use the Etecsa Wifi Cards. Throughout Cuba there are open Wifi hotspots in parks (you’ll immediately notice which ones once you see the crowd staring at their phones there). The cards you can buy at the Etecsa Shops (1h for 1-1,50CUC or 5h for 7,50CUC), you will for sure also encounter some street vendors near the parks that will sell you cards for usually 1-1,50CUC above the official price. You can then use the login name and password on the card to access the Wifi. Don’t forget to properly log off your connection once you are done, if not it will continue to use your remaining credit.
- In Havana you will find many different mode of transportation from the official government Taxis (black & yellow) to the iconic american vintage cars, Coco Taxis, Bicycle Taxis and Busses. General advice is to always ask for the full price of your trip before you get in and make sure that the price includes all people traveling, not that they quote you a price per person. Usually there is always room for negotiation. Make clear they know exactly where you are going. Bicycle Taxis are usually between 2-5CUC depending the distance and the old Taxis are around 5-15CUC. Coco Taxis usually have the same price as normal Taxis. Taxis to the airport are between 25-30CUC.
- Cuba is very safe. We didn’t have any issues during our trip, but as always it is advised to be careful.
- Cubans have difficult access to certain products, which are either too expensive or hard to find for them. The locals will always appreciate it if you bring them some stuff, like female hygiene products, baby/children clothing, shampoos or medicine. We took 2 extra bags filled with children clothing, gifts for our hosts and hygiene products. Don’t just randomly hand them out in the streets, as they will most likely be resold on the black market, but give your donations to church charities, the red cross or ask your local hosts, if they know someone who could need it.
What to do and see in Havana
We stayed for 8 nights in Havana, which seems plenty, but still we felt like it wasn’t enough. There are so many cool things to do in Havana and I would like to share some of my favourites:
- Vintage american car tour
One of my favourite activities was a tour in one of the many vintage american cars that are lined up in front of the Hotel Inglaterra. There are plenty of car types and colours to choose from and the drivers usually offer different tours ranging from 1h up to 3h tours through Havana. We opted for a 1 1/2h tour which give us some extra time to take enough pictures.
- Playa del Este
You definitely should take a half a day trip to Havana’s famous beach at Playa del Este (Santa Maria del Mar). It’s 30min east of Havana and you can easily get there with a shuttle bus that leaves at Parque Central in front of the Hotel Inglaterra. The bus leaves every 30min and it costs 5CUC one way. Make sure that once you arrive at Playa del Este you don’t just pick the first plastic chair with an umbrella, but instead walk a bit further to the east towards the palm trees. It’s a lot quieter and more beautiful there. It’s also the perfect spot for pictures.
- Walk through Habana Vieja
Habana Vieja is the old part of the city. Some parts of this neighbourhood have been restored and you’ll find some beautiful architecture. Although this part is quite touristic you still can find some beautiful and calm areas. One spot in particular I loved a lot, was Hotel Raquel. Located in the heart of old Havana, it features a beautiful art nouveau/baroque Interior and a beautiful rooftop. I also recommend a visit at Habana 1791 (Museo del Perfume), where you can get some unique and personalised perfumes. The interior is also very beautiful and from there you can continue north to Plaza de Armas or just walk down Calle Mercaderes to the historic Plaza Vieja, where you can enjoy a coffee or drink at Café Bohemia.
- Walk down the Paseo del Prado and El Malecon.
Paseo del Prado is a famous long boulevard which starts at parque Ventral and finishes at EL Malecon. This was the location for the famous Chanel Cruise 2016/2017 show. It is a beautiful street with full of old buildings at sideways. In the end you’ll see El Malecon, located in front fo the sea, where you can walk or drive and enjoy beautiful sunsets. If you watched The Fate of Furous (The Fast and the Furious 8) the beginning car race scene was filmed here.
- Visit Hemingway’s favourite places
Ernest Hemingway lived for 20 years in Cuba. He, not only got inspired and wrote some of his famous novels, like The old Man and The Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls, but he also had his favourite spots some of which you can still visit to day. In Havana you can visit 2 of his favourite bars, La Floriditia, where he had his best Daiquiris, and La Bodeguita del Medio, where he enjoyed his mojitos and left his famous handwritten phrase “My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in La Floridita”. If you want to see where and how he lived during his stays in Havana, you can either take a taxi and visit Finca La Vigía 30min outside of Havana or go to the Hotel Ambos Mundos and ask if you can have a look at his room (Room 511).
- Stroll through Vedado and Centro Habana
Most tourists stay in the historic neighbourhood (Habana Vieja) of Havana and rarely see the other areas. On our first 2 nights we stayed in Centro Habana, a little west of Habana Vieja, and it felt completely different, less touristy and bit more calm. We loved strolling through the neighbourhood and be curious about what we would stumble upon next. Check all the different shops in Centro Habana, stop for lunch at El Biky or visit the funky afro cuban market Callejon de Hamel (they have special music performances and dances on Sundays).
Then if you go further west you’ll end up in Vedado, a more residential and modern neighbourhood of Havana with beautiful colonial houses . On the way you should definitely make a stop at Pasteleria Almendrares and enjoy some of their delicious pastries. In the area you’ll find as well the iconic ice-cream shop Coppelia and the Hotel Nacional and Hotel Habana Libre, 2 hotels with a rich history.
Where to stay in Havana
In Havana you have a wide choice of options, you can stay at a classic hotel or go local and stay with the cubans in a “case particular” (airBnB). I highly recommend staying at a casa particular as you will get to experience the cuban life and be in contact with the locals. During our trip we stayed at two different casas particulares in Havana and one that in the end turned out to be a newer boutique hotel.
On our first 2 days we stayed at Susanna’s & Paolo’s apartment at Calle San Rafael in Centro Habana. They have a beautiful colonial style, with high ceilings and a beautiful old tile floor, apartment in a more authentic and less touristy neighbourhood. We like that a lot and it was very interesting walking around the neighbourhood, exploring things and being able to discover.
Colonial Liberty Inn – Centro Habana
After that we changed our casa , as we only had it booked for the first 2 days, and moved a bit closer to the old part of Havana. This time we ended up at Martina’s beautiful house “El Patio B&B” right behind the Capitol and the Parque de la Fraternidad. We not only loved Martina’s beautiful home but also her cute 2 dogs, Candela & Maya.
El Patio B&B – Habana Vieja
The last 3 nights in Havana we spent at Hotelito Animas 303, which we found through AirBnB and that turned out to be a newly renovated boutique hotel close to the Prado. The interior is beautiful with typical high ceilings. They also have a big rooftop with an amazing view over the city. We had a room with balcony, which in the end turned out to be quite noisy as the neighbourhood is quite lively. So better take one of the rooms without balcony. The breakfast is quite expensive too so better go to El Café.
Hotelito – Animas 303
Cool restaurants and cafés
Havana is also a great spot to taste the local cuban cuisine or try some cocktails that this country is so famous for. We explored a few spots throughout the city and I would love to share my favourite ones with you:
- La Guarida
This the best restaurant that we had dinner & lunch at during our whole trip. No wonder that Obama came here too, when he visited Cuba for the first time. Center stage of the cuban movie Fresa y Chocolate that got nominated for the Oscars in 1994, La Guarida’ s interior will keep you speechless. Once you enter the building through a big entrance you will be told to climb up the stairs and you arrive at this breathtaking first floor with a magnificent old staircase. On the second floor you finally find the restaurant, a cosy paladar, decorated with all kind of pictures, paintings and memorabilia. It’s one of the pricier restaurants in Havana and you advised to reserve a table, but the food is top-notch. Try the lobster 😉
- El del Frente
Located just behind the busy Calle Obispo, El del Frente, a nice paladar (privately owned restaurant) with a great rooftop, offers delicious cuban food.
- El Café
This was our go-to spot for breakfast and lunch. It’s a modern hip café in an old cuban building with a lot of charm. They have a great selection of food with plenty vegetarian options. There wasn’t one day in Havana that we didn’t go there even if it was just to have a quick coffee or juice.
- Other options where we didn’t manage to go but that got recommend to us by different people are: El Cocinero, at the hip Fabrica del Arte Cubano gallery space. Roma, a cool bar in a local apartment with a rooftop.
This is the first part of my Cuba Guide. The second Part will cover more about the other cities, we visited, like Trinidad & Cienfuegos. If you have any more questions, please leave a comment.
Lot’s of love.