Thriving in Cuba!
I was in Cuba for a week in December of 2016 , just a few weeks after the first commercial airline flights from the US began operating. I’m sharing some observations based on my experience. Some of it will apply particularly to visitors from the US, but a lot of things that I experienced might be valuable information for all visitors.
Before getting into the details, I’ll comment that it was a fantastic experience overall and I am already excited about the opportunity to go back in April. I focus here on things I was curious about prior to leaving.
(For an even richer [albeit slightly outdated] description of Cuba, please read Cuba Educational Travel's Guide to Cuba)
Packing – what to bring
Some things I would recommend include:
Hair dryer if you use one - I have been advised that many hotels and “casas particulares” (bed and breakfasts) will not have hair dryers, and this was my experience.
Luggage lock – in case the hotel does not have a safe, or they are all occupied (as was the case with my hotel). Since you cannot use credit cards if you are coming from the US, and will have to carry all the cash you think you will need, you will want to make sure you can secure it if you don’t carry it with you everywhere you go. Havana is very safe but it is still advisable to secure valuables.
Any pharmaceutical products you think you might need. This goes for your favorite snacks as well. You won’t find pharmacies or even convenience stores, and well-known brands aren’t available.
Small packs of tissue and hand sanitizer – while on average places were very clean, at times I encountered public restrooms, e.g., at restaurants or bars, that did not have either soap, tissue or hand towels/dryers. These things simply aren’t considered necessities and at times there are shortages, so to be safe, it’s advisable to carry them with you. In some cases there was an attendant selling tissue for a few cents as well.
Note that you will not need an adapter for electronics if you are coming from the US since the outlets are the same. My hotel room had multiple 220V outlets and one 120V outlet. The 220V outlets were clearly marked.
In case you aren’t aware, no credit card issued by a bank that has any connection with the US is accepted in Cuba. That means you need to bring all the cash you think you will need with you and exchange it throughout the trip as you need it.
You can change money in the airport and will need cash for the taxis so you should plan to do so. The local currency is the CUC, or the convertible Peso, which has a 1:1 exchange rate with the US$. However, there is a fee of ~13% to change currency, so your effective exchange rate is actually less. You can also change money at hotels for this same fee. Note you cannot purchase CUCs outside of Cuba, so you will not be able to purchase any prior to your arrival.
Arrival at the Airport:
The entire process, from landing on the runway to leaving the airport with ground transportation took approximately two hours. We had been warned that we might experience a delay on the runway as we waited for a gate to open; however, this was not the case. We were able to de-plane immediately, and the immigration check process was smooth and uneventful.
After the immigration checkpoint, there was a fairly long process to pass through a screening of hand luggage. There were only two screening points, each with a belt and scanner, similar to typical airport security. For one of them there was no actual line, rather, a large crowd merging to a single belt. For the other belt, all the way to the left as you exit the immigration check area, there was an actual line but it didn’t move much faster. The only advantage in moving to that line was that there was less of a crunch of people trying to merge, so a bit less uncomfortable. My advice is to simply expect the delay and if you can see any spot with an actual line try to get in it as quickly as possible and then be patient.
Lastly, your visa will have two halves, and the immigration officer will keep one when you enter. You will need the other when you exit so be careful not to lose track of it. You will also have a stamp on your boarding pass that will serve as proof of entry for medical care if needed while you are in Cuba. We were strongly advised to keep the stamped boarding pass with our passports and visas. If needed, medical care is described as excellent in Cuba – the country has the largest number of doctors per capita in the world and is very proud of that. No one in our party required any medical care so I cannot comment on any particular experience but our on-the-ground contact (an American living in Havana for several years) vouched for its quality.
Ground Transportation and Getting Around
There are plenty of taxis outside the airport and I was advised that there is a flat fee for transportation to town. I didn’t take one since I was with a group and had pre-arranged transportation, so am not 100% sure of the rate, but was told it was around 25-30 CUC. You can take a yellow cab or one of the older, antique American cars. As far as I experienced, the cabs don’t use meters and you should ask the driver in advance to give you the fare after you provide your hotel information. The ride should take around 30 minutes.
Once settled, getting around Havana is very easy. The Vedado neighborhood, where the conference venue is located, is very walkable and if you want to go elsewhere, taxis are readily available. As with the airport, I would suggest telling the driver where you are going and then asking for the fare before getting in the car. You may get lucky and find one of the nicer, more fully restored older cars available, and they may or may not be more expensive. My only experience with them was having a driver tell me “whatever you think” when I asked for the fare. That turned out to be a very inexpensive way to get a tour in a fabulous car! Finally, I was warned against using the “coco” taxis – the small “coconut” shaped open taxis.
Internet is provided by the state-owned telecommunications company, ETECSA. I found that it was widely available in hotels but not elsewhere. In my hotel, it was also only available in the lobby and bar area. The hotel sold cards with log-in codes and passwords valid for one hour, at a cost of 2 CUC each. There weren’t restrictions on how many cards I could purchase at a time, but a couple of times when I went to purchase one the desk was out of them and I had to come back at a later time or go to another hotel. The service was reasonably reliable but at times was overloaded so was quite slow. I also did not encounter any restrictions in terms of websites I could access. It seemed easier for me to schedule my internet use in the mornings since the bar and lobby areas tended to be more crowded in the evenings.
I found the paladares (privately-run restaurants) to be excellent and to have quite a bit of variety. I also found prices to be reasonable. I would suggest having two or three choices anywhere you go for food and drinks, since it was very common to hear “no hay” (there isn’t any). The island experiences frequent shortages and restaurants have little control over the availability of ingredients. One evening it took three wine choices to find a bottle they had in stock.
I was advised that drinking water or drinks with ice would be safe in any of the nicer hotels or paladares (restaurants). I followed this advice and had no problems. I avoided salads and blended drinks (except for those served in nicer hotels or paladares) but was less concerned about drinks with a few ice cubes. I did keep bottled water in my hotel room but used the tap water for brushing teeth.
I list below some I actually tried and enjoyed enough to highly recommend:
El Litoral (http://www.ellitoralhabana.com) – Italian, on the malecon, near the US Embassy; has a patio with a view of the Malecon.
Café Laurent (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g147271-d2101230-Reviews-Restaurante_Paladar_Cafe_Laurent_Habana-Havana_Ciudad_de_la_Habana_Province_Cuba.html) - Caribbean food primarily but does have a wide range of options; great views if you can get a window or patio seat; reasonable prices and a decent wine list.
Mediterraneo Havana (http://www.medhavana.com/index.php/es/) – great, affordable Italian and other Mediterranean food; outdoor porch upstairs is very pleasant if the weather is nice.
El Almacen (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g147271-d6776637-Reviews-Cerveceria_Antiguo_Almacen_de_la_Madera_y_El_Tabaco-Havana_Ciudad_de_la_Habana_Pr.html) – brewery with live music, water views, and great casual food including Cuban sandwiches and other specialties; affordable prices; near the open air market and Old Havana so you may want to combine a visit here with some shopping at the market.
La Catedral (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g147271-d5826028-Reviews-La_Catedral-Havana_Ciudad_de_la_Habana_Province_Cuba.html) – Cuban/Caribbean restaurant
El Figaro (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g147271-d6102649-Reviews-El_Figaro_Bar_Restaurant-Havana_Ciudad_de_la_Habana_Province_Cuba.html) – Caribbean food, located in the ‘barber’s alley’ neighborhood (see a discussion in this article: http://www.cntraveller.com/recommended/cities/haban-vieja-guide-cuba), and is supposedly a placed Hemingway frequented.
Cocinero (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g147271-d5958089-Reviews-El_Cocinero-Havana_Ciudad_de_la_Habana_Province_Cuba.html) – restaurant located in the same building as La Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) (http://www.fac.cu), a complex of galleries, bars and entertainment venues; in addition to enjoying great food and atmosphere, I would highly recommend taking time to walk through the galleries in FAC either before or after dinner (it opens at 8:00) and enjoy a drink while you soak it all in.
Things To Do (apart from the great sessions!)
Old Havana (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g147271-d149029-Reviews-Old_Havana-Havana_Ciudad_de_la_Habana_Province_Cuba.html) – The old town is a UNESCO world heritage site, is probably the most touristy section of Havana, and is worth a visit. The Fortaleza and the Feria de San Jose are both nearby if you want to combine activities. If you go to Plaza Vieja (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g147271-d311153-Reviews-Old_Square_Plaza_Vieja-Havana_Ciudad_de_la_Habana_Province_Cuba.html)
While in Old Havana, keep your eyes (and ears) out for a woman selling peanuts and singing with a glorious voice. There were multiple cameramen with video equipment recording her for a documentary when we were there. Her peanuts are way more expensive than those you can buy from others (I was advised not to spend more than 5 cents for a small tube) but she doesn’t charge for the singing.
Walking or riding on the Malecon (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g147271-d500981-Reviews-El_Malecon-Havana_Ciudad_de_la_Habana_Province_Cuba.html), particularly at night!
Antique American cars – You will see these fabulous cars everywhere, so there’s really no need to make special arrangements unless you want a specific tour. I’m sure the hotel can call one pretty quickly since there were many parked nearby. You can also take one in Old Havana, or near any place that attracts tourists. If you can, ask the driver to take you along the Malecon for a particularly spectacular ride.
La Fortaleza (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g147271-d149139-Reviews-Castillo_de_San_Carlos_de_la_Cabana-Havana_Ciudad_de_la_Habana_Province_Cuba.html) – worth it just for the views!
La Fabrica del Arte Cubano (http://www.fac.cu) – a complex of art galleries, bars and entertainment venues that is definitely worth the trip. It opens at 8:00 PM and there will be a line already forming. I went at 8:00 and the line moved very quickly, but as I was leaving around 10:30 it was even longer, so I would recommend going on the early side. There is a 2 CUC cover charge, and then you keep a card with you to hand to any bartender or waiter to keep track of what you consume. One additional note - be careful not lose the card since they will charge a flat fee of around 35 CUC if you lose it. You could combine your visit with dinner at El Cocinero, which is in the same building.
Shopping – La Feria, or Los Almacenes de San Jose (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g147271-d1948790-Reviews-Almacenes_San_Jose-Havana_Ciudad_de_la_Habana_Province_Cuba.html) – be sure to give yourself plenty of time to walk through this market since it’s quite large and has a wide range of goods; there’s also another open-air market in Vedado (Calle 23 between Calles M and N) – it’s smaller but close to the conference venue.
Plaza de la Revolucion (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g147271-d546919-Reviews-Plaza_de_la_Revolucion-Havana_Ciudad_de_la_Habana_Province_Cuba.html) – For great photos and to learn a bit about the revolution, this plaza and the museum are worth a visit.
Cuba Libro (http://www.connergorry.com/?q=cubalibro) – the first English language bookstore in Havana, owned by an American journalist and author, Connor Gorry, and also a coffeehouse. It was a great place to talk with local Cubans who were very open and willing to educate us on a variety of topics, and also with Connor – she’s lived in Havana for almost 15 years and has written several books on Cuba. Here’s a review - http://www.visitcuba.com/?blog-post=cuba-libro-havanas-1st-english-language-bookstore-cafe
Coppelia – the state-run ice cream parlor, located in Vedado. You can get 5 scoops of ice cream for less than 25 cents but have to stand in line and need to tell the greeter that you only have CUC (not the moneda nacional that locals use) so you will be directed to the section of the complex that takes CUC. I will warn you that we waited over an hour but the wait time depends on the particular day and time you go. If you’re curious and a bit adventurous it’s worth the trip. Here’s an interesting article on the history and concept: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/14/future-of-coppelia-cuba-socialist-ice-cream-cathedra
Final Thoughts About Havana
Havana, like any other less developed market, has a mix of very nice and somewhat poorer areas. I found it to be very pleasant, easy to navigate, safe, and friendly. At first I was somewhat surprised by the relative lack of traffic but after thinking about it more it made sense – there just aren’t as many cars in Cuba and few people can afford them. One evening while walking to a restaurant at least three people asked if they could help us, including two guards – we happened upon the US Embassy. All were very friendly.
My colleague and I did experience a few people trying to get us to tip them unnecessarily or steer us to restaurants owned by “friends.” For example, when looking for Café Laurent, which is at the top of a building and not obviously marked (There are regulations against signage so you won’t see large signs on the street.), we stepped into a hotel lobby to ask if they could point us in the right direction. After someone very kindly did so, another employee approached us, asked if we had a reservation, and told us it would be difficult to get a table but that he would be happy to accompany us and help us get one. He obviously wanted a tip for this service and we had already been advised that there should be no trouble getting a table on a week night. We thanked him and went on our way, and had no trouble getting a table. In no instance did we feel threatened or unsafe.
I found it refreshing not to see Starbucks, McDonalds, Burger King, etc. anywhere. The local restaurants, particularly the paladares, are excellent, and bars often serve snacks, so you won’t lack for places to eat. The Cuban coffee is also quite good.