1. The city is a maze, and there are no standard addresses!
Throughout Havana, there are five majors neighborhoods Centra Habana, Habana del Este, La Habana Vieja, Miramar, and Vedado. Although the city is easy to walk around and not very big, you can easily get lost if you are expecting to see clear addresses. Here is a picture of the general area of our casa particular where we stayed (more on that later!).
There are essentially no house numbers, so every address is a combination of streets and side streets. You can see in the image above that the address is made up of two streets and no clear numbers. Also, cell service is not reliable at all, so your driver will likely roll down a window and ask people on the street for advice if he or she doesn’t know the area.
2. Toilets (well, maybe)
Occasionally, you will get a western toilet at a restaurant or museum in the city, but be prepared for anything! Sometimes, it is a more of a hole in the ground than a toilet, and you will often need to bring your own toilet paper.
There may also be someone standing outside the bathroom. This means you need to pay to use the toilet. Some change is usually enough, but this is considered a tip for the person and often it means they will give you some toilet paper. The very most important thing – do NOT flush the toilet paper EVER. This is common in many countries, and a vital rule in Cuba. At first, Candace was worried it would be a huge odor issue, but in the nicer areas and certainly in hotels, this is not the case. However, yes, it can be very smelly, and some parts of town have a poo smell in the air. Sorry, no other way to describe it.
3. Casa particular over a hotel any day!
We read a lot about what to expect and where to stay before we headed to Havana, and we opted for an Air BNB spot, La Llave del Golfo for less than $50 per night! Hotels are certainly much more expensive, and you get a very sanitized experience. Whereas, in a casa particular, you are staying among the people of Havana in a local house. It is basically a bed and breakfast. We wouldn’t have it any other way. We also LOVED having a private pool to cool off in the evening. It is very, very hot in Cuba in the spring, summer, and fall, with a small reprieve for winter. It was amazing to come back and dip in the pool. At this house, we were also able to order dinner and eat a homemade Cuban meal for a great price every night. The owner of the home took care of everything for us and gave us great advice all the time. We simply adored the home. It was historic, clean, massive, safe, and located just outside the city. While cab fare each day was a lot more expensive than we expected (easily $30 per day), we still would chose this spot again. When looking to save money, you should consider cab fare as part of your expenses if you want to stay outside the city. While the nightly rate will be less, you will spend the money every day getting into Havana anyway. We loved having a cheap beer and a mojito cold and waiting for us as soon as we walked in the door each night. The stay also included a fresh, hot breakfast every morning whenever we wanted it. One morning, we had to leave very early, so a neighbor came over to put on the coffee for us. They have a great system, and we felt very lucky to have found this casa particular La Llave del Golfo.
4. Taxis can be tricky.
Yes, you can pay for a taxi in one of these vintage cars that is in pristine condition. They will drive you anywhere you want to go, but you will pay a lot! However, basically every taxi is a vintage car, so you will ride in one that is in good condition for a much more reasonable fare. A 15-20 minute drive was around $10. You can also get a Coco Taxi, which looks like a coconut (pictured below).
These are a little cheaper and get around quite easily, but it is also just fun to have a ride in a coconut shaped taxi. Unfortunately, we did have one taxi driver try to take advantage of us and charge $50 for a trip where he intentionally took us to the wrong museum. We simply refused to pay. We paid him a fair rate, and then we walked into the museum. We weren’t sure if there would be any issues with this, but he simply drove away. That is absolutely the only situation we observed or experienced where we felt unsafe or cheated. You can ask your hotel or casa particular for advice about how much to pay. They will also book your taxi for you if that makes you more comfortable.
5. There is a tourist rate at most places.
In order to support the locals, there is a tourist rate at most museums and important buildings. It is drastically more than the local rate; however, we were happy to pay. Most locals have very, very little income on a monthly basis, so these important parts of their culture would not be available to them without this cheaper rate. In general, the rates were what you might expect for a quality art museum in any major city. We paid around $7-$10 entry for most of the places we saw. Stay tuned to hear more about each stop!
6. Americans can NOT get cash. Bring lots of cash!
Once you land in Havana, you can go to the airport to exchange your currency. We typically take about $100 per day when we travel abroad, but then we can typically supplement with Visa for larger purchases or expensive meals. However, this will NOT be an option for Americans in Cuba. Seriously, it is not possible. We unwisely assumed that it might be difficult but not impossible. Nope, it is impossible to use American credit cards or debit cards literally anywhere. You must bring cash. We don’t buy tourist items, and we don’t eat at fancy restaurants more than once on a trip. We needed more like $150-$200 per day to cover entry into museum, cab fare, lunch or dinner, drinks, small items, and tips. Cab fare will eat up your cash fast, so you should definitely plan for that as well. If you are not American, then you will be able to use a bank kiosk in town to get cash from your bank. Also, some places will take your credit card. The exchange rate for the dollar is quite poor as they basically charge an extra 20% fee for American currency. It is much better to exchange your dollars for euros and then carry euros to the airport where you can get local currency. We know this is an extra step, but it will save you a huge amount of money in the long run, especially if your bank stateside will do the currency exchange for free.
7. Stray cats and dogs are everywhere.
The dogs and cats are certainly all over Havana, but they aren’t a nuisance. They are polite and seem to understand an unwritten rule that they can not beg for food or jump on you. They were happy to get a little bit of sandwich, and they locals also look out for them in the streets. We did donate a bit of cash to a local effort to care for the strays. Consider sharing your leftovers with the local creatures!
8. Food prices vary greatly.
Check out this local menu! You won’t find prices this cheap in the center of Havana, but this was just outside the city center. CUC is the column you will use as it is the tourist currency. One CUC is more or less $1, so the prices are much better than we expected for food. Of course, you can also go to a more upscale rooftop restaurant in downtown Havana (which we highly recommend) and pay a little more for a good dinner and drinks.
We really enjoyed the shade from the other buildings, and the great mix of locals and tourists from all over the world in this little restaurant recommended by the owner of our casa particular. We tried several local drinks, and the had the waiter bring whatever he recommended. It was about $50 for a few courses and drinks.
9. Don’t be afraid to try new foods!
We had tons of fresh seafood, which was always well prepared and often had citrus flavors and herbs. We had Cuba libre (Coke, rum, and lime), mojitos, (rum, sugar, lime, soda water, and mint), and local beers each day, and we never had a bad drink. Ask for recommendations and try daily specials. Most places have a small menu where they rotate the offering based on what is available and fresh in the market that day. You can find familiar foods like a sandwich, but we enjoyed just about everything we tried. Don’t expect food drenched in sauces or constantly fried, because you won’t find much of that in Cuba. The foods are freshly made, simple, and delicious.
10. Don’t miss out on a Cuban cigar!
Brian got a lesson on how to smoke a cigar like a Cuban! They were very impressed with his ability to turn the cigar and keep a long ash, which is apparently the sign of an experienced smoker. We also learned that some Cubans like to dip their cigars in a bit of local honey. We have brought this tradition back home with us! At the time of our travel, you could bring back 50 cigars per person. Check the rules to see what the rules are when you plan to head out to Cuba. We paid $4 per cigar at the plantation, but prices were much higher in the city. And, many sellers are tricking tourists with fake cigars. Be sure to study up a bit if you aren’t sure how to spot the fakes. They told us to feel the texture for a soft exterior and press down to ensure the cigar gives a bit and does not have a crunching sound, a key sign of a fake. Back at our casa particular, the owner said he could get us a cheaper rate directly from a friend, but we were short on cash by the end of our trip and weren’t able to buy the maximum.
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