Today I have written all about my experience of visiting Havana, having returned only yesterday evening so all my thoughts are still fresh in mind – I must admit I am terrible for making time to write blog posts in general and usually end up leaving it ages oops. But not this time! So without further adieu, let me take you through the ramshackle, colourful, vibrant streets of Havana…
We spent 5 days in Havana across the beginning and end parts of our trip to Cuba these past 12 days. We chose to do an 8 day tour with Intrepid Travel, who we previously used when we went to Vietnam last year.
Whilst we are keen to go on a solo adventure without a company, Cuba isn’t the easiest place to get around in terms of transport – there isn’t much public transport and what there is tends to be very unreliable, and hiring private cars can be pretty expensive although it is an option.
We opted for the Cuba on a shoestring trip, which would take us to several other locations across the island. I will go into more detail on the tour itself and other locations in a separate post as I think one would be pretty lengthy (well done if you managed the Vietnam post in 1 go – its 8000 words and took me 3 hours of solid writing!) so going to break this trip down as there is just so much to say!
Anyway, here is the link for the trip we did incase you want to check it out already.
We decided to fly with Iberia via Madrid as this was the best option that wasn’t too expensive, with the flights coming in at just under £600, not too bad considering we were there around the school Easter holiday.
It also meant flying from Terminal 5 at Heathrow, which I hadn’t done before so that was pretty exciting. So we set off at 8am on a Friday to get to the airport in time for breakfast before our 11.30 flight – the security process was seamless and the terminal is lovely, top marks for Heathrow.
After a quick stop over in Madrid (which by the way, anyone booking connecting flights there, I would suggest you have at least 90 minutes as the bus to terminal 4S where those flights go from was quite long and slow so any delay and you would possibly be stuffed), we were on the way to Havana!
Arriving in Havana airport
Now arriving in Havana was fine but we were treated to an hour wait in the overcrowded baggage reclaim hall, which has 2 conveyer belts and no air con or water available so top tip would be keep some off the plane as we have heard that this is not uncommon.
Every few minutes another few bags would appear each time. Ours arrived a solid 20 mins apart and we were concerned our driver might have given up waiting, but he was there – we arranged our transport through Intrepid, as well as our extra two nights in the guest house we would be staying at for the first official night of the trip.
Having landed at 9.30ish, with the long wait for bags and then the wait to get currency at the changing place at the airport, it was getting close to 11 so when we arrived at our guesthouse in Old Havana we were exhausted and after a quick tour from our hosts Ivan and Rosie, we went straight to bed.
Two things here worth me mentioning briefly, the first being currency. Cuban currency is not available outside of Cuba, meaning you cannot get any out to take with you. You have to take cash with you to convert, or get it out of an ATM when you are there. The line for the ATM in the airport was absolutely enormous so I would suggest getting cash out before hand to exchange to avoid most of the queuing. It is also worth noting that they charge a 10% tax for converting US dollars, so always take GBP or Euros if you are travelling from the US if you can!
Cuba actually has two currencies, the CUP and the CUP. CUP is the local currency, the Cuban Peso. This is what locals receive as pay and spent in local venues. CUC is the convertible Peso, which is used by tourists and most places we saw accepted these and had their prices etc in CUC. It is important to make sure when given change that it is in the correct form, as CUC are much more valuable than CUP. One CUC at this moment is worth about 77pence, just to give you an idea of the conversion rate (1 CUC = $1). The reasons behind this are to do with Cubas very complex history, which you can look up if you fancy as I won’t go too much into it myself – I am no history expert.
Where to stay in Cuba
The second is that when in Cuba, most of your options on where to stay are in ‘Casa Particulares’, local guesthouses which are located all over the place. These are all licensed by the state and have a little guesthouse symbol on them. Sometimes the family that runs it also lives there and other times they are solely used as guesthouses.
There are hotels available but they are not cheap. There also isn’t much in the way of hostels – we only saw 2 in Havana and none anywhere else, so most people seem to stay in guesthouses, which is what we did other than treating ourselves to a hotel for our last 2 nights in Havana, more on that later.
Our first guest house ‘Rosie y Ivan’s’ was excellent and they were very nice so definitely would recommend them if you want to stay a walkable distance outside the city for a decent price.
On Saturday we got up and had breakfast at our prearranged time of 8.30am. This was made for us by our hosts, who lived in the Casa. We were given eggs, bread, cheese, meat and fruits, plus coffee and fruit juice.
This was to become a theme across the trip. It was delicious, except the papaya which I do not like one bit as I learnt in Vietnam. We spoke to our hosts in our relatively limited but decent Spanish, as they didn’t speak English, and got directions from them to the heart of the old town.
Havana Old town
We wandered into town at a leisurely pace, it was already pretty hot at 10am but it was quite quiet at this time which was nice. After discovering some type of dance contest going on in the Plaza de Armas and waiting for a while to watch some but nothing happened except much faffing, we soon gave up and stopped for our first drink in Cuba, on a side street filled with restaurants with lights outside which looked fun, heading into one called Chacon 162.
We opted for local beers and ordered some cheese and meat as a snack, which turned out to be huge. The beer, Cristal, was not too bad at all.
We wandered around marvelling at the colourful buildings, vibrant squares, classic american cars and took hundreds of photos. For me they were largely of cats because cats. They were literally all over the place, and dogs, so many strays. At one point in a square we could see 12 cats at once…
We chose to have lunch at a rooftop restaurant on the main street, Obisbo, because it was super cheap. It also had live music which was a bonus, but we soon discovered this also happened virtually everywhere.
We decided to wander to the Capitol and take a look at the architecture there, as the ballet theatre, museo de revolucion and hotel Inglaterra are located there as well as some more modern Cuban buildings.
We had only been walking a few hours and already had noticed a lot of people trying to stop us to sell us things – mostly tours in classic cars or horse and carts or bike taxis, or their relative’s restaurant / shop. They all say hello and at first you always respond being polite, then they ask where you are from, and then talk to you about England briefly (all of their cousins seem to live in Camden, or they support Manchester United / Liverpool) before starting their sales pitch, others started complimenting Craig on his big arm tattoo.
It all seemed totally harmless and most of them were fine once you said you were not interested and walk away, however some were fairly persistent. It does get a little tedious after a while though, so we decided to pretend to be Slovenian and unable to understand much English or Spanish on occasions where we were fed up, which seemed to work pretty well as no one seemed to speak Slovenian or even know where that is, we are expecting our BAFTA any day now.
Right by the capitol is La Floridita, the bar made famous for its daiquiri’s by Ernest Hemingway, so of course we had to stop in for one of those. The bar is lovely, very art deco old school style and had a live band in the corner, although it is of course jam packed with tourists all the time.
After this we walked back to the cathedral which we had passed in the morning with the intention to pop in and have a look but it was closed, so we had a beer instead and listened to the band there whilst people watching the many many cruise ship groups go by. This time we tried bucanero, which is stronger and tastes nicer in our opinions than cristal, plus it had a picture of a pirate on the front.
Craig had his first Cuban cigar of the trip, which we bought from one of the shops selling them (all alcohol and cigar shops are state owned) and a bottle of Legendario rum which was recommended to us by Alex, a local we spoke to for a while in a square who was very chatty to us for ages and trying to sell us a bike tour. It cost about £5/6 for a 700ml bottle.
On our walk back to our Casa, we came across what appeared to be a dance carnival, which was moving from square to square with different performances along the way, which we stopped and watched for a while which was a great atmosphere.
When we arrived back we grabbed the beers from the mini fridge in our room, which was pretty large and had an ensuite bathroom and 2 double beds, and headed up to the roof terrace where we had had our breakfast to enjoy the sun for a bit. This was slightly scuppered when a storm rolled in after half an hour but we watched it pass by, with only a few spots of rain reaching us.
After changing we headed out for dinner, and our host Ivan showed us to a local restaurant not too far from our casa, which was super cheap and had the biggest portion sizes, I was given a dish of pasta that would have easily served my entire family of four. We went back into the old town after this, it was already about 10pm and we were quite surprised that not many things seemed to be open, when we had been expecting more to be open than earlier in the day, like in Spain.
We later learned from our tour guide that old Havana is not really the night life area, Verdado and central Havana have more of this. So after a cocktail at a cafe we had seen earlier in the day – where the same band was still playing and apparently had been doing so for 12 hours, we headed back, feeling a bit tired from the jet lag around midnight.
The next day, we headed up for breakfast and saw several more places set. As our tour began at 6pm that night and the Iberia flights only arrive once per day at 9pm, other members of our group had arrived the previous night. We met 4 other people from our tour, two solo girls in their 30s and another couple in late 20s/early 30s. Weirdly all of us bar the one Norwegian girl were from not only England, but all live in South West London, as did another of the couples we were to meet later that day. More on the tour group in the next post however…
Craig and I walked to the Malecon (seawall) that morning through more old streets and sat on the wall in the blazing sun for a bit. This was a place where lots of people came up to us as it is a popular place for tourists, there was even a group of guys who forced us to shake maracas and dance which is fun but you know they want money and yes they did ask for this and were quite annoyed when we didn’t have any for them (as you only get big notes at the airport we hadn’t really gotten much change yet).
We headed back towards town and stopped in a tiny rum bar covered in flags and football stickers from all over the world and had some fairly strong mojitos for very few CUC, it was called Angel de Tejadillo – which was the street name.
For lunch we saw a small pizza bar called Mundo which looked nice and the waitresses were lovely and the prices reasonable, plus it had aircon which is a big bonus. The pizza was actually pretty good and we started a trend because it was full by the time we left.
Then we went back to a bar on the street which had a pirate ship as a counter and all sorts of weird and wonderful decorations such as shark jaws mounted on the wall, barrel tables and a taxidermy snake and mongoose. This bar turned out to be a rip off though (3.50 CUC for 1 beer, most places it was 2) so would not recommend despite the cool decor.
Then it was time to go to the Havana Club rum museum, which had a little tour much like the other alcohol distilleries and breweries I have frequented across my travels and for 7 CUC you got that half hour tour and a shot of rum at the end – there was one left on the tray at the end and we asked if we could have it and they said yes – don’t ask don’t get!
This was also where we learnt that you should pour some rum out when you open a bottle for the saints, which we saw many locals do across this trip.
We had an hour or so before our tour welcome talk so we hung out with our fellow travellers and drank some rum and beers on the roof terrace. I will cover the talk and more tour details in the specific post I will do on that, but will mention that we ate at Mojito Mojito which did great cocktails and a banging paella as well as getting people up to dance which was fun, then went to the brewery next door for a beer as it chucked it down for an hour or so, before heading home as it closed at 11pm.
Things to do in Havana
On Monday we had a walking tour of Havana old town, which Craig and I had basically already done a number of times by ourselves already. The last thing we did in the Havana part 1 visit was to go to Revolution Square.
There isn’t actually much there beside a few government buildings, which one has Che Guevara’s face on and the other has Camilo Cienfuego (not Fidel Castro as many believe) and a giant tower in the shape of a star with a statue at the base of Jose Marti, who they regard to be their national hero. This square was where many political rallies took place historically.
We then left Havana for our tour of Cuba, which as mentioned I will cover in a tour post.
Fast forward to Saturday and we were back in Havana and dropped off at our guest houses, which this time were much closer to the centre of the old town. The standards of this casa were not as nice as any of our previous ones and we ended up moving in the middle of the night due to no aircon but I will cover that separately. We arrived and headed to a bar with our chill time and had giant mojitos for 5.5 CUC which were tasty.
We noticed in the restaurant, El RumRum, which was right around the corner from our guesthouse, a long table for 18 reserved and wondered if that was where we would be going for our group dinner, which it turns out it was.
The food was pretty good but it was very slow, probably because half the table ordered paella oops. It was also probably one of the priciest places we ate, but still cheap in general standards. Craig said his seafood risotto actually contained more seafood than rice for once so if you like seafood its a good shout.
The Buena Vista Social Club
After this most of the group headed to the infamous Buena Vista Social Club for a few hours of live music and dancing. The venue is amazing, up on a partially covered building with a courtyard so you are sat around in a big square with a balcony overlooking the central yard.
We got the cheapest tickets for 30 CUC each, which included 3 drinks, the first of which has to be a mojito but then you can have anything you want for the other 2, so I did try a pina colada at the end, which was also tasty, but the mojito was better – tip alert – if you ever get a drink with a plastic stirrer in keep it and reuse it for the bars where they don’t give you them – do your bit for the environment and do not drink unmixed mojitos all in one woo – these ones definitely needed the stirrer!
It was an incredible evening, they pulled all the girls up to the front to dance for a while which was amazing fun, and they walk round as they perform and Craig actually got to sing in the microphone which he is still pretty happy about haha.
I would definitely recommend going. If you are willing to spend more you can sit nearer the front, but as they walk around I personally don’t think it is necessary, you can also pay extra and have dinner included as well.
In the morning we had breakfast at the original slightly less good casa, where we left our bags for the day and parted ways with several group members. Craig and I did some of the things we had wanted to the first time round but hadn’t had time during the day. We went to the cathedral, which was lovely inside, it was built by the Spanish during their occupation.
We visited the fort at the end of the Malecon to take some pictures and read some history – which was quite entertaining. For lunch we went to another place we had seen on Obisbo and managed to even catch the last few minutes of the Liverpool v Chelsea game, which much to my great annoyance Liverpool won 2-0. Craig was happy.
We then checked out a brewery on a pier that we had heard about from a couple at breakfast who were staying in the Casa, which served giant towers of beer with background live music, we opted for pints though as we were shortly able to check into our hotel.
For our hotel we had decided to go luxurious for the last few days and stay at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, having found a pretty cheap deal on hotels.com (it was still expensive but had about 60% off the normal price).
The hotel is very grand, 1930s Spanish. Our room was on the 5th floor with a partial sea view (we could see it well from one window and sort of from the other one, being on the side of the hotel).
It had 2 double beds in it and a third randomly in there which wasn’t made up, so we pushed ours together to make a giant bed and used the other as a place to put everything. Slightly inconvenient but we made do. It had a decent size bathroom including a bath too.
We went down to look at the pool and had a quick drink there before meeting our tour friends for a drink.
The Nacional is famed for it’s seaview terrace, so naturally everyone had planned to go there for a drink anyway at some point, so we had almost everyone come meet us for a drink.
The drinks there are rather pricey (double most places but still about £5 for a cocktail) but it is worth it for the view. Also there is a resident peacock which is cool. We watched the sunset which was beautiful and a big sailing boat went in a loop nearby just to add to the imagery.
Then we all went for dinner at a restaurant up the road called Havana 21 which had been recommended by our guide. The food was great and they had wine which was decent for 3.5 CUC which was exciting because wine is very expensive in Cuba generally (it is all imported) – for example one restaurant had a bottle of Barefoot Merlot – a solid £6 bottle over here, for 28 CUC…
This was then followed by a few of us heading for cocktails at a terrace we found nearby which was nice although I have no idea what it was called.
We went down for breakfast at the very leisurely time of 9.40, having had our first real lie in of the trip as it was served until 10. It was still super busy and a lot of the food had gone with it being buffet style. I literally just had a giant plate of cheese and bread.
This was the only day, miraculously, that I did actually feel a bit hungover on waking up, despite all the rum consumed. We then walked to the cigar factory via a little colourful street where the locals go and dance rhumba on Sundays, which some of the group had been to the previous day to watch.
The cigar factory it turns out, you are supposed to go and buy tickets from somewhere in the old town (we don’t actually know where) but everyone else had them, however we met a nice guide who said we could tag on to her tour with a Canadian group.
At 10 CUC we may have been over priced for this late addition but at least we got to see it, and it was cool because they actually take you round the factory while people are working, but you aren’t allowed to take pictures.
Then we went to find China town, which is rather lacklustre and we misread the map and couldn’t find the gate. Also apparently only one of the chinese restaurants actually serves Chinese food and we didn’t find the so ended up eating some of the worst pizza ever at a ‘Chinese’ restaurant.
I discovered a dead fly embedded in the cheese of mine so that was the end of that, I had woken up feeling slightly dodgy stomach wise and that really didn’t help.
We left the delights of Chinatown to go back to hang out at the pool, which was lovely and quite a nice temperature. Sadly the sky clouded over and whilst it was still warm, we didn’t get the tanning time we wanted.
Open top classic car tour
Still, it was time for an activity I had really been looking forward to, the tour in a classic open top car. We opted to do 6-8 so we could see the sunset and not boil during the height of the sun, and our tour guide had arranged for our guide Omar to come and pick us up in his red and white car from our hotel.
The car tours are generally 30 CUC per hour per car, so the more of you that split it the cheaper it is. We went with another couple on our tour and did 2 hours so we had time to go across to the other side of the bay and see the fortress there and view of the city for sunset.
We also saw the cuban missile crisis outdoor museum and the giant Jesus statue. It was a really great experience, I actually don’t think I have ever been in an open top car before so this was pretty exciting for me.
Omar the guide took loads of photos for us too, he was quite the photoshoot director haha and he also let us pick the road trip tunes which was fun.
We got dropped off at the Hotel Inglaterra, another of the cities famous hotels, where another of the group was staying, planning to have a drink on their roof terrace. Sadly this was closed due to them having no water, but we could sit out at the front (the bathrooms were not in a good way due to no flush availability).
We then planned to go to a restaurant someone had found in the lonely planet which sounded fun, called Cha Cha Cha. However when we got there it was closed, so we went to our back up choice which was an Italian called 5 Esquinas Trattoria, located on the same street that Craig and I had found on our very first morning.
The pizzas looked amazing and the others all ordered them but due to our earlier pizza failure Craig and I had pasta, although he still ate all the left over pizza as the pasta was ‘too small’. We then found another similar street called Barber’s street and had a cocktail there, including some very questionable looking coconut mojitos.
Our final day came and we began it with breakfast, this time just before 9 to try and get a better food selection – I had a waffle with pineapple and more cheese and bread. We went to the pool, and some of the others had also planned to spend their day at the pool.
As we learned from this, it is a rather pricey 25 CUC for guests. Although it was not explained to them initially, guests get at 20 CUC bar tab for food and drinks with that, so turns out it isn’t actually that bad but still, they should explain that better I think!
Anyway, we left them at 11.30 to pack and check out at 12, then left our bags and headed into the old town one last time to revisit La Floridita and go to La Bogedita del Medio, the other Hemingway bar known for it’s mojitos.
It is also covered in graffiti from people around the world but we didn’t have a pen so we didn’t get to join in sadly. We had lunch at Cafe Paris, where we had been the previous Saturday night, which was perfectly ok and very cheap.
Then we headed back to the hotel for a last poolside chill before having a final drink on the terrace and collecting our bags for the taxi back to the airport. This was 30 CUC and we split it with another member of the group who was on the same flight, having picked her up on the way.
People advise you to be there 3 hours before your flight and I can understand why. Although it is a tiny airport, people tend to check in at the desks due to the lack of availability of wi-fi in Cuba. The queue went quickly and we had bags to check anyway but could have been much worse.
Security was also quite slow, took us the best part of an hour to get through to the terminal. There wasn’t much there other than a bar, a few shops and a fast food place.
We spent our left over CUC on wi-fi cards and drinks, and I changed 25 CUC back for 20 Euros as you aren’t supposed to take currency out – the exchange desks are quite hidden but they are there – they only convert to Euros or USD though!
And that was that, the end of our Cuba adventure.
I will be writing a further post on the tour and the other locations we visited asides Havana, but there are a few things I should probably mention here.
Tips for travelling in Cuba
I just said wi-fi was limited. This is true – Cuba only got public internet access a few years ago, and it is only available in wi-fi hotspots, which tend to be plazas or hotels. To access it, you must buy a wi-fi card that allows you to log in and out. These last for 1 hour and are purchased from state owned communications shops, which often have very long queues, or pay double from street venders or hotels (they are only 1 CUC normally).
Very few restaurants and bars have either their own wi-fi or access to the public wi-fi as you might expect them to, and those that do it was often very slow ie enough to do WhatsApp messages but not enough to load social media apps like facebook and instagram. So you really are quite off the grid when you go to Cuba, which seems odd at first but you get used to it and it is quite nice to not have everyone on their phones and actually speaking to one another.
On the back of that point, Craig downloaded the map of Cuba from Maps.me – which you could use offline which was a total lifesaver as we would have not known much about where we were going without it.
Cuba is not like other countries and Havana is not like other cities I have been to around the world. Partially due to its history and governance system, including the very recent introduction of internet, and the trade embargo imposed by the US, Cuba is almost stuck in time. You do not see chain restaurants. Not a single Starbucks, Mcdonalds, nothing. There aren’t really supermarkets, and those there only really sell essentials and alcohol. They don’t really do snacks in Cuba, so you can’t just buy some crisps or a chocolate bar or cereal bar if you are hungry. There isn’t really a commercial vibe at all. It is a truly unique and quite unspoilt place and I would say to anyone who is thinking of going to do so soon in case that changes in the future, as it would rather spoil the charm of the place.
I will save my other thoughts for my next post as anyone still reading this probably wants me to stop talking now (thank you if you are still reading). But Havana is incredible, it was just how I pictured it and I hope it remains that way, so laid back and carefree for a city for others to see.
Here are some extra pictures to show that 😊