Cuba is definitely the place to go at the moment, but it can be overwhelming and differ from your expectations. Desperate to visit before tourism threatens to change the country forever, travellers are arriving in their thousands to grab a slice of the Cuban pie. But what should you know before travelling to Cuba? These Cuba travel tips explain all…
Last August, Tim and I touched down in Havana with dreams of salsa parties, beautiful scenery and rum-induced hangovers. We had a couple of days in the City before we set off on an organised tour, so this post explores everything we learnt while we were there to help you prepare for your first trip.
Hotel standards are slightly lower than we’re used to
Our hotel, Hotel Nacional de Cuba, was wonderful – it is a huge building in a really palatial style. It’s one of the oldest and most famous hotels in Havana. We checked in and took a few minutes to refresh ourselves in our room and enjoy the view when there was a knock on the door. A friendly waiter was standing there with a bottle of champagne in hand to welcome us. We were so touched!
While we waited for the champagne to cool down in its ice bucket (Havana in August is HOT!), we had a quick wander around the hotel grounds. It was a really nice day – hot but pleasant, so we enjoyed walking around the garden. We went back up to the room and drank our champagne while sitting and looking out over the sea. It was perfect!
Now, Hotel Nacional is considered “luxury” and to us, it was. But I can imagine people being disappointed if they are used to sparkling white sinks and, dare I say it, westernised features like plasma TVs. The Nacional is clean, but not clinically so, and has everything you should need from a hotel room. A toilet, a bath, a bed, a window, a door to get out and explore Havana… because, of course, that’s what you should be doing!
There is such thing as typical Cuban cuisine
On our first night, we decided to eat dinner at a restaurant in front of the hotel overlooking the sea. It promised traditional Cuban delights – grilled meat and fish with black beans and rice. Not particularly inspiring perhaps, but they were simple flavours cooked perfectly. Our meal was actually very tasty. Good job too, as it would become our staple diet over the next two weeks!
Breakfast is… strange…
We went down to the restaurant for breakfast, which was an unusual mix of eggs, pastries, yoghurts, bread, Chilli con Carne, rice, er… burgers… yum! It wasn’t until we stayed with a Cuban family later on in our trip that we realised breakfasts are usually much better than this. I can only assume the hotel was trying to please everyone, French and Mexican alike!
Private tours are a great way to see the City
Havana is huge. Much bigger than we thought it was going to be, with sprawling avenues, maze-like alleyways and things to see on every corner. We wanted to get our bearings and learn more about Cuban history and culture, so we decided to book a private tour with the Havana Tour Company.
We met our tour guide, Yune, at the Hotel Inglaterra in central Havana and immediately felt at ease. Yune had lived in Cuba all her life and spoke excellent English, so she was the perfect person to show us around.
We had booked a full day tour and spent the morning walking across the City to see all the main sights – Central Park, a replica of the Washington monument, the Museo de Revolución, a fruit market, lots of old squares, a cigar shop (where we had a free shot of rum!), some ‘art’ (such as a naked lady holding a fork and riding a cockerel) and Calle Obispo – a good street to pick up souvenirs.
During the morning, we had drinks at the roof terrace of the hotel Ernest Hemingway used to stay at, which had wonderful views over the City including a statue of Jesus (á la Rio). Yune joked that Jesus is striking that pose so he can hold a cigar in one hand and a mojito in the other 🙂
The photos aren’t free
This is something worth noting if you’re ever in Havana. Those beautiful ladies dressed up in traditional Cuban wear? They make their money from having photos taken with tourists, and they have to pay the Government for the privilege. Don’t be surprised if they chase you down the street demanding CUC – they’ll be completely out of pocket if you don’t.
We found these two lovely ladies in the Cathedral square. They are very friendly and always willing to chat. Before this photo was taken, the lady on the right gave Tim a right smacker on the cheek, leaving him with a huge lipstick mark. He was mortified!
After leaving the Cathedral square, we continued along the streets taking in all the sights and sounds before stopping to buy some fresh corn from a street vendor. It was delicious but probably a bad idea as it was then time for lunch!
Private restaurants are worth digging out
Paladars are private restaurants that are almost always cheaper and of better quality than government-owned establishments. You can tell them apart as they may look slightly more run down and may not have the luxury of air conditioning as they are purely funded by their private owners.
Our tour guide took us into one of her favourite paladars, NAO, which is definitely worth a visit if you’re ever in the area. We had a set menu of two drinks (alcoholic if you wanted – my head was already spinning with mojitos back at Ernest Hemingway’s hotel so I settled for a lemonade), a starter of fried croquettes, crisps and roots, a main of fish, rice and beans and ice cream for dessert. We were so full afterwards, but extremely satisfied. A brilliant live band serenaded us as we ate, which only added to the atmosphere.
It feels like a time warp
After lunch, we walked down to the seafront where our guide and her driver took us for an afternoon tour by an old American car.
One of the overwhelming messages we heard about Cuba before we arrived was that it feels like a time warp. Driving along in our open-top Chevy Bel Air, we knew exactly what that meant. Practically every car we passed was from the 1950s, filled to the brim with locals hitching a lift back home. Couple this with run-down buildings and a noticeable lack of wi-fi, Cuba does feel like America, only 50 years ago. But perhaps that’s just because there’s no Starbucks in sight like every other modern city. And I, for one, don’t see that as a problem.
We had a great trip in our car. Our driver took us to Revolution Square, through a posh area with big expensive houses and down to the river. We then drove around the Miramar area where there are lots of foreign embassies including our own. We finished our tour at El Torre – a skyscraper with a bar on the 33rd floor where we drank piña coladas whilst looking out over the City. It was a great way to finish.
The malecón is the place to meet the locals
After we said our goodbyes to our guide, we decided to walk along the malecón (the sea wall) to take in the sights and sounds of Havana as it drifts off to sleep. We were surprised at just how full the wall was of couples and friends talking, dancing and listening to music. We must have walked for miles towards the City looking for a quiet spot to sit, before deciding to head back to our hotel bar for a nightcap.
There is no salsa festival
The next morning, we were walking back along the malecón when a couple of friendly locals started talking to us, asking where we were from. They told us about a salsa festival later on in the day that we should definitely go to. They also told us we couldn’t get into the City the way we were walking because it had been closed for mosquito fumigation. Why don’t we follow them to find another way in?
I enjoyed talking to them (a great excuse to practise my Spanish) but Tim wasn’t so sure. When the couple started leading us away from the centre towards some residential streets, Tim said thank you very much but leave us alone now, please.
At that moment, their whole demeanour changed. They asked us for money for their baby and looked seriously pissed off when we refused. They stormed off back to the seafront, supposedly to try it on with other unsuspecting tourists.
Tim was right to be wary – it was only when we were talking to our G Adventures CEO the next day that he told us there is no salsa festival, the City is not closed because of a mosquito infestation, the couple was just trying to part us from our hard-earned cash.
Other members of our group weren’t so lucky – one couple was even marched into a darkened room where the door was shut behind them and they began fearing for their lives. It turned out to be a black market cigar shop, but when they refused to buy, they were allowed on their way. Of course, not all the locals are like this, by any means. You just need to be careful.
There’s more to rum than mojitos
Eventually, we made our way to the Havana Club Museum of rum and enjoyed a tipple while waiting for our tour to start. Our guide took us around the museum with 20 or so other people, telling us all about the process of making rum from harvest to distilling. At the end of the tour, we were each given a shot of rum and time to look around the souvenir shop.
In our first 72 hours in Havana, we of course tried mojitos, but also piña coladas, daiquirís, Cuba Libres and a delicious drink called guarapo which is a pure sugar cane juice and white rum. We even found a great bar in Havana that handed us the bottle of rum and let us pour as much as we wanted into our glasses. They also let us press our own sugar cane juice using a windy manual contraption (unofficial name). No wonder our drinks were so cheap!
Havana is a wonderful City and we learnt a lot in our first 72 hours there. We were excited about seeing more of the country but knew that returning to Havana for the last part of our holiday wouldn’t be a disappointment. There was still so much to see.
Have you ever been to Havana? What were your first impressions?