Habla un poco de español
I spent a week in Havana. I recommend befriending someone who can show you around. In my case, it was a taxi driver, who ended up being a great guide. He took my boyfriend and I to Revolution Square, then to one of the oldest trees in Havana (Grandmother Willow vibes) and to Hemingway's Cuban casa, Finca Vigia.
Other than spending $300 on some fake Cohibas, my boyfriend and I had the best time. I'd recommend going in October, when it's not too hot and it only rains for about 20 minutes at a time, if at all. Be warned: There are no beaches immediately near Havana, so it's not thatkind of vacation. But I much preferred wandering the streets of Habana Vieja, checking out the caves in Viñales, visiting rum and tobacco factories in Pinar Del Rio, and browsing the vintage books at the Plaza de Armas. There were also some hidden gems around Havana: a home converted into a small museum dedicated to Victor Hugo, the tastiest pina colada at the Parque Almendares, and dancing on stage with other audience members after watching the Cabaret Tropicana.
Haggle for it
When I saw a four volume, leather-bound set of Les Misérable sitting on the shelf, I knew I wanted them for my book collection. But, because I hate confrontation, I was reluctant to haggle. The vendor wanted to sell them for around 60CUC. My boyfriend looked at me and said, "Walk away." I put them back on the shelf and the second I started leaving, the vendor said, "Ok, Ok, Ok." Then we got it down to 35CUC. So, I guess, if someone forces you, haggling is worth it.
Looking is free, right?
Instead of paying to go inside, enjoy walking around the Museo de la Ciudad, and visiting the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, a mid-sixteenth century fort. There's also an archeological museum, the governor's palace (Palacio de los Capitanes Generales), and a cathedral nearby.
After visiting Finca Vigia, it's clear why Hemingway loved writing here. Apparently Old Man and the Sea was based on a nearby fishing village, Cojimar. We tried to go there as well but we were told the bridge "was down" and wouldn't be up and running for several days. This meant getting to Cojimar would take a couple hours to see "not much," according to the man who worked at the front desk of our hotel. He was from there, he said, and there was really nothing more than a restaurant and a small port. I still wanted to go, but he advised me not to. Instead, we visited Hemingway's house, about a 45-minute drive from Havana.
The windows to the home are left open so guests can look inside at his impressive book collection and admire his typewriters. No one is allowed to actually go in. If it rains, the windows are closed, so be sure you don't make the trip if it's raining hard. There's a small entrance fee as well. A local band was playing on the property so you can grab a drink and listen to music after you walk around.
When you get back to Havana, check out Dos Hermanos, one of Hemingway's favourite spots to grab a mojito. Enjoy a drink and listen to live music. There are pictures of Hemingway with the captain of his boat, called Pilar.
Art and about
The art scene in Havana is thriving. There are paintings for sale on the streets and at a marketplace inside a warehouse along the water near the train station. Below, some photos from activities in Havana, from an artsty neighbourhood to a sprawling cemetery.
- Row 1: My boyfriend and I went to Fusterlandia, a group of homes covered in tiles by local artists, named after Jose Fuster. They sell original artwork from a gallery in the main house.
- Row 2: We then went to the Parque Almendares, with vibrant green vines that draped down from above and the giant, twisted trees, with roots the size of fire hoses falling from branches in every direction. There is a tiny structure near the main giant tree (you'll know what I mean). If there's someone there, ask for a pina colada. Not joking. It was the best one I had the entire time. Made with milk and cinnamon. And served without alcohol. You drink a bit of it and then pour in as much rum as you want for your drink. My taxi driver, my boyfriend and I all enjoyed one after taking pictures in front of the tree.
- Row 3: The Colon Cemetery (or the Cementerio de Cristobal Colon) is one of the must beautiful cemeteries I've ever seen. It was built in the 1800s and is one of the biggest in Latin America. It's yuuuuuuuge. Seriously. It's 140 acres. So I don't recommend walking all of it. You have to pay a small fee near the entrance and then you can wander the grounds.
- Row 4: The Callejon de Hamel is a street dedicated to African artwork and culture in Cuba. They displayed paintings, sculptures, poetry outside.
Taking a tour:
Rum, tobacco and views
My boyfriend and I decided to take a day trip to Viñales and the outskirts of Pinar del Rio(the capital of the eponymous province). We went to a rum factory, a tobacco farm, the Indian Caves, and a mountainside mural (Mural de la Prehistoria).
Around Havana in photos
Strolling through the old town and around Havana with my disposable camera.
How to sniff out a fake cigar
Check the labels: Are they stuck on seamlessly and perfectly? Is there visible glue holding the label on? If there is the slightest imperfection, the cigar would not have been deemed OK to sell.
Check the spelling: It might look like the cigar company's logo, but check closely. Does the letter "O" in "Cohiba" have a slight mark over it? Fakes will have minute changes to the original spelling. Some letters may be altered.
Learn more here because I'm no expert!
There were more food options than I thought there would be. Lots of pork and chicken and rice and beans. But there were Italian, Chinese and other types of restaurants as well. If you're walking along the Malecon (the oceanside roadway), stop at the historic Hotel Nacional. They have an outdoor restaurant and peacocks roaming the grounds. But less than a 10 minute walk away, there's the Cafe Laurent. It was the best meal I had the entire trip. We ordered fish, risotto, and other dishes, and enjoyed the view.
Try Cuba's version of Coco Cola, called tuKola. It wasn't as sweet, but it was flavourful.
Be sure to pack snacks, like energy bars, nuts, or anything else you might want. There are snacks available but they might not have specific ones (although I was surprised to see Snickers at some shops.)
You can buy big bottles of water at convenient stores. Stock up on your first day.
Cubans have two currencies: One used by tourists, called the Cuban Convertible Peso or CUC (pronounced "Kook"), and another currency used by locals, the Cuban peso or CUP.
All banks charge the same amount for exchanging money, so there's no need to shop around for the best rates.
Most hotels will also be able to exchange money, or you can do this at the airport. (But if you get in late at night, exchanging at the airport may not be an option.)
American money was not widely accepted when I was there in October 2016.
I stayed at the Melia Habana and bought a package deal that included a room for 6 nights and my flight. The hotel was clean, had a large pool, friendly staff, and breakfast was included. There was also a free shuttle that went from the hotel to Old Havana. They offered a ride to and from the airport, too.
Airbnb is also a great option, but be sure you have access to Internet. (Wifi is not widely accessible.) And I would also want a place with air conditioning (but hey, that's just me!) Also, if you don't have access to shuttles or other transportation, opt to stay in an area that's easy to get around, because it's hard to get a cab or public transportation in more remote areas.
Even with Wifi, the internet was slow and it took a while to load maps and reply to emails. I recommend actually *printing* out maps of the neighbourhood you're staying in, and other places you'll be while you're there. If you have a copy, you can use that to plan how to get around, instead of waiting for your phone to load. Also, if you get lost and your phone doesn't work, you'll have that copy. *Stay alert. Stay safe.*