Disclaimer: The rules and regulations for Havana travel might change at any time and they may not be reflected at the time this article was published.
Oh Havana Oh Nah nah. Yeah, I got that song stuck on my head for a little while now, but with good reason.
You are going down the Malecon in old Havana, hair flowing in the air dancing to the tropical rhythms that caress your body as the Caribbean sun kisses your skin. Top down on a classic 1950’s all American made car. Then, all the sudden, Cuban native, Camila Cabello’s song comes on the radio. The driver cranks it up. All volume. Yeah, you are dancing and singing “Havana, Oh nana” while riding on a classic convertible, on one of Cuba’s most famous roads. Cliche?
Perhaps, but it was awesome.
It makes me sad to say that there are many restrictions for American travelers when it comes to Cuba. I got lucky and we were able to get there when cruises were still allowed to arrive from the US. Since, as of right now, that is not an option any longer. I took the time to look it up and research other ways to visit that magical island once more.
Here are the good news for my American readers: You can still go and enjoy this underestimated paradise.
While the visas restrictions still apply. There are ways to visit. Check out this article explaining the truths and myths of traveling to Cuba.
So, if you are ready to pack your bags and go, here are some tips that will make your experience easy and hassle free.
There are not a lot of places where they will take dollars in the island. Yes, there might be some, but for the most part, most business are government own and they do not negotiate in dollars. Private enterprises (which are rare) will help you out in an emergency situation, but they prefer the Cuban Peso. It is very easy to exchange dollars for CUCs (the official currency for non residents) at a Hotel, or at the exchange sites located at the airport or Cruise port. Remember: American credit or debit cards do NOT work in Cuba. Don’t even take it.
2. SET UP TRANSPORTATION OR TOURS IN ADVANCE ONLINE.
Finding Tour agencies is very easy. There are great deals and recommendations in TripAdvisor. However, my experience with Cuban Connection was outstanding. Our tour guide was not only knowledgeable of the area and culture, but also friendly and eager to accommodate all our needs (and we are needy- wink wink). They are a small local agency that strives to make the tourist happy. It was easy to contact them by email. They will answer all your questions in advance, including pricing and ways of payment. Once you confirm you want to take the tour with them, they will let you know the pick up location, which is easy to find. Payment is done at the time of service, so they don’t take your card or information in advance.
3. RESEARCH THE PLACES YOU WANT TO GO TO SEE
Most tours will take you to the same places in Havana. Realistically, there are only so many landmarks in the city. So if you take a city tour, make sure it is one broad enough to cover the famous places you would like to visit. Also, you can always hire a “taxi” for the day, which most of the classic cars are, and the driver will serve as your city guide, taking you to all the places you want to see. If that’s the case, it’s recommended that you know where and what you want to see. I would personally do a city tour with a recommended agency like Cuban Connections or something similar to avoid any shady business.
4. KNOW YOU ARE PROBABLY SAFER IN HAVANA THAN IN ANY OTHER [BIG] CITY.
We were told that Cubans, by law, cannot harm tourists. Their penalties for robbing or harming tourists are punishable by jail and they are twice as harsh as if they did the same to a resident. Being that said, you should always be vigilant of your surroundings so you don’t fall for scams or other unfortunate events.
5. WHAT TO SEE?
Well, here is a list of my favorite sites and must sees while in Cuba:
ERNEST HEMINGWAY HOUSE AND MUSEUM (FINCA VIGIA)
We all know the famous author of “The old man and the sea”. Ernest Hemingway has a quite unique story and Cubans know how to tell it. When you go see the farm house that served as his residency, Finca Vigia, you will be able to hear the fascinating stories about his love life and social life in Cuba. The main house is sealed from entrance to the public, but you can see all rooms and other sections of the property through the open windows. There are employees that will take pictures for you inside the house for a small tip. Here, you can see Hemingway’s typewriter, and other artifacts of his collections. If you head down to the swimming pool area (empty of water, of course), it will also lead you to the pier where his beloved boat, “The Pilar” is still kept.
LA TERRAZA DE COJIMAR
Hemingway had several favorite spots in old Havana, including “La terraza de Cojimar”. This bar/restaurant serves crafted cocktails in honor of Hemingway. They also have Hemingway’s favorite table on display…no body is allowed to sit at that table anymore. This place is usually packed, full of live music and hundreds of tourist, but they will still give you a drink fairly quickly.
WALK THROUGH OLD HAVANA
You just have to relax and walk down the energetic cobblestone roads of old Havana. Observe the architecture, the craftsmanship of the colonial homes, the feel of a small town and the opulent baroque-ish style of the Cathedrals and plazas. You will certainly feel transported back in time.
Another bar frequented by Hemingway. Floridita, a 200 year old bar and restaurant,is one of the world’s most famous bars, and it’s famous for seafood, and daiquiris. They claim to be the birthplace of daiquiris, and they also hold the record for the world’s largest daiquiri… a 71 gallon giant drink, that was taller than my hubby, and he’s 6”5”. You gotta check it out.
CASTILLO DE LOS TRES REYES DEL MORRO
Basically a sea fortress that is totally worth exploring. You can walk through the fort grounds, and climb up to see some of the best views of old Havana from the “morro”. Inside the castle, there are vendors with handmade souvenirs and a museum of artifacts and Cuban history. You can even see Che Guevara’s desk and office where he used to work from while in Cuba. Little known secret: There is a Cuban cigar shot within the walls of the castle, well, that’s not the secret, but what most people don’t know is that right beside the shop, there rests the world’s largest Cuban cigar ever made. The cigar is encased in glass and not displayed very often. There were not any signs to let visitors know. However, our tour friend knew about it and persuaded the employees to open the door for us to see it. Check out my Atlas Obscura article about it here.
TAKE A DRIVE DOWN THE MALECON
Take a classic car ride down the Malecon. This 4 mile section of the avenue stretches throughout Havana connecting the town. Feel the ocean breeze while admiring the wonders of this island.
Right outside Havana, in the neighborhood of Jaimanitas, there stands a hidden wonderland not known by many. Cuban artist Jose Fuster, took it upon himself to transform this neighborhood into a true delirious paradise. When you walk into the world of Fusterlandia, you will feel as if you were in a psychedelic trance per SE. Thousands of ceramic tiles with a sort of juvenile feel, decorate, mosaic- style, the walls, walkways, pool, sculptures, benches, roof, archways, and every single square inch of the place. You must see it to believe it.
You don’t really have to get out of the car to admire the beauty of this park. Some of Havana’s oldest trees can be found smirking through the twisted vines and green walls that contain the corridors of the park. We just drove through it and it was enough to be mesmerized by the old twisted trees. The park does have activities and a large area to explore, but we were not brave enough. Riding by was a great way to see the old “elephant” tree that hangs out to the road saying hello to passersby and travelers.
There are many more attractions in Havana that I didn’t get to see, but do yourself a favor, before you go, research your destination to enhance your experience. If you have been to Havana, what was your favorite place? Let me know! I am planning a second trip soon!