1. Internet access is difficult but not impossible
In Cuba, connecting to the Internet is much more difficult than in other countries, even Third World. Only recently we have started to experiment with the mobile Internet through the 3G network and the cable connections almost only exist in government companies and institutions. For Cubans, the most common way to connect is through the Wi-Fi zones, mainly in parks and hotels. This connection is not free, you have to buy a prepaid card at the offices of ETECSA. The official price is 1cuc per hour of connection (no charge for data). Often the ETECSA offices you will have to wait in line for perhaps half an hour or more to buy the card. In the Wifi areas there are also people who sell the cards at twice the official price. This way you will not have to wait in line, but you’ll have to be careful not to buy a fake (we advise you to try the card as soon as possible).
2. The money
Cuba is probably the only country in the world where there are two official currencies. They are the CUC (Convertible Peso) and the CUP, also called Cuban Peso or Moneda Nacional (National Currency). The CUC is much more valuable, 1 CUC = 25 CUP. The Cuban peso won’t work too much in the city. It’s used to pay for some products such as fruits and vegetables, and some snacks in coffee shops for locals, but only that. The CUC is the most accepted currency, is used to acquire almost all products and pay for services such as private transportation, nightclubs, restaurants, bars, etc. Since the CUC is also good to pay for the products and services in CUP, we recommend that you exchange most of your money into CUC and carry CUC cash with you. By the way, it is important to know that some unscrupulous people take advantage of the double currency to charge tourists the prices in CUC while the Cubans pay them in CUP.
Another aspect is the exchange of foreign currencies. Don’t bring US dollars because they are subject to a 10% special tax in addition to the 3% that is charged for any currency exchange. By definition of the Cuban government 1 CUC = 1 USD, but, due to these taxes, for every 100 USD you will get only 87 CUC. Actually, it’s a lot better to bring euros. They aren’t subject to any special tax and even some businesses accept them.
3. The “jineteros”
In Cuba, and especially in touristic cities such as Havana, a group of people has emerged who make a living by solicitation to the tourists. These people, called “jineteras” and “jineteros” in the colloquial language of the island, will try to sell you different products such as coffee, rum or cigars. They will also propose “quality” restaurants or nightclubs and, on many occasions, sexual favors. Often they pretend to act as friends of yours and then ask for or recommend something. They are not very difficult to identify, usually they are unpolite, uneducated people, and above all, they will be constantly bothering you until they get your attention or achieve their purpose. We recommend you to stay away from them.
4. Transportation types and their prices
For Cubans transportation is often a problem, but tourists in large cities such as Havana will have plenty of options with differents qualities and prices.
- Public buses. This is mainly for locals and usually they are excessively crowded, so it is not a good option for the visitor who wants to go comfortably. On the other hand, they are extremely cheap, from 0.05 to 0.25 CUC, and for the adventurous they can be an amazing, real-Cuban-life experience, if that is what you are looking for. Please take care of your valuables on these buses, some people might try to pick a tourist pocket or her pierce.
- Collective taxis. These are also mainly for locals and you can identify them because they are old, worn out American cars that haven’t been renovated as the shiny “classic American cars” that we describe below. The “colectivos” do a fixed route, so you can take them from Old Havana to Vedado, from Vedado to Miramar, etc. Their price is around 0.50 CUC or 1 CUC according to the distance traveled.
- Yellow taxis. They are mainly used by tourists. Their price would be in CUC and can be negotiated, even bargained, directly with the driver. These taxis go to the address you want, and the price depends on the distance and the driver’s mood. They are very comfortable and the cheapest way for visitors to get directly to their destination in the city.
- “American classic cars”. They are old American cars from the 1950’s, the 1940’s or even older sometimes, that have been renovated by their owners to be used in tourism. They are the most expensive ride, that can go as high as 30 or 40 cuc per hour, although you can try bargaining with the driver. They are usually not the best way to get from one place to the next, but to enjoy “stylish” tours around the city.
- Tricycles: Cocotaxis (motorized) and Bicitaxis (pedal). These are a real tourist attraction, very colorful and used by locals and visitors but they only cover short distances.
5. Private and state services
In Cuba you can find businesses managed by the State or by the so-called “cuentapropistas”, these are small private owners of cars, rental houses, bars, restaurants, etc. In general, the services offered by private companies have a better quality / price ratio than those of the State. The state businesses usually do not compare well with the private in customer service, food quality and the ambience. However, you can find state luxury businesses, with high quality in all aspects but also with very high prices.
6. High security
From the point of view of violent crime Havana is a very safe city. In Cuba, firearms are forbidden and the authorities do an excellent job fighting organized crime, drug trafficking, etc. So, in Cuba and in Havana you will find safety, peace and serenity while enjoying a night walk along the Malecón or a delicious mojito in some of the famous bars of the city such as El Floridita or La Bodeguita del Medio. However, “careless” crimes, which occur when you leave your things in places where anyone can take them, are much more common.
Havana is a very lively city at night for its bars and nightclubs. You can visit famous cabarets such as Tropicana or El Parisién of the Hotel Nacional, etc. We also have disco-bars such as El Sarao and nightclubs such as El Guajirito or El Mesón de Rosalía de Castro, where excellent bands like Buena Vista Social Club play. A very internationaly famous place is the The Cuban Art Factory (Fábrica de Arte Cubano) and old factory that now has several concert halls, art gallery spaces, pubs, discos, etc. You can also enjoy history and culture at the La Cabaña fortress, where the Cannon Shot ceremony, one of the oldest traditions in the city, is held every night at 9:00 p.m. Or if you prefer, you can stroll along the Havana Malecon and relax after a day full of emotions.
8. Sun and beach
Cuba, and especially its North coast, is very famous for its beaches of clear water, white sands and bright sun most of the year. Also in the South coast there are some notable beaches such as Ancon or Pasacaballo. In Havana we have the nice Playas del Este, just 25 minutes at the East of the city, where you can enjoy the delights of the Cuban sea. But if you are looking for one of the best beaches in the world, we recommend Varadero, in the province of Matanzas, about 2 hours by car from the capital. There you can enjoy the heavenly beach and know one of the most famous tourist destinations in Cuba.
9. Some handy sites
- Restaurants. Some of the best in the city in terms of service, variety, food quality and prices are: La Vitrola, in Old Havana, at the corner of Muralla and San Ignacio streets; El Cañonazo, just a few meters from the Cristo de La Habana, on the other side of the bay; El Jardín, in the Línea street of Vedado; Los Nardos, in front of the National Capitol in Old Havana and Razones, one block from the Presidente Hotel in Vedado.
- Craft Market: If you need to buy the typical souvenirs and gifts, the best place is the Almacenes de San José, on the Avenida del Puerto (Harbour Avenue) of Old Havana.
- Whole Coffee Beans. If you like to make your own blends, you can only find the whole coffee beans in two places in Old Havana: Café El Escorial, in Plaza Vieja, and Café Oreilly, in Oreilly street between San Ignacio and Cuba.
- Rum and cigars: You will find one of the best rums in the world, the delicious Havana Club in the Havana Club Rum Museum, on the Avenida del Puerto de la Habana Vieja, on the corner of Sol street. Right there, next to the different bottles of Havana Club you will find magnificent cigars of several Cuban brands, especially Cohiba, Romeo and Julieta or Montecristo, the three most valued by good smokers.
10. Other sites of interest outside of Havana
If you have already been to Havana and want to explore other areas, Cuba is full of wonderful places where nature, history, culture and tradition go hand in hand. Here are some places we recommend, many of them included in our overnight tours:
- Viñales Valley: Is one of the most picturesque places in Cuban nature, with its famous mogotes (round top montains), the Mural of Prehistory, its caves of Indians and maroons, its excursions on horseback and its famous tobacco growers. To summarize, a visit that should not be missed.
- The town of Las Terrazas: Located in the province of Artemisa, this town pays tribute to sustainability and environmental protection. Unique due to its coffee plantations in the West of the Island, the famous hotel Moca, example of harmonious relationship between nature and tourism, the famous San Juan baths, and the home of the famous Cuban singer Polo Montañés. On top of all, it’s only 60km from Havana.
- Zapata Swamp: A completely different environment with wild nature and full of attractions. You can visit the Bay of Pigs, site of the famous invasion in 1961, the Crocodile Farm and the recreation of a Taino village (indigenous tribe) created by the Cuban sculptor Rita Longa.
- Cienfuegos: One of the most beautiful cities in Cuba and the one with the greatest French influence. It transmits history, jealously hoarded in buildings such as the Junco Palace and the Terry Theater and tradition, in each corner of its Central Park, its wide boulevard and its small boardwalk. In addition, in the mountains near the city there are natural parks such as El Nicho, with impressive waterfalls, rivers and vegetation.
- Che Guevara Memorial in Santa Clara: If you like the history of heroes, you should visit the memorial that keeps the remains of Ernesto (Che) Guevara and his camarades guerrillas fallen in Bolivia in 1967.
- Trinidad: Colonial city par excellence, the purest village of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on Cuba. You will find history in its buildings and museums such as the Cathedral and the Museum of the Fight Against Bandits. You can visit the remains of the old sugar factories in the Valle de los Ingenios and the Manaca Izanaga Tower. In addition, you can take a souvenir piece of pottery, great tradition of Trinidad or try the nice Canchánchara, traditional drink of the city.
- Santiago de Cuba: City full of legends and history, settlement of Spanish colonizers, cradle of the Cuban Revolution. It has the oldest house in the Caribbean, that of Diego Velázquez, conqueror of Cuba. Also in Santiago is Fort Moncada, assaulted by Fidel Castro and his camarades to start the Revolution. In the very sacred Cemetery of Santa Ifigenia you’d be able to see the graves of the most illustrious patriots such as Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (Father of the Homeland), José Martí (the National Hero) and Fidel Castro Ruz.
Disclaimer: If you are a US citizen some of the activities described here, especially those related with Cuban government companies could be illegal for you. Please, check your legislation before coming to Cuba.