The revolutionary island is waiting for us! It’s so close Cancun that with a quick flight we are in the Airport Jose Marti of Havana (not so quick because the airplane suffers some technical problems which delay the flight like 2 h).
Still in the plane waiting to disembark, we see the first thing that will surprise us in this country. The luggage operators are unloading suitcases, backpacks and … air conditioners, vehicle wheels, hi-fi stereos, apparently this type of luggage is quite usual in flights coming from Central America.
Second highlight of the day, the carrousels to collect the luggage are crowded with people, but also many ball-shaped wrapped in plastic are lying around on the floor waiting to be collected. Of course there is also the carrousel running with the “regular” luggage.
Finally our bags appear and we go to the exit. We have read that it’s possible to get to Havana without using a taxi, which we did not even try since our taxi driver came recommended by a friend and with a fixed price of 20 CUC (normal price is 25 CUC). So there he is, our driver waiting among the people, holding a sign with our names. Since we are not carrying any Cuban currency, neither CUP (Cuban Peso, also written as MN -moneda nacional-) nor CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) we go to the exchange house (CADECA -casa de cambio-) at the airport. There is a looooong line and after 15 minutes waiting we realize that the ATM is free, so we ask the security guard if it can be used wondering why people would just queue up having an empty ATM. He answers “Good luck, sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t”, lucky us! it works and we can take some money (ATMs only give you CUC) and we head towards Havana.
The monetary issue deserves an entry itself, but note that 1 CUC = 25 CUP, most prices for Cubans are in national currency (CUP, or MN), and most services for tourists are in “divisa”, (CUP). If you order a pizza that costs 10 CUP and you pay with 1 CUC, you should be given back from 15 to 13 CUP (depending on the exchange rate the establishment applies, which is typically very similar to the official one). Be careful, though, with the prices as in some places prices are just numbers, no currency is specified and the shop owner might decide to charge you 25 times more than it’s actual cost.
During the ride, we notice that cars in Cuba are very (VERY) old and don’t work very efficiently (at least the ones we took). They do the job, ok, but most of them have to be constantly fixed with parts from other cars. Once in Havana our taxi driver leaves us in front of our first casa particular, “B&B La Rosa de Isabel”. We recommend this casa (you can book it on AirBnB), Isabel and Felix are super nice hosts. A casa particular, for those who are not Spanish speakers, is a private home where you get a room and share the house with the host, pretty much like AirBnB, but Cubans invented it earlier.
The house is huge, located in Centro Habana, a neighborhood where mostly local people are. At Felix and Isabel’s casa there is free water to refill your bottles. In the beginning we are a little skeptical because of what we’d read about drinking tap water, but they tell us that, following government advice, water for consumption has to be previously boiled, so they kill all possible bacteria. In the casa they also filter the water, so it’is double treated and perfectly safe to drink. The price for a bottle of water of 0.5 L can vary from 0.5 to 1 CUC, so having fresh water for free is a plus.
In the afternoon we meet some friends who live a few blocks away from our house (thanks for everything Marta, Jimmy & Family) and besides explaining us many curiosities about Cuba, they take us for dinner to a paladar (paladar literally means palate, which is somehow related to taste. Anyway a paladar is a restaurant inside a house). The one we go to is very famous among locals and tourists, called “Locos por Cuba”. And we love it! In addition to having an extensive menu of Cuban dishes, the prices are very affordable and the food is very well prepared, we totally recommend it (we actually end up having dinner there twice). A main course with beer and dessert or coffee could cost you around 6 CUC per person. On top of that, the place is very well decorated. (Cuban Michelin for us!)
The next morning Isabel asks us if we want to have breakfast, we agree, as in the booking details it’s written “light breakfast included”. But, omg, what a breakfast! Everything is great and it definelly fills up our deposit for the day: coffee, juice, eggs, bread and fruit. We swallow it and go to Old Havana to find out why it’s so famous. We walk 30 minutes until we reach the Capitol. Unfortunately, they are renovating it and it’s covered of scaffolding. Just in front of the capitol there is the old Havana, and there, our first stop “La Floridita”, where supposedly Ernest Hemingway had his daiquiris (he also had his mojitos in “La bodeguita de enmedio”, it would have been very funny to see how Ernest finished his days). La calle Obispo, the main street of the neighborhood, begins with a lot of gastronomic offers, souvenirs, art and street music, nothing special if you’ve visited a major city and its main street. At the end of calle Obispo there is the main square and the cathedral, with the famous “Bodeguita de enmedio”. Honestly, we like the Chinatown area and our own neighborhood in downtown Havana much more, it is more local and colorful.
We stop to eat in the restaurant “la caribeña” at the beginning of the calle Obispo. Pork and beef burgers at a very good price, and above all very tasty. This place is a gem in the middle of this super touristic street. Belly full + strong sun over our heads? perfect conditions for having a nap! In the evening we stroll along the malecón (in Cuba, every city by the sea has a malecón, the promenade next to the water where locals gather when the sun goes down). Some more strolling along El Prado (which tries to reproduce the model of Las Ramblas in Barcelona) and we finish another full day in Havana.
The next morning, we visit the square of the revolution, where the famous buildings with the faces of Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto Ché Guevara are, two very important persons in Cuban history. Under the image of Camilo it’s written “Vas bien Fidel”; and under the Ché’s, the famous slogan “Hasta la victoria siempre”. Just in front of the square of the revolution you can see the monument to José Martí and a very high tower that you can not visit, but ridiculous enough, you have to pay for just getting to its base (1 CUC), anyway, from there you can have magnificent views of the square of the revolution.
On our way to the bus terminal viazul we stumble upon a very pleasant surprise, el Tulipan market. They do not sell flowers there, it is a local open air market where you can find from places to repair you watch to restaurants to eat, surrounded by butchers, fruits and vegetable shops. There are also shields everywhere explaining to everyone the properties of the vegetables and fruits, so that you know what you have to get to cure headache, imnsomnia or other light illnesses. The super affordable lunch menu (25 CUP) offers chicken and pork dishes with rice. Juice it extra for 3 CUP! It is full of local people, what usually means that it’s a good place. What a delicious meal we have there!
We continue our route to the terminal of viazul going around the zoo of Havana, but given that our interest in visiting enclosed animals is zero, we go directly to the bus station. There you can reserve a ticket or ask for availability. Don’t be disappointed if there are no tickets available, because you will find thousands of Cuban gentlemen offering you a private taxi right outside the terminal. In fact, one of the phrases you will hear most during your stay in Cuba will be “Taxi”, with its variants “Taxi my friend, good price”,” Taxi, tour amigo”, and the well-known “Restaurant my friend” and “Wi-fi card?”.
After the long walk, we have to go back to our neighborhood in downtown Havana but we do not feel like walking, so we go to the local gua-gua (local bus) stop. Friendly Habaneros advice us for gua-gua 27, being the one driving close by home. The price for the local gua-gua is 0,40 CUP (aprox 0,02 €), which means that with 1 CUP you can pay 2 tickets and you will still have 20 cts. However, do not try to get your change back, but still, it’s extremely cheap and definitely an experience, even more intense if you catch it at rush hour! You can talk with locals and experiment on your own skin the laws of physics regarding the volume theory to humans. You might think we are crazy, but this gua-gua ride was a highlight for us in Havana, 100% recommended! As it is the last night in Havana before leaving on a discovery journey throughout the country, we decide to go back to our Michelin restaurant “Locos por Cuba” and add some more criollo dishes to our knowledge.
Did you know that…
… the average salary for a state worker is 20 CUC/month?
… 1L of milk costs 2 CUC, and 0.5L of olive oil costs 10 CUC?
… a regular house in La Havana costs around 30.000 CUC but a n-hand car costs around 70.000 CUC?
… every member in a family has its card for getting very very basic living supplies (rice, beans, sometimes meat, sometimes fish…)?
… the name of the Cuban capital is written with B in Spanish and with V in all other languages?
- Restaurants: there is a big offer for food. You can decide where you want to eat (fancy places, more local, cuban food, european…).
- Centro Habana: the neighborhood is very local, close to the Old Havana, quiet, peaceful. Perfect to live in a visit to the Cuban capital.
- Cars: Havana is the best city to get your jaw dropped when you see all theses oldies running around. If you like, you can get a ride on a convertible one.
- Jineteros: you will encounter these people all over Cuba, but as Havana tends to be the first stop for many tourists, they kind of concentrate there trying to fish new victims. Do not trust anyone trying to bring you to the cool Havana, or the best restaurant in town he only knows about…
- Contamination: the old cars are nice and all this, but the pollution is incredible!