Notes from a 4 Night Stay in Havana

For many years, I have wanted to visit Cuba. I always wondered whether one could legally visit Cuba and how to get there from the USA. I have friends who have traveled to Havana and they highly recommended going now. After spending 4 nights there, I now understand why they had recommended I book the next flight out.

The ‘how to get there’ was answered by an Alaska Airlines ad for a $350 non-stop, round-trip flight to Havana from Los Angeles. We decided to purchase the flight and then set about answering the other concern — the legal part. We didn’t want to lose the flight at that price.

With help from Alaska Airlines, their website for Cuba bound flights, and other governmental & travel sites, we were able to understand what paperwork needed to be completed and that a visa was required to enter Cuba. It turned out to be quite a straightforward and easy process to travel to this country.

TL;DR

Havana, Cuba: Before we landed in this city and country, we spent hours reading blogs, travel sight reviews, etc. to get a better picture of Havana, what we needed to know, what we needed to understand…prior to arriving.

Although the information gathered was quite useful, it did not prepare us for how safe it is to be in Havana at any time of the day or night, that beef is not available to almost all Cubans (you can spend more time in prison for killing a cow than a human), what gifts to bring and give to our hosts or people we might meet, the amount of live music throughout the city, that Cubans do not eat spicy food, and how genuine, lively, enthusiastic, and welcoming the residents of Havana are.

Places to Visit: There are plenty of sites (My Life’s a Movie), blogs, etc which will tell you the top 10, 20, or more places you need to visit during your stay in Havana. My advice is take some time to walk around a section of the city (Old Havana for example) and get a feel for what the city is. Get lost. Notice its people and enjoy its sounds. There is music everywhere.

Get a map so you can track where you are at, but don’t get obsessed with where to go. You will notice that as you walk aimlessly, you will see the places on most of the top 10 lists, but they will come naturally.

As you walk around the city, you might meet someone who exposes you to an event you might never have known about. This happened to us and we ended up having dinner and a concert at the real Buena Vista Social Club.

Have a plan of where you want to go and see, but also allow yourself to enjoy Havana.

Getting There: Direct flights can be purchased from multiple cities such as Los Angeles (Alaska Airlines) and Ft. Lauderdale (Southwest Airlines). There are 8 US based carriers that fly to Havana.

Arrival at Jose Marti International Airport — Terminal 2

To visit Cuba, a travel visa must be purchased — cost us $100 per person (may be subject to change). After checking in and dropping off our bags at LAX Alaska check-in counter for Cuba bound flights, we continued to the Cuban counter to purchase the travel visas (cash or credit card accepted).

Additionally, we were required to fill-out an OFAC form (1 per person) in which you indicate the reason for traveling to Cuba. At this time, there are 12 reasons for being allowed into Cuba; Journalism activity and Humanitarian project are two such reasons.

Upon purchasing the travel visa(s) and filling out the OFAC form, we then headed to the TSA security check and got ready for our flight.

Money: From what I saw, Cuba has limited to no acceptance of credit cards from US based banks and financial institutions. You will need to bring cash to pay for all trip expenses. Cuba’s economy runs on CUCs (tourist currency/convertible peso) and CUPs (local currency/national peso); 1 CUC=24 or 25 CUPs during our stay.

One way to notice the different peso bills is that CUPs have drawings of people and most CUCs do not. CUCs most common denominations are 1, 3, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100. CUC coins include a 1 CUC coin and cents denominations: 5, 10, 25, and 50.

I would not recommend bringing US Dollars to Cuba. Buy either British Pounds or Euros from your bank and then convert the Pounds/Euros to CUCs in Cuba. Converting US Dollars to CUCs carries an extra 10% fee in addition to the 3% currency exchange fee. If we had exchanged $100 US Dollars, we would have received 87 CUCs. Pounds and Euros do not carry the extra 10% fee. Please keep in mind that the exchange rate is subject to change.

Exchanging say $1000 US Dollars to 870 CUCs takes away ~130 CUCs which is more than what we were spending per day for housing, food, etc.

Another concern I had prior to traveling to Cuba was about bringing so much cash to cover for the expenses. Would I get pick-pocketed or robbed? This concern dissipated once we arrived and got to know the city, not once did I feel unsafe walking around Old Havana and parts of Central Havana.

International currencies can be converted to CUCs at the Havana airport. The money exchange desks are located past the luggage pickup area. I wouldn’t recommend exchanging all of your money at this time; unspent CUCs are supposed to be converted back to an international currency on departure.

A suggestion given to me by a local Cuban was to exchange money as you require it and also exchange 10 CUCs to CUPs (~250 ), so that if you go to a store/location only accepting CUPs, you will have the funds. CUPs are only obtained as change for a store purchase or from a local Cuban.

Once the initial amount of CUCs runs out, you can exchange more money at a bank or cadeca (money exchange house). As the exchange rates are regulated by the government, you will receive the same rate at either type of establishment. The bank I used was open from 8:30am to 6:00pm Monday-Saturday and 9:00am to 4:00pm on Sunday - therefore you can always exchange money.

Expect to wait in long lines to exchange money; from what I saw in cadecas the waiting line was outdoors, whereas in banks you’ll wait indoors. If it is raining or really hot, waiting indoors is preferable. Actually expect to wait in lines for anything of importance or for good food; if a restaurant has a long wait line, the food is most likely excellent.

Transportation: As for transportation to Havana and back to the airport, I would recommend either having your host (place you will be staying at) arrange a taxi pickup or select one of the many taxis at the airport; should be around 25 CUCs per trip. Same goes for the return trip, either ask your host to arrange a taxi or select one yourself.

Plenty of taxis waiting to take you into Havana proper — here mostly Russian Ladas.
View of the taxi area outside the Terminal 2 arrival area

If you don’t feel like walking around Havana, travel within the city can be done via taxi, bus, bike taxi, horse carriage or coco taxi. One horse carriage driver who we met was Damian Carrera and he can be reached at 05 237–8816.

Bike Taxi riding by a group of Coco Taxis
Plenty of taxis at Parque Central.

As we mostly walked around Old Havana, my experience with taxis is quite limited. However, every fare is a negotiation and most drivers make their money off tips. I never did get a complete explanation as to who ended up with the fare, but drivers I met said that they obtained most of their wages from tips.

As a side note, I talked with a few restaurant waiters who said that the only money they earned was what they received in tips. They worked from 8:30am to 12:00am (midnight) and had to pay the restaurant owner 10.50 CUCs every day to be able to work there. If they didn’t cover the 10.50, they were on the hook for it on their next shift. So if you go to a restaurant, please tip. I didn’t get a sense of what amount to tip as most local Cubans who I spoke with said they made between 15 to 25 CUCs a month (for example, a construction worker made 20 CUCs and a nurse 25 CUCs). I ended tipping between 1–3 CUCs which was satisfactorily received (~1–3 US Dollars which is not much in the US, but 5–15% of their salary based on 20 CUC per month).

Tropicoco beach — middle beach of Playas Este. Water was fantastic.

If you are interested in going to a beach such as Playas Este, I would recommend taking the 20–25 minute T-3 line bus ride which costs 5 CUCs for the round trip (an exceptional deal). Taking a taxi could cost ~20 CUCs each way.

The T-3 line bus can be boarded at Parque Central, across the street from Hotel Inglaterra (just look for people wearing beach gear waiting in line). The bus we took was a blue OmniBus (air conditioned); it runs every 40 minutes on schedule. Prior to heading to Playas Este, the bus makes a stop at Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro, which can save you a taxi ride if the castle is on your list of places to see.

Playas Este consist of 3 beaches: Tarara, Tropicoco, and Santa Maria (if I remember correctly). Our host Marta suggested we visit Tropicoco and we were not disappointed. Once you reach the beach, you realize that all 3 beaches are within walking distance of each other, but Tropicoco was not as crowded as Santa Maria.

Beach chairs can be rented for 2 CUCs each and an umbrella also for 2 CUCs, thus for two people it came to 6 CUCs and worth it. You can also rent a kayak, hobie cat or paddle boat from the same attendant as the beach chairs. There’s a nearby restaurant to obtain food, water or beer — you can either walk there or have the attendant pickup the items for you. We were lucky enough to sit next to a local Cuban who not only was playing great music, but offered us really cold beer. Sun, fantastic ocean water, music, great company, and beer was a complete combination.

Housing: For our first 3 nights in Havana, we stayed at a house (Casa Colonial Tali) located at 406 Lamparilla Primer Piso and obtained via Airbnb. In Cuba as in other countries I have been to, First Floor is what in the US would be the Second Floor; Ground Floor (Piso Bajo) being the First Floor.

We decided to stay in a private home for two main reasons: to live for a few days within a neighborhood of the city and hotel prices. Our hosts charged us 25 and 35 CUCs respectively per night. A “cheap” hotel room was around $150 per night. Our 4 night stay cost less than one hotel night.

Upon arrival to the house, we were told we were their first ever Airbnb guests, which caused a little initial apprehension with our host as he was unsure with the Airbnb process.

Our host Faruk (fuera07@gmail.com) treated us like family and really went out of his way to make us feel at home. Information on this home can be obtained from Faruk’s website. Although the site is in German, you can get a general idea of his house.

We were charged 25 CUCs per night and we had the option for breakfast at 5 CUCs person. The room consisted of two full beds, bathroom with shower, wardrobe, dresser with mirror, ceiling fan, and remote-controlled A/C. The room has 15 foot ceilings which made it appear bigger/roomier than it was.

Since Faruk did not have availability for a 4th night, we went to our second housing location. Luckily for us, our last night was also spent at 406 Lamparilla, but this time on the ground floor with our host Marta. Each location has a separate door for the same address, which may cause confusion if you do not know which floor your reservation is with.

Marta (ileanarp@infomed.sld.cu) was just as welcoming and accommodating as Faruk. As we had met her during the previous days, our transition to her home went very smooth. Additionally, as she had provided us with plenty of information about Havana, we knew she could provide new experiences within the city or outside (for example, her suggestion to go to Tropicoco in Playas Este).

Marta’s room was comparable to our previous one: 1 full bed, 1 single bed, bathroom with shower, closet, dresser, and A/C. We were charged 35 CUCs with the optional 5 CUC per person breakfast.

Both homes had similar house rules: be courteous to other house guests and the staff; treat the house as your own; no time entry constraints — as we were given keys to the house and room, we could go as we pleased.

Luckily for us, 406 Lamparilla turned out to be situated in a very central location, but slightly away from the tourist thoroughfares. Parque Central was a 5 minute walk, the Chanchullero (more below) restaurant 2 minutes away, a few stores 2–3 minutes away, and most of Old Havana within 3–5 blocks away. 406 Lamparilla is where I will come back to in Havana.

Food: Every time I travel and have to choose a restaurant, I have three questions on my mind: will the food be good, will the food be safe, and will the food be expensive. If the food is good and safe, I don’t mind having to pay a little more than I would like. Once I find a place I really like, I use it as an anchor. Although I find other places to eat, if I’m really hungry and too tired to look, I always go back to my anchor.

El Chanchullero was my anchor in Havana. We liked their food so much, we ate there every day we could; they were closed on Saturday for cleaning and we left on Sunday before they opened.

Shrimp dish

El Chanchullero is located across the street from Plaza del Cristo or Parque Cristo as I heard it referred to. Official address is e/ Bernaza y El Cristo, 457 A bajos Teniente Rey, La Habana, Cuba.

El Chanchullero was recommended by our hosts and we understood why, once we ate their food. Expect a line.

Chicken dish

For two main dishes (shrimp and chicken) plus drinks & extras, we paid ~24 CUCs prior to tipping. For three dishes (shrimp, fish, and lobster), we paid ~30 CUCs prior to tipping.

One observation we made concerning salads is that the typical salad provided during meals consisted of sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and cabbage.

In the food pictures provided, both dishes included a salad along with bread.

Another place worth mentioning is Paladar Genesis located near Plaza de la Catedral. Paladar Doña Eutimia had been our main objective, but as a reservation was required to eat at this establishment (lesson learned), we looked at other eateries around Plaza de la Catedral. There are quite a few places to eat, with each one stating they are the best or second only to Doña Eutimia. We settled on Paladar Genesis and we were not disappointed.

18 CUC meal — lobster, fish, and shrimp

Paladar Genesis offers a fix price menu: either 12 CUCs or 18 CUCs per dish which includes the meal, salad, rice&beans, and a kickass mojito. Size of the meal being the main difference between the prices.

As I had mentioned before, salads consist of sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and cabbage, but no lettuce or other greens. At first we thought that maybe lettuce wasn’t available in the area, but as can be seen from the picture on the left, the food was placed on top of lettuce. A question to be answered on a follow-up trip I guess.

There are plenty of food options as you explore Havana which might cause you apprehension to try. But as I said before, if there is a long line to anything, it is either important (money exchange/buying wifi card) or its good food.

Traveling along Obispo Street (hint: it will be full of tourists), there will be places which have long lines for such things as pizza and one might think it can’t be that good. I thought the same thing, but then I said, it’s only 20 CUPs…what’s the harm.

From what looks like an Easy Bake oven, a pizza (chorizo was as close to pepperoni as I could get) arrives and is handed to the customer. Add a coke or other soda, and for basically $1.50 US, you have a meal+drink or a snack to tie you between meals. It wasn’t that bad and I felt no repercussions for this decision. Actually, it was better than pizza I ate in Rome, but that’s a different story.

Moral of the pizza story is if there’s a long line, take a chance, but carry Imodium just in case.

Now let’s get back to the lack of beef choices in Havana, and probably Cuba. Being raised on beef, I found it surprising to only see chicken, pork, fish, and lamb on restaurant menus. Although I don’t need to eat beef, I did want to know how Cuba’s beef tasted like. It was not until bringing up the topic with some local Cubans that I was informed that most Cubans do not eat beef.

Cuba has plenty of cattle, but the cows are used for dairy product production such as milk, cheese, and yogurt; yogurt is given to children everyday as part of their diet. Beef was available at certain tourist restaurants or government locations, but not readily available to the rest of the population. One group of the population given beef is pregnant women so that they will have sufficient protein in their diet.

People can raise cows, but not butcher them. If a cow dies, a government veterinarian needs to make a determination on how the cow died and whether it could be consumed by humans. If the veterinarian does not approve of its consumption, the cow needs to be buried.

So….if you walk by an eatery and it says it has hamburgers, it’s more than likely not cow meat used. If there’s a long line, the food will be good, just not the meat you would be expecting.

The People of Cuba: I left Cuba with three images of its people: a mural, a picture, and a person. The mural is painted on one of Faruk’s walls by Osai (I really hope I’m spelling his name correctly, si no..perdon) who is a realist, expressionist technical painter and an awesome person to get to know. Speaking with Osai about his painting style and his approach made me want to pick up a brush…but alas, I was born to paint only with a 4 inch brush and roller.

The mural is about a little girl who has had everything taken away from her except for a doll which she is tightly holding. She defiantly dares anyone to try to take it away. She may have lost everything, but not the doll. She is keeping the doll.

At the same time, she is holding a white rose in her hand representing Jose Marti’s poem — Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca. Hope. Dreams. A tribute to the Cuban people.

As one taxi driver said, we have suffered like no other country, but we still need to move forward. Over 40 years of embargo, but we’re still here.

As for the picture, I took this picture on my last night in Havana. I noticed two men intensely looking at mobile phones like I would have looked at a Millennium Falcon or X-Wing Fighter as a kid. Not caring about anything in the world, but trying to figure out how to get one or both toys.

One of the men was using a rope for a sling, but all he cared about was wishing he could afford a mobile phone….not a smart phone, a mobile phone. I bet both men will figure out how to get a phone. This to me represents the future.

The shadows cast by the almost empty store added to the photo’s composition.

And now for the man — Juan. Juan is a neighbor of both of our hosts. We met him and his wife on our first morning as we left the house. They made us feel like we were their relatives visiting from afar. Juan took it upon himself to ensure we always felt at home. He might not have much, but he was always ready to share. He imparted his wisdom and experience with ease as he had lived more than 40 years in that neighborhood. To me, Juan represents the past, present, and future.

If any of this article is of any use to you, please stop by and say hi to Juan for me when you visit Havana.

Tabaco and Rum: Havana residents are curious to know where you are from and what do you think of their city. At the same time, they need to hustle to make extra money. As they are getting to know you, they will gently begin their soft sales pitch. One such sales pitch is asking whether you want to take tabaco (cigars) or rum back home. If you would like, they can either take you to where you can buy some or suggest local places to get them. If you are not interested, just say no thank you and that will be the end of it.

Because we were somewhat weary of the quality of cigars from places we didn’t know, we ended up going to La Casa del Ron y del Tabaco Cubano next door to La Floridita to buy a few cigars. The cigars were more expensive than what some people said we should be paying, but we didn’t have to worry about the quality and authenticity of the cigars.

As for rum, we noticed that the price for rum at La Casa del Ron y del Tabaco Cubano was similar to what every store we went into charged for their rum. Thus, we bought both at the same time.

No suggesting you buy from here, we did due to a time constraint and the tabaco factories being on holiday (that’s what we were told).

Graffiti Art and Galleries: Unlike other cities I have been to, the Old Havana section of the city does not have much graffiti art. I was told that an artist must get permission before painting. That being said, I did see some graffiti art that most likely didn’t get approval.

Additionally, there are plenty of galleries around the city to explore and see great art (picture to the left).

Numerous artists can be seen painting along the streets from whom you can buy a piece or just admire the result for their time and talent.

Art and music are everywhere within and around Havana.

You can also go to an art gallery discotheque — Fabrica de Arte Cubano. I enjoyed visiting Fabrica de Arte and would recommend it; fyi, it may get crowded.

A taxi ride to Fabrica del Arte will be required if you are beginning your journey from Old Havana as Fabrica de Arte is located in the Vedado section of Havana and will cost between 6–10 CUCs, depending on your negotiation skills.

When walking around a new city, I look forward to seeing graffiti art and taking pictures of it. Here are a few examples. The first one was painted by Osai, who we met at Faruk’s house.

On Villegas Street, near Obispo.
On Lamparilla Street

Gifts to bring: As we were packing for our trip, I tried to learn what items to bring for gifts to give our hosts and people we might meet. As I didn’t get an exact list of things, we guessed what to bring. The gifts that Havana residents mostly requested were soap, shampoo, toiletries, shirts, and other clothing items. If you have toiletries picked up at hotels or shirts picked up at conferences, these are the perfect items to bring and give. Plus, on your return to the US, you will have extra space in your luggage for other things ;)

Lastly: Thank you for reading this article. Hope that it is helpful with information to help you decide whether to visit Cuba and/or make your trip to Cuba a little better.