Cuba is one of the nation’s top holiday destinations but before you hop on a plane, check out my list of Havana Dos and Don’ts. You’ll be glad you did.
DO appreciate that Havana operates on “Cuba time”: a kick back, laissez-faire attitude which means it can take 10 minutes before a waiter shows up to your table let alone takes your order. (As a type-A personality, I thought I would go nuts with the lack of urgency for pretty much everything, but after a couple of days of detox I learned to embrace the slower pace….. sort of.)
DON’T worry about exploring Havana on your own, it’s very safe, even at night. UPDATE: I’ve received a few comments that recommend that people should be more careful in Central Havana, a neighborhood on the west side of the Paseo de Marti, especially at night. Though I did not personally feel afraid during the day, I thought it was important to include some reader thoughts since there was more than one comment about it.
DO stroll along the Malécon, the city’s ocean front esplanade where Havana Bay and the Gulf of Mexico meet. On stormy days, huge waves crash on over the rocks of the El Morro lighthouse across the channel in a spectacular display. On nice days, you’ll find men fishing, couples strolling, and at sunset, locals of all ages gather to enjoy the spectacular view.
DON’T get frustrated when things change unexpectedly, don’t go as planned or doesn’t live up to U.S. standards. That’s Cuba. It’s a country with outdated infrastructure and limited resources. Chalk it up to adventure.
DO try the Coco Glasé. If you see a street vendor serving ice cream in coconut shells, buy one! It’s only a couple of C.U.Cs (The Cuban Convertible Peso, about $3.00), and it’s DELISH!
DON’T drink the water. Some of the bigger hotels The Iberostar Parqué Central, The Saratoga, The Ingleterra, among others, have decent filtering systems for showers and brushing your teeth, but for drinking go with bottled. The concern is less about nasty bacteria and more about sediment from outdated pipes that might upset your stomach.
DO check out Plaza de Armes—Havana’s oldest square—for a market filled with thousands of second-hand books, revolutionary knick-knacks (pins, hats, paraphernalia) as well as old watches and posters. My favorite find was vintage, Cuban and Russian cameras. I bought a wonderful 1930’s Cuban Roloflex for next to nothing, and I could kick myself for not buying more. The area can get touristy—a fact that usually has me running in the other direction—but it was worth it. To avoid crowds, hit the Plaza early. (Open daily except Sundays).
DON’T sleep in every day. Yes, I know it’s your vacation, but Havana is a worth a little early morning exploration. After breakfast, the world is already in full swing, but at dawn you see the city as it prepares to meet the day. You’ll see street vendors prepping their wares; local produce markets setting up shop; tiny hole-in-the-wall bakeries selling loaves of bread to passersby; flower sellers arranging display bouquets; sleepy taxi drivers tweaking 50 year-old engines, and people spotting the balconies, coffee in hand, greeting their neighbors. And if that’s not enough, sunrise over the Malécon, alone, is worth dragging yourself out of bed.
DO try the finger-length bananas you’ll find at small markets around the city. They’re delightfully sweet and tangy and the best bananas I’ve ever had.
DON’T bring your credit cards, they aren’t accepted and the few ATMs that exist aren’t connected to banks in the U.S. For Americans it’s all about cash. It’s easy to exchange dollars as a guest in many of the hotels—and I did so every couple of days as needed—but if you’re staying in a room in someone’s home or an Airbnb rental, you’ll need to go to a bank.
DO bring candy, pens, aspirin packets, travel toothpaste or other small everyday items that you can give to people when you’re out and about. Many of the products we take for granted are not available in Cuba or at the very least, hard to find. Anytime someone went above and beyond—helped me to find my way, gave me quality time to make a portrait, or invited me into their home—I gave them a little something for their time. Depending on the situation, I might also give a few C.U.Cs along with it. It wasn’t about charity; it was a thank you for their kindness.
DON‘T forget to try new things if you enjoy photography, Cuba’s brilliant colors and vibrant personalities are perfect muses for experimentation. For example, choose an interesting wall as a backdrop and play with your shutter speeds as pedestrians walk past. Try freezing the action, panning or playing with different levels of blur.
DO wander down the Paseo de Marti that runs in front of the capital building. Across the street is a line of sherbet colored historic buildings that scream iconic Cuba and beg for a photograph. Stand in the median (watch out for traffic) and within a few seconds vintage cars will roll by creating a scene you’ll want to hang on your wall.
DON’t forget to negotiate your fare up front if you plan to take a bici-cab (a Cuban pedi-cab), coco cab (a tiny round vehicle that looks like a wheeled Pac-Man) or a traditional taxi. There are no meters, so agreeing before the journey is better than disagreeing after. Budget 10% of the fare for a tip. If you want to tool around town in a vintage automobile they’re easy to find. Many are used as taxis, while the most beautifully preserved charge 30 C.U.Cs or more for an hour’s ride.
DON’T be surprised if you spend most of your trip off the grid. Some common areas in the larger hotels have wi-fi you can buy (The Saratoga is the only hotel with wi-fi in your room) but it’s not cheap, about 5 C.U.Cs /hr (though I hear that’s cheaper than in the past), turtle slow and unreliable. There are several public parks that are wi-fi enabled, but you’ll have to compete for the so-so connection with everyone else.
DO keep your small change with you. In Cuba, tipping bathroom attendants—the nice people who hand you the paper products you’ll need for a successful venture—is customary. The equivalent of $25 cents will do. (Speaking of TP… bring travel toilet paper with you for the times there’s no attendant AND no paper. Having my own stash was a lifesaver.)
DON’T forget to look down, the old streets can be treacherous. This is NOT the place to have your nose in your smart phone or take selfies while you’re walking. Uneven curbs, potholes, cracked cobblestones and construction, are just a few of the obstacles you’ll have to avoid. I stumbled on several occasions when I wasn’t paying attention. P.S. You might want to forgo heels.
DO give yourself plenty of time at the airport when leaving the country. At first I thought the three-hour suggested lead time was insane, but with multiple security checks, customs and “Cuba time” you’ll be glad you did.
DON’T get caught in what I like to call “The Bubble”. That place in your head—whether traveling solo, with friends, or on a tour—where you watch, you enjoy, but you don’t truly engage with the world around you. Don’t be afraid to chat up street vendors, store owners or cab drivers. Even the simplest interactions will enhance your experience 10 fold, and the Cubans are more than game.
If you’ve been to Cuba and you have something to add, please do so in the comments section.
*The images above were taken while an invited guest of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. The writing and sentiment are my own.