Updated January 2020
Visiting Cuba is an exciting adventure with Havana at the center of the country’s urban community. The city is a wildly photogenic destination with a remarkable history and welcoming locals. But before you hop on a plan check out my list of Do’s and Don’ts, you be glad you did.
UPDATE: The recent changes to approved travel categories by the U.S. Administration currently bans the most commonly used: “People to People Travel” making the everyday traveler’s only option “Support of the Cuban People.”
This means any travel done within the country precludes spending money at government-owned establishments including multiple accommodations and shops. Travelers must stay in local homes called casa particulars and have full itineraries that include Cuban-owned businesses and activities with locals. (What you want to do anyway.) Here is a list of businesses banned under the new restrictions.
What You Should DO in Havana
Do appreciate that Havana operates on “Cuba time”: a kickback, 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 New Yorker with 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.)
Do bring cash and lots of it. American credit cards don’t work there which also means ATMs are not an option, and you’ll want to buy a few things to commemorate the trip. Keep the bulk of your money in the hotel safe and pull what you need for each day.
Do understand the local currency. The most used tourist currency is the Convertible Pesos, also known as the C.U.C. (Kook). A C.U.C is worth approximately $1.25. There’s also a national peso which is about 5 cents the U.S.. Most goods and services in the cities will require C.U.C but out of the way places and local haunts may expect the national. Admittedly, it’s a bit confusing. The best places to exchange currency are at the airport, hotel or a number of government-controlled exchanges. People may offer to exchange dollars on the street but you exchange at your own risk.
Do stroll along the Malécon, the city’s oceanfront 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.
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!
Do take time to get to know the locals, even if you don’t speak Spanish (I don’t). Exploring Old Havana I met wonderful people, most notably an old couple who serenaded me for nearly an hour and a sweet old woman who invited me into her modest home. These were experiences I’ll never forget.
Do visit Plaza de Armes—Havana’s oldest square. You’ll find a market filled with thousands of second-hand books, revolutionary knick-knacks (pins, hats, paraphernalia), as well as old watches and posters. My favorite finds were vintage, Cuban and Russian cameras. I bought a wonderful 1930’s Cuban Roloflex for cheap, 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. If you want to avoid the crowds, hit the Plaza early. (Open daily except Sundays).
Do give yourself plenty of time at the airport when leaving the country. With multiple security checks and customs lines, you may end up sorry if you don’t.
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.)
Do bring snacks with you if you get peckish. The litany of options we have in the United States just doesn’t exist in Cuba. I brought a handful of granola bars that came in handy.
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.
Bring candy, pens, aspirin packets, travel toothpaste or other small everyday items that you can give to people. Many of the products we take for granted are not in Cuba or very hard to find. Anytime someone went above and beyond—gave me directions or their time to make a portrait or invited me into their homes—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.
Wander down the Paseo de Marti that runs in front of the capitol building. Across the street, you’ll find a line of sherbet-colored historic buildings that scream iconic Cuba. Stand in the median (watch out for traffic) and within a few seconds, spectacular classic cars will roll by creating a scene you’ll want to hang on your wall. Do in Havana
What Not to Do in Havana
Don’t expect many people to speak English. Most Cubans do not.
Don’t carry your passport around the city, you may lose it. If you copy it at 70% and laminate it you’ll have a wallet-sized duplicate that’s easy to carry.
Worry about exploring Old Havana on your own, it’s very safe at night and one of the best neighborhoods to stay in if you want a taste of history. Be a little more cautious in Havana Central to the west of Paseo de Marti. I didn’t feel afraid, but I’ve had other travelers tell me it’s wise to be cautious late at night.
Become frustrated when things change unexpectedly, don’t go as planned or don’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.
Drink the water. Some of the bigger hotels the Iberostar, Inglaterra, and the Saratoga 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.
Sleep in every day. Yes, I know it’s your vacation but Havana is 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 on 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.
Bother bringing 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.
Don’t forget to tip. 10% is standard on meals where the service is reasonable, but to check first to see whether it’s been included in the final bill. For bellman, 2 C.U.C per bag is a sound estimate and I plan on tipping the housekeeper at least 2 C.U.C per day.
Don’t be afraid to take portraits of the people in the streets, but ask first, it’s only polite. (If you like to take travel portraits, here are a few tips from my visit.)
Don’t forget to negotiate your fare upfront if you plan to take a bici-cab (a Cuban pedicab), coco cab (a vehicle that resembles a Pac-Man on wheels) 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 of the cars are taxis while the most beautifully preserved charge 30 C.U.Cs or more for an hour’s ride.
Don’t be surprised when you spend most of your trip off the grid. A few of the larger hotels have common areas with wi-fi you can buy but it’s not cheap. I will cost you 5 C.U.Cs /hr, it’s turtle slow and often unreliable. The Saratoga is the only hotel with wi-fi in your room. There are several public parks that are wi-fi enabled but you’ll have to compete for the so-so connection with everyone else.
Don’t freak out that the Wi-Fi is less than fabulous, though a fellow writer Ayngelina Brogan who is based out of Havana and pens the Bacon is Magic blog, says the internet is getting better all the time. Cuba has 4G service but it’s still, she says ” …not the cheapest or fastest.” You’ll find wifi available in parks and hotels. They’re hard to miss. Just look for crowds of people. Expect $1 CUC/hour for wifi cards. For information here’s a list of hotspots.
If you’re one of those people that go crazy being off the grid or need to IG story your every move, Cuba probably isn’t your dream destination. (FYI – Cell service is a pretty penny too.)
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.
*I took the images above while an invited guest of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. The writing and sentiment are my own.
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