Cuba

Heading to Cuba? Check out This Helpful List of Havana Do’s and Don’ts

Cuban man on a balcony in Central Havana, Cuba

Visiting Havana, Cuba will be one of the best travel choices you’ll ever make. It’s one of the world’s most exciting destinations, but before you hop on a plane, check out my list of Dos and Don’ts. You’ll be glad you did. 

Here’s the list

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 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.

Child kicking a ball in Old Havana, Cuba

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. You’ll see why I say that Cuba is filled with Happy Souls.

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 It’s a country with outdated infrastructure and limited resources.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.

man, woman and child on a street in Havana, Cuba

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 a 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. 

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.

Graffiti in Central Havana havana-cuba-street-photography-5

Graffiti in Central Havana

DO check out 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).

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.

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Paseo de Marti and its array of sherbet colored buildings and vintage cars

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. Wondering what to bring to Cuba?

ice cream vendor havana-cuba-street-photography-4

Yummy Coco Glasé

DO 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.

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. (If you like to take travel portraits, here are a few tips from my visit.)

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The El Morro lighthouse as seen from the Malécon

DO wander down the Paseo de Marti that runs in front of the capital 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 (they are more than postcard fodder) 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 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.

fruit vendor havana-cuba-street-photography-3

A small abandoned lot makes for a perfect little fruit market. Try the finger-length bananas, they’ve spoiled me for life.

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.

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.)

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Find a colorful wall and play with your shutter speed. In this shot I slowed it down to 1/30 of a second.

DON’T forget to look down, the old streets can be treacherous. There are uneven curbs, potholes, cracked cobblestones and construction, are just a few of the obstacles you’ll have to avoid. P.S. You might want to forgo heels.

DO give yourself plenty of time at the airport when leaving the country.  With multiple security checks and customs lines, 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.

*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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Don't go to Cuba without checking out this helpful list of Havana Do's and Don'ts. (2) (1)

Heading to Havana, Cuba- Don't hop on a plane until you read these helpful travel tips with Dos and Don'ts

VISITING CUBA? HERE ARE 20 TIPS FOR MAKING THE MOST OUT OF YOUR TIME IN HAVANA

 


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149 replies »

  1. I’m heading back to varadero in September, the people are so happy & helpful although they don’t have much they will still share with you.

  2. Thank you for this post! You said: 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.

    Do they need some clothes too? Cuz I want to bring some (what I don’t wear anymore)

    • Hi Naima – I need to ask some folks that are there a lot to see if that makes sense. My gut reaction is that it would be better to drop clothes off at some kind of facility as opposed to doing so while you wander the streets.

      Thanks for taking time to read the piece. I hope you return. You can sign up for my updates if you’d like the posts to come directly to you. 🙂

  3. Great tips! I just got back from a trip to Cuba last month. In regard to the internet access, I would add that many hotels in Old Havana have wi-fi spots, but you need the card to access them. I stood in a line for about an hour at a telecom store to buy a couple (about 4 CUC for 2 hours of internet access). I later found out that those same upscale hotels will sell them to tourists (for a little bit more but it saves you so much time!). If people are looking for a quick break, consider stopping into Hotel Ambos Mundos in Old Havana. You can buy an internet card from the front desk, take the beautiful iron elevator up to the rooftop, and enjoy a mojito overlooking Old Havana (while you check in with your social media accounts or folks back home!)

  4. Just got back from Cuba yesterday truly a lovey country. I found converting US dollars to Euros then to CUCs you get a better rate.

    • Great post! I am planning a trip to Cuba. Do you recommend changing my currency in the US before flying to Cuba? Also, toiletries are not easy accesible in cuba?

      • Hi Nancy!

        If you can, it definitely wouldn’t hurt, however, I wasn’t able to when I went, a year ago. The banking system wasn’t reciprocal and I don’t think its changed but it could have. I would call your bank first so you don’t waste a trip. If you’re staying at a hotel like the Parqué Central, The Saratoga, etc., it’s easy and efficient to change your money there. However, if you are staying at a Paladar (with a Cuban family, sort of like a B & B) or an Air B & B, you may want to get the majority of your money changed at the airport before you head into Havana as it’s not the easiest at the banks there.

        Assume you can’t buy anything in Cuba. Toiletries are practically non-existent. Bring everything you think you’ll need. Don’t assume you’ll find it there.

      • Hello, I went to Cuba with my parents and boyfriend last Sept 2016, for the first time and loved it!
        I found that there were plenty of stores that carried toiletries.
        From soaps, shampoo, lotions, razors deodorant, etc.
        What you won’t find are hand soap in a pump or hand sanitizer. We brought those things with us, as my brother suggested we do so. (He’s been 3 times)
        Over all a Beautiful place and we are planning are return!

  5. We just got back from Cuba yesterday. In addition to Havana we visited Vinales, Trinidad & Cienfregos. The food scene is really hopping in Havana. Also the organic farms have some great restaurants.

  6. Tady Saczkowski – Photos – Google+ enjoyed your pics… been to Cuba 45 times. always enjoyed Cuba … If you do your homework read up on its History there are so many places to go .. enjoy its beauty Take care Tady

  7. Super helpful! We are going in November with our two children. I would love to bring them on bikes (they are great on trails…but around cars….I don’t know). However, I love all the little tips. I am definitely pinning this!

    • I wouldn’t bike in Havana, the roads can be terrible, lots of potholes and ruts. It’s not an easy walk let alone a bike. I guess it depends on how old they are I guess. Thanks for pinning it. I appreciate the share a great deal. I hope you return. 🙂

  8. Thanks for such an informative page. It has made me feel really excited for my imminent trip. It sounds like real back to basics style of travel, pre- 2000. Your do/ don’t section is far more informative than lonely planet ! As with your photography, I am looking forward to some inspiration for writing more poetry

  9. I am off to Havana in mid-August and cannot wait to get there! We’ll be there for 8 days. Should we stay put meandering around the city or go out and explore other parts like Cayo Jutia, etc.?

    • Definitely meander around Havana…. I did it every day for 7 days and was still wanting more. If you can go out and see other cities, by all means do it. I mainly stayed near the city. Went to Bejucal, Cojimar and briefly, Casablanca. I have stories about Bejucal and Cojimar on the blog if you want to see. The Cojimar story is entitled: On the Heels of Hemingway. The other has Bejucal in the title. I’m so excited for you. I really hope to go back. Also, check out the Malecon at sunrise. It’s awesome. 🙂

  10. Don’t forget about looking down…you’re not kidding. I took a stumble when backing up to take a picture. Being on two blood thinners at the time ( now on one, thank God), two scrapes led to a bloody mess. And that leads me to another suggestion; bring your own emergency/ first aid supplies. It is not like there is a CVS right on every corner.Fortunate for me, there was a nurse with our group who was smarter than I, and she shared some of her stash.

  11. I am watching President Obama’s Press Conference with R. Castro in Havana right now. They are both ducking any comment about Donald Trump as a possible Presidential elected.,I cringe at the thought of Trump’s hawkish racism as an answer to the Cuban/American problem.

  12. Great read! Cubans are among the friendliest people I have encountered on my travels. Unfortunately I only had a day tour in Havana in 2006 as it was my first ever trip I went on by planning myself. I can’t wait to go back, but from what I’ve learned while travelling since is go off the beaten path, talk to people and try the food the locals actually eat.

    • Hi Pie- Glad you like the post. If you really want to skip down memory lane, please check out my earlier posts. They’re photo-essays from Cuba. I think you’ll like them.

  13. Hey! I simply love this blog post and you have given such realistic suggestions. Keep up the great work and I’d love to read more of you. I hope you do visit Tanzania some day 🙂

    • That’s interesting.. I spoke to a lot of Cubans who felt it was ok during the day. I didn’t feel uncomfortable in any way. Is there are particular area or streets within Central Havana you might suggest avoiding? Do you think a couple or groups could still walk there without fear?

  14. Terrific imagery and advice.

    Of course, one size hardly ever fits “all,” but for those who have not visited Cuba – an excellent staring point.

    My first visit to Cuba was in 1957 – just a lad of 19 serving aboard a U.S. Coast Guard cutter. Did not have a “clue” that whilst moored in Havana, it would be one loooooooong tine before any U.S. military vessel would be in that port!

    Over my career, I “visited” Cuba 5 times and surely would have loved to travel the hinterlands. Who knows? Perhaps one day.

    Nevertheless, your impressions of life there in the present-day brought back many memories of what I recall from back then.

    By the by, I do agree with Rob (Sydney, Australia) regarding currency. Canadian dollars are no problem in comparison to ours (so-called service fee).

    For those of us appreciating rail travel – one can find some rather vintage equipment still on the rails from long ago.

    Cheers!

  15. I disagree about the ATMs, Cashpoints etc.
    In 2011 and 2012 there were several that I found in Habana . Often with long lines, but they worked. They did, however not work for the kind of Ttravel Cash Card that you load up with cash before you leave your country.
    You would not want to rely ATM’s being in the suburbs or provincial areas though.
    Take Euros or Canadian Dollars and change at Bank or Hotel, or cash advance through the ATM.
    Do not take American Dollars as they attracted, in 2012, a 10% extra “service fee”. Perhaps with the thawing of relations, this has been stopped.
    If staying for longer periods and self catering, you will have to operate in both currencies so you can buy fruit and veg etc at the markets which operate on the peso. ” Moneda Nacional”, not the CUC.
    But be very careful as Moneda Nacional is worth approx 1/25 of CUC. I forgot and paid CUC for Mangoes which ended up more expensive than if bought in Sydney.

    • Hi Ron- thanks for the help! I didn’t see any ATMs at all but I certainly could have missed them. Irregardless, American banks are not affiliated with Cuba as of yet so an ATMS card would not work. Good thoughts on the foreign currency.

  16. Looks and sounds like such an exciting place to explore! Definitely adding it to the list, and thank you so much for these tips! I will keep them in mind. The Coco Glasé sounds lovely! Any other Dos in the food department you’d suggest?

  17. Thank you very much. I got some commens:
    About ATMs: This is just for US citizens/ clients of US Banks. My (German) VISA Cards works fine at every ATM in town. Friday night however most ATMs run low on cash and it can be a problem to get money 😉 Master Cards don’t work at ATMs just at the CADECAs (Casas de Cambio, can be found all over town or in the hotels) It is always useful to change some CUC for some CUP (1 CUC = 26 CUP) This comes in handy if you buy food on local markets or if you take a maquina (taxi colectivo on fixed routes)

    WIfi: Melia Cohiba has Wifi in some rooms as well. (Slow and not cheap though)

    Nightlife: Check out the digital monthly LA HABANA MAGAZINE http://salsaexpress.de/tl_files/bilder/Downloads/WhatsOn_Havana/whatson_cubarealtours_latest-edition.pdf?utm_source=theinsatiabletraveler.com&utm_medium=LINK&utm_term=WhatsOn&utm_campaign=WhatsOnHAV

    Happy days!
    M

      • I’m not sure if the banks or hotel’s will give a foreigner pesos. I’ll have to ask. I didn’t try when I was there. On the average, most businesses in the main areas will want C.U.C.s because hey have higher value. There’s also a tax on the exchange so the Cuban gov’t likes Americans to use C.U.Cs. There’s something like 24-26 per C.U.C. It’s a bit confusing. However, the side streets and more local markets etc., operate in pesos and will give you that in change even if you use C.U.C.s.

      • When I was there I would use my (Canadian) Visa card to take out money at the Cadeca and at some of them I was able to change my CUC right away for CUP, otherwise you’ll have to go to a Casa de Cambio to change your money’s over. But if you know how much they are in relation to eachother (1 CUC = 25 CUP) then you can use either to pay at most places.

      • I just returned from Cuba and it was unnecessary to exchange CUC to CUP. We covered 1600 miles of the country and had a great trip. As a US citizen, our ATM and credit cards are not accepted. I took Euro (make sure the bills are pristine) and whatever Canadian dollars I had lying around (no Loonies – coins not accepted). The biggest frustration was trying to get 1 CUC coins for tips. They must be in short supply, as most of the banks and change houses were reluctant to give us many.

  18. Great list, Susan. Every item is good advice. I also agree with David, who suggested getting out of Havana to see other parts of Cuba. Possible suggestions include Vinales (or other parts of Pinar del Rio) to see the famous Mogotes,the beaches in the Varadero area, historic Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba (Moncada Barracks, where Castro’s revolution started) and if you have the time Isla de Juventud (Modelo Prison where Castro was imprisoned after the Moncade Barracks attack). Plus, if you want to avoid bottled water, they have great beer.

    • Totally agree with you about getting out of Havana but needed to keep the story focused. It would make sense to call it Havana Dos and Don’t if I planned to talk about other towns. Lol

  19. I would still be careful when walking around Centro Habana (the area beyond the more touristic Habana Vieja). It can be dangerous, even at daytime.

    • Thanks! Only seven days but besides a few side trips to nearby towns, most of it was spent wandering the streets and visiting with various organizations like the National Ballet. I really don’t feel like I had my fill. I’d love to go back.

  20. Nice piece, Susan! Havana is a gorgeous city, full of history and culture. I hope to get back there. I would add another DO – do get out of Havana! You can easily spend a long time there but hit the road and see the rest of the country. Trinidad would be a great place to head for but there is revolutionary history, natural history and culture everywhere.

    • Oh yes, David.. I agree with going elsewhere, and I hope to be able to explore more when I go back (hope that’s sooner than later). It just didn’t fit into the overall theme.

  21. Good advice! I found the people almost embarrassingly accommodating. To understand the Cuban point of view, I recommend reading Wendy Guerra’s marvelous novel, EVERYONE LEAVES (Todos se van). Cubans are a paradox with a deep love of country accompanied by an intense desire to get away. I can’t wait to go back!!

  22. Good advice for one as an independent traveler. If you are not proficient in Spanish, how can you proactively cope with this problem in an extended stay of a month or so.

  23. Thank you for sharing these tips…very helpful. I’ve always wanted to visit Cuba and one of these fine days I will. You make me want to drop everything I’m doing and go there NOW lol x

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