Top 7 tips
- Taxis (not including the classic American cars) are cheap and a great way to get info from the local drivers.
- The classic American cars are expensive but worth using once. I recommend the City tour.
- Havana is NOT cheap. Similar prices for eating out to Vancouver / Dublin.
- Havana is SAFE. There are severe consequences for crime against tourists.
- Renting a car should be organised with as much notice as possible. We tried renting two days before our planned journey and there was nothing available in the entire City.
- It makes things a LOT easier if you speak Spanish.
- Cash is essential – credit cards are generally not accepted.
We booked our accommodation through Air Bnb which organized airport pick up for 35 CUC ($46 CAD / 31EUR). This was more expensive than what we paid on our return trip to the airport ($20 CUC) so when you consider that the CUC is more or less on a par with the American Dollar, that’s a big difference. (1CUC = $1.32CAD = 0.88EUR)
Cuba has two currencies, The CUP and the CUC. The CUC is specifically for tourists, so always be aware what you are parting with – at one point we had a disagreement with a waitress as she told us we paid with the local currency rather than the tourist currency. I assume she was correct and that we made a mistake but be aware of the difference and what you are using.
We were met at the airport by Mr. Omar, the owner of the apartment we were staying at. We had been advised to take out cash and change our money at the airport. There is nothing wrong with this plan but we had no problem taking out money from an ATM or changing cash in Havana.
We emerged from the airport in to the hot night air and changed our cash. Mr. Omar spoke no English like many people here so it is useful if you speak Spanish. He brought us to a sleeping driver in an ancient brown Lada and we headed to our Air BnB in Old Havana which took about forty minutes as Mr. Omar and the mysterious driver explained some of the landmarks.
Almost all of the buildings in Havana are old. They are stunning. Ancient and powerful. They bear the scars of time but stand proud, however some are in disrepair. It is encouraging to see restoration work underway on many of the buildings.
Typical Havana street scene
I always make a point to take pictures of impressive doors – there are so many in Havana
The other thing that struck me on the way from the airport was the cars. The regular cars are less loved but the old American classics seem to be the pride of the nation. They are in immaculate condition and most of them shine like they are new.
These old American cars cost between $50,000 $80,000 USD. This is an absolute fortune to locals
On arriving at our Air BnB, we were brought up a dimly lit stairway, through a hallway with cracks in the walls and exposed electrical cables and into our apartment which was clean and nicely furnished. The fridge was stacked with bottled water, beer and rum all for a reasonable price. Our bedroom was refreshingly cool with the air con. This turned out to be such a nice getaway in the heat of the middle of the day.
We arrived in the dark so, on waking it was nice to pull open the old style shutter doors onto our balcony which overlooks the cobbled stones / pavers of O’Rielly St. The view across the road presented two old, beautiful buildings.
As we walked through the streets we could see that construction and restoration work is rife everywhere. The buildings truly are a treasure here. I hope that tourism and western influence never cheapens the value of this City. At night time, the streets are alive with people and music, though it is difficult to find anything other than the traditional Cuban music which becomes repetitive after some time.
Locals are friendly in Havana, sometimes they have an ulterior motive like asking for cash or trying to sell something and sometimes they don’t. They one great thing about the Cuban people is that they can take no for an answer. If you do not want a taxi, do not want to eat in their restaurant or do not want to buy anything, they are happy to take no for an answer and will thank you. It can be easy in some countries to get frustrated with the constant hassle from vendors but here, be polite and you will receive politeness in return.
Evening came and we went to see the Buena Vista Social Club on the recommendation of a local man we met. I don’t remember the price (it was around $100 CAD / person). I remember it was not cheap but it was good food and great entertainers for a fixed price.
We decided to take a tour in a classic car. 50CUC ($66 CAD) for one hour. The driver was full of information and even though it was expensive, I would highly recommend it. I tried to haggle on the price, but that didn’t get me anywhere as there are so many tourists here to keep them in business.
I did NOT drive as the pic suggests
As the title suggests, Havana is a City of sleeping dogs – there are sleeping dogs EVERYWHERE so I we thought it would be a good idea to make a compilation
And more dogs……
It was refreshing to meet Benny, another Irish man who happened to be photographing the dogs also. He told us about the plaque on O’Reilly Street which written in Irish, English and Spanish about two island nations united in struggle. The name O’Reilly, comes from Alejandro O’Reilly, a mercenary who fought for the Spanish and led the Spaniards back into Havana after taking it back from a brief British occupation.
“Two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope – Cuba and Ireland”
The locals always want to know where you are from and seem interested in Ireland. Almost all of them ask if you are from the North or the South, suggesting that they have an interest or knowledge in Irish politics, though I did not bring the conversation further. I did, however, find it interesting when I mentioned Che Guevara’s strong Irish roots, they were unaware. Maybe they want to keep their Argentinian / Irish hero all to themselves.
In the evening we walked the Malecon and came to a Fort. 2CUC to enter and it seemed like it would stay open all through the night. A peaceful area to get away from the hustle and bustle of Havana. The architecture of the Fort reminded me of the fort we visited in Kinsale on our honeymoon.
There are no yoga studios close to Old Havana, so it was self-practice for this part of the trip. It felt like a hot yoga session, even when I practiced in the morning. I sweated like Christy Moore pounding on a Bodhran.
Being a writer (aspiring) I wanted to visit Ernest Hemingway’s home. He lived here for around twenty years. The only Hemingway book I have read (so far) is The Old Man and The Sea, which is set in Cuba. I recommend it. It is an easy read.
We had thought about booking the Hemingway experience online on Air BnB. It sounded cool but cost more than $100CAD each so we decided to take a Taxi. The classic cars wanted to charge 80CUC each way which is outrageous, but we flagged another taxi, a tiny, 1988 Fiat Punto, driven by Alexis (one of the most talkative taxi drivers I have ever met).
Alexis offered to take us there for 20CUC ($26 CAD / 18EUR) or to take us there, hang around for an hour or more and take us back for 35CUC ($46 CAD / 31EUR). This was perfect, so we went with that. We also ended up booking him to take us back to the airport for 20CUC rather than the 35CUC we paid first time round, so it pays to make a few contacts and have a chat with the taxi drivers.
His car was less than luxurious and had no seat belts, so if you are ok with that you are onto a winner. He was extremely friendly. My Spanish is at a level where I only understood about 60% of what he said but that did not stop him. He told us that the classic cars can cost around 50,000 CUC. He has a passion for them and every classic car that past he would tell me the year and the make. Some dated back to the 1930s.
The drive took us about 45-50 minutes through another Municipality, into the Town on San Fransisco.
It seems Hemingway had a lavish life here. The house is beautiful and is more or less as he left it. He donated it to the people of Cuba. You cannot go inside, but everything is visible from the windows and you can walk the gardens. The restaurant next door is only ok and doesn’t have great vegetarian options, just like the restaurants in general (there is only so much vegetarian pizza you can eat).
The interior of Hemingway’s home
Part of the garden area at Hemingway’s home
In the evening time we took a ferry (2 CUC) across to Casa Blanca and walked up the hill to the statue of Jesus which is a great viewpoint for the City. There are also two forts on this side of the water to visit. Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabaña and Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro.
We only made it to Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabaña as it was late. It is huge, like a town inside. I can only imagine the bustle of activity among the Spanish soldiers stationed there when it was in use. There are many people selling tourist nick knacks but no pressure to buy. There is also a restaurant inside.
This side of the water is a completely different place to Havana. It is so much quieter, and it doesn’t feel like you are in a big City at all. I recommend visiting if you want a bit of peace and quiet.
It didn’t surprise me that there was a problem with the ferry for the return trip (I am told public transport is unreliable) – the lights were out so it wasn’t travelling. Situations like these are great examples of why you want to have some Spanish. We walked back up the hill a bit, just in time to grab the number 66 bus back to the City (0.5 CUC). A little slower than the boat at about forty minutes.
We listened to some music in La Plaza de Catedral when we got back as we watched some partiers dance in the square while they drank from a bottle of rum.
We booked a day out on Air BnB and Jackson, our guide for the day, or Jocsan as he is correctly named, arrived to pick us up and we boarded a mini bus with the driver and his wife and mother in law tagging along for the ride with two other tourists from New York.
We had a 2.5-3 hour drive to Pinar Del Rio with a stop half way.
Our destination was on the outskirts of a small, quiet town with lots of rooms to rent to tourists. It would be a nice place to spend some more time. We got out of the minibus to have some rum and freshly squeezed sugar cane before a short tour through some big caves which ended in a boat ride through an underground river.
The next stop was the tobacco farm where Tomas (one of the workers) talked us through the process and showed us how to roll cigars. There was plenty of rum and cigars on offer to drink and smoke when we were there and also to buy. I bought 10 Cigars for 10 CUC ($13 CAD / 9 EUR). We also sat down for a drink with the owner of the farm, Benito Camejo Nodarse.
Benito Camejo Nodarse
The farm has been in this man’s family for five generations, he is the type of person I could sit down and have a pint with.
Again, there was no pressure to buy anything here and this was made clear by our tour guide before we arrived.
Tomas explained the manufacture process and demonstrated rolling a cigar which we smoked
The tobacco drying shed
After the tobacco farm we mounted some horses (with no instruction whatsoever, though I am sure the horses know exactly where they are going and what they are doing) and headed into the fields for an hour or so where we eventually came to a farm to have more rum and a chat with the owners. They really do live the back2basics life with no electricity, the simple life on the farm. For me this is true freedom.
Our grim horse guide
We drank fresh squeezed sugar cane with…….more rum
Animal power seems to be favored over tractors in the country side
After lunch (with an amazing view) we headed back to Havana under a blood red moon as we listened to Michael Jackson play on the radio.
If you want to save some money, all of the above could quite easily be accessed without a tour guide or through a tour company if you rented your own car or even rented a driver or shared taxi. Apparently, this can be much cheaper than renting cars.
Time to get out of Dodge, Alexis, the same taxi driver who brought us to the Hemingway house picked us up bang on time (20 CUC to the airport) and that was the end of Havana. For me, five nights was more than enough. I think the City could be experienced in less, unless you intend to use it as a base for different day trips. If we are to visit Cuba again we will travel the country and make it less of a city visit.
Havana is truly a classical city, magical in a way with the old cars and buildings standing the test of time. Buildings built as they should be, to last hundreds of years, rather than what we see being erected today in Canada and cars from the 30s 40s and 50s still going strong. The buildings and cars are a testament to the people of Havana who have a though life. On first impressions it seems like they have it good until you dig a bit deeper and hear how difficult it is to make money, how infrequently they have electricity and how difficult it is to leave the country for something more. I sensed sadness in the voices of people when I innocently (foolishly in hindsight) asked if they had traveled to different countries.
Regardless, it is changing. You can see that, even from my perspective from a short visit and it will continue to change. I can only hope that the change will be for the better of the people and that they can keep the strong character which defines the city.
P.S. Keep an eye out for my You Tube video when I return.