The best things to do in La Habana
By Vanessa Costa
My wish to go to Cuba comes from the ’90s… Whenever I listened to a song by Brazilian songwriter Caetano Veloso, “Mamãe, eu quero ir pra Cuba, quero ver a vida lá” [“Mom, I want to go to Cuba, I want to see how life’s there,”] I kept wondering what life would be like there. But it was difficult to find a companion to travel to Cuba at that time. Finally, in 2019 I managed to fulfill that wish with 3 great friends.
I was lucky that one of them had been in Cuba before, more than 10 years ago, when Fidel Castro was still alive. So he already knew very well about the necessary procedures because Cuba changed very little since. To enter the country it is necessary to have a 30-day Cuban visa, which you can get through a travel agency or directly to a Cuban consulate/embassy. In Spain, it costs 22€. Second, it is mandatory for tourists to enter the country with health insurance. In our case, we got it in Brazil, where we departed, for 50US$. Third, I had to take the vaccine against yellow fever, as many Brazilian fellow travelers. (If you’d like a broader view on vaccines and other items, it’s worth checking the CDC’s guidelines about Cuba).
We flew with Copa Airlines from Belo Horizonte to La Habana, with a stopover in Panama. In total, 9 hours flying. When in Cuba we traveled by bus, through the company Viazul. To enjoy the island, we chose two locations to wander around: La Habana and Trinidad.
Currency and internet in Cuba
Get ready for a digital detox. After leaving the hotel or place where you are staying, it is very difficult to find places with free wi-fi. Buy an ETECSA (Telecommunications Company of Cuba) card in the company’s stores, and look for a place to connect. There are some public places with wi-fi. A card allows you to be connected for one hour worth 1 CUC [0,87€].
Speaking about currency, it is important to know that in Cuba there are two: the Cuban pesos (CUP) and the convertible pesos (CUC). Inhabitants of the island use CUP and tourists, CUC.
Accommodation in La Habana
Accommodation in Cuba should be well planned beforehand if you do not want to enter the super touristic scheme. We wanted to get in touch with local people, so we followed recommendations from people who had already been there. In La Habana, we stayed in two different places: first, at Mercede’s apartment, which was recommended by a friend’s friend, who had already stayed at her flat. [If you’d like to stay at her place too, email her here: [email protected] ]
We contacted Mercedes over the email and the reservation was guaranteed with no upfront payment because it was not possible to make a money transfer. The flat is at Central Habana, which is different from Old Habana [Habana Vieja], a fancier old area.
Central Habana is that Cuba of our imaginary with old buildings, no painting on the walls, most of them needing a make-over. In fact, when we saw the building we were going to stay, we were a bit scared. But when we entered the apartment it was exactly like the photos. Very well maintained, with antique furniture and very clean. We paid 35CUC [30€ approx] per person/night with a huge breakfast included.
On the second part of the trip, after we returned from Trinidad, we booked a room in El Vedado neighborhood. We got that through Booking, which is a kind of “middle-class” neighborhood in the city. For this one, we paid nearly 140US$ for 2 nights/triple room.
We stayed for 9 days in Cuba; 5 days in La Habana and 4 days in Trinidad, but I can say that I wish I had stayed longer and have known more cities on the island. In La Habana, I felt at ease, we were very welcome and adapted to the neighborhood right away. We always walked around together, but even when I was left alone, I had no problem concerning my safety. In La Habana, there are no beggars. Some people may ask you for some clothing or a lipstick, but I did not feel myself at risk of an assault or anything like that, even when walking around downtown at night.
On a convertible-taxi around La Habana
My first recommendation is to take a taxi tour in an old convertible. There are several on Paseo Marti, next to Hotel Inglaterra. It can be a stroll along the Malecon (the seafront), the Plaza de la Revolución and Vedado neighborhood or Central Habana and Old Habana. We paid about 20€ for a tour and it’s worth it. It is an amazing experience, especially if it is a sunny day, which is the usual there.
If you want a more picturesque experience, you have the coconut taxi, very typical of Cuba. As the name says, the car is shaped like coconut and has room for two people besides the driver. You can not take much, other than people, so it’s the ideal transportation for a stroll through the city.
Besides these two options, which are mainly for tourists, in LaHabana you also find the official taxis, with a yellow license and a “taxi” plate on them. Besides, there are some “non-official” taxis, with no license or anything like that. We took them a couple of times and had no problem at all. They usually are close to touristic sites and ask if you need a taxi. It’s important to set the price before as it can vary a lot. When you are in the taxi, talk to the driver. You will be surprised by their cultural fluency.
Museums and monuments: let’s talk about the revolution?
About museums, the biggest must-see is also the most neglected and in most in need of an update on its communication: the Revolution Museum [Museo de la Revolución]. The museum tells the story of Cuba from the pre-colonial period and explains in detail the revolutionary period when Fidel Castro-led guerrillas overthrew the government of US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.
If you want to understand the Cuban revolution, set aside two and a half hours to do the museum. There are a few videos, installations or other forms of technology that facilitate the understanding of the most important fact of Cuban history. However most of the resources are text-based, newspaper articles, some sculptures, means of transportation used during the revolution and many photos. It is an intense experience. Regardless of your political position, read the texts, see the photos and think over. I was unaware of the vast majority of the information I got on this visit. We can not ignore the importance of the Cuban revolution in recent history.
In front of the Revolution Museum, there is the National Museum of Fine Arts [Museu Nacional de Bellas Artes], and next to Hotel Inglaterra is the Grand Theatre of La Habana “Alicia Alonso” [Gran Teatro de La Habana “Alicia Alonso”]. We visited these three and some other monuments, such as the Revolution Square [Plaza de la Revolución], where Fidel Castro made his long speeches and where the iconic image of Che Guevara occupies the whole facade of a building with the sentence: “Hasta la victoria siempre”.
Restaurants, bars and mojitos in La Habana!
There are several good quality restaurants, where you pay on average of 20€ per person. Of course, you can also eat well in humble restaurants and spend very little. The ingredients do not change much, whether you go to expensive or cheap restaurants. Banana is the main ingredient and the base or complement of many simple and sophisticated recipes. As we all know, Cuba still suffers from the United States trade embargo and many products do not reach the island or arrive only in small quantities. What is not going to be missing in any of them, of course, is a good Mojito and all its variations, since the rum is a national product and one of the most exported Cuban products.
The best restaurant we went to was exactly on the street where we were staying. It’s called La Guarida. It is an emblematic place, worth for the food, the architecture, the view of the terrace. Yes, reservation required.
Doña Eutimia is also a very good, traditional restaurant and is in Old Habana. I recommend it even for the location, it is at the dead-end of a street full of restaurants.
Another restaurant worth a visit is Ivan Chef Justo, where we went twice. It is in a beautiful and pleasant house also in Old Habana. When there, go to the second floor even if it is only to observe the atmosphere.
We also went to Sant Cristóbal Paladar, a restaurant with Cuban-Creole food and a picturesque decoration. You will get lost among so many objects, photos, and adornments. The restaurant is a little more expensive, but it was where each of us was given a Cuban cigar as a gift!
To have a mojito, you have to go to Bodeguita del Medio, Ernest Hemingway’s favorite place when he lived on the island. It’s a classic. If you’d like to have a glamourous mojito, you can go to one of the terraces of the hotels that are on Paseo Martí. There you will find some five and four-star hotels that open their terraces to non-guests. In fact, there are several rum drinks, besides the classic mojito. Try them all!
Music, dance and joy all day long
La Habana breathes music and joy in every corner. It’s impossible not to listen to musicians playing rumba in the streets. It’s beautiful and contagious. The Cuban people are very receptive and cheerful. At night there are several bars and venues that offer live music and the best salsa places where you can dance until dawn. Get ready! Cubans dance very well and do not get tired.
However, be careful not to fall into the trap of the Buena Vista Social Club musicians. Several of them are dead and you do not have to see fake Cuban music, do you? There are several places that offer quality music only to listen to and others where you can both listen and dance. We went to Café Taberna, an expensive place if you want dinner included. But if you stay there only with some mojitos and the show, it’s not expensive and very worth it.
We also went to a more modern and touristic place that is in El Vedado neighborhood. It’s called Fábrica de Arte Cubano. It’s a multifunctional space, where you can see different shows, take collective dance classes, see photo exhibits and even a movie if you arrive at the time of the session. And, of course, a space to dance until when you can! The Cubans will drag you to dance, no one stands still. 🙂
Cuban beaches? On another post
Beaches were not my main goal in La Habana, so I preferred to get to know the famous Cuban turquoise sea close to Trinidad, a less touristic region and perfect for day-trips. I had my New Year celebration in Trinidad and it was really AMAZING. I’ll talk about this in the next post.
*** Vanessa Costa is a Brazilian expat living in Barcelona. She works as a brand strategist and content creator in Spain and Brazil. You can check her works here.