In this Destination Guide you will find information for : Habana
♦Currency: CUC or CUP (MN).
♦Zone: -5 GMT
♦Phone Code: +53
♦Best time to visit: December - April
♦Must eat: Frita (Cuban Hamburger)
♦Must drink: Mojito or Daikiri
♦Don't miss: A trip to Pinar del Rio
♦Number of times visited: 1
Getting there and transportation: Cuba is on a major transformation as a nation, because of it's political and historic situation, it has been an isolated country for many decades until 2016 when it's former communist president, Fidel Castro, died and left the country in the hands of his brother Raul Castro. Under the new ruling, the country is now opening up and little by little there is modern technology, a better infrastructure and more open press and telecommunications.
In the last few years it has been possible to reach Cuba from many more destinations than ever before , specially from the USA. Reaching Cuba was more associated with a transit in Russia or Spain, which meant very long flights and a costly ticket.
However things are beginning to change now, and more international airlines are now able to fly into Habana, the main airport at the capital.
It is now possible to fly with a mix of both European and American carriers with daily links into the capital. As well you can find links from other Caribbean islands, as well as Mexico or Puerto Rico.
The main airline in Cuba is Cubana de Aviacion, it flies to selected destinations in the Americas as well as direct routes to Madrid (Spain), Moscow, Paris, Rome. Timetables are very irregular though.
Tip: The national airline is not renowned for its punctuality record, nor the aircraft are the modern western types used by other major carries. Instead it uses Russian built aircraft, which don't have the highest of safety levels. It's advised to expect delays or cancellations often if you fly with them and be patient, because Cuban people are very laid back and slow in processing requests.
However, a lot of leisure traffic arrives to the holiday destination of Varadero. Charter airlines fly from Europe or America to Cuba with package holiday tours which have been fully organised and are a good idea if you travel seeking to relax and stay in modern hotels all inclusive of meals and activities.
For those seeking to explore the more real side of Cuba, transportation within the country is very unreliable, infrequent and sometimes chaotic. There is not a established public transport system within the cities. Therefore taxis are the main form of travelling within the cities unless you drive.
There are busses and trains operating cheap services across the county, however information on times and days of operation is only available in person. Public busses are to be paid in the National Currency (MN), they are very crowded and old fashioned. As for trains, the schedules change without notice and trains often suffer from heavy delays or breakdowns. The problem in Cuba is also the lack of internet, which means everything has to be done in person or over the phone. It makes it therefore a very interesting visit and one to rely asking people for direction, guidance or information when travelling around. It's like being thrown back to the past, making this trip some what of a challenge!
The most reliable transport when travelling around Cuba is to use the Viazul bus company, the busses are punctual and offer comfortable services across the country. They are mostly designed for the tourists. Another bus company is Omnilinas Nacionales. (however they can be used only by locals).
Attention!: when visiting Cuba as a tourist, most visitors require a visa to enter the country. The visa is in fact a piece of paper, similar to a landing card which can only be obtained at the embassy or consulate of Cuba before your trip. The cost of this visa is around €25, you need the confirmation airline ticket with your full name as your passport. Also, before arriving in Cuba its recommended to have hotel bookings made, travel insurance and a valid credit card. (This could be asked by immigration upon arrival.)
Weather and Temperature: Cuba has a superb climate enjoying hot temperatures all year round. The best time for visiting Cuba is from December to April. When it coincides with the cooler temperatures from the Atlantic and the north. Temperatures are still well above 25C, although you can find cloudy days as well as light rain which cool down temperatures to a more manageable 20C.From June to September, the heat and humidity are more noticeable and tropical rains may appear during the day. The hurricane season lasts until the end of November, although they are very rare in this part of the Caribbean.
Currency: Cuba is a country where there are two national currencies in circulation. The most used is the Peso Convertible, or CUC. It's paired to the dollar, at 1 to 1. (however if you exchange American dollars you are subject to an extra 10% commission). The other currency is the Cuban Peso (MN or CUP) which is 23 pesos to to 1 CUC.
When you exchange money you will get CUC, which is widely used for everything. Only remote towns or very local transport will require you to pay in Cuban Peso. Local people get paid in Cuban Peso, but CUC is of higher value, which is why they don't mind being paid in this currency by visitors. However when change is giving back it can be both in CUC or Cuban Peso, so always double check to make sure you have not been scammed.
Tip: Make sure you take plenty of cash with you and exchange at the airport on arrival. You can only get CUC at the airport when you arrive and not in advance. Also in the country credit cards are not widely accepted. Only good hotels and category restaurants have card readers. Always take extra cash, which then you can re-exchange at the airport if needed. When exchanging money it's advised to change Euro, Pound, Yen or Canadian Dollars as they will give you more value than American dollars. (which are subject to the 10% commission).
Getting the Internet in Cuba: Due to the political situation, the country is very behind when it comes to infrastructure and telecommunications, specially for internet and Wi-Fi access. However in the last years there are more and more Wifi points across the country. Selected Hotels and a few restaurants offer Wi-Fi now either free or paid per hour.
The most common way to connect to the internet is to buy a card from ETACSA, the Cuban only telephone company which sells internet cards which you pay for per hour. You can buy them for 1 CUC for one hour. However the queues to get these cards are long, therefore you can also get them at major hotels across the city but for 2 CUC. Make sure you buy new cards, with the scratch side of the reverse of the card intact. When you connect to any ETACSA WIFI point it will ask you to key in your username and password from the card.
However as the internet is relatively new in Cuba, it will take sometime for speeds to get as we know it. Therefore this connection is only good for messages, social contacts and info news. No streaming, downloading, videos or music pages will work properly.
Popular places to connect in Cuba are parks, Hotels, major restaurants and city centre areas with Wi-Fi hotspots enabled. The best trick to know if you are in a Wifi area, is to see the crowds of people gathered all looking at their mobiles or tablets with deep interest!
Food and drink: Surprisingly for an island so rich in marine life, fish and seafood rarely top the menu. Cuban cuisine is a mix of Spanish and Afro-Caribbean, heavily reliant on rice, beans, chicken and pork. Depending on the season, fresh vegetables may be hard to come by, as a rule, the hotter the month, the more limited the selection. Furthermore, due to the limitation on food supply by the political situation, there is a lack of available herbs and spices. Instead, food preparation relies heavily on the frying pan and deep fat fryer. Therefore lots of traditional food and favourites by the locals are deep friend and contain a lot of calories!
Specialities which can be found in Cuba are: Congrís, Black beans and rice, known locally as 'Moors and Christians'. Frita, local version of the American hamburger made with ground beef and chorizo served in small Cuban bread buns topped with onion and julienne potato fries. Pulpeta, meat loaf made with ground beef and ham stewed with hard-boiled eggs. Pan con timba, bread with guayaba paste and cream cheese. Ropavieja, slow cooked beef simmered in tomato criollo sauce until it can be shredded. Boliche, a beef roast stewed with chorizo sausage and hard-boiled eggs. Mojo, a sauce for roast pork (and other meats) made with oil, garlic, onion, oregano and bitter orange of lime juice. Picadillo, a mix with minced beef, peppers, onions, garlic, cumin, tomato sauce, stock and olives, also with raisins, potatoes and capers.
When it comes to Cuban cocktails or drinks, the Mojito, Daiquiri, or Cuba Libre and a few others are without doubt one of the things that make the island special. The Mojito is the potent national cocktail made from rum, soda water, crushed mint, lime juice and chopped ice.The Mojito is linked to the famous bar that proudly claims to have created the cocktail, La Bodeguita del Medio, located in the old Habana. Another drink, the Daiquiri, is a blended cocktail of rum, ice, sugar, lime juice and a dash of maraschino. The Daiquiri, has also it's place of birth in Habana, at the Floridita Bar (3 min walk from Central Park). Other drinks include the Guarapo, a sugar cane juice and Cafe Cubano, espresso-style coffee. Another local drink is the Canchanchara, it owes its birth to the Cuban Manigua in the eastern fields of the island.
Introduction: Habana is among the most interesting, different yet vibrant spots in the Caribbean region. Havana highlights itself with all the art, music, tropical sensuality and bustle as the Capital of Cuba. In the last years, Cuba is going through unprecedented changes. The withdrawal of the late Fidel Castro from politics in 2008, and the arrival of his more open-minded brother Raúl, has seen economic and political reforms that have even resulted in the lifting of some US sanctions. The ground-breaking transformations, known in Spanish as lineamientos, have introduced a bit of modernity into daily life. However the city remains true to its heart, its passion permeating its steamy alleys and salt-sprayed sidewalks. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Habana Vieja (Old Havana) as the best-preserved colonial centre in the Americas, and its exquisite architecture is a top attraction for photographers, artists and musicians looking for inspiration. But despite a UNESCO-funded restoration programme, Habana Vieja is falling apart, and you also may encounter the jarring sight of a brightly painted, restored house sitting alongside something crumbling and no longer habitable. Wandering outside the historic core guarantees an eye-opening look at the daily struggle faced by many families. Including insufficient housing, very low salaries, outdated infrastructure, and resource scarcity all continue to plague the country. Yet Havana has an undeniable charm and a unique character. People work hard to make the tourists feel welcome, there are infinite possibilities to explore the country with tours and people on the street will offer you any vehicle possible to make some extra money. Everything outside is to make money, the classic cars, the food stores and people on the street offering snacks which they have made at home. Even you will spot classic costumes worn by the women to pose with the tourists in exchange for coin or two! Contradictions are high in Cuba in general, but during your visit in Habana you will soon realise it's hard to get away from a positive attitude and the always accompanying rhythm of the street music!
Transportation: When arriving for the first time in Havana you need to be prepared in advance, expect to feel the calm way of life and how Cuban people take everything relaxed from the moment you arrive to the airport. Expect lengthy waits for immigration and baggage claim if you have come in large planes.
Getting into the city is only possible by taxi realistically. Yellow taxis are waiting to the left out of the arrivals hall. The normal price is to pay 25-30 CUC to the city centre. It is possible to locate a public bus Number 12 which drives close to the airport but you need to walk around 1.5km to find the bus stop (as you get out the arrivals hall, turn right and follow the main road. You will reach the bus stop, which only the local Cuban people take, the cost is 0.40 CUC. Change is not given). This bus takes you to Parque Curita, its close to the centre and convenient for the Old Habana. However it is not advised to take the busses as they are always overcrowded and have no space for luggage.
Once in the city, transportation is limited to walking, taxis or renting a bike or car. There is no metro in Habana, and although there are busses and trains. These are not designed for visitors. There are numerous types of taxis, classic American cars, Russian cars, modern yellow taxis, and bike-taxis (like tuk-tuk) plus many private cars can also stop for you if you signal! If you are getting these private cars expect to share your trip with other locals, although prices are cheaper on the other hand.
When getting taxis in Havana or anywhere in Cuba, be sure to agree the price before the ride. Often you need to haggle as drivers increase prices if they notice you are a tourist. To get an idea of the fare ask any local before getting a taxi.
What to see and do? A former colonial Spanish city, Habana is the place to meet the culture, history and locals to establish your first impressions of the true Cuba. A city which is so vibrant, full of sound, music, colour, architecture and culture exploding everywhere you go. Watch the never ending flow of classic American 1950s cars everywhere you go by, listen to salsa dance music and enjoy hearty food, all this set in a warm tropical Caribbean climate, making this city a blast into the past. Forget your worries and come to relax, disconnect from the modern world, and enjoy the place where many famous cocktails were invented like the Daikiri or the Mojito!
- Museum of the Revolution: This emblematic museum resides in the former Presidential Palace, constructed between 1913 and 1920 and used by a string of Cuban presidents, culminating in Fulgencio Batista.The museum itself descends chronologically from the top floor, focusing primarily on the events leading up to, during, and immediately after the Cuban revolution. It presents a sometimes scruffy but always compelling story told in English and Spanish, and tinted with some propaganda.The palace's sweeping central staircase, guarded by a bust of José Martí, still retains the bullet holes made during an unsuccessful attack on the palace in March 1957 by a revolutionary student group intent on assassinating President Fulgencio Batista.The stairs take you up to the 2nd floor and several important exhibit-free rooms, including the Salón Dorado (decorated in Louis VI style and once used for banquets), the Despacho Presidencial(president's office where Fidel Castro was sworn in in 1959), and the capilla (chapel, with a Tiffany chandelier).In front of the building is a fragment of the former city wall, as well as an SAU-100 tank used by Castro during the 1961 Bay of Pigs battle. In the space behind you'll find the Pavillón Granma, containing a replica of the 18m yacht that carried Fidel Castro and 81 other revolutionaries from Tuxpán, Mexico, to Cuba in December 1956. The pavilion is surrounded by other vehicles associated with the revolution, including planes, rockets and an old postal van used as a getaway car during the 1957 attack. The cost is 8 CUC per adult.
Suggestion, visit Pinar del Rio: the area is mostly associated with the production of tabbaco to make the famous Cuban cigars. It's location is ideally suited for the cultivation and production of the tabacco plant which can grow fertile in the rich grounds of the area. The terrain has the exact humility, precipitation and warm climate to keep the tabacco leaves moist ready for rolling to make the cigars.
The town of Viñales is the ideal place to start of your trip into the production of cigars. There are abundant local "casas" which can host tourists plus the area is very quaint, being local but full of shops and amenities for tourists to get the most out of their stay. You will find several production factories which you can visit, including the making of Ron and the Tobacco Cigars. (be aware that pictures are not allowed in the rolling cigar factories). The story of the cigars are very much home to Viñales, there is a lot of history and culture related to it's origins, with entire families relying on the successful production of cigars and selling it eventually to the government.
The way the cigars are made and the ingredients used are still a deep protected secret, home to the locals who put it many hours of work a week to make around 100 cigars a day, from each worker. From the moment the seeds a planted to the moment the final cigars are put into their wrappers or boxes there is a process of 539 human actions, all performed by hand, and this tradition is set to continue throughout time to give the Cuban cigars their original best taste, consistency and aroma.
After the leaves are collected at their best maturity date, which can be 3 times per plant, they are left to dry out in a wooden shed known as "casa del vegurero". After 4 months they are ready to be processed into cigars.
For the traditional Cuban Cigar, known as Cohiba, the best selling brand in Cuba, it's necessary to use 5 leaves. One main leave without it's vein (where most of the nicotine is concentrated), 3 central leaves for the inside of the cigar and a final wrapper leave to finish it off. (Capote leave, Tripas leaves and Capa final leave). To glue the leaves together they use a natural resin which has no taste, aroma or chemicals and makes the cigar 100% natural.
The consistency and pressure of each cigar is meassurired, it needs to be around 30 to 40 milibars, otherwise the cigars will be too soft or too hard to smoke.
The cigars are then packed appropriately depending on size, leave type or other parameters and put into paper wrappers or boxes where they can be preserved fresh up to one year.
For the best experience and knowledge about the making of the cigars, we recommend that you take a tour to Viñales, from Habana. Tours are very comprehensive and cover all parts of the production of the tobacco, together with other activities and sights to keep you entertained. The guides are bilingual, and offer good commentaries and interesting facts along the trip. Tours start from 7am, include a Cuban lunch and bring you back to the city hotels around 19h to 20h in the evening. To book contact the major Hotels in Habana where Tour Agencies are located. Cost per tour is around 70 CUC per person.
Suggestion, visit Varadero: if you're staying in Habana and don't want to spend the excessive prices of the Hotels at the popular resort of Varadero, we recommend to visit the area on a day trip. Varadero has long been associated with honey-moon getaways, romantic holidays and paradise resorts with all inclusive fares in your Hotel. Weather is mostly sunny year round and with kilometres of white soft sand and clear waters it has made this area one of the most sought after for beach lovers. However prices are over the top.
To get there from Habana take the cheap option, take the Viazul bus service which offers an affordable and quick trip. The trip takes 3 hours going and 2.5 hours coming back. It costs 10 CUC each way. It's advised to prearrange in advance your bus tickets as they are very busy and get booked quickly. You will need your passport and pay in cash only. Also when you depart you will need to check-in to get a boarding paper to get on the bus. The departure station is located 15min from the city centre. A taxi should not cost more than 6-8 CUC. They depart at 8am or 10am from Habana. To return the best one is the last bus at 18h which arrives back in Habana central for 20.30h.
When in Varadero, the main street is packed with restaurants, local bars, market stands, souvenir and amenity shops. There are also tour info offices , banks, and money exchange bureaus. When getting to the beaches, the best ones are located at the end of Varadero, you can take the tourist bus for 5 CUC (it's a tourist bus but only passes by the Hotels of the area acting like a public transport for tourists to get around). Get off at Princesa del Mar Hotel and walk from there 5 min to the beach.
Accommodation: Habana is not cheap when it comes to sleeping. Hotels are overpriced, even the quality and services are nothing compared to Europe or other capitalist countries. However there are cheaper ways of staying if you're on a budget. There are "casas", which are private houses which offer rooms to rent for short periods of stay. They are ideal for private accommodation, they offer a more local experience where you can meet families and have a more hands on approach to your stay. They are located all over Cuba, and can be booked online before you arrive or in person. You can identify them by the blue coloured anchor shape sign. You will also see some places which have a red anchor shape. These are intended only for locals whilst the blue ones are for foreigners and locals alike. Prices in the casas can be around €25/30 per night for private rooms with bathroom.
If you are looking for Hotels, then expect to pay around €50/60 per night.
Also it's possible to check Airbnb, which also offers private accommodation, though there are limitations because of the lack of internet in Cuba.
Recommended duration: Habana is a city with a lot to offer to the visitor. Both scenery and places to visit, historical, cultural and social, where to relax and enjoy some music.Taking day trips out of the city is also a good idea, as a way to see more and leave luggage in Habana. Seeing the city either by yourself or by tour, you should need at least 3 nights to feel you have seen the most important sights. However taking day trips out , swimming in the ocean and some late nights out, you might want to consider staying up to a week in the city.