In 2009, I spent three months studying Spanish at the University of Havana. Ever since I have been going back as much as I posibly can. I have been back six times and I am truly in love with the city. No matter how poor or technologically behind of a city it is I just love it. This guide is for those who want to backpack or get a feel of the authentic Havana. It really depends on what type of vacation you want. Do you want to go to an all inclusive and just party or chill the week away? If so then go to Varadero, Cuba and maybe make a day trip or two to Havana just to see the city.
But this post is for those who are hunting for an adventure. For those who want to live somewhat like a local and get to know the Cuban culture and lifestyle. Also for those who can live without Internet connection. If you need data or WiFi just stay away from Cuba as a whole.
Internet connection is limited in Cuba, luckily in Havana there are various parks that one can connect to WiFi. When I was studying there in 2009 there was nothing so I am very grateful for this new form of communication that is available. You simply buy a ECTESA internet card from a vendor in the park for 2 CUC and it gives you a hour of WiFi connection.
Be sure to know it is safe in Cuba! Penalties for disobeying the law in Cuba are very strict therefore they wont mess with tourists.
Cuba has two kinds of currency, one is CUC, Cuban convertibles dollars, they are usually at par with the euro and the other is Peso Nacional, which are national pesos. 24 Peso Nacional = 1 CUC. Most things will be in CUC but some street side food and restaurants will charge in Peso Nacional.
For example one Ice cream can be 10 peso nacional which is like 50 cents. Cuban people are very honest so if you do give them 10 CUC they will probably give you tons of change in CUC and Peso but it’s good to know. And you can always ask, nacional? Or CUC ?
Street food will be in Peso Nacional so if you want any make sure you learn how to convert.
- Get to Havana! If you land in Varadero find a local taxi and negotiate with him to take you to Havana. Havana is about an hour and half away and the maximum I would spend on a cab is 80 CUC.
Where to Stay:
Once you get to Havana you can find a room to rent very easily. I know it sounds scary not to have accommodations but trust me you will not be left in the streets of Havana, you will find a room you can rent.
So basically pick a community you like and want to spend a few nights in. I would recommend looking for a room in either Old Havana because it has picture perfect colonial buildings or vedado because it is the near the Hospital and University and is always filled with tourists and students.
I like to stay in Vedado near the University mostly because I get a nostalgic feeling when I look at the university and I can walk down to the Malecon. I like to stay near calle J y 24 because it is beside a hospital and there are cafes open 24/7 for doctors that work night shifts. You wont ever feel like you cant get water or snacks in Vedado.
In Vedado you can also choose to find a place near the Malecon, which is always nice. You can go along the Malecon and enjoy the sound of waves at any given time. Malecon is a road along the sea wall that has an amazing atmosphere; you can witness families, couples and people enjoying the scenery. There is a constant flow of street buskers selling various snacks or coming by with a mini band to play music for change.
Once you have decided which community you want, go there and search for this sign.
Once you have found this sign knock on the door and ask if they have a room if not keep it moving and you will be successful. Cuban people are very friendly and will help you find a place. Even if they do not have room they will probably refer to their friend or a near by neighbour who may have a room for rent. If you need to plan ahead you can find rooms for rent online with various websites like my casa particular ,I have never used a website but I imagine it should work fine. I like going in person because its honestly more fun.
Now that you have a room secured and you know where you are going to stay, you can go on adventures.
Things to do:
For daily activities you can go discover Old Havana, which is rich with museums and historical sites and has an amazing art market. It is just fun to get lost in Old Havana.
Go to the beach I prefer Playa Santa Maria. I enjoy Playa Santa Maria because it’s about 15 minutes away from Old Havana and there is a little store there for drinks and refreshments. There are also a few beach side restaurants that have some of the best Cuban street food I have ever had! I would recommend getting fried chicken and rice or a lobster dish if you want to spend a little.
You can either get around by cab or bus or machina. Machina is a Cuban form of transportation if you do not know Spanish I’d suggest staying away from machinas. Machina’s are old school American cars that are used like a bus form of transportation. They go along the main roads and they stop in main hubs and certain areas. It’s kind of difficult to get around with a machina unless you know where you’re going.
I usually take a machina from Vedado on main roads like Linea or calle 23 to old Havana. I yell in the passing by machina Habana vijea (old Havana) or Parce central (central park) and if he stops I get in. it only costs 10 pesos which is 50 cents.
It is a very cheap way around but you have to learn routes and some minimal Spanish. From Parce central you can find a cab or arrange to pay something like 10$ to take the tour bus used for tourists to go to the beach. There are various hotels surrounding Parce Central and you can sign up for the buses to the beach there. Or else a cab may cost anywhere from 20-30$ to the beach, Playa Santa Maria.
I always hear people bash Cuban food. But that is because they don’t ever get to experience the authentic Cuban food and they usually stay at some all inclusive. Havana is cool because there are local cafes and restaurants in people’s homes that sell amazing food at cheap prices. For breakfast I always go to some café outside of outside of someone’s house, you can spot them as they are pretty obvious and have people constantly coming in and out. I always get one Cuban coffee for 2 pesos and an egg sandwich for about 30 pesos = 75cents. I ask for un café y un pan con tortia (one coffee and one egg sandwich) and it costs me basically nothing.
For dinner or lunch I would recommend going to New Georges they have great traditional meals at reasonable prices in a cool home setting.
Eat at playa Santa Maria for some fresh seafood or yummy fried chicken. I always get the fried chicken and fried rice.
I like the president café in Vedado for pizza and pasta.
The restaurant across the street from hotel Habana Libre called Resturante Cibo Cafe has some amazing dishes as well.
For clubbing Fabrica de la arte is a cool club/art gallery with a nice atmosphere. King Bar is also a fun time. Unfortunatly my photos from the nighst I went clubbing are not the greatest quality but it’s always a good time when reggaeton is bumping. Cuban people know how to party so make sure you go out at least one night.
I hope this post helps you plan a trip to Havana, if you need a cheap quick fun adventure you should definity plan a trip. Sometimes on Sunwing’s website you can find cheap flights to cuba from Canada. I have paid $470 for a flight before and I would pay 24 a night for my room adding up too $168 for 7 nights, and I brought about $400 to spend. So you can defintly plan a fun trip under $1000.