Touring Havana, Cuba


It's only a matter of time when politicians in Washington will remove travel restrictions on Cuba and permit Americans to openly travel there. (In the meantime, Canadians and Europeans continue to visit.) Presently, there are limited opportunities for Americans to join pre-arranged tours to Cuba, and some of our travel experts have previously done so. Here's a recent colleague’s update with sightseeing suggestions that may come in handy for those finding themselves here. (If you can't wait to go, let us know and we can assist you in joining a tour.)

As Cuba’s capital, Havana is generally in a state of decay and disrepair, though there are a few renovated buildings and major tourist areas. The city is quite spread out and one generally would need about three days to see the major sights. It’s easy to get lost in Old Havana's many narrow streets, each with its own history. Here are some ideas on places worth visiting:

Old Havana, the oldest part of the city, is almost 500 years old. The main square, Plaza de la Catedral, is surrounded by great colonial buildings, such as the Casa del Marques de Arcos and the Casa de Lombillo, and the cathedral, one of the finest examples of Cuban baroque architecture.  (Thecathedral’s  interior, on the other hand, is quite simple.)  There is a museum of colonial art in the house of the Conde de Bayona, facing the square. From here, it's a 5 minute walk to the Plaza de Armas, one of Havana's most beautiful squares. This is the spot where Havana was first founded, and many of Cuba's most important events occurred here.

Havana's first major fort, Castillo de la Real Fuerza,  is now a naval museum that traces the history of ships and shipbuilding. Do not miss the views from the top staircase, to get a better sense of the fort (surrounded by a moat) and part of the old city. Facing the square is Havana's most beautiful colonial building, the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, a masterpiece of 18th century architecture, which today houses the museum of Havana's history. If you pick one museum to go to in old Havana, make this your choice (open Tues. to Sun.). 

From here, continue to the Plaza San Francisco, a beautiful square flanked by the church of San Francisco. Continue to the Plaza Vieja, a very different 16th century square flanked mostly by residential buildings. If you are a fan of Ernest Hemingway, you can visit La Bodeguita del Medio, where Hemingway and many other celebrities used to while away the hours.

The most interesting streets in Old Havana are Obrapia and Obispo, running East-West, and Calle Oficios, running North-South. While in Old Havana, do not miss a stop at the Museo del Chocolate,to try their homemade hot chocolate or their famous candy (calle Mercaderes corner Amargura st). Most visitors to Cuba visit old Havana, so expect to see groups of Americans, Canadians, and Europeans walking up and down the streets, as well as Cuban musicians playing live music on many corners. While in Old Havana, stop at the Hotel Ambos Mundos (Obispo street #153, corner of Mercaderes st), take the elevator to the roof, and have a drink/lunch in the rooftop bar with super views of Old Havana.

Next to old Havana in Centro Habana, also worth visiting. Much of the architecture is from the late 19th/early 20th century when the former walls surrounding Havana were torn down to make room for the expanding city.  The Paseo del Prado is a great promenade flanked by trees and benches, running from the sea down towards the Parque Central/Capitol area. Regardless of your political views, the Museum of the Revolution is worth seeing, if only because it is housed in the former Presidential Palace. If you visit, pay the extra fee to visit the former offices and meeting rooms of Cuba's presidents, which are time capsules. Don’t miss the secret doorway used by Batista to escape revolutionaries who were trying to kill him in a palace coup in the late 50s. The most beautiful buildings in this area are the former Centro Gallego, now the Gran Teatro de La Habana, an enormous, block-size building with Beaux-arts architecture, and the Capitol. Havana's Capitolio is a smaller version of Washington's capitol, which unfortunately is not open for visits at this time. If you are interested in architecture, visit the Bacardi Building (headquarters of the rum distiller) at the corner of San Juan de Dios and Villegas streets, near the Parque Central. This building is a masterpiece of Cuban Art Deco. For a small fee you can visit the building's rooftop for a breathtaking view of the city.

Across the bay from Old Havana are two emblematic fortresses filled with history, El Morro and La Cabana (in Eastern Bay).Take a taxi to see them, and ask the driver to wait for you during your visit (there are no taxis waiting at the fortresses). El Morro is the older of the two, built in the 16th century to combat pirates and foreign armies trying to seize Havana. The lighthouse of El Morro is the symbol of the city, and offers the best views of Havana, especially at sunset. Later on, the Spanish built the Fortaleza de la La Cabana further south, a massive 2,300- ft long fortress to secure the defense of the city.  The fortresses are enormous and offer many walks and paths to explore, as well as various museums, chapels, and moats.

Vedado and beyond: This is a vast area, originally residential and now a mix of commercial buildings, apartment houses, stand-alone homes, and high rises. To get a sense of what Havana was like, walk along 23rd street from the river, or walk down Avenida de los Presidentes (G Street). A drive on the Malecon, the famous seawall that hugs the sea, is a must. You have probably seen The Plaza de la Revolucion on TV (this is where most political speeches and major events have taken place since 1959). If you visit, walk over to the Marti Monument, Havana's tallest landmark, to see fantastic views of the city from 350ft above Havana (open Mon. to Sat.).

Here's some practical advice on travel in Cuba:
Money matters: Cuba has 2 different currencies, the MN (moneda nacional, or national currency), and the CUC (Pesos convertibles, or convertible pesos). Most tourists will only see and deal with the CUC, which is pegged at an artificial exchange rate of 1CUC= $0.86 USD. To avoid taking a 14% hit on every dollar you change, consider bringing Euros or Canadian Dollars, which have much more favorable exchange rates. For example, 1 Euro = CUC 1.27, so you are better off bringing currency other than the US Dollar. Wherever you exchange money (at the airport on arrival, at your hotel, or at exchange places called CADECA) the rates are all the same. Remember that Americans cannot use US credit cards or travelers cheques in Cuba, so bring enough cash to cover your expenses. I would buy about $100-150 CUCs at a time, so you don't get stuck with a lot of CUCs at the end of your trip. When you buy CUCs, ask for small bills. You will be amazed how difficult it is to get change in certain places, so the smaller the denominations you carry with you, the better. Also keep coins with you, as many bathrooms expect a CUC0.25 'donation' as you leave.

Health Matters: The infrastructure in Cuba is in very poor condition, so be guided accordingly. Drink only mineral water, even to brush your teeth. Never drink from a tap. Buy Ciego Montero mineral water (from a local spring, either flat or sparkling), which is inexpensive, especially if purchased at markets and fast food shops/Pizza places in Havana. There are a number of confirmed cases of cholera in Cuba at this time, in various parts of the island, so my advice is to be safe and stay away from ice, fresh salads and unpeeled fruit for the duration of your stay. Bring sunscreen as the sun is very strong (Havana sits right below the Tropic of Cancer). During summer/fall when the rains start, bring insect repellent with you, as it is hard to find on the island. If you need a good pharmacy in Havana, the best one is the international pharmacy in the lobby level of the Hotel Habana Libre (formerly the Havana Hilton). In general, public bathrooms are in terrible shape, so it's wise to have tissue paper, handy wipes and hand disinfectant with you at all times, just in case. Bring all medicines that you might need with you, as finding name brands or substitutes in Cuba can be difficult.

Getting around: The public transit system in Havana is woefully inadequate. Buses run infrequently and are always packed. You can easily get around by taxi (fares are usually 5CUC within Havana's central areas) or Coco-taxi, Cuba's version of Thailand's tuk-tuks, which are also 5CUCs and lots of fun. If you love old cars and want to splurge, you can ride in a vintage 1940s/1950s American car (usually Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs) for about CUC10 per ride. Nothing beats a ride along the Malecon in a 1950’s convertible.

Safety: For the most part, Cuba is safe for travelers but it is best to be cautious as you would be in other parts of the Caribbean. Most hotels have in-room safes, (recommended).  Leave good jewelry at home.

What to bring: First, a sense of humor and lots of patience. Cubans are friendly and outgoing, but service standards are below other parts of the world. Comfortable walking shoes are a must, especially in Old Havana, which has cobblestone streets and sidewalks in poor shape. Bring power bars, as these come in handy to tide you over between meals. FYI:  it is hard to find options for vegetarians, so plan accordingly.

Internet: The better hotels in Havana usually have an internet center, where you buy minutes by the quarter hour. When using the internet, access will be restricted to certain news-oriented sites, but you will be able to pull up your email at Gmail, Yahoo, etc.

Newspapers: There are no newspapers for sale in Cuba other than Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban government. Many hotels do have access to BBC or CNN, so you have some idea of what's going on in the world.

Arrival and departure: If you are traveling with a Cuban visa, make sure you keep your stamped copy, so you can surrender it at departure. On departure you must pay a 25CUC tax, which can ONLY be paid in CUC, so save some local currency for departure day. On departure, check in 3 hours prior to your flight's departure time, to be safe. Many of the charter flights to the US (used by the affinity groups like National Geographic, Insight, and other travel companies) run on an irregular schedule, so don't be surprised if you get to the airport and find your flight has been moved 1 hour earlier, as this happened to me yesterday.