When we heard the news that commercial flights from the United States to Cuba would disembark for the first time in over 50 years, it caught our attention. Several airlines signed up the NYC routes, the flights were relatively low in load, and flights were cheap. Before we knew it we were boarding a flight, just 2 weeks after flights started (which happened to be the day after Fidel Castro passed away) and 1 week after the 9 days of national mourning had ended (no alcohol served during this period). When we arrived at JFK airport on December 9th, we felt like we were part of history. There was a level of excitement of our fellow compatriots boarding the plane in this shared adventure to see a world that has been shut off from modern civilization. I packed my bags with Euros (not subject to the 10% foreign currency exchange tax) and less than 4 hours later landed at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport.
We spent our time walking the streets of Old Havana, meeting amazing locals, taking 1950s taxi cabs around the city, eating great local food, and immersing ourselves in the culture.
A few pieces of advice that may or may not be in the travel guides:
-Internet is tough. Reliable internet we found at the Parque Central hotel for 3 CUCs per hour. Go upstairs in the annex section of the hotel and purchase the cards. Hotel Saratoga and other high end hotels also offer decent internet for similar prices (sometimes 5 or 10 CUCS per hour).
-You can exchange currency for Cuban CUCs at private restaurants (“paladares”) if you ask your server kindly. Most people expect to exchange solely at banks (often unreliable or closed) or airports (poor rates. ATMs are not an option for Americans due to the embargo.
-If you want to be adventurous and leave the tourist areas, you can pay with the locals currency called CUPs (1/25 the exchange rate as CUCs which tourists use). There is nothing stopping you from doing this, although there are some complexities around who uses CUPs (primarily government workers aka 80% of economy) and CUCs
-Explore Mirador, the upscale residential area of Havana. While Old Havana is most charming in it’s historic streets and culture, this area is worth checking out.
-If you are a male and at any bar besides the primary tourist bars, it is likely that any girls approaching you are looking to get paid for the night
-Cabs are prevalent everywhere. In fact, I’m not sure if non-tourists actually drive or take cabs. The roads are traffic-free and mostly tourists getting driven around, which is good for visitors.
Some things to do in Havana:
-Museo de Revolucion
-Fabric de Arte Cubano
-Paladares (private restaurants) such as San Cristobal
-Plaza de la Revolucion
-Floridita: Bar that invented the daiquiri and a Hemingway hangout
-Bodequito del Medio: Bar that invented the mojito and a Hemingway hangout