Havana, Cuba: Weekend Guide
How To Travel To Cuba
Back in March of 2016, the Obama Administration made travel to Cuba a whole lot easier and less expensive. Americans were finally allowed to travel independently and no longer had to go through OFAC(Office of Foreign Assets Control) to get into Cuba. As soon as commercial airlines released their schedules, I was on it. I booked my flight through American Airlines for about $280..now that’s a deal! I recommend you book your flight directly through the airlines website and not through 3rd party booking sites due to the visa restrictions. You do need a Cuban visa to get into Cuba, but most airlines made that process very simple by getting it at the airport. My flight was from Chicago to Miami to Havana and I bought my visa in Miami where they had a kiosk at the departure gate. American Airlines charges $85, pretty steep, but worth it. Don’t forget your passport!! The agent at the kiosk will ask you what your purpose of travel is. Flying to Cuba from or through the U.S. for tourism is not allowed. There are 12 acceptable travel reasons:
Official business of the U.S. Government, foreign governments and certain intergovernmental organizations
Professional research or professional meetings
Educational activities and people-to-people exchanges(I chose this one)
Public performance, clinics, workshops, athletic or other competitions and exhibitions
Support for the Cuban people
Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials
Travel related to certain authorized export transaction
Once you arrive in La Habana, going through immigration and security are a breeze(Took about 15 minutes) The officer will ask you for custom forms(sanitary statement, visa, international embarkation & debarkation form), goes over them quickly and lets you proceed. In all honesty, I don't even think they look at the forms. The custom forms are filled out on the plane. FYI, if you're spending a weekend, I wouldn't check any bags. Just bring a backpack and a carry-on luggage.
Make sure you bring plenty of cash as credit/debit cards are not accepted in Cuba. I suggest bringing Canadian Dollars, Mexican Pesos, or Euros to exchange into CUC(Cuban Convertible Peso) The CUC is the tourist currency. There's also CUP, the Cuban Peso, but only the locals use it. The US Dollar is subject to a 10% service fee. I brought $500 Canadian Dollars which turned out to be 400 CUC - it lasted me through the whole trip. You can exchange money at the airport or at any bank in La Habana. Be prepared to spend quite some time waiting in line to exchange money. The lines are very long. To check current rates, please go to http://www.xe.com/currencyconverter/
Internet access is very limited and you'll need an internet card in order to connect to the world. Your best chance to get internet is by a hotel. Please don't spend your whole time trying to get internet. For me, it felt good being disconnected from the world and interacting with the locals. Due to limited internet access, please be sure to have a map of the city to plan accordingly.
Transportation is fairly easy to get around. Our Airbnb host arranged most of our trips, but there were times where we had to get our own. For shorter distances, grab a bicitaxi, cheapest option. Should be less than 3 CUC. Unless you're going 10+ miles away, you shouldn't be charged over 15 CUC. Our most expensive taxi ride was from/to airport(25 CUC), followed by Playas del Este(15 CUC). You will need good negotiation skills!
For accommodations, go through Airbnb and I recommend you stay with Nekane as she is a great host and will pick you up at the airport for about 20-30 CUC.(Luggage, # of PAX, & tip) - https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/14245900
First time using Airbnb? Use my code to save $40 USD!! - www.airbnb.com/c/juana131
How To Spend A Weekend in La Habana
La Habana is the capital and largest city of Cuba. Despite its crumbling infrastructure, the city is beautiful, colorful, and full of wonderful people. If you’re looking to spend a weekend in La Habana, below is the perfect itinerary to enjoy what the city has to offer.
Day 1(Thursday) - Settling In/Salsa Night
Welcome to La Habana!! As soon as you arrive, you’re going to spend several hectic hours of settling in. Here’s the breakdown:
The trip from the airport to La Habana takes about 30min.
Meet Airbnb host, go over house rules, and general info about the neighborhood.
Bank run to exchange your currency into CUC. There are long lines to get into the bank. I spent about an hour in line. After all that, your day begins!
Hungry, hungry, hungry! After spending several hours settling in, your stomach will probably be growling. There are two different types of restaurants in La Habana. Government-run and family-owned(paladares). I would avoid the government ones and stick to the family-owned restaurants as they serve more of a traditional homemade Cuban food. Most paladares are in a family's home converted into a restaurant.
After you’re done eating, check out the neighborhood you’re staying in. Walk around, interact with locals, and grab small bites from street vendors. You’ll start feeling comfortable and that feeling of nervousness will go away.
As the sun sets, it’s time go out for a couple of drinks and dance the night away. A perfect spot to check out is the Casa de la Musica de Miramar. It’s the place to be for salsa. Cover is 10 CUC and bottle service is between 20-50 CUC depending on which type of bottle you choose.(Havana Club Rums) If you choose to do bottle service, you’ll be seated close to the stage. Mojitos and beer are under 4 CUC, priced reasonably. It’s the perfect place to dance or learn salsa and mingle with the locals.
Day 2(Friday) - Sightseeing
Museo de la Revolución:
Excellent place to begin your sightseeing day as you will learn about the history of Cuba, mainly devoted to the Cuban revolution and post-war. Used to be the Presidential Palace before the war. Outside the museum you will encounter vehicles and tanks from the war. Entrance fee is 5 CUC
By far Cuba’s most popular and famous seaside avenue. It’s 5 miles long and there’s plenty to see and do. Take a stroll and enjoy the scenery of the seawall, buildings, and ocean.
Plaza de la Catedral:
One of the 5 main squares in La Habana and all of the buildings that surround it date back to the 1700’s. The main building is the Havana Cathedral.
Plaza de Armas:
A spacious square next to the cathedral and the oldest of Havana’s squares. Also known as Cespedes Park. here you will find the statue of Carlos Manuel Cespedes, a Cuban planter who paved the way to Cuba’s independence.
Another main square surrounded by traditional Cuban architecture and several outdoor cafes. There’s also a white water fountain protected by an iron fence.
It is definitely La Habana's most important and notable building. When you first approach the building, you’ll think it’s the United States Capitol..looks exactly alike. El Capitolio is the home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences.
Near El Capitolio, the park is one of the most known and central sites in La Habana. It's surrounded by extraordinary buildings and the statue of Jose Marti is located in the park.
Plaza de la Revolución:
Huge square that includes the Jose Marti Memorial and the most iconic images of Cuba, murals of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.
Day 3(Saturday) Beach Day
As an American citizen, you’re not suppose to be going to the beach, but no one’s keeping track. Spend your last full day in La Habana by checking out the beaches of “Playas del Este”. It’s about a 20 minute drive full of white sandy beaches surrounded by coconut trees and turquoise waters. It’s a perfect daytime diversion if you want to get away from the city. I ended up at Santa Maria del Mar and it's the most popular beach for locals and visitors. Grab a bottle of Havana Club, a Cuban cigar, & enjoy the sounds of the ocean. There's a beach-style restaurant close by that specializes in seafood called Ranchon Don Pepe, cheap too.
Day 4(Sunday) Souvenir Shopping
One of the best parts about traveling is bringing back souvenirs that represent the country. You’ve probably already done a little bit of souvenir shopping at this point, but depending how much time you have left on your last day, I would spend it by finishing up on your souvenirs. Things you must get:
-Cuban Cigars: The best cigars are Cohiba & Montecristo
-Cuban Rum: Havana Club!
-Coconut Monkeys: Hand-carved from coconuts
-Mariposa perfume: The national flower of Cuba is mariposa
-Guayabera: Typically made of lightweight linen or cotton, worn untucked, and appropriate for hot or humid weather
Hopefully this makes your planning a little bit easier. Enjoy your time in La Habana!
If you have any questions or concerns, please contact me.