5 Nights in Havana
We spent a total of 5 nights in Havana: 2 on our way into the country and 3 on the way out. This was the only place where I pre-arranged our casa. I wanted to know where we were going after getting off of the plane and having an address to show the taxi was very helpful. We stayed at Casa Ana y Surama and it was perfect. The apartment is right off of Plaza Vieja and has several rooms, we opted for the one with the private bathroom. Boarding was 35CUC per night, and breakfast was 5CUC per person per day. Surama doesn't speak English but was a helpful host. The only complaints about the place was that it's up 2 flights of stairs, but it makes for a nice view off of the balcony from the rooms!
What to expect:
I didn't have any expectations or presumptions about what Cuba would be like. My only concern was running out of money. I approached the whole thing as an adventure, a place where you can still backpack "old-school" style, not needing advance plans and being able to decide things day of. However, driving into Havana from the airport was a little shocking. I've traveled extensively and seen poverty, but I remember being worried for the coming two weeks during that cab ride. The outskirts of Havana were not exactly welcoming or charming. I mean this not disrespectfully, but as factual. The Havana you see driving in is gritty and real, not meant for outsider consumption. I'll admit, our first 2 days in Havana I didn't really get the place. I didn't think I liked it at all. However, upon returning to it, I loved it.
Havana has to happen to you. Have an open mind and a laissez-faire approach. Take the time to just wander, don't fill your days with a strict itinerary or a million sites to see. Save that for Europe. The best moments in Havana are ones you happen upon, not force. Admire the quality of light about the place, you'll come to understand why the city so seduced artists and authors.
Understand that Havana is divided into 3 zones: Habana Vieja, Centro and Vedado. Each district offers its own benefits. We opted to stay in Habana Vieja because we wanted to be within walking distance of the historical part of town. However, casas are cheaper in Centro, and the more bourgeois Vedado offers lots of new restaurants and nightlife.
Money: There are two Cadecas in Havana Vieja, one on the main drag of Calle Obispo and one in Plaza de San Francisco. We found the one in Plaza de San Francisco to be slightly less crowded.
Things we did:
This ice-cream parlor is an institution and you'll need CUPs here. It's main location is in Vedado and looks like it was once very futuristic when built in 1966. There are many entry points, each with its own queue. It can be a long wait, but it's apparently the thing to do. Don't get suckered into the security guards trying to direct you to the special tourist area (an air conditioned box where the ice cream is considerably more expensive and in CUCs). This is a great spot to mingle with local Cuban people. Fun fact: Matt and I waited for probably an hour and then got suckered into the tourist area. Even though we tried telling them we had CUPs. But at least we got the full experience in line!
This hotel is an institution and harkens back to a more glamorous era, my grandma and grandpa used to stay here in the 1950s! While very much a tourist thing to do, their back patio and garden is a lovely spot to down a mojito and watch the Malecón.
This show is located at the Hotel Nacional. We bought tickets on site for the same night. I imagine in high season you'd need more advanced reservations. The whole thing was very kitschy, but the production was highly entertaining. The performers were wonderful and it was very high energy from the first minute. It's a cheaper option than Mariano's Tropicana (which I will definitely do next time!).
Classic Car Tour
Very touristy but so fun, just do it. While there are tourist operators who can arrange this for you, I recommend just going to Parque Central and picking one out. You will be approached by the jineteros running tour companies so stand your ground and pick the car you want. I picked a bright pink one and we paid 30CUC for an hour tour. Our driver spoke enough good English that we knew what we were seeing. The hour was very enlightening on how big and diverse a city Havana is. We saw the outer suburb areas with huge houses, reserved for important military and government people, and even a decent sized green space. Driving down the Malecón in a classic bright pink car was a definite highlight of the trip.
Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña
This fort is on the east side of Havana harbor and we traveled there by ferry. You can also get there by cab, but the ferry was more fun. You catch the ferry opposite the Russian Orthodox Church near Plaza de San Francisco. To get to the Parque Morro-Cabaña (the military park where the fortress is located... kind of like the Presidio in San Francisco), you'll want to catch the Casablanca ferry. From the ferry it's about a 20 minute walk up to the fortress. On your way you'll see El Cristo de La Habana (a seemingly miniature version of Christ the Redeemer). Entry during the day was 6CUC per person and 8CUC at night per person.
There are two big reasons to visit the fort. First, the views are spectacular. You'll get a whole new perspective on Havana and the Malecón. The ramparts of the fort are a great spot to drink and beer from and watch the sun set. The second, and the reason we went, is to watch the cañonazo ceremony. Each night at 9 p.m. soldiers don 19th century military costume and fire a canon. If you do go to see the ceremony, eat before entering the park. During low season there isn't much available. Insider tip: watch the ceremony from the roof of the building opposite the courtyard, you'll have a bird's eye view with the water in the background. Be prepared, the boom was louder than I expected.
Strolling the Malecón
The famous Malecón sea drive wraps Havana on 3 sides. It's worth spending an hour or two admiring classic cars, watching fishermen and bathers and listening to musicians along this route. In some places the waves crash over the sea wall onto the sidewalk, we called these the "splash zone" and had fun dodging waves in front of Hotel Nacional. During cold fronts waves can crash onto the actual street, causing road closures.
Taking a moment to sit and enjoy is definitely a must when in Havana. We enjoyed coffees at Café El Escorial in Plaza Vieja and Café Santo Domingo (this spot is above a bakery and you can take up treats to enjoy with your drinks). Both of these spots took CUCs and CUPs.
Places we ate:
This was our first dinner in Cuba. It was a great introduction to evening dining in Havana. At night the restaurant takes over the street it's on and you can dine al fresco. The portions are HUGE and welcome after a day of international travel. The Ropa Vieja here was excellent.
After traveling through Cuba for almost two weeks, the word "taco" in our guide book called out to me. This place is definitely trendy and you need to make a reservation here (we did day of). The food was inventive and delicious, there was even guacamole! We had the empenadas and grilled vegetable plate to start and each got tacos for our main. Prices were great. Their cocktail menu was interesting and I did see an actual salad come out to a table. Highly recommended.
This breakfast spot as under construction inside when we were there. However, they have ample patio seating outside. If you're tired of eggs, cheese and ham for breakfast, this is a great spot for something different.
Street food in Cuba was harder to find than I thought. A sure thing was along Calle Obispo, we had a great pulled pork sandwich and super cheap ice cream there. All were paid for in CUPs and cost under $1 each. Once we saw the street food on this road, we noticed more around the city and tried to spend our CUPs that way.
Places we drank:
Factoria Plaza Vieja
A great beer garden on Plaza Vieja. They have several brews, I preferred the Claro over the Oscura. If you're in a big group, or ambitious, you can have your beer in self-serving towers. An awesome spot to people watch and enjoy live music.
Rooftop of Hotel Ambos Mundos
The bar on top of Hotel Ambos Mundos overlooks Plaza de Armas and is a wonderful spot to enjoy a drink. Fun Fact: Matt and I watched part of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series here. It was just us and the staff by the time we left.
Bar Dos Hermanos
Right next to the Havana Club Museum, this spot feels very old world Havana. We sat at the bar one balmy afternoon and enjoyed watching the bartender making mojito after mojito.
How we got around:
We walked. A Lot. We even walked from Habana Vieja to Vedado. Looking back, I might not have made that same choice, but it was a great way to see the different zones.
I would say taking a cab from A to B in Habana Vieja is kind of pointless. However, if you need to get from zone to zone, cabs are abundant and come in a variety of options: bicycles, little yellow scooter cars, beautifully restored classic cars, beat up classic cars, old junkers, etc. Expect to pay anywhere from 4CUC to 8CUC for a ride from Habana Vieja to Vedado in a restored classic car. Prices are negotiable, and if you catch a communal cab (which we did by accident), prices are even cheaper (we paid 2CUC once from Vedado to Habana Vieja).
As you can see, we didn't do a whole lot of "sight seeing." That's not to say Cuban culture and history wasn't important to us. But through other tours we did and hosts we had, we definitely felt connected to the country. Wandering around Havana and reading the historical markers we came upon were also very informative. We just chose not to do the museum thing this trip. If that's important to you, there is PLENTY to do. The Museo de la Revolución sounded very interesting and I bet the Capitolo Nacional is too (it was closed for construction when we were there).
If you're wondering about baseball, sadly, we missed the season. This was especially disappointing because Matt is a baseball fanatic (and watching a game in Cuba was a big bucket list item for him). Asking locals we did learn that prime baseball season is during the summer months: June, July and August. Another reason to go back.