Living in Fort Lauderdale we have access to short flights into Cuba on Southwest, JetBlue and Spirit airlines. So rather than go on a cruise, we decided to go with friends and discover Havana independently. And rather than stay in a hotel, we booked an Airbnb. We spent a lot of time talking about which section of town to stay in and settled on Vedado near the Christopher Columbus Cemetery and a 20 minute taxi ride from Central and Old Havana.
The airport is about 30 minutes south of the city. Since we only had carry-on luggage, the process of customs and immigration was fairly quick at the Havana airport (faster than our return to the US). About half of our fellow passengers checked large packages, which were likely filled with gifts and supplies for relatives on the island.
We arrived at rush hour on Thursday and I was struck by the light traffic and the cloying pollution. I vaguely remember the metallic smell of auto exhaust prior to catalytic converters, but it was overwhelming throughout our trip. The last time I had smelled that was in St. Petersburg, Russia last Summer. I had heard that all the cars in Havana were large American cars from the 40s and 50s, but that is not really true. Perhaps a quarter of the vehicles fit that description. I did not see many new vehicles, but there were many small cars, mostly Russian Ladas, a few small Asian imports and of course buses. Some buses were old and some strikingly new. Most of these were packed tight with people. There were often crowds of people at bus stops.
We were staying in a plain art deco townhouse from the fifties that was three stories with two deep narrow apartments on each floor. We were on the second floor and had a nice size balcony. The other apartments seemed to be private homes.
Our hostess Rosi greeted us with a big smile. During our three days we spent a lot of time with Rosi. Having two Spanish speakers in our group was a blessing. Rosi’s English was barely better than my Spanish. We ran into few English speakers and even our tour guide who was majoring in English literature had difficulty expressing her thoughts. Having a translator allowed us to get to know the people better and to make private arrangements for transportation and tours. We would have managed without that benefit, but it made our trip more convenient and personal.
If you are arriving on a cruise, you can feel confident wandering on your own, but you are probably better off on a tour because of the language issue. It took me quite a while to find even a map in English, so if you haven’t done a lot of research before you go, it will be hard to know where to visit, what routes to take and perhaps most importantly, where to eat, without guidance. If time allows, take a tour for a nice introduction and then wander around on your own.
Cash – Cuba has two currencies, one for locals and one for tourists. The tourist currency is the CUC (pronounced KOOK) which is worth about $1.10 USD. Some people recommend getting Canadian dollars or Euros in the US and then converting to CUCs for a better conversion rate overall. My suggestion is to decide what you are going to spend and convert that immediately when you get to Cuba – at least if your visit is a few days or less. It is difficult to find places to convert and they are often not open. Banks close at 3pm. We converted at the airport and the rate was the same as at a exchange in the old city. We also converted on the street…we were desperate. The street conversion was a better rate, but it was risky.
We found the CUC prices for products to be somewhat lower than in the US and in restaurants to be extremely varied – touristy place had prices about comparable to what we find in South Florida, but private places or those not catering to tourists were about half that.
Shopping – In Old Havana there were some nice artisan markets with really nice tourist products and along the Prado there were more crafts and decorative items. We went into an large indoor craft market in Central Havana (just west of the old city) and found the products cheaper but far less appealing. The local stores in Cuba reminded me of Big Lots only with a much smaller selection. Items available in a grocery store might include chips in three flavors, laundry soap, perfume, rum, soda, candy and a unappetizing processed ham of some kind. And the next store would have another selection of random products. Department stores were similar. One had furniture, bicycle pedals, pipe fittings and perhaps 10 other items. Clothing stores sold mostly fabric. For the Cubans, shopping must be like a scavenger hunt.
Safety – On our first day, we stayed in Old Havana which was somewhat crowded. Besides an occasional sales pitch, we were not accosted by anyone. We walked through Central Havana, which is relatively poor and not touristy, for several hours on our second day. A couple of hawkers approached us to try and sell us something, but mostly we were ignored. There was not one moment when we felt unsafe. Occasionally we would see a police officer, but not that often. We tried to stay out of tight crowds which is always best in large cities. The general consensus is that petty crime and pickpockets can be a problem in Cuba, but crime against tourists is rare.
We did witness one crime. This may be unusual. Around 11pm in our quiet Vedado neighborhood, there was a purse-snatching below our front patio (we were on the second floor). A young man ran up and grabbed a purse from a young woman who was walking with a child. So, the few times we were out at night, we stayed close together.
Food – Other than money conversion, this was our biggest struggle. Unlike in the US, there are far fewer places to eat and drink. I only remember seeing one coffee shop during the whole trip. Probably the locals know where to go, but as a tourist it was challenging. Two recommendations that we read in multiple Cuba guidebooks – don’t eat the street food and carry snacks.
I highly recommend researching places to eat before you go. We didn’t do enough of that and the only good places we ate were recommended by our hostess Rosi. And she had to ask a friend. Many locals do not eat in restaurants. I had read that there were private and government run restaurants and that the government run places were not good, while private restaurants might be good. I never figured out how to tell the difference.
Places we ate and a few we didn’t:
Breakfast with Rosi every morning at our Airbnb was wonderful. Cuban coffee, tropical smoothies, eggs scrambled with onions and tomato, fresh fruit (pineapple, mango, watermelon and papaya) and toast with butter and preserves. And more than we could eat for only $5 per person.
Lunch at the National Theater (next to the capital) – pretty good but a bit pricey by local standards, beautiful setting and good service.
La Moneda Cubana (near the Cathedral) – expensive and not good. Apparently the Ropa Vieja was decent, but the seafood was all overcooked. We ate on the rooftop which was a great setting and they had an excellent combo – a wonderful female singer and two guitarists singing back-up.
El Farallon (near our Airbnb and the Colombo Cemetery) – Cuban and Italian specialties including pizza – excellent prices and friendly service. The food was good, not great. Lots of private atmospheric rooms. Privately owned. Very popular with locals. Pizza is closer to Chicago style than to New York.
La Cocina de Lilliam (in Playa la Havana about 25 minutes drive from Old Havana) – This was our culinary highlight. Incredible setting with a covered patio dining area and seating for 50. Cuban and Spanish specialties and lots of seafood. We had Paella, a Cuban variation on eggplant lasagna, and appetizers featuring chickpeas, Serrano ham and tuna. Prices were about half what we would have paid in South Florida. This is a paladar…a restaurant in a private home. The owner/chef still does the cooking at 74.
I want to mention three places with great views and atmosphere that we walked through. The patio outside the Hotel Inglaterra (next to the Theater and Capital) had a nice casual selection of sandwiches that looked tasty. A Cuban quintet was playing. You have a view out onto the park featuring Jose Marti and a constant stream of classic cars go by looking for fares.
Before Hemingway built his house, he stayed at the Hotel Ambos Mundos (you can visit his room there) which is easy walking distance from the cruise terminal. After riding the classic elevator to the sixth floor you go out onto the rooftop bar which has great views of Old Havana. It looks comfortable and the food gets OK reviews online.
Finally El Floridita was another Hemingway haunt famous for it’s daquiris. Just inside the door was a Cuban band playing Afro-Cuban classics. The place was packed at mid-day and I saw no food, only drinks. Don’t go if you don’t like crowds, but if you want to step back in time…