Visiting Cuba? – My 10 Best Tips for a Perfect Holiday
If you are visiting Cuba for the first time you do need some direction in order to make it a perfect travel adventure. Starting off with planning a Visa to avoiding classic tourist traps.
However, in this article, I will also let you know about the best eateries, the flavor of CubaLibre and the smokey aromas of Cuban Cigars.
If you are Visiting Cuba here are
My 10 Best Tips for a Perfect Holiday
#1 Visiting Cuba – Where From and Visas
I visited Cuba for the first time this year in January 2017. I was curious and heard so many myths that despite reading several articles and preparing myself for this trip, I was still surprised at the utter flavor of the country.
Traveling from Europe, the first myth that I needed to dispel is about getting a Visa. When I contacted the local travel agent, I was told that I need to send in my passport to the Cuban Embassy for a valid visa.
Since I have a phobia of surrendering my passport in hectic offices, where it may get mislaid, I checked whether I could get a Visa online.
The truth is that it was never easier to get a Visa for anywhere on earth than Cuba. I applied for my visa via Visa*Cuba. However, there are plenty of perfectly legitimate sites that will send you a quick Visa. The cost of the Visa itself is around $15, however, you may end up paying more for having it couriered.
I traveled to Cuba via Cancun and was surprised to find that Visas were actually being sold at the airport terminal before departure. This also applied to American travelers.
Americans technically are still not allowed to travel as tourists to Cuba.
Up to last year, there were very few flights flying directly from the U.S to Cuba – however, that is now quite a thing of the past. For U.S citizens the easiest access has always been through Mexico – however, nowadays there are plenty of airlines traveling to Cuba from different destinations.
#2 Hotels and Accommodation – Choose your traveling style when visiting Cuba
I was warned that hotels in Cuba may be awarded five-star status but in fact, you can only expect to pay five-star tariffs but get three-star accommodation. Whilst this is true of some hotels, it is not an accurate statement for many others.
I did find that small hotels in the core of Havana, may leave a lot to be desired. Shabby chic would be the kindest way to describe many of them – however here are some tips of nice hotels you could stay in especially around the Miramar neighborhood.
The Melia Habana has lovely sprawling pools flanked with willowy Palm trees in extensive grounds. It has also got a lovely seafront terrace. It has quite nice upscale facilities and a welcome bottle of wine and charcuterie plate on your arrival night.
However, if you are visiting Cuba you may want to be treated in better style at the lovely Melia Cohiba. Whilst the Hotel Saratoga is where Beyonce and Jay-Z stayed is spectacular.
#3 Visiting Cuba and Internet Connection
I have to admit that until I fine-tuned my act, I was suffering getting a Wifi connection. Notwithstanding the fact that you are promised free Wifi by hotels, you need to know that the Intranet in Cuba is government controlled and therefore accessibility is limited. But do not panic here is how it can work to perfection!
The hotels will sell you vouchers for anything from $2 to $5 for 2 hours of connectivity. Since this is government owned Intranet you can get same from the local post office for just $1 and enter the login and password anywhere. I would recommend that you visit on your first day and buy enough vouchers to last you the entire stay, as queues can get long.
Remember to disconnect every time you are ready with your connection, as otherwise, time continues to run on your credit.
Many small hotels do not have good connectivity and despite your little vouchers you may still be bumped out of a session because the hotels may run out of user availability.
I easily sorted out that problem in the center of Havana by dropping in for a Cuba Libre in any one of the large 5-star hotels and using their Lobby wifi via my little credit chits.
The final word of warning is visiting Cuba. Do not open up your roaming on your cell phone. You may find that your roaming charges could be as expensive as your entire trip.
#4 Visiting Cuba – How to Get Around
Nostalgic Classic Cars for Style Travel. Any classic photo of Cuba will sport the vintage and well-preserved cars that stayed frozen in time and are now Cuba’s showcase of what life was like in the fifties. Pontiacs, Cadillacs, and Fords in a tutti frutti variety of colors cruise down the beautiful boulevards of Havana.
These are now predominantly the fancy taxis for Cuba and are a joy ride. Cubans are, however, fast cashing in on their heritage and you do need to negotiate hard before taking one of these classic cabs.
Whilst a drive down memory lane and nostalgia is a must in Cuba, there are private taxis that are more reasonably priced that can take you from place to place. Share taxis are also a cheaper alternative when visiting Cuba. Rental Cars are available and driving in Cuba is quite easy. If you are traveling to Cuba in a group you can also consider renting a van with a driver. This is cheap, safe and effective. Transtur Car Rentals can provide this service.
Finally you also have the option to HitchHike. Hitchhiking in Cuba does not carry the scary and notorious implications of the wild west. It is a way of life for many Cubans. So if you happen to be visiting Cuba on a budget, this is another option although not 100% reliable. Payment is token and depends on how crowded your pick-up is going to be.
#5 Visiting Cuba and Eating Out
This is where I could write several different articles ranging from 5-star service and excellent food qualities to cheap and cheerful cantinas. However, since I only visited Havana, I will restrict my experience to this lovely city.
My Top Choices:
Restaurante Café del Oriente for Fine Dining.
I loved this place so much that I went twice in the same day. Lunch and dinner! The outdoor service is casual and relaxed with a range of Caribbean, Latin, Cuban dishes. Even at the lower priced outdoor area, you are still served by white-gloved and tuxedo wrapped waiters.
Indoors expect to be treated in old time glamor. Silver service, and clanking crystal. I did have the most succulent braised tuna over aubergine and olive tapenade. Prices are average of what you would expect to pay in European Cities.
The Sardinians have brought their best at Mediterraneo Havana
Arriving at this little restaurant requires a plan by taxi. It is about 20 minutes drive from Havana City, but definitely worth the travel. And you can be forgiven if you mistake the restaurant with a residential property. But you are in for a very pleasant surprise.
The owners are from Sardegna and they have been living in Cuba for some 15 years now. The focaccia, ravioli, and sangria are to die for. This was the closest to Italian heaven you can find far out on the other side of the world. Prices are fair and reasonable.
La Bodeguita Del Medio
If you are intent on sipping a Mojito in the Ernest Hemingway style, then a visit to La Bodeguita Del Medio is a must.
This little place is sizzling and it is all happening. If you are hoping to get a table, either go early enough or make a reservation.
Expect to find musicians playing salsa music and Caribbean singing sultry latino love songs. The place has got beat.
It also has the most brutal Mojitos, Cuba Libre, and refreshing beers. The kitchen is excellent in Cuban style cooking. Plates are piled with chargrilled chicken thighs and runny bean paste. The triple friend chips are to die for, and the guacamole dip leaves you salivating when you think about it after you left the country. If you like to have it spiced up, then add some Haba Nero – it’s a devil of a green sauce.
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#6 Changing Money in Cuba
You must know that there are two official currencies in Cuba. There is the Cuban convertible peso which is valued at $1.00 to the USD. This is known as (CUP) . Then there is the CUC (Cuban convertible Peso) which is now the currency in which all foreigners will change their dollars or any other major currency into. The rate is the $1.00 CUP plus 10% penalty tax and 3% exchange fee.
On arrival at Havana airport, we were offered to change currency at the “local official bank” at the airport. Given that I usually know that the rates given by airport dealers is worse, I refrained from changing anything more than I needed for the taxi. Big Mistake!
Although cash can be officially changed at Banks in Havana, the queues are long and you could waste a lot of time. The same goes for the very few ATM machines scattered around the city. Changing at hotels will only give you a worse rate. Therefore, from experience, the second visit to Cuba, will merit changing all the cash I will need for my visit directly at the airport. You can be assured that this is the best and fastest way of getting your cash converted.
#7 Visiting Cuba – Must See in Havana
Since my visit was limited to Havana or Habana as it is known, I will be restricted to the highlights of Havana city in this article.
I was totally enthralled with the architecture in Old Havana. Although it seems to be frozen in time, and a complete throwback from the fifties, one cannot miss the incredible beauty of the architecture. The glory of the heydays of both the Spanish and French influence on the city have not faded by time. Refreshingly, you can see a lot of restoration going on, and I am pretty sure that on my next visit, much will already have changed. I doubt that the change is going to impact Havana negatively. A lot of attention is being given to detail and in ensuring that the original facades are restored to their original splendor.
- Malecon Hava – the beautiful beachfront that stretches along the coast of Havana. It is a beautiful walk from Havana Harbor to Old Havana.
- Old Havana – The heart and the core of the city with incredible architecture and beautiful plazas like the Plaza Vieja and the Plaza de la Catedral. A visit to the Museum of the Revolution is an absolute Must
- Morro Castle – Name after the three Magi. This fortress has been built to guard the entrance to Havana Bay
- Gran Teatro de La Habana – Located in the Paseo del Prado – this beautiful theater was originally built between 11908 and 1915. It has a varied history and most definitely worth not just a visit but if you in time for the season, it’s worth watching dance and musical performances of the highest rank.
# 8 What is Visiting Cuba without Nightlife?
Nightlife and Daylife in Cuba are all about the rhythm. Cubans are known to be ranking top in performing arts. They are very accomplished musicians, artists, and dancers. You will not visit a single corner in Cuba that you will not find talent oozing out of its pores. Starting from street performances to joints, clubs and official dance stages. I highly recommend that you visit the Havana Café to have a real throwback into the fifties. Life bands perform exquisite numbers and the food is passably acceptable – although certainly not the same standard as the music.
Nightlife at the Havana Cafe
A visit to El Cochinero is another good choice Standing at a vantage point on the rooftop of an old factory, the place oozes smoky and sultry music and overall effect. It is a great lounging spot in the weekend with many expats and foreigners frequenting the place. Expect good service.
Finally, you cannot leave Havana without going to La Tropicana. It is probably the best showcase of costumes, beautiful dancers, and great music. You will get a bottle of rum, coke, and peanuts. Ladies can expect to get a carnation instead of the cigar that is proffered to male guests.
#9 Visiting Cuba is not complete without visiting a Cigar Factory
Cuba, Fidel Castro, and Cigars are synonymous and visiting Cuba without visiting at least one of its cigar factories would not make the trip complete. There is something magical when you walk into these massive palaces turned factories and feel the cool marble floors under your feet. Just thinking how many shoes have graced these floors is enough to give you a good vibe. You are immediately one with the clamor of workers, but you are taken to the factories only by appointment.
Most factories accept reservations via your hotel concierge. Do not do the mistake of just turning up, because mostly the big government cigar factories require you to have a hostess to take you around. You could be requested to leave without a prior reservation.
I will certainly have to dedicate a whole article to cigar making, but at this point, it is enough to tell you that mostly all brands all done under the same roof. The magic of branding is the secrets held with the Cigar Master – who selects the order and special leaves and is the only one with the knowledge of which leaves go into the cigars.
The Top cigar factories are the following:
Romeo y Julieta/H. Upmann Factory
Address Belascoaín 852 entre Peñalver y Desagüe, Centro Habana
(aka Francisco Pérez Germán)
Calle Industria No. 520, Centro Habana
La Corona Factory
(aka Miguel Fernández Roig)
Av. 20 de Mayo y Línea de Ferrocarril, Cerro
#10 Visiting Cuba and Safety
As a lady traveling mostly alone, I could not feel safer anywhere more than in Cuba. Cuba has not just a reputation of being safe – it is generally very safe even for lone travelers. Police do cruise around areas, especially those frequented by tourists. The public, in general, is very warm and courteous. Crime is almost unheard of. Having said all this, it always pays to be watchful of pickpocketing in dense areas, and not walk around in the early hours of the mornings alone. This advice would be valid anywhere on earth.
Visiting Cuba My Conclusion
I fell in love with Cuba. I would return at the drop of a hat. Granted that I was frustrated with my inability to have consistent internet, and given that I am a blogger, this is a degree of importance. However, it also gave me the opportunity to relax, go back to the almost forgotten feeling of writing my articles and recording notes instead of posting online.
Cuba swept me off my feet. The color, the detail, the aromas, the music, the Caribbean white witches reading palms and the future, the splendour of its architecture – basically everything. I have every reason to return to Cuba and explore beyond Havana.
I hope that this guide on Havana more than Cuba generally will help you as a good guide if you are planning on visiting Cuba.