If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I recently got back from a wonderful 5-day trip to Cuba. The trip was a little spur of the moment, but I’m so, so glad that I went with two of my best friends from college. We didn’t do much planning in advance, and we stayed in Havana for the duration of our stay. If you’re heading down to Cuba anytime soon, check out these travel tips and recommendations for your stay!
Tips & Tricks:
As an American, you will not have access to any of your banks or debit cards while in Cuba which means you must take ALL of the money you need for the entire trip with you, in cash. As a general rule of thumb, my friends and I estimated about $100/day (and a little extra on top, just to be safe) and it was more than enough for the duration of our trip.
I’d recommend exchanging your US dollars for Euros prior to arriving in Cuba. There’s a total of 13 percent in fees on exchanging only USD, and on a large sum of money that can make a pretty big difference when it comes time to swap your cash. With Euros, there is only get a 3 percent fee.
Most of the cabs will barter with you for the price of the trip. Make sure you do this prior to getting into the cab so you’ve already agreed on the rate when you arrive. We didn’t pay more than $30 the entire trip for any taxis, and that priciest was for the 30-45 minute ride from the airport into Old Havana. In general, most of our taxis cost about $4-$5/person per trip.
If you have Verizon, beware: there is no cell phone service in Cuba. Even if you try to turn your phone on, you’ll just receive a “No Service” error message. While I have some friends with AT&T that had better luck when they visited, be prepared to be essentially disconnected for the duration of your stay.
You are able to buy internet service cards and use them at WiFi hotspots that can be found in local parks and at hotels. The lines to purchase them are crazy-long, and I was told the service is pretty spotty and the cards are pretty pricey, so I didn’t try it during our stay. For the most part, I’d say it’s probably not worth the money unless you really need it.
Where to stay:
We stayed at an AirBnB in Little Havana or Habana Vieja, the oldest part of the capital. I would highly recommend staying in this neighborhood—everything is very walkable, there is easy access to countless bars, restaurants and shops and you can get to most of the major landmarks, like the forts, the Malecón and the city’s historic squares, museums and other sites.
You could also stay in New Havana and Chinatown, both of which are further west and, like the name implies, more modern. Whichever neighborhood you opt for, though, I would recommend against a hotel, and instead go for a casa or AirBnB. Our small apartment ran us about $60/night, while the hotels cost several hundreds of dollars. And though the amenities may be slightly better, I personally don’t feel it justifies the difference in cost.
While we only stayed in Havana overnight, there are many other cities that are great destinations for tourists like Viñales, Trinidad and Varadero.
Where to eat & drink:
Navigating the restaurants and bars in Havana was one of the hardest parts of our stay. Because there is no cell phone service and EXTREMELY limited internet access, you can’t just look up reviews or Yelp the best place nearby like I’ve grown accustomed to doing in the States and Europe. We never had a terrible meal—you’re generally safe walking into any restaurant but some of the food obviously will be better than others. After our first day and a half, we were lucky enough to score some recommendations from local Cubans and they ended by being by far our favorite meals of the trip.
El del Frente: Located in old Havana, this place has a BANGING rooftop terrace and was one of the best meals of the trip. Though the food and cocktails were both pricier than the average restaurant, I found the quality to be much higher (especially for the drinks) and closer to what you’d find somewhere in the states. The drinks were all around $6 or $7 and the dinner entrees were around $10 or $12.
Ivan Chef Justo: Though the priciest meal of our trip, this place was an upscale and relaxing spot for lunch. It also came at the recommendation of a Cuban tour guide and we popped in after a tiring walking tour desperately in need of some food. By Cuban standards, it was SWANK and I think was the only place we ever ate with white tablecloths.
Chanchurello: This was hands down the best meal of the trip, and by far the cheapest. For drinks, appetizers, entrees and coffee, the TOTAL for all 3 of us was under $30. We had to wait in a decent line for a table, but don’t be deterred. The wait is definitely worthwhile. This was the recommendation of one of our tour guides, and he didn’t disappoint. The ropa vieja was definitely the winner, along with the salchichas appetizer. Pair them with the very, very strong mojitos and you’re in for the meal of your trip.
What to do:
Prior to leaving for our trip, we booked a private, day-long tour to Viñales, which is the tobacco region of the country. The trip included transportation, lunch, a visit to a tobacco farm and a few other destinations within the area. Though it is a bit of a hike at 2.5 hours away from Havana, it was definitely worth it. It was really interesting to see the different terrain the more western region and I scored some cheap cigars as great gifts.
Go to the beach:
One morning, we took a 20 minute taxi ride out to Playa Santa Maria which is one of the playas del estes chain of beaches east of the city (as the main implies). The beach had chair and umbrella rentals readily available and food and drink service straight to your chair, all for very reasonable prices. The beaches were beautiful and comfortably crowded and are similar to others in nearby Caribbean countries, with clear blue water and bright white sand. We only spent a morning at the beach, but I definitely wish we couldn’t dedicated an entire day. If you can, leave time in your schedule to head out to Playa Santa Maria and relax.
Vintage car tour:
While I recognize that these tours are kind of cheesy and very touristy, I couldn’t visit Havana and not do one. Most of the drivers charge a flat $30-40 rate for one hour, and they have a predetermined route all set that takes you to Revolution Square, John Lennon Park, down the Malecón and through other parts of the city. We tried to take a tour on a Saturday afternoon and had trouble scoring a driver because it is a popular time, but we popped into one of the hotels and an employee hooked us up with someone he knew who drove the yellow convertible above. Big tip for visiting Cuba: the Cuban people are super friendly and always willing to help you out when they can. If you need something or need some help, just politely ask.