GENERAL FACTS OF CUBA/ DATOS GENERALES DE CUBA
• AIRPORT: The main international airport in Cuba is the José Martí International Airport.
• CURRENCY: Cuba has a dual currency system, whereby most wages and prices are set in Cuban pesos “CUP” (the currency in which Cuban citizens are paid and which is used for staples and non-luxury items), while the tourist economy operates with Convertible pesos “(CUC)” The convertible peso is the same price as the US dollar (1:1). In 2013 they said they will change this and make it as the cuban peso (which is 25 times cheaper) but as 2016 it hasn’t changed.
• LANGUAGE: The official language is Spanish but most of the people in the tourism industry speak English, German, Russian and a long etcetera.
• CREDIT AND DEBIT CARDS: I would recommend you, if it is possible, to exchange the money at your country. ATMs exist but not in every corner. I couldn’t take out money from my MasterCard from an ATM, I needed to go to a bank, during the bank hours and have my passport and all that hassle. American Express you definitely can’t use. The most accepted and convenient card is VISA.
I absolutely love to go to countries where the cultural aspect is the what makes them so special, and Cuba is one of the best examples of this.
If you ever wondered how society was before the internet and all the different types of social media, then you just have to take a stroll around the streets of Havana. It was so amazing to see all that people in the street, without phones, just enjoying being there. You can see children playing in the street, riding their bicycles, enjoying the Malecón, talking to each other.
While this can be an excellent opportunity for you to enjoy the magic of having a phone-less vacation, there are a couple of things you have to keep in mind before you go to this spectacular country.
When I started to plan this trip I thought about the option of a travel agency because they have reasonable prices for 1 week trips with all inclusive hotels and they also fix your visa. But I wanted to go more than 1 week and most of the itineraries were 5 nights in Havana and 2 nights in Varadero and if I wanted to modify this I would have to pay a lot more. So at the end I decided to make my own trip just because I wanted to spend more days at the beach and I read that 3 nights at Havana could be enough. If you are okay with a travel agency itinerary and price then I recommend you 100% to do it with one as you can avoid certain problems I had.
First of all, most of the hotels in Cuba are government managed, there’s only a couple of hotels that are international chains like Barceló and Melia, this means that they were some of the few which had booking online and payment in advance. Call me old-school or careful but I do not own a credit card. I once had a department store credit card and couldn’t help myself and bought a bunch of clothes I didn’t need and couldn’t pay, and then forgot to pay and got a debt that lasted and costed waaay more than it should have. So I decided never to have a credit card again. Anyway, if you want to book an hotel online you need a credit card. Only in the Barcelo hotels you can book with a debit card. So I booked that one for Varadero. And I found one cuban hotel in Havana which allowed me (or that’s what I thought) to book with my debit card.
When I was at Mexico City’s airport waiting for my flight I got an email 20 minutes before boarding, from that hotel in Havana saying my card had been rejected and my booking canceled!
P A N I C! Havana was my first stop and I was meeting my boyfriend at the airport in Cuba (he was flying from Sweden) so we could go together to the -now-unexisting hotel I had booked. So I started to try to book an hotel with my phone, with the airport Wi-Fi and I didn’t succeed 🙁 so without having idea what would I do when I arrived to Cuba, I boarded the plane.
So I arrived to Havana and I had to wait 3 hours for my boyfriend’s flight to arrive so I went to one of the tourism offices inside the airport to ask them to help me. And that’s when reality hit me that I was in a country without internet! And listen, I’m from a small town in Mexico but it still surprised me that she had some kind of album with pictures of different hotels, and she had to call each one of them to find about the availability and wait for them to check and call her back. So I stayed there for a good hour but at the end she managed to book a room in one very expensive hotel. Until this day I am unable to decide if it was a scam or not, because maybe she could’ve found something cheaper. But the important think is that I was able to pay with my debit card and got a paper COUPON like a voucher which I had to show at the front desk at the hotel and give her name. For me it seemed kind of informal and shady but I guess they are honest and don’t try to screw tourists as we didn’t have any problem at the hotel.
The hotel the woman booked for us was the Hotel Tryp Habana Libre which once upon a time was the Habana Hilton and has a lot of history as it was Castro’s headquarters when he entered Havana in 1959. On top of that our room was at the 22th floor of 25 so we got a pretty nice view of the Vedado zone all the way to the Malecon. So I don’t complain about the money, it was worth every CUC.
You can spend your days in Havana as you wish of course, it has so many things you can see and do that it really is up to you and what do you like to do. In Havana we walked a lot to be able to see the buildings, people’s homes and not only see the touristic side. One day while we were a little bit lost, a cuban man named Alberto started to show us around and took us to a place full of art and where everything was made of recycled materials. I have been to Morocco and Thailand and I know that when a guy tells you to follow him is usually with second intentions and to lure you to stores or to give them money, but if Alberto had second intentions he never showed. He was very nice, and told us a bunch of stuff of the everyday cuban life, he even GAVE US cuban pesos, with El Che and José Martí on the bill, because he said they make nice souvenirs. Anyway, if he was a hustler, he was the nicest hustler ever. We only bought him a drink and I think my boyfriend gave him some money but he refused it at the beginning and ask for a picture with him instead, as he said that it was the only way he would ever travel to Sweden. Kind of sad 🙁
This place I am writing about is called El Callejón de Hammel or the Hammel Alley and it is full of afro-cuban art and certain days they have a presentation of afro-cuban dance and music. Very nice, but if you don’t have days to spare and you don’t get lost and find an Alberto like us, you can totally skip it.
But what you can’t miss even if it is a 100% touristic thing is to get a tour in one of those awesome, beautiful classic cars! Seriously it is very cool, and you get to see a big part of the city out of the comfort of your awesome convertible (pink) car. In the Old Havana are a lot of cars you can choose from to take you for a ride and the driver will tell you all kind of interesting stuff.
I love salsa music, and in one of our nights we decided to go one of the many salsa shows around Havana. This one was advertised as BUENAVISTA SOCIAL CLUB because some of the singers where part of this popular group during the 50’s and 60’s. There was in this place called El Guajirito and it included food and drinks (not the best, but edible). The show was very good, they played all the popular songs including Celia Cruz’s “Carnaval” and they interacted a lot with the audience. I sometimes watch videos of them in YouTube to remember what a great time we had.
Funny thing, when we got out of that place we waved a taxi in the street and it was this gorgeous classic white car, and we were very exited specially because it wasn’t expensive, but after about 5 minutes it broke down in a red light haha, the driver tried to push it with us inside and kept laughing and saying we were experiencing the real Cuba, until he gave up and called a friend to take us back to the hotel in his car. Loved it.
Another thing I wanted to experience was the near-to-death experience of riding a Coco-Taxi. It is as unsafe and exciting as a thai Tuk-Tuk, so I needed to do it. It turned out to be more scary than i thought hahaha and my boyfriend was so scared! Oops!
We managed to book a pretty cheap transfer to Varadero which is about 2 hours from Havana. It was this kind of shuttle bus with more people. And when I was inside and ready to go, I realised I didn’t have my phone. I had left it charging in my room. Now is a good time to tell you that the hotel hadn’t been renovated in a long time, and out of 8 elevators, only 2 were working and they were paaaaainfully slow. So I ran to try to catch an elevator to take me to my floor (22th) and waited for about 5 minutes until I decided it was too slow and I needed to take the stairs HAHA, yes, laugh at me, I don’t know what I was thinking.. I only made to the 8th floor naturally, and waited there for the elevator. At the end, it took me 3o minutes to retrieve my phone because I also had to wait for the elevator to come down. Everyone at the shuttle bus was FURIOUS and didn’t even looked at me when I apologise. Oh well, moral of the story: don’t forget your phone at the 22th floor in a hotel with shitty elevators.