Hooters and Habaneras – Paul and Carole’s Travel Guide to Havana
We visited Havana in Cuba as part of our cruise holiday around the Caribbean. Havana is one of the most interesting destinations we have visited and we have put this travel guide together to help you make the most of your visit too.
Where is Havana?
Havana lies in the north-western coast of Cuba. It is located south of the Florida Keys where the Gulf of Mexico joins the Atlantic Ocean. It has over 2 million inhabitants, and the highest population density in the entire island. From end to end it is approximately 700 miles, we didn’t realise Cuba was so big!
Being money smart in Havana
One of the first things to learn when you are travelling to Cuba is about the Cuban Currency, as it can get confusing. Simply put tourists use CUC which is the Cuban Convertible Peso and locals use the CUP which is the Cuban Peso. The difference in appearance is that CUC’s have monuments and buildings and CUP’s have faces of famous Cubans on the notes and coins.
We could not get CUC’s outside of Cuba and soon learned that exchange rates vary a lot. If you are organising your own transfers from the airport then you will need to change your money before you leave the airport and signs to the money exchange were signposted.
We changed our sterling at our first hotel the Memories Miramar. At first we changed some money at reception and the exchange rate was 1.17 to the pound but soon discovered that literally round the corner off the lobby area was a little money exchange which gave a rate of 1.28! So make sure you check out all the options available to you.
Always check your change and make sure you receive CUC’s not CUP’s in return, check the notes and coins before walking away. The worth of each currency is very different \with CUP’s being worth a lot less than CUC’s.
Where to stay in Havana
The reason for us going to Havana was to join the MSC Opera Cruise Ship for a Caribbean Cruise. The cruise terminal is called the Sierra Maestra and centrally located, right across the street from San Francisco Square. and ideal for exploring the interesting streets of Havana.
Before joining the MSC Opera we stayed at the Memories Miramar Hotel, we soon realised that 4 star in Cuba is very different to 4 star in Europe. You can check out to see why in our video reviews here.
We booked our hotels through Trailfinders, and for the standard of hotel we wanted they certainly were not cheap. We did our research as normal and we were shocked at how much hotels were.
If we were travelling to Cuba again and as a couple, we would look at staying in Casa’s or Airbnb which may be cheaper, you can check them out through Booking.com below. Unfortunately, this was not an option for us this time due to the size of our group!
Getting around Havana
As soon as you arrive in Cuba you will see the classic cars everywhere. If you are planning a trip around Cuba in a classic car make sure you shop around as prices do vary a lot. We were lucky to meet up with our friend Yatiel who lives in Cuba and we had previously met on our cruise around Greece last summer.
If we had booked our classic car tour with MSC Cruises, it would have cost $75 per person with a maximum 3 to a car. There were 11 in our group which would have cost a total of $825. We were lucky that our Cuban friend Yatiel arranged our tour and we actually paid $75 dollars in total for all of us in 3 cars and had the most fantastic 2 hours blasting around Havana. A total saving of $750!
Horns and hooters were a part of our fun night out in the classic cars and as you will see in the video our hooter was definitely the most biggest and the best!
Talking to the locals there is concern of cheaper cars now being imported and the worry of the classic cars declining. We did smile when a stretch lada drove past not something we have ever seen before! We loved our evening in the classic cars, however, the fumes can become over powering so going long distances wouldn’t be something we would choose to do.
We didn’t take the local buses but we did spot the bus pull up and get filled with mopeds and a man carrying a large 8 by 4 sheet of plywood! The buses were always packed and we understand that they are not always reliable, however, more information about buses can be found here.
Another form of transport in Havana is the Coco taxi. They are yellow bucket style seats on a 3 wheel frame with a fibreglass body, apparently the name comes from Coconut which explains the shape. You see these everywhere and general approximation is that it should cost 1 CUC per kilometre but as with everything in Havana prices do vary so don’t be afraid to bargain hard!
Drinking and Music in Havana
“My Mojito in la Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita” said Hemingway of his old drinking haunts. Now a statue of the great writer leans on the bar at El Floridita which can be found on Obispo Street. At the La Bodeguita del Medio which can be found on Empedrado street customers including Castro have signed their name on the walls.
We tried twice to get into El Floridita and La Bodeguita but they were always packed which was a real shame.
However, we did manage to sample a few mojitos and daiquiries in other bars that we found. In Old Havana a bar called Cafe Bosque Bologna on Obispo Street drew us in with the live music. Must admit the service wasn’t the happiest, however, the daiquiris were excellent. We sat down and noticed that just behind our table was an area where there were turtles which was a bit strange, but we soon learnt the reason why they are there is that the Cubans believe that they bring them good karma. We had an entertaining time here with Yatiel doing her best teaching Paul some Salsa skills!
In San Francisco Square right opposite the cruise terminal is a bar called Restaurante Cafe del Oriente, a lovely bar with a seating area outside, ideal for watching the world go by and inside a very talented piano player where we spent a wet afternoon having a fun sing-song. The Mojitos here were excellent too!
The bars in Havana are vibrant and fun, the only issue to be aware of is this. If someone comes up to you in the street and recommends that you try out the nearby restaurant, have a drink in a bar, and you follow them there, you’ll end up paying more for your meal and your drinks. The restaurant/bar will be expected to pay the hustler a commission, which will be added to your bill.
When there is music in bars or on the street, it is normal for one of the band members to come around asking for tips, and if you haven’t heard of the song Guantanamera when you arrive, you certainly will by the time you leave!
Music is in the heart and soul of Cuba, you will hear music coming out of houses, bars and restaurants. It is not unusual to see locals hanging out chatting and dancing too. We loved this side of Cuba.
Street Life in Havana
Old Havana has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1982. Havana displays a magnificent collection of historic buildings, all in different states of repair. Walking the streets of Havana is fascinating, however, just be aware that two of our family and friends were in wheelchairs and mobility scooters which did prove challenging. The pavements are broken and some of the streets cobbled. Also it could be a bit nerve-wracking walking under the balconies that looked like they were just about to collapse.
Havana is a photographers paradise but be prepared to pay if you are taking pictures of the characters on the streets. We paid 1 CUC for the lady and cigar above.
From watching the kids play football to passing a man with a rat on his head, street life was certainly entertaining. One of the most amusing sights was this lady who had her cat in the pram in babies clothes, we were not expecting that!
We were warned not to buy cuban cigars from the street sellers and were told they may have anything in them like grass/newspaper, and who knows what else. Go to a proper tobacconist if you are planning to buy them.
There are plenty of souvenirs to be had and don’t be afraid to barter for a better price. We bought some great cuban car pictures to go in our little Bo’s Bar at home and also bought home a couple of bottles of the excellent Havana Rum.
WiFi in Havana
WiFi in Havana is not easily available and can only be accessed by buying WiFi cards from hotel receptions and telephone shops. Like most things we found in Havana prices vary, at our first hotel we were charged 4.5 CUC’s for a 1 hour card, however, at our last hotel in Varadero the cards cost 1 CUC for the same amount of time! Easy to use you just scratch the numbers off and input this data on the sign in page which comes up automatically. The hour is counted down each time you log in and you can see how many minutes you have left.
The Malecon is also known as the largest sofa in the world and stretches for 8kms along the shores of Havana harbour. Locals and tourists visit the Malecon for an evening stroll, to meet friends for music, drinking and dancing or to just simply sit down and gaze at the city and the sea. This is how we imagined Havana vibrant, lively and full of life.
Street Art in Havana
If you love street art then you will love Havana. There are many colourful examples through the city to discover. Exploring Havana by foot is a delight!
Our verdict of Havana
We really thought Havana would be a cheap destination to visit and maybe if we spent our time elsewhere in Cuba other than Havana it may have been. Overall the only negative point really is the constant harassment for money was in line with what we had experienced on most of the Caribbean islands we had visited.
We travelled in November which was the end of the rainy seasons and on our first few days it did rain heavily, but the sun soon came out, stayed out and it was very hot.
We had a fantastic time in Havana it is one of the most interesting destinations we have ever been too. If you get the chance to visit, we would recommend that you go and actually stay in Old Havana. It is a vibrant city full of music and charm and we don’t think you will be disappointed.
After our visit to Havana we ended holiday at the beach resort of Varadero. Our transfer took 3 hours and you can watch our video reviews of the Iberostar Varadero Hotel here.
We would like to dedicate this post to our very dear friend Jane. Unfortunately this was our last trip with Jane, one of the loveliest ladies we have ever met, always laughing even when life became difficult. She will always be in our hearts.
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