CUBA

8 days in Havana.

As I finally decided to get my shit together and finalize the booking of my Cuba trip I decided to spend a whole week only in the capital Havana. A day-trip to Vinales would have nicely fit into my schedule. However doing 3 cities within a week sounded too stressful. I haven't had a "relaxed" holiday for quite a while, so I decided to take it slowly on this trip.

Too many people advised me to spend only 3 days in Havana, and then I should move on to Trinidad. Everybody was bragging about that little gem of a town. I didn't give it too much attention and stuck to my plan. 

Now that I got back from Havana, I'd totally advise people to stay at least 5 days in Havana. You can easily do daytrips to the beach "Playa del Este" or like previously mentioned the beautiful city of Vinales. 

I can't imagine that you will feel the vibe of the city within only 3 days, it takes more than that.

 

What to do in Havana?

Obviously as soon as the name Havana pops up, people do think about the colorful streets of Old-Havana. "Habana-Vieja" definitely is the prettiest neighborhood in Havana. It's clean, it's lively and easy to get around. The only thing I didn't like about Old-Havana, it didn't look authentic. "Obispo" street is the main shopping lane leading through the city-center. It's packed with shops, in which ones you won't meet a local cuban, it's just too expensive. The shops are pretty much boring, except for a couple of old bookstores selling books & collector-items of Fidel & Che Guevara. 

As I was spending my holidays during the cuban winter season, too many places like bars & restaurants looked deserted. It didn't feel like the partying Havana-City that we all know from the movies, it was just the total opposite. I liked walking through "calle Obispo" just for the fact, that it was packed with people. I love having a cup of coffee and watching people passing by.

Vedado.

I won't start listing all the places you should visit, that you might find in a tourist-guide. I really didn't focus on any of the very touristic places. I really wanted to discover it on my own. 

I will tell you a little more about the main neighbourhoods "Habana Vieja" and "Vedado".

After the end of my trip I noticed that I couldn't have had a better experience in Cuba than this first 8 days in Havana. Too many of my friends, who returned from Cuba, agreed that it was a lovely island, however none of them wanted to get back. I gotta admit that I became quite a fan of Cuba. 

I'd definitely recommend to stay in a "Casa Particular". First of all it's cheap! The average rate for a room is between 20-35 € or US$ a night. So you'd only pay around 180€ a week, which would not even be enough to spend 2 nights in a hotel. 

Don't hesitate spending a couple of bucks on cuban people in the street. I admit that it can be very annoying being asked 20 times a day, if you want to buy cigars, or if they can show you around, bring you to a bar... it's just annoying. BUT... if you agree on spending one drink (1-3$), the cubans might bring you to a bar you'd have never discovered on your own. 

In bars, you will meet cuban locals, telling you about the country's history. They will introduce you to other drinks than Mojito & Cuba Libre. They will teach you some salsa dancing or tell you about the most iconic salsa-musicians of Cuba. One random cubano, who asked me for a Mojito, took me to the most simple cuban bar, where Che Guevara was hiding for 3 weeks on the rooftop of the building. Inside the bar, there was a big bell, which they used to wake up "the Che", or let him know when enemies were approaching. 

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Places to hang-out.

  • Old Havana is definitely the nicest spots to wander around the colorful alleys, have a peek inside the livings rooms of the different houses (cuban people always leave their front-door open). Visit different art galleries, have a drink or a coffee, enjoy the different music spots throughout the city, talk to people... It just never gets boring. 

 

  • THE MALECON was another highlight of the city. Everybody knows the street from the photos... fishermen sitting on the edgy walls of the Malecon waiting to catch a fish, american cars driving by, waves hitting the walls and wetting the pedestrians walking along the sidewalk. The Malecon is fascinating at any time of the day. In the early hours go for a morning run, in the afternoon go have a delicious seafood meal at the "La Abadia" restaurant, in the evening walk along the walls like the locals. "La Abadia" was my favorite restaurant in the center of the city. The prices were very descent and you had a view straight onto the ocean. I mostly paid around 10-12 CUC (8-10 €/$) for a seafood-salad, a grilled seafood skewer, and a cocktail or a softdrink. 
     
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  • VEDADO was a more authentic neighborhood of Havana, not as a fancy as Old Havana, but you will have a fun time in that area.  LA RAMPA, as they call Avenue 23 (Avenida 23) is the hotspot for nightlife. "La Zorra y el Cuervo" is a pretty nice Jazz-Club, you pay 10 CUC for the entrance and get 2 free-cocktails. The night I visited the bar, there was a local jazz band playing, that didn't blow me away. But there were a couple of special guests who made it a very pleasant show. It was funny to see that the jazzclub was packed with japanese tourists, the japanese LOVE jazz music! Just right next to the club, you will find a couple of salsa&rumba clubs. Even the gay-area is right next to the Rampa. I always started my night at the dive-bar "San Juan", where I would meet the craziest cubans on my trip. One night I met a german tourist and all he could say was "man I love this bar!". Almost every night I had dinner at the restaurant "Locos por Cuba". It was just right next to my casa. The service was flawless, the food was delicious, and again crazy cheap (and they had the prettiest waitresses in Havana!). In Vedado you're only steps away from the famous "HOTEL NACIONAL DE CUBA". Also check out the most famous ice-cream spot in Havana called "COPPELIA". Expect a waiting line of 20 minutes to get your scoop of ice-cream.
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  • CALLEJON DE HAMEL is also located in the VEDADO neighborhood. It's a block of colorful & arty murals. The Hamel street was built up by the local community to raise money for disabled children. It's a very charming place which is definitely worth a stop. They also have a signature-cocktail called "BILONGO", apparently it's the only place where you can get it. 

 

My favorite Bars in Old Havana.

 

  • BAR YUMURI 

The bar looks like the real local thing. There's live music everyday, from midday til the early evening. The bar is located just next to the "La Rosalía De Castro" Culture Center. Almost every afternoon I had a Mojito at their place. They didn't serve the best drinks, but I did like the vibe of the bar. That's also the place where I met two of the most memorable cubanos of my trip, Mario & his son Froylan! Their "signature cocktail" (don't expect too much) is the "Compay Segundo". Try it!
Location: (#3 Calle Monte between Maximo Gomes (Monte) St. & Dragone St.)

  • LA BODEGUITA DEL MEDIO 

La Bodeguita del Medio might be the most popular bar in Old-Havana. It's really PACKED with tourists, but the good thing about it, is its live salsa band. Many people are dancing inside the bar. Their Mojito is pretty alright, even though it's very overrated! On a wall you see a writing of the author Ernest Hemingway "My Mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita". Outside of the bar, the walls are filled with tags, names, signatures of people who visited the place. Just hop in grab a Mojito, enjoy the music til your glass is empty, and leave...

  • MONSERRATE BAR

Monserrate is one of the popular bars as well, which is also a recommendation of the "Havana Club Rum Museum". But it was one of the bars, which had the best live music in the evening in Old-Havana. The customers were mostly tourists but it was a calm place, and it still felt like a cuban bar and not a tourist attraction. The cocktails were 4 CUC, however almost double the size than the regular highball glasses.

  • Creperie Oasis Nelva

The name of the bar might sound odd, but they do have the BEST cocktails in Old Havana. The bar doesn't even look like a creperie (a place where they make french pancakes). I had my first Pineapple-Mojito at Oasis Nelva and it was just marvelous. The interior-design looks fancy, most of the furniture is selfmade. The cocktails are pretty cheap compared to other places in and around Habana-Vieja. The also serve a big variety of organic dishes. Try their "Cuban Lemonade"!

 

NIGHTLIFE.

I would totally stay away from Old-Havana, if you're looking for the clubbing kind of nightlife. I was pretty disappointed about the fact that Old-Havana was asleep in the evening hours of a weekend. You definitely need to jump on a cab and drive to VEDADO. Check out "PALACIO DE LA RUMBA DE LA HABANA". The palacio was the first club I discovered on my holidays. Again I invited a cubano for a drink, and after the first bar shut its door, he took me to the palacio. The club opens around midnight and is pretty dead til 01:00 am. On the first night we went around 03:00 in the morning and it was super busy. Obviously they play "rumba" music. I never heard about "rumba" til I set foot into the club.  I had a lot of fun in that club and all the cubans were very welcoming. 

CASA DE LA MUSICA DE MIRAMAR was the second club (or rather a music venue) that I visited. Casa de la musica was more about salsa music... they host very popular bands. LOTS of dancing people, fair prices on the drinks as well. The neighborhood of Mirama is a 15-minute taxi-ride away from the center. The crowd was a little bit older, than at the palacio. Definitely something you wouldn't witness in Old Havana. 

 

ENJOY HAVANA.

Well Havana isn't just about drinking and eating! Obviously Salsa is a very big thing in Cuba. Why not take salsa classes??? I took 4 hours of cuban salsa classes at the "CASA DEL SON" which is located very nearby the Parque Centrale. 2 hours of dancing classes cost 30 CUC. Most of the teacher do speak very well english. The dancing school looks very nice on the inside, and they do have a bar as well, if you need to loosen up, before the classes or during the break. My teacher Eniley showed pretty much patience for someone with 2 left feet learning how to dance.

I'm not a big fan of museums, but I decided to check out the "HAVANA CLUB" museum on my last day, because after all the Mojitos I had drunk, I needed to get more informed about where it comes from and how the rum gets into the bottle. 

If you're a beach bum you should take a ride to the "Playa del Este". I was told by the cubans that it is a lovely beach. Sadly because of the rainy days on the last part of my trip, I decided to leave the sun-tanning aside. You should combine the beach-trip with a convertible taxi ride. I guess the convertible taxi ride inside an american old-timer is a must-do as well, while in Cuba. Sadly I skipped that part as well, because I was traveling alone and my main credit-card wasn't working in Cuba. So I tried to spend less money to avoid any bad surprises. 

I did visit a cigar factory though. Was it worth it ? I really can't tell. First of all, you need to get the entrance ticket in advance! I read about it, didn't believe it... and I was wrong. When I went into the lobby of the factory, the security agent told me, that I wouldn't get inside the factory without the ticket from a hotel. Because I was staying in a "casa particular" I had no clue where I should get that ticket from. A taxi-driver outside the factory told me he could take me to a tourist office, where I could buy a ticket. The ticket was 10 CUC for the guided tour through the factory. SADLY... you're not allowed to take any photographs. The different facilities of the factory look very old, traditional and photogenic. I would have loved to take some photos of the factory employees. It's interesting to see where the world-famous COHIBA cigars come from, but in my opinion the guide rushed through the factory. You can't touch anything, you observe the workers from a certain distance. But... while in Cuba... you should at least visit one factory. You won't have the chance to visit a factory in every country.

There's absolutely so much to do in Havana... music is big, art is big, rum is big... You hardly ever get bored if the weather is on your side. 

Prior my next trip to Cuba, I really want to inform myself a lot more about the revolution, Fidel, and Che Guevara. I starting reading a book about Che on the airplaine back to Europe and I would love to visit the precise places where the revolution and its take-overs happened.

 

 

First steps in Havana... scams & police.

Cuba always used to be one of the destinations, that was on top of my travel-bucket-list, however it took me ages to make the trip.

Usually when I'm visiting a unique country or city,  and just right after I fastened my seat-belt on the airplane I tell myself silently "In 10 hours you will be standing in.... (the name of the city)". If it is a long-awaited destination, I really have a hard time believing that it's finally happening. 

With Havana it was just the same kind of "ritual" again. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to finally set foot in Cuba and again, I couldn't really believe it, that I was sitting on the airplane.

After all these joyful thoughts during the flight, I gotta admit, that my face certainly didn't look that happy, when I stepped outside of the airplane. Havana definitely has the shabbiest airport I've ever walked through. Even the ones in India looked fancier. Well it was just an airport!

The customs officers were sitting behind desks that looked like zoo-type-cages all painted in red. I stepped forward and softly said "Hola!" (knowing no spanish at all)... the usual procedures with fingerprints & mugshot followed, and I got a gently "Welcome!" from the officer. 

The baggage-claim was crowded with too many visitors. All the travelers were waiting along one single carousel. It didn't feel like you were waiting at the international airport of the capital. 

At the main-hall, when leaving the airport, there are a couple of ATMs where you can withdraw money. I didn't wait too long (5-10 minutes), because I landed late in the evening around 22:00h (10pm).  At the same ATM you could exchange money, but the machine asked for your passport if you were exchanging cash.

The governmental taxis ask a fixed price of 30 CUC (24 € / 30 us$) to bring you to the city. The ride took 20-25 minutes to reach the "parque central" where the most popular hotels are located. I took a hotel for the first 2 nights, because I didn't feel adventurous after 10 hours of flying. After the 2 nights at the hotel, I switched to two different "casas particular" (homestay with a cuban family). More to that later. 

I stayed at the "HOTEL PLAZA". The lobby looked very descent, old fashioned, but just as you expected a hotel to look like in Havana. I paid 100$ a night! Which was way too much. The room was OK, but I had better hostels for 20$ a night. I wouldn't complain about the hotel if I had paid 20-40$ a night. Just as a quick reminder, I paid 35$ a night at the "casa particular", which looked nicer, smelt better, felt better and of course with a light-breakfast included. 

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VERY IMPORTANT!! BRING CASH!!

I had carried two VISA-Credit Cards to Cuba. Two different banks, same country (no U.S. bank of course). My credit-card from the international bank "ING" worked without any issues. The one from my local bank "POST" did NOT work. I contacted all the different services and always was told "your card has not been blocked, and should work just fine. We couldn't notice any denied transactions". The several phone calls cost me about 100€ (115$), and I absolutely got no further help, neither from my bank, nor from the VISA service. Always the same robotic answer. The VISA customer service told me that still some VISA cards wouldn't work in Cuba. But it didn't make sense, why the credit-card from a bank of Luxembourg, wouldn't work at all. You will feel pretty lost in Cuba, if your main-payment-source is being denied on the very first day of the trip. 

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Scams & police intervention on the first two nights.

As soon as I stepped out of the hotel on my first evening around 23:00h (11 pm) a cuban girl approached me and asked where I was from, my reason for visiting Cuba, etc.

She told me that I was lucky, because on that particular weekend, there would be a "Cigar Festival" and cuban people would sell them at the local low-budget store called "cooperativa". The point of the "cooperativa" was, that only the local people would get the money of the cigars, and not the government. (of course there wasn't a national cigar festival!)

I could sense the act of being tricked. However I'm always too naive and I wanted to see what the "cooperativa" looked like. I followed her through the streets of "habana nueva", while talking about Cuba & Havana. The whole neighborhood, which was badly lit at night, looked very degenerated. When we arrived at the shop, they sold me 2 cigars for 10 CUC, which was way overpriced. And of course I'm a non-smoker. 

After that the girl asked me, if she could show me a local bar. I accepted the invitation, because I was really looking forward for my first Mojito in the city. As soon as we walked inside the first bar, I told her that I would like to move on alone and that I wouldn't like to enter a bar with no customers inside. I told her that I noticed the scam with the cigar, and that I wouldn't bother, but I'd rather leave her alone.

She denied the scam and asked for a last favor. She wanted some spare change for buying powder-milk for her little girl. I refused to give her money and walked away. 

On my way back to the hotel, I passed by a bar that looked pretty crowded, a cubano was waiting outside and asked me if he could show me the bar. I approved and we went inside. The chico asked me to invite him for a Mojito as well. As I was traveling alone, and all the streets looked deserted, I agreed to spend a drink for a little conversation with a local. The 2 cocktails were 16 CUC (13 € / 16 us$) in total. WAY TOO MUCH for Cuba! After we took a seat at the bar, I noticed all the women inside the bar who were approaching us like vultures. Prostitutes of course... many prostitutes! I clearly told them, that I wasn't interested, and they moved back without any discussion. After the drink I decided to get out of the bar, again I didn't like the vibe. 

Almost having reached the hotel, I bumped into another habanero, who started a conversation. I told him, that I was tired of bumping into people, who just wanted my money and that I don't feel like spending another 8 CUC on a cocktail. The cubano started laughing and said that I got tricked. "If you want, I take you to a place where we get a Mojito for 3 CUC if you invite me."

Of course I wanted another Mojito and decided to follow the cuban guy and his girl. We went to the same place where the first lady wanted to get me in for a drink, and of course she was still sitting there. As soon as she noticed me coming in with the cuban guy, hid name was Alexis, she left the bar. But hey, the drinks were 3 CUC at this bar.

Alexis was fluent in italian, which was very impressive, because he had never left Cuba in his life. He told me that he learned italian because of an italian ex-girlfriend who was living a couple of months in Havana. 

Alexis seemed honest in what he was talking about. He also told me about the tricks with the "powder-milk" and the "expensive-cocktails". As soon as local cubans bring tourists to a bar, the prices of the drinks go up. So for exampled they charge you 2-4 CUC more, and when the tourist leaves the place, the bartender and the "inviting friend" split the over-charged-money.

It works the same with the powder-milk. Powder-milk for babies is hard to get in Cuba, and of course for locals it's very expensive. They usually ask 10-13 CUC for the milk. Tourists with a big heart, follow the women to the shop, where they buy them one or two packs of milk. As soon as the tourists move on, the "scam-artist" brings back the milk to the shop, gets back the money, and they split it with the shop-woman behind the counter.


My advise:

  • never pay more than 4 CUC for a cocktail, a glass of rum is about 1 CUC, a decent meal should never be more than 12 CUC (fist plate, main dish, 1 beverage).  


The 3 of us, got pretty tipsy/drunk that evening. For a first night in Cuba I couldn't complain. As I could communicate fluently with Alexis, and he never asked for money on my first night, I agreed to meet-up again on the second night. 

On the second night he brought me to 3 bars. As we left the 2nd bar, 4-6 undercover agents, moved towards us from all directions, some were walking, and some were on a motorbike. Even though they weren't wearing uniforms, I could tell straight away that it was the cops. And they weren't happy to see Alexis with a tourist. Even though I don't speak spanish, I could vaguely figure out what they were talking about (because of the similarity with the italian language). They were pointing towards the directions/spots where I was walking around with Alexis. They knew that I was staying in a hotel near the "parque centrale". Outside of the bar they were taking mug-shots with a mobile phone of Alexi's face. And they told him in spanish "if something happens with the tourist, you will go back to jail.". I didn't want to cause Alexis any trouble, so I told them in italian/english, that I was alright, and that he was only showing me around. Stupidly I proved them that I was a police-officer as well, and they all started laughing, showing me their hidden guns, shaking hands, and telling me to be cautious, pointing at Alexis and saying "bandito viejo" (old bandit/criminal). 

Before the cops showed up, Alexis already told me that he spent 2 years in prison, because he was refusing to work for a monthly salary of 40 CUC. That would be a reason enough to go to jail in Cuba. However I can't tell if that's true or not. 

It was a fun night though. It was a weekend, and Old-Havana, the most touristic spot in Havana was dead on a saturday night. Most of the bars/restaurants were closed after midnight. So I felt alright, having spent a night-out with a "bandito" who showed me around, than spending a  lonesome night somewhere else in bar. 

However because I spent about 100 CUC that night on drinks, I decided to check out Havana the next day on my own. And it was time to check-out of the hotel and move on into a "casa particular". 

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Safety in Havana.

After the police-control Alexis told me that two officers already asked him outside of my hotel, why he was following me. That was during the first 24 hours. 

It's crazy to witness, how the Cuban government wants the tourists to be & feel safe. Besides Japan, I've never visited a country where I felt that safe as in Havana. At night I often walked by myself through the darkest and dirtiest alleys. There wasn't one single incident where I felt unsafe. 

Many Cubans told me that the population of Havana would be around 3 millions, and that there were 1 million police officers working in the streets of "La Habana". I can't tell if it's true. All I could notice, is that the cubanos don't like the police that much, but they show a lot of respect towards the officers as soon as they show up. 

Especially Old Havana and Malecon is packed with officers and patrol-cars. 

Even the Cubans are convinced "Cuba is the safest country in the world."