Conde Nast traveller named it the 'hot new destination to watch in 2016' earlier this year. The US have dropped their trade embargo, opening it up to their citizens—and even sending Obama for a quick visit in March. The Rolling Stones became the first Western band to play an open air concert in April. So, basically what I'm saying is, you'd better get to Cuba before all those cruise ships ruin it.
Which is going to be soon. Real soon.
Things are heating up in Havana, Cuba's capital—and it's not just because of the weather. From discussions about an influx of flight options from the USA, to Chanel showing their latest runway on the historic Paseo del Prado (attended by the Kardashians. Yep...), it's clear that you don't have much more time left to check out one of the grand old dames of 15th Century Spanish rule.
Cuba, of course, is probably known best for its lingering hold on Communist values: for Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and the revolution that saw them successfully (depending on who you ask) implement government rule and do away with private ownership. The lasting effects of Communist rule (since 1959) are seen everywhere in Havana, the island nation's capital. Trade was suspended with their biggest neighbour, America, which has meant rations for over 50 years—and during that time, much of the once-grand city has fallen into disrepair.
However, the Cubans are an enterprising bunch (perhaps ironically, considering they can't technically own a business), and they've made do with what they've got for upwards of five decades. Hence, the iconic imagery that we all know of Havana: imagery of vintage Chevvys, Buicks and Fords roaming the streets in huge numbers.
For example, this is a taxi:
It has also meant that much of the iconic Spanish architecture from the 16th and 17th Centuries has remained, as well as grand promenades and arcades from the 19th Century, albeit a little worse for wear. You might not expect it, when you think of Cuba, but the architecture is stunning.
Must-dos are the romantic streets of Old Havana, Plaza Vieja (from 1559), Plaza de la Catedral (1749), Gran Teatro de La Habana (1838), and of course El Capitolo:
The impressive colonnades extend through the city, for many kilometres—and Havana really is a big city. It's as Instagrammable as you can possibly imagine, with columns ebbing down long, wide roads, and Casa Particulars painted in faded pastels:
But Havana isn't just about the city—after all, this is the Caribbean. Surrounded by some of the clearest, cleanest water you've seen, Cuba also houses amazing dive sites and stunning beaches, and you don't even have to go that far out of the capital to check it out.
For USD$5 you can get a tourist bus, 20 minutes out of town, to this gorgeous beach in Playas del Este:
What about the food? Well, everyone complains about the food, but hey—it's a poor country, on pretty strict rations. In my experience, it wasn't as bad as people make out.
We found some amazing spots to eat, although admittedly the options were quite limited:
A lot of people say the food is terrible in Cuba but I really enjoyed the Spanish Caribbean fusion. Here's a delish paella inspired rice dish I had in Havana ���� // #Cuba #yummelbourne #breakfast #foodstagram #food #foodporn #melbourneblogger #melbournefood #melbournebreakfast #brunch #foodblogger #yum #melbourne #travel #foodphoto #foodie #melbournefoodie
Sure, it's a tough place to navigate, and there are some pretty heavy restrictions on what you can do, and it IS pretty expensive to get there from Australia—but it's a magical place, and one of the most unspoilt, unique and authentic places in the world. The real Havana is all about sitting on the verandah of your rambling, old casa, smoking Cubans, and drinking a $7 bottle of Havana Club.
Yep, take me back now.
Things You Need To Know Before You Go
If you don't like being frustrated, if you like your mod cons, and if you like everything to be hassle free, Cuba is NOT the place for you. This is a Communist country, and there are random, sometimes nonsensical (to us) rules about things. There are rations—something you have probably never experienced. Most businesses are government run, and you'll have to jump through all the hoops that come with that.
However, I can honestly say, Havana was one of the most amazing, intoxicating, energetic cities I've ever been to. It's hard work—but it's worth it. So, so worth it.
Everyone here speaks Spanish, some speak English—and many don't speak English at all. I got by on my broken Spanglish/Italian... just. I'd recommend a phrase book, or a quick Spanish language class before you go. It'll just make your life SO MUCH EASIER.
We found it really hard to get accom in Havana—especially if you're looking for an option other than one of the big hotels. Our saviour was Cuba Junky—not only did it help us find Casa Particulars, but there is also some great discussion on here about the good and the bad experiences that other tourists have had at specific places. We booked a casa in Old Havana via Facebook, and got our confirmation via a thumbs up emoji—this isn't Hotels.com. Prepare to arrive and be told that your casa is no longer available, and be taken to another option. Basically they're all pretty much the same, so don't stress.
Don't expect anything too fancy—even if you're staying in a hotel—as a lot of the buildings here are run down. Hot water can be patchy, a lot don't have working laundries, and make sure you check that your place has an air conditioner. There will be no wifi, and TV is all government run/in Spanish, so download a shizload of movies on your laptop for entertainment.
If you have realistic expectations, none of this matters in the end: the people are super hospitable, you can watch Havana go by from your verandah or balcony well into the warm night, and your neighbours will come and chat to you, regardless of your language barriers. It's going to be awesome—just remember, all you really need is a bed! Plus, when your casa costs $35 a night, what do you expect?
Also, get directions in English and Spanish from your casa before you leave, because...
No really, there is none. No free wifi, no internet cafes. Basically, this is paper map territory—try finding a Melbourne cafe down a random alleyway without a sign, without Google Maps, and where everyone speaks a different language, and you'll get the picture. Buy the Lonely Planet for the maps and recommendations (remember them?) and if you get desperate, the only computer with internet that we could find was in the Hotel Inglaterra, next to the Capitolio. Be prepared to wait in a long line... kind of like everything here. TripAdvisor tells me there are more, but you'll likely spend a lot of time being frustrated when they turn out not to have it at all.
People SAY there is wifi that you can purchase via pre-paid cards to use in a few scattered hotspots... but every time we went to buy one, they were sold out. Turns out the wifi is rationed here too.
Food and Drink
There are daily rations, and it sucks. Sometimes it's even hard to get water—so buy too much, and buy it early. Better to have too much at home (as you can't really drink the tap water) than to find yourself dehydrated with no options. The rations are real, even for bottles of water.
If you're vegetarian or vegan, you're probably going to struggle—fresh fruit and veg is pretty limited here, even in expensive restaurants. Expect meat-based tapas, paella style rice dishes, slow cooked meat dishes—and, of course, Cuban sandwiches! Do your restaurant and cafe research BEFORE you leave because... no internet or wifi.
Cigars and Alcohol
If you're seeking Cubans, this is the place to be. We bought Montecristos and Cohibas at the reputable (and not too expensive!) cigar shop at The Hotel Conde de Villanueva off Mercaderes Street. A thick Cohiba—enough for two people—was about USD$11, and a packet of 15 Cohiba cigarillos (small cigars) was about USD$16. Be careful about buying cigars on the street or at small businesses, as they could be ripoffs. If you're transiting through the US, the law is still a little murky surrounding Cuban cigars. Technically it's no longer illegal, due to relaxed rules, depending on how many you have—but always declare, and check the updated legalities with the relevant US government websites before you do it.
Havana Club reigns here—so if you don't like mojitos, you're probably in the wrong place. They're occasionally cheaper than water, and not too sweet, stacked with fresh mint. You can buy a bottle of standard Havana Club for about $8, as opposed to $40 at home. If you're transiting through the US, they only allow one bottle per person—but you can declare it and pay minimal tax on extra bottles. When we did this, they just waved us through and didn't bother charging us.
It's a complicated system. Bring US Dollars (and make sure they're not dog eared or ripped, they'll be rejected at the bank), then change them into CUCs, which is the tourist currency. You can only get CUCs in Cuba, and you won't be able to change them after you leave—so use it all before you get on a plane. Do your research before you go, and know the difference (visually) between CUCs and the local currency, as you can get ripped off by being given change in the much-lesser valued local currency.
You'll lose a bucketload on two transfer fees by going from AUD to USD to CUCs, but this is the only way to do it. Most of the ATMs didn't work for us in Cuba, so your only option if you run out of money is to go to the bank, wait in a line for up to two hours (not joking), and attempt to withdraw money over the counter via your card. Bring your passport, and go early before the tour buses arrive.
Things are reasonably cheap in Cuba: we were working off a low-end budget of about $50pp per day on top of our accom—not including tours and shopping.
Tours and Transport
Local taxis are all vintage cars. Yep, it's not a touristy thing, they are all, legitimately, vintage cars! Some have a meter, but mostly you'll just negotiate a set rate at the beginning. From the airport there is a set rate, about USD$30-35.
If you're used to organising things on a whim, you're going to struggle here. The three tour companies that we found are actually all run through the same government agency—and as such, all have the same itineraries, and run on the same days. If, for example, you want to go to Trinidad from Havana, they might tell you it only runs on Tuesdays. If you wanted to go on a weekend, too bad—it only runs on Tuesdays. Ask every tour company you find, they'll say the same thing.
We didn't catch inter-city transport, but we were told not to have a set plan: many busses and trains fill up, and you'll be told to wait until tomorrow. Even if you have a ticket for that particular day. Basically, don't rely on getting back to Havana for a flight—leave a good, solid buffer.
This is the Caribbean, mon! It's warm all year round—the average temperature never drops below 20degC.
Image credits: Bianca O'Neill