Oh, Havana. You captivate and delight me, you mystify and confound me. So familiar yet also new. Like a step back in time, in a dream but in reality. Surreal. The weather-worn structures, the rainbow of cars dotting the streets, the warmth of your people, and the music!
My husband and I decided to skip the hotels and booked an Air BnB. A house on the Malecon, Cuba’s main thoroughfare and seawall that stretches for 5 miles along the coast. Quite a walk from Old Havana but it was fairly easy to hail a coco taxi (a motorcycle with a round, yellow cab that can hold two passengers) and we were glad to have the sea to watch from our living room balcony. I did enough research to know that basic supplies are hard to get in this city due to the absence of convenience stores around. So I made a point of bringing a simple gift for our hosts that they were so grateful for. In turn, we were treated with special care all throughout our stay. What soap and a little thoughtfulness can do!
In this modern age of convenience, it is easy to forget that it wasn’t so long ago that we weren’t always connected to the web. But get ready to do just that in Havana. Forget credit cards, cash is king in this dual currency society. The CUC which tourists use and CUP that locals use for public transport and state and privately owned establishments. Although the wait is long, it is actually easiest to exchange money at the airport right when you land. This will save you time in the long run looking for a bank or currency exchange in the city. From the airport, you can grab a taxi to take you to your hotel or Air BnB. Make sure you have these addresses on hand as there is no access to the web whether at the airport or when you’re out and about. Occasionally, you will see a makeshift stand with a group of people standing around. This is where you can buy a card to get access to the internet. With one caveat, you have to be in the vicinity to use it. Same with internet access at hotels, you have to be within hotel grounds to get on the web.
From the grand, old cathedrals to the museums and public spaces like Plaza dela Revolucion, Havana is filled with so much history to see and experience. We basically walked everywhere and toured on our own but it is easy enough to hire a driver to take you on a private tour on a classic top down. Just go to any hotel or tourist spot and you’ll find these friendly gentlemen waiting to take you places. Just make sure they speak English, unless you want a silent tour.
There are countless unforgettable moments we experienced in this disarmingly captivating city but these are the highlights that stood out for me. Watching the legendary Buena Vista Club perform at Hotel Nacional, salsa dancing and viewing art at museum/club/restaurant Fabrica de Arte Cubano, walking in the rain touring the grounds of Ernest Hemingway’s house, Finca Vigia. And with that, drinking a signature mojito at his favorite bar, El Floridita, lining up under the hot sun with the locals at Cuba’s ice cream institution, Coppelia, witnessing the sense of community through music and dance at Callejon de Hamel, having the best Ropa Vieja at Paladar Los Amigos – thanks to Anthony Bourdain, and subsequently having the most romantic dinner at the beloved Los Nardos.
When and if you find yourself in Havana, welcome the unexpected. Feel that rush on your senses and emotions. Like the first stirrings in a passionate love affair, Havana is that fervent and perplexing lover, it’s impossible to appreciate it’s complexities and nuances without fully opening your mind and heart. Dive deep with eyes closed and savor every image, taste, and beat of the music.
For general information on acquiring visas and tourist cards, contact the Cuban embassy http://misiones.minrex.gob.cu/en