Rome of the Caribbean, Paris of the Antilles
One last flight and trip for the year 2017, the beginning of a longer holiday until mid January. A year full of surprises and great travelling experiences which will be hard to beat to such an extent as this one. 91 planes, 21 countries, 7 of which never been before, and 92 cities. If this sounds mad and crazy, let me tell you in the year 2016 that was 99 flights; my all time record, yet the combination of kilometres in the air were 144577. 2017 topped anything I’ve ever done before with 186422. Yes, I keep a record of every single flight I’ve done in my life with all its details:, airport names, flight number, booking reference, aircraft model, airline, date, time of departure and arrival, miles, kilometres and even the cost for each flight. If I would only manage to calculate the hours in the air that would come to a shock I am sure.
Anyway, statistics apart, now it’s time for what really matters: the capital city of Cuba, Havana, or La Habana as it is known across the non-English speaking world. For so many years one of the most desired trips ever, but always been so in generally “prohibitive” in prices during the time of the year we wanted to go, December/January hence the reason why we usually went instead during this period of the year to Central America. Nevertheless, even though we managed to grab a nice flight deal with Iberia, the hotel situation was a very different story. In Cuba, you will end up in one of the most expensive places considering the already lower than average standards, quality and service you will receive.
With Havana being the starting point for a big trip discovering the entire country west to east, you won’t want to leave. This city is somewhat unique, like the country itself, a real time capsule, for the good and for the bad, where even some of the bad things you will experience are memorable part of the trip, many turned into beauty. The 4th largest metropolitan area in the Caribbean (or the West Indies as it’s also referred this region too), is also the city with the most number of historic sights, splendid colonial architecture and some of the nicest and warmest people with the most relaxed and most peaceful life. No rush for anything. Beware and learn about this, just simply merge with the locals and chill-out; everything takes its time, probably way too long; however as a tourist you should take advantage from this and enjoy the peaceful snail-speed life. Welcome back in time to the 1950’s.
A bit of history notes, although Wikipedia has everything and more: the city was founded by the Spanish in 1515 in an ideal location by a natural bay, soon becoming the most important port of call to further explore and conquer the Americas. With King Philip II granting Havana the title of City in 1592, it developed ever since benefiting from the galleon trade and routes to/from Spain to the Americas. Every ship coming from anywhere in the Americas would first call in Havana to then change their loads onto the ships heading back to Spain. No wonder why the Spanish Crown designated the city as “key to the New World and rampart of the West Indies”.
The rich thriving port led to the construction of great and elegant buildings, some of the finest across the Empire in a combination of Iberian and Canarian influenced styles. From this period are most of the Baroque masterpieces all over the city, so charming after the centuries with that colonial flair. By the 18th century it was the 3rd most populous city in the Americas, just behind Lima and Mexico City but ahead of Boston and even New York City. For a very short period of time it was captured by the British in 1762 during the Seven Year’s War, however the Peace of Paris treaty meant the Spanish giving Florida to the British in exchange for returning Havana to Spain and ending the war. Right after these events the city became the most fortified across the Americas and continued to thrive until the 19th century. The neoclassical style arrived with large mansions, a sophisticated style among its inhabitants and good level of life, theatres, refined cafes and restaurants. The 5th country in the world to have a railroad (in 1837) and ironically, the 1st among the Spanish speaking ahead of Spain itself. The colony ended in 1898 when the United States took Cuba, until 1902 the first president of the Republic of Cuba was elected and as such, a new independent nation although in the hands of USA.
Over the 20th century the city kept rising and refining itself with a frenetic construction of mansions and luxurious buildings to accommodate the wealthy upper-classes. It is from this era that the luxurious grand hotels were also built, some of which in the art-deco and eclectic styles and casinos to cater the many bourgeois tourists coming from the United States. Quite an exotic destination where during the 1950’s there was more revenue than in Las Vegas! Then how all this wealth came to an end and such a depression where the country it is still as of now struggling for its much deserved and awaiting recovery? The 1959 Revolution with Fidel Castro taking power and imposing a strict Communism backed by the Soviet Union. Expropriation of all private property and industry turned into a steep decline reaching poverty levels. Then with the Soviet Union collapsed, all the money sent to Cuba abruptly stopped however Communism in Cuba continued after 1990, and it is only just few years since Cuba is slowly opening to the rest of the world in tourism, except for the USA.
For the good or for the bad, the city is still retaining almost in full its old town fabric, although very extended at over 75% of it sadly crumbling down. Slow yet lots of efforts are taken constantly notoriously since it was designate and UNESCO World Heritage Site to safeguard the structures, or at least, their facades. Thanks to such works, the most impressive buildings are once again restored to their former glory. Visiting the city is a matter of some days. You cannot come to Havana and expecting to see everything in say, 2 days. There is no chance you can do this to be honest, therefore consider in your plans at least 3 full days, or 4 if you want to include a trip on the Hershey railway.
Finding good places to have a drink or food is very easy, however do expect long queues of tourists wanting to get into these world famous locations (some of these farther expanded and explained below in the section on what to see and do), but quickly listing here: El Floridita (birthplace of Daiquiri), La Bodeguita del Medio (birthplace of mojito), Castillo de Farnes (elegant art-noveau environment), Bar La Dichosa, Bar Lluvia de Oro and Cafe Paris, Cafe Santo Domingo (all of which along the famous Calle Obispo, retaining the bygone flair of the 1900’s). Anywhere withing the Havana Vieja you have everything just at the turn of every corner. From the very old bars and cafes, to modern upscale locations; and more modest yet great places for the Cuban people. At these, you pay half price for the same quality of drink for example. After all, Havana Club rum is the same anywhere right?. But for sure if I could recommend you a place that will be La Vitrola, in Plaza Vieja. Forget the massive queue for El Floridita to have a daiquiri, here you get one that to my taste is even better! And so is the food. We kept coming here to try something different every time. And then of course, at the completely opposite spectrum, the take-away Cuban pizza places. Delicious like no other pizza you’ve had, and guess the price? between 0.25 to 0.50 CUC per individual pizza. They like to fold it and eat it like a baguette.
Havana is a great base to visit other cities and sites not far, as mentioned before the trip on the Hershey railway is a back in time experience. It’s final stop is Matanzas, and Hershey in between; but you also have to the west of the country the UNESCO World Heritage listed Viñales Valley, famous for its limestone mountains rising up to 300 meters and the great tobacco plantations. Overall an easy city to explore full or surprises at every turn, full of sights as rarely any other city to compare. For more information about Havana check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites.
Visa requirement to Cuba, currency and WiFi information
Unless you are a citizen of the United States of America for which you will need to deal with a visa permit in different way (check with your embassy), any other citizen will need to get beforehand, a tourist card. This is done either at the Cuban embassy or consul in your relevant country, or in just few clicks over the internet. The website I used when applying within the UK is the Cuba Visas. Check there and follow the straight forward steps, and if not form the UK, make a Google search from your country and certainly you will reach your designated official agent.
The currency in Cuba is something you need to know beforehand. There are 2, the Cuban Peso (CUP) which is what the locals use, and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) which is what foreigners and locals use. The equivalence works as 1 CUC equals to 25 CUP. Roughly as an idea, 1 CUC equals to £0.76, EUR 0.86 (variable as the £ and EURO go up or down), however it does always convert exact to 1$USD. When changing money in Cuba, please do so with any currency except US Dollars. There is a 10% extra penalty for exchanging these. The best and most popular currencies to change are Euro, Canadian Dollars and British Pounds. There are change offices at the international airport, after arrivals, already outside in the street where the taxis are, and in the city, you will find at banks and Casa de Cambio (Cadeca). All of these offer the same exchange rate in the date, but changing at hotels might incur in extra commission. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
As last, internet access. It’s extremely limited, and it works the same way in the entire of Cuba. No matter if you’re staying at a grand 5* hotel or a hostel, it’s never open and free. Instead, you will have to buy scratch cards. These are sold in 1h or 5h time, and cost 1 CUC per hour from the official vendors (ETECSA). Don’t be fooled in paying 1.50 or 2 CUC for 1h card from unofficial vendors and people around trying to sell you. Basically the downside is the queue to buy the cards, you will easily know it’s a selling point as you see the people standing waiting. Simply arrive and ask “ultimo?” (meaning who’s last) and queue. ETECSA is the Cuban telecommunications company, but you can also buy these at your hotel’s reception generally for the same 1 CUC price. If it’s more try to hold until you find the right place. Then accessing points are all over the cities, generally at the central square, parks and important intersections. Once again, easy to spot, you will suddenly see a lot of people with smart devices. Click on the WiFi network ETECSA and enter your log in details as per the scratch card and connect. To disconnect just turn off the WiFi. Unfortunately it will keep running after you turn off for around 5 more mins.
What to see and do in Havana
In an orderly manner, from west to east towards the historic core and harbour, the city is formed of 4 clearly marked districts, where at the northernmost area it is the sea and the famous Malecon promenade. Starting from the west:
- Miramar District Where the art-deco movement was the most influenced in the constructions, with large mansions and palaces through one of the most exclusive residential areas in Havana.
-Quinta Avenida Also known as Avenida de las Americas is the main artery in the district and where majority of the nicest buildings as mansions, theatres, cinemas and embassies are.
-Russian Embassy Worth to mention separately here. An impressive Soviet / brutalist style construction.
- Vedado District The most exclusive in Havana, built from 1859 to accommodate the ever growing bourgeois and wealthy merchants in mansions and palaces. Thankfully even after the Revolution, it has remained almost intact however the buildings taking other usages than solely residential being converted to embassies and governmental. Along the west side the district meets the sea by the Malecon promenade.
-Avenida Paseo Connecting Plaza de la Revolucion with the Malecon and the sea crossing the entire Vedado district. One of the most elegant and widest boulevards.
-Plaza de la Revolucion West of the city, right in the middle linking El Vedado with Havana Centro (west of Old Havana). Famous for the statue and monument of Jose Marti and the iconic image of Che Guevara on the facade of the Ministry of the Interior building. The main central bus terminal is located behind the Ministry building.
-University of Havana Continuing north from Plaza de la Revolucion along Avenida de la Independencia you reach the area. Many faculty buildings compose it however the most beautiful and monumental image is from the northernmost by Julio Antonio Mella Square (west end of Calle San Lazaro).
-Hotel Tryp Habana Libre Was one of the largest when built in 1958 for the American chain Hilton, yet after the Revolution was nationalised and known as the Habana Libre until the Spanish chain Sol Melia was allowed to take ownership. There are great views from the top floors of entire the entire city.
-Hotel Nacional One of the greatest art-deco landmarks, built in 1930’s at the time of the rise in wealthy tourism looking for great quality. Located in the ideal location overlooking the sea at the Malecon. Today it remains as the top hotel in the country.
-USS Maine Victims Monument Right by the Malecon meters from the Hotel Nacional, was raised in memory of the 1898 explosion of the ship marking the official intervention of the US in Cuba, and the end of the Spanish colony.
-Lopez Serrano Building Another of the art-deco icons, a small scale resemblance of the Empire State in NYC. Located not far west from the Hotel Nacional almost across the USA Embassy. Take Avenida La Linea from the Malecon to Calle L with corner Calle 13.
- Centro Habana District West of the historic core, is home to the greatest entertainment, retail, restaurants and hotels in the city, and the most populous too. While most of its architecture is still crumbling down around here, it is slowly taking over with restoration.
-Central Railway Station The southernmost point in the district, dividing between Centro Havana and Havana Vieja. Built in 1912 is the iconic landmark in eclectic style, whose American architect based the designs to include Spanish plateresque motifs.
-Avenida Salvador Allende and Simon Bolivar The main artery crossing west to east, from Plaza de la Revolucion to near the Capitol, crossing the Chinatown.
-Avenida Italia One of the most beautiful streets heading north towards the Malecon and the sea.
-Barrio Chino After the prohibition of African slavery, the Spanish brought Chinese national via Manila starting in 1847, slowly becoming the largest Chinatown in Latin America. Nowadays although smaller than in origin, still retain the old flair.
-Cuchillo de Zanja The pedestrian street cutting through the district, nicely decorated with Chinese lamps, shops and restaurants. Calle Dragones limits the neighbourhood by the south and Avenida Italia at the east.
-Aguila y Dragones Building Next to the Chinese gate at the easternmost part of Chinatown, known as El Curita Park. Built in 1927 as the Telephone Company ETECSA.
-Fraternity Park/Capitolio Across the Chinese Gate opens to the iconic landmark place of Havana where some of the greatest 20th century buildings are.
-Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagás One of the oldest cigar factories in Cuba producing some of the best quality known “habano cigars”. Located right across the Capitol.
-Ceiba Tree In the middle of the park, under which the first mass for the city’s founding was officiated in 1519.
-Aldama Palace Along the west side of the park. Built in 1844 for a wealthy Habanero, is considered the most important neoclassical residential building not just in Havana, but in the entire country typifying the design of many houses of the period.
-The Capitol Completed in 1929 in a mix of neoclassical and art-nouveau styles to serve as the Cuban Congress in a design comparable to the United States Capitol, however, not a model of it. Seat of the government during the Revolution is once again Cuba’s National Assembly and home to the world’s third largest indoor statue, the Estatua de la República. One of the unmissable landmarks and icons in the city, worth inside and out. Inside by the main hall there is the Kilometre Zero of Cuba marked in the floor.
-Hotel Saratoga Along the eastern side of the square across the Fuente de la India, facing Paseo Marti (El Prado). One of the top hotels in the country, beautifully restored to its former glory and luxury.
-Provincial Tribunal and buildings Aligning the east side across the Capitol, along Paseo Marti (El Prado) very beautiful colourful structure of many styles.
-Payret Cinema Just across Calle Teniente Rey after Provincial Tribunal, one of the oldest and most beautiful in Havana.
-Gran Teatro de la Habana In Paseo Marti (El Prado) facing the Capitol and Parque Central, was built during the last years of the Spanish colony at a time when the city was living one of the most sophisticated levels of high class, originally named Teatro Tacon it was one of the most luxurious ever built in the world back then. Enlarged in 1915 in a beautiful modernist building completely surrounding the theatre to serve as the Galician Centre.
-Between El Prado and Avenida de las Misiones Just north of the Capitol towards the sea and the Malecon, within these 2 parallel streets and the ones in between are plenty of historical buildings, museums and sights everywhere among some of the finest and greatest hotels in Cuba. It’s the boundary dividing both Centro Havana (west) and Havana Vieja (east).
-Parque Central Nice square immediately north of the Capitol, with every building around it worth to see.
-Hotel Inglaterra Next building after the Gran Teatro in Parque Central.
-Hotel Telegrafo Along the same side of the square where the Inglaterra is. The first ever luxury hotel built in Cuba.
-Beaux-Arts Museum The best in the country and most complete for Cuban art, housed in 2 beautiful palaces, here, the Palacio del Centro Asturiano. Across the Gran Teatro on the east side of the square.
-Gran Hotel Kempinski After the Beaux-Arts Museum, in the building that was the first shopping centre in Cuba.
-Bar Castillo de Farnes Behind the Beaux-Arts Museum, beautiful old traditional bar worth to have a great rum among the bygone atmosphere.
-Bar El Floridita Also behind the Beaux-Arts Museum, this historic bar and restaurant is the birthplace of the famous cocktail daiquiri, invented by the Catalan immigrant Constantino Ribalaigua Vert in 1930’s, who took ownership of the restaurant in 1918. This was the favourite bar of Hemingway when he lived in Havana.
-Iberostars Parque Central Another of the great hotels in this square, facing the entire north side.
-Hotel Plaza Just across the road from the Iberostars, originally the former headquarters of the newspaper Diario de la Marina until 1909 that was turned into a luxurious hotel.
-Bacardi Building Behind the Hotel Plaza. Built by the family whose original founder, Facundo Bacardí Massó from Sitges, moved to Cuba and made one of the most renown and most awarded rums in the world still as of today, yet not anymore in Cuba. It’s considered as the finest art-deco building in Latin America, located in Avenida de las Misiones.
-Fire Station Museum Behind the Hotel Plaza, very cute building and nice museum with old trucks among its collection.
-Beaux-Arts Museum The second of the museum buildings, here, in the Palacio de Bellas Artes, continuing north along any of the streets. Quite a new construction with implementations of the former construction that once stood.
-Mercure Hotel Sevilla Very large complex of buildings nicely restored where among them one captures the attention, the neo-moorish. Facing Paseo del Prado.
-Palacio de los Matrimonios Built in 1914 as the former Spanish Casino. In Paseo del Prado opposite the Mercure.
-Casa del Cientifico Not far along El Prado after Palacio Matrimonios. The former house of José Miguel Gómez, second president of the Cuban Republic.
-National School of Ballet Noteworthy building across Casa del Cientifico.
-Museum of the Revolution Built in 1920 in the eclectic style as the Presidential Palace of all Cuban presidents from Mario García Menocal to Fulgencio Batista, before the Revolution. One of the exhibitions is the Granma Memorial, the original yacht that sailed from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 by the fighters of the Cuban Revolution for the purpose of overthrowing the regime of Fulgencio Batista.
-13 March Square The northernmost terminus of these avenues at this square and roundabout, by the Malecon and the harbour entrance.
-Embassy of Spain In the north corner of the 13 March Square, one of the most luxurious buildings, definitely in the area.
-Castillo San Salvador de la Punta Designed to protect the entrance to the Havana Bay, together with Castillo del Morro right across. From here you will get great views of the Malecon, the bay and the other castles around.
- Habana Vieja The Old Town Listed an UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its enormous architecture, arts and history legacy.
-Parque Cespedes and Luz Caballero These 2 parks one after the other along the Malecon with views over the bay at one side and the line of nice architecture at the other.
-Police Headquarters Housed in a small fort overlooking Parque Cespedes.
-San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary Aligning the side of Parque Luz Caballero. Built in 1774 in Baroque style by the Jesuit was one of the most important buildings during the colony for education of prestigious Cuban intellectuals.
-Plaza de la Catedral One of the main 5 squares in Old Havana, just behind the Seminary, with grand colonial mansions surrounding the sides. The main commercial street Calle Empedrado links the Malecon with Parque Central to the west aligning the north side of the square.
-Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada Quite a rare example of asymmetrical Baroque architecture, easily recognizable in the towers. Built between 1748 and 1777 mainly from blocks of coral cut from the Gulf of Mexico’s ocean floor.
-Palace of the Condesa de la Reunion West of the Cathedral, one of the finest Spanish colonial examples of Baroque architecture.
-Bar Bodeguite del Medio Not in the square but meters from it in Calle Empedrado, is world famous for being the birthplace of mojito cocktail since 1942.
-Palace of Marquis de Aguas Claras From the 18th century, nowadays the restaurant El Patio.
-Colonial Art Museum Aligning the southern side, opposite the Cathedral.
-Palaces of Marquis de Arcos and Conde Lombillo From the 18th century aligning the eastern side of the square.
-Plaza de Armas Is the true heart of the old town, and center of administration and military activity since the Spanish colonial times. Completely surrounded by some of the most impressive buildings in the city, most of which in Baroque style.
-Castillo de la Real Fuerza Aligning the entire north side of the square, right by the southern end of Luz Caballeros Park that runs parallel to El Malecon by the sea. It is the oldest bastioned fortress in the New World, nowadays the Maritime Museum. Among its features is the weather vane known as La Giraldilla on top of one of the towers, however the current is a reproduction, the original inside the museum.
-Palacio del Segundo Cabo Built in 1776 as the residence of the Liutenant Governor of Cuba, nowadays home to the Cuban Book Institute.
-Palace of the General Captains Built during the colonial times in 1792 in baroque style was the residence of the Cuban Colonial Governors until 1898 when Cuba gained independence. The building is one of the most expensive to be built with good quality materials brought from Malaga (bricks), iron (Bilbao) and marble (Genoa).
-Hotel Santa Isabel Opposite the Palace of the Captains, another of the top up-scale properties.
-El Templete Marks the spot where the city was founded in 1599. A Greek style temple.
-Calle Obispo Pedestrian street heading from Plaza de Armas to Parque Central. Many historical buildings along it, most of them restored and beautifully painted.
-Calle Oficios Starts at Plaza de Armas. I suggest you take this first in your tour before any other.
-Saint Francis of Assisi Square Following south along Calle Oficios you reach this charming square with imposing architecture all around.
-Lonja del Comercio Another of the classical style buildings, one of the most prominent built in the 20th century in Cuba, was until 1959 the Stock Exchange until the Revolution, nowadays offices and the Embassy of Brazil.
-Palaces Aligning the western side of the square, some turned into hotels.
-Terminal Sierra Maestra Acting as cruise terminal, shops and offices, was the Customs, built in 1814. Aligns the entire east side of the square and farther beyond.
-Minor Basilica of Assisi Built at the end of the 16th century home of the Franciscan community.
-Coche Mambi Continuing along Calle Oficios south of Assisi Square, you reach this railway carriage, built in 1900 by the US to transport the presidents when visiting Cuba back in the time. Nowadays a museum retaining the interiors intact.
-Rum Museum Facing the Terminal Sierra Maestra by the southern section, contains a great collection of memorabilia and information about the famous drink of Cuba.
-Our Lady of Kazan Orthodox Church Also facing the Terminal Sierra Maestra. Quite a rare sight in Cuba after all.
-Parque Aracelo Iglesias The end point of Calle Oficios by the harbour, surrounded with nice buildings and the Hotel Armadores de Santander.
-Avenida del Puerto Along the perimeter of the harbour. Not much to see around here as opposed as is the beautiful Malecon, but there’s still a sight in this southern section of Habana Vieja, the San Francisco de Paula Church. Easy to sport, in fine baroque style.
-Calle San Ignacio From the previous Church of San Francisco, take this street all the way up (it’s parallel to Calle Oficios). It leads directly into Plaza Vieja.
-Plaza Vieja Very charming square built during the colonial times as an alternative to Plaza de Armas. Along the 4 sides are original colonial structures covering from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Since every building is a sight on their own, former residences of Counts and wealthy people, I won’t list them separately.
-Calle Mercaderes Parallel to Calle Oficios, from the east corner of the square you can take it leading back up towards Plaza de Armas again so you’ve completed the most important sights in order.
-Casa Simon Bolivar Although he did not live here, this is a museum dedicated to his live. Housed in a neoclassical palace built in the early 19th century.
- Habana Este/Casablanca Across the Bay opposite Parque Cespedes and Luz Caballero (Malecon). There’s not much anymore in this area bearing 2 of the most important fortifications in the New World (which you can anyway see from the Malecon). For very little money you take the ferry from the pier at the south corner of the Terminal Sierra Maestra to Casablanca across the bay (near the train station).
-Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña (Fort of Saint Charles) Or just as La Cabaña. Built in the 18th century is the third largest fortress complex ever built in the Americas. Located at the eastern side of the harbour entrance. Every night at 21.00pm the cannon is fired, a tradition since colonial times meaning the closure of the city’s gates in the walls. This is known as “El Cañonazo de las 9”.
-Castillo del Morro Located right by the entrance of Havana Bay perched on the promontory on the opposite side from Old Havana, not far from La Cabaña, was built between 1589 and 1630.
-Casablanca Train Station For the Hershey railway. If you have the time, taking this vintage train to Matanzas and Hershey is a great day out.
- Vintage car tour No trip to Havana is completed without taking a tour in one of these fabulous cabriolet 1950’s car. These are an unique sight on their own everywhere in the city, like the other cars which do mostly serve as taxis for the locals. The best cared and restored cars are now of course a high tourist demand. negotiate the price, because they will show you an information of the tour they do and the cost at between 50 and 60 CUC for 1 hour. We managed ours at 30. As a tip, the later in the afternoon you take it the more chances to get a great discount.
Jose Marti International Airport is the largest and most important gateway into the country, connecting Havana to the rest of the world. The second largest airport is at the opposite side of the island in Santiago de Cuba, while smaller but still, international airports can be found in Cayo Coco, Cienfuegos, Camaguey or Varadero, the later being a possible alternative to Havana as it’s just 2.5 hours away by bus. Jose Marti is merely 15 kilometres southwest of the historic centre, yet the time needed to cover the distance might lead to think is way farther. Beware there are 3 terminals, and none of these are interconnected at all, it’s like being at complete different airports with long distance between them.
From the airport you have no other option than taking a taxi. This costs between 25 and CUC. Make sure you do negotiate the fare before entering to avoid being scammed or ripped-off. For the three times we took a taxi from/to the airport it was 25. Now the fun part could be if you have a connecting flight, say for example coming from anywhere in Cuba into Havana (domestic terminal 3), and then having to change for an international flight (terminal 1). It will take you “forever” the whole process and please do never let your tour schedule for flying domestic then international on the very same day.
Cubana de Aviacion is Cuba’s national carrier, and through the years of existence, it’s bad reputation comes for solid reasons. Your chances for departing on-time are almost non existent, especially at airports with the worst fame as Santiago de Cuba and Holguin. Their planes have some of the smallest space between seat and legs in the entire aviation industry, not to mention their machines are almost entirely composed of Russian made Tupolev and Antonov. While the Antonov are quite new, it’s not the case for the Tupolevs… And then the terribly long wait for the luggage to come out in any airport.
Within the city there is a reliable and pretty good network of buses called Metrobus. 17 lines in total, covering most of the city and especially all over the tourist areas hence being a quite convenient way to move around the city inexpensively (it’s possible to pay in Convertibles, we were giving 0.25 per person although it’s around 0.20 to be precise). The downside of the network? very infrequent. You will have to wait long times, and then if lucky it will stop if not super packed. Otherwise, don’t hesitate in taking a state taxi. Easy to grab, nice cars in average and reasonable prices but make sure you ask beforehand the total cost to your destination. And as last, the cheapest option, the colectivos (shared-taxis). It costs peanuts! Either 10 or 20 Cuban Pesos (that’s in Convertibles 0.50 or 1) depending on the distance you take it for, and have the added plus fun of riding some 1950’s American Chevrolet and similar. There is a rule on the shared taxis though, they follow on a one way route always, so depending where you want to go, you will have to wait for these at one or other street, and then depending the destination you want to reach, you will have to ask few of these cars passing as they stop along the way picking the people. Believe me when I say that even it appears to be complicated at the beginning, once you take 2 or more you know the deal! And it’s great fun. Remember these few names for the shared taxi: almendron, maquina, colectivo.
In any case, although a large city with lots to see in different areas, it is good enough to walk through majority of these, if not all; also being the best way without hesitation to enjoy such beautiful architecture, character and charm of the day-to-day people’s life.
The hotel choice is huge for Havana, however it is unfortunate that any good proper 4* or 5* property with nice facilities will set your costs dramatically high. Also a bit more complicated is which website to search for your hotel, since most of the American search engines do not have Cuba on offer (yeah the embargo…). So while I would normally recommend you to check some of our preferred sites such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers; in Cuba it does not really work too good. Most of these sites will not display any results in Cuba. Try the respective European sites instead if needed be; check one of the most reputable tour operators such as TUI offering one of the greatest selection of properties in the city; loveholidays which offers very complete information about Cuba and finder for flights, hotels and packages in Havana; or perhaps a search engine as Trivago and continue from the results there.
From our experience, a good site I was taken with the best deals including a complimentary transfer from the airport to the hotel is Gala Hotels. We never used it before, but it turned out to be our salvation for the main bases we had in Cuba: Havana, Varadero and Santiago de Cuba; plus they offer you a 3% cashback of your total booking cost to use on future bookings. Not bad to be honest, this way we got our last night in Havana for free using all of the cashback we got from the previous nights. With regards to the airport transfer please note this is only applicable if you are landing into Cuba from abroad, it’s not applicable when doing internal flights, and you need to contact their relevant customer services email for booking it. It’s all straightforward explained in their website anyway.
Our base for the first 5 days and then a last one at the end of the trip was the Cubanacan Comodoro Hotel, in Avenida 3ra y Calle 84, in the upscale district of Miramar to the west of the city and right by the beach. Many of the large resorts and hotels are located in the radius of 2 blocks from here. Supposedly a 4* hotel in every website, it is in reality a 3* and do not expect much. But we knew this is the case even for the superb hotels. Standards in Cuba are totally different to what we are used to, and their service is rather poor, not just here but everywhere. You will notice this from the poor reviews even at the top 5* hotels. Shocking yes, but that’s what it is. All in all to be honest, I cannot say this is a bad place, it had everything we needed and more. A huge place, with lots of pools, a small beach and nicely landscaped. Note there are few kinds of buildings and rooms, therefore the bungalow style ones (as the one we got) are really nice, recently revamped and repainted and looks very nice and neat. Other buildings and rooms are the opposite, with broken staff, no flushing toilets, no hot water… we heard too much from people staying over there changing rooms often hence we know. Every staff member was simply great and friendly, and we enjoyed talking to them, and them with us. The breakfast was quite large in choice, forget what some comments over the internet say, it is all different now. Really, there’s everything there, and a cook to make fresh omelettes or eggs as you desire. Therefore because of our pretty good experience, we booked the last night in the trip here again.
Although this hotel is far from the old town, right at the door there is the hop-on hop-off bus (15 CUC for the whole day), the Metrobus P1 all the way into the major sights neat the Capitol and Malecon, and shared taxis on the route to Old Havana. So not a problem to get anywhere.