As a graduation present I was able to go to Cuba, finally. Let me tell you right now that it was definitely a worthwhile trip!
Make sure if you're flying in from Mexico to get to Havana that you have plenty of time between flights because you never know how long Mexican customs will take! We missed our flight to Havana so we were forced to spend the night in Mexico to make the next day's flight. Cubana Airlines is pretty bad but it's the only option. (Warning, confirm all flight reservations within Cuba or to Cuba the day before!!!!)
Don't be afraid of the cold, dark airport when you arrive in Havana. They sure don't do much to welcome tourists there but once you walk through the baggage claim doors into the modern airport you're relieved to see that they're not as behind as you had thought. (*Note: the long line near the baggage belts are for Cubans or Cuban-born people only).
Taxi drivers only accept CUC (Cuban currency) & euros (a standard rate is charged, the equivalent of $20). Try to get these euros before your trip so you won't have to wait in the long line at the airport.
I enjoyed our stay in a hotel called CASA VICKY in the Vedado neighborhood. Vedado is generally safe & one of the more modern areas of the city with beautiful buildings everywhere. We were lucky and were able to have a whole house to ourselves...living & dining rooms, bedroom, bathroom & a kitchen. The man who takes care of the guests was pretty cool, too. Just $25/night.
Our special ingredient for fun in Havana was our tour guide JESUS. You must get this guy to give you a tour (write me for his & Casa Vicky's information)...he charges $20 a day but it's worth it because he speaks english and is a historian so he knows what he's talking about. He was also a diplomat who speaks Russian fluently and has been to Russia a lot (however, not since they became a democracy)...he's an interesting guy.
Jineteros are people who try to become your best friends and force you to go to a restaurant or hotel they know about. You might meet some who take you to a great little place but it's best to stay away from these people. You never know their true intentions or how much they're cheating you so ignore them. It was hard for me to do this because I felt rude but you know where that landed me? Stuck eating lunch in a bomb shelter in the middle of an apartment! The food was great, a massive serving of which I only ate half of, but it was a little too scary I must say!
AMERICANS, YOU CAN'T USE YOUR CREDIT CARDS OR ATMs here so you must take all of your money that you will be spending with you!
If you haven't already been told, Cuba has 2 currencies...one for the Cuban people and one for tourists. Yup, Fidel knows how to use his toursists. When you change your dollars into CUC (Cuban Convertible currency, also called convertible or even divisa) they keep 20%! Yes, 20%! But that's the best deal you'll get so hand it over. You can change some of your CUC into the national Cuban peso that the locals use if you wish (for the few items that can be paid with them) but be aware that not all (a small percentage) will let you use it. They might tell you that you can only use CUC but they just want more money from you because it's not illegal for tourists to use the national Cuban peso.
With Jesus as your tour guide you'll hardly spend money on taxis. Maybe to get yourself to the main area of sites and then home later will be the only taxi fares you'll pay for all day! That's a good thing because taxi rides become expensive quickly. Each ride is between $4-$8!
As long as you see Centro Havana and Havana Vieja you're good. You'll see everything from the capital building, all sorts of museums for you to choose from, Havana's Chinatown, el malecon (their seawall), numerous plazas, etc. I enjoyed el Mueso de la Revolucion and it took us at least 2 1/2 hours to see everything in it. At the end of the tour, walk along the malecon for a while and enjoy the beautiful view before you take a taxi home.
VIA AZUL BUSES:
These buses are for tourists only (they discriminate like that...these buses are the nicest they have). Make sure to reserve any trips you want to go on at least 2 DAYS IN ADVANCE!!!! Any less and they'll write your name on a waiting list and there's nothing worse than the anxiety you'll endure the next day of not knowing if you'll be traveling! If you can't make it onto a bus, haggle with nearby taxi drivers who are offering to drive you to other cities. You'll get there and probably much faster than on the buses, you'll just have to pay more!
I don't want to offend Cuban food but the food we ate wasn't too great. The Cuban food I've found in the U.S. is much better. Nevertheless, you'll usually find that every meal comes with arroz montado (white rice mixed with black beans so the whole thing looks brown), salad and the beverage is usually a soft drink. Don't let people push you into ordering lobster. They know they can charge a lot more for it so they love to talk up their lobster dishes. We weren't too adventurous about eating in Havana...we were too busy touring but I sadly must admit that my favorite was the heavily air-conditioned, American-esque cafe LA RAMPA next to the Trypp Hotel on "Calle L". They surprisingly had good, cheap food though.
This is hard to finally get in Cuba, of course! They usually have internet access in nice, big hotels. When we finally got to a computer in Havana we had to go to 2 hotels and then buy a card that had 30 minutes of internet usage on it. Be patient about this because a lot of times they say that they run out of cards.
Man, I took more pictures here than anywhere else before! There's a kodak moment everywhere you look, seriously. Don't be camera shy or too embarrassed to whip out that camera. You'll be so glad you did when you get home and scrapbook that trip!
GET FROMMER'S CUBA BOOK! It was pure gold throughout our trip.
A lot of people in Cuba aren't the best at customer service. Many times you will be treated very poorly. For example, a waitress will look at you like she has no idea what you want when you're sitting at a table in a restaurant, looking at the menu, trying to order! Just breath in and out and try to not let it get to you. They're not going to change and once you get to know them they are actually nice...they're just forever pissed to be stuck with their government and making such little money every month so think about it from their point of view.
Cuba is generally a safe place for tourists. I felt more safe there than in any other Latin American country I've been to before. I think the fact that the Cuban government severely punishes those who disturb tourists is the one and only reason!
GIRLS, Cuban men love to gawk and yell at you haha. Just ignore them and keep on walking. A lot of times they try to guess where you're from. If you are American, try to pretend like you're European because once people know that you're American they want to interview you! Since not many Americans travel there, Americans are hounded more. I'm latin so I just lied and nodded my head when they'd guess I was Italian, Spanish or Mexican!
MAKE SURE TO GO TO CUBA WITH A SPANISH SPEAKER. Anything and everything will go wrong or be delayed in Cuba, ok? At the end of your trip you'll be wishing you could stay longer but while you're there, fighting your battles along the way, you'll think to yourself how much of a pain it is. They might run out of toilet paper, water, candy, ice cream, tell you that you can't get on a bus or plane, be rude, etc...all in all though, it's a must-see for adventurous people who want to see Cuba, especially before Fidel is gone. I recommend it to anyone who can handle disturbances and who want to see Cuba for themselves, not to mention get to know its people and what they have to say...which is a lot and very refreshing! I shall return one day soon.