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Because you can't spend all day every day journeying around IgoUgo, editors round up the highlights: members' notable trips, newest reviews, favorite destinations, contests, and more. Have a question or idea? Let us know!

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Capturing Cuba: What to Expect in Havana & Beyond

Capturing Cuba: What to Expect in Havana & Beyond Photo

Photo by shpano

Posted on April 24, 2008 in Trip Ideas

As US travelers continue their Cuba vigil, waiting to see if Raúl Castro’s ascension to the presidency signals the end of Fidel and the US economic embargo, international IgoUgo members—and a few enterprising Americans—share their Havana tips and shed light on why this city is worth the wait.

What to expect

“Havana presents a striking juxtaposition of old-world grandeur, revolutionary conviction, and a curious yet critical take on its northern neighbor.”
From Hidden Havana by alex b

“The city of Havana has an infrastructure for travel that can make one's travel plans quite challenging, or for the adventurous at heart, exciting.”
From Xploring Havana, Cuba by the Xplorer

“Be prepared for a culture shock when coming from an open society to one where freedom of speech is frowned upon. With the locals being so easy to meet, even if 9 out of 10 are trying to sell you something, you will find that they all want to talk about ‘the Man’ (Castro) when they think no one is watching. Most seem to be biding their time till his time is up.”
From Havana – Step Back to the 50s by Kez

“I could have happily spent a few months, rather than a single week, in Havana. The city has an air of stately decay and is full of amazing colonial architecture. The light is very clear and excellent for photography—Havana has to be one of the most photogenic cities I've ever seen.”
From A Week in Cuba by felixissimo

“We were both intrigued and amused by the locals and the fact that if they didn’t have anything else, they had a cigar in hand. As tourists, we were treated like royalty, but even the locals welcomed us and wanted to know if we were enjoying Cuba. Even with their passionate way of communication (usually prone to a flick of a hand or sucking their teeth), there was never any measure of hostility felt when we were among the Cubanos, and surprisingly, it was interesting to hear how highly they regard Chicago. I cannot fail to mention the friendliness of the Cuban women. There were none of the standoffish, ‘tsk-who-does-she-think-she-is’ glares that are common in the States. In fact, they met us with smiles. The mixture of three cultures has created some beautiful things, but the Cuban boys were nothing short of exquisite. In laymen’s terms: eye-candy fest!”
From Cuba, Si! by nik-nak

“La Habana Vieja, the old city of Havana, is the most atmospheric place I've ever been. All your senses are almost continually engaged. From the crumbling but amazing Spanish colonial architecture to the mojitos, Cuba does not fail to hold your attention. However, there is also unbelievable hardship, and any trip to Cuba is bound to be full of contradictions.”
From Cuba for Americans by shpano

“Havana is potentially the greatest place you will ever visit. A word of advice, though: it is NOT for all travelers. If you like to vacation in the lap of luxury, this is not a trip for you. If you like to explore places, cultures, etc., this IS the place for you. You will simultaneously be saddened by the state of disrepair in Cuba and overwhelmed by its beauty and genuine realness.”
From Havana Cuba – Habana Vieja by kjrst9

“It’s impossible to leave Havana without having a lasting memory of the music. It was on every corner, up every alleyway, and in every restaurant and bar. We saw wandering minstrels who seemed to be playing for fun rather than cash, because they made no effort to approach us for money, just gave a broad grin as they ambled their way around town.”
From A Day Out in Havana by MichaelJM

How to prepare

“Above all else, book your accommodation ahead if you possibly can. Accept that many who run casas particulares will offer contacts in other towns. Some may be sound—may be listed in Rough Guide or the like. I advise, use Rough Guide where possible, and if you find a good one they don't know about, tell them.”
From Cuba Through Unaccustomed Eyes by BusIsBest

“A good command of Spanish is extremely important.”
From Cuba: Finalmente, Finally by ext212

“Giving out extra medical supplies is as valuable as giving out money. I found it best to do this discreetly. If you are staying in a hotel, when you check out, leave the supplies on your bed. The staff will much appreciate this, believe me. Or say to someone, ‘I have some extra supplies that I don't want to lug back home in my suitcase. Do you know anyone who could use these?’ This will make your deed seem less condescending.”
From Hidden Havana by alex b

“Make sure you take a flashlight, as blackouts are frequent and there will probably be no emergency lighting. If you find yourself in a dark stairwell, you may never find your room again.”
From Havana – Step Back to the 50s by Kez

“Many of Cuba's museums are a disappointment—poorly captioned exhibits or pointless reams of irrelevant stuff in cabinets. Read up first and only choose a couple, or you'll soon regret it! Also check opening times since some attractions may have a lengthy lunch break.”
From Havana, A Great Time! by fizzytom

“We never had to change our US dollars to Cuban pesos. Cubans refused our pesos and always charged us in dollars, yet they never flinched when they gave us pesos in change.”
From Cuba: Finalmente, Finally by ext212

Where to stay

“Avoid anything that is state-run—the state-run restaurants and hotels are uniformly appalling. Far better are the paladares (private restaurants run from people’s living rooms) and the casas particulares (spare rooms rented out by house owners). They are vastly superior and give an insight into Cuban life.”
From Havana Ball by Mutt

“Hotel Meson de la Flota is amazing. Only one block from Plaza Vieja, about 2 blocks from Plaza San Francisco, and about 3 blocks from Plaza de Armas, the location is great. No cars on the streets in Habana Vieja, the pedestrian-filled streets are great for people-watching and quiet late at night. A mere five guest rooms above a tavern-like restaurant, the staff and bartenders will all know who you are. The rooms are very large with heavy wood furniture, double-high ceilings, and private baths.”
From Havana Cuba – Habana Vieja by kjrst9

“Hotel Sevilla is the best bet to be on top of all the happenings of Havana. It is not quite as imposing as the Nacional, but the staff is a lot friendlier, and the hotel has the great advantage of having a much-needed pool and gardens in the heart of the city. But, as stated, the biggest plus is that the vast majority of happenings are all within walking distance 24 hours a day. There are gym and bank facilities at hand in the hotel, and the patio snack bar offers 24-hour rescue service for those who need to refuel before salsa.”
From Havana Ago-Go by richycross

“When we started planning for our Cuba trip two months prior to our flight, I emailed a few casas in Havana to start off our journey. Señora Aleida was the only one who emailed me back with an interest to help me plan our whole trip. I was sold. I sent her a list of towns I wanted to see and she responded with an itinerary. She sent me a list of other casas particulares in each town and booked them for us. She arranged transportation to and from the airport and reserved bus tickets from Havana to our next destination. Throughout our trip, she would call the other casas to see if we got in okay. With very little, she made killer omelets for breakfast and made us feel like we lived there.”
From Cuba: Finalmente, Finally by ext212

What to do

“Visit the bars where Hemingway drank, like the Bodeguita del Medio and Floridita, in Old Havana. Look for the pictures of Hem in the back dining room of Bodeguita. Floridita charges double for drinks and is more of a tourist trap. The Finca Vigia, where Hemingway lived, still looks very authentic. Here is where Hem wrote and lived with Martha Gellhorn and Mary Hemingway, his third and fourth wives. You'll see his typewriter, desk, and Glenn Miller records, his shoes bent to the shape of his feet.”
From Hemingway in Cuba by Candace

“Everyone will be trying to sell you a box, but go and see just how Cuban cigars are made at the city centre factory. Not only is it fascinating to watch, but the workers are lots of fun and will even let you have a try.”
From Havana, A Great Time! by fizzytom

“The Havana Film Festival takes place for about two weeks in mid-December. The festival features mainly Latin American films, often those you'd never see in the United States. However, there are also European and American films. Directors, actors, and other artists come from all over to attend. In 2002, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Matt Dillon, and the directors of Cidade de Deus and El Crimen del Padre Amaro attended. The festival gives more energy to the city than any other time of year. Also, as the Havana arts scene and Cuban culture lack the pretenses that seem to dominate many artistic gatherings, the atmosphere is relaxed and focused on the films. Last year, Los Van Van, Cuban's premier salsa group, played the party. And you can attend all events in your flip-flops.”
From The Real Habana by Loe

“For day trips, I highly recommend a guided tour as opposed to car rental. One thing you MUST be aware of though: a tour will say they are going to pick you up at a certain time, but that NEVER was accurate for me. I would wait in hotel lobbies for up to an hour, fearing that my plans were being ruined! The tour buses always came, and only my nerves were shot and I had to collect myself. It's part of the Caribbean culture to not fret about time, and they do have potentially a dozen other hotels to stop at along the way and can't be too precise as to when they'll get to you. Don’t let it stress you out too much!”
From Havana Cuba – Habana Vieja by kjrst9

“The Museo de la Revolución must be the country's most comprehensive celebration of the revolution. And would it be a coincidence that the museum is housed in the sumptuous presidential palace of dictator Batista? The revolutionary war was surprisingly well-documented photographically, and there are some fantastic dramatic pictures and interesting quotes.”
From Hola la Habana! by Joel

“Walk the Malecon, a boardwalk that runs all the way through Havana. Start in Old Havana, downtown, and follow the sea to the Hotel Nacional. You'll pass the Revolution Square where organized demonstrations (always supporting the government, of course) are held, and you will experience the major pastime of Cubanos who linger along the sea wall talking, kissing, visiting. When you see the Hotel Nacional, a huge yellow structure on top of the hill, visit for refreshments on the patio bar. You can order food, observe the peacocks strolling on the grounds, or people-watch.”
From Hemingway in Cuba by Candace

“There is an ancient fortress that overlooks the city, El Morro. Every night at precisely 9pm, there is a wonderful cultural celebration worth seeing. A single soldier emerges, dressed in turn-of-the-century costume, bearing a flaming torch. He proceeds through the cobblestone streets, lighting torches along the route that leads to the canon, a high spot that overlooks the entire city. Once completed, an entire troop of soldiers begin their march toward the canon. It is a solemn and mysterious moment. At exactly 9pm, they light the canon, and it fires off one of the loudest booms I’ve ever heard. The crowd cheers, and the sound of the canon lingers in the air. Then, as solemnly as they arrived, the soldiers return to their barracks. The soldiers are real and have accepted this duty as part of their normal military service. The locals claim to set their clocks by the canon that is heard from all over the city.”
From Xploring Havana, Cuba by the Xplorer

How to get around

“You can't help but be pleased by the different modes of transport. It makes for a real clash of culture and gives you a schizoid view of what century/decade you might be enjoying. The scene down the promenade of countless 1950s cars will be etched in my memory. Yes, I know that’s one of the things that all the write-ups say, but it is Cuba, and it really has to be seen to be enjoyed...We found it was best to ask for the Plaza de Armas when hiring a taxi. It’s easily accessible, being just off the main promenade, and is then within easy walking distance of the rest of Old Havana.”
From A Day Out in Havana by MichaelJM

“If you want to ‘live as the Romans do,’ then you will find yourself traveling by bicycle, which is used by locals to cross from one side of Havana to the other.”
From Xploring Havana, Cuba by the Xplorer

“Don't miss taking a ride in one of the old 1950s Chevies that act as taxis in the city. With their bald tires, you literally slide all over the road.”
From Havana – Step Back to the 50s by Kez

“Buses are always very crowded, but it’s good fun to try them. In Havana, look out for camellos—very long buses with curious humps in the middle. They do get extremely crowded, however, so hold onto your valuables.”
From Havana, A Great Time! by fizzytom

“Around Havana, you could just walk or hire a bike, but a horse-drawn carriage is certainly more romantic! At the resorts, scooters and bicycles and Coco taxis are a lot of fun, and the state taxis are very reliable. But to find hidden Cuba, hire a car.”
From Cuba from a Latin Perspective by cheryl morris

"All over Cuba, you will see people at the side of the road thumbing a lift. Even when there is a bus service, it will probably be late, so you may as well see if you can pick up a lift while you’re waiting. Such is the culture of hitchhiking that at busy locations, there is even a hitchhiking marshal to make sure everything goes smoothly. He, or she, is known as an amarillo (or amarilla) because of the distinctive yellow uniform (amarillo is the Spanish word for yellow) and stands holding a clipboard by the side of the road. Sometimes, the amarillo has an elevated seat to see what traffic is coming. You tell the amarillo where you want to go, and he writes it on his list. Then, as he flags down each passing vehicle with spare seats, he asks the driver where he is going and checks his lists to see who should go in this vehicle; it may not necessarily be for the whole journey—it may only be to the next hitching point—but the amarillo knows how best to get people to their destinations.”
From Havana, A Great Time! by fizzytom

"Cubana, the national airline, has a network of local flights to all the major destinations, but the fleet of aging Russian prop-planes are rapidly falling into disrepair, which may account for it having the highest ratio of death per passengers—but it's a cheap white-knuckle ride if you're up to it.”
From Havana Ball by Mutt

If these impressions have left you feeling inspired—and optimistic—spend some time gathering more tips for visiting Havana and other destinations in Cuba.

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