An island untouched by time
Imagine sitting in a bar drinking a mojito alongside Earnest Hemingway while he jots down notes for his latest novel, The Old Man and the Sea. It’s sultry and the sun slowly drifts over the Catedral Vieja in Havana’s Vadada District. The atmosphere is magical and full of life, almost palpable. The cool crisp mojito plays on your tongue and reminds you why you came to Cuba in the first place.
Havana, intoxicating, magical, and raw. Prepare to be amazed. Havana, ever the city of contrasts, lays itself open for you to explore its splendor, glamor and intensity juxtaposed against a bygone era. The people, food, music and architecture will want you to come back again and again.
The good news is that you can experience Cuba for yourself. It’s even easier now to visit Cuba since the US loosened embargos allowing more travel into Havana.
Classic cars are everywhere
No, it’s not a gimmick for tourists. Time stood still in Cuba in the 1950’s as did the cars. The Cuban people are proud of their heritage and what they have achieved and how their culture has endured. This is obvious by the generous and delightful attitudes you will encounter.
Whether it’s the Havana nights full of intoxicating aromas of spices from local restaurants, and homes, the fragrance of Cuban coffee from the corner cafes, or the music that drifts down an alley way or a local nightclub, or the hospitality shown from the Cuban people, it is impossible not to fall in love with Havana.
TRAVEL TO CUBA
As of right now (2018), you can still travel to Cuba with an expensive, organized tour, or independently for much cheaper by using the “Support For the Cuban People” category.
The exact terms of the “support for the Cuban people” General License category are pretty vague. That's great news for travelers! The non-specific regulations mean that many travel activities qualify so long as you engage with locals. According to this license, you are required to interact with the people so that it strengthens Cuban society. Such activities could include:
Visiting museums and historical sites
Volunteering with local organizations
Eating in locally owned restaurants (yum)
Learning to cook Cuban food (also yum)
Taking dance lessons (get your mamba on)
Touring a tobacco farm and learning how to roll cigars
Your free time must be limited to the number of hours you would normally have outside of a full-time work schedule. But no one is going to go counting hours exactly, so you shouldn't either. The basic guideline: don't spend your entire vacation in Cuba sunning yourself on the beach and drinking Cuba Libres. Yes, you could spend a day or two at the beach, but you also need to learn something and contribute to the local economy. There are restrictions on where you can stay and spend your money. According to the Department of the Treasury, it is prohibited to financially support any entity that supports the government and or any agency associated with the government. Click button below for more information
CRUISE TO CUBA
Many cruise lines are now offering sailings to cuba.
WHERE TO STAY
Many hotels in Havana, and around Cuba, are on the US restricted list. it’s advisable to stay at local Casas Particulares. A “casa particular” is like a homestay, or guesthouse in someone’s home. They sometimes include breakfast and run between $20 – $30 per night for a double room. Staying at these Casas will satisfy your “cultural interactions” regulation under the “general license”. You will also be able to learn about the Cuban culture and possibly learn to cook Cuban food.
a list of restricted Hotels, and Business' can be found on the US Department of State's Website. Click button below.
THINGS TO DO
There are different areas of Havana that are equally beautiful, Havana Vieja is a UNESCO world heritage site, and a treasure trove of architectural gems from baroque to neo-classical to colonial. Preservation of the original city is remarkable and an absolute wonderland for anyone interested.
Old Havana is laid out around a series of four plazas. Gorgeous buildings, arcades and wrought iron gates, welcome you into courtyards. Each plaza is worth a visit and it’s easy to walk from one to the other in a short amount of time.
It will feel like stepping out of a time machine. Vintage cars line the streets, and music is playing from cafes. Stop at a café for a Cuban coffee and let it transport you.
Finca Vigía, or Lookout Farm, IS where Ernest Hemingway made his home from 1939 to 1960, and where he wrote seven books, including The Old Man and the Sea, A Moveable Feast and Islands in the Stream.
Jump into a ’54 Cadillac convertible and cruise down the Malecón, the majestic coastal road, which circles half the city. Nine miles outside the city, you will find a path leading up to the Lookout Farm. Now a museum, feel free to walk around and see how Hemingway lived during his time here.
Once back in Havana, you can find Hemingway again on display at the Ambos Mundos Hotel, a dignified establishment from the 1920s, which caters primarily to upscale foreign visitors. The hotel has designated Room 511, where Hemingway stayed in the 1930s, as a museum. The entrance fee is $2 CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso, on par with the U.S. dollar)—the precise amount Hemingway used to pay for a one-night stay. Framed black-and-white photographs of the man adorn adjacent walls behind a square mahogany tourism desk in the high-ceilinged lobby. At the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, the menu lists a Hemingway Special, an elaborate fish dish with rice and vegetables, for about $15.
From the Ambos Mundos, walk nine blocks to the Floridita bar. once a gathering place for American businessmen and Navy personnel, now famous as the invention of the daiquiri and even more famous as Hemingway’s favorite watering hole. Be sure and sit next to the bronze statue of Hemingway in his favorite booth and snap the photo of a lifetime.
La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) is the historic heart of Cuba’s capital city and the largest colonial center in Latin America. Full of color and personality, it’s a mix of historic buildings, museums, galleries, churches and lively plazas.
Old Havana is where most of the tourists in Havana spend their time. It’s full of interesting architecture and easily walkable, with most of the main attractions concentrated around four plazas. While the main plazas in old Havana have been restored to their former splendor, wander just a few blocks away and you will see the crumbling colonial charm Havana is known for.
Plaza de la Catedral – Plaza de la Catedral is the place many people choose to visit first in Havana. The plaza, along with its crowning glory, the elegant Cathedral de San Cristobal, have become a symbol of La Habana Vieja.
Most of the buildings surrounding the square, including the Cathedral, date back to the 18th century. The blue accents and arched, stained glass windows breath life into the weathered, stone buildings. Going back further to 1592, the plaza was where Havana’s first aqueduct was built.
Just a few steps away from the Catedral de San Cristobal, on Calle Empedrado, is the legendary bar, La Bodeguita de Medio. Perhaps one of the most famous bars in Havana and the birthplace of the Mojito. It’s just around the corner from the cathedral. The walls are inscribed with patron’s signatures including the man himself, Earnest Hemingway.
Check out the Catedral de San Cristobal with its baroque facade is instantly recognizable. Two large asymmetrical bell towers frame the grandiose stone exterior, and are considered one of the most beautiful in the Americas. Climb to the top for unequaled views of the city.
The Palacio de los Marqueses – Built in the 1700’s, this building was once Havana’s main post office. You can still see the original letter box on the exterior wall. Risk putting a postcard in the mouth of the letter box. Or, go inside to buy prints and postcards.
Museo de Arte Colonial – As the name suggests, this building is home to a colonial art museum. The mansion dates to 1720 when it was built by Don Luis Chacon, governor of Cuba. The home is constructed around an elegant courtyard and is one of Havana’s outstanding examples of early Colonial domestic architecture. You may even see the free-roaming peacocks while sitting on the marble veranda.
Plaza Vieja – The old square. Once upon a time, plaza Vieja was known as Plaza Neuva, or New Square. The plaza, laid out in 1559, lost its name and role as the main public gathering place after Plaza de Armas was widened in the 19th century. The plaza has been restored to its original elegant appearance and is surrounded by colorful, historic buildings from four different centuries.
While in the plaza, check out the Casa del Conde Jaruco. The most beautiful home in old Havana, completed in 1737 to become home of the Countess de Merlin, a Cuban novelist.
Plaza de San Francisco is directly across from the port. It appears more commercial in nature than the other plazas since the old customs house and former stock exchange were here. The most important building in the square though is the Basilica Menor de San Fransisco de Asis. Built from 1580-1591, it features a 42-meter-high bell tower and contains the remains of influential Havana citizens.
In the square, you’ll likely find groups of people relaxing on the steps of the Fuente de los Leones.
Plaza de Armes – This square is a favorite for people watching. The center of the square is lush with palm trees and other tropical plants, while the perimeter is lined with elegant Baroque buildings. Visit the Bacardi art deco building for a stunning view. The museums are worth a visit.
WHERE TO EAT
Havana’s food is a taste of its own. Harken back to the spice trade and imagine spice fairy dust sprinkled over whatever you order. Some notable restaurants to visit while in Havana
Dona Eutimia – Off the Plaza de la Catedral is a must in Havana. The food is authentic Cuban. You will taste pure Havana in every bite. Order the croquettes (hollowed out plantains stuffed with fillings). The ropa vieja is a famous shredded beef dish to die for. The spices will stay on your taste buds making you want more.
Café Escorial – Most cafes in Havana have espresso machines where you can order espresso based drinks. The setting is charming and great for breakfast.
Café O’Reilly – I know what you’re thinking, an Irish café in Havana. No mistaking it, this is one of the hotspots for Havana tourists. This is a perfect place to grab a drink or a snack. Grab a seat on the balcony and watch the action below.
La Bodeguita de Medio – One of Havana’s most popular bars. Famous for the creation of the Mojito. The walls are covered with signatures from patrons.
You will find an inscription from Earnest Hemingway-
“My Mojito in la Bogequita”.
Grab a drink or coffee at any one of the grand hotels for a different experience.
Hop in the ’54 Chevy and take a ride through Havana.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
The Cuban people speak their own dialect of Spanish. You should be able to get by with basic Spanish but try to learn some of the local dialect to immerse yourself into the culture.
Buses in Havana run on time and will take you through the city for a very cheap fare. Hotel and airport transportation can be booked prior to travel and is recommended especially in the high season. For excursions, it’s a good idea to share with other travelers going to the same locations.
Credit & debit cards issued by American banks still don’t work in Cuba. So, a trip to the island involves bringing lots of cash. How much? To give you an idea, you can travel there comfortably on $50 – $100 per day.
Bring more than you need to be safe. If you run out, you’re out of luck!
Cuba has two different currencies. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is the “tourist” currency, pegged to the American dollar. The Cuban Peso (CUP) is what locals use, and worth a lot less. So, when you exchange money as a tourist, you’ll receive CUC.
$1 USD = 1 CUC = 24 CUP
You can exchange US dollars for CUC, but there is a special 10% penalty fee for this service. So it’s cheaper to exchange Euros, Canadian Dollars, British Pounds, or Mexican Pesos for CUC instead.
There’s an official currency exchange outside the airport in Havana. You can exchange your leftover CUC back to US dollars (or whatever) before you leave the country.
I know it’s something you don’t think to much about, but if you are staying in a Cases Particulares, it may be a good idea to bring soap. This is something that is not always provided due to shortages in the country.
The CDC recommends bringing these items found on their website. Click button below for full list.
Like any country, Cuba has its own customs. One that will elevate some frustration from tourists is standing in line. Don’t get upset when you are in line and you find that someone is cutting in front of you. The Cuban people call the “El ultimo”, meaning who is last. When you come to a line just ask, “el ultimo”? and you will be told. Now on some occasions this person may be in line, has gone shopping or is taking a siesta in the park across the street, but rest assured everyone knows his/her place and who is next.
Internet service can be tricky in Cuba. You can purchase government issued cards for about 2(CUP) or approximately 2US per hour. Recently, some hotels and public squares may have hotspots but do not count on it and can be spotty at best.
Despite popular opinion, there is some internet access in Cuba. That wasn’t always the case though. For many years Cuba was one of the least connected countries in the world. The government does censor some stuff though, like access to Snapchat or anti-government blogs.
These days you can get connected through Cuba’s state-run ETECSA telecom company. Tourists can buy ETECSA prepaid wifi cards at special kiosks for $2 – $3 per hour of service.
These scratch-off type cards provide a username and password for ETECSA wifi networks, which can be found at major hotels or in public parks around the country.
You can often buy additional cards from locals in the park or at a hotel front desk for about $6. The internet isn’t blazing fast, but you can certainly upload web-sized photos to Facebook & Instagram
Drinking Water in Cuba
Tap water in Cuba is not safe to drink, and bottled water can sometimes be difficult to find depending on where you are. If you plan on traveling to Cuba, I recommend picking up a water bottle with a filter.
Be sure you are up to date on all your vaccinations. The CDC also recommends Typhoid, and Hepatitis B for most travelers. Some travelers may need additional. You can find the CDC's full recommendations by clicking button.
According to the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) no matter which Cuba general license category your trip falls under you will need to have a detailed, daily itinerary to present to customs if asked. You should list everything that you plan to do including which cities you will visit, where you will stay, which cultural activities you will participate in, how much leisure time you will have, etc. This can be time consuming, so I recommend having one of our agents help you out to take the stress out of planning.
A daily itinerary is necessary as travel is not yet permitted solely for tourism from the US. But by engaging in cultural activities with the Cuban people, spending your money in locally owned establishments, and staying off the beaten path of tourists from other countries, you may travel under the loose restrictions of the Cuba general license. The best part: by doing this we truly believe you'll have a more fulfilling and memorable trip than if you'd just zipped over to an all-inclusive beach resort.
If you want to be extra diligent, it could be a good idea to keep a journal of what you do each day during your trip. While we have it on good authority that no one will ask to see such a journal, but it can also make a wonderful travel souvenir. Just don't be bummed when customs officers don’t ask to see it. Better be safe than sorry.
Moonrise Travel can plan all your travel by:
· Complying with all legal requirements. We keep close tabs on the changing regulations for American travelers in Cuba. All Moonrise travel agents comply 100% with the most recent guidelines.
· Recommending the best acommodations. Moonrise travel planners are all intimately familiar with their destinations and have taken the time to find gems that most travelers miss. We know which popular spots to get in line for and which ones to skip.
· Save time. You won’t need to spend hours creating an itinerary. Just tell Moonrise Travel your preferences, book with us, and let us do all the heavy lifting of planning.
· You're still in control. The travel plan you receive from Moonrise Travel is just that: a plan. If you don’t like it, you can request changes. Once you get there, if you want to deviate from the plan a bit, that choice is yours, because you are not on a group tour.