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11 Days in Havana

SmarterTravel

Author: John McBay
Date of Trip: December 2016

HAVANA GEOGRAPHY

Havana is a BIG city with over two million people, 30 miles from east to west and 13 miles north to south. But, most of the interesting stuff is in the area to the west of Havana harbor for 10 miles or so and within a mile or so of the coast.

Havana Vieja. By far, the most interesting part of Havana is Havana Vieja (Old Havana – the historic district). Less than one mile north to south and east to west. Vieja extends from Havana harbor to Paseo de Marti (Prado). This whole area is walkable and contains many of the most historic and interesting sights in Havana. The streets are narrow and much of the architecture is from the 19th century and earlier. If you have limited time in Havana, make sure to explore this part of Havana.

Centro. The district (neighborhood) to the west of Vieja is Centro. There are few reasons to visit Centro except by cab to visit a particular attraction, such as a restaurant or the Partagas cigar factory (worth the trip). See the finest cigars in the world rolled by hand.

Vedado. The district to the west of Centro is Vedado. This area contains many beautiful (and sometimes crumbling) houses and embassies. Portions reminded us of Ardsley Park in Savannah. Cementario Colon is an amazing cemetery. All travel here will have to be by cab.

Miramar. Continuing west, Miramar is notable for The Marina Hemingway, Club Habana (formerly the Biltmore Yacht Club) and Fusterlandia (a small town – Jaimanitas – and art studio covered in mosaic tile by Jose Fuster, a disciple of Gaudi). There are also sections of Miramar that have beautiful houses. All travel here will have to be by cab. These attractions are all about 10 miles west of Vieja.

MONEY

You can’t use American bank issued credit or debit cards in Cuba because of the American trade embargo.

All transactions by tourists in Cuba are in Cuban pesos (CUC$). In this document any references to $ will be referring to CUC$. Ie 10$ = 10 CUC$ = 10 pesos. Cubans will usually refer to the currency amount as pesos.

A Cuban $ is approximately equal to a US dollar, depending on the current conversion rates (December 2016).
You obtain CUC’s by converting some other currency to CUC$ in Cuba. You can not obtain Cuban currency in the US.

If you take American dollars to Cuba and convert them, you lose more than 10% on the transaction. This is a “tax” that the Cuban government imposes on the conversion of US dollars.

You are better off buying Euros in the US and then converting them in Cuba to Cuban currency. In the long run you will save several percent over converting from dollars into CUC$.

Shop around and try to get the most favorable rate. Currency exchange is a crazy business. Exchange rates are all over the place. First try your local bank and see if they can get Euros for you. Triple A (AAA) can also obtain Euros.

To give you an idea of the crazy world of currency conversion; when we returned from Cuba we brought back 610 Euros that I wanted converted back to dollars. I called a popular currency exchange. They would give me $547. I went to a Chase bank and they gave me $595. That’s a 10% difference.

When you arrive in Cuba with Euros, the best place to convert them is at a bank. As of early December 2016, I was able to get about 103 CUC$ for 100 Euros in a bank.

I only used a currency exchange once while we were in Havana and that was at the airport. I only exchanged enough Euros to pay the taxi and have enough left over for dinner. I am not sure how good the exchange rate was.

Hotels will change Euros for you but it will cost you 5+% more than the official exchange rate.

NEVER accept offers to exchange currency on the street.

CELL PHONES and the INTERNET

Make sure to put your phone in airplane mode and keep it there the whole time you are in Cuba. Wifi can be turned on even if in airplane mode.

At one point we realized that one of our phones was no longer in airplane mode. My next phone bill had a charge of $5.41 for Roaming on the Cuban phone system even though we think that airplane mode was turned off for only a few minutes.
We have a friend who traveled to a Central American country and accidentally forgot to turn on airplane mode for his whole trip. His next phone bill was so enormous that to this day, he refuses to divulge the amount.

So good advice, whether traveling to Cuba, or anyplace else outside the USA, make sure you understand the ramifications of allowing your phone to Roam on another country’s phone system. Contact your cell carrier to see what your options are.

So, with the above in mind, your phones can not be used in Cuba to make phone calls or send texts.

If you feel that you need to be able to call someone back home look into installing Skype (or a similar app) on your phone and make sure that your stateside contacts also have it installed.

If you have to text back home, install WhatsApp (or a similar app) on your phone and make sure that your stateside contacts also have it installed.

For both of the above, be sure to thoroughly understand and test them before departing for Cuba.

Your phone can, however, be used to send emails and to browse the internet.

But, there is no such thing as free wifi in Cuba. Wifi access must be purchased and access is exceedingly limited.

Wifi access cards can be purchased in some hotel gift stores or at the front desk of many hotels. They are also available pretty much anywhere where you see an “Etecsa” sign. Etecsa is the Cuban national phone company.

Do not buy them on the street.

During December 2016 I paid between 2$ and 4.5$ for a card allowing 60 minutes of access.

Most good sized hotels in Havana have access. There is also access in some of the public parks. Look around. If you see a bunch of people tapping away, there is probably access to wifi.

Other than the above locations, you will not have wifi access anywhere. The government currently controls any and all internet access.

Unfortunately, wifi access is not widely available even where it exists. For instance, at our hotel in Havana, it was available in the lobby but not in the guest rooms or in the adjacent restaurant.

Once you walk out of the front door of the hotel you are pretty much out of luck. No Google maps to guide you thru the city or Yelp to recommend a restaurant, though you can use Google maps while connected to wifi and store a route that you can follow manually.

Do as much research as you reasonably can before you leave for Cuba.

When you buy a wifi access card, there are two 12 digit numbers at the top. One is visible, one needs to be revealed by scratching off a silver coating, like a lottery card. The first number is the username. The second number is the password.

Logging onto wifi is more difficult with an iPhone than other phones for reasons I don’t understand. Here is how you do it:

Go to Settings and turn on wifi. Also turn on Ask to Join Networks on the same screen.

If you are within wifi range, one or more wifi network names will be displayed in the “Choose a Network” section in the middle of the screen. Most likely there will be only one or at most two to choose from.

Tap on the desired network and in a moment it will move up on the screen and become the active network with a check mark next to its name. At this point, stop and wait for a moment.

If the wifi signal is strong enough, in a few seconds you should see the blue “Etecsa” login page. It looks like this:

If you don’t see the login page after about 10 seconds it usually means that the wifi signal is strong enough to be detected but not strong or reliable enough to logon. Move around the area and see if it makes any difference.

Enter the top number from the card into the first field (Usuario) and enter the bottom number from the card into the second field (Contrasena).

Press the “Acceptar” button and you should be good to go.

A lot of times while online you will get an error code. Just click thru these. They never prevented me from doing anything.

And sometimes, you can’t connect at all no matter what you try. I generally had the most trouble when there were a lot of people accessing wifi at the same time. My experience was that, even when I was able to connect to the router, more often than not, I was not able to log in because the system would not take me to the blue “Etecsa” login page. Remember, you are in Cuba, not the US.

VERY IMPORTANT: you must turn wifi off when you are finished and while still connected. If you don’t, you will lose all of the time on that card. In one of the hotels that we were in, even that was not enough. You had to go to a special webpage and disconnect.

BOTTOM LINE: Do not count on having internet access even where it is available. If you do, you are likely to be disappointed. Also, it seemed to me (and was confirmed by more than one Cubano) that, for some unknown reason, iPhones have much more difficulty logging into the internet than other brands of phone.

TAXIS

There are five types of taxis in Havana:

Yellow cabs. These are usually relatively new Korean or Chinese cars. Many have air conditioning. They are usually in very good condition. Even though they have meters, most trips inside Havana don’t get metered. Our experience was that if we weren’t going too far within Havana, the fare was 10$. If we were going further across Havana it was 15$. From the airport to Havana (about 30 minutes), expect to pay 25$.

American Cruisers mostly from the 1950’s. Most of these vintage cars are registered as taxis. They can take you anywhere a regular yellow cab can for the same fare. The best use of these cars though is to take a more extended tour around Havana. The going rate is 30$/hour. A two or three hour tour allows you to get a pretty good overview of the city of Havana (without making any extended stops along the way). Many of these cars are convertibles. Few, if any, have air conditioning. Interesting fact: many originally had big V8 engines, but because of the US trade embargo, there were (and are) few if any original replacement parts available. As a result, most of them have had the original engine replaced with small diesel engines.

Coco taxis. These are small, gas powered scooters with an enclosure that can seat two or three people. The enclosure looks like a big football helmet. I have no idea how much they charge because we didn’t use them. The guidebooks all say to avoid them because they are dangerous.

Pedicabs. Pedal powered bicycles with a seat for two behind the “driver”. I have no idea how much they charge because we didn’t use them. I would only consider one of these if you are only going a short distance. They are very slow.

Everything else. If you are at your hotel or a restaurant and ask them to call you a taxi, you might get a yellow cab or one of the Cruisers that is licensed as a taxi. Or you may get someone’s brother, uncle, neighbor or anyone else who owns a car. Be careful because they may try to charge you more than the normal fare. Since they aren’t licensed as taxis, they don’t tend to be as careful as the regular taxi drivers. Twice when we used them they didn’t want to take us all the way back to the hotel (down several blocks of narrow streets). They dropped us off four or five blocks away. Also, one of these drivers wanted to charge us 15$ for a trip back to the hotel when the taxi from the hotel only charged 10$. When he asked for 15$, I just said, “No, 10$”. He happily accepted the 10$ price without argument.

Most of the drivers that we encountered were careful, safe and considerate. A few weren’t.

RESTAURANTS

There are many restaurants in Havana, but nowhere near as many as a typical American city.

For all of the best Havana restaurants a reservation is required, sometimes even for lunch.

Most, but not all, of the restaurants that we tried had either separate English menus or had English translations and explanations of the Cuban dishes.

Most hostesses and waiters spoke at least some English.

Most of the restaurants had the same menu and prices for lunch and dinner.

In the best of Havana’s restaurants, we usually spent between 60-70$ for two. That included drinks or wine, appetizers, entree and desert & coffee.

Any drink with rum (mojito, daiquiri) will usually be very inexpensive. Mojitos were usually 3.50$. We never paid more than 5$. Drink the rum drinks. The rum is great and the prices are very reasonable. Wine and other hard alcohol tends to be more expensive.

Here are four of the best restaurants in Havana. You may be able to make reservations via e-mail or by phone from the US. If not, let me know and I will put you in touch with someone who can do it for you in Havana.

Most cab drivers will know the location of the first three restaurants below, but write down the address and bring it with you just in case.

You may be able to arrange for your taxi driver to return to pick you up at a set time.

El Cocinero. Website available – Google it. My favorite. The food was great. They have a rooftop bar with a separate bar menu and indoor and outdoor dining (on a terrace one flight up). Try to get an outside table. In Vedado.

La Guarida. Website available. Havana’s most famous and sought after restaurant. Famous as a movie location. When your cab drops you off, you will think that he is setting you up to be mugged. The restaurant is on the top floor of a spectacularly dilapidated tenement. There are no signs indicating the restaurant above. As you climb the crumbling staircase you may encounter children playing in the hallways or the sound of TV’s through the open windows and doors down the hallways. But, continue on up to a beautiful restaurant with a rooftop bar. Have dinner and then go upstairs for drinks afterward. The best tables are the four balcony tables (two people each) or near a window. You can look across the street and straight into the lives of the poor residents of this part of Havana. In Centro.

Atelier Restaurante. Website available. Very nice restaurant with both indoor and outdoor dining. Menu is “contemporary”. In Vedado.

Otramanera. Website available. Beautiful small restaurant with a fabulous chef. A little out of the way, but worth it. Delicious food. In Miramar.

If you are looking for something light for lunch, your best bet is probably something in Havana Vieja (Old Havana – the historic district), or pretty much any hotel.

For drinks in famous places:

Havana Club rum museum. (Havana Vieja near the cruise ship terminal). Smoky bar with great Cuban musicians. The museum will show you how the best rum in the world (Havana Club) is made (and was made in the past). Their best bottle is aged from 100 to 150 years and costs about 1,800$. We bought three (just kidding).

La Bodeguita del Medio (Havana Vieja near the Plaza de la Catedral) – Havana’s most famous bar. Birthplace of the Mojito. Hemingway’s favorite bar for mojitos. Don’t bother eating lunch here. The wait staff is so jaded by their notoriety that they make you feel they are doing you a favor by serving you. By all means, sit down at the bar and order a mojito.

La Floridita. (Havana Vieja near the Capitol). Birthplace of the daiquiri. Hemingway’s favorite bar for daiquiri’s.

Hotel Nacional de Cuba. (Vedado on the Malecon). Visit Cuba’s most famous hotel and the model for many very famous US hotels (Breakers in Palm Beach, etc.). After checking out the lobby, walk out the rear entrance to a large grassy area with several options for drinks and eats. Walk straight ahead to the edge of the bluff for a great view of the Malecon and the Havana skyline.

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