These are my informal notes on visiting Cuba, and pretty much is focused on Havana.
First thing, Cuba reminds me of the overhype with Myanmar at the moment. People are flocking there with such heightened expectations thanks to the overly optimistic and heavily trumpeting media, etc. Cuba definitely has a cool side to it, but enter with tempered expectations. You are visiting a poor but safe Caribbean country with its share of nice sights. You aren’t entering Cloud Cuckoo Land. Yes it is photographic, and yes the people are creative & ingenious, but at the same time, this is a failed economic state with its share of desperation afoot (and under tourist overload). (I also surmise if you throw money at it, you will see a totally different place, for better or worse)
When is the best time to visit Cuba
December through February is the least humid and coolest, so it is nice to walk around but may not be perfect beach weather every day depending on where you are. March and April are great times to visit. Mid-May and June can be rainy and are getting hotter and more humid. July and August are the hottest (and rainy) months. September and October the heat and humidity (and rain) is subsiding. By mid-November, the weather should be nice again. So generally – the best time to visit Cuba is from mid-November to mid-April.
When is the best time to visit Cuba for tobacco?
Tobacco harvest season is typically in January, February and/or March. It is very weather dependent. Some say it is good to go in December. I’d think December and January would be the best to photograph tobacco fields, etc. I would assume later months would be good for the harvest, rolling, etc.
One of the best regions for tobacco is Vuelta Abajo (towns such as San Juan y Martinez (Hoyo de Monterrey plantation), Pinar del Rio (nearby Vizcaino plantation which makes great wrappers), Consolacion del Sur and San Luis (El Corojo Vega plantation)), on the far west of Cuba. Other choices would be the Partido region which is closer to Havana, and the central region of Remedios (and its namesake town, Remedios, which is probably going to be more well known as hype gets going).
When is the best time to visit Cuba for live music?
Anytime would be a good time but you could also lock and load and go to Cuba for the Jazz Festival but don’t expect to be alone. You’d be best starting out in the Vedado neighborhood.
Get A Tourist Card for Cuba
Before visiting Cuba you probably need to get a tourist card before arriving. Tourist cards can typically be obtained in the airport or from the airline for a cost ranging from free to $20USD. If you are traveling from Canada, they are usually given out for free from the airline. If traveling from Mexico, you can typically buy them in the airport.
Where to Stay in Havana
I think a good place to stay is either Central Havana (Havana Centro) or Vedado. The former is a more gritty real feel but in close walking/taxi distance to Vedado and Old Havana. Vedado would be better if you just want more upscale nightlife, music and nicer hotels. I would not recommend staying in Old Havana unless you are the type that likes guided tours, cruise ships and canned tourist places. Is Old Havana “nice” looking? Yes. Safe? Yes. Walkable? Yes. Devoid of the real feel and energy of Cuba? Yes.
How Long to Stay in Havana
I think one full day will give you the good idea. I think two full days is the sweet spot. More than three full days you will want to be there for a specific reason (e.g. music, cigars, etc) and feeding off that energy.
What power plugs do they use in Cuba?
Power plugs are generally the US-type (A,B), although sometimes there are European plugs (which sometimes come in the form of the US/Euro Combo plug). Generally, plan for US-type and you should be fine.
Can you drink the tap water in Havana?
Tap water can vary but generally, while it seems reasonably safe, most travelers utilize bottled water and there are some reports at different time periods (hurricanes, dry season, etc.) when citizens are recommended to use bottled water. I tried to the tap water in Havana and was okay but I wouldn’t recommend it except for those with a hearty stomach. Bottled water is quite expensive (relative) in Havana because it’s a tourist item.
A Tip on What to Pack for Cuba
Bring what you need. With most hot places, it is best to bring your own sunscreen, but in Cuba bringing your own personal items is definitely recommended. This can include toilet paper and soap (depending on where you are staying). Can you find those things in Havana? Yes, but its pretty easy to pack them and not have to waste time looking for them (if they aren’t supplied).
Getting from the airport to Havana
Taxi from the airport to Havana or from Havana to the airport will cost somewhere in the $20 to $40 range each way, depending on the car you want and the direction you are going. You can very easily get airport>Havana for $25 in a normal car and shouldn’t have much issue with $20 if you bargain a little.From Havana>Airport, for a normal car, you can get it for $20-$25. $25 would easily get you a classic (but not well-cared for) car. More than that (up to $40 which is asking price) can get you a well-cared for original classic, and possibly a convertible which you’ll find parked and waiting near the capital, amongst other places.
Money in Cuba
Two currencies in Cuba, the CUC and the CUP. To make very simplified:
The CUC (pronounced “kook”) is basically what tourists typically are using. 1 CUC = 1 USD.
The CUP is what locals get paid in and use. 1 CUP = ~25 USD. This is also called Moneda Nacional.In reality, you, as a visitor, can use both currencies and outside of a couple exceptions, you can convert into CUP if you really wanted to. However, in practice, the CUC will be taken even when CUP is the listed price. Sometimes however you end up with a bad exchange, or the place might not have enough change for you.
When exchanging money in Cuba, you will need to bring your passport. Due to the bad hour of the official money exchangers (casas de cambio), I also exchanged money with a local and it turned out fine.
The easy way to figure whether a price is CUC or CUP is using common sense, although in some instances you might be confused due to some really low prices for things.For instance, if a sandwich at a local restaurant is listed as $25, you know its $25CUP or 1 CUC. If a pizza is listed at $2.50, you know its listed in CUC.
Prices and Ordering Food & Drink in Havana
Beer, mixed drinks, etc. are in the $1-$3 CUC range and on up in Havana. Bottle of wine can be had for $3 at a counter. A tall glass of juice will have a wide range but can be had for 8 CUP on up. Sometimes even cheaper. Many times more.
Often, with the food menus, expect that the restaurant will be out of most of the items. Sometimes it is better to ask what they do have.
You can drink in public in Cuba.
Creative Panhandling in Havana
When locals in Havana start a conversation with you, it most likely is a creative way to get money from you. Sometimes it will be to sell cigars, sometimes to beg for money, but many times it will start as if they are really interested in you and want to know about you. They are very creative is trying to figure out methods to beg without it appearing so. I like this post about the problem with giving in Havana.
Diving, Snorkeling in Cuba
If you have time and are exploring more of Cuba (outside of Havana), and like marine life, check out:
Jardines de la Reina / NYTimes
How to Get Around Cuba
To get around for long distance, tourists generally use either a rental car (expensive, high liability) or the bus. One tourist bus line is called Viazul whereas the locals generally use ASTRO. Seems you can get tickets on Astro (cheaper, slower) if you want them. Another option is to use drivers who either will congregate at the bus station and negotiate or can be booked by your casa, etc.
What gifts should you buy in Havana?
The obvious one is cigars. Many people will try to sell you what could be counterfeit or second-rate (or just less expensive) cigars. Official channels are places like the Partagas Factory which is convenient to Old Havana, Central Havana, etc. Some good tips can be found in this old but mostly accurate article (ignore US restrictions).
I think a good one is coffee. If you are in downtown Havana, check out Cafe Escorial where you can buy whole freshly roasted beans or ground (which takes a long time) which they sell to you in a branded paper bag. It’s in the Plaza Vieja on the southeast corner if I recall correctly. Yes it is pretty much only for tourists (as much of Old Havana) and yes there are cheaper places to buy coffee…
Linens. You will found kitchen dish towels and mats and whatnot if you look hard enough (outside of tourist areas) for very cheap.
Recommended Place to Stay in Havana
I enjoyed my independent apartment/room in Havana which was the Casa Bella, Aguila #158 e/ Animas y Trocadero, Centro Habana. It had a private bathroom, air conditioner, good shower, small refrigerator and hot water. That should run in the $25-$30/night range. My room would have fit 2. I don’t know Spanish so maybe there was more to the place than I was able to understand (i.e. Can you use the kitchen? I don’t know. Is breakfast included? No idea. She did make me a nice pot of coffee every morning). Phone numbers: (+53)78630310, (+53)53348911, (+53)52462265. The host is a sweetheart.