The Cuba Travel Blog - Part 1: Essential Things to Know
Contributed by @ImAdeAkins
Havana, Cuba is on a lot of people’s bucket list and if not, I hope to change that by the end of this mini series. In November of 2016, I was able to tick this colourful city off my bucket list. Randomly, my trip coincided with the death of Fidel Castro which added a unique and memorable element to my experience.
There’s so much that I could shout about Havana and Cuba but to make it as easy to follow as possible, I have split this travel guide into 2 parts. Part 1, (this post) looks at essential things to know ahead of booking your trip. In part 2, I share my tips on making the most of Havana when you actually get there as well as a closer look at accommodation.
They often say to know where you’re going, you need to know where you’ve been and this is true in the case of Cuba.
My #Adzvice - In order to truly appreciate the country and the events that shaped it, l advise you to read up on Cuba’s history ahead of your trip.
Havana’s weather is great pretty much all year round with consistently warm temperatures and a tropical climate. Factor this in when deciding what to pack.
Havana has always been a popular destination, especially for Americans due to its close location. Although there are ‘strict’ regulations on permitting US Citizens access into Cuba, expect to see loads of them (and tourists from across the world) pretty much everywhere – expect queues.
Knowing how to speak at least conversational Spanish is a must, or travelling with someone fluent in it if you want to maximise your chances of really enjoying the city (and avoiding being mugged off).
Improve your Spanish with DuoLingo
Download DuoLingo and practice before you go. My bro and fellow Adzvice contributor Yemi, learned a good level of Spanish this way- enough to be able to navigate Colombia and Cuba confidently (and make friends along the way, naturally).
Latin American Spanish
Latin American Spanish differs to the European version you may be more familiar with so you'll notice subtle differences. Cubans speak fast and 'swallow' their syllables so you may find yourself asking them to repeat things (if the embarrassment of not understanding them doesn’t give you an anxiety attack).
Neighbourhoods in Havana
There are 15 municipalities (boroughs) in Havana but I only properly visited La Habana Vieja, Centro Habana and Vedado.
La Habana Vieja (Old Havana)
Old Havana is steeped in colonial history and is the heart of the city. A popular choice for many tourists and where I also chose to stay. There’s loads of restaurants and bars but some parts are quite dirty and rife with prostitutes and drugs. My area in particular was notoriously shady, something I was unaware of until arriving.
This part of town connects Old Havana with Vedado and covers the length of the Malecon river. Expect a lot of rundown buildings (that can also be applied to Old Havana) and many Casas available to rent. I spent the second partof my trip in this area, a lot more ‘local’ than Old Havana and quieter too.
This middle-upper and upper class residential area features Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square) as well as the José Martí Memorial.
My #Adzvice: Be close to the action, especially if travelling alone
I always try to be in walking distance to the main city whenever I travel on a major city which is why I opted for Old Havana. Centro Habana is also a great choice for being close to the sights around the City. I’ll tell you more about accommodation in part 2.
Cuba operates with 2 currencies: the Cuban Peso and the Cuban Convertible Peso known as 'CUC' but pronounced 'cook'. To my fright, 1 CUC was equal to 1 USD and thanks to those dirty ‘Leave’ voters, practically the same value as 1 GBP. I was expecting a cheap holiday that never materialised so that’s something to bear in mind.
However, if you’re able to get your hand of Cuban Pesos, you can buy from eateries and shops for the locals and benefit from massive savings. With this being said, CUC is the currency you should be using and trying to pay for services with Pesos at most places designated for tourists will cause great offence.
Cuba is a communist country and the only one in the Caribbean. Nationals are given a basic ration, equivalent to $15 a month. As a result, it is common for many Cubans to trade services with each other and often run multiple side hustles to bring in additional cash. The below conversation between a self-appointed tour guide, musician and ex-GB resident, Rene demonstrates this nicely:
Rene: "Brother, you see that woman in the pharmacy?"
Me: "You mean the doctor?"
Rene: "She's a doctor and a whore. Everyone has a hustle."
Cuban people are friendly, especially when you make an effort to speak Spanish. However, deciphering between genuine friendliness and an attempt to get something from you can be a challenge because everyone has a hustle. Due to the amount of poverty in Cuba, the hustle mentality is understandable and shouldn’t be regarded as malicious.
My #Adzvice is when in Cuba, act like a Cuban. Haggle where possible and do your best to get stuck in but keep your wits about you and never forget you’re a long way from home.
Making friends with a local you can trust is a major key. Avoid tourist traps, see the real Havana and pretty much get a hold of anything you may want for a small daily fee.
Some more #Adzvice - have a formal payment agreeing so everyone knows where they stand instead of believing they’re showing you around out of kindness. They will say this initially when approaching you but don’t be fooled, everyone has a hustle and I found this out from experience.
Travelling to Havana is one of the rare occasions where I didn’t stand out on holiday as there’s a large amount of black and mulatto (mixed race) people. As a black man, donning a Cuban straw hat and getting a good grasp of the language will certainly help you blend in.
Avoid talking about Castro and politics altogether if you can help it, in fact make it a priority to do so. Opinion on him differs depending on race, class and age. To some, he is their saviour whilst some have less pleasant things to say.
My #Adzvice - To keep it safe, keep your opinions to yourself and be very objective when locals express their views to you. Don’t get lost in the Cuban sauce!
As I mentioned in the introductory post, my trip coincided with the death of Fidel Castro (unplanned of course). I discovered that when the leader of the country dies, there's a day of mourning for each decade they were alive which in this case was 9 days. This meant no music, no alcohol and basically no fun for half of my stay which threw a major spanner in my plans to turn up in Havana.
Cuba is the safest Caribbean country due to it being state-controlled and the government dishing out lengthy sentences for crimes against tourists. I read about a teenager being handed a 7 year sentence for stealing a tourist’s camera.
Despite this, many people are ready to risk it all if the potential gains warrant it .
My #Adzvice is so be very vigilant and leave any unnecessary luxuries at home. A friend of mine was robbed of £500 in a matter of minutes after he went back to our apartment with a Cuban girl from the club who helped herself to his wallet whilst he was in the toilet. The game is the game.
Prostitution – the oldest profession in the world
There’s quite a lot of prostitutes in Havana so you’ll see many girls on corners in the night time and along the Malecon.
That's enough of an introduction I think
Now you’ve had your introduction to Cuba, you’re ready to cross Cuba off your bucket list once and for all. Stay tuned for part 2 of my Cuba mini series where I share tips on accommodation, getting around, food and more.
I hope you find my adzvice helpful and of course feel free to comment any thoughts, questions or feedback.