Beginner’s Guide to Havana, Cuba

Havana Cuba

On what might be the coldest day in Toronto this year (minus 19 WTF?!?), I can’t help but reminisce about warmer days in Havana. Last year was my first (and definitely not my last) time in Cuba. As I think about my experience as a newbie to the country, I’ve compiled the following list of Dos and Don’ts for beginners in Havana.

Take a Classic Car Ride: This is an absolute must. No matter where you are in Havana, you’re surrounded by these antique vehicles that double as taxis. Have your pick at a hard top or convertible, but just make sure you agree on a price beforehand. (And yes, you can negotiate).

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Carry Tissues and Hand Sanitizer: Keep in mind that Cuba is a pretty poor country so toilet paper and hand soap isn’t necessarily readily available. Many washrooms will have an attendant so be sure to have some spare change to give to them. If you’re a germaphobe, I suggest coming up with ways to handle the grime of the city because it would be a huge shame for you to miss out on such a beautiful city.

Always check your change: Cuba has two currencies. The Cuban Pesos are used only by locals and cannot be converted back to CAD or USD. The Cuban Convertable Peso is what you will have your cash exchanged into at home before your trip and has a higher value than the local currency. Because of the difference in currencies, it’s strongly encouraged to check your change with vendors who may confuse the two (intentionally or unintentionally). While this didn’t happen to us, I did overhear a mother/daughter duo talk about it because it had happened to them earlier in the day.

Stay in a Casa: casa is basically a homestay. Staying in a Casa allows you the opportunity to see how the locals live. We found our casa on AirBNB and they were great! While the owner and operator didn’t speak much English, her son acted as our translator. He managed most of the communication before our trip and greeted us upon our arrival. Complete with our own en-suite washroom, it was more economical than a big chain hotel and it included breakfast! Cuba is extremely safe so there’s really no concern major concerns about not staying on a resort (just be mindful about what you’re carrying and your surroundings, especially at night).

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Don’t be afraid: Step outside of your comfort zone and the tourist areas. B wanted to seek out a boxing gym in a run-down part of the city that produces some of the best boxers. Even though I had been advised to avoid that part of the city, it was the middle of the day so I joined him. As we walked past the tourist-friendly area into this “off-limits” district, people went about their day and barely took any notice of us (even though we stood out like a sore thumb). While on our journey, a young couple happened to be walking along side us and used the chance to practice their English. At first my guard was up but quickly came to my senses and knew there was no harm.

Don’t get your hopes up on anything on a menu: Quite possibly one of the biggest lessons I learned on my first trip to Cuba. Because the majority of ingredients (meat included) is of short supply, it’s common to find out that your first choice isn’t available that day, or that they’ve already run out. Be sure to select at least 3 things on the menu that you would like to eat and go from there.

As I look out my window and see the 8 centimeters of snow on my balcony, I can’t help but miss Cuba just a little bit more. If you’ve been, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what are your Dos and Don’ts when visiting Cuba! I can’t wait to go back…

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