Destination guide: Havana, Cuba

Havana is the capital of Cuba, an island located between the Atlantic and the Caribbean, near the shores of Mexico and the United States. This tourist destination was declared a World Heritage Site due to the fact that it has preserved, among other things, its beautiful architecture and a culture rich in traditions.

Traveling through Havana, you can visit the Main Square, the National Capital building, the Cigar Museum, the Embankment, the National Aquarium and an endless number of places where you can try exquisite Cuban cuisine.

  • Havana - Practical Information

    Orientation

    Surrounded by Havana province, the City of Havana  is divided into 15 municipalities.
    Habana Vieja, sometimes referred to as the Old Town, sits on the western side of the harbor in an area once bounded by 17th-century city walls that ran along present Av de Bélgica and Av de las Misiones. In 1863 these walls were demolished and the city spilled west into Centro Habana, bisected by busy San Rafael (the dividing line between the two is still fuzzy). West of Calzada de Infante lies Vedado, the 20th-century hotel and entertainment district that developed after independence in 1902. Near Plaza de la Revolución and between Vedado and Nuevo Vedado, a huge government complex was erected in the 1950s. West of the Río Almendares are Miramar, Marianao and Playa, Havana’s most fashionable residential suburbs prior to the 1959 Revolution.

    Between 1955 and 1958, a 733m-long tunnel was drilled between Habana Vieja and Habana del Este under the harbor mouth, and since 1959 a flurry of ugly high-rise housing blocks have been thrown up in Habana del Este, Cojímar (a former fishing village) and Alamar, northeast of the harbor. South of Habana del Este’s endless blocks of flats are the prettier colonial towns of Guanabacoa, San Francisco de Paula and Santa María del Rosario. On the eastern side of the harbor are Regla and Casablanca.

    Totally off the beaten track for most tourists are Havana’s working-class areas south of Centro Habana, including Cerro, Diez de Octubre and San Miguel del Padrón. Further south still is industrial Boyeros, with the golf course, zoo and international airport, and Arroyo Naranjo with Parque Lenin.

    Visitors spend the bulk of their time in Habana Vieja, Centro Habana and Vedado. Important streets here include: Obispo, a pedestrian mall cutting through the center of Habana Vieja; Paseo de Martí (aka Paseo del Prado or just ‘Prado’), an elegant 19th-century promenade in Centro Habana; Av de Italia (aka Galiano), Centro Habana’s main shopping street for Cubans; Malecón (aka Av de Maceo), Havana’s broad coastal boulevard; and Calle 23 (aka La Rampa), the heart of Vedado’s commercial district.

    Confusingly, many main avenues around Havana have two names in everyday use – a new name that appears on street signs, and an old name overwhelmingly preferred by locals.

    Currency

    Cuban Peso

    Language

    Spanish

    Timezone

    UTC/GMT -5

    Budget & Costs

    For seasoned budget travelers Cuba can be a bit of a financial shock. There’s no network of dirt-cheap backpacker hostels here and not a lot of bargaining potential. In fact, compared with, say, Guatemala or Peru, you could feel yourself staring at a veritable financial conundrum with little or no room to maneuver. Furthermore, there is a tendency in Cuba to herd all foreign visitors around in one state-controlled tourist sector. Follow this well-trodden path of organized excursions and prepackaged cultural ‘experiences’ at your peril. The costs will soon add up.

    With a little guile and a certain amount of resilience, however, it needn’t all be overpriced hotel rooms and wallet-whacking credit-card bills. Underneath the surface (and contrary to what a lot of tour reps will tell you), Cuba has a whole guidebook’s worth of cheaper alternatives. On the accommodation front, the vibrant casa particular scene can cut costs by more than half, while do-it-yourself grocery purchasing and an ability to muck in with the resourceful locals on trucks, buses, trains and bicycles can give you access to a whole new world of interesting food and transport opportunities.

    For those more interested in service and comfort, prices are equally variable, from CUC$50 per person at Varadero’s cheapest all-inclusive to CUC$200 per person at a swanky Playa Esmeralda resort. If you’re interested in getting away to the beach, prearranged air and hotel packages from Canada and Europe can be absurdly affordable (less than US$500 for a week in Varadero from Toronto) and seasoned Cuba travelers often take these deals because it works out cheaper than just the airfare alone. Most resorts and hotels offer big discounts for children under 12 years of age; it’s worth asking about. Children also travel half-price on Víazul buses, and many museums and attractions offer a 50% discount for kids. See the

    As with most islands, Cuba struggles with food supply and prices reflect this – especially if you crave something imported such as canned corn or nuts. Paladares and casas particulares usually offer good value, with monstrous meal portions (no rationing here), including a pork chop, rice and beans, salad and french fries, costing around CUC$8. Add a couple of beers, dessert and a tip and you’re looking at CUC$12 (or more). Drinking is considerably more affordable than eating, with a strong mojito costing CUC$2 (in a non-Hemingway-esque bar) and a fresh juice or beer CUC$1.

    For tourists to Cuba there are many transport options and as many prices to go with them. From Havana to Santiago de Cuba, for example (a trip of 861km), you will pay around CUC$114 to fly one-way with Cubana, from CUC$50 to CUC$62 to take the train and approximately CUC$52 to do the journey on a Víazul bus. Rental cars are expensive – bank on CUC$70 a day for a small Fiat to CUC$220 a day for a convertible Audi.

    There is, of course, the double economy, whereby Convertibles and Cuban pesos circulate simultaneously. In theory, tourists are only supposed to use Convertibles, but in practice, there is nothing to stop you walking into a Cadeca (change booth) and swapping your Convertibles into moneda nacional (Cuban pesos). With an exchange rate of 24 pesos per Convertible, there are fantastic saving opportunities with pesos if you’re willing to sacrifice a little (or a lot!) in quality, service and/or comfort. For example, a pizza in a fast-food joint costs CUC$1, but street pizzas cost seven pesos (less than CUC$0.25). Pesos are also useful for urban transport and some cultural activities (such as movies), but almost everything else is sold to foreigners only in Convertibles: the symphony or theater, interprovincial transport and taxis are but a few examples where Cubans will pay in pesos, but you won’t.

    Before you become indignant about the marked price differential, remember that the double economy cuts both ways: while Cubans may sometimes pay less for the same services as foreigners, they also have to stand in line, frequent ration shops and stay in the kind of fly-blown substandard hotels that most foreigners wouldn’t poke a stick at. Furthermore, Cubans (who earn between 200 and 400 pesos – or CUC$8 and CUC$15 – a month) have to survive in an entirely different economy from outsiders; a financial minefield where access to valuable Convertibles is a daily crapshoot between tips, personal guile and who you know. Since April 2009 Cuban-Americans traveling legally to Cuba in order to visit relatives have faced no financial restrictions (they were limited to spending US$50 per day under the Bush administration).

    Sample Prices

    1L petrol: CUC$1.15
    1L bottled water: CUC$0.80
    Snack: CUC$1-2
    Souvenir T-shirt: CUC$7-10

    Visas

    Regular tourists who plan to spend up to two months in Cuba do not need visas. Instead, you get a tarjeta de turista (tourist card) valid for 30 days (Canadians get 90 days), which can be extended for another 30 days once you’re in Cuba. Those going ‘air only’ usually buy the tourist card from the travel agency or airline office that sells them the plane ticket (equivalent of US$15 extra). Package tourists receive their card with their other travel documents.

    Unlicensed tourists originating in the US buy their tourist card at the airline desk in the country through which they’re traveling en route to Cuba (equivalent of US$25). You are not allowed to board a plane to Cuba without this card. Once in Havana, tourist-card extensions or replacements cost another CUC$25. You cannot leave Cuba without presenting your tourist card, so don’t lose it. You are not permitted entry to Cuba without an onward ticket. Note that Cubans don’t stamp your passport on either entry or exit; instead they stamp your tourist card.

    The ‘address in Cuba’ line should be filled in. As long as you are staying in a legal casa particular or hotel, you shouldn’t have problems.

    Business travelers and journalists need visas. Applications should be made through a consulate at least three weeks in advance (longer if you apply through a consulate in a country other than your own).

    Visitors with visas or anyone who has stayed in Cuba longer than 90 days must apply for an exit permit from an immigration office. The Cuban consulate in London issues official visas (£32 plus two photos). They take two weeks to process, and the name of an official contact in Cuba is necessary.

    Weights & Measures

    Imperial

    Customs

    Cuban customs regulations are complicated. For the full scoop see www.aduana.co.cu. Travelers are allowed to bring in personal belongings (including photography equipment, binoculars, musical instrument, tape recorder, radio, personal computer, tent, fishing rod, bicycle, canoe and other sporting gear), and gifts up to CUC$50.

    Items that do not fit into the categories mentioned above are subject to a 100% customs duty to a maximum of CUC$1000.
    Items prohibited entry into Cuba include narcotics, explosives, pornography, electrical appliances broadly defined, global positioning systems, prerecorded video cassettes and ‘any item attempting against the security and internal order of the country, ’ including some books. Canned, processed and dried food are no problem, nor are pets.

    Exporting undocumented art and items of cultural patrimony is restricted and involves fees. If you didn’t get an official certificate at point of sale, you’ll need to obtain one from the Registro Nacional de Bienes Culturales (Calle 17 No 1009 btwn Calles 10 & 12, Vedado, Havana; [hrs] 9am-noon Mon-Fri). Bring the objects here for inspection; fill in a form; pay a fee of between CUC$10 and CUC$30, which covers from one to five pieces of artwork; and return 24 hours later to pick up the certificate. You are allowed to export 50 boxed cigars duty-free (or 23 singles), US$5000 (or equivalent) in cash and only CUC$200.

    Business Hour

    Cuban business hours are hardly etched in stone, but offices are generally open from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday. Cubans don’t take a siesta so places normally don’t close at midday. Museums and agropecuarios (vegetable markets) are usually closed Monday.

    Post offices are open from 8am to 6pm Monday to Saturday, with some main post offices keeping later hours. Banks are usually open from 9am to 3pm weekdays, closing at noon on the last working day of each month. Cadeca exchange offices are generally open from 9am to 6pm Monday to Saturday, and from 9am to noon Sunday. Pharmacies are generally open from 8am to 8pm, but those marked turno permanente or pilotos are open 24 hours.

    In retail outlets everything grinds to a halt during the cambio de turno (shift change) and you won’t be able to order a beer or buy cigarettes until they’re done doing inventory (which can take anywhere from 10 minutes to one hour). Shops are usually closed after noon on Sunday.

    Telephone

    Introduction

    The Cuban phone system is still undergoing some upgrading, so beware of phone-number changes. Normally a recorded message will inform you of any recent upgrades. Most of the country’s Etecsa telepuntos have now been completely refurbished, which means there will be a spick-and-span (as well as air- conditioned) phone and internet office in almost every provincial town.

    Cell Phones

    Cuba’s two mobile-phone companies are c.com ([tel] 7-264-2266) and Cubacel (www.cubacel.com). While you may be able to use your own equipment, you have to prebuy their services. Cubacel has more than 15 offices around the country (including the Havana airport) where you can do this. Its plan costs approximately CUC$3 per day and each local call costs from CUC$0.52 to CUC$0.70. Note that you pay for incoming as well as outgoing calls. International rates are CUC$2.70 per minute to the US and CUC$5.85 per minute to Europe.

    Phone Codes

    To call Cuba from abroad, dial your international access code, Cuba’s country code ([tel] 53), the city or area code (minus ‘0’ which is used when dialing domestically between provinces), and the local number. To call internationally from Cuba, dial Cuba’s international access code ([tel] 119), the country code, the area code and the number. To the US, you just dial [tel] 119, then 1, the area code and the number.

    To place a call through an international operator, dial [tel] 09, except to the US, which can be reached with an operator on [tel] 66-12-12. Not all private phones in Havana have international service, in which case you’ll want to call collect (reverse charges or cobro revertido). This service is available only to Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, France, Italy, Mexico, Panama, Spain, UK, US and Venezuela. International operators are available 24 hours and speak English. You cannot call collect from public phones.

    Phone Cards

    Etecsa is where you buy phonecards, send and receive faxes, use the internet and make international calls. Blue public Etecsa phones accepting magnetized or computer-chip cards are everywhere. The cards are sold in Convertibles: CUC$5, CUC$10 and CUC$20, and Cuban pesos: three, five and seven pesos. You can call nationally with either, but you can call internationally only with Convertible cards. If you are mostly going to be making national and local calls, buy a peso card as it’s much more economical.

    The best cards for calls from Havana are called Propia. They come in pesos (five- and 10-peso denominations) and Convertibles (CUC$10 and CUC$25 denominations) and allow you to call from any phone – even ones permitting only emergency calls – using a personal code. The rates are the cheapest as well.

    Phone rates

    Local calls cost five centavos per minute, while interprovincial calls cost from 35 centavos to one peso per minute (note that only the peso coins with the star work in pay phones). Since most coin phones don’t return change, common courtesy asks that you push the ‘R’ button so that the next person in line can make their call with your remaining money.
    International calls made with a card cost from CUC$2 per minute to the US and Canada and CUC$5 to Europe and Oceania. Calls placed through an operator cost slightly more.

    Etecsa Telepuntos Centro Habana (Aguilar No 565; [hrs] 8am-9:30pm) There’s also a Museo de las Telecomunicaciones ([hrs] 9am-6pm Tue-Sat) here if you get bored waiting; Habana Vieja (Habana 406).

    Electricity overview

    European plug with two circular metal pins

    Electricity overview (european)


    Japanese-style plug with two parallel flat blades

    Electricity overview ( Japanese)

    Two parallel flat blades above a large circular grounding pin

    Electricity overview ( Two parallel)