You guys. YOU GUYS. Havana is classic, romantic, and iconic.
It is also the latest spontaneous destination of our winter escape. Frankly, I was sure that we were going to spend NYE somewhere 5 feet under the snow in Canada. I suggested that we go to Yukon. Yes, I find it very easy to go to the extreme on a simple idea. I mean, if I were to spend a pile of my hard-earned dollars to freeze my butt enjoyably, might as well do it in style under the aurora borealis, while being driven around on a sled pulled by a dozen fluffy Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes. Amirite?
So, I went on the internet to make my research, but thanks to my ADD, I ended up looking at pics of sled dogs. Obviously.
I mean, how can I ever let 12 of these living plush toys drag my heavy bum around?? I can never do that! Plus, I don’t have 7K to sponsor my Yukon dream winter escape. I decided to go somewhere in the south to get my pandebonos tanned instead, and before my ADD complex kicked in and took me to irrelevant internet pages, I managed to book two tickets to Cuba, the most famous South destination where the Cadillacs are pink, rum is free-flowing, and the air smells like unfiltered diesel.
There are a lot of places to visit in Cuba, but you definitely can’t say you went to Cuba if you didn’t visit Havana. Obviously, when someone hears the name Havana, they automatically think about a dandy Afro-Latino mid-age guy with cigar playing saxophone in the colorful streets of Havana. Okay, they means me. You guys might only imagine the colorful street minus the mid-age guy’s saxophone jazz gig, but I like to add details and characters in my imagination.
Since we didn’t get the chance to make a research about the Havana, we discovered the city on our own (and without any research but a Havana Pocket Book from Lonely Planet), and this is what we learned about the myths and facts of this colorful retro city:
Havana is safe - fact
Most of Cubans (especially outside the old city) mind their own business. There are police in every junction and the Cubans show a lot of respect to their police officers. Every night we went out for dinner through dark roads and there wasn’t a single incident where I felt unsafe. Still, we were always careful wherever we go. Well, there were some guys tried to offer their unsolicited guide service, but they went away as soon as we said No, Thanx, firmly.
Politics is a no-go topic - FAT FACT
Politics, race, and religion are a no-go topics to discuss with strangers ANYWHERE AROUND THE WORLD. That's one of the global unspoken rules. Anyway, if you are traveling and all you want to do is talking politics, something gotta be so wrong with you. Go drink another Mojito or something.
Cuban money is confusing - fact
Cuba operates on dual currency system. CUC for foreigners and CUP for the locals. 1 CUC equals 25 CUP. Cheeky vendors will try screw you up by giving the change they owe you in CUP and hope you won’t notice. Here is the trick to quickly identify CUC from CUP; CUC always has MONUMENT on their bills, while CUP has PERSONAGE/FACE on their bills. Did we get screwed? Of course we did. We are that amateur.
Cash, cash, cash, bring all the cash you have, I tell you that. Theoretically, you should be able to withdraw money using your credit or debit card at any money changer but since internet sucks, the system doesn’t always work. And when it does, you have to provide your passport and make sure that the name on your card and on your passport are exactly the same. For example, if your card has an initial of your middle name while your card doesn’t, it will be refused.
Apparently, in big hotels you can find a money changer nestled in their lobby. You can even change your currency at the receptionist. And since banks and currency exchange are controlled strictly by the government, the exchange rates are the same everywhere whether you exchange your money at the bank or at a money changer.
Havana is expensive - fact
I must say Cuba isn't a cheap south destination compare to other countries in the region. Imported stuff is crazy expensive, but it balanced out on local products like seafood. Fresh seafood is cheap and I am not even talking about fish here. Seafood and fish are two different food categories to me. Seafood means lobsters, octopus, calamari, crabs, etc, while fish is fish. For seafood lovers, Cuba is heaven. In some restaurants, they even offer you an unlimited serving of seafood for 15 USD (20 CAD).
Like in any other countries in the world, resorts and other international level tourism services are expensive. Havana is one of the main destination in Cuba so it's no wonder that the city has a higher pricetag compare to the other cities in Cuba. However, there are ways to keep everything inside your budget plan by keeping away from resorts, trying to enjoy the country the way the locals do it, and go to small restaurants that are not listed anywhere in a travel book guide and you'll be fine. If you really need an agent to help you out with your sojourn in Cuba, use a local sourced one. You can find a bunch of reference on Tripadvisor. It is really that simple.
Internet sucks - fact
Internet is expensive and it can only be accessed at designated wifi zones. You can get a wifi card for 1 USD per hour. I didn’t use the internet much because of it and surprisingly I didn’t die like I thought I would. Oxygen and wifi are the two intangible things I thought I couldn’t live without. Well I could live without wifi but I won’t feel alive, you know what I mean.
Commuting in Havana is costly - fact
Wanting to get a taxi with a meter on in Havana is like wanting a discounted Canada Goose jacket; it does not happen. You have to negotiate before getting in the taxi. No habla espagnol? No problemo. Every taxi drivers read fingers.
Those cabriolet vintage cars? They are taxis, but they mostly do a tourist taxi. The driver also acts as a tourist guide, they will show you around the Old City and explain to you the history of interesting buildings spiced up with folktales and unverified truths. Those taxi are meant for leisure
and Instagram pics more than transportation, so expect the tourist price. A 30 minutes ride around Old Havana (Habana Vieja) can cost you up to 20 CUC or even more, depending on your negotiation skill.
Havana also has some yellow taxi and it is the official government taxi, but they also aren’t a big fan of a meter. This means taking a taxi can be VERY expensive unless you take a shared taxi or what the locals call collectivos. Just flag down any
rundown looking car with too much passenger in it a taxi sign on their roof. That’s what we did.
Staying at casa particulares offers cultural immersion - fact
Best Cuban cocktail is Mojito - Myths
Cuba is known as the land of Mojito, but is it really their only national drink? For the sake of research, I tried their other famous cocktail: Pinacolada. I tried the ones from the street and the ones from the fancy bars in Havana. You can find Pinacolada every-flipping-where in Cuba, and I must say, it's the best Pinacolada I have ever tasted. If polyamory is real, it must be like my love relationship with Cuban pinacolada and mojito. They are the best, the sweetest, the ones I can’t get enough.
Lower your expectation when it comes to Cuban food, especially in Havana- myths
I have heard that Cuba has government restaurants and private restaurants called paladares. Rumor has it that paladares taste better, it turns out it’s not always the case. We had at least some government restaurants that are really good, and one of them is the legendary El Aljibe.
Italian cuisine influence is very strong in Havana, especially in the Miramar area where we stayed. Perhaps this was the area where the mafia hung out in the 50s?? Even had hard time finding a good restaurant for local cuisine at first, then we found Donde Liz and La Pharmacie to name a few among others that offered a Cuban menu. Lots of people said to lower your expectations when it comes to Cuban food, but frankly, this was also not the case. Their Ropa Vieja (shredded beef), tostones rellenos (stuffed tostones), and their seafood were pretty awesome!!
Cuba is a ration nation, we should bring a donation - myths
I’ve heard a lot about people bringing ‘gifts’ for the Cuban such as soap, toothpaste, t-shirts, etc, and Havana is one of the spots where this 'gifts myth' circulates the strongest, especially around the harbor where the cruiseships dock. Rumor has it that tourists would likely be asked for these kinds of gifts on the street by the locals naggily. This is another thing that we didn’t get to experience, which is nice. I did bring some gifts tho, you know, just in case. I ended up leaving it to the chambermaid at the hotel.
It's not that those travellers who claimed that they were asked for gifts by the local are lying, what I am saying is, it's only minority of locals that do that. Begging for gifts from foreigners are actually frowned upon among the Cuban themselves. Their tourism department is even trying to eliminate this habit that brought shame to their national pride. However, bringing gifts or not is a matter of your choice, it is not obligatory. Giving gifts to local is not something cultural or local habit.
There are thousands of misconceptions about Havana and it is up to us to discover the truth behind all those rumors by experiencing it firsthand. Havana is a destination worth to list in anyone's bucket list. The city is filled with vibrant charms in retro background, a complex history, diverse culture, interesting people, and great cocktails.