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Havana, Cuba

Havana, Cuba

How many days: 4 Days
When: May 2017

Don’t think a visit to Cuba is going to be all about Mojitos!

Havana has always been on my bucket list, not only is it the home of my favourite cocktail of all time, but it’s the setting of many movies and TV dramas, including the 2004 remake of “Auf Wiedersehen Pet”. But it’s one of those countries that has a certain appeal to it, because of it’s fallout with America and how subsequently it’s a country that’s stuck in the 1960’s… permanently!

From the very first moment I stepped off the plane, it was clear I was in a completely alien place. The décor of the airport, the fashion styles of the staff are that I was only familiar with from TV and magazines. Walking around Havana, especially the old town area is very intimidating at first. It’s very busy, and as you walk down streets, peoples living rooms open up right on the streets. But the locals are friendly and its very safe. But to visit Havana you need to be contempt with sitting back in bars and cafes and soaking up the culture and atmosphere. Unless you venture out of Havana, you won’t have an action packed 3 day itinerary here.

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Before the Communist revolution, Havana was one of the vacation hot-spots of the Caribbean, and since Cuba reopened to tourism in the 1990s, it has become a popular destination once again, albeit with many fewer U.S. citizens, due to an almost total ban on travel maintained by the U.S. federal government. However, there will be lots of tourists at any time of year, so expect huge crowds and long lines in places.

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Getting Around

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By taxi

As a tourist, the most convenient way of getting around Havana is by taxi. Some of the taxis are old American Chevys from the 1950s, others are (somewhat) newer Russian Ladas, whilst most tourist taxis are modern Peugeots, Skodas and even Mercedes.

It is illegal for tourists to ride in anything other than the official government taxis. However, it is often easier to wave down one of the old Chevys or Ladas. When riding in an illegal taxi, negotiate the fare ahead of time. The fare in illegal taxis will be no cheaper than the official taxi fare. Around the city, taking illegal taxis should be no problem. However, taking an illegal taxi to or from the airport may attract the attention of the police.

Taxis colectivos

Taxis colectivos are the old, beaten-up American cars with a taxi sign on the roof or in the front window, which will typically already have numerous Cubans on board getting on and off and will take additional passengers if flagged down. Tourists are not supposed to take them, but you will rarely run into problems and they are a fun and cheap alternative to the state-run taxis. They have set fares and run set routes, so you may need some assistance when taking them the first few times.

Fares vary from 10 CUP for a short (5 km) run during the day to 20 CUP for a longer run or at night. The drivers are generally honest regarding the fares, but it is best not to appear oblivious by asking how much at the end of the trip. Always watch what the other passengers give: if in doubt, give only 10 CUP unless the driver asks for another 10. There can be a long wait trying to get a taxi colectivo as they are very popular with Cubans and often full, but the experience and the savings make it worthwhile.

Taxi colectivo routes

The following is a non-exhaustive list of taxis colectivos routes:

Parque de la Fraternida (westbound on Simon Bolivar, just west of Industria). Follows Simon Bolivar, Avenida Salvador Allende, Avenida Manuel de Cepedes, Avenida de la Independencia, Avenida de Rancho Boyeros. Route travels within blocks of Habana Vieja, Plaza de la Revolucion, Viazul bus station (800 m away), and Airport Terminal 2 (500 m away).

Coco taxis

Coco taxis and yellow three-wheel motorbikes are a cheap way of getting around central Havana.

By bus

Havana used to have a public transportation service called the El Camello, a split-level bus pulled by a semi-truck, and resembling a 2-humped camel (thus the name). Camellos finished operation in Havana in April 2008 (but still can be seen elsewhere in the country) and were replaced by modern YuTong Chinese city buses.

The cost of riding the new city bus is 0.40 CUP to anywhere in the city. The driver will not give you change. Almost all buses are overcrowded, there are plenty of buses running though, so if the one you want is full simply wait for the next one (don't expect to sit though). There are few clearly marked bus stops on route, but it's clear where they stop usually as you will have other waiting at the side of the road. Other local buses can also get crowded, but in the suburbs, they are a practical means of transport for visitors.

By car

Whilst useful for reaching some of the less central locations in Havana, the price of car hire will rarely be less than using taxis. Traffic is moderate, especially outside the rush hour. Do however expect to share the road space with a multitude of cyclists, pedestrians and poorly parked vehicles. Parking regulations are enforced in central Havana. There are many attended, on-street car parks, use them. Expect to pay 1 CUC for parking.

By cycle

Cycling can be a great way to get around Cuba. There are a number of international tour companies that offer guided tours, the most popular is from Havana to Santiago de Cuba. If you are travelling in February and March avoid the west to east approach as the trade winds are tough to cycle against.

By foot

Walking around Havana is by far the best way to see and experience the city: get a decent map of the city and discover new sights on foot.

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Prices & Currency

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Dual currency system

There are two currencies circulating in Cuba, Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) and Cuban pesos (CUP). Wide circulation of US dollars in Cuba ended in November 2004.

Cuban convertible pesos are referred to by locals as kooks and is the currency most tourists will use in Cuba. The CUC is primarily used for the purchase of tourist and luxury goods such as hotels, official taxis, entry into museums, meals at tourist restaurants, export quality cigars, bottled water and rum. The CUC is pegged 1:1 to the US dollar and conversion into CUC can be done at Casa de Cambio's or Cadeca's(exchange houses) which are located in many hotels and in other places throughout the city. Tourists are permitted to import and export a maximum of CUP 100 and CUC 200 respectively at any one time.

Cuban pesos are referred to by locals as moneda nacional (national currency) and mainly used by locals. As of October 2015, 1 CUC buys 24 CUP and 25 CUP buys 1 CUC. The CUP is primarily used for the purchase of daily, non-luxury goods that are sold in agricultural markets, street stalls and local restaurants. This means you can buy things like coffee, bread, fruits, vegetables, fresh juices and snacks at local street stalls with CUP. In addition to this, CUP can also be used at some (non-tourist) sit down restaurants and for the purchase of local cigars known as 'tobaccos' or 'Nacionales'. If you are on a budget and intend to eat mainly local food to save money, it is recommended you obtain some CUP as although peso priced places will accept CUC, it is more convenient to use the local currency, and some government shops will not accept payment in CUC as they cannot provide change. Exchanging currency to CUP can be done at exchange houses. CUP currency cannot be converted to foreign currencies.

Raul Castro, who has long criticised the dual currency system as it generally pays hôteliers and taxi drivers more than medical doctors, announced in October 2013 that the dual currency system would be scrapped in approximately 18 months - however that change has not been made.

Exchanging currency

Travellers can exchange a range of foreign currencies at Casa de Cambios or Cadecas (exchange houses) which are located in airports, hotels and in major towns and cities. Bancos(banks) also exchange foreign currencies and are located in most major towns and cities. Both exchange houses and banks accept a number of foreign currencies with the most popular being Canadian and US dollars, pounds sterling and euros. Mexican pesos, Swiss francs and Japanese yen may also be accepted by some banks in Cuba. If you are holding US dollars, a 10% exchange tax will be charged in addition to any commissions normally added. If you wish to exchange US dollars, it may be cheaper to convert to another currency before hand (so long as you don't lose more than 10% in that conversion).

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Important Information

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Unless you stay in a big/major hotel in Cuba, be prepared to be cut off from the world for the duration of your stay! This is no joke! No bars or restaurants offer Wi-Fi. You’ll need to buy an Internet card when you get over there (you’ll get these at the airport, some stores and hotels sell them in Havana). Internet is provided by the countries communications provider “ETECSA”, and there are a small handful if ‘wi-fi spots’ in the city of Havana, where you can, supposedly, use your card to connect – but don’t bank on it!

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