“My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in La Floridita.” – Ernest Hemingway
We just got back from Havana, Cuba and I can’t stop thinking about the colourful buildings, immaculate condition of the classic cars, and the untouched authenticity of the city as a whole. This was our first visit to Cuba, and while a lot of people I know have done the all-inclusive bit in Varadero, we were intrigued by the prospect of spending our time in Old Havana (a lot of the Varadero-goers had done day trips there and raved about it).
We stayed at a hotel called El Comendador – right in the heart of Old Havana with an amazing walking location! This beauty stone building had an old Spanish patio through it’s main entrance (which is essentially an open air patio/courtyard covered in hanging greenery in the heart of the building). Our room was on the second floor mezzanine and had beautiful cathedral ceilings, original brass fixings right down to the towel rack in the bathroom, stone floors, clawfoot bathtub, and wood shuttered windows. Air conditioning was a godsend due to 35 degree + humidity temperatures and it was clean, comfortable, and full of character. This, combined with cheap mini-bar prices ($1.50 beers), made having a beverage in the room our favourite early evening activity for relaxing and cooling off from a full day outside. While the room was obviously very old (as expected), it was well maintained and lent a culturally authentic feel to our stay.
- The famous La Bodeguida del Medio/ La B del M (birthplace of the mojito) for it’s signature cocktail (pricy by comparison but worth the visit for 1 drink)
- Hotel Ambos Mundos made famous by Ernest Hemingway and his lengthy stay there (one floor has been dedicated to him and his work, including a mounted typewriter he evidently used to type some of his famous literary work).
- Driving tour with a local in an old car – we had a 1949 Ford. Tours are standard so if you’ve seen some of the sights already, try asking for a different route or a drive along the Malécon.
- Afro-Cuban Dinner Show – so much fun, decent food, incredible music and full permission to get up and dance! Suggestion would be to book through your hotel since there are multiple venues. Tickets are a simple piece of paper with your name scribbled on it, and if you don’t know which location you are going to neither will your taxi driver. Our hotel charged the same rate as anyone offering on the street (50 CUC per person) and they arranged our taxi for us to get there as well.
- Walk the Malécon. We actually did this twice: once during the day (despite the beating sun the ocean breeze was wonderful respite from the heat) and once at sunset which was a mix of strolling and perching on the stone wall with the locals for the view.
- Walking tour. We used the Triposo Cuba app which was helpful during those no internet moments (practically always). It gave us an idea of most of the historical sights we were looking at, as well as some of the cool places to look at outside the old city (i.e. the Capitol and the cigar factory). Note: cigar factory address noted in the app is no longer current, see current information below.
Food/Drink: street churros, street pizza (cheap, basic, delicious), rum on the rocks, Cristal (domestic beer), mojitos, daiquiris. Be wary of anything that should be fresh (i.e. fruit).
– La Paella, award-winning paella restaurant attached to our hotel, try the seafood medley and make sure you go there with an appetite!!
– La Moneda Cubana (family owned restaurant), rooftop, local cuisine, pricier by comparison, neat to be outdoors at 9pm for the canon firing, old black and white movies being played on the side of the building next to us.
– We tried to get into El Concinero and La Guarida but couldn’t (even with weeks notice). Get your reservations well in advance and call to confirm (their online reservation system isn’t always reliable). They’ll speak English if you want to give them a call, and if you don’t want to call long-distance to Cuba a suggestion is to e-mail your hotel and have them call for you prior to your arrival (most were very happy to help). If you can’t get a reso at La Guarida they have a rooftop bar that opens at 6pm daily. Get there early enough and you may be in luck (the views of both the inside of this building and the skyline from the rooftop are spectacular).
– Hotel Ambos Mundos, rooftop, view + beverages, mix of sun and shade (great wifi connection from here).
– Sloppy Joes (just outside the old city), North American vibe but delicious Cuban sandwich.
– Café del Oriente, classy, delicious food, reasonably priced, patio outside right in the courtyard great for people watching.
– We went to La Lluvia de oRo 3 of 4 nights, it was so much fun! The live music kept calling us back night after night, cheap/cold drinks, cheap water to take home at the end of the night, warm/entertaining service, dancing, lots of fans around the covered patio (this sounds silly but it is so hot all you want is some air circulation).
– Local currency at the time of our visit was approximately 1 US = 1 CUC.
– There are two currencies (CUC and CUP); CUC is what you will get when you exchange foreign currency. Although this little scam didn’t happen to us we were warned about it… sometimes you will pay in CUC and be given your change in CUP (CUC is worth approx. 24x more than CUP so be aware of the potential scam).
– When you exchange US dollars there is a 10% fee on the amount changed; for once Canadian currency is the winner.
– We exchanged money at the airport as well as in Old Havana and both were a good/similar rate.
– There is a cruise ship pier on the east side of the old city; don’t look for taxis or car tours near there as they will charge you more. If you walk in either direction for a few minutes you will be able to bargain and get a better rate (i.e. our city tour in one of the local’s classic cars was 40CUC vs the 50CUC near the pier). This is a difference of roughly $10 USD.
– Wifi is extremely limited… go with a pseudo plan/idea of where things are. You can buy a map for 3 CUC at the post office. Good wifi on the rooftop of Hotel Ambos Mundos and at La Floridita. You’ll need a wifi card to connect (our hotel was selling them for 4.50 CUC however if a local offers you one that has the barcode unscratched it should be about 3 CUC).
– There are ‘government’ restaurants and there are ‘family’ restaurants. Try and support the locals where you can.
– Hang onto your change… a lot of bars/restaurants have live music and when they finish a set they will come around and ask for money.
– If you get a photo taken with anyone or take a picture of a street parade they expect you to pay them.
– Tips in a restaurant/bar go into a communal pot so if you have excellent service or really want to tip a specific person, give it to them directly and descretely.
– Two rules as outlined for us by our hotel clerk: 1. Do not change money on the street. 2. Do not buy cigars on the street.
– Cigar factory has moved to: San Carlos 816 e/ Sitios Y Peñalver, Centro Habana, open 9am – 1pm Monday to Friday and entrance tickets can be purchased at your hotel in advance.
– Hotels will charge you a lot for water (2 CUC for a 500ml) whereas bars are 1 CUC for 500ml. We found a bakeshop on Obrapia were you could get 1L for 0.8 CUC (the pastries were also amazing and cheap, 0.25-0.30 CUC per piece).