36 Hours in Havana
With Cuba's guarded openness to private enterprise grabbing hold, classic American cars and salsa singers now share the cityscape with new and inventive offerings in food, culture and nightlife.
Visiting Cuba is a highlight-packed sensory overload, especially if you take the time to understand the past political strife that has shaped a nation that stands on the cusp of a social and economic revolution.
That includes an increasing number of accommodation options opening up – even Airbnb has arrived, and a clued-in host can give you a great head-start with some key tips to get the most out of your stay.
Here are our top tips for getting the most out of your Cuba holiday.
Before you go:
The first thing Australians need is a tourist visa, which is a simple affair as long as you allow time. Seven to 10 days should be enough, with your passport needing to be sent to Canberra for processing and returned. For a small fee, CIBT Visas will organise it all for you. The Australian Government's Smart Traveller website advises travellers to Cuba to print out their travel insurance cover note – Cuba's immigration officers may ask to see it. Confirmed lodgings may also be requested. Once in the country, your Australian-issue phone SIM card won't work. Australia Post sells an international SIM card, or you can rent a local SIM when you arrive at Havana airport. Also, check with your accommodation to see if Wi-Fi is offered – internet access is still a rarity and highly restricted, so don't assume you'll be Facebooking, Instagramming or Skyping as you would elsewhere.
Next, you need to organise finance. Many credit cards – especially those issued by banks with American links – won't work in Cuba, and ATM access shouldn't be assumed, either. Check with your bank to see what might work for you. If all else fails there's cash, which of course isn't as safe to carry in large amounts but is hugely convenient on the street. However, Australian dollars won't be accepted for exchange once in Cuba, and US dollars will attract an extra 10 per cent charge. The best bet is to grab some Euros before leaving Australia, then change then into the local currency at Havana airport when you arrive. There's a trick here, too. Cuba has two currencies – one for the locals, and one for tourists, with a 25:1 exchange rate between the two (so don't get them mixed up). Ensure you are issued the tourist peso, which is known locally as the CUC (pronounced 'cook'). Also, ensure you convert leftover currency back to Euros before you leave the country. It's illegal to remove CUC from Cuba, and also highly unlikely anywhere in Australia will exchange them for you.
Hablo a little Espanol
Cubans have had little access to the outside world for the past 50 years and outside the main tourist areas, Spanish is almost exclusively spoken. If your Spanish is non-existent, grab a phrase book and practise a few key phrases on the long flight over. Being able to hail a taxi and negotiate the destination and fare are vital to getting around, and being able to order food and drink is handy. If all else fails, "lo siento, hablo no Espanol" at least says you're sorry you don't understand what someone is saying to you.
Do your homework
Cuba has a fascinating history of instability and revolution, and if you're staying in an Airbnb property you can gain much more insight from your host if you can converse knowledgably about the factors that have led to the austere life they live today.
If you do get into conversations with a local, take the opportunity to find out about their life and experiences under the strict socialist regime. Interaction and immersion with the friendly and proud locals will add a deeper layer to your stay.
Get some protection
Like many South American and Carribean destinations, Cuba has a mosquito problem. Zika virus has been featured prominently in the news, but that's only a big problem if you're pregnant or planning to be; for everyone else, a dose of zika is a mild inconvenience. Of greater concern, my Airbnb host Gustavo warns, is the risk of dengue fever, which can be debilitating. To be safe, source an insect repellent with a high percentage of DEET (otherwise known as diethyl-meta-toluamide) – slathering it on a couple of times daily is the most effective way to ward off the nasties. You'll also need a decent 50+ sunscreen for Cuba's powerful sun, which you should apply before the insect repellent so it's better absorbed into your skin.
When you get there:
Meet the locals
Cubans are, by and large, exceptionally outgoing people, and as long as you stick to well-trafficked and well-lit areas and adhere to sensible precautions to protect your belongings, you shouldn't have any safety concerns.
Yet you shouldn't mistake their attempts to strike up a conversation with you in the street as a purely friendly gesture. Cashed-up Westerners are a potent source of income, as many Cubans live well below what we would call the poverty line. Sometimes the pitch is obvious – they want you to accompany them to a bar, café, museum or nightclub, where they'll receive a spotter's fee. Others may offer to be your guide and happily chat with you for hours in disarmingly friendly fashion – but at the end, there's always an outstretched hand.
Approach these interactions expecting to pay for a slice of their time and local knowledge, which is sometimes well worth it. If you're on a tight budget, be up front that you have no money to give. Even though you didn't ask to be accosted, a refusal to cough up after assistance has been rendered could cause confrontation.
Take a taxi
You might think the massive, curvaceous American cars for which Havana is famous are a myth, and finding one is like tracking down a white whale. Not so. They're literally everywhere, and you really haven't done Havana until you've flagged one down, bartered a fare with the driver (knowing a little Spanish helps a lot), and perched high on a bench seat with your elbow protruding from the always-open windows. Even better is that you'll probably be seated next to some locals heading off to work, with Cuba's taxis running more like a bus service that picks up and sets down various fares during any given trip.
Hit the museums
Havana has some brilliant museums, featuring the artwork of abundantly talented locals, plus a number of institutions dedicated to detailing the nation's history of political instability, bloodshed and proud defiance.
The Museo de la Revolucion in the Old Havana part of town is an essential stop – behind the stunning façade are hundreds of artefacts, photos, weapons and blow-by-blow explanations of events including the overthrow of the dictator Batista, the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis. And, of course, much reflection on the reign of Fidel Castro. Perhaps most poignant of all are the bullet holes in the walls, a sobering reminder that this beautiful metropolis was once, as the museum name suggests, the site of bloody revolution.
Make time, too, for the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, which includes a comprehensive display of both classical and contemporary artwork across two buildings and several levels – and it's airconditioned.
There are a good many others, but find the time to get across the harbour – taxis will take you through the short tunnel – to the Castillo de la Real Fuerza. Said to be the oldest stone fort in the Americas, it's also home to an excellent museum highlighting the nation's proud maritime past.
Stroll the Malecon
At our Airbnb host's suggestion, a strong along Havana's seaside boulevard, the Malecon, at sunset was the ideal way to finish off a busy day. The eight kilometre-long sea wall comes alive as the heat of the day gives way to a sea breeze, with the locals flocking to fish, exercise and just hang out. It's a great spot to enjoy the passing parade of classic American cars, too.
Get out of the city
Cuba is much more than just Havana, although you can easily spend a week wandering the old town, poking around Vedado, and taking in the neighbouring coastal settlements. If you're keen to see it all, consider side trips to Trinidad – a UNESCO world heritage site with beautiful architecture and sensational beaches – or Santiago de Cuba, at the opposite end of the island. The latter has history in spades and offers a more genuine Cuban experience than tourist-focused Havana. Closer to Havana, you can take a 20-minute taxi ride to out to Cojimar, the setting for the Ernest Hemingway novel The Old Man and the Sea and the place where Hemingway kept his own boat.
Steve Colquhoun stayed in Havana as a guest of Airbnb.