Due to decades old grudges combined with bruised US and Cuba relations, we admittedly arrived with a tainted mindset towards what we would find upon our visit. Within moments though, our old perception was erased when we were quickly welcomed by the highly gracious residents of Havana.
It was like all the moms in the city were coming out of the woodwork to dote on Liam, who was 10 months during our visit who is a total ham.
How to Visit Cuba as an American
We traveled to Cuba in January 2019 by Cruise ship with two other adults and our toddler age son.
The reason we were on this cruise aboard the MSC Armonia was solely for its overnight stop in Havana. The cruise ports are very small and outdated (built for cruise travel of the 1950s) so cruise lines are forced to use the smallest ships, usually the oldest, to be able to fit at the docks.
The immigration process was painful and time consuming. Before arrival in Havana, the Cruise level used a lot of scare tactics to persuade guests to book the ship’s excursions ashore, saying this qualifies as a Visa requirement. However, we had no trouble picking from the approved visit purposes from the USA’s list at the time and being able to verify them. In the end, no one even questioned our stop in Cuba upon return to the US and traveling through our Immigration.
First Impression on Arrival
The architecture and vehicles felt like they froze in the fifties, unfroze in the 80s during their soviet rule, and then once again…stuck. I was shocked by the number of buildings in total disrepair and found the blend of Spanish and Soviet Architecture intriguing.
Cubans were especially friendly! I think we got a little extra attention caring around our infant, but wow, they really wanted to chat and offer advice. (This likely comes with the communal culture that is so innate.)
Taking the Classic Cabs of Havana
You won’t miss them in Old Havana! We price checked several before committing and they were all very consistently priced.
Figure you’ll spend $1 USD / minute of your journey. This is expensive in comparison to everything else you’ll spend money on in Cuba, but you’ve got to do it once! Make sure to pick a fun loving driver who will blast their radio and try to tell you a thing or two about their city.
We took two rides in classic cabs, but usually opted for the city taxis which were cheaper and open to negotiation.
Fun fact: Hitchhiking is common place. Any private person can be your taxi and will likely do so for next to nothing.
Learn about Cuba’s Tumultuous History
Pick a free walking tour! Be prepared for a few ‘jabs’ if you’re American. (Tip $8-15 pp)
Types of Restaurants – Prices Vary, Quality Does Not
There are 3 types of dining establishments. The further you venture from Old Havana, the cheaper you’ll find food.
- Paladares – Independent, expect to pay 5-15 cuc per person
- State Run – Look for Specials called “Ofertas” and you’ll pay 3-5 cuc per person, dish, drink, dessert
- Cafes – 10 peso/item
Foods to Try
- Ropa Vieja – A national dish consisting of shredded or pulled stewed beef with vegetables
- Tostones – Fried Plantains
- Cuban Sandwich – A more familiar option, ham, cheese, and pickle sandwich.
- Rosquillas – Sugar donuts sold on the street
- The water is safe in Havana, so don’t be concerned about adding ice.
- Alcohol Free Drinks: Juices are super popular, and easily found at street vendors for about 25 cents.
- Chirimaoyas (pineapple/banana)
- Guayabas (Guava),
- Guarapo (sugar cane juice) are the must haves.
- Alcohol: Ron Collins (Rum, lime, sugar, soda), Mojito, Anything with Havana Club Rum
- La Bodeguita del Medio is arguably the most popular place to have a Mojita. Known as one of Hemingway’s favorite bars.
They’ll be everywhere. We bought a case at a corner store to smoke one there and bring some souvenirs home. They were surely not the ‘real deal’. None of us are smokers though so this wasn’t a priority search for us.
Off the Beaten Path
My husband bought me a book called Real Havana which had fantastic insights on things to do that tourists don’t realize are even allowed or legal and places most wouldn’t know existed. It led us on a few ‘hunts’ that really made our time in Havana feel like an adventure.
- Wandering through the lobby/stairwells/common areas of multi family homes or apartments is the norm and legal! This gave us the opportunity to explore the insides of some quite run down buildings. The only private spaces are behind locked door.
2. Viewpoint from the Habana Libre Hotel: On the top floor of the hotel, there is a Night Club. It is closed during the day, but refer to #1. When we arrived, we found two men cleaning the space, who happily agreed to serve us from the bar. (Fairly certain they pocketed the cash.) Here’s the view from this excellent hidden gem!
3. Street markets – I liked trying fruits I’d never seen before and seeing locals go about their day.
4. The book had several recommendation for truly local panaderias as well. The four of us ate lunch one day near the market above; we had 4 sandwiches and 4 drinks, for a grand total of $4 USD. We tipped generously, of course.
- Where? Look for a place called CADECA.
- We exchanged $50 USD to CUC / person / day and found that to be just the right amount. There is the option to use Moneda National, but most places in the tourist areas use CUC. 1 CUC = about 24 MN.
- There are a lot of fees to convert back to your home currency. Use it up!
- Bring small toys, art supplies, shoes for kids, rather than handing out money. This is also important if you are using the humanitarian Visa option.
- A 5% tip is plenty
- An attempt at Spanish is appreciated
- People who have costumes and allow you to take pictures are after your money! I knew to look out for these people, but this lady was interacting really sweetly with Liam that I let my guard down. Suddenly, she started putting the fruit hat on us without asking, then demanded money.