Havana ᛫ February 28 – March 5 & March 19 – 20, 2018
Colorful classic cars, old buildings, two currencies: Havana has a unique charm. The atmosphere in this city differed from any place I ever visited. I spent five great days there, learning and seeing many new things.
To get there, I first took a flight from Montego Bay, Jamaica, to Holguin, which is located north of Jamaica in the eastern part of Cuba. There, I left the plane, waited a while at the gate and then boarded it again to fly to Havana. All in all this journey took four hours and we landed at 7:30 pm, a little earlier than scheduled in Havana.
But unfortunately, my backpack wasn’t at the baggage claim and I had to get into a long line at the lost and found counter. Something like that happened to me when I arrived in Richmond, VA, but his time I didn’t get so emotional. The flight had been much shorter and so I just accepted my fate unwillingly. After waiting for about an hour and no end in sight, someone came with some bags and had mine as well. I was very relieved and hurried to exchange some money and find a taxi. It took about half an hour from the airport to my Couchsurfing host.
New Country = New Circumstances
He had a nice apartment and was originally from Turkey. We hung out and chatted for a while. He shared interesting travel stories, gave me many tips about what to do in Havana and about Cuba in general. For example, there are two different currencies in Cuba. One is only for locals called (Cuban) pesos or cup. The other one, pesos convertibles or cuc, is mainly for foreigners and converts almost 1:1 to US dollars. With the pesos, everything is cheaper and certain things like some transportation can exclusively be paid with them. Since people in Cuba don’t earn a lot of money it makes sense that they pay less than “rich” visitors. On the other hand, this isn’t good for budget travelers. For me as a tourist, the prices were similar to Western Europe or the US. That made Cuba the most expensive Latin American country I had ever visited.
When my new CS friend went to bed, I watched two episodes of Game of Thrones. It’s my favorite TV show (and I also love the books). One my colleagues in Negril, Jamaica, had copied all the episodes to my hard drive. ? I was extremely happy to be able to take all the seasons with me and watch them anytime. Since I was pretty exhausted, I expected to fall asleep immediately afterward on the mattress in the living room. But unfortunately, the bee sting I had gotten two days earlier, really bothered me. Even when I finally fell asleep, I kept waking up because of the pain. But I was also too tired to get up and take some painkillers. ?
The next day, I explored the surrounding area a bit. The couchsurfer had suggested downloading the map of Havana on maps.me. Since finding wifi in Cuba isn’t that easy, I was glad to find the map and GPS working well. At first, I had a delicious lunch and a chocolate milkshake at the nearby restaurant La Chucheria that my host recommended. Then I walked to the ocean, but there was no beach, only concrete and I couldn’t really get close. Next, I went to the park Miramar that had very beautiful big banyan trees.
Back “home”, I did a workout next to the pool that belonged to the apartment building which was really nice. Afterward, I chilled for the first time in a long time on a deck chair in the sun, reading a book. Now and then when the sun got too hot I hopped in the pool to cool down a bit. It was the perfect first day in Havana.
Later, I went to a grocery store. My host told me where I could one close to his place. When I got there, I was pretty surprised although he had warned me before. There were only very few different products, half of which were drinks, and no fresh food at all. I ended up buying just water, rice, and cookies. I hadn’t found an ATM yet and brought only a little bit of cash with me. So I tried not to spend a lot of money. For dinner, I made vegetable soup (a package I had still leftover from Jamaica with dried veggies) with rice. It was cheap and not as bad as it sounds. ?
It’s Party Time
Afterward, my host took me to a bar with live music. We met some of his friends and had a great time. The band played Cuban songs that had some rock parts. Everybody in the crowded room was dancing and having fun. I really enjoyed the atmosphere and liked it better than any party I had been to in Jamaica. Contrary to Cuba, in Jamaica usually not many people danced at concerts. At 9 pm, the concert was finished and the lights went on.
We went back to the host’s place and another friend came with us. Although I was getting a little tired, they convinced me to stop by a popular club. They dropped me off there because they had something else to do. I’m not a big fan of going to clubs by myself, but this one was definitely worth it.
It was called FAC (Fábrica de Arte Cubano) and felt more like a fun museum when I entered. It was a huge place with different rooms, hang out areas, bars, dance floors, and art everywhere. I walked around and really enjoyed the different art and music everywhere. It took a good while until I had seen everything. When I came back to where I had started, there was a cool hip-hop concert on a small stage. The audience was dancing and I joined them. If you go to Havana you definitely have to check this place out!
I left around 11:30 pm and walked (!) home. It felt strange to walk around by myself at night, but It was perfectly safe. It took me about 20 minutes and I really liked it because I hadn’t done that in a long time. In Jamaica, walking around at night wasn’t safe and in the US, the distances were too big.
Moving to Another Couchsurfer
The next day, my alarm woke me up at 10 am. My host was just about to leave and I could say goodbye to him. After packing my stuff, I left his place. I had to move to another couchsurfer because the first one could host me until Friday. But I thought it was perfect since the second one could host only from Friday to Monday. It didn’t work out that way, but later more.
I went to the bus station just around the corner and waited for a while until a bus came. It was pretty packed, but cheap because I could pay with a local peso that my host had given me. The bus driver told me when to get off and which other bus I had to catch. There, I checked on maps.me and it was only a 20-minute walk to the couchsurfer’s place. So I decided not to worry about finding and waiting for the other bus but to walk instead. It was nice to see more of the city. But with all my stuff and walking in the sun it got pretty hot. I arrived at the apartment in on the 3rd floor completely covered in sweat. ?
My new host was also very friendly and invited me to some tea and pie on his balcony. He was from Cuba but had been living in Spain for over 20 years. After chatting with him, I took a shower and headed to the historic center of the city. It was a nice walk along the ocean (no beach again though).
Visiting Havana’a Old Town
Even in the center, many of the houses were in pretty bad shape. But you could tell how nice they used to look. My host had explained earlier that the humidity and occasional storms wore the buildings down. And the money and/or materials are missing in Cuba to properly maintain them. Besides that many old cars could be seen on the streets, colorful classic cars as well as Soviet cars. Together with the buildings, they make Cuba unique and give Havana its special charm.
At first, I went to the Castillo de La Punta. From there you have a nice view and can see another castle and fortress across the river. I kept walking along the water and entered the old city at the Plaza de Armas. This place was crowded with tourists, but nevertheless, it had a nice atmosphere and some musicians were playing Cuban music. After chilling there for a while I strolled through the streets just looking at everything. I had no certain destination, but a great time. ?
At some point, I reached the ocean again and went inside the Feria de San José. There were many booths with all the different souvenirs tourists could want. I almost left immediately, but then saw some paintings. Of course, they were also souvenirs, but there were hundreds of different ones and I really enjoyed looking at them.
I headed back inside the city looking for a place to eat. It was not so easy to find because I wanted a beautiful place to sit but not a tourist trap. I came to the street El Prado that had a walkway with trees and benches in the middle. There, I found what I was looking for, a small restaurant with a balcony overlooking the street.
The next day I could sleep in at last and then went to get some breakfast/lunch nearby. I was also glad to finally get some money from an ATM. Then waited for the bus from the HabanaBusTour. It’s a red tourist hop on hop off bus that you can find in most big cities around the world. Since I had no internet and no time to make research on what to do before this was the best option to see a lot. Some of the places the bus went to I had already seen the day before. The new ones included the Parque Central, Plaza de la Revolución with the famous Ché mural and Parque Almendares. Of course, there were more places but I didn’t get off the bus at any of them.
I took a long break once walking through the old town again. There, I had a lemonade in the cute restaurant El Dandy and the waiter recognized me from the FAC. ? Afterward, I continued the bus tour until the evening. It was definitely worth it. In the end, I had done the tour one and a half times and taken five different buses. Even though I skipped the places I had been to the day before the tour took me about 6 hours.
Wifi in Cuba
In the evening I connected to the internet for the first time in Cuba. There are many wifi spots all over the city and to login you can buy cards with the password. One hour costs 1cuc (0,8€/US$1). My host had given me a card with the code and I was surprised how fast the connection actually was.
There was no message from my host yet when he would be home so I went to the restaurant California Café. For dinner, I had a very good veggie burger with fries and a frozen lemonade. On top, there was a band playing Cuban songs. Another spot I can really recommend to you.
The next morning, I started packing my stuff and went to the wifi spot together with my host. I made some research and booked an Airbnb room for the same night. The reason for that was that I thought I could stay longer with the host than I actually could. I’m not sure why but it was the 3rd time in this travel that there was a misunderstanding. Before these three times, this never happened. But I will make sure to always double check the dates with my future hosts from this point on.
Moving to an Airbnb Place
Afterward, the couchsurfer recommended the restaurant Locos por Cuba where I ate breakfast on a cute balcony. I returned to the house, finished packing and went to the Airbnb guesthouse which was a 20-minute walk away. My new room and bathroom were comfortable and the owner had a positive and humorous character.
I headed to the center again to find out how to travel to my next destination on the following day. The tourist information was closed for lunch. So I found a close by restaurant (Café Suiza) and had lunch (lasagne and chocolate ice cream) myself. When I talked to the agent, she told me that the cheapest way was to take a bus. And to get the ticket I had to go to the bus station. A taxi to that place would cost between eight and 10cuc.
Back on the HabanaBusTour
I checked on maps.me and the station was on the route of the tourist bus I had already taken. So I decided to take that bus again because I could go and come back for 10 cuc. Of course, it took longer but I didn’t mind.
There are also public buses that are cheaper, but it seemed too complicated to find the right ones. And I was kind of in a bad mood because I had wanted to find out how to travel the day before. But my host told me he could tell me how to do it so I didn’t make any research. It turned out that only Cubans can travel that way through and I had to take the more expensive bus.
When I got to the place I was told that it was wrong because I had spelled it incorrectly. The bus company was called Viazul, but I had put Via Azul in the search. Luckily, the people there explained how to get to the right place. So I got back onto the bus and got off at another stop. From there it was a 30-minute walk to the station. When I finally arrived, I was told the bus for the next day was already sold out. I was very frustrated because it had taken me such a long time to get there.
A Colectivo Instead of the Bus
There were also taxi drivers and agents that tried to sell me their services. A little sulky, I agreed to make arrangements to take a colectivo (shared taxi). It would cost 20 cuc (17 €/US$ 20), double the price of the bus, but I felt like there was no other option.
The good thing was that it would pick me up at my Airbnb place and drop me off at the hotel in my destination. Those costs would have been on top because I would have needed a taxi to and from the bus station. So the colectivo was not only more comfortable but maybe also not really more expensive after all. I gave the guy my address and he said I would get picked up in the morning. The payment was due when I arrived at my destination.
In a better mood, I walked back to the tourist bus stop and took the bus to the city center again. Back “home”, the guesthouse owner told me about a wifi spot and where to get good cheap food. After using the internet, I jogged back. It was about 1.5km/ 0.9mi and a nice little workout. Besides that, I was pretty hungry and saved time to reach the restaurant. My running through the streets drew some attention. But on the other hand, I didn’t have to decline a 100 taxi offers and listen to all the comments that I normally got there as a tourist. ? The restaurant was just below the guesthouse and I got rice, beans, potatoes, and salad for just 1cuc! When I got back to my room I was exhausted. My phone showed 20,000 steps!
Off to the Beach!
The next day, the taxi surprised me a bit because it arrived on time. ? It was a nice classic car, built in 1925, and pretty spacious inside. I was very excited to ride in a car like that after having seen many of them the previous days. We went to pick up two couples in different parts of the city and left Havana shortly after 9 am, heading east to Varadero.
I returned to Havana after the vacation with my family on the 19th of March. This time I took the bus. It ended up being more expensive than the colectivo taxi though and wasn’t as comfortable. The Couchsurfing host I stayed with for the first nights in Cuba, kindly let me sleep at his place again. There was another couchsurfer from France staying there as well and we all had a great time together. The next day, I took a colectivo taxi, a classic car for the last time, to the airport and flew to Florida.
See More Pictures of My Time in Havana
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