“Timeworn but magnificent, dilapidated but dignified, fun yet maddeningly frustrating – Cuba is a country of indefinable magic… Trapped in a time warp and reeling from an economic embargo that has lasted for more than half a century, Cuba is a country where you can wave goodbye to everyday assumptions and expect the unexpected.”
Havana, the capital of Cuba, is one of the craziest, but most spectacular cities I’ve ever visited – because it literally does feel like you’ve stepped into a time machine and gone back a good few decades. Largely untouched by the Western world, it’s a whole other world. Old vintage cars driving around the city, old but beautiful buildings, music filling the streets – it really feels like you’re on a movie set. The embargo that was placed on Cuba by the US in the 50s is very much still felt in Cuba today. Basic commodities and things that South Africans are used to having access to are not easily available in Havana. For instance, when arriving at Havana airport, there are no branded stores or well-known restaurants – and the same goes for the city. No chain stores, no conventional grocery stores, no well-known coffee outlets, no free public wifi (wifi is actually not easy, or cheap, to access), and so on. Even the ATMs at the airport are not the modern type we are used to. Anyone planning to travel to Cuba should do sufficient research and manage their expectations carefully before they arrive because while Cuba may be as beautiful as Europe (maybe even more beautiful), it certainly isn’t Europe (and that’s what gives it a lot of its charm).
Here are a few things that are handy to know if you’re planning a trip to Havana for the first time.
There are no direct flights from SA to Havana, but what this provides an opportunity for is to couple Havana with another destination (and considering the distance and travel time to get to Havana from SA, breaking up your trip may be a godsend)
There are a few airlines who operate flights from SA to Havana:
Air France – allowing you an opportunity to stop over and explore Paris on your way in or out of Havana. This is one of the “shorter” routes: +-10.5 hours from SA (JHB) to Paris, and then depending on the route the airline takes to Havana another 8.5 hours to Havana (from Paris)
NB note: if you are planning and booking your trip yourself, you might have trouble booking certain accommodation or day trips via American websites (because of the political issues between the countries). Our accommodation via Booking.com was cancelled two weeks before our trip for this reason – and so we were advised to use a site called Cuba Travel Network, which is actually a great place to start researching options for a trip to Cuba.
How long to spend in Havana
If you’re only going to explore Havana, three days is an ideal amount of time. There are a few beautiful cities that you could book day trips to (from Havana) and if you opt for this, maybe add on a few more days to your trip. But if you’re just visiting Havana, three days should be good.
As I mentioned earlier, because it’ll take a bit of time to reach Havana from SA, it really will be worthwhile to add on one or two more destinations to your trip while you are on that side of the world. Havana is in close proximity to a good few Caribbean islands. A great option to consider visiting is Cancun – a 1-hour flight straight out of Havana. If you do choose this option, I’d really recommend an all-inclusive resort like Club Med where all meals, drinks, entertainment, accommodation and more are covered (which is great in the big touristy areas across Latin America which can become very expensive – so you really should opt for all- inclusive).
South Africans need a visa to visit Cuba. These can be obtained from the Cuban embassy (in Pretoria). The cost when we travelled was around R270, and it took about a week from the time we applied to actually receiving the visa. If you want to fast-track the visa application, you have the options to pay extra.
Tourism is a big industry for Havana, so the city is a bit of a pricey destination in general. That said, it’s not impossible to find affordable meals – it’s just a matter of looking around (particularly avoiding the tourist areas where prices are hiked up) and trying to find where the locals eat and shop.
Spanish is the primary language spoken in Cuba, with locals learning basic English in school (so you will be able to get around speaking English).
5 hours behind SA.
CUC (pronounced “COOK”) is the currency and is roughly the same exchange rate to the SA Rand as the US Dollar is (at the moment it’s sitting at around R12 to 1 CUC).
Getting around the city
Taxis are available throughout the city, but they are catering to tourists and so will cost you quite a bit. One way to explore the city/get orientated is by means of the city sightseeing/hop on hop off bus. For me, the absolute best way we saw all of Havana was with Old Car Tours. We were picked up in the most spectacular vintage red Buick convertible, complete with a driver (Alex) and a local guide (Olivia) who were both born and raised in Havana, so they knew the city backwards and shared so much knowledge and insider tips and advice with us that served us well for the rest of our trip. We saw most (if not all) of the city in a comprehensive five-hour city tour.
Wifi is not easily available throughout the city. Some hotels offer it at an additional cost. We could purchase wifi vouchers at our hotel (and some of the other hotels on our street) at a cost of 3.50 CUC (+-R50) for one-hour access. So, while you will be able to access wifi, it’ll cost a bit. The fact that the city is one of the most charming and incredible places you’re likely to visit, not having instant and easy access to wifi and social networks (to distract you) really enables you to indulge and just be in the moment (you can share your experiences on social media later).
The cigar situation
I expected most restaurants and bars to offer cigars on the menu (in the same way most restaurants and bars in the middle east offer shisha), but that wasn’t the case in Havana (or at least the places we visited). When it comes to buying cigars – look for “nationalised”/approved (by the government) dealers. These establishments usually sell rum, cigars and coffee in the same place. There are many, just ensure that look for the legit places. And don’t buy cigars off of the people selling in the street. Smoking cigars seemed to be “acceptable” at most establishments and a lot of
people were casually smoking in the streets too.
Havana is truly a remarkable destination well worth a visit.
For more travelling tips, these are the apps you need if you’re travelling abroad!