Classic cars, faded signs and pastel walls scream colonial time-warp, yet there is something peculiarly beguiling about this Caribbean city on the cusp of a change, says Philip Sweeney
Where: On Cuba’s north coast
Why: One of the most historic cities of the Caribbean, Havana’s also a unique architectural, social and cultural mix
When: Avoid hurricane season Aug-Oct
Although Havana is getting very crowded, particularly in the central tourist areas, it’s still relatively relaxed and safe. There’s very little crime, but keep valuables locked away in hotel rooms.
Expect a constant mutter of “Hey! My fren’! Where you from? You wanna buy cigars?” in Old Havana (you don’t), and attempts by instant new friends to attach themselves as guide/procurer/fixer (up to you whether or not to acquiesce). There are beggars, as the ordinary Cuban still exists on a tiny wage, although a new entrepreneurial class with money is emerging. Clothing-wise, it’s casual almost everywhere.
For pre-trip reading, try Jaime Suchlicki’s Cuba: From Columbus to Castro And Beyond (Brassey’s; £21) for political history, and the detective novels of Leonardo Padura for atmosphere and lots of extra information. For music, in spite of the plethora of Cuban compilations, there isn’t one that succinctly represents the full range, but The Very Best of Cuba (Nascente) isn’t a bad intro.
By the time you enter the smallish terminal at José Martí International Airport (after a flight of around ten hours) you should have completed the customs declaration and an arrivals form, both handed out on the plane, though in practice officials often disregard the latter.
You must also have your tourist card ready or be prepared to fork out $25 for another before you go through passport control. There’s often quite a queue to get through the rickety wooden booths at passport control, then there’s a hand luggage scanner check (yes, going in) before baggage reclaim.
The exchange rate at the airport’s Cadeca office (the national chain of tourist change facilities) is as good as any in the city. If there’s a long queue at the Cadeca in arrivals, try going up a floor to the departures area. There are ATMs beside the offices, usually working but charging a hefty commission, so best kept for emergency cash.
The information desk in arrivals is fairly perfunctory: they may or may not have city maps or hotel and restaurant lists.
If you’ve paid for an airport/city transfer, look out for a uniformed rep waiting with a sign or go to the company’s office beside the arrivals exit. If you haven’t booked, plentiful taxis are available outside arrivals, the fare into town is around CUC 25 (£16).
At the airport almost all taxis are modern Cubataxis. Once in Havana though you’ll find all shapes and sizes: the classic 1950s Americans, now renovated and state-operated; small state-run Lada taxis, cheap, reliable and a bit wrecked; “private taxis” which are usually old vehicles charging Cuban pesos; coco taxis (little motorised tricycles with fibreglass covers for two passengers); and pedal-powered rickshaws known as bicitaxis.
There is also a hire car office in Arrivals: much better to have booked a car before your trip, as supplies are very short at peak periods.
If you can be bothered changing into Cuban pesos, you can pay as little as a tenth of the tourist CUC price in the smaller shops.
Don’t let the crumbling buildings and rustic decor fool you, this city is alive and kicking
The classic reconnoitre of Havana Vieja, or Old Havana, is best done on foot, but there’s a lot to see so plan in a judicious mojito pit-stop. A comprehensive tour would include the old city’s beating heart – its four great colonial plazas: de la Catedral, de Armas, de San Francisco, and Vieja. Don’t miss el Capitolio, (the National Capitol Building), the Prado boulevard, and watering holes such as el Floridita (a favourite with Hemingway).
A coach tour, available from hotel tourist offices, is a good idea to visit more distant parts such as Plaza de la Revolución, Miramar and the long Malecón seafront strip. If you want to get a better sense of this essentially flat city, there are various viewpoints: the rooftop bar of Hotel Ambos Mundos to see Old Havana and the harbour entrance; La Torre restaurant for panoramas of Vedado and the west; and the top of the José Martí Memorial in Plaza de la Revolución for the most extensive vista of all.
Most accommodation is in Old Havana (crowded, narrow streets and colonial squares), Vedado to the west (more spacious, early to mid-20th century architecture), or Miramar further west again, (leafy boulevards, elegant villas, embassies). Booking through agencies is invariably cheaper, and necessary in peak season.
Top end: Hotel Sevilla, a classic 1920s grand hotel in Old Havana and inspiration for author Graham Greene. Doubles from £80.
Mid-range: Hotel Victoria offers Cuban dance classes around its pool on weekends. Doubles from £51.
Budget: Casas particulares – private houses offering B&B – are very common and range from pretty basic to quite grand. Look for signs outside houses, inspect and pay cash to owner; expect around £16 a night.
Havana provides scope for endless exploration, but it is noisy, crowded and increasingly expensive – especially during peak seasons.
A couple of days off is tempting and there are plenty of destinations available within easy distance.
The Via Azul coach line offers comfortable transport, departing from the bus terminal on the western outskirts of town. To the west of Havana lie the lush countryside and tobacco farms of Viñales and Pinar del Rio. East is the dowdy old city of Matanzas, reachable by funky Hershey electric train line (yes, made by the US chocolate company).
A half day will get you to the ‘museum city’ of Trinidad, a small colonial gem, heavily tourist-frequented but still beautiful, or Cienfuegos, a bigger town with grand French-influenced architecture and far fewer tourists.
Population: around 2.3 million
Time: GMT -5
International dialling code: +53
Visas: All foreign visitors require
a Tourist Card, cost £20 in UK, usually supplied by the tour operator or airline you book with.
Currency: Strange dual currency system: Cuban pesos, often called moneda nacional, are used in ordinary shops to buy a small range of cheap poor quality goods. Convertible pesos (CUC) are more widely used. Approx 1.5 CUC to £1. Credit card charges are high, so cash is best.
Health issues: Health is generally not a problem. All hotels have rapid access to state doctors, for which payment will be required on the spot. It is obligatory to show medical insurance cover on entry, otherwise you’ll be obliged to buy an expensive Cuban policy. Bottled water is readily available. Food hygiene is mainly good, although occasional gastroenteritis incidents can occur.
Recommended guidebooks: The Rough Guide to Havana (Rough Guides, 2010)
Web resources: www.travel2cuba.co.uk, the site of the UK Cuban Tourism Office; Esencia Experiences, a travel operation linked to London’s Floridita restaurant, offers
a “concierge” service to arrange special interest activities.
Climate: The dry season runs Nov-April, when Havana is busy with tourists. Hurricanes can occur year-round but tend to hit in the wet season between Aug-Oct. It feels most sultry in Jul-Aug but there is a constant breeze.
Watch the teller carefully when changing or paying money to ensure they don’t substitute a one CUC bill for the ten you handed over, demanding another nine.