Last week I got back from an 11 day whirlwind of a trip through Mexico City, Quito (Ecuador), Guayaquil (Ecuador), and Havana (Cuba). After my 12 hour layover in Mexico City, I spent one night in the capital city of Quito, Ecuador and then flew to Guayaquil and spent 12 hours in the city. Afterwards, I spent two nights in Lima, Peru before spending 5 nights and 6 days in Havana, Cuba. It was my first time in Havana, Cuba and I didn’t know what to expect. Here are 100 Things I Learned From My Recent Trip to Havana Cuba:
1. Yes, you can get a Cuban visa at Lima International Airport – Since I had booked a round-trip award ticket using British Airways Avios on LAN Airlines between Lima and Havana (LIM-HAV), there was much confusion on the internet about obtaining a Cuba tourist visa at Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport because most of the reports said LAN doesn’t sell it and you have to obtain it beforehand at a local LAN Office, other airline ticket counters at LIM Airport, or the Cuban embassy. In reality, LAN Airlines does Cuban visas for $20 USD right at their ticket counters before handing you a boarding pass.
2. It’s optional to have your passport stamped at arrivals for American tourists – There’s so much confusion on the internet about the passport stamp procedures for US tourists (American Citizens). I had read that going forward all US passports would be stamped. When I arrived at Havana’s José Martí International Airport (HAV), the customs officer stamped my visa but not my passport. I asked him kindly if he could stamp my passport and he said ‘Sure!’ As of April 8 2015, it’s still optional folks.
3. Pre-booking accommodations is a must – As an American tourist, I faced large hurdles securing hotel rooms in Havana because US credit and debit cards don’t work in Cuba. I highly recommend at least securing the first night on the internet before searching for accommodations while you’re in Havana. I’ll have a further detailed post in the coming week about booking hotel accommodations as an American citizen.
4. Bring Euros, British Pounds, and Canadian Dollars instead of US Dollars – As an American, do not bring large amounts of US Dollars (only as a backup) because there is a 10% penalty in addition to the 3% surcharge when converting to the CUC (Cuban convertible peso). Your $100 USD will only be worth 87 CUC whereas if you exchange 94.55 EUR ($100 USD), you’d receive 97 CUC. By the way, the CADECA doesn’t accept monetary coins of any kind from all forms of currency.
5. Exchange your money in the departures level – There’s only one Casas de Cambio SA (CADECA) currency exchange booth in the arrivals hall and the lines get pretty long. Avoid the lines and head up to the TWO money exchange booths in the departures hall where there’s hardly any lines. By being in the departures level, you also avoid being hassled by the taxi cab mafia at HAV airport.
6. Don’t pay more than 25 CUC for a taxi at Havana International Airport – Almost everyone on your plane arriving at Havana Intl Airport will be tourists and heading to the Havana area. In the arrivals hall, taxis range from 25-40 CUC to Old Havana, Centro Havana, Vedado, and Miramar. Make a friend and split the 25 CUC ride ~ $25 USD. You can find cheaper taxis in the upstairs ‘departures’ area for 15-20 CUC if your Spanish is really good, but don’t pay more than 25 CUCs.
7. There are a lot of Jineteros in Habana Vieja (Old Habana) – If you’re wandering around in the historic Old Havana area, prepared to be pestered like crazy with a “Hi, my friend!” for a ride into their classic car, Coco taxi, pedicab, and taxi. Some of them will also try to sell you fake cigars and bother males for prostitutes and hookers. A lot of people on the internet give Jineteros and Jineteras (female hustlers) a bad name, but I see it as a form of entrepreneurship because after all, the Cuban salary is equivalent to $20 USD a month. All you have to do is politely say “No, gracias”, walk away and they will prey on their next victim.
8. There’s a lot of prostitution going on in Havana – Throughout my 6 days in the Havana area, I saw a lot of prostitution going on during the day and night time. In Cuba, prostitution is actually illegal and there’s really no red light district. Most of it is referrals from Jineteros, hotel staff or girls just simply hanging around the streets in skimpy outfits with their pimps watching from afar.
9. Never get a restaurant recommendation from a Jinetero – Like I mentioned earlier in #7, Jineteros give a bad rap to Cuba and a lot of them want to make a quick sleazy buck. One of them came up to me and said, “Do you need a place to eat?” “I know a great restaurant around the corner” and personally walked us to a Paladar (a local Cuban restaurant inside someone’s home). Needless to say, it was empty and we were given a menu with outrageous prices with each main dish being priced at a 17 CUC minimum. It was the old ‘Bait and switch’ double menu tactic (higher priced menu for tourists) and the Jinetero received his commission afterwards from the restaurant for luring unsuspecting tourists. It was not even a top 100 Paladar in Havana! Yes, I know what you’re thinking – I could have walked up and got away but it’s quite different when someone welcomes you into their home and their lovely kids are around. Yes, I got scammed and learned my lesson.
10. Always check your bill from the restaurant – In Havana, there aren’t any Point of Sale systems where they can print an itemized receipt of your restaurant bill. Everything is hand written and it’s usually just a total with nothing itemized. Always take a picture of the menu with your phone before they take the menu away so you can tally up the costs and estimate if your bill is correct. If in doubt, ask the server and he will verbally tell you how much each item costs. Be aware that some restaurants automatically add a 10% service charge (tip) to the bill, but most of them don’t.
11. Not all tips are created equal – As I’ve previously mentioned in #10, please do tip 10% for table service at nice sit down restaurants and paladars (privately owned businesses). You don’t have to tip at hole in the wall state run restaurants and they’ll give you a weird look if you do. If you’re purchasing a mojito from the bar, the chances are that it will cost 1-3 CUC tops and you don’t need to tip initially. Leave 1 CUC if you’re purchasing 2-3 drinks, but it’s really not necessary for 1 drink and they’re not going to run after you for a tip.
12. Cristal beer is really good – If there’s one beer you should try in Cuba, it’s Cristal which is one of the national beers (cerveza nacional) of Cuba and it tastes like a Corona. The other Cuban beer is Bucanero Fuerte which has a high 5.4% alcohol content and tastes pretty strong.
13. Beer is really inexpensive in Cuba – Bottled and canned beer costs 1-3 CUCs max at most bars, restaurants, and even hotels. If you’re paying more than 4 CUC for beer, then you’re doing it wrong. It’s basically happy hour prices all day every day in Cuba.
14. There are no open container laws in Cuba – You can drink your mojito or beer right on the streets just like in Brazil and Las Vegas. I wish more places in the world would have an open carry policy.
15. The bread in Cuba is super hard – I think I’ve had bread served in almost every meal and 9 times out of 10 it was rock hard. I’m not accustomed to eating hard bread and neither should you.
16. The salad in Cuba is not up to standards – You won’t find kale, romaine, or iceberg lettuce anywhere in Cuba. Instead, the salad will be mostly cucumbers and tomatoes. The tomatoes are actually quite tasty in Cuba.
17. There are a ton of Casa Particulares located in Centro Habana – A casa particular is basically a private homestay in a local Cuban’s home. You get to meet their families and kids with full interaction. The casa owner usually pays about 70 CUC’s a month to the Cuban government in exchange for renting rooms to tourists for 15-30 CUCs per night. Look for the blue elongated anchor signage that says “House for Rent Alone”.
18. There are many illegal Casa Particulares – There are actually many casa owners who are renting to foreigners and paying no monthly fee to the Cuban government. They operate like ghosts and are only available word of mouth. They typically run at about 10-15 CUC per night and the casa owner will tell you to hush hush and keep it on the down low because they can be thrown into jail for running an illegal business.
19. The streets of Centro Havana are dilapidated – I knew from pictures that Central Havana (Habana Centro) is worn out, but when you actually see it in person, it’s totally different and surreal at the same time. I heard that one building a day crumbles in Cuba because of the lack of structural integrity and infrastructure.
20. The Malecon is definitely a sight to see – The malecon is an oceanfront sea wall in Havana where you can catch an ocean breeze and stroll down for miles and miles. Be careful when crossing the 5 lane street to reach the oceanfront boardwalk because there aren’t any stop signs or signal lights to aid you. I highly recommend a stroll on the malecon during the sunset because it’s absolutely gorgeous.
21. Cars always have the right of way – It’s common in Latin America where cars have the right of way. Pedestrians are always at risk when crossing the street legally or illegally. When you cross the street illegally, the cars are not going to slow down – they will only speed up so you can react faster to get out of their way.
22. There is a dual currency system in Cuba – Cuba is probably the only country in the world that runs on a dual currency system, the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC). According to XE.com, the official exchange rate is 1 CUC = 26.5 CUP. The Cuban CADECA (exchange office) will offer you a 1 CUC to 24 CUP exchange ratio. For most tourists, they will only use the CUC. For the more adventurous, the Cubano peso is a great way to save A LOT of money. I will have a detailed post about the dual Cuban currency system in the coming week.
23. Cubans really do make on average 20 CUC per month – Whatever you read on the internet is true and doctors make the top end 30 CUC per month. The sad reality is that doctors have to have second jobs and work independently in the tourist industry.
24. It’s quite easy to change money in the street – Once you get to know a few local Cubans, they’re willing to give you a more favorable exchange rate than the CADECA. I was able to get a 1:1 even exchange on the US Dollar to CUC because a local Cuban had no use for his US dollars. On the other hand, I was able to exchange 1 CUC to 24 Cuban pesos at a local peso vendor stall and avoid going to the CADECA.
25. You can change money at big hotels – Instead of standing in the long lines at the large official CADECA offices (such as on Obispo Street), you can visit the hotel and they will have the same rates as the CADECA.
26. You’ll either love peso stalls or hate them – A peso stall is basically a fast food restaurant run out of someone’s window. They put up a signage with a list of items and prices. When the items run out or are unavailable, they take the sign down. Keep in mind peso stall prices are always in Cuban Pesos (CUP) or moneda nacional (MN). Again, most tourists won’t be visiting these stalls as they are for the more adventurous and I will have a post later in the week about peso stalls and restaurants.
27. It’s really hard to find bottled water in Havana – It’s important to stay hydrated in Cuba because of its intense temperatures and high humidity. With that said, water is almost incredibly hard to find because you can’t just stroll down to the nearest corner street and find them. You’ll need to seek them out like it’s a precious valuable asset and horde them whenever possible. Water is sold in hard currency (CUC) and is usually priced at 1 CUC. I was able to get bottled water ranging from the small size to the larger sizes for 1 CUC.
28. Don’t forget to bring your toiletries from home – When in Cuba, you can’t just say “I need to run to CVS or Walgreens around the corner to pick up some tampons” This is practically impossible (just like water in #27) because you’ll spend half your day looking for the correct store to find them. Even if you do find them, it won’t be of the high quality standards that you’re used to back home.
29. Bring toilet paper and tissue paper – I stayed at 20 CUC to 149 CUC priced hotels in Havana and not one place had a box of tissues available. At least one roll of toilet paper should be brought because it really is still a scarce commodity in Cuba. Tissue paper also becomes handy when you’re trying out street food in Cuba.
30. The views of Centro Havana are absolutely stunning – Even though I mentioned in #19 that the streets of Centro Habana are dilapidated, there’s just something about the sheer beauty of these colorful deteriorating buildings.
31. Breakfast is included at every hotel – They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day and nothing beats a free breakfast to jump start your day for sightseeing. However, the quality of the breakfast can vary from hotel to hotel. Some hotels have a plate breakfast, but most offer a breakfast buffet.
32. Most casa particulares don’t include breakfast – I mentioned in #31 that breakfast is included at all ‘hotels’ and I can’t say the same for casa particular private homestays. The casa owner will usually offer you an option to purchase breakfast for 3-6 CUCs which is really not worth it. It will almost always be some sort of eggs at a minimum.
33. Definitely stay one night in a casa particular – Casa particulares in Havana is definitely quite an experience different from a hotel. You can actually interact with local Cubans and make a few friends along the way. Sometimes they can help you arrange tours, taxis, and be your private insider guide in Havana. They range from 15-30 CUC, but there are more exotic casas where I’ll explain in a later separate post.
34. The coffee in Cuba is ridiculously good – I’ve had my fair share of coffee around the world and there’s just something about Cuban coffee that makes it unique. The Cuban coffee taste is sweet and almost dessert like. Starbucks hasn’t come into town yet and it’s very hard or impossible to find coffee ‘para llevar’ in a to-go container cup.
35. Trying a Bocadito de Helado is a must – A Bocadito de Helado is a traditional Cuban ice cream sandwich which has a crunchy texture. They’re mostly sold in peso stalls and you haven’t been to Cuba until you’ve tried one of these bad boys for 10 Cuban moneda nacional (MN) pesos (CUP) ~ $0.37 USD.
36. You can buy fresh fruit with Cuban pesos (CUP) – It’s not hard to find fresh fruits sold from a wheelbarrow or makeshift cart from a vendor in Centro Habana. It’s a bargain to purchase fruits for 10 CUP or less ~ $0.37 USD.
37. There’s no internet access on cell phones in Cuba – The age of smartphones haven’t caught on in Cuba yet and there’s only 1 cell phone carrier, Cubacel. Cubacel only has a calling plan and no access to the internet. Basically Cubacel has a monopoly with their cell phone services and it’s owned by ETECSA which is owned by the Cuban government who forbids Cubans wide access to internet.
38. Payphones are everywhere – There a large abundance of payphones since having any type of cell phone is considered a luxury item in Cuba. It’s rare to see someone in Cuba talk on a cell phone because Cubacel is quite expensive on a per minute basis.
39. Landlines are king in Cuba – Yes, people in Cuba still use landline phones to call other people. Call it retro, but it’s pretty cool to see rotary phones being put to use again.
40. Pan con pasta is not what you think it is – No matter what you do, never order Pan c/ Pasta from a peso stall (it’s not what you think). I thought it was bread with pasta and boy was I wrong. When the pan con pasta came out, it was basically a bun with a pink slime spread which looked disgusting. I later Google’d it and found out it was bread with a garlic mayonnaise filling. It only set me back 3 Cuban pesos ~ $0.11 USD but it was not worth the trouble.
41. Bring your own plastic utensils – If you’re brave enough to eat street food, you’d be surprised on how many places don’t have plastic utensils at their disposal. As with #28 and #29, bring your own utensils because it’s also useful if you have leftovers and want to eat it back at your hotel or casa.
42. Haggling is a must in Cuba – Whenever I visit Latin America countries, I try not to haggle anymore for goods and services because I’m mostly always quoted fair price. If I don’t like the price, I’d walk away and it will be cheaper somewhere else. If you look like a foreigner, you’re going to be quoted outrageous prices. For example, a taxi from Old Havana to Miramar should not cost more than 5 CUC and you’d be quoted upwards of 15-20 CUC. In Havana, you should pay no more than 5 CUC for a ride between Old Havana, Centro Habana, Vedado, and Miramar.
43. You should never pay in CUC for street food – Old Havana is where you will likely encounter this where there are street vendors everywhere but the prices aren’t displayed. For something that costs 5 moneda nacional ~ $0.18 USD (like churros or a slice of cake), a foreigner would be quoted 1-2 CUCs. Don’t get scammed and just walk away.
44. Cubans are some of the friendliest people in the world – As I mentioned earlier in #7, Jineteros and Jineteras are less than 1% of the population of Cuba and 99% of the rest are super friendly. If you ask a Cuban for directions, they will go out of their way to help out find what you need. Cubans will openly invite you into their homes and offer you coffee and strike up a conversation with you.
45. Some Cubans still don’t like Americans – When traveling in Latin America, it’s best to try and blend in with the locals but in Cuba it’s quite hard. As an Asian American, I just tell people that I’m from China (soy Chino) so I don’t get into an American debate with politics. My friend who is a white American traveled with me pretended to be a Canadian.
46. Cuban police aren’t friendly – Cuban police officers are stationed all over in Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and don’t even try to smile or say hello to them because you’re not going to get any response back. With their meager 20 CUC monthly salary, no wonder they are depressed with their jobs. However, they are friendly with jineteros somehow. If you have questions, it’s best to ask a Cuban on the street or the nearest hotel staff.
47. Travel agencies at hotels don’t have computers – When booking tours with travel agents stationed in hotels, they don’t have computers. It’s basically a large 3 ring binder full of tour information and if you are interested in a specific package, they will pick up their landline phone to book it for you. Be prepared to wait because sometimes they have to call multiple times to different offices just to contact someone.
48. Bicitaxis are a great way to get around – Bicitaxis are basically rickshaws and pedicabs in Cuba. It’s a really inexpensive form of transportation to get around Centro Havana because a lot of the streets are narrow and one-ways. Although unsafe, they’re great for short distances but be aware of the bicycle taxi scammers who want to charge you 5 CUC for a 2 minute ride to unsuspecting tourists. Mostly local Cubans take these bike cabs and pay in moneda nacional for less than 50 cents a ride.
49. CocoTaxis are quite dangerous – A Coco Taxi is basically a modified motorcycle taxi with 4 seats including the driver himself. They cost less than regular taxis but they’re really dangerous when they’re sharing the main roads because there aren’t any passenger safety features.
50. Some Cubans have iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus – The reality is that some Cubans are very well off because they have family and friends who provide them with the latest technologies. There’s a big misconception that all Cubans are poor, but you’d be surprise on how wealthy some of them are. I’ve had several more Cubans working at state run restaurants show me their iPhone 6’s because they saw mine.
51. Foreigners can-not buy a prepaid GSM SIM card from Cubacel – The Etesca store on Calle Obispo in Old Havana will not sell a pre-paid SIM Card to a tourist. There are other ways around this – such as asking a local Cuban to open a new line for you using their I.D. or purchasing the card on the black market for a higher price. I’m not sure why you’d need one in Cuba because the calling rates are ridiculously high.
52. You won’t see cell phone usage at restaurants – It’s quite refreshing to relax and dine in a restaurant where all the patrons aren’t fiddling with their cell phones – everyone is actually enjoying themselves and having real conversations with the person next to them.
53. Cuba is really laid back – With no constant cell phone connectivity to the internet, it feels like you’re really on vacation. I thought with no constant internet access, time would pass by slowly but that was quite the opposite. I didn’t mind waiting in queues, relaxing in the pool for a longer period of time, and I enjoyed walking everywhere.
54. Be prepared to queue a lot – As I mentioned in #53, Cuba is really laid back. A lot of this has to do with the Cuban culture of hospitality and kindness. Sometimes there’s only one cashier at a store and a queue of 5 people. You might think that the queue is going to go quickly, but think again – the cashier is having a heart to heart talk with the person in front of them talking about family and what they did on the weekend. You cannot interrupt them or else they will snap back at you. There is no ‘rapid’ service in Cuba and you’re going to have to learn to wait. Sometimes there will be a queue of 10 people waiting to check-in at a hotel and only 1 or 2 front desk employees. Again, they’re going to take their sweet time, but don’t take it the wrong way – that’s the Cuban way of life.
55. Five minutes does not literally mean 5 minutes – As I previously mentioned in #53 and #54, Cuba is really laid back, so be prepared to queue a lot. When a Cuban tells you, “Please wait 5 minutes”, it’s a generic term which means they don’t know when. It’s not literally 5 minutes and it could be 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, or never. Don’t take it the wrong way, but never ask “How long is this going to take?” to a Cuban.
56. Wireless Internet is only available to government officials and select hotels – High speed Internet Access in Cuba is available, but it’s only for government officials in their offices and their homes such as in upscale Miramar neighborhood. Select larger hotels also have Wi-Fi internet available (usually in the lobby only), but for a fee which ranges from 4.5 CUC to 10 CUC for an hour’s use. I’ll have a separate blog post later all about internet access in Cuba in the coming week.
57. There are actual peso taxis with shared passengers – Peso taxis are basically old beat up 1950’s cars that give rides primarily to local Cubans. It’s called a peso taxi because they’ll never pay more than 20 CUP (moneda nacional) ~ $0.75 USD for a ride in Havana. There is however a catch to this – the taxi can fit up to 5 riders and they pick up passengers along the way going in the same direction. If you ‘look like a local’ you’ll be able to ride cheaply in Havana. If you look like a gringo, you’ll be quoted 5-10 CUCs in these beat up cars.
58. Use Peso taxis to your advantage – As I mentioned in #57, peso taxis are shared taxis. However, use them to your advantage because they can be a very inexpensive form of transportation. I’ve haggled rides in these peso taxis for 3-5 CUC to get around Havana and they won’t pick up any passengers along the way (it will act like a regular taxi, but in a more worn out clunker car).
59. Museum entrance fees have 2 prices – With the dual currency system in place, you can enter the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts) in Havana for 5 MN or 5 CUC. If you look like a Cuban local, you will pay 5 MN $0.18 USD but if you look like a gringo, you will pay 5 CUCs ~ $5 USD. That’s such a huge price disparity!
60. A hamburger in Cuba isn’t what you’d expect – I ordered the Hamburguesa Especial con Pollo, Jamon, Chorizo, Perrito y Queso. It was basically a burger with 4 different types of meats with cheese.
61. Never pay more than 4.50 CUC per hour for Wi-Fi internet – As I’ve previously mentioned, Wi-Fi is only available at select hotels in Havana but the price range varies. Hotels in Old Havana and Vedado charge 8-10 CUC per hour for internet access. You can buy these scratch off 1 hour nauta internet cards at the ETECSA store on Calle Obispo. A 30 minute nauta card only costs 2.25 CUCs.
62. There aren’t any homeless people – Even though Cuba is a poor country, you won’t find beggars on the streets or homeless people sleeping on the streets. The Cuban government does its best to take care of all their people.
63. Musicians are aggressive with the tip hat – Whenever you’re at a bar or restaurant with live performances, one of the performers will go around with a ‘tip hat’. They won’t speak English, but they know how to say the words “tip for the music” and won’t go away if you don’t tip them. Expect a tip hat to go around every few songs.
64. The image of Che Guevera is plastered everywhere – Che Guevara was one of the revolutionary leaders who helped shaped what Cuba is today. You can’t get away from seeing Che Guevara on murals, t-shirts, hats, and even in the front of people’s homes.
65. Some stores are priced in CUP and CUC – I went to a few markets in Havana where there will be prices listed in Cuban Pesos (CUP) and Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) with a tipo de cambo of 1:25 (1 CUC = 25 CUP).
66. Havana Club rum is pretty cheap – An entire bottle of Havana Club rum only costs 2.95 CUC taxes included which is a complete bargain. Where else in the world can you get a bottle of rum for less than $3? No wonder mojitos in Havana only cost 1 CUC!
67. The Vedado neighborhood is quite charming – The Vedado neighborhood in Havana resembles somewhat of a middle class neighborhood with homes and garage doors. In Cuba and mostly Latin America, you’re either rich or your poor – the middle class doesn’t exist.
68. The movie theaters in Cuba are inexpensive – Even though museums have a large disparity in price for nationals and tourists, movie theater admission is priced in Cuban pesos. Yes, tourists can pay in moneda nacional to watch a movie. There aren’t any English subtitled movies, so you better brush up on your Espanol.
69. Luxury penthouses do exist in Cuba – I didn’t realize there were luxury ‘casas’ available, but my friend had one on reservation in the Vedado neighborhood. Most of the luxury rooftop penthouse accommodations are located in Vedado and Miramar and it feels like you’re not in Cuba.
70. Portions are often large in Cuba – I had ordered a Risotto Criollo con Pollo (Chicken with rice) for 3 CUC at a restaurant in Vedado and I didn’t think it would be a big portion for such a small amount of money. When the dish came out, it looked like it could feed a family of 4. The menu did not state the portion size was large either.
71. Cocktails are inexpensive in Cuba – As I mentioned earlier that beer is inexpensive, cocktails are equally cheap in Cuba whether it’s at a bar, restaurant, or at a resort hotel. The prices are 1-3 CUC, so it’s pretty much happy hour all day in Cuba.
72. You don’t have to use the entire ‘1 hour’ Wi-Fi card all at once – As I’ve previously mentioned, Wi-Fi is purchased in blocks of 30minutes – 1 hour on scratch off cards. It doesn’t mean that you have to use up the entire time-frame all at once. You can actually ‘log-out’ at any time and resume your session later.
73. The La Rampa district in Vedado is quite interesting – My favorite neighborhood in Havana is Vedado and it’s a little non-touristy. There’s a main strip in Vedado called ‘La Rampa’ where there’s a ton of restaurants, bars, and nightlife.
74. The line for Coppelia ice cream is ridiculous – Once you head to Coppelia Park in the Vedado neighborhood, you will a ton of Cubans standing around waiting in line for ice cream. The line wraps around several corners of the block.
75. There are actually 2 lines at Soderia Coppelia – As I mentioned there’s a long line for Coppelia ice cream, but that’s actually if you want to pay in moneda nacional (CUP). There’s a seperate line (actually almost always no lines) where you can get your ice cream fix, but the payment is in CUCs.
76. Peso pizza is pretty good – Out of all the street foods I’ve tasted in Havana, I’d have to say that the pizza is the best. Best of all, a whole cheese pizza is only 10 CUP’s ~ $0.37 USD. If you want to add toppings like onions, they’re usually 5 more CUP ~ $0.18 USD.
77. Peso pizza is eaten like a taco – Even though you get your own personal portion of pizza, it’s not sliced at all. The way to eat it like the Cubans is to fold it in half and devour it from the side, just like a taco.
78. Tourists can eat at peso restaurants – There’s a big misconceptions that tourists can only dine at CUC restaurants, but the reality is that you can eat at sit down CUP restaurants and pay in moneda nacional. I went to a restuarant in Vedado called Los Lirios where you can feast on Pollo con Arroz Moro, Ensalada, y Papas (Chicken with red beans and rice, salad, and potatoes) for 25 CUP ~ $0.94 USD.
79. Be careful of the casa breakfasts – As I’ve previously mentioned that a lot of casa particulares owners who will try to upsell you breakfast for 3-6 CUC, but it’s usually just comprised of eggs and coffee with the hard Cuban bread.
80. Cuban school buses look American – Cuba uses American-style yellow school buses which imported from Canada and then painted.
81. Cuban department stores actually exist – Okay actually they don’t. It’s basically a storefront with a counter where customers can order furniture, mattresses, cologne, perfume, etc. I’d be pretty scared to order a mattress or furniture off a catalog in the store without actually seeing the product in person.
82. Speaking Spanish helps tremendously – If you don’t speak or understand Spanish, you’re going to have a rough time enjoying Cuba because 95% of the Cuban population is not fluent in English. In addition, the more Spanish you know, the richer your experience and the less expensive taxi rides will be.
83. There are two main long distance bus companies in Cuba – There aren’t many long distance bus companies in Cuba, but again there is a high price disparity between the two. One company is called Astro where you pay in moneda nacional (CUP) and the other is Viazul where you pay in the more expensive CUC currency. You can catch the Astro bus at Terminal de Omnibus Nacionales and the Viazul bus at Casa Matriz in North Vedado, near the Zoologico. Tourists usually can’t catch the less expensive Astro bus because its reserved for Cuban citizens.
84. Peso markets are empty – It’s quite common to see empty shelves with the same repetitive item at peso markets which only accept the CUP currency, moneda nacional (MN).
85. There’s actually a Chinatown in Havana – Out of all places in the world, I wouldn’t have thought Havana would have a Chinatown. The Chinese population in Havana is less than 1%, but I went to a Chinese restaurant where there was an actual Chinese chef.
86. Cubataxi’s are pretty cheap – Cubataxi is the official taxi of Cuba where they’re painted yellow and black. They’re easy to spot and the prices are 10MN ~ $0.37 USD for distances 0-10 kilometers and 20MN ~ $0.75 for distances greater than 20 kilometers. Cuban nationals never pay more than 1 CUC to get around Havana, ever. Good luck paying these cheap prices as a gringo!
87. You can’t buy intra Cuban flights as an American Citizen – My friend wanted to go to Cayo Largo del Sur and he had frustrating time finding a travel agent to book a flight from Havana (Playa Baracoa Airport) to Cayo Largo. The reason is that he holds an American passport and they need a non-American passport in order to sell a flight. He even got rejected at the AeroGaviota and Aero Caribbean physical airport ticket counters because they demanded to see a non-US passport.
88. You can take the public bus for 1 CUP – There’s actually public transportation available in Havana where the cost is only 1 Cuban peso (moneda nacional) ~ $0.03 USD. My friend took bus 27 from Habana Vieja to the Viazul Bus Station in North Vedado for 3 cents! It literally costs nothing to take the bus in Cuba.
89. The Miramar neighborhood is really upscale – Miramar wasn’t one of my favorite neighborhoods because there isn’t much to do as a tourist except to stay bubbled up at your resort hotel. It’s far from everything and it’s basically a bunch of upscale homes with embassies from different countries.
90. There are some really nice hotels in Miramar – The Melia Havana hotel in Miramar feels like a typical resort hotel and people wouldn’t believe you’re actually in Cuba. It’s one of the nicest hotels in Havana with an outstanding pool.
91. You can get a free ride to Old Havana from Miramar hotels – Several hotels such as the Melia Havana and Memories Miramar offer free shuttles to Habana Vieja (Old Havana). This could save you 15-20 CUCs alone, but be aware of the times as it only runs 4 times a day. Conversely, you can catch a free ride back to the Miramar neighborhood as well.
92. It’s quite easy to get scammed with the 3 peso/1 CUC coin – Be careful when receiving change because the 1 CUC coin ~ $1 USD looks exactly like the 3 CUP coin which is worth $0.11 USD! They both have the same color characters and are even the same size. The only difference is that the 3 peso coin has an image of Che Guevara on it, so be careful and always look at your change.
93. Avoid taking taxis that linger in front of hotels and tourist areas – If you want to pay the expensive gringo price, take the first taxi you see when you get out of your hotel or have the jinetero lead you to one. The price dramatically decreases when you pick up a taxi away from the hotel and on the main or side streets.
94. Never pay more than 15 CUC for a taxi to Havana Airport – It’s quite easy to find a taxi in the Havana area (Old Havana, Centro Habana, Vedado, Miramar) to take you to HAV international airport for 15 CUCs. For better results pick out a beat up street peso taxi who will take you there (without picking up other passengers).
95. Always change your leftover CUCs and CUPs – There are two money exchange CADECA’s in the departures level of Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport (HAV). You can’t change Cuban Pesos and Cuban Convertible pesos anywhere else in the world besides Cuba. You’ll get hit with a small 3% commission when converting, but it’s better than it being worthless. I kept a few CUP’s myself as souvenirs.
96. There’s a 25 CUC departure tax at HAV Airport – Don’t forget to set aside 25 CUCs for the exit tax at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. You’ll need to pay this after you retrieve your boarding pass from the airline ticket counter. [Edit: As of May 1, 2015, the departure tax will be included in airline tickets, so no need to pay 25 CUC at the airport before leaving]
97. Everything at Havana International Airport is a rip-off – The Cuban government is banking on tourists on forgetting to convert their money back and spend it all past security at HAV International Airport. I don’t know anywhere in the world where a stack of Pringles would cost a whopping 5.90 CUCs ~ $5.90 USD!
98. Wireless Internet Access at HAV Airport is a hit or miss – I was excited when I landed at Havana Intl Airport and the wireless network “NAUTA AEROPUERTO” came up, but there was nowhere to buy internet cards. When I got to Havana Airport, I was armed with a ‘scratch off’ 1 hour internet card and to my dismay, the wireless internet hotspot couldn’t connect. However, you can use desktop computers with internet access for 5 CUC/15 minutes which is a complete rip-off.
99. U.S Customs doesn’t care if Americans visit Cuba – Go ahead and get your Cuban passport stamped because you won’t be hassled when you come back to the United States. There hasn’t been a single case in history where an American Citizen has travelled illegal to Cuba and fined.
100. Making a list like this wasn’t easy – Since President Obama is on the verge of ending the embargo, you definitely need to book a trip to Cuba before the Starbucks and McDonalds invasion. I wanted to get as much information out there for Americans and tourists alike who want to visit Cuba before everything changes.
Thanks for reading and let me know if you have any questions in the comments below.