A Budget Traveler’s Guide to Havana

By Ed Easton

In January 1959 Fidel Castro Ruz and his guerilla army overthrew the United States-backed regime of Fulgencio Batista, claimed victory in the Cuban Revolution and established the first Marxist government in the Western Hemisphere. These events took place during the height of the Cold War, and the U.S. was not happy to see one of its allies overthrown by communists. Trade sanctions soon were imposed on the island and the CIA launched several attempts to overthrow the revolutionary government and assassinate its Prime Minister, Fidel Castro. Things came to a head in October 1962 when U.S. spy planes discovered Soviet missiles in Cuba, resulting in a crisis that brought the world closer to nuclear war than it has ever come. After this, President Kennedy imposed a complete trade embargo against Cuba, forbidding all U.S. citizens from engaging in travel, tourism or trade with Cuba.

In the 41 years since the revolution, U.S. policy toward Cuba has only gotten worse. Further restrictions have been placed on the island. The 1996 Helms-Burton act made it possible for U.S. companies to sue trade partners that do business with Cuba and has made it impossible for the Cuban government to fulfill its obligations of repaying debts to U.S. companies whose property was seized after the revolution.

But the truth is that, since the revolution, the Cuban people have never been better off. Castro’s government established a system of universal health care, made sure that all citizens have adequate food and housing, abolished racial discrimination and set up an educational system many consider to be unparalleled in the Americas. Cuba has so many highly trained medical doctors that it sends thousands of them to the four corners of the Earth for free every year.

Cuba is a beautiful island and there should be no reason for travelers to fear going there. Cuba already boasts a huge tourist industry with luxury hotels, resorts and tour packages designed for rich foreigners, but few people realize that that the island is perfect for backpackers and budget travelers. Why stay in overpriced hotels or eat in expensive restaurants when you can rent a room and eat your meals in a private home for $20 a day? Why stick to an organized tour when you can go out on your own and explore the real Cuba?

The entire island is easily accessible to travelers, but it may be best to start with the capital. Havana already is a popular travel destination for people throughout the world, and the city is easy to explore on a short vacation. While a week may not seem like enough time to enjoy the sights and sounds of Cuba, a week in Havana will leave you satisfied that you have seen enough to know what makes this island so special.

This guide will tell you everything you will need to know about getting to Cuba and what you will need to know to have an educational and fun-filled trip to Havana.

Getting to Cuba

While it is not technically illegal for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, the U.S. State Department forbids citizens from spending money in Cuba. The Catch-22 is that you must pay a US $25 exit tax when leaving Cuba, and are thus guilty of violating international trade laws.

But travel to Cuba is becoming increasingly popular among U.S. citizens, and the State Department has convicted only three people of violating the embargo since 1977. Cuban customs agents are even courteous enough to not stamp your passport upon entry.

Direct flights to Havana leave Miami, Fla. daily, but these flights are reserved for passengers with permission to travel to Cuba for academic, humanitarian or journalistic purposes. This is not a problem because Cuba is happy to let U.S. citizens enter the country. The best way to get to Cuba is to book a flight through a third country, such as Canada, Mexico or the Bahamas.

A number of airlines service Havana, such as Russia’s Aeroflot, but Cubana Airlines is one of the easiest to get reservations for: simply visit the company’s Web site (www.cubana.cu) and find an agent in the third country you wish to travel through. Cubana and its tourist agency, Habanatur, have offices in Canada, Mexico and throughout the Caribbean. You likely will have to pay cash for your visas and plane tickets when you get to that country, so leave yourself plenty of time between connecting flights.

It may be best to fly through the Bahamas, as U.S. citizens can enter that country with only a birth certificate, drivers license and Social Security card, rather than using your passport which you should reserve for Cuba. Remember that you will need to pay a $20 exit tax in cash when leaving the Bahamas.

You will also need to carry cash for all of your expenses in Cuba. A few banks and hotels in Cuba will cash travelers checks issued by U.S. companies, but you will not be able to use any U.S. credit cards or ATM cards in Cuba. You should be able to live off of $500 for a good week in Havana, but it may be wise to bring extra cash in case of emergency.

Most international flights to Havana land at the Jose Marti International Airport, 20 km outside the city. After clearing Cuban customs, you will exit through two frosted glass doors, where you will be accosted by taxi drivers and other people trying to offer rides or other services. Go past these people, and you will find a cab stand where the drivers who will be easier to negotiate with.

If you do not have reservations, many taxi drivers will be happy to recommend a hotel or private home for you to stay at, as they likely will receive a commission for bringing travelers to the hotel or homeowner. Most drivers at the airport speak enough English to help you out. Negotiate a price before getting in the car, and do not pay more than $20 for either the cab ride or the room—offer to pay $15 and see where that gets you.

Travelers should note that Cuba uses two types of currency—the Cuban peso and the U.S. dollar, both of which use the $ sign. Stores sometimes will try to charge dollar prices for peso goods, so it is wise to offer pesos until you are asked to pay in dollars. The farther you get from the city center, the more peso stores you will encounter and you will pay less than half of what you would pay in dollar stores. Due to economic restrictions, the peso and the dollar exchange at 1 to 1, but banks and currency exchanges will give you at least 20 pesos for each dollar.

Havana and the Cuban People

Havana (pop. 2.2 million) has been Cuba’s capital since the 1500s, and is a showpiece of some of the best colonial architecture in the Americas. A bustling metropolis only 90 miles from Key West, Fla., the southernmost point of the U.S., Havana seems a world away. The crumbling streets and facades of buildings betray the well-kept homes and fairly clean restaurants hidden inside. People fill the streets at all hours, rushing off to someplace or another or sitting on their doorsteps talking with friends. Classic American cars from the 1950s cruise slowly down the street, packed with people.

Havana is a huge, sprawling city, but most of the action takes place in two districts: Central Havana and La Habana Vieja or Old Havana. The city center is crowded with concrete high-rise apartments like you would see in any socialist country, as well as hundreds of stores and restaurants, which give the traveler the opportunity to see how the people of Havana really live. This area is not as touristed as the old city, so it lets you avoid many of the overpriced tourist outlets of Old Havana.

But Old Havana is the part of the city that houses most of the sights. Situated on the north cost of the city, Old Havana is the site of what is left of Cuba’s colonial heritage, including cobblestone streets and grandiose palaces that have been converted into museums celebrating Cuba’s history and culture.

Havana does have some lovely sand beaches to the east and west, but taxi drivers often demand exorbitant rates ($15 each way!) from foreigners who wish to get to the beach. You may have to settle for the rocky beaches nearby.

Avoid the crowded public buses. These are the site of Havana’s most widespread crime, pickpocketing, and not even the locals are safe.

On the north shore of the city is Havana’s Malecon. Originally built as a sea wall to hold back storm surges and as a place for people to bathe, the Malecon crowds with people who come to swim, socialize or—occasionally—float to Miami.

The Cuban people may be one of the best reasons to visit Havana. Cubans always seem friendly and hardly ever fail to return a smile or a wave. While conversations about government may make some Cubans nervous, many will be happy to talk about their daily lives, their city and their country. Cuban men will always offer to find male travelers a date for the night and Cuban girls almost always giggle at a coy look.

Cuba may have the best race relations in the world. The Cuban government banned all forms of racial discrimination after the revolution, so everyone has the same access to jobs, housing and any other social service. A mixture of Latinos, mulattos and blacks, the Cubans seem to be color blind, walking hand in hand with friends and lovers from the island’s rainbow of ethnicities. If you have any problems with the idea of mixed-race relationships, Cuba is not the place for you.

One word of warning is not to get the Cuban people in trouble. Criticizing the government is illegal and officials from a neighborhood watch group, known as the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, may be listening for any anti-government activity. Many Cubans no longer fear the CRD, but it is best not to place your new friends in a compromising position. Police also may stop male travelers walking with Cuban women to make sure the women are not prostitutes.

Where to Stay

As stated above, finding a hotel or a room in a private home in Havana is not hard at all. Most budget travelers, however, could not afford to stay in one of Havana’s hotels, which can start at $100 a night. Starting at about $10 a night for a cheap room, private homes are the way to go.

Most Cuban people who rent out rooms in their homes are genuinely nice people who only want to earn some extra money to buy food, clothes and other personal goods not supplied by government socialism. Though the exteriors may be falling apart, Cubans keep their homes clean. Many of those renting rooms to foreigners will be happy to go an extra step, offering to cook delicious meals at prices far below those of the restaurants in the city (under $5 for dinner for two) or helping to arrange cab rides or train tickets at prices no foreigner could bargain for.

If asking a taxi driver about a private room doesn’t work out, Old and Central Havana are littered with signs offering Habitaciones or Casas Particulares for foreigners (para los extranjeros). Many of these are clearing houses for people who want to rent out rooms in their homes, and most can help find exactly what you are looking for—locations in the city, single or double rooms, private bathrooms, the right price or meals included in the rent. These people will take you to a series of homes and let you pick the one that suits you best. Always agree on what you are getting before you hand over any money.

Private businesses are not legal under Cuba’s communist system, but special policies have been made for renting rooms to foreigners, and such homeowners must pay the government about U.S. $100 in taxes a month, whether they have visitors or not. Because of the high taxes, many people do not register with the government and are doing business under the table; even good people need to break the law at times, so don’t go around telling everyone your host’s name and address.

Food and Health

Cuban food is not fancy, but it is delicious. Meat is the mainstay of most Cuban meals, and it can be prepared in a number of ways, including roast, fried, boiled or baked. The most popular meats are chicken and pork, because beef and fish are not widely available to the public. The Cuban government owns all beef cattle on the island, and most beef goes directly to the tourist resorts to be sold at high prices. Supplement the meat with black beans and rice (moros y christianos) or red beans and rice (congris), and you have a basic Cuban meal. Cubans are not big on veggies, but starchy plants, such as plantains (sweet bananas, usually fried) or yuca (a type of root, boiled, baked or fried) may show up on your plate. Desserts may include candied papaya or ice cream. A popular Cuban saying is that ice cream and sex are the two things the government can’t take away.

Cuban coffee, sweet espresso served in tiny teacups, is served all day long and can provide a quick burst of energy on a tired afternoon.

While it may be best to avoid overpriced restaurants in favor of eating at a private home, Havana can be a snacker’s paradise. Many homeowners serve food and drinks from the windows of their homes for pesos. While the quality of this food can vary, you can pick up a pizza or a sandwich on the go for only pennies.

A serious word of warning is to avoid drinking tap water. Cuba is a third world country and does not have the same sanitation requirements as developed nations. Harmful bacteria can give you a bad case of "Batista’s Revenge," which can put you out of commission for a few days or possibly send you to the hospital. Not to worry though, bottled water, soft drinks and juices are available everywhere. When all else fails, drink beer.

Foreigners may find Cuban beer tasteless, even by American standards, because of the inability to grow certain ingredients in the tropics. Cuban rum, on the other hand, is some of the best in the world. After buying a bottle of seven-year-old Habana Club Dark for $6, you may never be able to drink other rums again.

Cuba is not famous only for its rums, but also its rum drinks. Try a daiquiri at its birthplace, La Florita bar in downtown Havana, sip a mojito (rum, crushed mint leaves, lemon juice, sugar and soda water over ice) anywhere in the city or ask your bartender to recommend his (Cuban bartenders are traditionally men) favorite native cocktail.

What to See and Do

You are not likely to get bored in Havana. You can spend your days touring the city’s dozens of museums, which include everything from arts, sciences, music and culture to colonial and revolutionary history. And when you get tired of those, you can walk the streets and watch the Cubans do what they do best, hang out. You can meander through crowded craft and book markets looking for those hard to find souvenirs and collectibles or sit in the shade of one of Havana’s many parks. When all else fails, stop into a café for coffee or a few drinks before dinner.

Cafes are some of the best places to meet people in Havana. Many people will be interested in where you’re from and what you do, and they won’t hesitate to tell you about themselves and their lives.

Watch out for hustlers. A lot of people hang around bars waiting to find a foreigner to buy drinks for them or buy cigars from them at inflated prices. And use good judgement if someone offers any type of service, such as taking you to another bar or restaurant.

After an afternoon rest, you’ll be ready to go out at night.

Havana’s nightlife is world famous. Originally owned and operated by American mobsters since the 1920s, many of Havana’s bars, nightclubs and cabarets have changed little since the revolution. One of the most famous cabarets, The Tropicana, still features an excellent floorshow, a showcase of half-naked dancing girls and native Cuban music, but is very expensive at $30 a head. Budget travelers will be just as happy watching some of the lower priced cabaret shows or visiting local nightclubs, such as Oasis, which gives them an opportunity to see the genuine Cuban nightlife with no loss in entertainment value. Many of these clubs even offer tasty, low-priced dinners included in the door charge ($5-$10).

Many of the bars from Havana’s golden era are still alive and well. The prices are comparable to other bars ($2-$3 for a cocktail), but these places, with their tuxedoed waitstaffs, clientele decked out in their finest and polished mahogany interiors, are an elegant flashback to the days of Al Capone, Myer Lansky and Bugsy Seigel.

Crime and Safety

Havana is a surprisingly safe city. Locals fill the streets at all hours of night, and no one has any reason to fear walking alone. Crimes against tourist are practically nonexistent because these crimes bring a mandatory 4-year prison sentence. The most widespread crime there is pickpocketing on public transportation, and nobody is allowed to own guns other than hunting rifles.

However, Cuba does have its social problems. Prostitution is rampant. With workers earning only $10 for a month’s salary, thousands of girls from Havana and other parts of Cuba find no problem making $20 or more for one night with a rich foreigner. Known as jineteras, a word which refers to trick riders in a circus that jump from one horse to another, girls as young as 13 can be seen at bars and nightclubs all over the city, dressed to kill and just waiting to swoop down on lone male tourists. Not every girl at a bar is a jinetera, but one asking you to buy her drinks before you offer is a dead giveaway.

The male equivalent, the jinetero, is less concerned with offering sex than running scams. Before you even realize it, one will be walking alongside you, offering to sell you Cuban cigars or to take you to a nice restaurant. Many even offer drugs, but these are highly illegal in Cuba and should be refused no matter how great the temptation. Most jineteros also moonlight as pimps, receiving a commission from the jineteras, but their services are unnecessary if you are looking for prostitutes—the jineteras are everywhere.

Female tourist should be cautious about Cuban men offering romance. Many of these are little more than gigolos trying to take undersexed foreign women for their money.

Cuba is a very sexually liberated country, and most Cubans find the taboos of foreigners amusing. Women are always trying to dress sexy and are not offended by catcalls or stares. Men let their hands drift across women’s bodies as they pass them on the street and whistle through their teeth at every woman who catches their eye. It is incomprehensible to Cuban men and women alike that a foreigner is not looking for romance, and they will not stop asking if they can help you out.

With all this sexual activity, it is surprising that Cuba has the lowest rate of AIDS in the Western Hemisphere. A 1996 study by the World Health Organization found that the entire island of Cuba had less than one-fortieth of the AIDS cases in New York City, with 7.2 cases per million, compared to 241.2 cases per million in the U.S. Cuba owes its low rate of disease to an intense system of testing, education and prevention. By 1994, half of the population had been tested for AIDS and free condoms had been made available to all.

But a low rate of disease is no reason to be careless.

If you are approached by anyone you don’t want to deal with, simply tell them "No moleste" (pronounced, "no molestay", meaning, "Don’t bother me"). If that fails, tell them you will call the police and they will leave you alone.

No matter where you are in Havana, a police officer is not far away.

Getting Home

Getting to Cuba was the easy part, getting home is a different story. As an American citizen, you will have to cover your tracks and have a good alibi if customs agents decide to ask questions.

Leaving Havana is fairly easy, but it will take some running around the airport. Unlike international flights in Europe and the U.S., you do not have to confirm your flight 72 hours in advance, but it is a good idea to get to the airport as early as possible to make sure you have a seat. Cubana Airlines is notorious for overbooking flights.

The first thing you’ll need to do it get a boarding pass and check you luggage; there are two separate desks for each task. Then you’ll need to pay the $25 exit tax at another window. After that, grab a last cup of café cubano and wait for your plane.

If you are flying through the Bahamas, you will be able to return from Cuba using your passport and return to the U.S. using a driver’s license and birth certificate, but other countries, such as Mexico, will require you to use a passport. The problem with this is that the U.S. Customs Service may see that you were only in that country for an hour before returning to the U.S., and they may ask questions.

On the other hand, if you are traveling through the Bahamas, you will be required to clear U.S. customs before leaving Nassau. The problem here is that you may be asked to hand over the Bahamian immigration forms you filled out when you returned from Cuba.

While the U.S. State Department does not actively prosecute citizens who travel to Cuba, the law says you may be fined $10,000 and sentenced to up to 10 years in federal prison. But don’t worry, this doesn’t happen very often.

What is more likely to happen is that your bags will be search and any Cuban goods will be confiscated. Everything will probably go as planned, and you will have a million stories to tell about your trip to Cuba.

Final Note and a Word of Warning

I hope that this guide has given you a good introduction to Havana, and that it inspires you to visit Cuba and learn more on your own. If this guide is vague, it is because there is only so much information that can be covered in one article. You will have to do some research for yourself. A good place to start is the Lonely Planet guide to Cuba by David Stanley, available in bookstores or online, which provides reliable information on the entire island of Cuba for travelers on every type of budget.

Cuba is an untouched gem, void of the global corporatization and American fast food chains that scar much of today’s world. Don’t go to Cuba thinking you are going to change it or save the people from communism. Most Cubans are happy the way things are, and it’s not your job to change things if they aren’t. Appreciate it as it is. Treat Cuba like a museum or a national park—look but don’t touch and carry out only what you brought in with you.

It is very easy to have an enjoyable trip to Cuba without trying to make the island your own.

Happy traveling.