I just returned from a trip to Havana, a long-overdue visit. Cuban culture and history were a big part of my teenage years: I devoured books and movies about the rise of Communism, the embargo, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. I wanted to go to Cuba to experience the rich culture, have conversations with old people on stoops, drink rum on the Malecón and visit sites from the revolution. So I went. With very little planning. So little planning that I did not have an address to go to until an hour before my flight. Here are the things you need to keep in mind in order to do better:
1. Cubans are caring
Common courtesy should be No. 1 in anything you do there. Extra pleases, thank-yous, hugs, notes and personal interactions go a long way in establishing trust. The caretaker of the house I rented came over so many times that by the end of my stay I was at HER house getting her personal information because she insisted we keep in touch. My taxi drivers not only opened the door for me every time I entered and exited a cab, one of them also went inside the airport terminal to find out where my flight would be leaving so he could drop me at the door. Point being, they will treat you like family, so be aware, make eye contact and be nice.
2. No politics (and no porn)
I was tempted to get into political conversations every time I met someone, but I quickly realized it was impolite and invasive. Wait until they bring up the subject and try not to be judgmental, for your own sake. They know how different things are in your country, no need to brag. The creative class in Havana is booming, so try to get to know the young movers and shakers; it will be more constructive. Less about the past, more about the now. As for porn: Fidel prohibited it a long time ago, just in case you were interested.
3. There's a food shortage
Cuba does not have enough crops to produce food for its citizens, let alone for the hundreds of thousands of tourists flooding its cities. The soaring cost of agriculture imposed by the government has done little to provide good, affordable produce for Cubans. Instead, goods are allocated to the commercial market, where farmers and vendors can fetch higher prices, keeping food out of the hands of the people. So when you go to a restaurant and they say they don’t have lettuce or onions, don’t frown. Order something else, adjust your expectations and try to stick to what’s on the menu. The number of times I saw tourists complaining about the food made me cringe. Cuban food is undeniably delicious, but Havana is not a culinary destination in the way other major cities are, so be flexible.
4. Cabs are the best way to get around
Though buses are reliable and fairly comfortable, they are slow. Definitely feel free to take the bus, but allow yourself extra time. Taxis are reasonably priced and drivers are more than happy to give you their numbers so you can pick one and stick with him for your whole trip. They will pick you up and drop you off promptly in their vintage cars. That’s my favorite way to get around and make friends with the locals. Don’t forget to tip.
5. Airbnb works, but....
Yes, it has arrived in Cuba. But you must book before you get into the country. Booking from inside the country is difficult, as Wi-Fi service is very limited and you'll need cash. Make sure you have your bookings done before taking off. An alternative is booking casa particulares (accommodations in private homes) once in Havana, which must be done with cash and in person. Have a SIM card or calling card that works there; it will make communicating with your hosts much easier.
6. Cash is king
American credit and ATM cards don't yet work in Cuba. Most people know this and still don’t bring enough cash. You think you have enough but you never do, and then everyone else gets stuck having to lend you money or you have to request an expensive wire transfer. Avoid all this hassle. Reserve at least U.S. $120 for each day — it will fly out of your wallet once you get started on mojitos. Check the exchange rate before you go; at the time of this writing it's even between American dollars and the Cuban convertible peso, or CUC. But when I visited, $1 equaled about .87 CUC. Plus, Cuba charges an exchange tax for American currency. Take extra. Don’t be that person who can’t get home because you have no money for a taxi. (While we're at it, a taxi from the airport to Vedado is about 20 CUC, 25 to Old Havana.) Wherever you're coming from, make sure you can exchange your currency in Cuba.
7. Visit, but don't stay in, La Habana Vieja
As the most popular, postcard-worthy part of Havana, most people automatically flock to the old town. However, I recommend staying in areas such as Vedado or Miramar, which are residential and full of good restaurants and galleries. The old town is beautiful to see, but crowded and short on decent food options. It’s normal to see hangry tourists running around for blocks on end searching for a restaurant strip. There are not many here.
8. Know how to get there
Several U.S. airlines, including JetBlue, American, Delta, Alaska and Frontier, fly direct to Havana from U.S. airports. That’s huge, considering we couldn’t even go there at all a year ago. Most airlines will contact you as soon as you book your flight to make sure you are informed on visa requirements and other important details. But if you want to do it on your own, this site is super efficient and quick. I got my visa within a few days and it's an easy way to avoid airport lines and extra fees. Don’t try to go without a visa and make sure your reason for visiting falls within one of the 12 categories. Tourism is not one of them.
9. Stock up on Wi-Fi cards
When I was there last month, so was Google and Spotify. What does that mean? Hard to know. Wi-Fi may be installed in public places soon, but for now, the most efficient way to get online is to stock up on Wi-Fi cards at the airport and use open Wi-Fi zones in the big hotels (Capri, Nacional, Presidente). You will see Wi-Fi zones pop up on your phone, but they won’t work without a card and a code. You can get a Wi-Fi card for about 2CUC, and it will last an hour. If you have an international plan on your phone, it probably doesn’t work in Cuba. Double-check to make sure. My AT&T cell phone worked there, but the roaming charges were not the usual. Everything is an exception in Cuba. Always double check.