Havana, Cuba-Part 1

Here’s a semi-short summary of an amazing trip to Havana.

Havana is the capital and largest city of Cuba, with a population of more than 2 million. It’s located only about 90 miles from Key West, Florida. The nation of Cuba has a total population of more than 11 million.

The city has distinct neighborhoods and an incredibly rich history that is truly unforgettable. Here is a link that offers a pretty accurate picture of the beauty and flavors of Havana. 
History

One of the things that struck me most  about Havana was it’s history. My understanding is that it was established in 1514 and was a major port for the Spanish Empire before becoming the capital of Cuba in 1607. The Spanish influence is still felt everywhere here from religion to architecture.

Here are pictures of the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis (Saint Francis of Assisi), which was built in the late 16th Century. Self-guided tours are available for about $3 U.S and it’s definitely worth a look, especially the view if you’re willing to climb all the way to the top.


Havana grew under the influence of the United States through the middle of the 20th century until Cuba’s 1959 revolution. In many ways, the city remains much the way it was at the time of the revolution.

Tours
We took a city and beach tour with Old Cars Havana and the driver was safe, friendly and extremely accommodating.  I actually thought we had exceeded our tour time limit, but he insisted on taking us to a beautiful and relatively secluded beach.

 


Our vehicle was an older Ford that  could carry 7 passengers. Just be aware that these cars are made before 1959 and there are no seatbelts. Luckily, the driver was very safe and things (including cars) move a little slower in Cuba so I wasn’t worried.  I can’t speak for the other passengers. 🙂

Language

Most people in Cuba spoke at least some English, but Americans just started going en masse over the last couple of years, so maybe not as much in places like Mexico where they see folks from the U.S. all the time.

Still, the more Spanish you know the better. It just gives you more options. We requested an English speaking tour guide, but the first car had mechanical issues before it arrived so they sent the next nearest car which had a guide who only spoke Spanish.

Luckily, I speak about as much Spanish as a four year old kid so things worked out fine. This also means I can find food, restrooms, beer and my parents in any Latin American country.

Safety

Havana is definitely a relatively safe city for tourists.  The police presence is strong throughout the city and crime seems fairly uncommon. In fact, I walked all around the city at night with my wife and kids and never felt the least bit worried.

With that being said, don’t be stupid. At night, in any country, including the U.S., avoid poorly lit areas, wearing expensive jewelry or carrying large amounts of cash.

Currency

Speaking of money, U.S. credit and debit cards typically do not work in Cuba, so bring cash to cover your stay.

Even more interesting, even US dollars are not accepted by many merchants so the best option is to convert your U.S. dollars to Cuban CUCs.

The downside is  the Government of Cuba charges a 10 percent fee for all U.S. dollar cash conversions, so you only will get about 90 cents for every dollar.

The good thing is that you will have little trouble exchanging currency. The airport, banks and hotel lobbies all have currency exchange facilities, and currency exchange offices are located throughout the city.

Areas in Havana

Havana is divided into different neighborhoods, each with it’s own distinctive feel.

Old Havana (Habana Vieja) is the city’s colonial historical area and could take days to explore all by itself.

Central Havana (Centro Habana)  is a mainly residential area for the Cuban people.


Vedado is an area full of hotels, tourist attractions and restaurants as well as the Plaza de la Revolucion, the location of governmental agencies, the national library and the national theater.



Across Havana Harbor are the city’s beaches, located in Playas del Este.

Dining, Music and Nightlife
Havana has a pretty vibrant nightlife. Between the street musicians,  restaurants, bars and pubs,  you’ll be able to enjoy live music and entertainment somewhere all day long.

Havana has what have to be some of the most talented dancers, singers,  musicians in the world. I even managed to get in a few Salsa lessons.

Here are a couple of my favorite places while I was there.

La Taberna del Son

Amazing music, warm vibe, incredibly friendly people.

La Vitrola


This was my favorite place in Havana. Great food and great music. Grilled chicken is the bomb!

Here is a link to Carocol De La Habana, a super talented group who were there we were. They bring a hot a hot Cuban party vibe every night and plays at at La Vitrola regularly.

Definitely plan on returning here. Ironically, on the same day I returned to the U.S., new restrictions on travel to Cuba were announced. I’ll talk about my thoughts on this in my next post.

For now, Live Da Life!