Difference between revisions of "Havana"
Revision as of 19:29, 13 March 2008
Havana City (Spanish Ciudad de la Habana) is the capital city of Cuba, and one of the fourteen provinces of the Republic of Cuba.
In the 1950s before the Communist revolution, Havana was one of the vacation hot-spots of the Caribbean, and since Cuba reopened to tourism in the 1990s, it has become a popular destination once again. Albeit with many fewer U.S. citizens, due to an almost total ban on travel maintained by the U.S. federal government. However, there will be lots of tourists at any time of year, so expect huge crowds and long lines in places.
Jose Marti International Airport (IATA: HAV) has three separate terminals. Terminal 1 is for internal (domestic) flights, Terminal 2 is mainly for charter flights from the USA and Terminal 3 is used for all other international flights.
Customs officials can be very strict, and will probably snoop out any suspicious electronics or other items. Customs officials and immigration officials also work slowly and baggage reclaim is also slow, so expect a very long wait when entering the country.
Most trains in eastern Cuba have been suspended due to poor track conditions. Only the following trains were operating to/from Havana in September 2007. All services run on alternate days only.
- The express Tren Frances, overnight to/from Santiago de Cuba via Matanzas, Santa Clara and Camagüey every other day (note that several hours have recently been added to the schedule due to the poor track conditions)
- An overnight local train to/from Santiago de Cuba, operating on alternate nights when the Tren Frances does not run
- An overnight train to/from Moron with stops in Matanzas and Santa Clara
- An overnight train to/from Sancti Spiritus with stops in Matanzas and Santa Clara
- A daytime train to/from Camagüey with stops in Matanzas and Santa Clara (this is the only daytime service to/from Havana on the main line)
- A very slow daytime train to/from Cienfuegos
- A slightly faster evening train to Matanzas and Cienfuegoes, returning to Havana overnight
- An overnight local train to Pinar del Rio that returns to Havana during the day
Since these trains run every other day (when they are operating at all), you will need to confirm in advance that they are running on the day you wish to travel.
There is also the Hershey electric train running several times a day between Havana and Matanzas. The Hershey train cars are very dilapidated and will only appeal to the most die-hard train enthusiasts. The trip takes a minimum of four hours regardless of what the schedule says, and you will be standing since most of the seats are broken.
Hiring a car in Cuba will cost you at very least 50 CUC per day. The car will have a special tourist plate, which means you will be required to give generous tips every time you park your car in a crowded place. Taking into account the all-round unreliability of Cuban transport, hiring a car can be the right choice for those who don't want any hassle whatsoever. Please keep in mind that picking up hitchhikers is almost a moral obligation for the "aware" tourist, especially when travelling between cities. Picking up a hitchhiker can be the best way to arrive to your destination without getting lost.
Viazul  operates an inter-city coach service to/from most major destinations including Camagüey, Cienfuegos, Matanzas, Pinar del Rio, Sancti Spiritus, Santa Clara, Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad, Varadero and Viñales. The main Viazul bus terminal is 3 kilometres southwest of central Havana. Departing buses also stop at the central (Astro) bus terminal, but arriving buses do not. If you are using the central bus terminal, you buy tickets and wait for the bus in a separate air-conditioned office near the west entrance of the terminal. Schedules are posted on the Viazul website.
Astro can get you from Havana to almost anywhere in Cuba.
Due to political circumstances, it is difficult to enter Cuba by sea. Visiting mariners need to make arrangements in advance of entering port to avoid difficulties. Also, most ports are closed to unauthorised visitors.
As a tourist the most convenient way of getting around Havana is by taxi. Some of the taxis are old American Chevys and the like from the 1950's, others are (somewhat) newer Russian Ladas, whilst most tourist taxis are modern Peugeots, Skodas and even Mercedes.
It is illegal for tourists to ride in anything other than the official government taxis. However, its is often easier to wave down one of the old Chevys or Ladas. When riding in an illegal taxi, negotiate the fare ahead of time. The fare in illegal taxis will be no cheaper than the official taxi fare. Around the city, taking illegal taxis should be no problem. However, taking an illegal taxi to or from the airport may attract the attention of the police.
Taxi collectivos are the old, beaten-up yank-tanks with a taxi sign on the roof or in the front window. Tourists are not supposed to take them, but you will rarely run into problems and they are a fun and cheap alternative to the state-run taxis. They have set fares and run set routes, so you may need some assistance when taking them the first few times. Fares vary from 10 CUP for a short (5 km) run during the day to 20 CUP for a longer run or at night. The drivers are generally honest regarding the fares, but it is best not to appear oblivious by asking how much at the end of the trip. Always watch what the other passengers give and if in doubt give 10 CUP, and if he asks for another 10 then hand it over. There can be a long wait trying to get a taxi collectivo as they are very popular with Cubans and often full, but the experience and savings make it worthwhile.
The cheapest taxi company in Havana by far is Panataxi. These are usually yellow or white Ladas with a red sign (recently they have also added yellow Peugeots) and are worth waiting for to save a few dollars. Panataxi will take you to the airport on the meter, if you ask, for around 12 CUC from Central Havana.
Coco Taxis, yellow three wheel motorbikes, are a cheap way of getting around central Havana.
For the real Havana experience try El Camello, a split-level bus pulled by a semi-truck, and resembling a 2 humped camel (thus the name). For just a few pesos you can take part in the experiment: how many Cubans fit in a Camello. The answer is somewhere around 300 liters. A common joke is that the camellos are like the Saturday night movie - full of violence, sex, and bad language. Remember to bring Peso change as the conductor probably won't be prepared to break a note, and hold on to your wallet.
Other local buses can also get crowded, but in the suburbs are a practical means of transport for visitors.
Hiring a car is a great experience as the road signs are not particularly good but the hitchhikers are.
Walking around Habana is by far the best way to see and experience the city, get a decent map of the city and explore.
Nearly every restaurant and hotel in town has a decent house band playing old favorites.
The Instituto Superior de Arte / Escuela Nacional de Arte / CNSEA offer courses of various lengths and levels in music, dance, drama, art and Spanish.
Havana is a surprisingly expensive city to stay in; if you stay in hotels and eat in restaurants it can work out every bit as expensive as London or Paris. The problem is that Cuba has a dual economy; if you could live on pesos it would be incredibly cheap. Sadly, as a tourist this is virtually impossible. Most peso hotels won't take foreigners or, if they do you have to pay in CUC. If you are on any kind of a budget it is advised to stay in casas particulares; it is much cheaper, often more comfortable and the food (a recurring theme in Cuba) is almost invariably better.
ATMs are not too hard to find in downtown Havana, but bear in mind that American credit- and debitcards can not be used in Havana. Note that even credit cards issued in countries other than the USA may be issued by a bank whose parent company is a U.S. corporation. In this case, the card will not work as the parent company is bound by U.S. law. Even banks wholly owned by non-American companies may have a policy on blocking Cuban transactions in order not to compromise their US business. Always check with your bank or credit card company before leaving home to see if your card will work in Havana. Also, the ATMs do not accept MasterCard/Maestro but are marked to accept Visa.
You can withdraw money from your MasterCard-creditcard in a couple of exchange offices. There is one in the basement of the Hotel Nacional, but expect quite steep service fees.
Exchanging US dollars in a CADECA (Casa de cambio) will incur a 10% penality.
Whilst Convertible Peso restaurants can be quite expensive at the top end for rather mediocre food some such as the Café de Oriente have splendid ambiance. The average government run restaurants are about $20 for two and hence cannot be compared in any way to London or Paris.
Peso stalls are all over the city, particulary on Prado Marti.
Some restaurants like Hanoi, in Calle Brasil, offer generous meals for 5 CUC.
With Cuban national pesos, you can get ice cream for only 1 peso ($0.04 USD) in small street booths scattered around the city. You can also get a filling bocadito (small ham sandwiches) or a cajita (small meal in a cardboard box) for less than 20 pesos ($0.80 USD), or a "pizza" for 7-10 pesos ($0.40 USD).
Particularly, the Terminal de Omnibus, by the Plaza de la Revolucion, has a very good peso cafe with offerings as fried chicken for only 25 pesos ($1.00 USD).
Keeping your eyes open you can find complete menus (starter or salad, soup, main dish, dessert and a national beverage) for 6-10 CUC. In the Vieja there are such restaurants in the smaller, not very crowded streets.
The restaurants inside 5 star hotels tend to charge excessive amounts of money for mediocre food and service. Other places such as the Floridita do live up to the customer's expectations considering the price.
Gay Travelers: The gay and lesbian community in Cuba is very underground. There are no openly gay clubs, bars or cafes. A noteable exception is the Bim-Bom ice cream parlour at the corner of Calle Infanta and Malecon, which attracts a wide variety of locals on weekends.
There is a group of openly gay college students that gives tours which even comes up in a google search for gay guides havana so it seems that the younger generation is less underground than previous generations.
There are 3 main areas that travelers generally stay in: Old Havana is the liveliest (some would say hectic and dirty), Central Havana is slightly quieter and parts can be a bit seedy, and Vedado is the quietest with more greenery, and is the place to find the large hotels and nicer casas particulares.
Hotels vary. Don't be surprised if you have no hot water and bad TV-reception in a hotel that still goes to the effort of having an in-hotel doctor and hosting extravagant shows of syncronized swimming in the hotel pool.
The city code for Havana is 7. Prefix with 0 or 01 when calling from within Cuba.
Internet cafes can be found at ETESCA (the state telephone company) offices, in Hotel Habana Libre, Hotel Inglatera (cheapest but slowest), Hotel Nacional and at the Capitolio.
Havana is quite safe for a large city. Being a totalitarian police state, the first thing you will notice is that there are police on (almost literally) every corner. Popular tourist places (Habana Vieja, El Malecón etc.) are watched even more closely by policemen, so you don't have to be afraid of being attacked in the daytime. At night, however, there have been muggings in the dark streets of Centro Habana. While Centro Habana is perfectly safe to explore in the daytime and can safely be crossed while going to Habana Vieja or Vedado, its best not to cut through there at night. If you are going to walk, do so along the malecon where there is lighting and a lot more people. Be wary of hustlers (jinteros/as) offering to show you a place to eat or offering a tour of the city as you'll be stuck paying hefty prices to cover their commission. Ask for menues or prices before ordering anything. There can be special 'tourist price menues' that get pulled out after you have consumed food or drink.
Embassies and High Commissions