HAVANA PAGE 1 - HAVANA PAGE 2
The capital of Cuba and the largest city in the Caribbean, Havana is one of the most interesting cities in the Americas, a bastion of communism almost within spitting-distance of the USA. Its old Spanish colonial castles and mansions mix with monuments and museums to the Cuban revolution. The old city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is slowly being restored, but most of the decaying mansions are still lived in.
Few places have the atmosphere of Havana; music is everywhere and there is a sense that life is truly being lived to the full here. Add to this the "Hemingway Trail", the people, and the cheap rum and you have a truly unique combination.
Unless you fancy stowing-away on some kind of cargo ship, the only way to get to Havana from the UK is to fly. The recent surge in popularity of Cuba as a tourist destination means that there is now more choice of airlines than ever. British Airways now offer a direct flight, as do Cubana Airways. Cubana is probably cheaper and has more flights per week but it does not enjoy a good reputation; actually for flights to the UK Cubana usually lease a French plane and crew (the Soviet jets they used to use didn't have the range to make the flight in one go and had to stop off in Dublin or Newfoundland along the way). Other options are to fly on Air France (via Paris) or on Iberia (via Madrid). The flight to Cuba takes 10 to 11 hours direct from the UK (but is quicker on the way back as you're flying with the jet stream behind you). The last time I flew was with Iberia; it was a couple of hours to Madrid where there was a hour or so between flights and then an 9 hour or so flight direct over the Atlantic including an amazing fly-over of the Straits and Rock of Gibraltar (stand up, salute and sing "God Save The Queen" as you go over; the Spanish will love this). Flights from the UK tend to go over Iceland and Newfoundland and then down the US coast.
You can now also fly to Virgina Atlantic direct from Gatwick.
Tickets to Cuba are expensive compared to other destinations in the Caribbean; I paid over £400 for a return apex ticket. It's definitely worth keeping an eye out for cheaper promotional fares that are offered from time to time.
Another option worth considering is to try and get a seat on one of the many charter flights that flies to other parts of Cuba (particularly Varadero); these flights are usually only for package tourists but sometimes it is possible to get the flight only especially if you're booking at the last minute. It may also work out cheaper to pay for an entire package holiday than to buy a ticket only on a scheduled flight; just because you've paid for a hotel in some tourist resort doesn't mean you have to stay there (well, actually according the conditions on your tourist card you do but that's a technicality).
If you take this option it's usually possible to Havana from other parts of Cuba. Cubana fly from most major cities to Havana although if you haven't booked in advance you may have difficulty in getting a ticket. With its fleet of ageing Soviet turboprops it is easy to see why Cubana has such a poor reputation but I've flown with a few times and I've never had any problems (but I would recommend partaking of the odd drink or six for a spot of Dutch courage before your first flight).
You should also be able to get the train to Havana. Let me rephrase that; there are scheduled train services to Havana from most cities in Cuba but Cuban railways are not renowned for their reliability; don't be too surprised if a train doesn't run on time. In fact don't be too surprised if it doesn't turn up at all. Cuba's main line is the 20-odd hour haul from Havana to Santiago which stops off at most major cities along the way including Matanzas, Santa Clara, Sancti Spiritus, Camaguey, and Las Tunas. One train per day runs in each direction on this line which means that it's an overnight journey and that it arrives at most stations in the middle of the country at some god-awful hour in the middle of the night. There are also other lines from Havana to places like Pinar del Rio and Cienfuegos but incredible as it may seem these trains are even more unreliable.
For further information about the relative advantages and disadvantages of travelling by air or train in Cuba see the "Getting There" section of the Camaguey page.
Havana is a large, sprawling city and many of its major attractions (particularly some of the Hemingway sites) are actually in out-lying villages. As a result it's inevitable that at some point you're going to have to take the strain off your feet and take to public transport or, far more likely, a taxi. The good news is that you can quite happily negotiate most of the city centre and the old town on foot.
Havana is so big that it's pretty difficult to give a concise description of its layout, but I'll try. The reason that there's a city on this site is the harbour, which still looks pretty impressive even if it nowadays contains more oil than water; a narrow channel connects the sea with a large in-land bay. On the Northern side of this channel are two of Havana's most impressive and popular monuments, the old Spanish colonial castles of Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes del Morro (or "El Morro") and the Fortaleza de San Carlos del la Cabana (or "La Cabana"). On the opposite side of the channel is Centro Habana (unsurprisingly, "Central Havana"), which includes La Habana Vieja ("Old Havana", the old town) and which is where you'll find most of the historical buildings. There's a road-tunnel under the mouth of the harbour connecting La Habana del Este (which is where you'll find the castles) and Centro Habana. The road running along the sea front (the Straits of Florida to be exact) is the Malecon. Running inland off it is probably Havana's most recognisable road, officially known as the Paseo de Marti but referred to by most by its pre-Revolutionary name, the Prado. Continuing West along the Malecon will take you to some of Havana's more exclusive districts including Vedado and Miramar, home of most of the posh hotels and many embassies. Now that's sorted out the basics let's have a look in more detail.
For exploring the Old Town and Central Havana, on foot is just fine. Many areas here are pedestrianised and in those that aren't the roads are so bad that you'll quickly be wishing you had worked. Walking round is also the only chance you'll really get to fully appreciate the atmosphere and all the sites, sounds (and, less pleasantly, smells) of Central Havana. Be warned that as a tourist walking around central Havana you're going to be getting quite a lot of attention, mainly from young men offering you rooms, taxis, women, and most often, boxes of cheap cigars (the usual story is that they've got a brother who works in a cigar factory and so can offer you a box of cigars at a price that's too good to be true; don't buy from them unless you really want to pay $50 for what is admittedly a nice wooden box that at best is going to be full of inferior-grade cigars, and at worst sand). Their constant hustling can rapidly become a real pain in the arse (which is a shame as it means that you're also going to ignore the many Cubans who genuinely would just like to talk to you); most will quickly get the hint if you're not interested in what they're offering and will head off in search of a new victim but some are more persistent. Pretending you speak a language they don't understand will help (most of them will speak some English, Italian and German; telling them you're Welsh would probably put them off, but then telling anybody that you're Welsh would normally have at least this effect); if this doesn't work walking towards one of the many policemen you'll find in Havana will definitely cause them to scarper. Although the area is well policed (and the police are very efficient when it comes to safeguarding tourists, not to mention being probably the least-corrupt police force in Latin America, although that's a competition along the line of "least corrupt Italian politician"), if you're going to be the victim of crime in Cuba this is where it's likely to happen. Violent crime towards tourists is extremely rare, if not entirely unheard of, but pickpocketing and other minor crimes do happen; it was in central Havana that my ginger friend had his cheap watch stolen by a gang of children (which is ironic considering that it would usually be him committing crimes against children...).
If you are walking around, beware of the state of many of the roads and pavements. Also be aware that many areas of Havana are not lit up at night; you should definitely stick to areas with street-lighting at night, preferably those with lots of policemen around (normally as a drunkard I would advocate avoiding areas frequented by the constabulary, but I am prepared to concede that they have their uses). Finally, remember that if you are going to be walking round a lot you'll want a reasonable street-map (most guidebooks have on), and something to drink as it gets bloody hot in Havana. You should also remember that public toilets are non-existent which is a good job because if they did exist they'd be totally rank.
Although walking will do most of the time in central Havana; there are times when you will need to take alternative forms of transport, perhaps if you're going further afield, or your particular physical condition at a given time precludes walking, at least in a straight line. Well, the good news is that Havana does have a public transport system. The better news is that it's very cheap. The bad news is that it's shite.
If you want to catch a bus, the main departure point for local bus services is Parque de la Fraternitad near the Capitolio building on the Prado. You may have to wait a long time for a bus but looking on the bright side you'll have plenty of company (by the way bus, and indeed other types of queue, in Cuba have certain protocols that must be follows. Although it may look less like a queue in the English sense and more like a random mass of people, there is in fact order here. It works like this: every time someone joins a queue they ask to find out who the last person in the queue is; they then themselves assume the role the last person, until the mantle is in turn lifted from their shoulders when someone else joins the queue. When the bus or whatever eventually arrives, you should only board immediately after the person who was last-before-you boards; it works!). And just Cuban queues are different to those elsewhere, so are Cuban buses. Most buses in Havana are known as "camels" (calm down, Dave; there are no real camels in sight) for their distinctive shape; they are huge "~"-shaped trailers (two humps, hence camels) pulled by lorries and packed to a capacity that would make even the most hardened of Tokyo commuters balk. You should forget any chance of getting a seat, and your best chance to get on at all is to make sure that you get on at the first stop. If you're after a long-distance bus, the coach station in on Avienda de la Independencia (in Vedado, near the Plaza de la Revolution); there may be buses to other cities in Cuba but unless you've booked a long time in advance you're not going to get a ticket.
The train is a better bet; for long-distance services head for the Estacion Central de Ferrocarriles on Avenida de Belgica in Central Havana (pretty much next to the harbour infact). This is a beautiful building that's well worth visiting even if you aren't travelling anywhere and even if you're not a train-spotter. Again, you should buy tickets in advance of travelling, and on some long-distance services you have to check-in before the train departs. For local train services you have to go to a different station, Estacion Cristina on Avenida de Mexico (which is southwest of Old Havana and East of Vedado). Cuban rolling-stock can be a little...eccentric. One train I saw consisted of the bodywork of an old bus strapped to a flat goods-waggon. Interesting.
Considering the above, you may conclude that it's easier to use taxis. Taxis in Havana are fairly readily available, mainly because just about anyone with a car is willing to turn their hand to taxi driving for the lure of dollars. If you want to travel in comfort, you can get a modern Japanese or Korean car. If you want to travel cheaply go for a Lada. If you want to travel in style, go for one of Havana's amazingly preserved American, pre-Revolutionary limos. The fact that these things are still running after 40 years (without spare parts too) is a testament to the ingenuity of the Cuban mechanic (although I doubt that any of them still have their complete, original engines in place). Cruising in one of these around the streets of Havana is truly the only way to travel. For true value for money, rather than hiring taxis for one journey at a time most of the free-lance taxi drivers will be happy to come to some arrangement where they'll drive you round all day, and will wait for you between journeys, your own chauffeur service in fact. We spent several days cruising round in a two-tone 55 Chevvy. Admittedly the radio didn't work but the door mechanism (you just had to give the door a gentle push and the door would close and lock itself, not slamming shut mind you, as smooth as you like) worked as well as the day it came out of the factory. Our driver, Aguil, spoke no English but he was happy to drive us around, come into the tourist places with us, help us out in banks and buying plane or train tickets, and this set us back the grand total of less than $30 per day. Bargain.
To head over to Havana del Este (and those castles) you're probably going to need to take a taxi although there is a bus service that goes under the harbour. There is also a small ferry that can take you across the harbour (which may come complete with armed-guard to deter would-be hijackers commandeering the boat and redirecting it to Florida); I haven't tried it, but the views would be great, especially if you fancy playing chicken with some giant cargo vessel. The downside would be the close proximity of the "water" of Havana harbour (although if you fell overboard you'd probably bounce).
You're also going to have to go under the harbour if you're on the Hemingway trail, specifically the fishing village of Cojimar which is about 5 miles East along the coast. The Hemingway museum is in the village of San Francisco de Paula , about 10 miles Southwest of the city centre. Again, if you're heading out here you're probably going to need a taxi.
The airport, Jose Marti International, currently has three different terminal buildings, one for domestic flights, a small international terminal which seems to be for short-haul flights, and a brand new and very impressive second international terminal. Although all three terminals are located some distance apart it is just possible to walk between them (I know this for a fact because I've done it, but if you have the money take a taxi). The airport is about 20 miles from the city centre, and there are buses to and from the city centre (in theory at least) but Havana's buses are packed enough as it is without some git of a tourist trying to squeeze all their luggage on as well, especially as the journey takes over an hour. So bollocks to the environment, take a taxi instead, a gas-guzzler if possible, and be prepared to pay $10 to 15. For buying airline tickets, Cubana and most of the other international airlines have their offices clustered together on Calle 23 (also known as "Rampa") just of the Malecon.
So basically, if you can't be bothered reading all of the above (and I can't blame you), within Central Havana you can walk everywhere, if you're going further afield take a taxi. Simple.
Havana has the full range of hotels, ranging from luxury international-class (and price) down to the slightly cheaper and more salubrious. Guess at which end of the spectrum my experience lies? The good news is that for less than $40 a night you should be able to find somewhere reasonably tolerable right in the heart of the city. I'll mention here only those that I've got some experience of (even if that just means having had a swift beverage in the bar); just be aware that there are hundreds of hotels in Havana so you should have no problems finding something to match your budget. Unless you're really cheap.
The two hotels that I have experience of staying in are the Caribbean and the Lido, both in Central Havana.
The Caribbean is in a superb location on the Prado and seems to be popular with the "budget-concious" (ie cheap bastards). Last time I stayed there they were either building or renovating the top floor; unfortunately I happened to be staying on the floor underneath at the time, and the workmen started up at 6am. Bastards. You wouldn't get British builders starting at such an unGodly hour. The rooms are mostly double rooms and are a bit basic, although they do have satellite TV. All rooms also have sort of en-suite bathrooms. To be specific, they have a little room complete with toilet and sink, in the corner of which is shower; no cubicle or anything, just a shower attachment and drain. Basic, but functional. And I wouldn't count on getting any hot water either. None of the rooms have access to fresh air either, apart perhaps from those on the top floor which can be a problem if your roommate stinks (although there is ventilation from a shaft next to the bathroom, and there is also air-conditioning). Basically, you get what you're paying for, and the Caribbean is certainly pretty good value for money (last time I was there it cost $20 per person for a double room). Be careful of things going missing from your room though; strange things tended to disappear from our bags like batteries, medicine and the odd t-shirt. For an extra $2 per day you can keep any valuables (passport, tickets, cash, drugs) in a strongbox behind the reception desk and I would definitely recommend that you do this.
The Lido seems to be competing for the same market as the Caribbean, and is similarly priced. It lacks the advantage of the Caribbean's location; it's on Consulado, which is runs parallel to the Prado but is in a slightly dodgy-looking unlit area. The Lido's rooms are a bit bigger than those in the Caribbean, although they lack the satellite TV (but unlike the Caribbean they have windows). The Lido also offers much bigger better and bathrooms, including a separate shower (although again, don't expect luxuries like plugs or hot water). Be warned that the Lido seems to be located next to a primary school, which may be an attraction to some (although I didn't see Gary Glitter's name in the guest register) but the little buggers are very noisy at playtime. Things have a habit of disappearing from your bags here too.
If you're after somewhere slightly more upmarket but in the same area the Sevilla and Inglaterra are both right on the Prado and are far more luxurious that the dumps I've stayed in, but expect to pay 2 to 3 times more for a room (I'd guess around $80 to $100 for a single room. Even if you're not staying in the Sevilla have a look at the view from the patio on the top floor.
Hemingway buffs should check out the Hotel Ambos Mundos on Obispo in Habana Vieja, where the author used to stay and where he wrote for Whom The Bell Tolls. Even if you don't stay here for a fee you can look around Ernie's old room which has now been turned into a small museum with various bits of Hemingway memorabilia.
For some of Havana's grander hotels you'll need to head West into Vedado. The Hotel Capri on Calle 21 was built by the US mafia as was Havana's largest hotel, the Habana Libre on Calle 23. The Habana Libre is a fairly ugly building but is worth visiting for the views from the top floors and the facilities in and around the hotel, including shops, car-hire and working international telephones. You're probably looking at at least $70 to $80 for a room in either of these hotels.
Even more expensive and far more luxurious is the Hotel Nacional (on Calle 21); previous guests include Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando, so you'll be in good company. Even if you can't afford to stay here (and rooms will start at around $120) it's still worth visiting to have a look around the building and gardens, and again there are useful facilities here including shops, airline offices, banks and bureaux de change (including one offering cash advances on credit cards).
If you don't want to stay in a hotel you could consider renting a private room or flat; you'll certainly have no shortage of people offering you somewhere to stay. This can be a reasonably cheap way of doing things, but what you get will vary, ranging from a flat to yourself to sharing a room in a family home. Facilities will also vary; try and get somewhere with air-conditioning but be aware that many of the old buildings in Habana Vieja don't have running water. In other words, check what you're getting and have a good look round before you agree to anything.
We seemed to spend most of our time in Havana eating in the cafe on the bottom floor of the Hotel Caribbean. It serves cheap, greasy food, has a seedy, smoky atmosphere, and seemed to be populated with pimps and prostitutes. It has its bad points though too, the menu wasn't the widest in the world (pizza, pork, chips, omelette and the like, although at least they always had what we ordered). The food sometimes took its time to arrive, and when I say the food was greasy, I mean greasy. Being a manly man I appreciate a bit of grease now and again, but sometimes this was enough even for me.
As with everywhere else in Cuba if you're eating out you're likely to get the best meal in a privately owned paladar (see the Food and Drink section of the Cuba page). Unfortunately standards and prices are subject to rapid change, and many of them don't stay open for very long, so it's impossible to make any specific recommendations. Just follow your nose. If you're after an up-market meal your best bet is in the Miramar area, where there are a few restaurants that cater to the numerous embassies in that part of the city. They're expensive, but they're likely to have whatever it is that you order.Havana's Old Town is dotted with bars, many of which stay open into the early hours, and some of which offer live music. For the most impressive views there are a couple in the Cathedral Square.
A couple of bars that trade on the reputation of a famous former patron are La Bodeguita del Medio (at 207 Empedrado) and El Floridita (at 557 Avenida de Belgica); both used to be hang-outs of Ernest Hemingway. The Bodeguita's interior is covered with graffiti from former customers (you're allowed to make your own contribution to it); Hemingway's comment was "My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita". Hardly inspired stuff, but like all of us he must have had his off days. Fidel Castro and Errol Flynn among others have also autographed the place. The cocktails here, including the house speciality mojito, are very good but are considerably more expensive than other bars in the Old Havana. There's also a restaurant serving Cuban food, but again you'll be paying over the odds for it. Whereas the Bodeguita has Hemingway's graffiti El Floridita has his stool, the kind you sit on that is, or at least a stool, situated where Hemingway used to like to sit. It's roped-off, to stop the great unwashed from sitting on it. They also have a bust of the great man. Hemingway probably wouldn't recognise the place if he came in now, mainly because the interior is covered with blown-up photos of him. The speciality of the house here is the daiquiri, you can order a Papa Special, made to Hemingway's own recipe. They're good, but they'll set you back at least twice what they'd cost in nearby bars. The Floridita also has its own overpriced restaurant.
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