Meeting up with locals, Havana, Cuba

“Havana na na na, we felt so in love with ya ya yaaa..” This sentence says it all; we LOVED Havana!
Some say it is an old and poor looking city, others say it is such a characteristic city with a beautiful architecture. You wouldn’t be surprised if we tell you that we belong to the last group.
We spent two weekends in Havana; when we arrived and the last days of our trip. In this blog we take you straight to Havana and hopefully by the end we all share the love for this amazing city!

Some Havana Wiki

Havana is the capital of Cuba. With its 2.1 million inhabitants it is also the largest city of Cuba. More than a million tourists visit Cuba on a yearly basis! We can only recommend you not to wait too long to visit Havana since it is getting more and more touristic. The prices are rising and the locals are learning more everyday how they can make money out of tourists. Since the country has been closed for many years, we can’t blame the locals trying to make more money. But, as travelers we do like the authentic places and we do want to learn more about the culture and local lifestyle, right?

Locals making money by selling pictures, Havana, Cuba

Neighborhoods of Havana

Havana can be divided into three neighborhoods; Habana Vieja (Old Havana), Centro Habana and Vedado.
Habana Vieja is the neighborhood where it all started; therefore it is well known for its historical buildings and beautiful squares (it’s even on the Unesco World Heritage list).
We recommend you to walk around and visit the touristic places, but spend most of your time in the little streets around the squares. This is where it happens!
Our favorite street was definitely Calle Obispo. Don’t forget to order a cocktail at La Bodeguita del medio, the birthplace of the Mojito!

La Bodeguita del Medio, Habana Vieja, Cuba

Centro Habana can be described as a working class neighborhood with buildings that are in such a bad shape that you start to wonder how people are actually living in there. The (small) streets are bustling, people are screaming and laughing, tuktuks all over the place.. It is completely the opposite of Habana Vieja and this is exactly what we loved about this neighborhood. This neighborhood is alive and gives you a great insight in the daily life of the Cubans!

Street in Havana, Cuba

The Vedado neighborhood used to be home to the notorious mafia. They made this area the “commercial” hub of Cuba with a great nightlife, casinos and hotels. The now famous Hotel Nacional once belong to the mafia when gangsters Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano decided to use this place for their largest meet up of the North Amercian mafia.
Nowadays the area is well known for its museums, university and gay scene (23rd Street). Vedado is also the central business district of Havana and the most modern one. Therefore it is sometimes called as New Habana.

Miami vibes at the Malecon, Havana, Cuba

This is how Havana is changing

“You should visit Cuba within the coming three to five years otherwise it would become too western”. We were always under the assumption that “western” means that the typical Cuban things will disappear and will be replaced by western alternatives.
Honestly, after our visit we don’t believe that the typical Cuban culture and associated things will disappear in Havana. The 300 old timers will never leave Cuba because the owners make too much money. The buildings will remain the same; in the “worst” case they will only be repaired or freshly painted. You can still smoke cigars and drink the famous cocktails on every corner. We do believe that the things that could change are the mindset of the locals, the shopping branch, restaurants and the internet.

Classic cars in Havana, Cuba

A few years ago, the locals weren’t used to tourists. The government even told the locals that they shouldn’t get involved with tourists because “they aren’t good”. However, the locals found out that the tourists are very nice and they can make money out of them. This is exactly what is changing and which will get worse; tourists will only be seen as money-makers.

Our touristic experience
We had a terrible experience when we bought some water bottles at a local shop and at our casa particulares in Trinidad. The water tasted like tap water; is was water with chlorine! We found out that some locals make a little hole in the bottom of the bottle, fill the bottle with tap water, seal the hole again and sell these bottles like new ones! It’s all about the money , isn’t it?

We noticed that Trinidad already lost its soul and Cuban vibe. It will not take many more years before the same will happen to the other touristic cities, probably starting with Havana.

Touristic Havana, Cuba

The shopping branch
The shopping branch is not developed in Havana. There are a few local shops but since they purely focus on the locals, it is definitely not a place where you could buy your clothes. We learned that it is a must to bring everything from back home; if you forgot something, you have to do it without in Cuba!
Therefore we believe that it would definitely be a big improvement for tourism if the shopping branch becomes more western.

Shopping in Cuba - Local shop in Havana

Restaurants in Havana
Every time we visited a local restaurant we discussed the food. Even now we are back we still can’t describe exactly what Cuban food is. We believe that the food is derived from the American kitchen; tasteless and unhealthy. We noticed that there are more western-food restaurants coming up and they make a huge (positive) difference for travelers. Finally some good places to eat!

Food at restaurant Lamparilla 361, Havana, Cuba

Internet
In our previous blog we already explained that using WiFi is still a challenge. If you have an online business to run or you just want to keep in touch with your family and friends, WiFi is necessary. At the moment of writing, the WiFi network isn’t well developed in Cuba. Not every place has an internet connection, you still have to use WiFi cards and the connection isn’t very stable. If westernization means that the network availabilty and the speed will be improved, we would all be very happy!

So, you don’t have to be afraid that the typical Cuban things will disappear. They won’t. You will be able to travel by an oldtimer taxi or by horses, enjoy the typical Cuban architecture, smoke cigars and drink the famous cocktails.
But if you want to learn more about the local lifestyle, the culture and enjoy authentic Havana, you shouldn’t wait too long.

Authentic Havana, Cuba

Where to stay in Havana?

There is actually one answer; in casa particulares, booked through Airbnb or Mycasaparticular. Hotels are state-owned and the money you spend here, goes directly to the state and not to the local people. Another good reason to stay in a casa particulares is the quality; this is much better than any state-owned hotel! Every casa particulares we stayed in was so clean, the hosts were amazing and the food was freshly made!

It is up to you if you book the casa particulares at home or while you’re wandering in the streets of Havana. There is a special sign for casa particulares which can be found next to the entrance of the house. You just have to knock on the door and ask the owners if they have a place to sleep. Most of the time they have.

Casa particulares sign can always be found next to the entrance, Cuba

We only booked our first accommodation for Havana. During our stay we first wanted to explore the neighborhoods before we booked our second stay in Havana. We ended up staying in these two casa particulares; Cuba Dreaming and Havana Dream.

Cuba Dreaming 2, Centro Habana
This casa particulares is located in a quiet and friendly street and it is only a fifteen minutes’ walk to the city center. The host Etna is super friendly and helps you with everything. She speaks Spanish and English. The house is very clean and there is WiFi. It is recommended to let her arrange the taxi after you arrived in Havana; she makes sure you will be picked up in Cuban style!
This casa particulares is a stay without breakfast. But, since Etna’s friend is living across the street (number 656) and offers breakfast to Etna’s guests, you can have your breakfast here. On our first morning in Havana we went there and it was absolutely amazing! She offered us fresh fruit, bread, hambugers, omelet, freshly made fruit juices and freshly brewed coffee. It costed us only five cuc per person!

Breakfast on our first morning, Havana, Cuba

Havana Dream 2, Habana Vieja
This casa particulares is located in the middle of the city center close to Calle Obispo, the most vibrant street of Havana. The owner of this place lives in Spain and together with his mom he runs this casa particulares. The host Nancy is super friendly and helpful, but please keep in mind that she only speaks Spanish; try to arrange as much as possible with the owner if you don’t speak Spanish.
The room we rented is very beautiful and clean. There is a WiFi connection available which you could use if you have WiFi cards. Good thing to know: Havana Dream 2 can be found on the third floor, but there is no elevator in the building!

Havana Dream, Havana, Cuba

Havana restaurant recommendations

We are food lovers and therefore we were a bit worried about going to Cuba. We did our research and quickly learned that the Cuban food isn’t as tasteful as the food we are used to. We even have to admit that after spending two weeks in Cuba, we still can’t tell what real Cuban food is..
We don’t want you to worry about food and places where you could grab a good meal and therefore we hereby share the restaurants we really loved. The atmosphere is just right, WiFi is in most of them available, the prices can be compared to the European prices and the quality of the food, drinks and service is really good.

El del Frente, Old Havana
This was our favorite of all times! The vibe is amazing and the food is so good. Make sure you order the taco’s, tuna tataki, fish of the day or shrimps! For cocktails we recommend you the Ice baby and Redpoint!
This place is often fully booked so make sure you make a reservation.

Redpoint cocktail at El del Frente, Havana, Cuba

5 Esquinas trattoria, Habana Vieja
Since we didn’t have breakfast in our casa particulares we had to find a place to eat. We accidentally bumped into 5 Esquinas trattoria and we had the best breakfast we could wish for. They offer fresh fruit, bread, pancakes, omelets, vegetables et cetera and you can grab as much as you like. This breakfast costs less than five cuc!

Breakfast at 5 Esquinas trattoria, Havana, Cuba

El Floridita, Habana Vieja
There is only one place that knows exactly how to serve a daiquiri and that is El Floridita. Strawberry, banana, mango.. you name it and you will get it. You will not find a better one after you tried the cocktails here!
Be prepared that it can be very crowded in this place; everybody wants to try the best daiquiri of Havana. One drink costs approximately six cuc. It’s more expensive than other place but you will definately taste the difference.

For the best daiquiries you go to El Floridita, Havana, Cuba

Bosque Bolona, Habana Vieja
For a quick and tasteful lunch you go to Bosque Bolona. They only offer a few meals and every meal costs six and a half cuc. The food is typical Cuban; meat with rice and a salade.

Terrace of Bosque Bolona, Havana, Cuba

TaBARish, Habana Vieja
This is a modern, western restaurant and the food and cocktails here are too good! The WiFi connection is also fast and stable. Great place to eat, drink and relax!

These croquettes! TaBARisch, Havana, Cuba

Lamparilla 361, Habana Vieja
This place serves the best tapas in Havana! Make sure you order the rice croquettes, crab with chili and the burritos; these are too good! The prices are similar to the prices we are used to in Europe.

Burritos at Lamparilla 361, Havana, Cuba

IBEROSTAR Parque Central, Centro Habana
We don’t recommend this place for the food or drinks; it is actually quite expensive for what you get. But we do recommend this place for the view! Visit the rooftop bar and enjoy the magnificent city view!

Rooftop view from the Iberostar hotel, Havana, Cuba

Please keep in mind that you don’t have to give any tips in restaurants. Tips are included in the service costs, unless stated otherwise.

Meet up with locals!

When we were filming and taking pictures in the streets of Havana, a local couple started to talk to us. They wanted to take us to a salsa festival and started to give us information about Havana and their culture. Even though we had some mixed feelings, we decided to walk with them. They took us to the famous bar called Neptuno Bar in Centro Habana. This bar is famous for its Compay Segundo drink and according to our new friends, this is the only places that serves this drink. Compay Segundo is a mix of honey, lemon, basilicum, soda, cola, ice and rum. We had to admit; it is gooood!

Drinking Compay with the locals, Havana, Cuba

Safety in Havana
Our friends learned us a lot about Havana, the culture and the daily struggles.
First of all, Cuba is very safe because the government is very strict. If you walk around with a little knife and the police caught you, you have to go to jail for one year. If they catch you with marihuana, you will get five years. Even though marihuana is illegal in Cuba, it isn’t said that it can’t be bought. Locals use it at home to stay “under the radar”.
Another thing that makes Cuba so safe is that it is not allowed to be part of a gang. If you are part of a gang and the government finds out, you have to go to jail for ten years.

Decoration Neptuno Bar, Havana, Cuba

Baby milk challenge
Our friends also shared some daily struggles of the locals. As you could read in our previous blog there are two currencies; the local Cuban peso (cup) and the convertible peso (cuc) for tourists. We are not able to get the local Cuban peso and the locals can’t use the convertible ones. Our friends told us that this makes it so hard for them to buy baby milk. They have to pay ten cuc for two kilogram and this makes it impossible for them to buy it.
During our conversation they showed us the cup and gave both of us one cup. We wanted to exchange and decided to give them two cuc back. But they were not happy at all! They got quite offended. Lesson learned; don’t give the same back in return.

Meeting up with the locals, Havana, Cuba

How everything changed
The funniest part of the whole conversation is when they thanked us for the invitation. Reading between the lines, we just had to pay the drinks for them. Since we had a good time and learned so much, we decided to paid for the drinks.
After their explanation about Cuban cigars we wanted to leave. This was easier said than done! Our friends wanted to show us the cigar place, probably to get some free cigars as well. We wanted to shake hands and then it all got started.. We heard the saddest stories about their children, the baby milk struggle and how badly they need money etc.

We never saw this one coming (you can call us the typical tourist)! We already paid for the drinks, offered them two cuc and then we got this.. We explained that we paid enough; no more money for cigars, baby milk or children. Luckily we finally could shake hands with a smile on our faces!

Not only our friends learned us a lot about Havana and the culture, but also about the lifestyle and the way they trap tourists. We enjoyed our time but we do want to warn you to be careful who you trust. It is not always what it looks like!

Street vendors, Havana, Cuba

Let’s give something back!

We decided to give something back every time we travel to a new country. As a tourist or traveler it is easy to “take” and it’s often forgotten to give something back to the country, nature, animals or locals. We would like to change this and decided to check what we could give back to Cuba!

In Cuba it’s not hard to give something back:

  • Stay in casa particulares (hotels are state-owned) and support the locals.
  • Bring old clothes and give them to the local people.
  • Feed the street dogs (discuss this first with your host or restaurant owners, because sometimes there is already someone whom take care of the street dogs).
  • Eat in local restaurants or at your casa particulares.
  • Bring beauty care products like soap and shampoo to leave behind.
  • Bring souvenirs from your country as a gift for the hosts you stay with.
  • Share your pens with the locals. Some locals would love to receive a pen since this is something they could sell and make some money with.
  • Follow salsa classes, cocktail workshops, join a horse riding tour, visit local tobacco- and coffee farms etc.
  • Meet the locals on the street, in restaurants, bars etc. They will be more than happy to share information about their lives, culture and Cuba. Invite them for drinks and you will both have a great time.
  • Only buy products or souvenirs in local shops or street vendors.

Street fruit vendor, Havana, Cuba

As we said before, we really enjoyed our weekends in Havana. It’s such a vibrant city with an amazing vibe!
If you have plans to visit Havana or you have been there already, we would love to hear from you!
If you want to see more of Cuba, make sure you follow us on Instagram, check our blog and video about Cuba, Viñales and Trinidad!