Exploring Havana feels like stepping back in time. Pastel-coloured classic cars line the streets, drying laundry hangs from the balconies of crumbling buildings and every corner is bustling with life.
It’s no coincidence that the Cuban capital city feels exactly like Barcelona in the Caribbean. Cuba was a Spanish colony for four centuries before Fidel Castro led a 1956 coup that established Communist rule that remains today.
Communism is the source of Cuba’s old world charm but is also the root of the country’s pain. Cubans are forced to work in government jobs that pay a meagre $US30 ($A40) a month. Walk into any supermarket and you will find most of the shelves unstacked and a lot of uninterested workers.
Cuba also has some of the most restricted internet access in the world. Tourists and locals alike crowd into public Wi-Fi parks to access it.
But this is also what makes travelling to Cuba so fantastic. Without internet, visitors are forced to put down their phones and soak up the atmosphere of Havana’s bustling streets without worrying about their next Instagram post.
Locals agree the country is changing rapidly. The number of private businesses is rising, tourists are streaming in and Cuban society’s attitude toward sexuality is becoming more progressive.
What you need to know before going
Money in Cuba can be a pain unless you come prepared. There are two currencies; the Cuban peso (CUP) for locals and the convertible peso (CUC) for tourists.
Money can be exchanged only in Cuba, and the only accepted currencies are euros and Canadian or US dollars. Australian travellers must convert their spending money into one of those before they get to Cuba.
Beware though, the government slaps a 10 per cent levy on US dollars. Consider converting your spending money to euros instead.
CUCs are available at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport and most bank branches.
Further, the Australian government’s Smartraveller website warns that credit cards, debit cards and travellers’ cheques issued by US banks or Australian banks affiliated with US banks will not be accepted.
“This includes all American Express and Westpac Bank cards and some Visa and MasterCard cards, depending on the issuing bank,” it says.
Visitors must also apply for a tourist card before they arrive in Cuba. Travellers from the US can buy these are their airline gate. The cost varies between airlines, but expect to pay between $US50 and $US100.
If travelling from Canada, your airline will provide you a visa during the flight.
The third option is to get a visa through a third party before you leave Australia. They’re also available from Cuban embassies.
Where to eat
Cuba isn’t renowned as a foodie destination due to limited resources. Nonetheless, Havana has a growing culinary scene that offers incredible dining experiences.
La Guarida is Havana’s most celebrated restaurant, with a long list of celebrity clientele that includes Beyonce and Natalie Portman.
It’s on the top floor of an old colonial mansion. Expect a white-tablecloth experience with sensational fresh dishes such as carpaccio, pumpkin tortellini and fabulous cocktails.
Hidden away on one of Old Havana’s most charming streets, far from the main tourist traps, the brothers at Chacon 162 offer accommodation and also serve up delicious pasta dishes, salads and inventive cocktails. Sit outside while you dine and watch the locals go by.
If it’s a trendy dining experience you’re after, try El Del Frente. It can be hard to get a table here at dinner, so come for lunch and enjoy cocktails on the rooftop and marvel at the old colonial buildings.
Opposite the Capitol building, locals and tourists alike queue to eat at Los Nardos. The decor is a little dated but the food, price and service are all unbeatable.
The trendy Vedado neighbourhood is also not to be missed. Art, live music and cocktails combine at Fabrica de Arte, an old cooking oil factory that has been transformed into Havana’s hottest nightspot.
Next door, restaurant El Cocinero is also not to be missed – but you’ll need to book ahead. A short stroll away, beachfront club 1830 offers some of the best salsa dancing in Havana.
Where to stay
Accommodation ranges from five star hotels to Airbnb, which has many options and operates just as in any other country. Our Cuban Airbnb hosts were incredibly warm and hospitable.
It is now legal for Americans to travel to the US. The main reason people nominate is “supporting the Cuban people”, which can be done just through eating at restaurants and staying at Airbnbs and hotels.
Get to know Cuba through a local’s eyes
Cuba can be confusing to an outsider. The nation’s complex communist economy can leave you scratching your head as you struggle to find cafes willing to serve you a coffee at 10am on a Sunday.
A walking tour with a local is one of the best ways of understanding the complex social and economic changes Cuba is faces. This guided tour with a young economist is spectacular and ends with a round of Havana Club rum in his grandmother’s apartment overlooking the Capitol Building as you discuss life as a Cuban.
More information for Australians: Smartraveller.gov.au