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Do the time warp in Havana, Cuba

Published August 31st, 2015

A place like nowhere else; be prepared to enter into the twilight (aka no internet) zone that is Cuba.

This means doing your research before jet setting and carrying a notebook of addresses, tips and to-do-lists. You know, like people used to travel, pre-2005.

Contrary to recent hype, although the American Embassy did just re-open for the first time in over 50 years, it’s still not possible for American’s to travel to Cuba for tourism purposes. However, common concern is that it’s only a matter of time before Cuba becomes another American holiday outpost ala Cancun.

Cuban kids on the streets of Old Havana

What we’re getting at is Aussies and other non-Americans best hurry to discover Cuba in all its failed-utopian-glory pronto before things start to change (note: whatever your opinions, don’t mutter ‘communism’ and ‘failed’ in Cuba out loud). While rebuilding relations with the US and lifting the embargos the country has been experiencing for decades is surely a positive for Cuba’s trade industry and will bring in much needed building supplies and technology, the people of Cuba don’t want to lose the essence of their culture.

Cuban whites from head to toe

On a recent trip to Havana I visited O’Reilly 304, a hip gin bar opened a year and half ago when the government relaxed rules around private restaurants and issued more licenses for restaurant owners. I had the opportunity of sitting down with Julio Cesar, the bar owner. As I sipped on one of the best gin cocktails I’ve ever had, we chatted about photography (comparing specs on our respective SLRs), the inspiration behind his bar and his outlook on the future of his country.

What struck me is that no one in the bar was on their phones; instead they were talking to each other. The bar staff pored over magazines when it wasn’t busy. Julio showed me a recipe in a French edition of Vanity Fair, neither of us read French but he was curious what ‘Quinoa’ was? I almost chuckled and told him not to worry about it, it’s just an overpriced grain that rich white people like and impoverished Peruvians are running out of.

Almost an analogy of what can be seen there; Julio said he’s excited about the idea of trade opening up the country, but that he doesn’t want to see the culture that’s been so well preserved to be diluted – for everyone to have an iPhone and stop interacting in person... Something to ponder on your journey there perhaps. Embrace the digital detox!

Bicycle taxi in Old Havana

But before you get there, you’re going to have to know how to, CUBA.

Here are some tips to help you make the most of Havana...

- Talk to people – Cubans love to chat and will be happy to give you advice

- Sort out your money before you arrive as access to ATMs or exchange facilities is difficult (Most machines don’t accept Mastercard. You can line up to withdraw money from your plastic at Western Union, make sure you have your passport with you: no passport, no cash. And beware of the Western Union fee which is around 10% - ouch!)

- You can live like a local for next to nothing, but you can be a very well fed, watered and shopped tourist for under $100 AU a day (not including accommodation). Estimate $10 breakfast, $10-$20 lunch, $15-$20 dinner, $20 for mojitos and daiquiris and water (there’s no free water here and you can’t drink from the taps), $20 for entry fees, transport and shopping.

- Canadian dollars or Euros are a good choice as Aussie dollars can't be changed and US$ attract an additional fee. If you’re coming from Mexico, Pesos are good too.

- Bring magazines - without the internet Cuban's keep up with culture and fashion the old way – through print.

- Bring pens to give to schools or little kids on the street

Cocktails at O'Reilly 304

EAT

One of the great things about Havana is you can eat like a king for very little. $10 lobster? $2 mojitos? Yes please. Cuba has had a bad rap over the years for its stodgy fare, but all that’s changing. Even on a student budget you can eat better than you’d expect. Street food isn’t really a thing here, but there are a number of nice restaurants to choose from.

elCocinero: order the lobster bisque, amongst other specialities

Calle 26 e/ 11 y 13, Vedado

La Guarida: sure, most budget conscious travellers don’t usually hit up the most expensive restaurant in town, where Fidel Castro likes to dine. But in Cuba, you can be one of the elite, enjoying a three course meal and drinks for around $100 CUC for two.

418 Concordia, Habana

The courtyard at Hotel National

DRINK

O’Reilly 304: gin cocktails and modern Cuban food

Calle O’Reilly 304 e/ Habana y Aguiar, Habana Vieja

Hotel National: a must in Havana. This grand hotel overlooks the Malecón and while it might be out of your budget to stay there, having a cocktail in its opulent courtyard is doable. If you’re lucky you might even get serenaded by the three-piece band.

Via calle 19, Habana

Ernest Hemingway was a Havana gadabout, spending a bunch of time here back in the 1930s and 40s. A man who likes a drink, he famously said “My mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio and my daiquiri in the Floridita.” So when in Havana do as Hemingway did, follow his footsteps between these two famous bars for an arguably overpriced yet delicious round of drinks. Beware of the friendly and famous touts outside del Medio – the guy with the big beard and the giant cigar, he’s a pro, but if he manages to get you posing with him in a photo, there goes $2 CUC.

Your mojito at Bodeguita del Medio
Your daiquiri at La Floridita

La Floridita: Obispo No.557 esq. Monserrate, Habana Vieja

La Bodeguita del Medio:Calle Empedrado No. 206, Habana Vieja

STAY

Casa Vitrales

For a boutique yet affordable option in the heart of the old town, Casa Vitrales is air-conditioned (a must in summer) and serves breakfast on its charming roof terrace every morning. A room for two is around $60 CUC per night.

106, Havana Street, between Cuarteles Street y Chacon, Habana Vieja

Santa Maria beach dayz

EXPLORE

Take a day trip to Santa Maria

Just a 30-minute bus trip from central Havana for $5 CUC return, you’ll find yourself on a white sandy Caribbean beach with crystal clear water. Pull up a chair under a cabana and settle in with a few mojitos and an order of fresh whole cooked fish for lunch. Cool off in the tropical waters in between cocktails.

Catch the bus from Parque Central, check the timetable on the western side of the square. Buses depart every hour.

FAC

Check out FAC (Fabrica de Art Cuba) multi-disciplinary art space for a look at Havana’s contemporary art scene. It’s right next door to elCocinero.

Calle 26 e/ 11, Vedado

Cuba's full of character and characters!

Note:

Cigar-roulette

Travelling back through the United States? Cuban cigar laws are tricky. Don’t get caught out at customs. US law permits citizens of authorised countries to purchase Cuban cigars up to the value of $100 CUC (make sure you get a receipt). However you don't want to argue with a TSA agent, so be sure to do your research and know your facts. Google “restrictions on what foreign persons entering the United States from travel that included Cuba may bring in their accompanied baggage?” to be safe.

And if you’ve come all that way you really should explore other parts of the country... plan to see more than just Havana. Let us know if you’ve explored Cuba yourself or if you’re about to and can let us know your tips too?

**Wi-Fi is available for a hefty price in some hotels in Havana, and in July 2015, the country's first public Wi-Fi zone was launched in Havana on Havana Avenue.

Rachel Surgeoner

A self-confessed 'food-tourist', I take hunting for the world's greatest sandwich very seriously, my quest has taken me from Berlin to Hoboken. Stopping off only for vintage shopping, craft beers and Mediterranean sunsets.

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