Dangers & Annoyances
Havana is not a dangerous city, especially when compared to other metropolitan areas in North and South America. There is almost no gun crime, violent robbery, organized gang culture, teenage delinquency, drugs or dangerous no-go zones. Rather, a heavy police presence on the streets and stiff prison sentences for crimes such as assault have acted as a major deterrent for would-be criminals and kept the dirty tentacles of organized crime at bay.
Petty crime against tourists in Havana – almost nonexistent in the 1990s – is widespread and on the rise, with pickpocketing, bag-snatching by youths mounted on bicycles and the occasional face-to-face mugging all being reported.
Bring a money belt and keep it on you at all times, making sure that you wear it concealed – and tightly secured – around your waist.
In hotels use a safety deposit box (if there is one) and never leave money, passports or credit cards lying around during the day. Theft from hotel rooms is tediously common, with the temptation of earning three times your monthly salary in one fell swoop often too hard to resist.
In bars and restaurants it is wise to check your change. Purposeful overcharging, especially when someone is mildly inebriated, is a favorite (and easy) trick.
Visitors from well-ordered European countries or litigation-obsessed North America should keep an eye out for crumbling sidewalks, manholes with no covers, inexplicable driving rules, veering cyclists, carelessly lobbed front-door keys (in Centro Habana) and enthusiastically hit baseballs (almost everywhere). Waves cascading over the Malecón sea wall might look pretty, but the resulting slime-fest has been known to send Lonely Planet–wielding tourists flying unceremoniously onto their asses.
Tourist scams are the bane of travelers in many cities, and Havana is no exception, although the city rates more favorably than plenty of other Latin American metro areas. Some Cuban con tricks are familiar to anyone who has traveled internationally. Agree on taxi fares before getting in a cab, don’t change money on the street, and always check your bill and change in restaurants. Cuba’s professional tricksters are called jineteros (literally, jockeys). They are particularly proficient in Havana where their favorite pastime is selling knock-off cigars to unsuspecting tourists.
Cuba’s dual currency invites scammers. Although the two sets of banknotes look very similar, there are actually 25 moneda nacional (MN$; sometimes called Cuban pesos) to every Cuban convertible (CUC$). Familiarize yourself with the banknotes early on (most banks have pictorial charts) and double-check all money transactions to avoid being left seriously out of pocket. One popular trick is for young men in the street to offer to change foreign currency into Cuban convertibles at very favorable rates, but as you'll be given back moneda nacional, it will be only worth one-twenty-fifth of the value when you take them into a shop.
Casas particulares (private homestays) attract jineteros who prey on both travelers and casa owners. A common trick is for a jinetero to pose falsely as a reputed casa particular owner who a traveler has booked in advance (including those listed by Lonely Planet), and then proceed to lead you to a different house where they will extract CUC$5 to CUC$10 commission (added to your room bill). On some occasions, travelers are not aware they have been led to the wrong home. There have even been reports of people writing bad reviews online.
If you've prebooked a casa, or are using Lonely Planet to find one, make sure you turn up without a commission-seeking jinetero.
Another scam is the illicit sale of cheap cigars, usually perpetuated by hissing street salesmen around Centro Habana and Habana Vieja. It is best to politely ignore these characters. Any bartering is not worth the bother. Cigars sold on the street are almost always substandard – something akin to substituting an expensive French wine with cheap white vinegar. Instead, buy your cigars direct from the factory or visit one of the numerous Casas del Habano that are scattered throughout the city.
Embassies & Consulates
Emergency & Important Numbers
To call Cuba from abroad, dial your international access code, Cuba's country code, the city or area code (minus the '0,' which is used when dialing domestically between provinces), and the local number.
|Cuba's country code||53|
Entry & Exit Formalities
Immigration Office Proceed to this office if you need to prolong your tourist visa (30-day extensions for most countries; 90-day extensions available for Canadians).
When buying art at an official outlet, always ask for a receipt to show Cuban customs. To discourage private trading of works of art, officials often confiscate undocumented artwork at the airport. If for some reason you didn't get a receipt you'll need to purchase a certificate issued by the Registro Nacional de Bienes Culturales.
To obtain an export certificate, you must bring the objects here for inspection, fill in a form, queue (for two hours), pay a fee of between CUC$10 and CUC$30 (which covers one to five pieces of artwork), and return 24 hours later to pick up the certificate. It makes sense to not leave this bit of business until your last day in Cuba.
Cuba is an informal country with few rules of etiquette.
- Greetings Shake hands with strangers; a kiss or double-cheek kiss is appropriate between people (men–women and women–women) who have already met.
- Conversation Although they can be surprisingly candid, Cubans aren’t keen to discuss politics, especially with strangers and if it involves being openly critical of the government.
- Dancing Cubans don’t harbor any self-consciousness about dancing. Throw your reservations out the window and let loose.
Since May 2010, Cuba has made it obligatory for all foreign visitors to have medical insurance.
Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.
Checking insurance quotes…
Cuba’s internet service provider is national phone company Etecsa. Etecsa runs various telepuntos (internet-cafes-cum-call-centers) in Habana: the main ones are in Centro Habana and Habana Vieja. The drill is to buy a one-hour user card (CUC$2) with a scratch-off user code and contraseña (password), and either help yourself to a free computer or use it on your own device in one of the city's 30-plus wi-fi hot spots. Most Havana hotels that are rated three stars and up also have wi-fi. You don't generally have to be a guest to use it.
Popular wi-fi hot spots in Havana include La Rampa (Calle 23 between L and Malecón) in Vedado, the corner of Av de Italia and San Rafael in Centro Habana, and the Miramar Trade Center in Playa.
Cuba has two daily newspapers, Granma (www.granma.cu) and Juventud Rebelde (www.juventudrebelde.cu). Both are effectively mouthpieces of the Communist Party of Cuba. They are sold on the streets of Havana or available online in Spanish and English. A third newspaper, Trabajadores (www.trabajadores.cu), comes out weekly.
Cuban TV, rather like the newspapers, is state-controlled. There are some decent cultural and educational programs and no commercials.
Cuba has a fantastic radio culture – you'll hear everything from salsa to Supertramp, plus live sports broadcasts and soap operas. Radio is also the best source for listings on concerts, plays, movies and dances.
- Radio Ciudad de La Habana (820AM & 94.9FM) Cuban tunes by day, foreign pop at night; great '70s flashbacks at 8pm on Thursday and Friday.
- Radio Metropolitana (910AM & 98.3FM) Jazz and traditional boleros (music in three-quarter time); excellent Sunday afternoon rock show.
- Radio Musical Nacional (590AM & 99.1FM) Classical.
- Radio Progreso (640AM & 90.3FM) Soap operas and humor.
- Radio Rebelde (640AM, 710AM & 96.7FM) News, interviews, good mixed music, plus baseball games.
- Radio Reloj (950AM & 101.5FM) News, plus the time every minute of every day.
- Radio Taíno (1290AM & 93.3FM) National tourism station with music, listings and interviews in Spanish and English. Nightly broadcasts (5pm to 7pm) list what's happening around town.
Cuba is primarily a cash economy. Credit cards are accepted in resorts and city hotels. ATMs are widely available and accept some debit/credit cards.
ATMs are now widespread in Havana and usually function pretty efficiently. Check with your home bank before your departure regarding your own card's functionality in Cuba. Cuban ATMs generally accept non-US-linked Visa credit and debit cards.
Cuban ATMs are notorious for giving out small denomination notes. You might find yourself trying to stuff CUC$200 worth of CUC$3 notes into your pocket.
The quickest and most hassle-free places to exchange money are in Cadecas. There are dozens of them across Havana and they usually have much longer opening hours and quicker service than banks.
Banco Popular de Ahorro Guanabo
There are also banks and ATMs in the Miramar Trade Center.
Cuba is a cash economy and credit cards don't have the importance or ubiquity that they do elsewhere in the West. Although carrying just cash is far riskier than the usual cash/credit-card/debit-card mix, it's infinitely more convenient. As long as you use a concealed money belt and keep the cash on you or in your hotel's safety deposit box at all times, you should be OK.
It's better to ask for CUC$20/10/5/3/1 bills when you're changing money, as many smaller Cuban businesses (restaurants, taxis etc) can't change anything bigger (ie CUC$50 or CUC$100 bills) and the words 'no hay cambio' ('no change') echo everywhere. If desperate you can always break big bills at hotels.
Cuba is primarily a cash economy. Credit cards are accepted in resort hotels and some city hotels. The acceptance of credit cards has become more widespread in Cuba in recent years and was aided by the legalization of US and US-linked credit and debit cards in early 2015.
However, change is still a work in process, and US residents should note that at the time of research, debit and credit cards from the USA could still not be used. While services can still be booked with credit cards from the US on the internet, in country it's another story. Residents of the US can wire money via Western Union, though this requires help from a third party and hefty fees.
When weighing up whether to use a credit card or cash, bear in mind that the charges levied by Cuban banks are similar for both (around 3%). However, your home bank may charge additional fees for ATM/credit-card transactions. An increasing number of debit cards work in Cuba, but it's best to check with both your home bank and the local Cuban bank before using them.
Ideally, you should arrive in the Cuba with a stash of cash, and a credit and debit card as back-up.
Almost all private business in Cuba (ie with casas particulares and paladares) is still conducted in cash.
Cuba's dual currencies are a tricky part of any trip here, as the double economy takes some getting used to. At the time of research, two currencies were still circulating in Cuba: convertible pesos (CUC$) and Cuban pesos (referred to as moneda nacional, abbreviated as 'MN$'). One convertible is worth 25 pesos. Non-Cubans deal almost exclusively in convertibles.
Tipping in Cuba is important. Since most Cubans earn money in moneda nacional (MN$), leaving a tip of CUC$1 or more makes a huge difference.
- Resorts/Hotels Tip for good staff service.
- Musicians Tip small notes for restaurant musicians when the basket comes around.
- Tour guides Depending on tour length (a dollar for a few hours to more for extensive guiding).
- Restaurants Standard 10% (up to 15% for excellent service).
- Taxis 10% if you're on the meter, otherwise agree full fare beforehand.
Banks 9am–3pm Monday to Friday
Cadeca Money Exchanges 9am–7pm Monday to Saturday and 9am–noon Sunday. Many top-end city hotels offer money exchange late into the evening.
Post Offices 8am–5pm Monday to Saturday, sometimes longer
Shops 9am–5pm Monday to Saturday and 9am–noon Sunday
Post Office branches include those in Miramar; Guanabo; Habana Vieja; Vedado; Vedado; and Vedado. The last Vedado branch, on Av de la Independencia, has many services, including photo developing, a bank and a Cadeca.
Officially Cuba (and hence Havana) has nine public holidays. Other important national days to look out for include January 28 (anniversary of the birth of José Martí); April 19 (Bay of Pigs victory); October 8 (anniversary of the death of Che Guevara); October 28 (anniversary of the death of Camilo Cienfuegos); and December 7 (anniversary of the death of Antonio Maceo).
January 1 Triunfo de la Revolución (Liberation Day)
January 2 Día de la Victoria (Victory of the Armed Forces)
May 1 Día de los Trabajadores (International Worker's Day)
July 25 Commemoration of Moncada Attack
July 26 Día de la Rebeldía Nacional – Commemoration of Moncada Attack
July 27 Commemoration of Moncada Attack
October 10 Día de la Indepedencia (Independence Day)
December 25 Navidad (Christmas Day)
December 31 New Year's Eve
- Smoking Banned in enclosed spaces. Some restaurants have special smoking rooms. Most bars and restaurants allow smoking at outdoor tables.
Taxes & Refunds
There are no tax refunds for goods bought in Cuba.
Check with your service provider to see if your phone will work (GSM or TDMA networks only). International calls are expensive. You can pre-buy services from the state-run phone company, Cubacel.
You can use your own GSM or TDMA phones in Cuba, though you'll have to get a local chip and pay an activation fee (approximately CUC$30) at an Etecsa telepunto. Bring your passport. There are numerous offices around the country (including at Havana's airport) where you can do this.
It costs CUC$0.35 per minute for calls within Cuba and CUC$0.10 for texts. You pay the same amount if receiving a call from a fixed line. International calls start at CUC$1.10 per minute. To rent a phone in Cuba costs from CUC$8 plus a CUC$3 daily activation fee. You'll also need to pay a CUC$100 deposit. Charges after this amount to around CUC$0.35 per minute. For up-to-date costs and information see www.etecsa.cu.
Havana isn't over-endowed with clean and accessible public toilets. Most tourists slip into upscale hotels if they're caught short. Even there, restrooms often lack toilet paper, soap and door locks. Make sure you tip the lady at the door.
State-run Infotur books tours and has maps, phonecards and useful free brochures.
Pretty much every hotel in Havana has some type of state-run tourist information desk.
Travel with Children
Cubans love kids and kids invariably love Cuba. Welcome to a culture where children still play freely in the street. There's something wonderfully old-fashioned about kids' entertainment here, which is less about computer games and more about messing around in the plaza with an improvised baseball bat and a rolled-up ball of plastic.
- Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña
Havana's huge fort has museums, battlements and a nightly cannon ceremony with soldiers in period costume.
- Castillo de la Real Fuerza
This centrally located fort has a moat, lookouts and scale models of Spanish galleons.
- Parque Maestranza
This park has bouncy castles, fairground rides and sweet snacks overlooking Havana Harbor.
- Isla del Coco
A huge Chinese-funded amusement park in Havana's Playa neighborhood, the best of its type in Cuba.
- Parque Lenin
A park with 'rustic' playground rides, boats, a minitrain and an equestrian center south of Havana.
- Acuario Nacional
Various reproductions of Cuba's coastal ecosystems, including a marine cave and a mangrove forest, can be found at the nation's main aquarium, in the Miramar district.
- Carnaval de la Habana
Music, dancing and effigies along Havana's Malecón in August.
- Playas de Este
Miles of sandy beaches 20km east of Havana, with plenty of water toys available to rent. Makes a good day trip.
A riot of playful public art that has the ability to inspire any age group.
There are a number of bodies offering volunteer work in Cuba, though it is always best to organize things in your home country first. Just turning up in Havana and volunteering can be difficult, if not impossible. Several organizations have people-to-people licenses and are thus able to enroll US visitors on their programs.
Canada-Cuba Farmer to Farmer Project (www.farmertofarmer.ca) Vancouver-based sustainable agriculture organization.
Cuban Solidarity Campaign (www.cuba-solidarity.org) Head office in London, UK.
Global Volunteers (https://globalvolunteers.org/cuba) With programs in Havana, Ciego de Ávila and Sancti Spíritus.
Go Overseas (www.gooverseas.com) A catalog of 22 programs in Cuba organized by length of stay, area and program rating, many officially licensed by the US.
Pastors for Peace (www.ifconews.org) Collects donations across the US to take to Cuba.
Witness for Peace (www.witnessforpeace.org) People-to-people licensed. Brings delegations to Cuba, some study the impact of US policy.
Havana's gay life ebbs and flows though, in recent years, it has become noticeably more open and tolerant. The most gay-friendly district is the tangle of streets around the Malecón, Av de Infanta and La Rampa (Calle 23) on the cusp of Centro Habana and Vedado where you'll find several gay-friendly bars, cafes and clubs. Good spots for gay entertainment are Cabaret Las Vegas and Cafe Cantante Mi Habana (both in Vedado).
Cruising zones and meeting points center on La Rampa (Calle 23) in Vedado, particularly in the area around Cine Yara and the Coppelia at the junction with Calle L and at the intersection of the Rampa and the Malecón on the sea wall. Havana's gay beach is Playa Boca Ciega in Habana del Este.
Since 2008, Havana has openly celebrated gay pride with a big parade on May 17.
Same-sex marriage is not yet legal in Cuba.
Cuba's inclusive culture extends to disabled travelers, and while facilities may be lacking, the generous nature of Cubans generally compensates. Sight-impaired travelers will be helped across streets and given priority in lines. The same holds true for travelers in wheelchairs, although they'll find the few ramps ridiculously steep and will have trouble in colonial parts of town where sidewalks are narrow and streets are cobblestone. Elevators are often out of order. Etecsa phone centers have telephone equipment for the hearing-impaired, and TV programs are broadcast with closed captioning.
Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guide from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.