We truly loved our time in Cuba, despite quickly getting a taste of the refrain “No es fácil.” Scarcity is the norm, even more so outside of Havana. Gorgeous Art Nouveau buildings fall into decay due to insufficient restoration funds. Instead, the money goes to building new hotels. Basic ingredients and toiletries can’t be accessed by Cubans, but the resorts have open buffets. It’s quite common to sit down at a local restaurant only to discover that half the items on the menu have run out. Neocolonialism is everywhere. And so, to survive, Cuban people hustle. They have side-gigs, they have networks, they create middle-manager roles for themselves – they find ways.
In turn, the truth becomes a moving target. After settling on one answer, you realize it has shifted when you check again. With a bit of nudging, other facts emerge. This isn’t a prank. It’s likely the only way of staying sane in a global system that is dead set against you. And in spite of (or due to) this hostile international climate, Cuban pride is strong. After all, they are the creators of son, rumba and afro-cuban jazz. They have rum. They have congris. They have their own COVID vaccine. They’ve upheld a socialist system in the face of monumental push back. Against all odds, they have done so much, and the undertow of resistance is felt throughout.
Despite what the internet may say, the USD is alive and well in Cuba. In fact, no-one is interested in the Canadian Dollar. The internet is correct in stating that everything is paid in cash and that cards are virtually useless. Most things are purchased with Cuban Pesos, so whatever currency you bring will need to be exchanged. The going bank rates in January 2023 are 85 Cuban Pesos for 1 CAD and 170 Cuban Pesos for 1 USD or 1 euro.
Apparently, Canadian Dollars can be exchanged on the street for 125 Cuban Pesos, but we were warned that people may give you fake bills. Some casa particular hosts can organize a legit underground exchange for you, but ours couldn’t. These local exchangers are usually not interested in Canadian dollars, nor are most taxi drivers (although they will take them reluctantly). Additionally, the banks and the cadecas were mostly closed during our stay. So, we resorted to pleading our case at the large hotels, who were willing to exchange our Canadian dollars for Pesos at the bank rate. (The smaller boutique hotels won’t – we tried a few.) Given the struggle to get any Pesos at all, we contented ourselves with the lower exchange rate. However, the challenge in obtaining pesos unfortunately leads to increased vigilance around spending. Hence, less money spent in Cuba.
There are several different ways to get around Havana – foot, bus, bike, colectivo, velo-taxi, moto-taxi or taxi.
Many casa particulares don’t offer internet and we didn’t encounter any public spots with free wifi, so it’s wise to download a map of Havana before you go, pinning the spots you’ll want to check out. Here’s ours.
By foot: Our preferred mode of transport due to its ease, despite having to tolerate the constant avalanche of cat calls.
By bike: Good luck! Biking around Havana would have been a dream, but sadly, the four bike rental places we tried were all out of commission.
By bus: The bus costs 2 pesos, and once you manage to get on, it’s straightforward, as long as you don’t mind being squashed like a sardine. There are no official bus schedules as far as we could tell, so you wait in a designated area until a bus going to your neighbourhood pulls up. Then, you fling yourself at its doors with the rest of the crowd and hope to get on. There were many buses travelling from Vedado to Old Havana, so it was fairly smooth to go back and forth. A bonus: there’s music!
By colectivo: These cost 5-15 pesos depending on the length of your journey. They have designated routes, usually on the main streets. Very pleasant and affordable if it lines up with your itinerary. Sadly, they don’t run at night.
By velo-taxi: Generally around 100-300 pesos for a ride. They can’t go on big streets with higher speed limits, so they are mostly used for travelling within a neighbourhood. Be warned, it’s heart-wrenching to see the drivers pedaling up a sweat while you sit back and relax.
By moto-taxi: Generally in the 500-2000 peso range – approximately the same as taxis – although you get to feel the wind rush through your hair as you ride!
By taxi: Here, you may need to haggle. Taxi drivers will generally cite a price between 1000-2000 pesos (or 10-20 USD), with higher prices at night. Once, we got a late night taxi from Havana Vieja to Vedado to 600 CUP, so we realized that the prices are somewhat arbitrary.
Taxis to and from the airport are fixed rate of 30 USD (we paid 40 CAD).
Vedado: Vedado is a central, slightly more affluent residential neighbourhood. Most buildings were built prior to the Revolution and thus have a neoclassical aesthetic. East Vedado houses the establishment hotels, such as Havana Libra, Capri and the Hotel Nacional, as well as nightclubs, plazas, and the celebrated Coppelia heladeria. West Vedado is a slightly more low-key with independent artsy venues such as the FAC, Cuba Libro, and Casa de la Bombilla Verde. The Malecon runs along the outer edge of Vedado and is easily accessible by foot. Although it’s a single neighbourhood, it’s a large one. It takes about 45-60 min to walk from one end to the other and can feel spread out. Street life is active and tourists are somewhat sparse. Vedado feels safe, even at night, despite the customary sexual harassment.
Havana Vieja: We only spent one day in Havana Vieja, but were surprised to find many of its narrow streets teeming with children and local bustle – a far cry from the tourist mecca we’d been warned about. However, once we reached the main arteries, milky skin and Tilley hats were suddenly all we saw, along with souvenir shops. Despite the newer flashy hotels which disrupt the local architecture (and highlight inequalities), there seem to be pockets of Havana Vieja retaining its original charm. There is significantly more commerce in the Havana Vieja as compared to Vedado, including bookstores and art stores. Most museums are in Havana Vieja, including the Museo de Bellas Artes and the Museo de la Revolución. The Center of Ornithology is also in Havana Vieja, but unfortunately, the attendee’s leering comments deterred us from going in. We were told about some street parties in lower Havana Vieja that sounded fun, although that area may be less safe for femmes, so we opted not to venture there at night.
As femmes unaccompanied by a man, we were graced with an uninterrupted stream of kisses and propositions. Here were some notable incidents: one man followed us for a full 4 km walk; another man volunteered graphic details about his “pinga gigante;” another man grabbed us on the street, claiming us as his girlfriends; another man suggested we go for mojitos… on six different occasions, determined to not take no for an answer!
Total Lesbian Count
TEN! Excluding us, but including the other couple from Québec.
Subscribe to our email newsletter to get the latest posts delivered right to your email.