Like going on a blind date that turns out to be your soul mate, oh Havana, where have you been all my life?
This trip reminds me so much of my maiden trips to Cambodia in 2005 and to China in 2008. Both trips opened my eyes to worlds that I’d like to think have been terribly misunderstood. To this end, the comparison between Cuba and Singapore, or rather Castro Fidel and Lee Kuan Yew is warranted. Once we got into the city, I told Edward immediately that Cuba reminds me of Singapore in the 1960s. I do think the ideal expression of a socialist country would sit in between where both Cuba and Singapore are currently at. While to the naked eye, it may seem that Cuba’s lack of development sets the country backwards but the heart and soul of the nation is very much alive and real, and should I say untainted by the west. (And I can hear Castro accusing Lee Kuan Yew of selling out Singapore.)
It’s absolutely true that politics will never be understood from textbooks or the media — you got to go out there. Engage the world. Travel widely. Talk to strangers. And it’s not difficult at all with some of the friendliest and pure-hearted people in the world. After a weekend in Havana, the Cubans have my heart. We went on the “Support Cuban People” visa and of course we’d indulge in all things Cuban local. Havana is the original hipster city, hands down. The “hipster” cafes and restaurants are authentic to its core. It’s perhaps not surprising that we spent much of our weekend Cuban cafe-hopping (granted you just can’t have enough of fantastic $3 piña coloda, cuba libre and mojito!) Live music and salsa are permanent fixtures at local diners, every meal is surely a happy meal!
Thanks to my Southwest credit card, I was given 12,000 points this year for various membership offers, which was enough to get me 2 one-way tickets from Havana to Denver. We flew American Airlines from Denver to Havana for $149 per person. United and Delta flies to Havana as well. And be sure to check which terminal your flight is getting out of as the two terminals are a $5 taxi ride away of the other. On the ground lodging, transport, food, drinks, and all travel spending, you could travel Havana very well for just $100 per person per day, which was what we managed to pull off! Adding on flights and airport transfers, our 3-day weekend trip to Havana worked out to under $500 per person. (If you hold an American passport, you would also need to purchase a visa for $85. Singaporeans travel visa-free!)
Ps. I’m working on a two-day itinerary for our readers as I type this so check back soon again.
There is perhaps no better time to visit Havana than now. It’s 2 years since Castro’s passing, and 5 months into the new presidency of Miguel Díaz-Canel (appointed by Raul Fidel and co.) The mood of the nation cannot be more optimistic for the fresh ideas their next generation of socialist leaders are to bring to their nation. Despite the developing nation status, the people are not quite in need. Cubans would proudly tell you about how their good quality healthcare and education are all free to their people. While daily expenses are also next to nothing. Cuban pride is real, and to the Cubans, this means showing off Cuban culture to the world. More than just a time capsule, you will be surprised by how much you do not know about this charming nation – that – I frankly would love to keep it a secret, but this nation deserves to be heard.
For just $25, you could tour the city for an hour in an original 1951 chevy to visit quirky artistic folks from Lennon to Hemingway.
Three quick tips to travel Havana on a shoestring budget
- For a developing country, Cuba is relatively expensive but you could still eat and sleep well by dining at local establishments ($10 per person per meal including a drink!), and staying at Casa Particulares (i.e. Airbnb). We stayed at the lovely Capitolio Residences for just $35pp per night. In support of the Cubans, Airbnbs are an incredibly popular option for the minimalist traveler. New luxury hotels (backed by the Chinese) are beginning to make their grand appearances around the city for $300-500 per night with great views if you’re up for a splurge!
- Cash is still king. Non-US credit cards should allow you to withdraw cash from the ATMs which can be found everywhere in Old and Centro Havana. Otherwise bring Euros, CAD, GBP or JPY to exchange at banks or Cambios. USD is going to get you slapped a 10% fee. Some Cuban restaurants have begun to add a 10% service fee in your bill, but many still prefers voluntary tipping (says a lot about Cuban culture!) but please do tip. At this point, a small tip not only shows your appreciation to Cuban culture but it also goes a long way for the Cubans.
- Travel light, you can walk everywhere in Old and Centro Havana though it’s hot and humid for the most part. But the city is also ridiculously safe! For all the alcohol and cigar on offer, crime and violence are rarely an issue. Cubans are jovial, good-natured, civilised and well-educated — that’s a legacy of Castro Fidel, hate or love him. Bicitaxis and Coco Taxis are relatively cheap ways to go around the city ($5 or less per ride). A regular taxi would charge $25-30 from the airport to Old Havana and $10-$15 to go from Centro or Old Havana to outside spots.
This is part of the wander workbook series where the wanderer in fivetwosix scribbles her worldwide finds of #whimsicaldateideas with her man or girlfriends without burning a hole in their pockets. Hopefully, they inspire you to always take time to smell the roses and make time for a creative date with those you love.