February 10, 2010 5:57 PM   Subscribe

We're going to Havana! Help us enjoy the city on the cheap and close to the ground.

We will be there from Tuesday to Saturday of next week. The primary purpose of this trip is to escape the Olympic Games and go somewhere warm, but with cool local culture. Hence: Havana. We're staying in a casa particular a few blocks west of the Capitolio.

What we like:
Music and art - especially local music, pretty architecture and beautiful places, unique experiences, public spaces where residents hang out, good food/ cheap food, fun and adventure, and so on.

What we don't like:
Expensive places, tourist shows, tourist attractions.

I realize the boundary can be a little muddy. I think the difference is authenticity. Sometimes an attraction draws people because it's amazing, and sometimes it's just designed to draw people and take their money. You can usually tell the difference. Along those lines we would totally go see jazz or dance or opera if it's a legit quality performance, even if that's a popular thing for tourists to do. Does that make sense? The problem I'm having is that whatever guides and websites I find rattle off a ton of stuff, but I can't tell from what I read if I will actually enjoy the stuff, or if it's just one of those famous places a lot of tourists go to that might be a letdown in reality.

I hear Havana is renowned for music in particular. What are some things we could check out?

Also--one of my friends told me to get tourist pesos at the airport, but then get "local" pesos at a local bank, and try to buy food etc with them, because it's way cheaper. I was under the impression this was frowned upon or even illegal. Can anyone speak to this?
posted by PercussivePaul to Travel & Transportation around Havana, Cuba (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I was in Havana in 2002 & 2005, tagging along with my father who was competing in the Pan American Masters bicycle competition (my Flickr set for the 2005 trip). I'm afraid I have no advice on the money thing - when I went we just used US dollars everywhere and people were fine with it, but maybe that policy has changed.

I enjoyed being in Cuba, and definitely want to go back. But I'm afraid I don't have any specific recommendations - since my trips were organized around the bicycle competition, and the taxi/van trip into Havana was a little expensive, I just went wherever the other non-cyclists wanted to go, which was usually just the beach or the marketplace by the Cathedral. Everyone said the Museum of the Revolution was interesting, though I didn't get to see it myself. The Hotel Nacional was very pretty to look at, though definitely way overpriced to have dinner at.

Thing is, I would be careful about trying to get too far away from the tourist events. I mean, there's going to be a guy in the street telling you he can take you to the real Buena Vista Social Club - and if you follow him, you're going to end up in a club with some musicians, but you're also going to get the guy and his girlfriend asking you for money to help them buy milk. There's a whole industry of tourist-scamming, though most of it is fairly benign stuff like the milk-begging, or the guy selling cigars for a dollar. And then there's the rampant prostitution. I mean, I never felt like I was in any danger of getting mugged, or had any sense of hostility against me for being an American tourist, people were extremely kind and friendly. But there are politics at play when it comes to dealings between Cubans & foreigners, and I don't know if you can pierce that veil in one trip.

Honestly though, I felt like Cuba in general had an authenticity about it. You're not completely walled off from reality the way you are in some resort island hotels -- I mean, the beach was gorgeous, but, there's a pack of hungry mangy little beach dogs sitting nearby hoping for leftovers. There's beauty and poverty all around, not just beautiful tourist paradises hermetically sealed off from the rest of the country. So, I wouldn't worry too much about getting ripped off by the sanctioned tourist events - yeah, they're almost certainly going to be overcharging you, but, it doesn't necessarily follow that they're not going to be entertaining.
posted by oh yeah! at 9:35 PM on February 10, 2010

Seconding oh yeah! - I found most of Cuba felt pretty naturally free of plastic tourist traps, so I wouldn't overthink it, just do what takes your fancy. I mean, there are obviously people involved in the tourist industry who want to make some money, but they're not setting up Buena Vista theme parks or anything.

By far the best thing you can do is just wander around and marvel, and it's amazing how long you can spend doing that. I was there for almost a week and the only "attractions" I went to were the Camera Obscura, (reasonably interesting but not much different from Camera Obscuras elsewhere), and the Museum of the Revolution (wonderful building, museum was interesting as an example of the way Cuba talks about itself, although the exhibits and very long descriptions got a bit tiring. There are only so many pairs-of-glasses/shoes-as-worn-by-revolutionaries-at-the-moment-they-were-shot that you can look at).

I made several attempts to visit cigar factories but they were all closed when I got there. Mostly I walked, stopped in bars and cafes (many of which will have fantastic music live in, right there, no need to go and pay for a full performance and sit in a concert hall).

Oh, and I did go to the Plaza de la Revolucion, just because I felt I had to, wasn't very spectacular (think huge empty car park with a big statue and a big Che sculpture on the nearby flats) but glad I went.

WRT money, yes, you can get Nacionales if you want to buy local, but they're mostly accepted either at shops with very little choice and long queues, or at street vendors which might not be the most reliable places to eat if you don't want to be laid out with a dodgy stomach for half your holiday. If you can afford it, use Convertibles (the 'foreigners' currency), for the sake of the Cubans as much as anything else - they're desperate to get their hands on them so you'll be helping them by spending them.
posted by penguin pie at 4:05 AM on February 11, 2010

er, I mean... fantastic live music, right there...
posted by penguin pie at 7:39 AM on February 11, 2010

thirding oh yeah!

On money: Use Convertibles as much as possible. Don't bring USD, bring Canadian or Euros. USD face a tax when converted into the local currency to discourage their use. (I offered to pay my casas in Euros, this just seemed to confuse them.) Currency exchange is not difficult to find in the area of Havana you will be staying in.

There isn't much of a vibrant middle class in Cuba that you can tap for off-the-beaten-path type stuff to get away from the tourist grind--and what does exist is pretty well documented in travel guides. (I'm thinking of art galleries, restaurants, performances--there is great stuff around, but the worthwhile art galleries are necessarily tourist-oriented to stay afloat.) You'll have a great time just strolling around Old Havana and checking out Spanish architecture, reminding yourself that you're not in Europe.
posted by Brian James at 8:48 AM on February 11, 2010

You're so lucky. I would love to go back. Bring hard currency, change it with the locals (although don't expect to be able to change it back without a bank receipt).

You can avoid the tourist stuff easily and find great places to listen to music - it's very much a 'street scene.'
Points to note: a lot of people have issues with the food, Cuba is a poor country with food shortages. Also, if in Havana go to the Partegas factory and buy as many cigars as you're able to. When you get back sell them on eBay. You can recover a lot of money this way.

Have fun.
posted by fingerbang at 10:18 AM on February 11, 2010

Also think about taking a trip out of Havana one day, not necessarily for the destination but the journey. Just going through all the small towns and villages with their murals and horse drawn buses is a fantastic experience.

There are two different long-distance bus systems, the one for tourists is very clean, punctual and affordable. Again, though you might be tempted to try the 'authentic' local service to overcome the tourist/locals apartheid, it's not a brilliant idea.

With the local service, the Cubans queue for a long, long time to get seats in less pleasant buses, which they pay for in their hard-earned Nacionales because they have no choice. They don't really want the seats they're queueing for taken up by tourists trying to 'slum it', who could easily pay with Convertibles to travel on the more comfortable line, leaving more seats for the Cubans on the only line they have available to them. So if you want to meet Cubans, take a nice bus and buy someone a drink at the other end!
posted by penguin pie at 2:27 AM on February 12, 2010

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