Looking for a direct flight to Havana? No dice, we're afraid. From Sydney, the most popular routes are through Toronto, Canada (via Vancouver) or through Mexico or Panama (via the United States). An increasing number of travellers are also choosing to fly out through Miami's Fort Lauderdale International Airport. Kiwi travellers can either head to Sydney first, or can look at flights which change at Santiago, Chile, or Lima, Peru.
Travel from Jose Marti International Airport to downtown Havana is around 30 minutes. Pre-arranged tours may have a chartered tour bus, so check your itinerary details. Most tourists simply catch a taxi (25-35CUC). Make sure you have the accomodation address written down, and agree to a fare beforehand - while taxis have meters, they are rarely switched on.
You can try to catch a public bus from Terminal 1 (Domestic Terminal), but the payment must be in CUP (local currency), not CUC (tourist currency), which makes it challenging for visitors to use. Let's be honest - this is a deliberate action from the Cuban government to encourage tourists to use cabs and keep the low-cost buses for locals. Given that you'll be coming off 18+ hours flying, trying to mess around with money and then drag yourself onto a standing room only bus is probably not worth the savings.
Trying to figure out what's going on with cash in Cuba? Put simply, there are two currencies: the local currency, CNP (Cuban National Peso) and the tourist currency, CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso). The CUC is pegged 1:1 with the US Dollar, and is worth approximately 24 times the CNP. Generally, anywhere tourists go will have a price in CUCs, and may also have a CNP price. Unless you're heading off the beaten track, all your transactions will be in CUC, and when you take cash out of an ATM, it will be in CUC. It can be handy to have a few CNP on you, particularly if you want to catch the local buses or pay for anything in rural Cuba.
With Cuban embargoes on US banking institutions, many tourists find their debit and credit cards do not work in Cuban ATMs and will not be accepted at the banks. We recommend checking with your institution if it is accepted in Cuba, and carrying a few different cards in case one fails. It's also a good idea to bring a couple of hundred US dollars to get you through the first few days if none of your cards happen to work and you need to wire yourself money.
Cubas iconic vintage cars are also its main mode of intracity transport. Rates are very negotiable, so get a price beforehand, or ask that the meter be switched on.
Three-wheeled bicycle taxis can take two passengers, and allow Cubans without the capital to purchase a car to earn a living. They are often cheaper than taxis, but we wouldn't recommend trying to travel great distances in one - driving bicitaxis in Havana can be hot work!
Moving from city to city? Viazul buses are popular with tourists, as they are cheap, comfortable and air-conditioned. The Viazul network goes to all the major destinations, and can be booked at the Viazul offices, or online before you arrive in Cuba. Be aware they they tend to book out in advance, so if you're a casual backpacker, book a few days before you intend to leave or you might get stuck.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
Tourists often visit Cuba between December and May, as it is warm, dry and has plenty of blue skies. The wet season runs through June to November, and there is a high risk of hurricanes between August and October. The high season is typically from late December to mid March, and again from mid July to mid August. We tend to recommend the shoulder months of late March, April and May for the good weather and lighter crowds.
WHERE TO GO
If you're in Cuba for less than ten days, then why would you leave the capital? Glorious 500-year-old architectural wonders crumble and are resurrected amongst a sea of music, cocktails, cathedrals and vintage cars. Spend a day walking around the UNESCO-listed Old Havana (Habana Vieja), home to restaurants, shopping and classic Cuban buildings. Walk, bike or take a double-decker Hop On Hop Off bus along the 8km Malecon Esplanade, a seaside road with those iconic colourful buildings that probably brought you to Cuba in the first place. Check out the cultural cornerstones like the Museo de la Revolucion, or if you're a Hemingway buff, visit his home in Vigia Finca (about 15km east of Havana), or the tourist trapping El Floridita bar. Our highlight however has to be the Fabrica de Arte - is a former manufacturing plant turned art gallery, which hosts performance spaces, classes and one of the best dance clubs in Havana. The house mojitos are a whopping 40 ounces and cost just 10CUC. Enough said. Whatever your itinerary in Havana, make sure you listen to some live music, and sign up for a salsa class.
Santiago de Cuba
On the complete opposite side of the island to Havana, Santiago is the country's second largest city. Visit the Castillo de San Pedro, a 17th Century fort built to protect the city from pirates, which now hosts a Pirate Museum. Or check out the Moncada Barracks - originally a military barracks and now a school and museum, Fidel Castro led a group of 135 rebels in an attack on the garrison on July 26, 1953, in what is widely accepted as the start of the Cuban Revolution.
This central Cuban town is known for its cobblestone streets and colonial-era architecture. Visit the main square in Plaza Mayor, and check out the must-see Casa de la Musica, an open air ampitheatre with music, dancing and great drinks. In the morning, head down to the picture perfect Playa Ancon beach.
Only a cool 800km from Havana, Gibara is a sleepy little seaside town with a big secret. Every year it is home to the Gibara International Film Festival
(formerly known as the Cine Pobre Film Festival). The one cinema in town is home to many of the highlights, while parks host blow up screens, and even the odd street corner hosts pop up projectors, while the shorefront comes alive with street food and carnival rides and games at night.
MUST KNOW TIPS
¿Dónde está el baño?
We are unaware of any Australian or New Zealand phone service providers who provide call or data access while in Cuba. The internet in Cuba is highly regulated and incredibly slow, and a monthly subscriptions costs locals around an entire year's salary. It is only available inside a select few hotels, internet cafes and Etecsa terminals in the major cities. Tourists can purchase internet access codes for around 4CUC per half hour.
In Havana, you can visit the Cyber Cafe in the Capitolo, the Hotel Havana Libre, Hotel Nacional, Hotel Inglaterra, or Hotel Parque Central, or the Etecsa at the International Press Centre in Vedado Havana. For the hotels, you may be directed to purchase an access code card from a local shopkeeper - don't wory, this is very normal; just make sure you're not paying more than 3 or 4 CUC per half hour.
With mostly packed out premium hotels, Cuba may not seem like an affordable place to travel - until you learn about Casas Particulares. This semi-independent, semi-nationalised version of Airbnb means that many local people rent out spare rooms or wings of their home to travellers. Travellers are required to put their passport information in a register - so if you skip the bill or go rockstar on the apartment, they will be able to stop you - and government officials regularly inspect registered Casas for their cleanliness and safety. Rooms are generally around $25-35CUC per night, and you can often choose to have a delicious breakfast prepared by the family for ~5CUC. You can book ahead via Casa Particulares websites, or when in Cuba, knocking on the door of anywhere with a white sign, blue 'T' symbol and text reading 'Arrendador Divisa' - they are literally everywhere in Havana and other major tourist cities.
While you might not notice it in the more touristy parts of Havana, finding a clean and well-stocked public bathroom in Cuba can be challenging. You will often find someone with a small table set up out the front of a public bathroom who will charge you half a CUC to use it. Inside, you will often discover no toilet paper, soap or handtowels, and you've done well if the door even locks. Bring a small stack of tissues and hand sanitiser to be safe.
Mandatory Travel Insurance
Since 2010, travel insurance with an assistance team that has the approval of the Cuban Government is required. Don't worry though - our 24/7 Emergency Assistance team, First Assistance, are on the list!
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