“Welcome to José Martí International Airport.” You’re here, finally, in Havana. The door of your plane has opened and the Caribbean humidity has wrapped you in its cloying embrace. Now what?
At the Airport
Once you’ve cleared immigration and customs, the airport doors will open into a sea of faces, mostly of Cubans awaiting family and friends — but others of, as with any airport in the world, of hustlers and hucksters scoping out tourists in the hopes of taking them for a ride (literally).
While you have the option of taking an authorized taxi from the airport into Havana proper, you’re likely to be swept along the tide and ushered into the car of a driver who isn’t necessarily legit but who’s keen to make a few bucks. Think of it as Uber — but without the app, infrastructure, or legal authorization. If you’re taking an unauthorized car, be sure to negotiate a fair fee with the driver before you get in. The average fare into Havana is $25 CUC. (Here’s a primer on currency in Cuba, if you’re not familiar.)
Be prepared with door-to-door directions — which you should probably have printed out — because it’s not uncommon for drivers to depend upon passengers for orientation. They typically don’t carry maps, and they’ll want to know the cross streets of your address as well.
Once you’re settled in, it can help to consult a map for the lay of the land and a sense of Havana’s neighborhoods. You’re unlikely to find a paper map in the capital, so access one on your smartphone. Conner Gorry’s Havana Good Time app works offline and, in addition to a map, has over 300 points of interest, including her own English-language bookstore Cuba Libro.
To get around and see it all, you have lots of options — “bicitaxis” (a bicycle taxi), “coco taxis” (a motorbike-type taxi), regular taxis, and camellos (buses) — but your own two feet are often best. Rental cars are available, but again, are a hassle.
While it is possible to rent cell phones in Havana, it is not practical to do so: it’s expensive, a hassle, and won’t provide you with internet connection. But what if you really need to connect? You may have read in the U.S. media that there’s a growing number of WiFi hotspots, we don’t advise counting on those. With so many locals and visitors using them, network service is unbearably slow by U.S. standards.
The good news is that WiFi and wired service are available at most hotels and at a very limited basis at the newly opened U.S. Embassy. When you’re out and about, ETECSA, Cuba’s national phone service, sells WiFi access cards called nautas. Again, watch out for hustlers — one traveler just back from Havana reports that while ETECSA shops sell nautas good for one hour of use for $2 CUC, Cubans who buy and hoard cards resell them to tourists at an inflated rate.
Stocking Up (or Not)
Our final tip for navigating Cuba is to not expect to stock up in a local supermarket or shop on anything you left at home. Lots of items are sold at a premium or are simply hard to come by. Recommended for your bag: toilet paper or a pack of tissues (which many public bathrooms are often out of); hand wipes and/or sanitizer; and an extra camera memory card and batteries. Visitors traveling with children will also want to ensure they bring a sufficient supply of diapers and formula for the duration of the trip.
Considering a trip Cuba? Check out the rest of our 5-part in-depth guide, which includes:
An overview of what you really need to think about
How to book a flight to Cuba
How to find a place to stay in Cuba
Dealing with money in Cuba