10 Ways to Discover the Richness of Havana Without Breaking the Bank
After spending a few days in Havana, you start to see the reality of what life in Cuba is like. You begin to understand one major fact: people need to hustle for a Cuban peso just to survive. Once you understand this, you can begin to accept the beauty that lies in Cuba.
Although there are many things in Cuba that seem expensive, most of my favorite adventures in Havana were relatively inexpensive, or in some cases, free. Being a full time graduate student, staying within my budget on this trip was a must for me. Plus, I didn’t really have a choice to get more money than what I brought with me, because one cannot simply withdraw more money if traveling from the U.S. With that in mind, I compiled a list of some of the more economical activities I really enjoyed doing while exploring Havana.
1. Visit The Jazz Club
This restaurant is a great option for a nice dinner, not because the food is amazing, but because of the authentic Cuban jazz performance you get. The entrance to the club is 10CUC per person; however, this fee then becomes credit towards your food. If you go over 10CUC for dinner and drinks, then you have to pay the difference. Although the food was mediocre, I thought the musical performance (9pm-midnight) was worth the price we paid for our dinner.
2. Bar Hop
Warning, if done incorrectly, this can get really expensive. We wanted to bar hop mainly because throughout the trip we kept asking ourselves “What would Hemingway do?” The beauty about bar hopping in Havana is you get pretty sweet music in most places, and the musical styles differ depending on the place, so you get to enjoy a variety of authentic Cuban music with your drinks. Although Cuba is known for their rum, I would recommend staying away from mixed drinks, as most we had were watered down and over priced. Instead, have a local beer (Bucanero was our favorite), which will run you max 2CUC in most places, and enjoy the music at the bar. Then head to another bar for another beer and then stay to hear the music there. If you want to leave the band a tip before leaving, just leave a few cents, or if you want to be more economical, leave the bar before they come around asking for money!
3. Eat Wisely
Most cafeterias are government run, and the restaurants located in the touristy areas of old Havana are way overpriced. Instead, opt for a restaurante paladares. These have great authentic Cuban food, are very economical, and their portions are large enough to get full and possibly have leftovers. Our last day we asked some locals to take us to La Catedral, where we ended up having both lunch and dinner for less than 30CUC including mixed drinks (these were not watered down). If you do go to a government run cafeteria, try going to a smaller one, where you see some locals sitting inside. Our first day we had a big great meal that was reasonably priced in a small cafeteria off the main streets in Old Havana.
4. Run El Malecón
The famous Malecón, or waterfront in Havana, is the hang out spot for the locals at night. Around 10pm, you can start seeing groups of people gathering along the wall, and by midnight, the entire wall can be full in either direction. Although Havana can be very hot and humid, the Malecón s proximity to the ocean makes for much cooler temperatures, making it the perfect place to go for a run. On the opposite side of el Malecón you will also find the U.S. Embassy, which just raised its American flag there last month. Being the nerd I am, I wanted to make sure I got a chance to run by there. We woke up early and started running before 7:30am; the sun was already out at this point, but it wasn’t brutal yet. From our Casa Particular, we only had to run a short mile to get to the Embassy, which was really convenient. If you are too far from it, go for a short run either way! It’s interesting to get the views of the water as well as the views of the aftermath from the party on el Malecón the night before!
5. Read Hemingway
On the way there, I was reading For Whom the Bell Tolls, which Hemingway wrote while he lived in Cuba. There’s just something about reading an author in the places he lived, or loved to travel to, as it helps bring an extra layer to the literature. One day we headed out to one to the local beaches, Santa María del Mar. Although this is not one of the “famous” Cuban beaches, we were fine going somewhere a little calmer with more locals rather than tourists. The water here was so calm; I just parked myself right along the shore and started reading The Sun Also Rises. During the trip, we also sat in a square, Plaza de Armas, and enjoyed reading for a bit under some shade. Cuba was a beautiful setting for Hemingway to write, and it was just as beautiful a setting to read some of his work.
6. Walk the Almacenes de San José Artisans’ Market
This indoor market has it all, from artwork, to clothing, to jewelry. Although all I bought here was an espresso, we really enjoyed walking through all the aisles and seeing all the different artwork the vendors had. This would be the perfect place to get any souvenirs you are thinking of, since it would be the best place to haggle with the merchants, as there are so many. The market is also along the waterfront, so you get beautiful views when you go outside for a bit.
7. Go Plaza Hopping
There are many old squares in Old Havana that have old Spanish style buildings. One of my favorites was Plaza de la Catedral, as it had some beautiful buildings that have been restored now and turned into museums. These are open to the public, just know that at the end, the docents there will ask you for a donation and they may be a little aggressive about it. Close to this square is Plaza de Armas, which is a vintage lovers paradise.
Merchants here sell everything from vintage books, records, jewelry, and revolutionary posters. This is a cool place to walk through and window shop, or a nice place to sit and read in the shade. Plaza Vieja is probably the plaza with the most tourists, but for good reason. Standing in the middle of the square I couldn’t help but get the feeling I was in Madrid. The buildings are beautifully restored, and the restaurants in the square blast music inviting everyone in. It’s a great place to sit and order a beer just so you can people watch.
8. Visit the Hemingway Museum at Finca Vigía
I loved everything about this place. Although this is further away and there is an entrance fee, it was the perfect way to spend our last morning in Havana. Although you are not allowed to physically enter the home, there are so many windows and doors that you can basically see everything from Hemingway’s hunting boots, to his bidet. It was great to see the type of books he kept on his shelf as well as the music (LOUIS ARMSTRONG!). You can also go up to the observation deck where you get a beautiful view of Havana. Inside you see a telescope and a desk and you immediately see why Hemingway fell in love with Cuba, and why he was able to write such great work while he was there.
I couldn’t help myself from writing a bit while I was here, so we sat in a nice shaded area around the pool to write in our journals. The Hemingway house is also where we had our favorite drink in Cuba, “El Guarapo.” They press fresh cane to get sugar and you can even add rum to it for a little kick.
9. Go Dancing
No matter where you go you will hear music, and where there is music there should be dancing. One of my favorite memories was the first day we got to Cuba we went to eat at a small local restaurant where there were only two tables occupied by locals. While sitting there waiting for our food to come out, one of the ladies asked my boyfriend to dance and a man with a cane asked me to dance. It was the perfect way to kick off our trip, as we really got a feel for what the people were genuinely like in Cuba that day. That night we continued to find live music just so we could dance together and enjoy the spirit of Cuba.
10. Visit the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña
This is huge fortress that you can see from Old Havana. From there, you can take a short taxi ride (3CUC max from Old Havana) through the Havana tunnel to the Eastern side of the Bahia de la Havana. You have to pay a small admission fee to enter the fortress, but trust me, just seeing the views of Havana from there are totally worth the admission fee. We got there about 7pm and were able to catch a beautiful sunset from there. We even tracked a fisherman, who we appropriately named Santiago, as he made his way through the Bahia and out to open waters by nightfall. At 9pm, the fortress has a ceremony where men dressed in traditional garb shoot a ceremonial canon. I had never seen this happen before, and it was quite an experience to see the ceremony take place in its entirety. This was definitely our favorite thing we did on this trip!
When visiting Cuba, you will find a richness that cannot be replicated with money. In just talking to the locals, you start realizing the type of poverty these people live in, and if you travel with the goal of not being an asshole tourist, you almost start to feel bad you are spending money on things the people there can probably never afford. I compiled this list with that sentiment in mind, as I realized that although I spent more money than I expected, it probably equaled double what some people make in one year.
There is no need to shell out a ton of money to enjoy Cuba, as it is a rich country with so many beautiful things to discover.
From LA to the East Bay, Cindy has been a professional college student for nearly 10 years. During this time, she has traveled extensively within the U.S. and abroad. She never travels without her running shoes, and feels that a nice long run is the best way to get to know a place. Her very Mexican mother tells her she needs to “sit down,” but she is just too young and adventurous to do that just yet. She lives by the words of the brilliant Gloria Anzaldúa: ‘I am turtle, wherever I go I carry “home” on my back.’
Follow Cindy on Instagram or at thuperthindyrocks.blogspot.com.