A Singaporean journey to Cuba: Havana Day 1

Cuba, a country that has suffered US sanctioned trade embargo since the 1960s is shrouded in much mystery. Havana, its capital, was where we visited to find out more about this communist country that is slowly opening up to the world. At the same time, we’ll be answering questions such as

“Why are there so many 1950s cars in Cuba?”
“Are Cuban cigars and rum really good?”
“What has Ernest Hemingway got to do with Havana and Daiquiri?”

and bring you some information that may be useful for your next trip to Cuba.

Old Havana Cuba
Old Havana Cuba

From Cayman Islands to Cuba Havana

Since we have already gone through the essentials of what you need to know when travelling to Cuba, we’ll just highlight the gist in this post and go on to the fun stuff.

Departing from Cayman Islands to Cuba
Departing from Cayman Islands to Cuba
Complimentary Rum Punch on Cayman Airways - Shiok!
Complimentary Rum Punch on Cayman Airways – Shiok!




Tourist Card to enter Cuba
Tourist Card to enter Cuba

While Singaporeans do not need a visa to enter into Cuba (for travels less than 30 days), everyone who enters Cuba will need to purchase a Tourist Card ($20 each). We bought ours at the booth of Cayman Airways in Cayman Islands just before we boarded the plane. As we were travelling from Jamaica (Sunscape Splash Montego Bay & Holiday Inn Resort Montego Bay) to Cuba via Cayman Islands, we got to see the clear blue waters off the coast of Cayman Islands. Also, in order to “transit”, we had to exit the airport (at arrivals) and enter the airport (at departure) again. So technically, we’ve visited Cayman Islands! 🙂

Arriving at José Martí International Airport, La Habana, Cuba

Upon arrival at the airport in Havana, we had a slight hiccup at the customs. Apparently, the customs officer collected half of Kate’s Tourist Card (the correct process) while Tom’s customs officer told him that he did not require a Tourist Card. Nonetheless, both passports were stamped and we entered Cuba without any issue.

Once your passport is stamped, the customs officer would buzz a door for you to enter. A one way door. Once you cross to the other side and if you look back, you’ll see a whole row of closed doors (there’s no escape! :O). A first in our travels round the world…

Once you exit from the arrivals hall, there would be throngs of people picking up their relatives or touts asking whether you need a ride to Havana. The ride from José Martí International Airport to Old Havana takes about 30 minutes and costs about 25USD. As we had booked our stay with Lucy through AirBnB, they were there at the airport to pick us up. After meeting us, they took us to the money changer (facing the road, next hall on the right) and we changed some CUC. CUC or Cuban Peso Convertibles, is one of the 2 currencies used in Cuba. CUC is the most commonly accepted currency for tourists. CUP or Cuban Pesos is the local currency. In our case, we changed 5 CUC worth of CUP (about 100 CUP) as there were some items that when bought using CUP, was much cheaper than CUC. The exchange rate in Cuba is

1 USD : 1 CUC
1 CUC : 24 CUP

If you have read the Singaporean guide to Cuba, you would have known that Cuba charges a 10% surcharge for US dollars. Yes US dollars only. This means that if you have other currencies such as Canadian, Euro or British Pound, that will help you avoid that 10% surcharge.

After we changed our currency, we boarded our first Cuban Classic car – the 1950s Chrysler Plymouth!

Sitting in a 1950s Chrysler Plymouth in Cuba
Sitting in a 1950s Chrysler Plymouth in Cuba

During the journey, we learnt many things about Cuba through our host Lucia. Although she’s in her 50s, kudos to her that she managed to gain command of the language and conversed with us in English. As a curious Singaporean, we asked how much one of these classic cars cost in Cuba. One of the first things she told us was that there was no concept of credit in Cuba. “No Credito!”, she said. The car we were sitting in costs about $10,000 USD. Since everything in Cuba is transacted in cash, this means that without that spare $10,000 USD lying around, you’ll probably not be able to afford a car in Cuba. By the way, a doctor earns about 65 CUC per month in Cuba. What?!

You can only buy a Cuban car with cash
You can only buy a Cuban car with cash

Where we stayed in Cuba Havana

30 minutes later, we arrived in Old Havana, at the building of Lucia’s apartment

Lucia's Apartment Building in Havana Cuba
Lucia’s Apartment Building in Havana Cuba

The streets, especially in Old Havana can be a little bumpy. It is also a common sight to see dilapidated buildings next to newly furnished ones. Even within the apartment building, some stairs had the corners chipped off and the floors were dusty. This sort of affected our expectations of the apartment. However, when the doors opened, we felt as though we had entered into an oasis!

Living Room @ Lucia's in Old Havana
Living Room @ Lucia’s in Old Havana

The apartment costs $40 USD a night through AirBnB. Probably the only way you can pay for your stay using a credit card, would be through 3rd part websites. We were told that AirBnB has a local agent that pays Lucia in cash. Though sometimes, they fail to pay. This then creates a problem for home owners such as Lucia. She had previously raised the issue to AirBnB but they did not get back to her or pay her. Well, once paid, it is easy to see the AirBnB would hardly care about whether locals get paid. Especially in a more complicated environment such as in Cuba. Both Lucia (spanish for Lucy) and her husband showed us around the house and we were very much impressed with the decoration and cleanliness!

Lucia Apartment AirBnB Old Havana
Kitchen
Lucy Apartment AirBnB Old Havana
Bedroom
Lucia Apartment AirBnB Old Havana
View from Room




To us, the apartment was perfect! The kitchen was clean and had all the kitchen utensils/pots that you need. Lucia even provided coffee (drip coffee using grinded coffee powder) and a large bottle of water for guests. In the bedroom, there’s an attached bathroom and air-conditioning. There’s also an electronic safe in the bedroom for you to leave your valuables during your stay. After showing us around the house, she showed us her recommendations in Old Havana – a list helped done up by one of her guests…

Lucy Apartment AirBnB Old Havana Itinerary
Havana Itinerary 1
Lucia Apartment AirBnB Old Havana Cuba Itinerary
Cuba Itinerary 2
Lucy Apartment AirBnB Old Havana Cuba Havana Itinerary
Havana Itinerary 3

Armed with this comprehensive list of Things to do in Havana, we headed out to Obispo Street (Calle Obispo). Just 2 streets away, Obispo Street is a pedestrian boulevard where you can get pretty much everything that you need.

Obispo Walking Street Old Havana Cuba
Obispo Walking Street Old Havana Cuba

As you can see from the above picture, there are people everywhere! There are so many tourists in Havana that you may find the need to dodge oncoming pedestrain from time to time as you walk along Obispo street. Also on the same street, you will find a money changer, an internet service provider and a wifi hot spot

Designated Money Changer in Cuba
Designated Money Changer in Cuba
Currency Exchange Rate in Cuba
Currency Exchange Rate in Cuba
Long queues for internet connection at Etecsa
Long queues for internet connection at Etecsa
Tourists using Etecsa Wifi Hotspot
Tourists using Etecsa Wifi Hotspot

The easiest way to identify these locations are through the long queues. If you’re queuing for the money changer or internet service (Etecsa), be prepared to wait for about an hour or so. Remember to bring along your passport as well. Once you have paid for the internet service at Etecsa (purchase of an access card), you will have to look for wifi hot spots to use the internet. It costs 2 CUC per hour for internet at one of these hot spots.

As we ventured along Obispo Street, we came across a queue at a local bakery. We headed in and found the pastries to be particularly cheap! For instance, a Caracol (cream horn) only costs 0.35 CUC! Joyful shouts from Kate!

Caracol (Cream horn) costs only 0.35CUC
Caracol (Cream horn) costs only 0.35CUC

The name of the bakery is San Jose Bakery (or full name Panaderia Dulceria San Jose)

Panaderia Dulceria San Jose Bakery on Obispo Street
Panaderia Dulceria San Jose Bakery on Obispo Street

As it was already close to dinner time, we decided to head over to the Capitol Building (El Capitolio) and Grand Theater (Gran Teatro de la Habana) to take a couple of pictures before having dinner at Los Nardos.

Entrance of Los Nardos opposite Capitol Building Havana
Entrance of Los Nardos opposite Capitol Building Havana

Within the same area, there are 4 restaurants. As recommended by Lucia, we headed up 2 flights of stairs to Los Nardos. In her recommendation, she also mentioned that there would be a wait but the wait would be short. Which was pretty accurate. Before long, we were taken to our seats.

Inside Los Nardos Restaurant Havana Cuba
Inside Los Nardos Restaurant Havana Cuba

On the onset, the restaurant looked really posh. However, the prices were pretty affordable. In terms of service however, we were somewhat taken aback. While we were ordering, the waiter asked what we wanted to drink. He recommended for us to have a small jug of sangria which costs 8 CUC. As we were still “surviving” on the CUC that we changed at the airport and wanting to change more only the next day, we decided to order just a glass of sangria to share. When the waiter heard that we wanted to “share”, he said the following

Waiter: “Phew, you want to share? It is more worth it to order the jug for 2 people. Only 8 CUC”
Tom: “We understand. But we only arrived today and do not have enough CUC so we’d like to order 1 glass to share”
Waiter: “Haha!” (Turns to another waiter and says) “They want to share a glass of sangria!”. (Turns back to us) “There is another restaurant next door that may be better for you.”

Then he left.

Awkwardly, we persisted and stayed in the restaurant. At the back of our minds we thought to ourselves, “We must stay and order something from Los Nardos so that our readers can know some of the food here!”. Yup, we thickened our skins for you our beloved readers! 😛

About 5 minutes later, seeing that we stuck around, another waiter came to ask our orders. The waiter had a towel over his hands and we assumed he was the head waiter. This time, service was much better. To start things off, we had 2 beers (1.5 CUC each) instead. We then ordered the pork chop rice – 4.50 CUC (for Kate) and the meat Paella – 6 CUC (for Tom). The waiter then told us that the paella was a good choice but would have to wait about 30 minutes. He then asked if we were fine with that. Which we said yes to.

Los Nardos Restaurant Havana Cuba
Cuban Cristal Beer
Los Nardos Restaurant Havana Cuba Pork Chop Rice
Pork Chop Rice
Los Nardos Restaurant Havana Cuba Paella
Paella




When the food arrived, we were so glad that we persisted! The portion was huge and the taste was actually quite good. The portion of the paella was good for 2 to share. In fact, it looked so good that the family seated next to us asked us what we ordered. At a restaurant with good ambience, great food, Los Nardos is definitely worth a visit – even with bad service.

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Related Posts

Singaporeans Visiting Cuba: What You Need To Know

Top 5 Things to do in Havana Cuba

A Singaporean journey to Cuba: Havana Day 1

A Singaporean Journey to Havana Cuba: Day 2

A Singaporean Journey to Havana Cuba: Day 3

A Singaporean Journey to Havana Cuba: Cuban Rum

Churros on the Street in Havana
Churros on the Street in Havana

On our way back, we walked past this churros stand with a long queue and told ourselves that we would try it in the next few days. Stay tuned for day 2 of our adventures in Cuba Havana!

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