Accessing hotel pools in Havana

Even if you’re not staying in a hotel in Havana, it is still possible to find a place to sunbathe. Most of the hotels will let you go to their pool if you pay a cover charge.

I like sunbathing at the pools – there are sunbeds, no messy sand, and showers. When you get too hot you can go in the pool, and the waiters will serve you cocktails where you’re sitting! These are the pools we would go to in Vedado…

Habana Libre, Calle M y 23
If you pay $10, you can use the pool. The $10 goes towards the bar. If you don’t want to order anything from the bar, just pay $5. You can also borrow towels here with a deposit. They do a nice salad and decent cocktails. Also you can pop over the road and go to Waoo! which does amazing burgers!

The pool is nice, its not that secluded so you can still hear the traffic but its a great place to sunbathe. Sometimes there are creepy men there.

Hotel Nacional, Calle 21 y 0
This has one of the best pools. Its $15 cover. The pool is large and attractive.
If you’re cheeky, you can sneak round the back of the Hotel in the gardens where there is another pool, where people go swimming. Often nobody checks here so you don’t have to pay.
A bonus is you can sometimes get the Wifi at the pool here.

Hotel MeliΓ‘ Cohiba, Calle 1ra
This hotel is more likely to have Cubans at it. Its a salt water pool! The cover is about $12, though you can try to sneak in, and they have a bar that sells things like fried chicken and pizzas.

Hotel Inglaterra, Paseo Prado
This hotel doesn’t have a pool but it has a lovely roof terrace with live music in the evenings and perfect view of Old Havana. Its nice to go here for a drink.

There are other hotels in the Old Town, and if you go in and ask they’ll let you to the pool. Just make sure they don’t rip you off!

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An investigative essay of Food in Cuba and Havana

After the monumental success of my blog on Cuban Toilets, I thought I would provide the cyberworld with more information about day to day life in Cuba. I have spoken about food a bit but here I shall collate all the information I gathered after months of in depth research!

When somebody asks me how the food was in Cuba, I usually shudder and pretend to wretch. This is purely because at home we suffered from having a cook who couldn’t cook. An unfortunate circumstance. In addition, anyone who’s walked around the streets of Havana will concur that they are dotted with very poor quality fast food joints that sell pizzas, hamburgers and hot dogs that are almost unrecognisable, they are so awful. Cheese and processed meat are not strong points. I would advise you to avoid them.

I have just looked up some of the restaurants we used to love when in Cuba on Trip Advisor, and discovered that Starbien, the restaurant owned by my landlord is #6 in Havana. I think this is more than fair, the food there was amazing, especially by Cuban standards, and compared to prices in the UK it was very cheap. Very often, walking into a restaurant in Cuba is like walking into the 1970s. They simply LOVE prawn cocktails there! But Starbien is very modern and classy.

What I find completely incomprehensible is how my landlords were able to run such a successful restaurant, but were more than happy to leave us with some of the strangest, oddest, most unappealing dishes known to man. I don’t make claims without evidence! Here is a photo of one of our delightful meals, served – as usual – in a dish that looked like a dog bowl.

Hard, mysterious meat; fried, destroyed, dry and tasteless. Our meals were served with rice and a salad made of tomato slices, green beans and beetroot slices. Sometimes we got carrot(!!!!!) Remember, if you ever judge me for complaining about little things, this wasn’t for a day or a week. It was five months! I love tomato salad, but nobody loves anything every day for five months!!

Obviously Cuba suffers from shortages, and food that can’t be easily grown or produced in Cuba is hard to find, expensive and often quite bad. However, Cuban food can actually be very delicious, and other students had a much more positive experience than us. The huge amount of fried food we were given really affected our moods AND OUR BOWELS!!! So don’t get down in the dumps, and remember that there is good food out there, you just need to go out and buy it!

One of the great things about Cuba is that food is very often made fresh on the premises with fresh ingredients. The climate provides lots of strange new vegetables and really delicious fruit. Seafood is abundant and ‘fine dining’ is a lot cheaper than anywhere else I’ve been. When you’re in a new place, it can be hard to work out where will be good to eat. These are my tips!

If you want something cheap and quick for lunch, go where Cubans go, and eat at a moneda nacional cafe. I’ve listed a few below. As a rule of thumb, these cafes are either holes in the wall, and people eat and drink standing up nearby, or they’ll be in peoples porches and front gardens. The best places will have a lot of choice, and serve fruit shakes (batidos) too. I always went for an omlette or tuna sandwich, with onion and tomato if it was possible. Omlettes are made freshly and were much tastier than cheese, as cheese can be of varying quality, whereas eggs are pretty standard. If somewhere only sells cheese and ham sandwiches and cheap beer, I’d look somewhere else!

You know you’ve found a good moneda nacional restaurant if it is decorated nicely with plants and hanging baskets. Make sure you ask for the moneda nacional prices! Pick a nice comida, such as fried pork, chicken or fish with ‘moros y cristianos’ and salad. Moros y cristianos is rice with black beans. It literally means ‘moors and Christians’…it tastes SO GOOD if the cook knows what they’redoing! The fish is usually great, and served with a wedge of lime. Squeeze it on the rice! Mmmmmmmm.

As long as you don’t end up with our luck, and a cook like Ana, the best food can be found in Casa Paticulares. If they offer dinner, accept at least for one night, the prices are good compared to CUC (tourist currency) restaruants. If you are in Vinales and Baracoa, DEFINITELY eat in the Casa. It may well be the best meal of your trip πŸ™‚

Here are some of the places we liked, it’s fun to find your own favourites too. In the words of my good friend Rachel, who gave me many tips in my preparations for Cuba: “Enjoy your rice and beans.”

Places to eat in Vedado/Havana

Lunch time: Calle A entre 29 y Zapata (Street A between 29 and Zapata)
Calle D entre 23 y 25 (Street D between 23 and 25)
Al frio y fuego: Calle 25 entre D y E (or there abouts!)

Star Bien
http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g147271-d3700427-Reviews-Starbien-Havana_Cuba.html

Waoo! burgers, brownies and cockatils are great:
http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g147271-d3536479-Reviews-Waoo_Snack_Bar-Havana_Cuba.html

Chanchulleros. Best value dinner (and really delicious), prawns and meat dishes, and best value cocktails in Old Havana
http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g147271-d2477831-Reviews-El_Chanchullero_de_Tapas-Havana_Cuba.html

Places to eat outside of Havana

Fernan-2 in Vinales does a great meal deal and is very beautiful, we loved it and my sister said it was the best meal of the trip!
http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g616288-d2431827-Reviews-Restaurant_Fernan_2_Fernando_s-Vinales_Pinar_del_Rio_Province_Cuba.html

El Barracon, Santiago de Cuba was really good and a good price too!
http://www.lonelyplanet.com/cuba/eastern-cuba/santiago-de-cuba/restaurants/caribbean/el-barracon

HOW TO USE TAXIS IN CUBA/HAVANA! Cubataxi, Maquinas and American Cars

With no underground or metro system and buses that make you weak at the knees, taxis are probably the best way to get around in Havana. We have a volatile relationship with the taxi drivers. We love taxis. We hate taxi drivers.We hate taxis. We love taxi drivers. It’s a fickle thing!

I would say there are three types of taxis,. each with their own special quirks.

  1. Huge, beautiful American Cars

These big cars park outside hotels and are very shiny. A friendly Cuban will drive you open-top around the city, and he will charge you through the teeth for the privilege! This can be fun for the novelty but its not worth it unless you get lucky, and a fancy taxi driver gives you a good deal! No Cubans use these, unless they’re getting married (to a foreigner) and are – in the words of our Cuban neighbour – ‘ostentatious’.

2. Cubataxi

Cuba taxis are yellow and usually Ladas. They charge in tourist dollars but they’re not too expensive, though you should still haggle with them. They’re probably the safest, cheap option at night but nevertheless I used them rarely.Β 
When my parents were visiting, there was no other option for me to get from their accommodation to my house than to use Cuba taxi. On one particularly typical night, I had to talk to three taxi drivers before somebody agreed to my limit of $4 for a taxi. Climbing in, the driver began revving the engine but nothing happened. The car was old and decrepit, and needed a push-off. In a characteristic wave of Cuban comradery, all nearby taxi drivers (including those who had grossly overcharged me and I’d just rejected) surrounded the car and push it halfway down the road, running behind and beside it, so it could get enough speed to start the engine. Taxi drivers mince tourists as much as humanly possible, but they’re nice to each other.

3. Maquinas/Collectivos

I love Maquinas because they are one element of Cuban life I feel I really understood and could manage as well as a Cuban. They’re basically cars that are owned by the driver (unlike Cubataxis) that do a set route, for example from Vedado to Havana Vieja and back again. They are collective taxis, so like a bus, they stop for people who stick their hand out until they’re full. It was difficult to explain to my sisters and parents how you could tell which cars were maquinas. They were usually old, rusty American cars that weren’t fancy enough to be tourist taxis, they’d have a ‘taxi’ sticker in the window and…. they just looked like maquinas!
To catch a maquina you wait on the pavement on one of the routes- make sure you stand where its legal for them to stop! We would wait on Calle B y 23 for maquinas to go to Capitolio, which was basically the centre of Old Town. Passing maquina drivers will stick their fingers out their window showing how many spaces they had, and then you’d wave them down and tell them where you wanted to go. All journeys cost $10 or $20 Cuban pesos. Its so much cheaper than other taxis and really convenient.
You can get maquinas home from town from Calle Neptuno (walk to Hotel Telegrapho then go left).

Remember that things always change in Cuba so if you need help ask a friendly Cuban. Casa Paticular owners will always be helpful but they may well try and get you to use one of their mate’s cars. Our Casa Paticular owner in Vinyales arranged our trip home with The Cat:

We fit 10 people in this (not-so) roomy taxi

Getting to and from the airport

There is a bus that goes to and from the airport but I’ll be honest, it doesn’t actually stop anywhere near the airport and its a big hassle, even if it does only cost about 3p. The best option is to suck it up and pay the $20/25 to get home in an official taxi. If somebody approaches you and offers cheaper then its probably illegal, but if you want the cheap price make sure you agree and don’t let them wander off with another customer! If you’re living in Havana and picking someone up, you might be able to agree a good price with a taxi driver to take you there and wait for you. Alternatively take the bus.

As with everything in Cuba, make sure you agree the price of a taxi with the driver before you get in. In my experience Cubans won’t try and cheat you if you agree a price with them, but if you don’t then they’ll obviously seize the opportunity to make an extra few dollars!

And you’ve got to get the bus at least once while you’re there.

More info on Cuba:
Food in Cuba
Toilets in Cubs
Cuba highlights