Now I had heard great things about Cuba before visiting. I had friends who studied abroad there and literally fell in love with it. I even have a friend that has been back and forth over a dozen times. So when I found a great deal for the trip (used airline miles on one-way, and paid $100 for the return), I was like “bet, let’s do it!” I initially planned to take the trip solo, then one of my besties decided she wanted to come, too. In hindsight, I am VERY glad I did not take the trip alone - because it would not have been a good experience. I’ll break things down into a 5 reasons I didn’t love Havana (based on my trip in 2018):
Disclaimer: My trip was in 2018 and things change everyday, so if you are planning a trip soon, your experience may be different than mine!
1. The food was extremely mediocre!
So my bestie and I were in Cuba for a long weekend. We stayed near Old Havana for the culture, and there were a good amount of clear “tourist trap” restaurants, as well as hole in the wall authentic places. No matter where we went, the food did nottttt impress me - at all. The two of us actually agreed that we’ve tasted better Cuban food in the states (made by Cubans, of course) than actually in Cuba. And yes, you can probably just rebuttal “you guys didn’t go to the right places”, and maybe that’s true. But I’ve been to other countries where the food was much better (local and tourist traps). At the end of the day, I just was NOT impressed.
2. US money costs more to convert than others.
This could be one of those “spoiled American” things. But why is there an extra tax on exchanging US money (not an actual question, just saying). At the airport, they charged me between 20-30% to exchange USD for CUC (one of the two currencies used in Cuba). People say you can avoid this by getting Euros or Canadian dollars before going to Cuba and then exchanging them (or by having trustworthy local Cuban friends), but that’s just so extra to me. You might wonder, “well why don’t you just use card then to avoid the extra fee?”, and that’s a great question. Once you get to reason number five on my list, you’ll know why.
3. Some people there (especially those in the taxi business) are SHIESTY af. Now I know shiesty isn’t a word that everyone uses, so let me give some synonyms for context: scheming, conniving, dishonest, etc.. I think you all get the point. There were many instances on the trip where people tried to con the two of us. And before you guys come for me: 1) I speak Spanish (and very well at the time of the trip in 2018); and 2) Yes, I know there are people that try to con tourists everywhere you go. But here was particularly disappointing because after traveling to El Salvador and Guatemala, two places people SWEAR are so “dangerous”, and having amazing times SOLO - I couldn’t understand why my trip to Cuba was so lackluster. But back to the shiestiness. Let me tell a few quick stories about how the locals were very trash to us.
It was mid-day and we had just visited El Floridita. We originally planned to walk back to our airbnb, but it was a torrential downpour outside. After contemplation, we decided we would take a bike-taxi instead — they’re pretty popular in Havana. We motioned to one taxi driver, I told him the intersection we needed to get to and he told me a price. I did my research beforehand so I knew how much to expect; the price he quoted us was almost triple the price it should have been so we declined. He then recommended one of his fellow bike taxi drivers who he said was “cheaper” — that probably should have been a red flag but whatever. His buddy comes up and I tell him our intersection and ask him how much (in Spanish). He points to a paper and acts like he doesn’t understand what I’m saying. I ask how much a second/third time (in English then Spanish) and he tells me a price that is more reasonable. So we agree and get in, eager to be out of the rain. When we arrive to our destination, he tells us DOUBLE the price he told us initially. “Magically” he can now speak English and shows us a map with prices on it. We go back and forth and we end up meeting him in the middle of the initial price and the price at destination because we didn’t have exact change (otherwise I would've paid him the initial price and walked away). We were safe, we made it back to our airbnb so I can’t complain too much, but why so shiesty?
Next instance. It was dark out, maybe around 9 or 10pm. My bestie and I wanted to visit Fabrica de Arte (a combination club and art gallery). From our airbnb, we walked a couple blocks to find a bike-taxi. We get to a corner where there are about 6-7 bike-taxis sitting and waiting. I spoke to them in Spanish first, asking how much for the two of us to our destination and he told us a price. I asked a second time to confirm he knew the exact location we were traveling to and that it was for two of us. He confirmed the location and price. We got in. Everything was cool until he dropped us off on a dark and quiet corner that was 2+ MILES from the destination. I was following the route he took on my offline maps, and I knew it looked a bit far from where we needed to go. So I confirmed the location with him again. He said “yes, it just up the road, the bike can’t cross the intersection”. I show him the distance looks far on the map, and he says “well I can’t go any further... this is the furthest I can go”. After pleading with him for about two minutes, we pay him and he rides off. We decided to try to walk the rest of the way. After taking a few pics at a nearby Cuba sign (photo below lol), I ask some locals how far our destination is (in Spanish of course so it’s clear). They exclaim “very far! You can’t walk there”. We start walking anyways. After walking for about 10 minutes, a taxi drivers pull up and asks if we need a ride. I then, ask him (in Spanish) how far our destination is and he repeats what the locals before said: “too far to walk”. He ends up giving us a good deal to drive us to our destination and we make it safely. The thing that’s annoying about this whole situation is that our initial bike-taxi driver KNEW he didn’t want to bike that far and he KNEW we weren’t close to our destination, but wanted our money anyways. We could’ve been stranded on a random corner in Havana, but thankfully we made it and had a decent time that night. But UGH why so shiesty?!?
The last story I’ll tell is about our trip back to the airbnb after visiting Fabrica de Arte. We left around 2am, and after the crazy experience getting there, we planned to take a regular taxi back to our airbnb. There are a number of taxi drivers heckling us, and we pick one of the official taxis standing there. Of course, we tell them our intersection, and make it clear there’s two of us, and they tell us a price. I confirm in both English and Spanish before we get it. On the ride back, they (the driver and his buddy?) ask us a bunch of questions and make jokes, seeming super nice. Once we get to our intersection, we confirm the price one more time and get the money out of our wallets (it’s dark in the taxi btw). We give the money, and get out. As we’re walking away from the car, they call us back to the window and tell us we gave them the wrong amount of money (i.e. a 1 instead of a 10). I was about to check my wallet, and give them more - but then my bestie reminded me that we didn’t even have any of the bills they claimed we gave them, and she was right. She told them they were lying and then they drove off super fast. They really almost pulled a fast one on us. Luckily, a nice couple she met at the airport warned her about that trick they try to pull so we didn’t get conned! Again I say, WHY SO SHIESTY?!?
I definitely have a couple more stories I could share, but those are the most annoying. At the end of the day, we were safe which is most important. And of course I can’t generalize and say that all taxi drivers in Havana were like this, but after three distinct incidents, that’s enough to sour my mouth of a place.
4. Lack of internet connection.
Before you all ask, social media is not the reason for this complaint. First of all, residents in Cuba aren’t even allowed to have their own Wi-Fi networks (at least they weren’t during our trip in 2018). Our Airbnb host told us they only had internet because they were close with their neighbor who worked for the city of Havana and needed WiFi to do his job. If that wasn’t the case, our airbnb wouldn’t have even had WiFi.
Let me just say, I am beyond thankful for offline google maps; because without that I’d probably be writing an article about why I “hated” Havana, instead of why I didn’t love it. But, back to the point. American phone plans DO NOT work in Cuba (Edit: A friend visited in 2019, and she said her American phone plan did work, data was just super expensive. I visited in 2018). You must buy WiFi cards (which aren’t super expensive and can be easily found at the airport), and use them in public WiFi plazas. You can always tell where one is because you’ll see an abundance of people on their phones. This means if you don’t have a WiFi card, or if yours runs out of time, you basically can’t use your phone at all. This also means not being able to contact anyone if there was an emergency, or use the map if you were lost. Honestly, not having the ability to use data could have been detrimental to this trip had we not planned ahead. But, because we did the lack of internet connection was more annoying than anything. Maybe this is just another “Spoiled American” thing... but nowhere else I’ve been has made using my phone so difficult — not even my trip to rural Haiti.
5. US credit/debit cards are useless.
Lastly, if you’re planning a trip to Cuba, make sure you get cash BEFORE your flight!! While the ATMs/banks mostly accept Visa cards, US-based bank cards are not included!! This means if you run out of cash and only have a debit or credit card, you will be out of luck! Someone may have to send you money through Western Union or something because you will not be paying for anything with your cards there. Besides being EXTREMELY INCONVENIENT, this was also frustrating for me because I prefer to use credit when traveling. It allows me to track spending more easily, get rewards dollars/points, and dispute changes in the case of fraud without “losing” actual money if that makes sense. I know you have to use cash some places and that’s fine, but in Cuba you have to use it everywhere. This means one of two things: either you have to plan extremely well and not splurge on any extra souvenirs/excursions without budgeting for it, or you have to bring an insane amount of cash to cover any what-ifs on your trip.
There are a few other smaller things I could comment on (like the hassle to get a Visa, the extra airport taxes in your flight ticket price, etc), but I’ll keep those to myself for now. & Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate everything about this trip. There were definitely some things/activities we did that were super fun — so be sure to comment if you’d like to see a blog post about what I actually liked about Havana!
Ciao for now,
P.S. What I will say is.. I talked to couple other people that also had negative experiences in Havana and they recommended Varadero, Cuba - so if I visit again, I will definitely stay there instead.
P.P.S. I promise I didn't write this post to deter you from visiting. I just wanted to share the negative experience I had. A lot of tourists loveee Cuba, so definitely make the decision for yourself and not based on my experience.