I had a great time in Cuba, and my friend Madison and I always took note of things to add to our “Gringa Guide to Havana” while we were there, so I thought it would be good to write down some advice for women traveling to my favorite city!
Gringa vs. Yuma
First off, let’s get something straight. In Cuba, you’re not a gringa, you’re a yuma. That’s the word that they use more often for foreigners (male and female), but we like gringa and that’s what we often called ourselves there, so we’re going to stick with that for this post.
This is an important topic for all tourists to Cuba, and one that can be confusing. There are two currencies in Cuba–moneda nacional, which the locals primarily use, and the convertible peso, which we will refer to as CUC. If you say “kook” (CUC) or “say-ooh-say” (C-U-C) in Cuba, they will know what you are talking about. We usually said “moneda nacional” to mean the other currency and avoid confusion, but many of the locals just refer to them as “pesos”. As a tourist, many of the things you will pay for will be in CUC–alcoholic beverages, souvenirs, nicer restaurant meals, your hotel or casa particular stay, museum entrance fees, taxis, etc. You can save a significant amount of money, however, if you use moneda nacional to eat in the cheaper restaurants that locals frequent, go to movies or do other things locals do, and take maquinas for transportation instead of taxis.
You can exchange money at the Cadecas, which are all over the city. We often used the one on Avenida de la Rampa and the block between Calle J and Calle L, although I also used the one on Calle Obispo in Old Havana a few times. You will need your passport to exchange money at the Cadeca. If you’re exchanging USD, it’s a good idea to only change a little at a time, because you will be hit with the 10% fine for converting USD in Cuba twice if you need to convert any back. Some people convert their USDs to Euros or GBP first to avoid this issue, although depending on the exchange rate you can get it may not be worth it. Keep in mind that the ONLY currencies we saw exchanged in Cadecas were: USD (with the 10% fine), Euros, GBP, Canadian dollars, and Mexican pesos. For the other currencies that Cuba will convert (including DKK, NOK, SEK, CHF, JPY), you may need to go somewhere special.
A few money tips for Cuba:
– Remember that to exchange money at a Cadeca, you’ll need your passport!
– Be aware of how standing in line works at the bank… Cubans don’t always stand in straight rows when waiting in line… instead you must ask “¿El último?” (basically, who’s last in line?). The last person to join the line/group will say “yo” or “yo soy” or something similar, and then you must remember that you’re behind them. When the next person comes up and asked who’s last, remember that it’s your turn to say “yo” (me)! It really isn’t as complicated as it sounds, and if you forget the locals will probably help you 🙂
– Get the majority of your money converted to CUCs and a few pesos MN
– Get your MN in 10 peso bills so it’s easier to pay for maquina rides
– Only carry 20-40CUC on you at a time (unless you’re going to do a ridiculous amount of shopping)
– Always try to get a price in moneda nacional if you can; it will generally be cheaper
– For easy math, 25 pesos MN = 1 CUC
– ALWAYS establish which currency you will be using before buying/agreeing to anything – or just assume the price is in CUC
– When tipping, don’t bother with MN coinage (it’s generally not even worth a few cents USD). Either do 10-20 pesos moneda nacional (bills) or some coins up to $1 CUC
If you’re staying and touring around Old Havana only, good options include bicitaxis (similar to rickshaws, in which you sit in the back and the driver bicycles you around) or Coco Taxis (which are the fun sort of coconut-shaped yellow things that seat up to three people). If you’re tired of walking around Old Havana or just want to be taken from one spot to another quickly, these are a good, cheap option, generally costing a few CUC. You’ll occasionally see Coco Taxis outside of Old Havana, in popular tourist spots like Plaza de la Revolucion, for example, but mostly they’re around Old Havana.
Buses are the cheapest option in Havana, but I do not recommend them. I only took one bus ride there, on the first day with my host mom, and that was enough for me! They are quite cheap but they’re also slow, not terribly reliable and extremely crowded! If you’re going to get pickpocketed anywhere in Cuba, I would imagine it would be on a bus. Just take my word for it–don’t bother with the buses when there are so many better options in Havana.
Despite the heat, walking is a great way to see Havana. Old Havana is extremely walkable–going from one plaza to another, for example, won’t take you long and you’ll be treated to great architecture and sometimes street art along the way. Other parts are also very walkable… a stroll along the Malecon at any time of day will give you an authentic picture of Cuban life, and I always enjoyed walking on Avenida 23, Paseo or Avenida de los Presidentes as well.
Of course, when people think of Cuba, they often think of the classic American cars that are so prevalent in the culture. If you want a tour of Old Havana in one of the really nice, restored ones, just hang around Parque Central/the Capitol/Gran Teatro area of Old Havana. That’s where you’ll see all the really nicely-kept ones. Many are convertibles and all are painted in bright colors. Most of the drivers will take you on a little cruise/tour around the city, and I think it’ll set you back about $25-50 for an hour tour. It’s probably a fun way to see the city, but we never felt like spending that much money when we regularly took maquinas and taxis (also classic cars, though not as pristine) the city for much, much cheaper.
Taxis are a good option if you want to get from point A to point B around the wider city without a lot of walking. If you’re just going from one place in Old Havana to another, as I mentioned, I recommend a Coco Taxi, since they can go places there that taxis can’t and are cheaper. But, say you’re going from a hotel in Vedado or Central Havana to somewhere in Old Havana… a taxi could be a good option. They can get a little pricey, but they’re also convenient and there are plenty of them. Most of them are also classic American cars, so you can still enjoy that experience without shelling out a lot of cash.
Hands down, however, máquinas were our favorite way to get around the city. Máquinas are old American cars that run set routes around the city, along major streets like Avenida 23 in Vedado or Prado in Old Havana. The price for routes is a flat 10 pesos moneda nacional (about 50 cents), or 20 if it’s a longer route. You can usually give the driver $1 CUC too if you don’t have moneda nacional. Most will give you change in moneda nacional then, but no guarantees! To hail a máquina, you stick out your pointer finger and sometimes do a bit of a side-hip motion with it, if you’re a girl. Guys are a little more “manly” about it, but the main gesture is the same. When the driver stops you can ask “¿Adónde va?” (Where are you going?), or if, for example, you want to know if they’re heading to one of the most popular and useful stops – just outside of the Capitol in Old Havana, you can ask “¿Va al Capitolio? or “¿Va a Habana Vieja?” The driver will indicate yes or no, and then you get in (probably smushed in with 3-4 other people) and wait for your stop. If you’re not going to a more popular stop, it’s a good idea to remind the driver a block or two before that you want to be dropped off “a la siguiente esquina” (at the next corner) or “a la esquina de Calles A y Zapata” (at the corner of Street A and Avenida Zapata). Do note that these are NOT taxis, and they won’t drop you off right where you want to go–you have to get off somewhere along their regular route and then walk the rest of the way. If they do drop you off directly where you want to go, expect to pay a taxi fare. You pay the driver when you get out of the car. It’s really quite simple when you get used to it, and for sure my favorite way to get around Havana!
Hotels & Pools
There are some major disadvantages of being an obvious non-local in Cuba (you’ll pay more at museums and be constantly offered cigars and taxi rides, for example), so don’t forget to make up for them by doing some typical tourist things while you’re in Havana. One of my favorite memories of the trip was when we snuck into the rooftop pool and bar at Hotel Capri–something we probably wouldn’t have got away with if we were locals!
Most of the hotels in Havana have really nice pools. If you’d rather not try to sneak into a pool, the one at Hotel Habana Libre has a pretty good deal where you pay $15 to swim in the pool and get $12 to spend on food and drinks while you’re there!
The bathroom situation is likely very different than yours at home in the US, Canada or Europe.
Tip #1: Always carry some toilet paper (or those little Kleenex pouches) with you!
Tip #2: Also always carry hand sanitizer with you.
If you follow these tips you will likely have a much more pleasant experience while in Havana. If you happen to forget tips #1 or #2, there are a few things that can help. There are often bathroom attendants who will give you some toilet paper (though it’s not as nice as the stuff you’d bring from home–that’s another tip; just bring a pack with you when you go!) for a small tip. It’s good to keep some small change (in CUC) around for these attendants. Once in a while they’ll have a pump of hand sanitizer or soap for you too, but not often.
Another thing to remember about bathrooms in Havana is that you SHOULD NOT flush the toilet paper. Like many places in the world, the sewage system there is not set up to handle toilet paper, and you could really mess up the plumbing by flushing it. Respect the locals by throwing it in the small trash cans that are in every stall. And yes, that first piece of toilet paper you flush instead of throw when you get home will be super exciting.
Lastly, public bathrooms are not as widely available as they are back in Gringaland, so be sure to use the bathroom whenever you find one! Also, be a patron of the business if you’re going to try to use their bathroom. At our favorite cafe, La Rampa, which is in Hotel Habana Libre, they let you have the bathroom keycard and use it if you were having lunch or a snack there, but we saw some tourists come in off the street and ask and they would tell them that they were broken. They even had signs that said “roto” (broken) on the doors, although they definitely weren’t! Don’t be an annoying tourist and at least restock on a bottle of water or something if you’re going to use an establishment’s bathroom.
“Piropo” is a fun Spanish word that basically means pick-up line, although it can also encompass things like catcalls and flirtatious remarks as well. In Cuba, you are likely to receive piropos, questions of “¿Tienes novio?” (do you have a boyfriend?), comments of “chiquitita linda” (pretty girl), and sometimes weird kissy or hissing noises. Generally it’s the more middle-aged men who we would receive the strange kissing or hissing noises from, and younger guys who would ask about our boyfriends and such.
If you’re a younger woman in Cuba it’s pretty much inevitable that you’ll hear these at some point. Don’t be scared or feel uncomfortable about it–it’s just part of the culture, and the men in most cases actually think they’re paying you a compliment. They generally won’t approach or touch you or anything like that–they’ll just admire (and vocalize their admiration) from afar. Ignoring it is usually the best option, although at our orientation they suggested you have a phrase ready to say if someone is making you uncomfortable… I liked “¡Déjame sola!” (day-ha-may so-la), which means “leave me alone”, but I never had to actually use it while there.
Guardabolsos are very common in Cuba. Basically a place (such as a museum, the mall, or a club) will have a person behind a desk who will watch bags for people while they’re doing their touristy stuff. It’s even required in some places that you let them watch your bags, so don’t be offended if there’s someone behind a desk that says “guardabolsos” who asks for you to hand over your purse. If you’re really uncomfortable with it, sometimes they will let you keep it with you, but they are actually keeping the bag for your protection. They don’t want you to be pickpocketed or have to worry about your stuff while looking around a museum or dancing at a club. Don’t be afraid to let them watch your bag when you’re out and about–the guardabolso jobs are generally some of the better-paying jobs in Cuba (like most in tourism) because they can make some pretty good tips. They’re not going to risk losing that job (or worse) by stealing a few CUC from you. Feel confident using them, and also be sure to leave them a small tip when you get your bag back!
The Perfect Purse
By the time I left Cuba, after a whole month basically living there, I was pretty sure I’d formulated the perfect purse contents for a day out exploring. My purse always had the following things:
* My camera
* My awesome map of Havana
* A notebook and pens
* My wallet (ID, phone card, my host family’s address card, and money in both CUC and moneda nacional)
* Water bottle
* Sunblock stick
* Chapstick with SPF
* A pretty (and functional!) fan
* Hair clip (I would always try to wear my hair down and get too hot by like 9am–up in the clip it went)
* Pictures of my husband, house, dog and family
* Toilet paper and hand sanitizer (as mentioned before!)
* Small flashlight (just in case)
* My cell phone (although I basically used it as a watch in Cuba)
Especially in Old Havana, you will inevitably be asked if you want to buy cigars or if you need a taxi ride. By the end of the trip I much preferred to hang out in the neighborhood where we were staying, Vedado, because I wasn’t constantly surrounded by “Taxi? Taxi?” and “Cigars!” The taxis generally aren’t scams or anything like that, but sometimes you have to be quite firm with your “No gracias” for them to leave you alone. Cigar sales, however, can be a bit scammier. I recommend buying from somewhere reputable–I got mine at the cigar shop inside the Hotel Habana Libre, where there were lots of options and people there to help you decide what to get. I found a good response to people asking if I wanted to buy cigars was simply “No fumo” (I don’t smoke), but a firm “No gracias” could work too.
What to Wear
A lot of Cubans (males and females) wear skinny jeans and tank tops. I brought skinny jeans, but to be honest I did not wear them once. It was WAY too hot for that. I did have some denim shorts that I wore fairly frequently with tank tops (we were told before we went that Cubans don’t wear shorts–while the men never do, we saw plenty of Cuban women wearing shorts, though they were usually knee-length and tighter than those usually worn in the US at least), which was a common outfit for me. I also wore a few skirts and a lot of sundresses. Most of us found sundresses to be a really good option, as we looked a little bit less like tourists and were able to stay cool. Just be sure you do whatever you need to do to avoid chafing! As far as footwear goes, we don’t suggest flip flops. Many Cuban women wear heels everywhere, but with the uneven streets around Havana we found that too risky for us. My go-to shoes were some dressier-looking white T-strap sandals, and I think they were pretty much perfect for most of the things we did in Havana. They were comfortable to walk far in, kept me cool, and didn’t look out of place anywhere, whether we were at the beach, a museum or a club. So anyway our recommended clothing packing list includes:
* Flowy (aka breathable) skirts
* Skinny jeans (if you can handle the heat!)
* Tank tops
* Lighter long sleeve tops to protect from the sun but still keep you cool
* Knee-length denim shorts
* Dressier (and comfortable) sandals
* A swimsuit!
* A cute sun hat
* Several pairs of sunglasses (I wore these ALL the time in Cuba)
Besides the skinny jeans, a few things that I brought and didn’t wear were a sweatshirt, athletic shorts (too casual), scarves (even light airy ones were too hot), and most of my jewelry.
Have FUN! I hope you enjoy your trip to Havana!