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An insider's guide to Havana

  • Story Highlights
  • Cuba has two currencies, but tourists will mainly stick with convertible pesos
  • Rum cocktails are a classic Cuban drink, and there are plenty to choose from
  • See Havana in style in a Gran Car -- state-owned vintage American cars
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(CNN) -- Part of Havana's charm is that it plays by its own rules -- these tips will help you play along.

Cocotaxi Havana

Traveling by the brightly-colored Cocotaxi is a kitsch way to explore Havana.

Hard currency
Parting with your cash can be a tricky proposition in Havana. Confusingly, Cuba has two currencies, convertible pesos and Cuban pesos, with the U.S. dollar no longer commonly accepted.

Tourists are perfectly entitled to use Cuban pesos, but you can't buy much with them and in practice, visitors will deal almost exclusively in convertible pesos.

You can convert foreign currencies into convertibles at hotels and money-changing booths, but if you're converting U.S. dollars you will be charged a 10 per cent commission. The sensible thing would be to get your money from an ATM, however, while Visa cards are accepted at some ATMs, other cards are practically useless in Havana.

Credit cards are becoming more widely accepted in Havana, but using them will incur a hefty surcharge and American credit and debit cards can't be used at all in Cuba. That ban applies even to credit cards issued by American-owned companies and companies with apparently scant connection to the U.S. The upshot is that you should check with your credit card company before traveling, or you may find you're carrying a lot of worthless plastic.

Photo See Carlos Acosta's Havana »

Getting around
The faded glories of Old Havana are best appreciated on foot, but to fully explore the city, and after nightfall in some of the sketchier areas, you're better off taking a taxi. The cheapest are the state-owned yellow and black Ladas, although these are not meant to pick up tourists within 100 meters of a hotel. Haggle over the price before you set off.

You can flag down metered tourist taxis along the Malecon and they also congregate outside the Hotel Nacional in Vedado. It's technically illegal, but easy enough, to flag down pretty much any passing car and pay for a ride around the city, although there's no guarantee of the car, or the driver, being roadworthy.

If your heart's set on ride in a 50s classic car a better bet is to take a Gran Car. These state-owned vintage cars are in good condition, although they're pricey for Havana. Cocotaxis are kitschy, bright yellow, three-wheeled novelty taxis that look a bit like a crash helmet on wheels. They're cheap and fun, if you like that kind of thing.

Also with three wheels, the pedal-powered bici-taxis are usually cheaper, and often more comfortable, than their four-wheeled motorized cousins. If you're lucky you'll get one with a salsa-blasting stereo strapped onto the back.

Do you have any Havana tips? Let us know

Havana's crowded buses are a pickpocket's paradise and are best avoided.

A rum time
Cubans do enjoy a splash of rum and their capital is home to one of the world's most famous brands -- Havana Club. There's no better way to cool down on a steamy Havana night than with a rum cocktail -- but which to choose? Here are a few you should sample:

Cuba Libre: A Havana classic made with cola, rum and lime.
Canchanchara: The locals' favorite -- white rum, lime juice and honey.
El Presidente: This mixture of rum, red vermouth, Curacao and grenadine is named not after Fidel, but after President Mario Garcia Menocal.
Daiquiri: The purist's daiquiri is a combination of rum, lime juice, sugar and maraschino, but if you're feeling impure you can have yours with added fruit.
Mojito: Ernest Hemingway's tipple of choice was this mix of white rum, lime juice, sugar or sugar cane juice, soda water and fresh mint.
Havana Special: A refreshing blend of white rum, maraschino and pineapple juice.
Saoco: Not unlike a turbo-charged milkshake, the saoco is a double whammy of white rum and coconut milk.

If all those cocktails haven't quenched your thirst for knowledge, you can carry out more rum research at the Museo del Ron, 262 Avenida del Puerto, on the corner of San Pedro and Sol.

Red tape
Unless you're from the U.S., all you need to visit Havana is a tourist card and a plane ticket, and the two are best acquired at the same time. The card will let you stay in the country for 30 days and if you don't get one when you book your trip you can pick one up from your local Cuban consulate -- although that can be a time-consuming process.


If you're a U.S. citizen planning to visit Havana, good luck! Before leaving you'll need to get a license from the U.S. government, and regular tourists aren't eligible.

Of course, there are U.S. citizens who travel to Cuba on a tourist card bought in Canada or Mexico, but it's a ruse that can result in a hefty fine and even a jail term. For the latest information see the U.S. Department of State Website.

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