“Welcome to Cuba,” a man in Havana told me. “Don’t try to understand it, just enjoy it.”
After spending last week on the island nation, I see what he was talking about. Cuba is a conundrum: sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrifying, sometimes magical, and sometimes frustrating. The people were lovely, the government was scary, something I tried not to think too much about as I shelled out money at government-run restaurants, hotels, shops, and museums. And yet, as a result of the government control over almost everything, Cuba is exceedingly safe. I’ve never felt so comfortable walking the streets of a Latin American nation.I travelled to the island on a people-to-people visa with a group of fellow students. With things between the U.S. and Cuba changing so fast now, its unlikely that future travelers will have the same restrictions on activities that I did (basically, I had to follow an itinerary of meetings each day and had very limited free time). But folks have been asking, so that’s how I did it.
The trip was the culmination of a dream from almost 20 years ago. As an undergrad, I double majored in journalism and international studies, with a concentration in Latin America. As such, I spent a lot of time studying Latin American history, literature, and art. In that realm, Cuba featured prominently, and I longed to reconcile the Cuba I read about with real life.
When I moved to Miami, I began to understand more about the island’s tenuous history. Fidel Castro was Enemy Number One to Miami’s Cuban community, and any expression of desire to travel there was read as a betrayal to the people who had suffered so much after the Revolution. And yet, Cuba remained a not-so-distant curiosity that I wanted to see for myself.Of course, life happens. I moved to Boston, changed jobs, discovered other places that I wanted to go. Cuba remained on the list, but it was easier to go to Iceland or Italy. Over time, I developed plans for how to get there, first thinking I’d go through Mexico City, and then deciding a puddle jumper from the Bahamas would be better. When the opportunity to go with a legitimate group presented itself, I decided the time had come.Since I took like 500 photos and have a lot of conflicting and random thoughts about the island, I thought I’d break the trip up into two posts: one general (this one) with a few specific recommendations regarding travel logistics, and another examining the good, the bad, and the strange. Look for the second post in the next day or two.
Tip 1: Don’t check a bag.
I arrived in Havana via an Eastern Airlines charter flight from Miami. In terms of infrastructure, there’s a lot that needs to be done if Americans are going to travel en mass to Cuba. The flight was delayed two and a half hours, for unclear reasons. When we got there, we waited for our bags in an un-air conditioned terminal with no food or drinks for another 2.5 hours. Someone told me that the entire airport has only one baggage cart for retrieving bags from planes, which leads to massive luggage delays. Not sure if that’s true, but I’d recommend against checking bags to Cuba on future flights until the situation improves.Once there, we headed to Varadero for three days at the beach. The beach was pretty, but unless you want to be surrounded by tourists, I’d advise against it. It wasn’t a terribly authentic experience. (Additional beach recommendations here.)
Tip 2: Bring snacks, but not chocolate
While the hotel was “all-inclusive,” the food left something to be desired. Yes, Cuban cuisine is excellent, but Cuba is notorious for its shortages. Tourists get the best the country has to offer, but it isn’t much. Buffets will be full of food that makes school lunches look appetizing. Twice, I had freshly made omlets laced with rotten cheese. Store shelves are bare, and portions are small. Between the food and the walking, I lost weight. To stave off “hanger,” I kept a supply of Kind bars and peanut butter crackers handy, and made sure to have plenty to share. That said, you want snacks that won’t melt- 20 minutes in the Cuban sun turns chocolate bars into soup, even (especially?) if they’re in your handbag. Tip 3: Do your research ahead of time. Bring hard copies of everything.
After Varadero, it was off to Havana for four days. Things change so quickly in Cuba, I hesitate to recommend specific places or things, and if you ask locals for recommendations you’re likely to be pointed to touristy paladares where a plate of ropa vieja goes for $18. The New York Times recently ran a piece that came in handy as I navigated the city, and Trip Advisor has some helpful hints. However, do you research before you leave, and print hard copies of everything; there is no such thing as 3G in Cuba. Instead, you’ll pay 2 Cuban pesos for a card that grants you on hour of internet time. Good luck finding a place to use it, aside from government run hotels, there are almost no wifi “hotspots.”Tip 4: Bring cash
This will hopefully change soon, but for the time being, you cannot use debit or credit cards issued by U.S. banks in Cuba. Travelers checks are rarely accepted. So you’ll need cash for everything. You can convert dollars in to cuban pesos (CUCs) at the airport and most government-run hotels. Never change money on the street. A hundred dollars a day is a good target (in addition to what you’ll spend on hotels), though I brought a bit extra in case of an emergency. Tip 5: Speak Spanish
While it’s possible to get around without speaking Spanish, the majority of Cubans I met spoke little English. Speaking Spanish enabled me to negotiate better deals with cab drives, learn more about the country, ask for directions, find the best ice cream, etc. And if your goal is to “see Cuba before it changes,” Spanish is almost a must to understand the story of the Cuban people. People were genuinely surprised to meet an American who spoke their language, and were more comfortable conversing in their native tongue. If you don’t speak Spanish, do the next best thing: go with someone who does.