A week ago, I embarked on a week-long journey to Cuba. For many avid travelers, Cuba is considered a must due to it’s rich history. Ever since President Obama re-established diplomatic ties with the Cuban government in 2015, Americans have been allowed to travel to Cuba once they fall within the twelve approved general license categories. After the outcome of the November 2016 elections, I made it my business to book my ticket and go before the anticipated change of administration just in case the diplomatic ties changed immediately.
Upon landing at José Martí International Airport in Habana, I was immediately greeted by the smell of Cuban cigars. Little did I know, the smell of tobacco would be a fixed feature throughout my time in Cuba. This is definitely one aspect of Cuba that I wish I had been warned about. I was surprised to find people casually enjoying a cigarette/cigar while having lunch in a restaurants and hotel lobbies.
Ok, so by now you may be thinking to yourself, “damn, she really hated Cuba.” I wouldn’t necessarily say that I hated my trip. I would however say that it wasn’t entirely worth the hype that I anticipated. To try to brighten the mood a bit, I’ll briefly go over my days.
Sunday, Day 1
Our host picked us up from the airport and was then nice enough to give us a small tour of Habana as we drove to our Airbnb.. We were able to snap a few pictures at Plaza de Revolucion. He also pointed out important government buildings to us.
After arriving to our Airbnb, we were in desperate need of food. We found a restaurant in Central Habana where I had a lobster pizza which I would argue is the best that I’ve ever had. We walked around trying to find the Sunday Rumba session we had read about that takes place at Callejon de Hamel. Needless to say, we were not able to find it. We were however able to find a wifi park where we first became aware of how internet access in Cuba works. Lesson 1 of Cuba – the use of wifi requires an ETECSA (telecommunications) card and a park.
Monday, Day 2
I woke up, rolled over, and said to my cousin, “We’re getting a taxi and going to Vinales.” Luckily enough, our Airbnb hosts were the real MVPs and always had the hookups for affordable taxis. We ended up playing $40 for a 3 hour car ride in a vintage Chevy from Habana to Vinales. This vintage Chevy (you know, the one featured in every cliche picture of Cuba), went as fast as 103 km/h. Although the speedometer in the car had long been out of commission, our driver had an app on his smartphone that he used to make sure he was within the speed limit when passing police checkpoints.
Once in Viñales we quickly found a room to rent and asked our host what we should do. She suggested that we go on a horse-back riding tour. Soooooo, I got on a horse … for the first time. Fitting enough, my horse’s name was Mojito, my favorite drink. The horse-back riding tour was definitely a highlight of my time in Cuba. We had a tour for a total of about 5 hours. We first rode to a tobacco plantation where the process of making cigars was explained to us. It was shocking to learn that 90% of the tobacco crop goes to the government and the farmers are left with the remaining 10%. We then got back on the horses and rode to a cave that had a natural pool inside. We spent time there soaking in Cuba’s natural beauty before we heading off to a coffee plantation. Just like the tobacco plantation visit, we learned of the coffee bean process. Surprisingly enough, the government only requests 70% of the coffee crop in comparison to the 90% required from the tobacco plantation.
Overall, our short and spontaneous trip to Viñales was a key highlight of our Cuban experience.
Tuesday, Day 3
Once we got back to Habana from Viñales, we decided to explore Habana a bit more than we had originally did on our first night. While roaming around, we stumbled across Carlos III mall. There was a supermarket located on the ground level of the mall. Upon entering the mall, we noticed that there was a long line outside of a chocolate store. So naturally enough, we decided to stand on the line and see what the hype was about. I ended up getting 5 chocolate bonbons for a CUC. The bonbons were worth the wait. . After leaving the mall, we roamed around a bit more. While roaming around, we found Callejon de Hamel. Callejon de Hamel is known for it’s present of art depicting the religion on Santeria as well as their Sunday Rumba sessions. As we entered the alley way, we were greeted by a man who gave us a mini tour and explained the different aspects of Callejon de Hamel.
As we left Callejon de Hamel, we decided to visit Floridita. Floridita is a restaurant and bar that often has live music located at the end of Calle Obispo near Old Habana. Floridita is most known for their Daiquiri’s as Ernest Hemmingway was a frequent guest there.
As the evening whined down and we walked around a bit more, we found Cuba’s Chinatown. We also found an alleyway with about 7-10 Chinese restaurants. Upon arriving to the entryway of the alleyway, we were greeted by a representative from every restaurant in an attempt to persuade us to dine at their establishment. My cousin and I decided on one restaurant because we felt like their menu had food options that we liked the most. In an attempt to order, I chose a special which I was then told they didn’t have but did have the same option at double the price. So feeling like we were being taken advantage of, we (along with another group from NYC – because of problems they encountered) decided to leave and try another restaurant on the strip. We found a restaurant at the end of the strip that was rated highly by TripAdvisor. Nonetheless, we decided to give it a try. We ended up seeing the group from NYC there as well. The food ended up being very good for a great deal.
Wednesday, Day 4
Day 4 ended up being a rough day for me. I woke up with a very upset stomach from whatever I had ate the day/night before. Not wanting to miss out on a day of exploring Habana, I drank 3 EmergenC packets.. We decided to walk straight down to theMalecón . While walking along the Malecón we saw quite a few interesting sights. One of which included the spark difference in building facades as well as a graffiti written along the Malecón wall which read “Fuck Fidel.” We walked all through Old and Central Habana that day and just soaked in all of the sights and smells of Cuba.
Thursday, Day 5
After persuading my travel partner for the entire week that we should make a trek to the beach, we finally decided that we would go to Varadero. Again, our Airbnb hosts came in super clutch as they called a taxi for us as soon as we inquired about going to Varadero. We decided to splurge and stay at Club Tropical, an all-inclusive resort, since the homestay we had arranged was literally a back room in someone’s house. We attempted to take a dip in the water on the beach and were not able to since it was so cold. We were persuaded by a couple who tried to convince us that the water wasn’t cold, but we know how warm water felt (especially since we grew up being surrounded by warm Caribbean water). Varadero definitely did not go as well as we had anticipated. However, one amazing thing had to be the professional dance company that performed traditional Cuban dances, such as Rumba.
We were also able to use our people-to-people skills and talk to the host of the rumba show. He spoke about being half Cuban and half Jamaican. My cousin mentioned how she really appreciated history and insight on how Cubans view Jamaicans and his drive to provide for his mom and sisters as his father lives in New York. We also were able to talk about some American and Cuban differences.
Friday, Day 6
We returned back to Habana so we could enjoy our last full day in the city. Word on the street was that we needed to eat like President Obama did during his visit. So we decided to walk over to San Cristobal and attempt to make a dinner reservation. However, once we got their and realized just how popular the place was, we decided not to chance it and ended up having lunch there. THIS. WAS. THE. BEST. FOOD. I. HAD. IN. CUBA. I really hope that you were able to understand just how good the food was to me. We had arroz negro ( rice made with squid ink and squid), taro puree, fried plantains, sweet and sour chicken, and eggplant part. I honestly wish I had discovered San Cristobal a bit earlier in the trip. I probably would have had lunch and dinner there every day. While at the restaurant, we were also able to use our people-to-people skills again and talk to the staff there, one of whom served the Obama Family during their visit. We spoke about United States politics and they expressed sincere concern about the new administration. One staff member said, “being able to visit the US and obtaining a visa will be such a privilege.” I was taken back by his statement. I, at times, forget how privileged I am to travel somewhat freely around the world without having to ask my government for permission. I was fortunate enough to fall within one of the twelve categories to visit Cuba. The morning of my flight, I went to the airport and bought my visa from the airline. That is not possible for the people of Cuba. As we continued our discussion, they expressed concern that all of the progress made by the Obama administration may then be reversed and diplomatic ties may then become severed. This truly made me appreciate my decision to go to Cuba before chancing a change in travel rules.
After lunch, with full stomachs and a ton of energy, we decided to walk around Old Habana. When walking toward what we knew was a wifi station, due to how many people were outside on their phones, we met two AfroCubans. They came up to us and began talking to us. We noticed that one of them had a new tattoo on his neck that read “I love being Black”. After pointing it out, the other guy pulled out his wallet, which had a sticker that read the same thing. This honestly made my heart smile so much. We talked and exchanged thoughts about what it meant to be Black in our respective places of origin.
After leaving the wifi station, we walked a bit more and stopped to take pictures at what we thought was a picturesque location. A group of three guys, 2 Cubans and 1 American stopped us. After a moment of playful banter we were able to realize that one of the three guys was actually from America. He just met the two Cuban guys the day prior and they were teaching him how to be Cubans. Needless to say he failed his first test. We ended up talking for a bit and then agreeing to meet up later at a rooftop where the three had partied the night before. Later on in the evening, we were only able to meet up with one of them. Erick took us to the rooftop party which made me reminisce on my college days and house parties with house music. Not feeling the environment, we decided to grab dessert at Parque Central Hotel. This was Erick’s first time in the hotel even though he lived about 3-4 blocks away and passed it several times a day, every day. We sat, ate dessert, discussed cultural differences, and listened as a live band played. Erick mentioned that he worked in an art gallery. He even showed us a picture of a collaborative art piece that him, the other cuban, and the American had worked on the day before. Unfortunaley, were not able to visit the studio he works at. Even though it’s been a week since I left, I’ve spoken to Erick twice and hope to cross paths with him the next time I visit Cuba.
Saturday, Day 7
The day began with us going to what we had designated as our go to place for breakfast. Parque Central Hotel has an amazing breakfast buffet for $15 CUC. After stuffing our faces with a variety of breakfast items, we walked around Old Habana for the last time and admired all of the art throughout the city.
In short, my trip to Cuba wasn’t necessarily what I expected, nor did it exactly live up to the hype that I thought it would. But, after a week of being able to reflect on it, I truly feel happy and privileged to have had the chance to experience Cuba and encounter it’s beautiful people.
There were a few aspects of Cuba that honestly held me by surprise and had me questioning whether or not Cuba was worth the hype. Here are a few:
- Building Facades – I honestly expected Cuban buildings to be a bit more kept than they were. Many of the building, including government buildings, were deteriorating due to decades of neglect.
- With a little curiosity and hunger in mind (honestly, mostly hunger), I decided to venture out and find a supermarket. I ended up at a supermarket in the Mall near Carlos III in Habana. Although I had been warned about the scarcity of variety in the supermarkets, I was once again still very surprised. I distinctively recall their being only one type of pasta, one type of pasta sauce, and one type of cooking oil among many other mundane items.
- And now for the best, which I saved for the last. Wifi. The concept of Wifi in Cuba, as I learned, isn’t something that is meant to be convenient. For starters, wifi (pronounced wee-fee) requires a wifi card from the government agency that handles telecommunications (ETECSA) . Said wifi card can then only be used at designed wifi hotspots in places such as parks and certain hotel lobbies. The cards cost $1.50 CUC each and give an hour of wifi. Obtaining wifi cards as a local isn’t easy nor is it convenient. In an attempt to experience things the Cuban way rather than the touristic way, I decided to visit a ETECSA office and obtain cards. While standing on a line (which ended up being a 45 minute wait), my cousin and I decided it may be in our best interest to get all the wifi cards we would need for the week to avoid standing online for another 45 minutes. When I was finally called, the clerk asked how many cards I would like and I replied 9 (5 for myself and 4 for my not so social cousin) with a smile. Boy was that a mistake. She looked up at me from her keyboard, rolled her eyes and said ¡Seis! ¡Tres cada uno! (Six! Three each!) and proceeded to continue entering our passport information in the system. We were not aware that there was a ration on wifi cards.
- In addition to the ration, we noticed after purchasing the wifi cards at both the ETECSA office and hotels, that there was a difference in the time allotted. The wifi cards we got at the office only had an hour, whereas those purchased in hotel lobbies had a total of an hour and 20 minutes. It is also important to note that only hotel guests (mostly tourists) are allowed to purchase the cards sold at hotels. weird concept to see a whole bunch of locals outside of a hotel standing up just to get wifi
- What defines authentic Cuban food? Unfortunately for me, I left Cuba with that question unanswered. It seems as though European influences have penetrated what authentic Cuban food means. European culinary influences were seen all throughout Cuba. Nearly every restaurant we visited had either pizza or pasta, and sometimes even both.
I have in mind to return to Cuba in a few years just to see if there has been any drastic changes and to experience more historical aspects of Cuba regarding Afro-Cubans, particularly in Trinidad. I think my future trip will be focused on Trinidad as it is rich in history of Afro-Cubans.
Cuba is not suited for novice travelers or someone just looking for a chill vacation like one which you would experience in Cancun. I also wouldn’t recommend traveling to Cuba unless you are somewhat proficient in Spanish or have plans to have a translator. If it wasn’t for my Spanish-speaking abilities, I honestly would have been lost for most of my trip.
I would however recommend Cuba to someone who is proficient in Spanish, interested in discovering and exploring more of Cuba’s history as well as exchanging various different cultural aspects such as artwork.
Please feel free to comment and ask your questions below in the comments section. I hope you found this post informative, insightful and helpful.
Great report Claretta!
After reading your post I felt like I had been to Cuba.