Cuba, A Trip Like No Other (& Why Americans Can and Should Go!)

Before anything else: (1) if you’ve ever had any interest in visiting Cuba (or returning), now is a great time to go! These wonderful people really need American touists/$$ to return; over the last 2 years American tourism has slumped (despite everything, they rely heavily on US tourists) and the Cuban people (not the government, the people) are the ones suffering; and (2) forget what you’ve heard, take your USD with you! See below for more details.

I did more research and planning for my trip to Cuba than any trip in my 1.5+ years of travel, because (1) compliance with US laws and regulations doesn’t make it simple to visit, and (2) I still wanted flexibility to create my own adventure, rather than paying a company to figure things out for me. No matter what category you travel under, your days (all of them!) must be full (we’re talking 8+ hours to be safe) of activities that satisfy the requirements of that given category. I opted for “Support for the Cuban People,” which requires activities that involve genuine interactions and conversations with Cuban people. So hanging out on gorgeous Cuban beaches for an entire day or days while visiting: NOPE. Spending your days walking solo and just taking in the scenery and culture without actively engaging with locals: NOPE. What it does mean: be curious, ask questions, talk! So when walking through markets with local artisans, instead of just telling them that you like something, ask: how long have they been making (art, jewelry, etc)? Primary career or supplement? How do they source materials? Are they on social media and how has that impacted their business? Etc. It’s not hard nor painful and people here LOVE chatting. Hell, I even turned getting a business card for a tattoo a shop (while walking down the street) into a conversation with the promoter about how they’re able to operate and get machines and materials they need; even though I’m an extrovert, my normal reaction in such situations is to politely say “thank you”, take the card, and keep walking. So it’s making me be really conscious of all the opportunities around me to get to know people. Also, the time you spend having meals and talking with your host family in a Casa Particular (which you can book on Airbnb!), and while dining at a Paladar, also counts in the 8+ hours/day you need. And if you’re like me and don’t want to worry about bringing SO much cash, you can fill your days with Airbnb activities that are designed to satisfy our requirements (just be aware not all experiences have US citizens in mind, so those full day trips to beaches and diving or snorkeling in Vardadero, probably NOT ok, unless you find one that incorporates lots of info about climate change impacts and natural habitats, a visit to a local refuge or museum or chat with biologists, etc).

Upon entry/passport stamps: BEWARE!

I was under the impression that Cuba was like Israel, where it was just automatic that they will stamp a separate piece of paper and NOT stamp your passport. WRONG! Both at entry and exit I had to stop the immigration officer from stamping my passport. Yes, it is absolutely legal to travel to Cuba (so long as you do so in compliance with US regulations) and by posting this publicly and on social media, it’s not like I am trying to hide my trip. But I have no doubt that having that stamp will subject me (anyone!) to WAY more scrutiny by US Homeland Security/TSA, so why bother? While I spoke Spanish, almost all immigration officers (in nearly all countries) speak English, so just tell them when you hand your passport over to them: please do not stamp my passport.

Dancing. Sweet baby Jesus! This is one stereotype that I have encountered around the world that 100% holds true. It must be genetic or something. I have never seen an entire country of people who dance so well. No matter how much you lack rhythm, you MUST take at least one salsa lesson while here.

Communication. Most everyone associated with the tourist industry speaks English. Impressively, everyone I spoke to learned English by listening to American music and watching American movies and TV shows growing up. And many speak perfectly fluent English, without an accent! For the rest of the population, it’s Spanish. And getting used to the thick Cuban accent can take some work. After standing 7-8 months in Latin America, I definitely consider myself fluent, yet upon arriving in Cuba, I struggled to understand many people. Some people speak very clearly, but many speak as though they have a mouthful of marbles, so words are somewhat mumbled and jumbled together. Thankfully, Cuban people are overwhelming and friendly, nobody took offense when I needed to ask them to repeat themselves, sometimes several times.

Cash and costs. 100% of what you buy and pay for (outside of reservations made through Airbnb) will be in cash. This applies to EVERYONE. Payment by credit or debit card is nonexistent in Cuba as of January 2020. For USA citizens, in case you don’t know: BRING ALL THE $ YOU THINK YOU’LL NEED FOR THE ENTIRE TRIP! Your US credit and debit cards DO NOT WORK IN CUBA. Yes, Western Union exists so in the case of an emergency there must be some way to wire $$ here from the US, but I assume that is both complicated and expensive. Better to plan ahead and bring more than you think you’ll need (just don’t exchange all your $ at once, change it bit by bit so you don’t get stuck with extra Cuban currency at the end that you need to exchange back to USD). If you change money at any authorized exchange, USD have a whopping 10% tax/fee on top of the normal hit you take when exchanging money anywhere. However, there is a “market” for USD so I found it VERY easy to exchange my USD 1:1 with the CUC (Cuban convertible currency, which is different from the CUP, Cuban Peso; at the time of this article, the CUC:USD = 1:1, while CUP:USD = 25-26:1). Interrupting my budget chat to show you what the different Cuban currencies look like so you don’t confuse them when traveling.

Cubans have low confidence in their own currency, but still view USD as a safe investment, so they like to get and save USD (even though I’m sure the government here is not a fan of that, at all). Plus, USD are so widely used that most Cubans want USD and prefer to just swap 1:1 with tourists who bring dollars than get hit themselves with big fees if they buy dollars at an exchange, so it’s a win-win. And for Cubans traveling abroad, they also need USD, so I found people all around the country asking if I had USD I wanted to exchange with them. (There are even some paladares and shops that outright accept USD as payment.) I actually regretted not bringing more USD; I mostly relied on MXN, since I flew here from Mexico, and assumed I’d end up with the better exchange rate converting pesos (which is definitely true at money exchanges, but given the ease of trading USD for pesos almost anywhere, USD is probably the best currency to have in Cuba). Obviously, do what you are comfortable with, but when I return to Cuba, I’ll be bringing all USD with me. Only reason to bring other currency upon entry, in my opinion, is to have a small amount to exchange at the airport so you can pay for your car/private taxi, upon arrival, to your first Casa, without taking the 10% hit. Or just coordinate with the host family, because many will pay the driver and let you reimburse them. [Keep in mind when you read this: any marketplace is subject to change. This information is current only as of my trip, January 2020. When you book your trip to Cuba, just double check with locals (family who owns/operates your accommodation, for example) in advance of your arrival that the situation remains the same.]

How to budget for your trip to Cuba. I used Airbnb for all stays and activities (prices for everything noted below, but on average, for purposes of overall expenses, plan to spend between $15-$50/night for accommodations, with LOTS of options on the lower end of that scale, and another $15-$100 per Airbnb Experience, with half or full day trips outside any city responsible for the higher end of the scale), which meant I needed less cash on hand. For transportation within Havana: taking cabs is going to cost you $5-$10 per ride (perhaps less if using from point A to B within the same neighborhood), except for going to/from the airport, which costs between $20-$30 (each way). Shared cabs in the city definitely cost less, but are often packed, so hard to plan on only taking those; I never had luck finding one when I needed a cab. And for the private cabs- beware! Drivers will kill you with prices (yes, this is all relative, as I realize many people living in major US or European cities will still laugh at me calling Cuban cab prices expensive). Especially at night; more than once I opted to walk because the distance was only about 1 mile but they wanted $10 (and since it IS safe to walk alone at night , you’re not putting your well being at risk by doing so). I like to walk a lot, so relied on cabs only when going longer distances (usually, more than 2-3 miles) or really late at night (and then, when it was more than 1 mile). And if you want to rent a classic car to drive you around, many preorganized tours charge $50+ for 2-3 hours driving around the city (on top of the cost for the guide; you’ll even find this is the case with many Airbnb experiences, so READ THE FINE PRINT because quite a few have extra costs on top of printed price). But if you don’t like to walk that much, or if you simply can’t walk much, plan ahead, because public transport (which is cheap and usually my preferred alternative in cities) is government operated so not an option for us (USAers). Between cities: my colectivo was $35 from Havana to Cienfuegos, but another guy in my same car was paying $70 (for exact same ride/distance), and he told me of another guy he knew who paid $120 for that ride. So there’s clearly a lot of variation, though I am not sure how those guys ended up getting charged so much because the $35 from Havana to Cienfuegos or Trinidad is pretty standard. Between Cienfuegos and Trinidad I paid $10, and from Trinidad back to Havana $35. If you stay with experienced host families with good connections, you can probably plan to pay what I did, or at least close to that (they will arrange for you). Outside of Havana: I did not use a taxi in Cienfuegos at all, it’s a pretty small city so I had no trouble walking everywhere, so don’t know the cost. (Only real “distance” is from main downtown area to far end of Punta Gorda, so if you’re staying in one and visiting the other, you may not want to do that walk every time.) In Trinidad: because I chose to stay in a Hostal located in a small fishing village at the mouth of the river/ocean (Playa La Boca), just outside of Trinidad, I did need to use transport to and from my Hostal and the city. I paid $15 (standard cost seems to be $10 direct to Trinidad, with an extra $5 to Playa). For meals: most Casas will offer breakfast for $5-$8/person. I tend not to eat first thing, and prefer just coffee, and most of the homes I stayed in were kind enough to offer me free coffee (except my most expensive stay of all, in Playa la Boca, where I paid $1). For lunch: I think $4-5 was the cheapest I paid, up to around $10. For dinners: typically between $10-$20. Prices including tip. For USAers, keep in mind our restaurant options don’t include any of the cheaper, State restaurants. (See below for details, I ordered at least 1 drink or water/juice, and apps in addition to a main, for many of my meals). And when I went for drinks separately, prices tended to average $4-$6/drink in Havana, $3-$4/drink in Cienfuegos, and about the same in Trinidad. So if you eat breakfast, and know you’ll imbibe while in Cuba, you should probably budget at least $40/day for food/drinks alone. In terms of souvenirs, these also run the spectrum of prices, with a lot of extremely affordable options. In Havana, many of the arts, crafts, and jewelry I found at one of the local markets (in the heart of Old Havana, tourism central) cost as little as $1. But in Cienfuegos, the well known artist in whose shop I ended up helping out with translation, sold a medium sized painting for 250€, so prices vary based on what you’re buying, authenticity, quality, etc., just like anywhere! Also, it is a bartering economy so for places where prices are not posted/fixed (and even at those, depending on quantity, there may be flexibility) the first price is always WAY higher than what they actually want to sell for. I was also advised (by a Cuban) not to tell people I am American, because (especially with older vendors) some may still bear resentment to US and charge a higher price on principle. I didn’t experience ANY negativity based on nationality, but sharing the message just as an FYI when you’re shopping.

Colectivos (Shared Cabs between Cities). No matter the city, drivers leave first thing in the mornings, so your pickup will be between 7-9am; if you want to leave later in the day, you’ll have to pay for a private taxi. Key advice: always have your Casa (in whatever city you are leaving from) organize for you, or it’s likely you’ll end up without transportation. No matter how positive an experience with a driver going from City 1 to 2, do NOT “book” with that driver to go from City 2 to 3. For example, my driver from Havana to Cienfuegos, Fermin, was great and before dropping me off in Cienfuegos offered to take me to Trinidad, told me the price, and took all my details before leaving. I thought: he’s trusted by my host family in Havana for transport and was reliable for that ride, so why not continue with him for the next journey? Then came the morning of my trip to Trinidad and he never showed up, and when my host family called him, it was clear (1) he had forgotten, and (2) he was not providing the transport himself, rather, he had to find another driver/colectivo going to Trinidad to add me to (and because most leave first thing in the morning, when he was supposed to have arrived, I’m sure it was hard for him to find anyone who could take me). Thankfully my schedule was fairly flexible, and I did not prepay anything, because I ended up waiting an extra hour, though was lucky that Fermin finally came through with a driver because there were NO other colectivos available to Trinidad.

Tipping. Many restaurants add 10% to your bill for service, but I have found sometimes the menu says they will add but they don’t. (Please check your receipt and don’t just assume this was taken care of.) I’m also not clear that this 10% actually ends up going to your server. So I always make sure to tip my server directly, and not out of obligation or habit, rather, I received great service almost across the board in Cuba. And an extra $1-$5 won’t break my bank, but makes a massive difference for your bartender or server. Massive. Read the details in my January 22 section about my chat with Yessica at El Ocaso.

Safety. Everyone here likes to brag about how safe Cuba (including the City of Havana) is, and that I can walk around at night (solo!) without any worries. With the slight caveat: be smart, anything can happen anywhere, but if you are robbed here the person will NOT have a weapon of any sort, and your life/safety will not be at risk. I have found that to be true. I have been walking MILES every day, including at night, and often find myself walking alone down dark streets, with no issue. I have been on the receiving end of more cat calls (ranging from whistles to having men yell “linda” or “bella” etc.) here than anywhere else in the world, but nobody is threatening nor do they try and follow me, they just whistle or yell out, and I keep walking. (Ladies, from what I can tell so far, the biggest risk you’ll face in Havana is unintentionally getting plowed because bartenders here tend to throw free drinks your way when they have a crush on you. Only time I ever felt uncomfortable, or just exhausted by all the attention, was in Cienfuegos; read below for details and advice.) I even had a guy walk 20 minutes out of his way to walk me home one evening, just to make sure I arrived safely; no hidden agenda. I’ve found that most people here are honest and transparent, so try and drop the guard that we all sometimes carry, where we are hesitant to engage for fear that someone wants something from us, is trying to sell something, or set us up.

Women traveling solo in Cuba. While adjacent to safety, worth its own discussion. Something to know upfront that will help you understand context: given the severe economic limitations most Cubans live with (average median salary is 35CUC/month! and recently, Cuban government increased the amount every person must have in savings in a bank account to go abroad to over $4,000), travel abroad will never be an option for the majority of the country. Those who do have an opportunity to travel abroad, have family living abroad who provide financial assistance. With that in mind, seeing women traveling solo seems to be a bit of a rarity here, and I found that a lot of people were surprised- and I received quite a bit of male attention. This only intensified outside of Havana. Cienfuegos was another level, and the only place I felt uncomfortable. NOT because my safety was EVER at risk, but the desperation here is palatable. Almost every guy or group of guys I walked by either blew me a kiss, yelled a compliment my way, or asked if he could “accompany me” as I continued walking wherever I was going. Every single one. Didn’t matter if they needed to leave work to do so. Not kidding. Or would ask me to meet up when they finished work for a drink. And even ones who speak perfectly fluent English, are educated, and claim to be interested in just talking, practicing English, or something legitimate, will probably at least try to make out or have sex with you, which can be frustrating when you legitimately want to have a conversation. Also, none of this is a humblebrag, it’s something I imagine any solo female will encounter, because, especially outside of Havana (really: in Cienfuegos), men seem to be much more desperate for a visa to leave Cuba, and they see foreign women as the easiest path for that. (Not unlike quite a few countries much farther East, where you can literally get proposed to just walking down the street.) When I went to listen to a live band and dance salsa in Cienfuegos, an entire section was filled with local guys there with white/foreign girls, and most of the guys were using dancing as merely an excuse to aggressively make out with these girls on the dance floor. [I was also warned by a local that their charm fades very rapidly if they realize a woman won’t sleep with them, and insults aimed at the woman often ensue.] Also, the guys will probably want you to buy them a drink when they arrive to a place with you (even if they invited you)- and considering that a $3 mojito still = almost 10% of the median Cuban monthly salary, it’s understandable.

Cost of things. Some things are crazy affordable, while other things linked to tourism are somewhat expensive (relative to cost of living here, and cost of tourism across much of LatAm). While shared taxis (“colectivos”) are an affordable ride sharing option (no, ride sharing apps don’t exist here for a multitude of reasons, to start with, getting data on your cell has only been available in Cuba for 1 year), an individual/private taxi ride seriously adds up. Will cost you $25-$30 to/from Havana airport (seems to be a fixed cost), and you’re going to pay at least $5-$10 going from any point A to B within the city. (For comparison, I can usually get an Uber to/from the airport in Mexico City, which is 30-60 minutes, depending on traffic, for $6-$8.) I even skipped a few really popular tourist destinations, such as Fusterlandia, because I didn’t want to pay the $40-$50 cab ride to/from; same with a few restaurant recommendations I received (for places outside the heart of Havana). If you’re traveling with others and can split the cost of these cab rides, it all becomes much less onerous. But on the other hand, a colectivo from Havana to Cienfuegos (~4 hours) will only cost you $30-$35 (per person!), so long distances are super affordable. And locally produced arts, crafts, jewelry, etc. are often insanely cheap. Food and drinks run the price range, but in general are pretty affordable. Prices can add up if you’re eating and drinking at nice places all the time, where you can easily spend $10-$20/meal and $4-$6/drink, but (1) that’s easy enough to control if you want to stay within a budget, and (2) the cost relative to what you’d spend at a comparable restaurant in much of the US or Europe is an incredible bargain. Stays at Casa Particulares (privately operated rooms/homes for rent, often in the family home or a small hotel where a family lives, and which is a requisite for anyone from the US who wants to come to Cuba) are incredibly well priced!! Tourist-specific activities tend to be more expensive than what you’d pay in many other LatAm countries, but still not unreasonable. Most activities that last 1-4 hours (dance lessons, city walks/tours, etc) will cost between $15-$40, and usually include some food or drink, while anything involving food (food tours, cooking classes, etc) will cost more, and full day excursions (to visit another city or part of the country) tend to run $70-$100. All price ranges based on cost of activities if booked through Airbnb Experiences (which I did a lot of, just to save my cash while here, since running out means you’re F*ed- if you’re from the US that is).

Food. Most restaurants serve big portions, so consider yourself warned! (And if you can’t finish, please take the food to go and give to a person or dog on the street, don’t throw.) If you’re vegetarian or vegan, typical Cuban options are going to be rather limited for you, and you’ll probably be eating a lot of rice, beans, salads, and sometimes yuca or plantains, and cheese balls. That’s honestly about it. Most typical Cuban dishes are meat or seafood based. But there are tons of restaurants featuring various international cuisines, so if you do get tired of rice, beans, and salads, just head to one of those places! There’s a wonderful website, AlaMesaCuba.com (they also have an app!) that can help you identify restaurants (I believe all listed on the website are paladares = private restaurants, which is a requirement for anyone traveling from the US). It also shows reviews and rankings, and provides info (phone number, address, what currencies are accepted for payment, and so long as you are searching at least 2+ days in advance, the ability to make reservations online). In Havana, I initially struggled to find a paladar when walking in the tourist hub of Old Havana (many details below for January 19). It took another day or two to realize all I needed to do was get off of Obispo Street! There are lots of options to your north and south!

Where to stay? Whether you’re from USA or not, I 100% recommend staying in a Casa Particular! Even if you usually like fancy hotels when traveling. Yes, Cuba is online now but the vast majority of tourism still operates on an offline, telephone and relationship based, network. Especially with respect to colectivos to travel between cities. Many families have been hosting tourists for YEARS (way before even Airbnb arrived) and they know everyone and everything.

Plus, your money makes a MASSIVE difference to these families! As for neighborhoods: (1) in Havana, Vedado is more residential and home to the majority of private restaurants and bars in the City, while most of the tourist activities and historical sites are in Old Havana, so that’s convenient for those reasons, as well as easier access to places to change money. I also stayed in the Central part, which is kind of a triangle with Vedado and Old Havana, meaning you will be at least 1-2km walk or ride from anything in Vedado or Old Havana, but upside is you’re only half the distance to get to both (vs staying in one and having at least 4-6km to get to the other); (2) Cienfuegos- you’ll likely either stay downtown in the historical district or in Punta Gorda, and given how small the city is and how little there is to do, I’d probably recommend staying more central and just walking or taking a cab to visit Punta Gorda; and (3) Trinidad. I stayed in Playa la Boca, which was beautiful! But kind of far and rides to and from the City add up. Plus, there is so much to do and see in the City itself, it’s worth being in walking distance. However, keep in mind that if you stay within the UNESCO recognized part of the city center, your cab will have to drop you several blocks from your Casa Particular because car traffic is not permitted. Though you can stay just outside of the “official” historical city center and you’ll still be walking distance from everything.

For environmentalists: apart from one restaurant (Más Habana, see below), every single bar will serve your mojito with a plastic straw AND a plastic mixing stick. (At least they all seem to wash and reuse the mixing sticks.) To avoid: when ordering your drink, tell them you don’t want/need a straw. Also, littering is just a way of life. Also painful to see, particularly in a country where people have talked to me about noticeable effects of climate change on weather in the country. In Havana, people are constantly throwing trash on the street, and in Trinidad I watched a women walk out her front door and dump her ask tray full of cigarette butts onto the cobblestone street.

Health: this country definitely rivals the heaviest smoking cultures I’ve seen in the world (Spain, France, and several Middle Eastern countries). And almost ALL bars and restaurants permit smoking inside. I suggest finding a well ventilated restaurant or bar if you don’t want to choke on someone’s smoke. Also, if you’re from the USA, take all medicines and sunscreens, etc., you may even possibly need with you because all farmacies and other shops where you could buy such supplies are State run = not an option for us.

Recreational drugs: not something I am ever concerned with in my destinations, but recognizing that many people do use certain substances recreationally (especially pot)… I don’t know who needs to hear this, but Cuba is NOT the place to go if you’re looking for a place where you can partake. I was told that Cuba has ZERO tolerance for drugs, and that absolutely includes marijuana. Plus, you can get locals in serious trouble if you’re carelessly walking around asking people in public where you can find this.

Internet Connectivity: if you need to stay connected all the time (or, even reliably some of the time) for work or personal reasons, Cuba is not the travel destination for you. (Or maybe this is exactly where you should be if you’re looking to disconnect!) Using internet here is much like in the Cook Islands; free WiFi doesn’t exist. Certain places have hotspots and allow you to purchase directly from them, but to use most hotspots you have to buy a card (pretty cheap, 1 hour = $1). And service can be spotty, sometimes cutting out for hours at a time, or painfully slow if the hotspot is overloaded with users. To be prepared, downloading an offline map prior to arrival is key! While I’m normally a massive fan of maps.me, it wasn’t very reliable or helpful in Cuba (especially outside of Havana). I have no idea if Google maps offline is better, but maybe download both to be prepared.

Havana Airport/Departure. When you’re leaving, yes, there are souvenir shops and a few cafes and bars, but, NONE ACCEPT CUCs as payment. Not shitting you. They only accept USD, CUP (that’s the much lower value Cuban Peso), EUR, and CAD; though if you pay with USD in any cafe or bar you will get hit with a 10% fee. Even more hilariously/ironically, all prices are shown in USD. I had a little less than 2CUC leftover, which I saved to buy myself water in the airport (before learning that the most valuable and commonly used Cuban currency, CUC, is NOT accepted anywhere in the airport). Since I couldn’t use it, I gave it to the most adorable old Cuban cleaning lady. From what I’ve learned about salaries here, if engineers still earn as little as 10-12CUC/month, I can only imagine how little she is paid so what was worth less than $2 to me was HUGE for her. And she was so appreciative. Again, this is NOT a humblebrag, I gave one cute, little old lady less than $2, I’m not Mother Teresa. However, it does illustrate what an impact your $$ can have and how much it can mean to Cuban people, so if you find yourself at the airport with some leftover money or change, why not leave with someone who it will really help (instead of taking home as a souvenir that will collect dust, because outside of Cuba the value is $0)? Just a suggestion!

Cuba Itinerary

For USA citizens to travel legally to Cuba, in addition to traveling under one of the permissible categories, you must document your compliance with the requirements. That means saving receipts (I only received a receipt 50% of the time, but when I did, I snapped a photo to save), and creating a document with your daily schedule and notes about activities, demonstrating compliance. Below is my SUPER detailed itinerary; this is probably way more than the average person who need to document. But since I’m also writing a blog, and traveling solo permitted lots of time for reflection and journaling, I decided to go all in. Only difference: because of how completely honest many people were about their criticisms of their government and problems with the country, I decided to modify, for purposes of this blog post, details of any particularly political conversations. That way, if this somehow comes across the radar of anyone in the Cuban government, none of the wonderful people I met or stayed with will get into trouble. (And yes, to satisfy the government requirement of maintaining records for 5-7 years, cannot recall the exact time frame but it’s long, I am also guarding the “original” version- written in case anyone from the US State Department is reading this, haha. Works both ways, no?) And to be clear: I did not meet or speak with anyone in Cuba who had only negative things to say about their country, government, or Communism. Quite the contrary. Many were very realistic about the limitations of their current government and system, and the need for some kind of change, but recognized the need for change when the Revolution occurred (terrible poverty, homelessness, high rates of unemployment and illiteracy, etc.) and also that many things do still work very well: low crime, with an almost nonexistent violent crime; free education through whatever level of university or professional study you choose to pursue; free medical care, just to name a few.

18/1/2020

11:30: arrived. Private taxi driver arranged by Airbnb host was waiting at airport (25CUC, Airbnb chat re price/for receipt)

12:00-2:30: arrived to Casa Particular in Havana center. Welcomed by Cesar who chatted and had coffee with me about apartment and explained layout of the city, overview of neighborhoods, transportation, change in tourism under Obama and Trump.

3-7:30: Support for the Cuban people (tour with Natalia), included dinner at Doña Adela paladar. Booked through Airbnb Experience ($35). Cuba’s Capitol Building, in Havana, was modeled after the US Capitol Building (it was constructed in the early 1900s when our governments had a close relationship) and I was SHOCKED at how nearly-identical it is! Wow. During this tour I also learned a lot about the daily life and struggles Cuban people endure, including how the monthly food allotment (which every family must purchase from their assigned bodega) is only enough to keep someone from starving to death but not actually enough to feed any family, meaning everyone has to cut into their average $35/month salary to buy food, so they end up deciding monthly if they’re going to use what little “extra” they have to buy clothes or medicine or some other necessity. Also, onions, garlic, and tomatoes are considered luxury food items here.

19/1/2020

10-11:30: Coffee and chatting with family, met extended family

11:30-12:30: research on what to do for day

12:30-14:50: walking around Old Havana (1) convo with promoter for Maik Santos Tattoo Ink shop- owner’s wife is from CAN, so obtain machines and ink from abroad; (2) Patio de los Artesanos, talked with 2 artists, Ana, there for 16 years, and long conversation with Milton Reinaldo Diaz Perez, architect by training and profession but has had his art business for 20 years, makes his own paper from recycled materials to use for much of his art, also takes photos and does paintings using a spatula only. We also talked about, despite having IG and international followers, he can’t really sell art abroad because only way to ship is through DHL and cost would be ~$50 for a single piece of art (didn’t even get into difficulty or probably impossibility of payment from abroad); and (3) searching for a non-state restaurant. Even in very touristy Old Havana, almost all restaurants are state-owned. Led to interesting conversations with men working doors who are soliciting people into restaurants, none of whom knew or understood why I couldn’t eat there. Tip for Americans: before you get to Cuba, take a look at AlaMesaCuba.com and pick out a bunch of the “paladares” (private, non-State restaurants) you like, then save them on your phone in a list or on maps.me (which doesn’t require internet to work (so long as you download the Cuba map before going). AlaMesa is the Cuba restaurant version of Yelp or TripAdvisor, but limited to private restaurants only; super helpful for figuring out where to eat! Because when you’re hungry it’s not particularly fun walking 1.5 hours until you finally find a paladar. As someone who normally loves to skip restaurants popular with tourists, sorry fellow USA folks, you have to save the truly cheap places super popular with locals for another country because most of these are state owned. But that doesn’t mean your options are inauthentic. In fact, opposite! Most (all?) paladares are in a family home, even if that home has been seriously and fabulously renovated for the restaurant space. Also, white people from literally everywhere else in the world have NO restrictions on where they eat and drink in Cuba, so if you’re just walking down the street looking into places to see if white folks are inside, all that you’re gonna be able to figure out is if it’s popular with tourists, but that doesn’t mean you/we (USA folk) can eat/drink there. And even if you do encounter other Americans, still worth asking if the restaurant is private (“privada” or “paladar”) or State (“del estado” or “estatal”) before you sit down to order, because compliance with the ridiculously strict regulations is on your own word, and I have no doubt some probably decide “fuck it” and eat wherever.

15:00-15:30: lunch at San Cristobal Paladar (5CUC for veggie+cheese baguette, incl. side of fried plantain chips-$3, order of tostones $1, and bottle of water $1) No receipt available, price calculated on a simple calculator and shown to me. Basic sandwich but tasty and cheap! And vegetarian options!! (If you’re vegan, clarify that’s there’s no cheese in any veg dish because they will actually add to some without specifying on the menu, even though for other dishes cheese costs $1.50 to add.) But skip the tostones here, awful. I hate wasting food, especially in countries where people have so little, but could only choke down a couple. But would definitely eat here again, and the desserts looked fabulous!

Took private taxi (driver: Josia, $8) to my salsa lesson and had a great chat about changing economy and impact of American tourism in Cuba.

17-18:30: salsa lesson with Claudia (Instructor name?! at her studio in Vedado, on patio of a gorgeous house. Owner moved there in 1962. Group included 2 other Americans, 4 from France, and 2 guys from Israel. Airbnb Experience ($13)

18:30-19:15: walked Malecón to dinner

19:15- 20:30: dinner at Casa Mia Paladar (ceviche and mangoes over guacamole, black beans, plátanos, 2 mojitos; total $18.50+ tip). Note: not sure how accurate this is but had some people tell me that tips left on the table go to the owner, so be sure to personally hand any tip to your server & do it discreetly. Casa Mia is a fancier restaurant but still super (SUPER!!) reasonably priced AND forget about a dress code. Some people were definitely dressed to impress (suits and dresses), while a couple at the table next to me was wearing workout clothes. One of the servers spoke perfect English (and adorably wanted to show off and/or practice because kept going with English even when I responded in Spanish), and menu is in English and Spanish. Mojito was amazing! Food very good (plátanos maduros a bit dry, but for $2 I’m still full and happy). 100% recommend. Worth calling ahead (or sending an email!) to make a reservation, it’s a very small space (6 tables for 4, 5 tables for 2) and you don’t want to miss out. I called just a few hours in advance and had no trouble getting a reservation.

22-2am: Havana bar hopping in Vedado with brothers Andito and Luisma, with lots of convo about Cuban culture, social life, cigars, and rum (plus samples included). Airbnb Experience ($35), all costs included except drink at first bar- private ($3)

2am: private taxi ride home, taxi driver had a classic car! ($10)

20/1/2020

10: cafe at family home

11-2:30: 2 hours salsa lesson with Carlos, lunch at local restaurant, [and evening of salsa dancing in 2 different clubs featuring different styles of bands and music]. During lesson and lunch talked a lot about life in Cuba with Carlos. Learned about his business, and him learning to use the Internet for marketing, which is a very new thing here in Cuba. I learned about his life in Santiago de Cuba, before moving to Havana, and other jobs he had apart from working as a dance instructor, and what it’s like working construction in Cuba (hint: private construction jobs do exist, and offer some of, if not the best, salaries in Cuba). For lunch, they made me an omelette with cheese and onions, and served with rice and a salad. Airbnb Experience ($38)

2:30-3: walking through Old Havana again and stopped in to chat with artists at a local gallery.

3-4:30: stopped at the famous La Floridita bar, a popular Hemingway hangout and known for “perfecting” the daiquiri. Listened to great local bands and had wonderful conversations with one bartender in particular, Able, as well as other customers (including Cubans). Paid $0 (Able offered me complimentary drinks). If you were to pay (US citizens: I honestly don’t know if this place is private or State owned. That means we can all walk in and check it out, but double check before buying a drink that it’s legal to spend $ here), I believe I heard them say it’s $6/drink, which is on the higher end for Cuba (in local/less touristy bars, you can often get drinks for $1-$3, and at nicer restaurants for about $4), but totally worth it. So tasty, not sweet (more of the lime flavor, so tart, but not overly), and when you watch how they make it… you are getting your money’s worth. Holy cow! Don’t think I’ve ever seen a free pour like that! I asked how many bottles of rum they go through in a day but was just told “it varies.”

4:30-5:15: on the walk home came across an art studio/theater/children’s art school and gallery run by Alexis (goes by Alex), who told me about himself, how and why Chaplin is an inspiration for him, gave me a tour of the building, told me about teaching art to kids on weekends, and showed me his paintings for sale. Beautiful thing about Cuba: if you peek something interesting when walking down the street, you can usually pop your head in or just walk on in (be respectful when so doing!), and I have found people to be super warm and excited to talk (and even happier at the prospect of selling you something).

5:20-6:00: coffee at the Casa and chatting with Yudo, the sister, and her daughter, about their life in Cuba, the weather (climate change!), and differences between Havana and Cienfuegos.

8-9:15: Dinner at Más Habana (Old Havana). Found because my first choice, Del Frente (O’Reily St) was packed with a wait; I definitely recommend making a reservation if you want to eat at a popular place! Más Habana is thankfully just around the corner (so no repeat of yesterday, searching/walking almost 2 hours to find an open paladar), has a lovely design (very modern-industrial), offers quite a few veg options (!), and reasonable prices. My mojito was awesome, best I had in Havana (but strong! So be warned!). Downside: a lot of options on the menu (especially veg options) were not available the night I was there, so I ended up ordering the cheese balls with papaya salsa and pesto as my app (sooooo good!) and black beans and rice for my main; beans and rice (or, when available, beans and plantains) has become a staple for me here and while it is a little boring and doesn’t make for the most exciting meals, it is tasty and always a super affordable option! ($17, including tip)

9:30-12: met up with Carlos again for the 2nd part of my experience, dancing salsa to a live band. Due to the late hour and early wake up the next day, I opted to skip the second dance club. Spent $1.50 on a bottle of water.

Cienfuegos

A historically fascinating city, founded by the French, making it the only (I think?) city in Cuba that actually has a grid and had urban planning, but whose birth is is totally intertwined with slavery. This city couldn’t be more different than Havana in just about every way. Wow. So few people it felt almost deserted. Walking around midday during the week (at height of tourist season too) and so quiet. Definitely the place to visit if you want a more tranquil (and cleaner!) Cuban city experience. Buildings in general are less impressive (in terms of size and height, though some very impressive French buildings remain), though in general everything seems to be in much better condition than the majority of buildings in Havana. One day is more than enough to explore the city. With more time, use it to explore lots of nature nearby, or move onto Trinidad or Viñales. In hindsight, I would have preferred another day in Havana, because there’s just so much more to do, see, and explore. That said, the local economy here definitely needs tourists! I was told that cruise ships used to dock twice a week, but ever since the change in US policy stopped that, it has really been struggling.

21/1/2020

7:30-8:15: coffee at home, final chat and said goodbye to Yanela.

8:15-11:45: Early start to the day in a colectivo, shared taxi. Makes for a shorter ride than taking the bus, and not that much more expensive. My Airbnb hosts helped make arrangements for me. My driver was Fermin, very friendly guy with his own private cab business. Though his is a somewhat bittersweet, albeit typical, story. Fermin is an engineer by training and profession, and prefers his career as an engineer to driving a taxi. But he told me that due to low professional salaries, about 2 years ago he started his taxi business. My cost for the trip to Cienfuegos (door to door service) was $35. There are buses that operate on the same route for $12, but tickets do sell out in advance (a couple in the colectivo tried buying bus tickets the day before but they were all sold out). Also, the buses take longer, so if you have a short trip and want to maximize your time in various destinations (vs. in transit), it’s worth paying the extra for a colectivo. The drive itself was lovely, lush and green, passing by many farms with cattle and sugar cane.

11:45-12:15: arrived at Hostal Cuba Linda for checkin and met Norma, the owner. Met her husband Luis later in the day.

12:15-13:20: walked Cienfuegos’ famous Paseo Del Prado down to Ache Paladar for lunch [Ave 38 (entre 41-43)], recommended to me by Norma. Absolutely gorgeous restaurant and patio with ample outdoor seating; inside almost completely opens so even indoor seating feels outside. A bit pricier for lunch, but the menu looked fantastic (several interesting and yummy looking veg options!) and I was starving so decided to just enjoy myself. The fresh papaya juice ($1.50 for a pretty small glass) was nice. I also ordered a plate of garbanzo beans and veggies ($8); the menu said fried but it was more stewed and really tasty. Also, portion size doesn’t change but they drop the price from listed menu price because that’s for 2 people. No, that math doesn’t make sense but ok. ($12 total with tip)

When leaving the restaurant, the owner of the restaurant next-door, Obatu (I I’m not sure how to spell that), started chatting with me. Always opportunities for conversation here in Cuba.

13:30-15:15: walked down Avenida 54, the main pedestrian street in downtown Cienfuegos, also home to many historical buildings, to the city’s main plaza (Jose Marti). I spent some time walking through the art gallery (on Ave. 54, between Calles 35&37); it’s free to enter and the quantity of art displayed is small, so it’s a quick visit. Mind lasted a bit longer because I met with the gallery director, as well as the artist of most of the works currently on display. I learned that the gallery is owned by the state, but the director is responsible for sourcing the art, and he said artists and exhibits rotate/change monthly. And for non-USAers, all art on display is for sale. (And the director speaks English.) Across the street from restaurant La Verja is an alley and courtyard with displays from local artists. There were a few artist that caught my attention, and crafted some beautiful jewelry, but the majority of woodwork and jewelry looked to be mass produced to me; many of the local markets I visited in Havana felt much more often. One thing I loved was that all along Ave. 54 (and even some pedestrian side streets) are city signs with photos and historical information showing you key buildings you will view when walking (all information in Spanish). Parque Central Jose Martí was a beautiful, open, relaxing square with no shortage of seating, and lots of impressive and historically significant buildings all around. You can also find groups of local men congregating and playing dominoes. Walked into the art studio of a local, and famous in and outside Cuba, artist, Irving Torres. I was looking at paintings when I noticed another customer having trouble communicating with the employee, so I offered to help. Spent the next 30 minutes assisting with the purchase of a piece of art, and when the artist arrive to sign painting, had the chance to meet and speak with him, and as a thank you for my help, he gifted me one of his artworks, a small painting of the Cuban flag. The art is beautiful and unique, I highly recommend a visit! (Studio currently located next to the Teatro Tomas Terry, but the space it is housed in is for sale, so you may want to Google in advance of your visit to see if he’s still in the same space.) At the west end of the square are two more art galleries, one a more traditional gallery, and the other, Mirarte, a studio and workshop. after leaving I walked past another café, and met one of the employees, Alejandro, and we talked for quite a while about tourism and traveling in the city and around Cuba.

15:30-16:30: back to Casa, nap, and chat with family (met Luis, Norma’s husband). Learning that they haven’t had much experience with American guests because some of the advice they provided (such as, buying water in any store or market I find, all of which are State owned) was not particularly helpful.

16:30-18: walked around pier area and down to Malecón. But before I arrived there I met Harold, a souvenir vendor on one pedestrian street, who had previously worked in tourism during boom. Then discovered my favorite place in Cienfuegos: Mon Petit Cafe. Located on the main Avenue 37 (Paseo Del Prado) at 42nd Avenue, this privately owned cafe is AMAZING! Nothing costs more than $1.50, and most drinks, including coffee drinks with alcohol and even an affogato, will only cost you $1! Great quality too! (I had an espresso + rum and paid $1.50, which included a 50% tip.) While here I met an amazing group of local musicians, including a cooling player, a drummer, and a rock singer currently recording his first CD in a studio. Highly recommend!!

18-19:Strolled down to, and around, Punta Gorda.

19-20: Snacks (dinner, part 1) and drinks at Grill Punta Gorda. Somewhat limited in terms of creativity for veg, but upside is they do at least offer several veg options AND super cheap prices! Some of the cheapest I’ve found in a non-State restaurant. Mojito ($3), fried taro root app ($1.50), bottled water ($0.60). To compare, my own Casa charges $1.00 for a bottle of water. (Because of that, I bought 2 extra bottles to take with me.) Food came super fast and WOW! Majorly impressed, far exceeded my expectations. My fried raro root looked like little hush puppies and was not heavy at all (amazing feat for fried food), quite light and fluffy inside, and served with a sweet sauce. I liked it so much I decided to order another app (blue cheese, $2.50, which was like little bruschettas with blue cheese, yum!)- also because the mojito is STRONG! Cubans are not concerned with measuring pours, pretty sure every ounce in the glass that isn’t filled by fresh mint (btw: they never muddle the mint and lime here), a few pieces of lime, and a handful of ice cubes, is pure rum. Great service as well. My server, Yoismel, was attentive but not overbearing or pushy, and super friendly. Total bill for drink, 2 super tasty apps, and 3 bottles of water: $10 including tip.

20:15-21: dinner, part 2, at Villa Maria (private hostal and restaurant). Ordered black bean purée ($2) and vegetable soup ($2.50). Didn’t realize until they arrived that meant I ordered black bean soup + veg soup, haha. Both tasty though! (Menu had a few other veg options too, though specialty is seafood.) My server/bartender all in one, Ismea (Cubans have the most creative, interesting, and impossible to spell names of any LatAm country!), was awesome. Spent $6 with tip.

21:30-1:30: night on the town with Harold. Learned about his studies and government required service work, and current sales job plus tourism work. We also compared the Cuban and American medical/health care systems, and talked governments, and influence of American popular culture (in summary: Cubans grew up with USA TV shows and movies, and many, especially the younger generations, love the USA because of this). We had milkshakes at Buena Pipa (his treat, though this is a paladar so I highly recommend! The milkshake, which was more of a chocolate-peanut frappe, was crazy good, and the place has a full bar too), then went to dance salsa near Jose Martí Park to a live salsa band. Free music and live bands nightly in the alley/space next to Teatro Tomas.

22/1/2020

11-12:30: coffee and chatting with Norma, owner of the Casa. House built in ~1930s, but was in ruins when she and her husband purchased ~20 years ago. Very rare: they did not family family abroad who sent money for purchase or renovation. They owned a small house previously, and had tourists renting rooms, and over years of saving money from that, had enough to buy their current home. But used 100% of savings for purchase; took another 2 years to renovate, and then more time before they again saved enough to furnish. Art collection started thanks to a friend/painter in France, who gifted a large painting when they finished renovating (knowing they had lots of wall space but no $ to buy anything to fill the space). They have since been able to purchase a 2nd home, that they also rent out, and they live off income from these properties. Also unique to many Cubans: they have traveled to the US, Mexico, and through 4+ European countries.

12:30-13: enjoyed sunshine in Jose Martí Park (also, the closest WiFi hotspot near to my Casa), and observing local families enjoying a reprieve to the cold and gray temperatures of the prior day.

13:15-14:15: lunch at Las Mamparas. Super affordable and substantial veg options! I ordered the veggie paella ($4) and a mango juice ($0.80). The paella was MASSIVE and super tasty! (Definitely a dish to order if you’re really hungry, or a great split for 2 people.) There’s actually a very strong tradition of paella in this country, thanks to a female chef in the 1940s who introduced Cienfuegos to the famous Spanish dish, sparking its popularity around Cuba. The restaurant itself has been open for 10 years, and the walls are filled with photos of the owners and famous Cubans who have dined there. (Spent $7, including tip)

14:15-15: walking through downtown Cienfuegos looking for street dogs to feed. Major problem of very thin dogs and cats in the streets all over this country, and I’ve yet to see one dog (including house pets) fixed. I have not witnessed any maltreatment towards these animals, although many are very skittish even when you want to give them food, which tells me they have learned that they need to be cautious around people.

15:15-16:15: at the north end of the Malecón, just across the street, is the paladar El Ocaso. The food menu is very heavy on seafood and meat, with super limited veg options. But the terrace offers a stunning view and all cocktails cost $4, and are served with a complimentary plate of banana chips. My bartender, Yessica, is 22 and has been working in restaurants since she graduated HS. When I arrived there was 1 other customer, but for the majority of my time there I was the only customer. Yessica told me she’s been working at Ocaso for 7 months and business has been slow much of that time. Stopping the cruise ships has really had a profound and negative impact on the people here. I ended up ordering a 2nd drink and staying extra time simply because business was so slow and I felt bad for her. We talked about the difficulty (impossibility) of most Cubans to travel abroad at all, much less do anything remotely similar to what I’m doing. We also talked a bit about politics, and she was not the first to ask me about Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate. Yessica told me she has always worked in private restaurants, because the salary is much higher. Here she earns $5/day (for a 12 hour work day), and a typical schedule is to work a long week (5 days) then a short week (4 days), or at least 15 days/month. But in State restaurants, the pay is only 450pesos (= $17)/month! Let that sink in. And then please be sure to tip well when in Cuba, every chance you get. Because your tip could literally double someone’s daily salary. I ended up spending $14 for 2 drinks and tip, which effectively doubled her daily salary. Money has power to help and do so much good, and it doesn’t always take a monumental quantity to have a measurable impact.

16:15-16:45: stopped back into my favorite cafe, Mon Petit, for a cappuccino (25pesos = $1, plus another $0.50 for tip). The owner’s family was hanging out too, watching fútbol on the TV and his son (around 2-3yo) playing a game on a cell phone.

16:45-17:45: another walk along Paseo Del Prado to Jose Martí Park. Spent a lot of time watching 2 Cuban kids play ball with 2 European kids, no language in common, but they all had so much fun. And the older (~6ish) Cuban boy went out of his way to make sure the youngest (~2yo) European boy was included in the game, and was even picking him up to carry him and cheering loudly whenever he threw the ball. Love is actually all around, all the time, if you’re looking for it.

20-21:30: dinner at Casa Prado. I decided I needed a break from beans and rice, so I’m having a salad and cheese pizza (+ pineapple) and a daiquiri (the daiquiri was nowhere near as good as the ones I drank at La Floridita in Havana, not even close). Probably the strangest food combination I’ve ever ordered. Oh, and the menu lists “Chinese butterflies with sweet sauce” as an appetizer. It’s a literal translation, but no, they are not serving butterflies; it’s wontons and I have no idea who in the restaurant decided on that name when creating the menu option. I had yet to have any dessert in Cuba (other than ice cream, a treat from Carlos in Havana), so ordered house-made flan. Wonderful service and great prices, but neither the drink nor food was terribly exciting, with perhaps the exception of the flan. Not the best one I’ve ver had, but it was unique and tasty (it actually reminded me more of bread pudding than flan, in terms of density and flavor), and thankfully was the first small portion size I encountered in Cuba. And at $0.75, hard to beat! Total spent: $10, including tip.

21:30-22: walked around (again) with leftovers feeding street dogs.

Trinidad/Playa la Boca

I LOVED this city and am soooo sad I only gave myself 1 day here, because the city deserved so much more. Wishing I had spent just 1 day in Cienfuegos and 2 here! Trinidad is even older than Havana, something one of my taxi drivers proudly told me. I learned that the City and its buildings were preserved and not more modern (at least , in the UNESCO recognized city center) was because the city’s economy dropped significantly in the 1800s when Cienfuegos was developed and became the principal port city in this part of the country. Because Trinidad ran out of money to develop back then, we all get to enjoy its historic beauty today. It is absolutely beautiful, so colorful; by far the most beautiful city I have seen in Cuba! Interestingly, there was a lot about the city that reminded me of New Orleans, in so many ways. Geographically, it’s located just minutes from beaches, as well as the mountains, so lots of nature to explore if you have more time. And I saw so much art in galleries and shops that I wanted to buy. Definitely the best place for shopping (tons of other types of souvenirs and locally made artesanal crafts and clothes too). Unfortunately, because my time was so limited, everything I saw was during a tour of the city, so I didn’t have time to do any shopping. 100% I will return to Trinidad to stay longer.

I actually stayed in a small village located ~10 minutes by taxi from Trinidad- Playa La Boca (literal translation: The Mouth Beach, likely named so because the village is at the mouth of the river and ocean). It is a small village (super small, you can walk the entirety of the length of the village in about 10 minutes), full of exceedingly friendly people who will stop you in the street to chat. I loved that about La Boca! Only downside: you’ll pay a minimum of $5 in a taxi each way to/from Trinidad (I paid $6 to and from), so that cost adds to daily expenses. Also, for USAers, because we need to have days full of activities that comply with our category of travel, you will be traveling outside of La Boca daily, so while I loved my Casa Particular and this little beach town, I think one night is about all I could justify there (and I will most likely stay in Trinidad for a future trip).

23/1/2020

7:30-9:30: final coffee and morning with the family at the Casa in Cienfuegos.

9:30-11: travel to Trinidad in another colectivo (paid $15). It’s less than 80km but between pickups of other passengers and a stop to wait for more, plus the fact that I was staying an extra 10-15 minutes outside of Trinidad, the entire trip was 1.5 hours. My driver was young, very friendly. I asked his name, but it was another very creative, a typical Cuban name, and I couldn’t understand well enough to begin a guess at how to spell. He told me he has been driving for 6 years (and then said something about 11 years, I think he may be meant officially for 6 but unofficially for 11). It’s a gorgeous drive past lush, green scenery and mountains most of the way. As you get close to Trinidad, you’re driving along the coast and pass lots of small beach towns.

11-1:30: walking through and getting to know Playa la Boca. While walking down the Main Street, I met Adolofo, one of the friendliest Cubans I’ve met to date. He’s probably in his 60s, and most of his family life in the US (in Tampa and TN). We talked about differences in politics and healthcare systems, the environment, things in common and differences, and that there are things better and worse about both countries. It was a wonderful chat and the kind of thing that only happens (to this degree) in small towns, and made me so glad I decided to stay here instead of in the City. I also spent 30 minutes soaking up beach and sunshine, since all my prior days in the country have been mostly gray and quite chilly (to downright cold in most evenings). (Americans: any beach time definitely does NOT count as a cultural activity in Support of the Cuban People, so if you too want beach time during your trip, keep it short and make sure you have a full day of other activities to still get in your 8+ hours.)

13:30-14:45: lunch at my Casa. Osliani (100% phonetic spelling), who greeted me on arrival and helped with my luggage, had changed from his jeans and hoodie into very formal restaurant uniform and was my server for lunch. That is one thing I love about the family run Casas, you get to know everyone, and everyone has many roles in keeping the place running. Osliani told me his family has operated this Hostal for 10-15 years; when they bought the property it was a much smaller house, so they renovated to its current size. For $20 (I went big on this one, and it was also my one non-veg meal) I got: bread, crackers, butter, sparkling water, vegetable soup, vegetable salad (first time I had seen beets in Cuba), fruit salad, rice, dessert (you can stop there for $10), and lobster! And holy cow!!! It was HUGE (honestly cannot imagine what a tail this size would cost in the US) and soooo good! I’m actually not a massive fan of lobster, I usually find it overrated and the fact that it’s served in the US with a vat of butter to dip in is hard for me to justify. But this was so worth it, SO worth it! And glad I waited until I arrived here to eat it, because this is definitely bigger than anything I had seen served elsewhere on the island. Yes, you can get lobster all over Cuba, price typically ranges from $13+, but always SUPER cheap compared to prices in the US. Also, seafood sourced from local fisherman so you’re supporting the local economy (AND not contributing to oceanic damage or slave labor, both thanks to practices of large, commercial fishing companies). My Casa also offers guests a welcome drink, so I had that (mojito) with my lunch too. The lobster was so big in fact, I could only eat half in one sitting; the other half, plus rice, plus my homemade taro root chips, fruit salad, and dessert, were saved for dinner. Best value and meal I had in Cuba, hands down.

15:20-15:30: private taxi to Trinidad ($6). My driver also has a business renting rooms in his house, which I learned is illegal here in Cuba, because the only type of permissible rent is short-term to tourists, but people are creative, innovative, and desperate to make ends meet, so they do what they can.

15:30-19: Discover Trinidad with Journalists (Airbnb Experience $20). Incredible activity that combined a walk through the historic city center (and a nearby area where the poor or freed slaves used to live), with information about the city’s history, founding, key figures, architecture, and religion. We walked through 2 different museums, as well as numerous former private homes (that have since been converted into businesses), and I learned a ton about the city. My guide, Ysabel, even spent an extra hour with me, because we were deep in conversation about everything from how things are changing with her generation (and their expectations, but also tension with government controls), the economic situation here, environmental issues, and what it’s like to be a journalist in Cuba.

19-21:30: Taste and Make Best Mojito in Trinidad (Airbnb Experience $12). Yes, I worked for years as a bartender and know how to make a mojito. But I love activities in someone‘s home, and had yet to do one in Cuba. And this one was extremely reasonably priced, as it included two drinks, and enough “snacks“ to make an entire meal. and just as I had hoped, the experience was less about making the drinks, and more incredible conversation that lasted two hours, really focused on Cuban life and the difficulties people have under current salaries. For example, doctors earn the high end of Cuban pay scale, at around 80CUC ($80)/month. Which is why so many are either leaving the country to practice medicine in other countries, or are giving up professional careers for jobs in tourism, which pay a lot more. We also spent a lot of time talking about climate change environmental challenges in Cuba. Fascinating conversation!

21:30-21:45: return trip to La Boca ($6). My taxi driver was 29, has 7 siblings (he is the youngest), and told me although he’s an engineer by degree/training, he’s been working as a taxi driver for 2-3 years because he couldn’t afford to live as a engineer (he was making around 15CUC/month).

Back to Havana (Vedado Stay)

24/1/2020

7:30-8:30: final coffee and conversations with the family owners/operators of my Casa in La Boca. Finally had a chance to meet Elpido, the son, who runs the Airbnb account. He actually lives and works in Italy, but spends winters back in Cuba because his hotel (at the beach) is closed during winter. He told me that it was because of his job abroad that the family was able to buy the house and renovate it to create the business. At checkout, paid an additional $25 ($20 for my lunch yesterday, $2 for a Pelligrino, $1 for coffee, and $2 for my laundry).

8:30-1: drive from La Boca/Trinidad back to Havana ($35). Had a long and rather profound discussion with my driver, Javier, who has been working as a taxi driver for years. He actually lives in Cienfuegos but his daily route is Trinidad-Havana, so he told me he wakes up at 6am daily, drives to Trinidad (with his car and no stops, it’s closer to a 45 minute drive), then takes tourists from Trinidad to Havana, and midday turns around and returns to Trinidad with another carload, before finally driving home at night. He told me he drives 750km/day. I learned about the crazy expensive cost of cars in Cuba; the 1992 Peugeot he is driving (he rents from a friend) would cost about 45,000CUC ($45,000) to buy!!! And an old (definitely 1990s) Dodge Charger van we passed would be $70k-$80k! (Keep in mind, average monthly salary is $35.) One couple in the car was heading to Viñales so near to Havana they switched taxis and got into a new Peugeot van; Javier told me it cost $150,000. And that the owner has another van, a Ford, that cost $190,000. Also keep in mind, all transactions here are in cash. I legitimately have NO idea how people can possibly earn and save that much money here. We also talked healthcare, and due to the limited amount of medicine imported to Cuba and shortage of medicine in Cuba, people will wait in line for days (literally) prior to when a shipment of medicine will arrive so they can buy from the pharmacy before it sells out. This includes insulin, heart medications, and others necessary for someone’s survival.

1-1:45: arrive at Casa and coffee and chat with owner, Eludis, and met her son (20yo, NAME?). We talked a lot about challenges facing Cuba right now, especially salaries and the younger generation. Eludis told me she used to work as a nurse, with starting pay at $10/month, and never made more than $20/month. She also confirmed that the best/highest paid doctors (surgeons, specialists, etc) only make $80/month.

1:45-2:15: walking around Vedado and taking pictures of all the former mansions that have been converted (post-Revolution) into multi-family homes, museums, or businesses (some State, some private).

2:15-3:15: lunch at Cafe Esquina. I had a frozen mint lemonade (delish!) and the biggest salad I’ve ever been served at a restaurant. And as a complimentary starter, housemade pita(ish) chips. Given the lack of truly healthy meals I’ve eaten since arriving, I figured salad was a great choice over pizza or pasta. I passed by this cafe one of my first days in Havana and it looked amazing, so I was thrilled to have an opportunity to return and eat here. Awesome service too! (And incredible that they have an entirely vegan menu!)

3:15-4:15: found a WiFi hotspot to spend some time online

4:15-5:15: more time walking around Vedado and talking a bit to locals in the neighborhood. Stopped into PaseArte, a local art gallery with paintings and various crafts.

5:15-7:15: returned to the Casa and met Perfecto, Eludis’ husband, and their daughter, Katy. Lots of chatting, wonderful family!

7:30-12am: Fabrica del Arte Cubano (Airbnb Experience $30, paid another $7.50 while inside for a veggie sandwich and mojito). Met two incredible local women, Zuyin (a PT) and Carolina (a psychologist), who gave me a wonderful tour of this incredible converted space. (Amazing brownfield project!!) A former factory for olive oil has been converted into an incredible art space showcasing paintings, photography, 3D art, fashion and jewelry, design/architecture, and tons of spaces with dancing, workshops, live music, DJs, and no shortage of bars and places to grab tapas or a full meal. All around incredible! I learned so much from them about the space and even importance of certain Cuban artists and musicians, and more about their religion. Fascinating night, and an amazing way to spend my last evening in Havana.

25/1/2020

9-12: coffee and hanging out with the family, watching fútbol (Valencia vs FC Barcelona), and talking Cuba’s situation (politically and more) and climate change- because it’s dry season but was pouring all morning, which I was told never used to happen.

12-14:20: walked around Vedado looking for a place to change money, and discovered how difficult “simple” tasks can be, especially when staying outside of the Old Havana/tourist area. I walked MILES and only found 1 bank open on a Saturday, and it had a huge and very slow moving line with locals, so I decided to go to a Cadeca (money change house) and they were all either closed, couldn’t change MXN, or also had a massive line that was also moving too slowly for me to wait (as clock was ticking for my taxi to the airport). I actually regretted taking Perfecto’s advice, to first change $ in the neighborhood and then see if I had time for Old Havana, because had I gone directly there, it would have been much easier to find a place to change money (tourist infrastructure much better developed, more options for things like changing money), and I would’ve been able to buy the jewelry I foolishly was waiting to buy until I got back to Havana.

14:20-14:55: stopped into a paladar very close to my Casa, La Isla de la Pasta. Mauricio, who works the door (all private restaurants in Cuba have someone working outside, whose job is to try and entice those passing by to stop in for dinner), is super nice and was really helpful the night before when I was short on time and trying to find a close place nearby to eat before going to FAC (I eventually just gave up and ate there). So I decided to return and try the food. But just like last night, I first went to Wapa (another paladar that serves all day breakfast with super reasonable prices!!), but that place is ALWAYS packed. And just like last night, I finally realized I had to give up on eating there if I wanted time to eat at all before heading to the airport. But the time waiting at Wapa cut into what little time I had to eat. So Pasta Island and Mauricio won, and I ordered both a pizza margharita ($2.50) and an eggplant and cheese sandwich (also $2.50) to go. The housemade pasta sounded way better but I figured it was better to get something that should be quick to make, and then order both to go just in case the food took longer than I expected (at worst, I could eat on my way to, or inside, the airport). Ultimately, that was the right decision because the food took longer here than anywhere else I ate in Cuba (I do believe it was because everything truly is cooked to order, which is great). They also charged $0.50 for the pizza box and another $0.80 for the sandwich box, so my total came to $6.30, not bad for what should be enough food for lunch and dinner! A very strange last meal in Cuba, but rushed for time and the only other close, Cuban places are State restaurants.

15-15:30: Perfecto organized my taxi ride back to the airport. My driver, who has been working as a taxi driver for 3 years, told me his job requires him to work 7 days/week, often 12+ hour days. He told me he gets to rest when his car breaks down and has to be repaired. Cost $25.

Cuba has been an interesting, eye-opening, and overall very positive trip. Because US laws don’t allow for any real downtime or just days to relax, you have to be ON all the time, constantly on the move, doing things, and engaging with people/learning. So it’s perhaps not the ideal vacation spot if you are desperate for R&R. But if you want to explore, if you’re curious and want to meet wonderful people and truly learn about another (and in many ways, very different) culture and way of life, Cuba is a great destination!

What I learned from my conversations with Cubans (using pronoun “he” but doesn’t necessarily mean the speaker was a man).

I learned a lot, most of which is above. But to avoid too many political conversations and details being attributed to any one person, just a couple additional notes here. Really beginning to understand what a positive impact US tourism had on the economy here. One person (in toursim) told me for ~2 years he was constantly busy, constantly had customers. And how changes under Trump are genuinely hitting the Cuban people hard. Younger Cubans seem to be able to separate politics from the American population, while the older generations still struggle with this a bit more (especially given rhetoric of our current President). And all Cubans, even those with family living in the US (most of who reside in Miami), recognize that Cuban-Americans in Miami are responsible for a lot of the Republican attitude towards Cuba, which they view as strongly anti-Cuba.

My take-away: you can love or hate President Obama, but his decision to open trade and tourism with Cuba radically transformed the way Cuban people viewed the USA. People stopped thinking of the US as “the enemy” (literally how school textbooks refer to the US), which absolutely terrified the Cuban government. People began to legitimately prosper, and it set in motion this inertia where Cuban people want more private-market opportunities because they want a better life. Unfortunately, the changes Trump has made to tourism and his rhetoric, are having a significant and measureable impact on the Cuban people. The Cuban government, on the other hand, is thrilled because they are far less scared of Trump than they were of Obama (because they no longer worry about the US having such a positive and significant influence on their citizens). To say it another way: if you really want to create the perfect storm where a people rise up against their own government because they truly understand there is another way, and they want a different life, well, you change hearts and minds just as Obama did by the “simple” act of reopening economic relationships for the first time in 50 years. Fascinating.

Aside from politics, I learned that so many things in Cuba are insanely cost prohibitive. For example, if you want to buy a car… an early 1990s Peugeot with over 200,000km (and in very used, beat up condition) will cost you $40,000-$45,000. That’s right, re-read that. No typo. A used Dodge Charger van with approximately same mileage from same period will run $70,000-$80,000. And a new, large, Ford passenger van… that can set you back $180,000!!!! Now, with salaries averaging $35/month, who in Cuba can afford to spend this kind of money (keep in mind, you have to buy all with cash)?! I’m going to leave you with that thought to speculate on.

 

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6 thoughts on “Cuba, A Trip Like No Other (& Why Americans Can and Should Go!)

  1. Excellent and very informative!

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    1. Glad you enjoyed! Thanks for taking the time to read!

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  2. What about applying for a 2nd passport to use in this circumstance? I’ve read that US citizens can do that if traveling in countries that don’t like other visa stamps in a passport.

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    1. My concern is with the US government and additional questions and delays every time I go/return abroad, so no avoiding that. Also, I have never heard of anyone being allowed to have two valid passports at the same time, unless one is a diplomatic passport.

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      1. I love learning new things! Thanks! This still doesn’t help with travel to Cuba (since issue is how US customs will react every time they process your passport) but awesome for people who regularly travel to, for example, Muslim countries but also want to go to Israel. Or the Taiwan-China issue. Thanks Mike!

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