Cuba

The U.S. government is desperately trying to discourage Americans from visiting Cuba. Cruise ships are prohibited from stopping in Cuba, tourists are no longer allowed to travel under the convenient People-to-People category, and the exchange rate for USD to CUC is hit with an extra 10%. But I’m begging you: Don’t let these deter you, because if you do, you’ll be missing out on one of the most vibrant countries we’ve ever visited, filled with some of the most well-informed, welcoming people I’ve ever met.

Anthony and I were nervous about visiting Cuba for obvious reasons. We knew we had to bring all the cash we’d need for the entire trip since American credit cards don’t work in Cuba. Also, we were traveling under the Support for the Cuban People category, which requires a “full-time schedule of activities that support the Cuban people” that we must document and retain for five years. We tend to travel this way anyway, staying at Airbnbs, eating at local restaurants, and filling our days with cultural activities — but still. It was a bit exhausting just feeling like we’d have to justify what we were doing.

Guess what? That law is complete bullshit because absolutely no one questioned us about Cuba.

In fact, for the most part, Cuba was a breeze. I booked our casa particular (private homestay) and majority of our activities through Airbnb. We stayed in a wonderful casa particular in Old Havana, where most tourists stay. Our charming room had huge French doors that opened up to a small balcony overlooking a lively street, WiFi (a rarity in Cuba!), and a large shower. We had a hefty breakfast each morning, and our host Laura was the first of many Cubans to openly share how she felt about living here.

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The outside of our casa particular. That bright blue balcony on the right is our room
On no other trip did we get to interact with so many locals, and on no other trip were locals so honest and excited to share their thoughts with us. For our first night, I booked us a Food & Culture Tour with a couple named Maryla and Ricardo. Maryla is a sweet orthodontist and Ricardo is a talkative photographer, both of whom make more money leading these tours than from their actual careers. The tour brought us to three delicious spots in the neighborhood of Vedado, where I drank the best mojito of my life (it’s blended and uses spearmint instead of mint), discovered frituras de malanga (my new favorite dish!), and ended the night at a cute coffee shop. However, the highlight of the tour was discussing the pros and cons of Cuba, why some Cubans leave and why some stay, and what needs to happen for their country to function properly. Only about 25% of Cubans have the ability to leave, either by having family outside or by selling off their whole life to gamble with emigration. Maryla and Ricardo explained that everyone, even the government, relies on the black market. For example, because WiFi is so hard to come by, Cubans created something called “The Package”: 4 terabytes of pirated media for 1 CUC/week. Cubans sometimes get access to movies before Americans do. By the end of the tour, Maryla and Ricardo felt like old friends, and they actually helped us book another tour a few days later with their friend. Everyone in Cuba knows someone who knows someone who could be useful.

After the tour, we took the long way home along Malecón, Havana’s iconic waterfront road that curves along the coast. You can find everyone here, from romantic couples to groups of rowdy teenagers to families, all getting splashed by waves that crash against the rock wall every few minutes.

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Malecon
We took salsa lessons on our second day. A young Afro-Cuban led five of us to a dance studio in Central Havana and taught us a few basic moves. After class we had lunch at Dos Pelotas, where $5 lunch portions were so large that we were able to eat our leftovers for dinner that night. The meal was better and cheaper than any meal you can get in Old Havana. Afterward, our instructor took us to a juice shop that makes incredible coconut batidos (smoothies). Locals bring in their own plastic bottles and have them filled up with a batido. We tried to return a few days later to buy another coconut batido, but apparently they only take CUP, the local currency, unavailable to tourists! I was devastated.

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Salsa lessons
Still in a dance mood, we decided to see a ballet a few hours later. Ballet is huge in Cuba. Ballet Nacional de Cuba is the largest ballet school in the world, and I remember when my ballet company in Hawaii used to fly in Cubans to dance with us during our summer intensive programs. They put us all to shame. Coincidentally, there was a performance that very night, costing only $30 (and even less for locals). Seats seemed to be assigned randomly, but fortunately we ended up with prime orchestra seats. It was the first time Anthony actually enjoyed a ballet I had dragged him to!

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Ballet Nacional de Cuba
The next day, we were picked up in a teal ‘57 Chevy and driven 45-minutes away to San Antonio de Los Baños, where we learned how to cook typical Cuban food in our host’s home. Also in attendance was another couple who were professors from Toronto, though one of them is originally from South Africa, and his partner is from Nevada. Our host, Alejandro, taught us how to make Cuban-style pork tamales, which are boiled instead of steamed and are much wetter than Mexican tamales. We also learned to make tostones (fried smashed plantains), frituras de malanga (fried shredded taro root), and a fruit salad. During a break, Alejandro made us tinto de verano with crushed pineapple. We then packed up everything into his car and drove a few minutes to the Ariguanabo River to have a picnic. Alejandro made us some mojitos as we savored our meal. After lunch, we took rowboats out and felt like we had the whole river to ourselves. Cuba Libres were waiting for us back at the dock. Obviously, this was my favorite day of the entire trip.

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Our car matched our tour guide’s house!
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¡Hola! ¿Necesitas que te lleven?
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The bright, open-air kitchen
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Tamales
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Rowing down a secluded river
Another guide picked us up the next morning and drove us two hours to touristy but beautiful Viñales. The Valley of Viñales is a karstic depression with dramatic limestone cliffs called mogotes that rise up 300 meters from the bottom of the valley. We saw the Mural of Prehistory, an overhyped mural about evolution painted on a perpendicular slope of one of the elevations.

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Valley of Vinales
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Mural of Prehistory
Eventually, we arrived at the tobacco plantations, where we learned about cigars, rum, and coffee. Cigars are like wine; it’s all about the terroir. Soil, climate, and weather make all the difference, and every cigar maker has their own style and traditions. When the U.S. imposed a trade embargo against Cuba in 1962, many former Cuban cigar manufacturers moved to other countries (primarily the Dominican Republic) to continue production. But any cigar connoisseur can taste the difference — the fertile, iron-rich red soil of this region produces a longer aftertaste and unique flavor.

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His first cigar. Che would approve
Different tobacco leaves are used for different purposes. The top leaves receive the most sunlight, so have the strongest flavor and are used for the body of a cigar. The middle leaves aren’t as good so they’re used to wrap the outside. Meanwhile, the bottom leaves receive very little sunlight and have very little flavor; since these leaves are combustible, they’re perfect for the end, which will be lit. Leaves are dried for several months, then fermented. Handmade cigars have the stem removed, therefore removing all the nicotine and making them non-addictive, while factory cigars leave in half the stem. If you don’t like the taste of the cigar by itself, dip the end in honey. Don’t inhale, just puff, hold, and release.

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Drying tobacco
We then tried Guayabita del Pinar, a rum that is not allowed to be exported, and even tourists can only purchase two bottles max. In this region, there’s a particular tree whose berries are tiny guavas about the size of a blueberry. The rum is infused with this guava, and it’s probably the only rum I’ve enjoyed sipping straight.

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Guayabita del Pinar. Can you see the little guava on the bottom?
We ended the tour with an unpleasant one-hour horse ride (I definitely should not have worn shorts!) and a couple of mojitos before purchasing some cigars to take home. Yes, the U.S. allows Americans to bring back up to $100-worth of cigars from Cuba.

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Camels > horses
On our last full day in Cuba, we took a 3.5-hour walking tour with an economist named Jorge. It was our most informative and interesting tour yet. We met Jorge in my favorite neighborhood of Vedado, where we chatted in a park before catching a public bus into a less touristy neighborhood. He answered every question we had, and answered questions we didn’t even know we had. Here’s a snippet of what we learned:

The average salary in Cuba is $40/month, which no one can live on. Between the 1960s and 1980s, there were ration cards that were enough to supplement the low salaries, providing food and other necessities. People often forget that Cuba had been doing pretty well back then, up until the collapse of the Soviet Union. That changed everything. Now, it’s impossible to live on the salary and ration cards because the ration cards have covered less and less. Pretty much every Cuban has a “surge” (side hustle): Doctors take off work to do house calls, teachers cancel class to do private tutoring, and taxi drivers skip out on their last shift to sell the fuel. Cubans know how to hustle.

Very few people can completely retire because the pension is only $10/month. Unsurprisingly, the suicide rate for old men who cannot work is on the rise. Most retired people do things to supplement their pension, such as selling snacks or mending clothing. We passed by a house at which a retired man was sitting outside, selling roasted peanuts conveniently wrapped in a folded paper cone; Jorge purchased us a couple to snack on.

When Anthony wanted to buy a bottle of water, Jorge took us to a huge state-run mall, and we tried the food court. None of the shops had water! We eventually found it at a new private store a few blocks away. That is the difference between state-run stores and privately-owned stores. Jorge explained that when stores claim a product is “out of season”, Cubans just ask around because someone will know someone who has what you need, and this is where the “surge” comes in again. When Jorge needed a new mattress, none of the stores had it, so he asked around and eventually someone found one for him. Jorge ended up paying more than he would have at the store, but the mattress was delivered straight to him and, mostly importantly, it was available.

The crumbling buildings that tourists find so charming about Havana are dangerous and have collapsed onto children recently, killing them. However, the government can’t do anything about these buildings since they’re private property usually passed down through generations; meanwhile, homeowners can’t maintain them since their salaries are so low.

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A typical building in Havana
President Obama brought huge changes to Cuba. He was the first president to ever visit Cuba, and when Cubans saw him being a decent human being, treating his wife with love and respect, and eating at local restaurants, for the first time Cubans couldn’t blame America for all their problems, which is what their government had taught them to do. With American tourists swarming into Cuba thanks to the ease of Airbnb and direct flights, Cubans were able to interact with real Americans and learned to hold their own government accountable. This forced their government to improve!

Unfortunately, Trump brought back the embargo against Cuba and increased sanctions, making it easier for the Cuban government to revert back to blaming America for the economy’s shortcomings. The embargo, which prevents American businesses from conducting trade with Cuba is the most enduring trade embargo in modern history. The U.S. has also threatened other countries if they conduct non-food trade with Cuba, which affects the fuel that they depend on from Venezuela. The embargo is cruel and illogical, serving only to undo anything that Obama previously did.

Our tour ended at Jorge’s abuela-in-law’s home, where she made us snacks and offered her opinions. She lived through the Cuban revolution and remembers everyone being excited about it, but she is not a supporter. “Batista never took anything from us. Castro took everything from everyone.” Because she was privileged and lived in Havana, her parents had jobs and owned a second house that they would rent out. After the revolution, the government took that house away and gave it to people who needed a place to live. Jorge clarified that hers is one perspective. His own family is from the countryside where everyone adores Castro because their lives improved after the Revolution. Before the Revolution, no one in the countryside had doctors, hospitals, enough schools, or utilities. Castro gave them all of that. In the countryside, the revolution is revered, while in the city, it’s much more mixed.

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With Jorge and his Batista-supporting abeula-in-law
The amount of information we learned from Jorge was overwhelming. If you want to visit Cuba to actually learn about Cuba, you must do this tour. In fact, all of our tours felt pretty necessary. Sure, Cuba has gorgeous beaches and photogenic architecture, but what makes Cuba so unique — why Cuba is the only place in the Caribbean that we’ve ever had an interest in visiting — is its people. Every single person we met was way more aware of their circumstances than the majority of Americans are of theirs. Cubans are extremely educated, honest, open, and appreciative that we came to visit, despite our country’s blatant discouragement. So, ve a Cuba!

Tips for future travelers:

Download the maps.me app (and its Havana map) before you leave the U.S. It works offline and is a lot better than Google Maps.

The only really difficult thing about visiting Cuba is that credit cards and ATMs don’t work for Americans. So, you need to bring all the cash you’ll use for your entire trip. If you have any other currency besides USD (we lucked out and found some Euros in my wallet), you’ll get a much better exchange rate. There are currency exchanges at the airport, and I recommend you just exchange all of it there so you don’t have to waste any time standing in line at currency exchanges during your trip.

If you do need to exchange more money, we had more luck at cadecas (currency exchanges) than at banks, which have very limited hours. There are cadecas in every neighborhood, and while they may open a few minutes later than the sign says, the hours are still more generous than banks.

Don’t forget to bring your passport when you exchange money! Count the bills in front of the cashier before handing them your money (just like you should in any country). You should get 87 CUC for every 100 USD, since there is a 3% exchange fee plus a 10% US fee (fuck you, Trump).

U.S. citizens need to purchase a Tourist Card before arriving in Cuba. Sometimes the airline takes care of this (I think JetBlue includes it in their fee?), but if you’re like us, you can just purchase it at your departure airport, either at the check-in desk or the boarding gate. Since we had a layover in Panama, we purchased our Tourist Cards for $20 each, right before boarding the plane from Panama City to Havana. Easy!

Foreign health insurance doesn’t work in Cuba, and depending on who’s working at customs when you arrive, you may or may not be forced to purchase Cuban health insurance there. It’s not a big deal. We were directed to a booth where we purchased health insurance for a few dollars a day (they take USD). You’ll get a little packet of paperwork, and you should carry this around with you at all times.

Coordinate the airport pickup with your Airbnb. Just like at a lot of airports, there will be a swarm of taxi drivers trying to get your attention as soon as you exit. Avoid the chaos by having your Airbnb hire someone who is familiar with your destination.

While we loved our Airbnb in Old Havana, I would have preferred to stay in Vedado, which is slightly less touristy, has better restaurants, and would have been more convenient for all our tours. We ended up walking about 40 minutes almost every day to start a tour in Vedado.

Drink lots of coffee! Cuban coffee is as good as Italian coffee, so it’s no surprise that Cubans drink it like Italians (standing up at a bar, and often).

One of our favorite activities was just people-watching at our neighborhood park. We bought churros from a churro cart and laughed at the silly children running around.

Tip everyone, from your tour guides to your taxi drivers. We tipped our all-day tour guides between 5 and 10 CUC per person.

It’s always hot in Cuba, and basically anything goes when it comes to what to wear. Bring sneakers if you’re going to walk a lot because the streets aren’t always flat. I alternated between a tank top and shorts and summer dresses.

If you’re interested in Cuban history, check out the Museo de la Revolucion, which is a former presidential palace and houses a pretty impressive exhibit, as well as Fidel’s jacket and Che’s hat!

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This station wagon was Fidel’s. Check out all the bulletholes!
El Floridita, one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bars, is touristy, but you can’t not come here at least once. The frozen daiquiris are actually quite good and surprisingly affordable. Get there before they open because the crowd streams in as soon as it does.

If you’re looking for a cheap local spot, we loved Donde Adrian, which we discovered through our salsa instructor. Portions are huge, and the total cost for both of our tasty meals was $5. In fact, half our dinners were just leftovers because our lunches were so large. You can eat really well in Cuba if you go to the local spots, just be aware that some of the menu may not be available because grocery stores are often sold out of produce.

If you’re looking for a memorable meal, La Guarida is a must. Every tourist eats here, and it is touristy and expensive by Cuban standards, but the food is phenomenal and the restaurant is gorgeous. La Guarida is one of the first paladars (private restaurants) in the city. It’s easy to pass it on the street, but a stunning marble staircase inside a seemingly vacant lobby leads to a warm, candlelit restaurant upstairs. Request a balcony table and order the rabo del toro with risotto.

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The iconic staircase of La Guarida
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Great way to end our trip!