I apologize in advance for being wordy in this post and writing more than usual but I had a lot to say about my trip to Cuba. When I returned from Havana Cuba a week ago, I honestly needed a couple of days to write down all of my thoughts, process everything I saw and synthesize it all into how I felt about my experience there. Cuba has been on my bucket list for a while now. I probably would’ve gone the illegal way in my early twenties but with every passing year, my rebelliousness wore off. In January, when travel restrictions to Cuba eased up, I knew that I had to go this year. A lot of people have asked me why Cuba and why now? I thought it was obvious but maybe it’s not. Without going into the history between Cuba and the US, it’s basically been closed off to Americans since the early sixties. Because there has been virtually no commerce in Cuba for fifty years, Cuba, Havana in particular looks like it’s stuck in time. So, to answer the question why now? It’s because I wanted to see Havana before it’s flooded by US tourists, before there are Starbucks at every corner, and before it looks like almost every other Caribbean island over built with ocean front resorts.
When I started my research in early March, I was shocked to see that all the Cuba trips operated by US tour groups were sold out until mid-May. I guess Cuba was on a lot of other people’s bucket lists. After careful consideration and talking to every sales rep from every tour operator out there, I chose Intouch Cuba. They were one of two tour groups that offered a weekend trip to Havana. Most of the tour groups go to the same places but Intouch was half the price. Right now, the only legal way for US citizens to be able to travel to Cuba is by going on a people-to-people cultural tour. Traveling in an organized tour is not something that I’m used to and not the way I like to travel. So I went into this experience knowing that I had to be patient, do things that I didn’t necessarily want to do and go to places I wouldn’t have gone to but I rationalized with myself that at least I got to see Havana now before it changed.
The three day tour included round-trip flights from Miami to Havana, hotel, seven meals, a guided tour on a bus with AC, and visa processing. Our guide was Felipe, a sixty something native Cuban who saw Havana before the revolution. I felt really fortunate having him as a guide because he knew everything there was to know about Cuba and he saw everything change first hand. Overall, I think Intouch did a really good job of scheduling the trip and included different cultural activities that would appeal to a group with varied interests. As part of our people-to-people cultural tour, we visited Hemingway’s house, Casa Fuster an art installation, an organic and sustainable farm, afro-cuban musicians, an orphanage, and listened to jazz. It felt odd to me walking around old Havana in a group of 21 people being shuttled around and not being able to go off on my own but for once in my life, it was actually nice (even for a little bit) not having to be “on” and not having to schedule everything and figure out logistics.
A couple of things I learned about the Cubans: They are warm, friendly and curious about American culture. They are also hams. They loved having their photo taken. They are proud of their culture and history which was surprising to me given how much sh*t when down. It was also surprising to me that of the Cubans I met, they kept reiterating that the situation in Cuba was fine when clearly you see it’s not. If someone asked me in one word how would you describe Havana I would say, ruins. The whole city looked like an abandoned city of ruins. You see these gorgeous colonial buildings that are literally crumbling. I met this fun couple from San Francisco and we instantly bonded over our desire to go rogue and veer from the tour. On the 2nd night we went to a jazz club in old Havana sans our tour group. When we walked through the streets of the old town, there were hardly any street lights and this was supposed to be the nicest part of town. On the 3rd night we got drinks at the hotel Nacional where all the celebrities used to go before the revolution and watched the sunset on the Malecón. We rejoined our group to watch the Buena Vista Social Club performance. These two nights without the tour were my favorite moments from the trip. It was being able to see Havana at our own pace with our own lenses.
What I took away from this trip is that even though Cuba is fiscally poor, the culture is very rich. I’ve never been to a country with this much love for jazz, baseball, art, and dance. Because we were on a tour catered to American tourists, we went to the nicest places and restaurants which is great for certain reasons like there being toilet paper in the bathrooms (simple luxury), AC on the bus, and eating good food. I also wanted to see the real Havana. My favorite part of the trip was walking down the streets and seeing the crumbling buildings and talking to the locals about what life is really like. That’s when I learned that most of them want what everyone else wants, opportunities. They want to travel outside of Cuba mostly to see their families that they haven’t seen in decades.
When I heard that our cell phones wouldn’t work in Cuba I freaked. It was however, a blessing in disguise. We actually had meaningful conversations at dinner. Everyone was present and in the moment. Nobody was looking at at their phones and instagramming, not even me. I made a promise to myself that I would try to limit my phone usage and be more present. Like I said, it was three days of visual and information overload. It took me a while to write down my thoughts and I still feel like I’m missing details that I wanted to share. Every time I go to a third world country, I’m reminded of how lucky I am. We take so much for granted. We have opportunity at our finger tips and the freedom to pursue our dreams. Havana is a special place; unlike any other place I’ve ever been to. I hope that with Cuba’s doors opening up to the world, it doesn’t lose it’s cultural richness. I guess only time will tell how much Cuba will change in the coming years. I just feel fortunate enough to have seen it now.
We roll in style
Casa Fuster a mosaic installation
This street looked like a blast from the past
My favorite part of the trip was walking down the streets of old Havana
Strong Cuban coffee
This photo doesn’t do the sunset justice
Sunset over Havana
Cuba the birthplace of the mojito
I couldn’t get enough of these vintage cars
Every alleyway had beautiful colors…
and beautiful perspectives
The golden hour on the Malecón
Peace out Havana!