Our Cuban guide, Natalie, met us shortly after. As we made our way to the hotel, I noticed one of the first things she mentioned was how proud she was to be a woman in Cuba, how women have just as many rights as men. She mentioned how accepted transgender people are amongst the community, offering free surgery and easy name changes. Wow, perhaps we can learn something from the Cuban people here, I thought. She then discussed the many shortcomings – the lack of resources, the thriving black market, the oppression.
This was my first time in Cuba, and I had no idea how to prepare or what to expect. To say that I’ve now seen Cuba, understand its people, or can offer anything but a glimpse would be insulting. What I can say is just go. Go see, speak, smell, and experience it yourself. Just like any other foreign travel, expect to get frustrated and tired, craving normalcy and routine. In the end, you’ll be incredibly glad you’ve seen this piece of paradise that’s been locked away for far too many years.
How Did I Travel to Cuba?
I was invited south to experience Cuba’s cultural richness and diversity with Conscious Cuba, a travel agency specializing in giving visitors the most authentic Cuban experience possible, allowing Americans to see Cuba legally and authentically through customized people-to-people tours. As the travel embargo has not yet been lifted for American travelers, we must contact an organization that sponsors licensed people-to-people trips and participate in their itinerary. Because Cuba entails a bit more paperwork than other foreign nations, Conscious Cuba suggests spending the night in Miami before the trip to ensure smooth sailing. To handle all logistics, our tour guide met us at the Miami airport the following morning, providing us with our visas and plane tickets as we boarded our American Airlines flight operated by ABC Charters.
Goods of Havana
So you want to know about the cars and cigars (and the rum and the coffee). I was just getting to that. During one of our first outings, we came upon this cute little Barbie car in Plaza de la Revolución, the city’s largest square where the Cuban government is based along with political rallies and city events.
The old cars are nothing short of everywhere, attracting my eyes and Nikon at each and every drive by. It should be noted that newer car models are being imported as more foreigners begin work in Havana, making cool drive-bys happen about 7 out of 10 times. I did not take any photos of the modern-day Mitsubishi. Sorry.
As for the cigars, we stopped in a shop where Cohibas reigned king and where rum was plentiful. For many of you, that’ll sound like heaven. For others, bare with me for a second. Cubans tend to think of Cohibas as the perfect blended cigar where the high expense lies in centuries of tradition, skills on the farm, and we cannot forget about the premium quality of leaves. To be a professional Cohiba roller, a nine month course must be completed to prove your worth. No pressure there.
In order to buy these goodies for our boyfriends back home, we needed cash since the nation is cash-only. What you take in paper to Cuba is what you get. Plan wisely! Two types of currency exist in Cuba, the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC). Both are legal dual-currency on the island, though the complicated system is under scrutiny as most Cubans are paid in CUP while consumer goods are priced in CUC, the latter being the favorable of the two.
Rows of Havana Club and Malibu Rum haunted me from my high school days, but there’s an even better local ritual to be had where rum is involved. I had heard talk of rum-in-a-box and couldn’t wait to try it out, as I suspected it would be exactly how it sounds. Sure enough, it was! Much like the concept and ease of Franzia, there exists this bad boy for 1 CUC:
What to See & Do in Cuba
Malecón – This may look like just a bare wall to many, but the Malecón means opportunity to the Cubans in Havana. It’s where the wall meets the sea, a popular meeting place where locals come to hang out, play guitar, drink rum in a box, make out, sell popcorn, meet new people, exercise, or whatever they damn well please…and I was so pleased to experience it. Around midnight, you’d be hard pressed to find a seat!
Habana Vieja (Old Havana) – Being one of my favorite parts of the city, this area is chock-full of history. If walls could talk… and then, I actually got to thinking about “what-ifs…” such as what if we had the chance to hang out with Ernest Hemingway over mojitos and cohibas? What if we conveniently missed our flight home?!
Art Gallery of Kamyl Bullaudey – Better than shopping, better than getting my first taste of Cuban beer was visiting artist Kamyl’s studio. Nice enough to show us around and paint individual portraits of us, Kamyl wasn’t your average painter. The more time I spent with him, the more I gathered that he was a big damn deal. I was in the presence of a talented influencer in the Cuban community who just painted my portrait five different times (four of which I’m still not sure why, probably because he could and was good at it) and who I was conversing with in Spanish at a rapid pace, which meant I was only comprehending around 60% because this man spoke with great speed.
Callejon de Hamel – In Central Havana, Callejón de Hamel is one of the shortest streets in the city but by far the most vibrant. Multicolored murals, sculptures and amazing rumba music had me at first glance and dance. The locals are incredibly passionate about what they’re doing for the community project dedicated to Afro-Cuban dance and religious culture. After doing some exploring, my fellow explorer Ellen and I found an abandoned bathtub in the middle of a field. Originally published on Instagram as an extension of my #tubtravels, I found it very funny to hear that readers thought I was actually taking a bath. I’ll save those for the resorts! And for the record, I very much had clothes on – you just can’t see them from this angle 😉
Parque de La Revolucion – Here we have a famous park where sculptures and historical buildings are in abundance, such as the Cuban Museum of Bellas Artes. Many people come to see the cars, making for some great photo ops.
San Jose Market – Get your CUCs ready. It’s time to shop! The open-air market is the best spot for buying local crafts and souvenirs like my crochet one-piece and panama hat. This shop owner decided she was going to dress me in my new swimsuit, over my dress, right then and there. She wasn’t taking no for an answer, obviously. Persistence is key – I bought the suit in the end.
Ernest Hemingway House – Because I visited during a holiday weekend, Hemingway’s house was sadly closed. Also known as Finca Vigia, the house is now home to the Museo Hemingway, and you don’t have to be a fan of Ernest Hemingway’s writing style to appreciate a visit.
Where to Stay in Havana
Saratoga Hotel – First thing’s first. Beyonce stayed here, so yeah. You know I had to check it out. Its beautiful rooftop and equally as beautiful bar will have you ordering Cuba Libres until you think you’re fluent in Spanish, which I may or may not be. Depends on the day.
Hotel Melia Cohiba – Located directly on the Malecón, you can’t get a better location than this.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba – The famous hotel that everyone hears about has a glamorous lobby scene, but it stops here. The rooms…well let’s just say you’ll be coming here for the mojitos while staying elsewhere.
Meet The Team
You’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with, and Francis Harrison (President and Founder) has managed to get a solid team behind her in order to make Conscious Cuba what it is today – a worthwhile luxury agency providing VIP experiences for its clients. To educate us from the moment we arrived in Miami was Colleen, an American tour guide so passionate about Cuba, her excitement was infectious. I wasn’t even on the plane yet and I couldn’t wait to see, smell, taste and hear the sounds of the city. Natalia and José, our local Cuban guides, were nothing short of exceptional. There to bring home the authenticity and Cuban flavor, they had us salsa dancing into the night, literally. Hearing their stories about growing up on the island and being able to communicate in their language created a bond I hope never severs.
Heading to the airport, I began thinking back on the past few days in Cuba and what made the biggest impact, then it suddenly came to me: acceptance not only within the Cuban community, but acceptance from the Cubans themselves. As an American citizen visiting their turf, their country, after all of the severed ties, after all this time, after the new discussions and better relations, they still treat everyone with respect and gratitude for visiting. Perhaps we can learn something from the Cuban people, I thought…
Many thanks to the Cuban people for showing me the beauty that’s been locked away for too many years. More people should be able to experience its potential and allow it to thrive beautifully.
Fun Facts on Cuba
- If you see Havana spelled ‘Habana,’ that’s not a typo. That’s how the locals do it.
- Most travelers to Cuba are from Spain and Canada (soon to be Americans..)
- Parks become what dilapidated buildings once were, and the environmentalist in me likes this a lot.
- The national dish is roasted pork with rice and beans not far behind.
- The national beverages are mojitos as well as the popular Cristal and Bucanero beers. Yes, more popular than agua.
- Cuba is a cash-only nation. Yep, nuts.
- If you bought a plane ticket from the U.S. (ABC Charters), Americans have health insurance while in Cuba.
- Only $100 worth of tobacco products is allowed to be brought into the U.S.
- Thanks to Raúl Castro, Cubans can now sell real estate as well as hold one of 90 jobs available, one being a banana peeler.
- On July 20th, the U.S. and Cuba reopened their embassies in Havana and D.C., heralding a “new chapter” in relations after a half-century of hostility. Travel restrictions have eased and Cuba has been removed from the U.S. terror blacklist, making them eligible to attend international conferences, have better access to global markets and be involved in world political decisions.
- On the people-to-people license, visitors can not visit the beaches. I repeat, can NOT visit the beaches.
- Like many things in LatAm, the Cuban Sandwich is hardly consistent in Cuba. You’ll get something different every time. The Cuban sandwich has mutated as it has migrated from the mother country. What you get in south Florida isn’t what you get in Cuba. And good luck finding any pickles – the nation doesn’t have any.
- WiFi isn’t really a thing in Cuba. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy being disconnected for a few days.
- American flag apparel is all the rage right now. Fashion sense matters, and my Disney Princess Vans got me around Cuba juuuust fine 😉
The Road Les Traveled was welcomed to Cuba as a guest of Conscious Cuba, however my opinions are as always, my own.