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Sunday, July 14, 2019

What to Expect when traveling to Havana, Cuba

As soon as I stepped outside of the Jose Marti airport, I immediately (started to sweat) was taken with excitement after laying my eyes on Havana, Cuba. Only a hop, skip and a jump from Florida, my boyfriend and I had a colorful long weekend in the Caribbean. 

Charming Habana is so much more than the amazing content you can see on Instagram. You will see first-hand how a communist society functions and how it impacts the people who live in it. Despite crumbling buildings, lack of access to basic goods (on one of our tours, our guide told us she couldn’t find toothpaste), and very scarce rations provided from the government in “Bodegas”, Cubans are warm, welcoming and upbeat. While getting ready to go on our trip, I really didn’t have any concrete ideas about how Cuba would be before getting there. So here are a few things you can expect if you ever visit Havana, Cuba. 

Scenery of Havana & A Hidden Forest
In your hotel or AirBnB, you will probably hear Cuban music playing from the streets in the evenings. As you stroll through old Havana, you will meander past seafoam green, pastel pink, and baby blue buildings. Vintage candy colored cars come around the street corners honking their horns while trying to not run over the tuk tuk like taxi drivers in the narrow streets. To my surprise, there is a forest in the middle of Havana. We stopped there during our car ride and thank goodness we did. I was beyond happy because it was roasting hot outside under the Cuban sun. The forest has plenty of shade and a relaxing stream to give yourself a break from the heat. 

Getting there
Ok. It’s really not as impossible as you may think. Sifting through the muddy regulations was the most difficult part. There are now 11 ways you can travel to Cuba as an American. Peace out cruise ships because getting to Cuba this way is now a no-go. You can find out all “licenses” that will permit you to go hereThe license isn’t a physical document or piece of paper.Took me a minute to figure that one out. It’s just the category you select from when you book your flight and get to the airport to get your travel visa. We went under the “support for the Cuban people” license. This means we were not allowed to do anything to support the Cuban government. 

This license is kind of vague and there isn’t a rule book on what constitutes this type of support. To stay compliant, we made sure any tours we booked were OFAC compliant. All of our guides and tours were given by local Cuban born people. We also created a detailed itinerary for what we would be doing since lots of idle free time would be a no-no. 

It’s kind of hard to know what is government owned and what’s not when actually in Cuba.  A tip If you are looking for a vintage car ride is to look at the license plate to determine if privately owned or government owned. If you see the letter “B” on the plate, it’s a government car (don’t get in there). If you see “P” it’s a privately owned car (safe!). 

Public Bathrooms:
Toilet seats weren’t really a given in my experience in Havana. Maybe brace yourself for that. A bit of culture shock when there is no seat on a toilet (not that I would sit my bare ass on any public toilet seat. Squat life). Even more shock when you have to throw used toilet paper into a bin next to (but not in) the toilet. Whoa buddy. I came across this first, in the airport bathroom, and the next times were in restaurants. I also read toilet paper isn’t necessarily something that is always provided so I brought a roll but did not have to use it since toilet paper was provided in the places I visited.

We have bodegas in NYC but in no way do our corner stores function like the bodegas in Havana. The only similarity may be the bodega cats. The Cuban people go to these small shops knows as Bodegas, once per month to get their food rations from the government. The ration amounts are based on how many people are in a family’s household. Basic rations could include: 5 eggs per person, a little salt and cooking oil, a few pounds of rice per person, a few pounds of chicken per person, a few pounds of coffee and some sugar. Rations help families have food since wages are often only 25-30 pesos per month. This made me think of when I first came to NYC and made around $490 per two weeks. Even though this amount is poverty level by US standards, I would be extremely wealthy in comparison to what most Cuban people make. Eye opening.

The Food
I had heard from people who had been to Cuba before that the food was nothing to brag about. Most of the goods that come to Cuba are imported and as a result most foods aren't that fresh. I have to honestly say that the food wasn't too bad at all! Peep the delicious tacos I had!

Most people in Havana speak Spanish with some or very little English. Our AirBnB host spoke English as well as our local tour guides. Brush up on your high school Spanish vocab so you can have a basic conversation with your host or the locals around La Habana. Another option is to venture to Cuba with a Spanish speaking person to help you chit chat with anyone you encounter.

Grocery stores
This is not your Fairway or Whole Foods experience. Lightyears from it. The grocery stores do not have rows and rows of endless brand names goods with equally never-ending rows of generic products on the shelves. If you’re someone who likes to buy your food from the grocery store while on vacation, ask your local tour guide if any stores you may consider buying things from are government owned first. This way you can avoiding purchasing any goods from these types of government owned markets in order to stay compliant. Most government owned establishments will be very, very cheap. Like .5 cents in US currency for a pound of a particular vegetable cheap. The government can afford to sell produce at this cost while if locally owned, the goods will cost more. One of our tour guides mentioned the government provides land to farmers at no cost but requires a non-negotiable fee of 90% of their goods. The local farmers must give away most of their goods for no pay! The other 10% of goods the farmers harvest gets sold to private locally owned businesses at higher costs. So, the farmers have an opportunity to make some money this way. Local businesses sell fruits and veggies at a higher cost as a result, but spending your money here will support the locally owned Cuban businesses. 

There are two currencies in Cuba. The CUC (the money foreigners use and what we used) and the CUP (local money). You will have an opportunity to exchange your cash at the Jose Marti airport and you will want to bring plenty of cash with you. You can try to put your bank card into a Cuban ATM but it won't work and then you'll be sad in Havana with no cash. Be sure to bring as much cash as you need for the duration of your trip. Also, a pro tip is go to your bank and convert your USD into Euros. For example, I brought about $300 Euro and exchanged it to about 330 CUC. #winning

Stray animals:
I hadn’t read about how many dogs and cats there are running around in the streets of Cuba. Most were cute and none were aggressive. Even the dogs that looked like the zombies from the Will Smith movie I Am Legend. Just something to be mindful of if you plan on visiting. 

The People 
Most people we interacted with were kind and welcoming and we had no issues during our time in Cuba. There are people on the street who may try to sell you something or ask for money. Pretty typical of any big city. NYC life has me unphased by this but if you do not live in a city this may be something to adjust to. Just say “no, gracias” a few times and the person will get the hint. I will say, if someone hands you a flyer, take a look at it before you throw it away. Someone handed my boyfriend a flyer and it ended up being for a “dark and decadent underground club for artists”. We decided to go, and it was a dark and decadent night indeed. There we people dancing on top of the couch in the middle of the dancefloor while using the beam on the ceiling to sensually swing from the ceiling. Look for the coffee bean face.

Overall, I’m thrilled to have visited Cuba. It’s differences helped me to understand how a third world country exists in 2019. The visit also allowed me to take a step back and realize all that I have and come back down to earth when I start complaining about all that I do not have. For more visuals, check out my Cuba travel vlog on my channel! 

Is Cuba on your travel bucket list? 

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