Cuba was a massive eye-opening experience for me. As a place that wasn’t high on my list of places to visit, it captured my attention with its old-world charm, culture, food, and grit.
The trip came about because it was my significant other’s sister’s birthday. She and her boyfriend wanted to visit Cuba, which they had visited twice before, with a few of her friends and one of his. Cuba was an unforgettable experience, which came with a few annoyances that were fairly easily overcome.
Havana is a city that suddenly finds itself in the throes of rapid change. Ever since it was made legal for US tourists to go there, changes have been coming fast and furious with the influx of money being poured into the economy. It was imperative for us to visit before some of the old charm gave way to this rapid modernization, even though some of the wealthier areas have already been moving through this process.
Much of Havana is a stunning spectacle of history. From the architecture to its monuments and people, the city is eager to tell its story. What I loved about it was that it does not shy away from its cultural history rooted in blackness; in fact, it embraces it wholeheartedly much like certain parts of Colombia and some of the other countries that border or are within the Caribbean Sea.
HAVANA RESTAURANTS VISITED
A two and a half hour ride outside of Havana reveals a sleepy part of the country where painted cliffs, caverns, and agriculture take hold. The Viñales Valley is a region with incredible views, and where one can fully dive into the cultural roots of the country. The cuban cigar industry was in full view there; we learned about the creation process from beginning to end from farm owner Juan Carlos. Other attractions included the Mural of Prehistory, Cueva del Indios, Palenque de los Cimarrones.
SOME THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE YOU GO:
BRING CASH; MUCH MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED
The thing about Cuba is that you can’t use US based credit cards to purchase…anything. There are two kinds of currency: Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) and Cuba Pesos (CUP or MN, for Moneda Nacional). I won’t get into the details of why they have two currencies, but CUC is what tourists need to do most things in the country. CUP is a local currency that native Cubans use. The CUC is equal to the American dollar, and items we might take for granted in the States cost a bit more, so things are relatively expensive. Plan to bring extra cash with you so you don’t end up in a situation where you’re stuck.
INTERNET ACCESS IS A LUXURY
We take the internet for granted in the US with mostly consistent mobile internet and various decently fast WiFi hotspots everywhere. That is not the case in Cuba. We were fortunate enough to be in an AirBnB that had it, but still had to pay for it in chunks of time. Even the 5-star hotel we stayed in during the second leg of our trip had internet cards we had to pay for with 24 hour access. Unless you don’t care about how much your wireless bill is every month, it’s a good idea to plan ahead and look at the options provided where internet access is concerned.
THINK ABOUT HIRING A DRIVER FOR YOUR TRIP
Hire a driver for the entire experience; especially for a first visit to Cuba. This is the one thing I would have done differently. It wasn’t super hard to get around, and it was actually nice to see and ride in the old cars, but I’m much more about convenience and maximizing my time especially in another country. We had a driver for our Viñales Valley experience later on in the trip, but it would have been highly beneficial to have one for our entire experience…especially the first part.
BRING YOUR OWN…EVERYTHING WHEN POSSIBLE IF YOU DON’T HAVE A GOOD LOCAL CONTACT
One of the odd things we didn’t consider, but should have, was that it might be hard to find something like bottled water or Advil at a convenience store. Bottled water is something of a luxury commodity, and pharmacies don’t necessarily have everything you need like a Walgreens or Rite Aid. Bring everything you’ll think you need in excess, especially if you have prescription medication.