It’s surprisingly cold and uncomfortable sleeping in the Ft. Lauderdale International Airport, a 12 hour layover is not the worst of fates, but all of my travel plans for this week just take me to warmer and warmer climates, so I did not plan well for this chilling moment. It won’t be long though, soon I’ll be smelling that sweet Cuban air, looking at all the beautiful architecture, swimming in bluer than blue oceans, I can’t wait.
Fast forward to the end of the first night and my snot is black from the exhaust fumes, my camera sensor is covered in some crazy dust and I’m starving because I was unaware that Cuba is a veritable wasteland when it comes to vegetarian cuisine. My girlfriend is equally surprised, she’s from Jamaica/Bermuda where vege cuisine is much larger part of the culture. If you’re reading this as a vegetarian, take heed, bring protein, lots of it… As much as you can possibly fit in your suitcase. Cuba is a meat eaters paradise, but for anyone else it’s a mix of bad Italian food (pizza, mostly), peanuts and baked goods. If you’re vegan, God help you
When our plane landed the first thing you notice is how small the airport is, and like most places in Cuba the interior has a feel of stepping into a time warp, albeit one that is in desperate need of repairs. I think the best way to adequately describe Cuba is beautiful decay. I wouldn’t dare put a percentage on it, but you’ll spend much of your time wandering around, looking at buildings that fell into disrepair decades ago, and inside those building will be people trying to live the best life a crumbling building (and country) can offer. Even the well maintained buildings have a air of decrepitness to them. You’re surrounded by beauty, and the architecture is beautiful, but all the stucco in the world couldn’t hold a lot of these buildings together, they certainly are trying though.
Our taxi from the airport was what most would consider a “Classic Car”, but that’s not exactly rare in Cuba, the U.S. embargo has left most people no choice but to hold onto pre-embargo cars. What does this mean? That means that you probably won’t find an American car on the road built after 1960. These are not show cars though, these cars have been daily drivers for 50-60+ years. This is how they get to work, it may even be their work if they use it as a taxi, and they’ve managed to keep these cars running by sheer force of will and ingenuity. I marveled at some of the ingenious modifications they made to these cars just to keep them moving, and the body work and paint jobs obviously done by hand with a brush. It was really something to behold. But take a minute to imagine how much dirtier cars were 60 years ago, no catalytic converters (remember smog??), no regulations on particulates, etc. And then imagine a car that’s been jury rigged for 60 years just to keep it running. If you’re thinking it sounds like a lot of stinky black car exhaust all the time you would be spot on. Our taxi back to the airport left my girlfriend and I smelling of gas fumes for a day and some change. Oh yeah, don’t worry about buckling your seat belt either, because they don’t have any!
As an American you’re only real option for lodging is staying in a hostel. All of the hotels in Cuba are owned by the government and by staying in one you would be “Supporting the Cuban government”, and that’s a big no-no. Most everything in Cuba is run by the government, so not buying anything that somehow doesn’t give money to the Cuban government is nearly impossible, but you still gotta give it the ol’ college try.
Personally, I think staying in a hostel is the way to go anyways. For one, it’s way cheaper than any hotel I saw in Havana, and two, as long as you don’t get the absolute cheapest you can find it’s not hard to get a private room and bath, and as far as I’m concerned that’s all I’m at a hotel for. I personally don’t travel because of the hotel, it’s just a place to put my stuff, sleep and get clean in between adventuring through wherever I may be.
Our host was fantastic, he spoke enough English to carry on a conversation and was nothing but helpful. And in a “It’s a small world” moment, we found out that my girlfriend and his family were actually related, as they had family in Jamaica. We had a nice bedroom and bath to ourselves, a door with locks and 24/7 access in or out. Who needs a hotel?
So what exactly do you do while you’re in Cuba?
Walk around. A lot. Seriously, bring your walking shoes and get ready to wear them out. We would start our day and simply pick a direction and just start walking, eventually you’d end up in a bustling tourist or business area or run across a bunch of unique buildings, souvenir stands, etc. You might even end up on an old Lady’s front porch feeding petting a bunch of kittens (no, seriously). There are museums in Havana, but they’re pretty barren, all of the shops have the same items and the government has price controls on all of them. So beyond your cigars, coffees, rums and basic souvenirs there’s not a lot to shop for. At the end of the day we’d take our aching feet to a bakery near our place and buy enough baked goods to give an entire family diabetes.
This, for me at least, was the Havana experience in a nutshell. Walking around and looking at stuff, and it was fascinating to look at no doubt. There really is a lot of beauty in Cuba, even with so much falling apart the colors are vivid and mesmerizing. At a certain point though, you’re not sure what else there is to see without backpacking through the countryside, which is not something we planned for, nor were we prepared to do.
We spent a week in Havana, which in retrospect was a bit too long. By the 4th day we had covered nearly every inch of the city, wandered through the poorest and richest parts of town, even wandered down a closed highway where the sewers had trees growing out of them, and past the factories where we assume the dozen or so things you can buy at the grocery store are made. We also spent a day at the only real beach in Havana, a 20 minute bus ride outside of the city. At that point we were simply ready to go home, eat some healthy food and rest from our vacation. Part of it may have been the lack of internet, the inability to watch any sort of entertainment when hanging out at our room was definitely a draw back, and not something that we planned well enough for. Plan accordingly, offline entertainment is definitely a must if you plan on relaxing in your room, be it downloaded shows or movies, books, whatever you might need.
The one gem in all of this was a huge warehouse on the bay that on one half housed small souvenir booths, the other half was for artists to sell their work. It was full of beautiful oil paintings of all different styles and sizes, some artists were painting new pieces while their partner was trying to sell them. It was a truly unique space, and not nearly as homogeneous as is most of the Cuban shopping experience.
We bought one small painting to bring back with us. It’s a beautiful piece that now hangs in our bathroom, the only appropriate place for it.
The highlight of the trip if you ask me.
And of course I brought my camera, so I left with a lot of great shots that I’m really happy with. View the full gallery here.
So, in summation, I’m extremely glad I went to Cuba and had the experience. Would I go back? Probably not. There’s too much of the world to see and Cuba is only a small part of it. Would I recommend it? Definitely. Just plan accordingly.
Here’s a fairly practical list for any American’s planning on going to Cuba, if I missed anything please let me know:
- Get Euros or Canadian Dollars well in advance of your trip, you can only use cash (no credit or debit anywhere) and American Dollars come with a 10% tariff. Don’t wait until the last minute, or the fees to change from American to Euros or CAN will be too high to make it worthwhile.
- If you’re in a tourist heavy area you can get by with just English (Havana in my instance), outside of that don’t expect anyone to be fluent in anything but Spanish.
- If you’re vegetarian, bring some protein bars are whatever packaged protein you can fit in your bag. Cuba is a meat eaters paradise, but for anyone else it’s a mix of bad Italian food (pizza, mostly), peanuts and baked goods. If you’re vegan, God help you, I definitely spent a week not getting nearly enough protein, but at least I had cheese and the occasional egg. If those aren’t on your personal menu it’s gonna be rough.
- You’re going to spend about 1/2 to 3/4 of your trip saying “No Gracias” to folks asking you for something. Tourism IS the industry in Havana and that’s how most folks make their living. I can count the number of genuine conversations I had with folks on one hand, everyone else was working some sort of hustle. They would carry a wonderful conversation all the way to the restaurant that might be paying them to bring customers, or maybe it’s a cigar stand, souvenir stand, or every other person might be asking you if you need a taxi. It’s a bit exhausting, and slightly disheartening to know that every person you’re talking to wants something from you. It’s also how they feed their families, so I can’t blame them either. And the handful of genuine human interactions we had were wonderful experiences with genuinely great people.
- Havana is very safe, like I said, tourism is the industry in Havana. Everyone there is trying to make a living off of your good time. I walked from one side of the city to another and never felt anything but safe.
- The only internet is in designated areas (Wi-Fi Parks and Hotels), you’ll know parks when when you see it because they’re always crowded with locals and tourists staring into their smartphones. There will be a vendor nearby that sells cards that will give you one hour of access. They also have this at Most of the hotels, and just an FYI, the internet at the hotels is much faster (still slow, but passable). Outside of that you won’t have any internet, you may have cell service for phone calls and text, but it’s pretty damned expensive and only worth it in an emergency.
- Walk around, look at all the things and have a great time.