A timehop into the 1960s, gorgeous pastel architecture flanked by intricate ironwork, vintage cars that take over meandering cobblestone streets, and the world’s best cigars. These are a few of the many reasons that bring tourists flocking to Cuba each year, and this was the initial draw that brought me to Cuba over the Thanksgiving holidays. The allure is also in the forbidden: up until recently, American citizens had to find circuitous routes into Havana, often flying in from either Mexico or Canada. So for the past few years, Cuba has been on my bucket list, and with the Obama administration’s relaxation in travel regulations, an opportunity presented itself. Thanks to some recent administration directives, it looks like the United States is reverting back to policies of late…but thankfully our group of friends were able to squeeze in before the borders tighten once again. Beyond the facade, understanding Cuba proved to be a fascinating and humbling experience that left us all grateful for what we have in the U.S. Here are my top 10 observations from our trip to Cuba:
My Top 10 Takeaways from Cuba
1.The architecture is gorgeous, but it’s also in desperate need of repair and maintenance. We came close to tripping into craters in the sidewalk many times, and some of the potholes and road conditions make driving nearly impossible. Our bus had to turn around and find a different route to Viñales at one point because the road was under construction and basically stopped existing after a certain point.
2. The world has five remaining socialist states, but Cuba is probably the only country you can visit where it remains somewhat close to its idealistic form. While small amounts of private enterprise have emerged in recent years, mostly in the tourism industry, the majority of the country all makes the same amount of money a day. Imagine that. I was chatting with my casa particulares (essentially an Air BnB) host, and while he is an industrial engineer by training, he now works as a taxi driver because his state salary of $50 USD/month doesn’t sufficiently cover the cost of living.
3. Options do not abound. One of the problems with communism in practice is the lack of competition. This was most apparent in our food and beverage options. One brand of water. 3 beer options. One fast food chain. One way of preparing chicken at dinner. Rice and beans ALWAYS. Canned or pickled vegetables. Guys, snacks are so incredibly hard to find in Cuba! We walked into multiple grocery stores and always found the food shelves sparse…but somehow the alcohol section would be stocked to the brim (mostly imports along with Cuban manufactured rum). Coming back into the United States, I felt so overwhelmed with the food options.
4. But there are some benefits…free healthcare, free university education, free burial (has anyone planned a funeral? it’s expensive!), and government ration cards for basic food items. We went into a mercado to learn about the ration card books that each family is issued monthly. One 5 pound ration of rice costs .25 CUP (Cuban Peso, one of the TWO currencies in the country). That’s $.009 USD! But beyond the monthly ration, Cubans can purchase additional groceries at the non-subsidized cost, which is significantly higher than the ration price.
5. They drive old cars out of necessity, not want. In every city on almost every street corner, you can find someone fixing a car. After 60+ years of U.S. embargo, the Cubans have gotten really good at maintaining their cars to keep them going. Yes, there are some newer cars, but I’d estimate that the ratio of new to old runs in the 1:5 range. Most Cubans simply don’t have the economic means to purchase a new car. In one classic car that we drove in, the odometer read 400k+ miles…and that’s BEFORE it broke! While the cars look adorable and glamorous, it also makes for terrible air quality. I felt like I had smoked several packs of cigarettes after driving in a convertible.
6. Speaking of which…did you know that all cigars come from one (tobacco) plant? I suppose I hadn’t given this much thought since I don’t smoke. But apparently the part of the tobacco plant that is used in a cigar determines the flavor. So a Romeo & Juliet cigar uses tobacco from the base of the plant, which is milder in taste, whereas the world-famous Cohiba cigars harvest from the top/end of the tobacco leaf plant. At the tobacco farm we visited, we also learned that when farmers sell their tobacco to the government, they keep only 10% of the profit. We purchased some unbranded cigars made locally to help support the farmers and share with friends back home (but also picked up a pack of Cohibas).
7. Despite horrendous WiFi, Cubans are incredibly well-informed about what is happening in the world. I can’t remember the last time I went a week without Internet. Wifi cards can be purchased in one hour increments and accessed in some public parks throughout the country, but we found it to be incredibly slow and difficult to access. Yet, I was able to have several conversations with Cubans about U.S. politics and culture…and yes, Despacito has made it down here.
8. Change is imminent. It’s hard to describe the sensation, but the pulse of the country feels as though it is quickening. While socialism seems to have been welcomed by those living under the Castro regime in the 60s, 70s, etc., access to information has made the younger generation hungry for more. The day we left Havana, municipal elections were held. Unlike in the U.S. where it is usually a ho-hum type of duty, the people we spoke with were very excited to cast a ballot. I look forward to seeing what changes will happen over the next 10-20 years.
9. The mosquitoes are vicious. Nearly everyone in our group came home covered in bug bites, despite frequent insect repellent application. I was on the CDC site trying to look up Zika symptoms before I started this blog post…true story. Bring the DEET and the other strong stuff!
10. Rum is nearly as cheap as bottled water. Did you know that prior to the U.S. embargo, Bacardi called Cuba home? Havana Club is the primary brand distributed, and it mixes incredibly well in all sorts of cocktails. But don’t drink it by itself. I may or may not know from personal experience that this is a bad choice.
Darren and I don’t typically do group tours, but for Cuba we felt that the lack of resources and infrastructure (read: WiFi) to support our normal ‘wandering’ warranted some help. Cue Locally Sourced Cuba’s 8 Day Tour, which took us through Havana, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, Trinidad, and Viñales. Our tour guide Barbara provided us with an incredibly comprehensive overview of Cuba’s history and culture, and we left with a profound appreciation for the Cuban people and their kindness, generosity, and hospitality. I would absolutely recommend the tour, and all of our friends agreed that it was the perfect amount of time to spend in Cuba.
Bear in mind that this won’t be like a typical vacation. Don’t expect people to wait on you hand and foot, and if you’re a foodie hoping to explore Cuba’s gastrointestinal delights, prepare to be disappointed. But if you view this as an opportunity to learn, explore, and appreciate all that Cuba has to offer, you’ll be left with incredibly rewarding experiences and memories. Buen viaje!