Cuba. The word itself drips with intrigue, igniting our curiosity for one of the few developed countries that has been so shrouded in mystery and isolation for the past century. Upon mention of its name, a painting begins to work its way across our minds, depicting a country in many ways modern, but in countless others one trapped, and yet flourishing, in a 1950s world.
As I sit here in my favorite local Havana cafe to write this article, I have no internet access. I hear a man outside on the street yelling “aguacate maduro!” in a booming voice to sell his avocados from his street cart. Out the window, I see cars that were manufactured before my parents were born driving boldly down the narrow streets of Old Havana. These cars must share the road with people, animals, bicycle taxis, and fruit carts. My heart beats to the clave rhythm of the live salsa music playing from the corner restaurant. I smile, take a deep breath, and exhale pure gratitude that this place that once seemed so elusive and enigmatic is now, simply, home.
As the man on the corner last night pointed me out to his friend as “la cubana,” I’m feeling fairly confident regarding my level of experience in Cuba. I have now been to Cuba on four separate occasions, and have spent about eight months total here. This place has absolutely and completely stolen my heart: it is unique, light, full of culture, music, and energy, as beautiful in nature as it is in people, and rich in both history and travel attractions. However, I won’t sugarcoat it for you (that’s an export pun): Cuba is not the easiest travel destination. So, below I’ll share with you some advice that I would have loved to have had upon my first trip to Cuba, a sugar, rum, salsa, cigar, and sun-soaked island nation.
11 Ways to Make the Most of a Trip to Cuba
If you’re enticed to experience Cuba for yourself, then it is time to plan your trip. But before you do, be sure you know all these insider tips:
1. Research, research, research.
If we’re starting in order, it’s important to begin with researching the seasons, the different regions of Cuba and even areas within Havana, and length of time you want to spend in each before you plan your trip to Cuba. For example, in the middle of summer, the intense heat can be quite limiting. Certain areas of Havana have more nightlife, and others more tranquility. Travel within Cuba is more time-consuming than in our Western world. For all of these reasons and more, do your research, and plan accordingly.
2. Pack well.
Bring anything you will need with you! Most products in Cuba are difficult to find consistently and when you need them, even in Havana. Whether it’s food, toiletries, clothing, or anything else, it’s possible you will find it at your first stop, it’s possible it will take you walking to six different stores to find it, or it’s possible that that particular product simply is not available in Cuba at all, ever. As we like to say here with a wry smile when this last option occurs: “welcome to Cuba!”
3. Stay in Casas Particulares.
These are the homes of Cubans who have government approval to rent out rooms. They range from simple to luxurious, so do your research (See #1). Either way, a stay in one of these casas introduces you to a far better understanding of Cuban culture, people, and authentic daily life than a stay in a hotel.
4. Have conversations, be open, and take the time to really converse with and understand Cubans.
Yes, some people on the street will ask you for money, but remember that this happens in every city that is has a heavy flow of tourists. On the other hand, the ever-present interest in meeting new people, in sharing cultures and time together, and in communicating across languages is also a genuine and significant part of Cuban culture. So, engage. Don’t be so skeptical that you miss the chance to meet the most incredible people. They want to learn about your culture as much as you want to learn about theirs, so learn a little Spanish if you have to.
Remember that with limited access to internet and international travel, YOU are their link to experiencing the rest of the world. If you simply pass through and leave the country without getting to know actual Cubans, you will have missed out on the authentic Cuba.
5. Take a dance class.
Salsa, Afrocuban rumba, son, bachata, kizomba, mambo, whatever style it may be, there is simply nothing in the world like the dance culture of Cuba. Don’t you dare leave without becoming a part of it!
6. Plan some of your days, but don’t plan all.
It is good to come with an idea of activities you want to do or sites you want to see. However, so much of real Cuban life is spontaneous, so participate in this! Set aside some days to just walk the streets of Havana, to stop at corner shops that interest you, to sip Cuban coffee at a local café, to step into museums that grab your eye, to sit on a park bench beneath a shady tree, or to walk along the Malecón, conversing with the fishermen or listening to the musicians who sit there to play a live soundtrack for all passersby.
7. Learn Cuba’s TWO currencies well.
Cuba utilizes two different currencies: both can be referred to as “pesos,” both are accepted at many locations, both can be represented by a $ sign on a menu, and yet they are very different in value -- 1 CUC is roughly equivalent to a U.S. dollar (90 cents to the dollar), but there are 25 CUP in 1 CUC. You can see where this gets tricky.
Don’t stress, just do your research before you come and use common sense when it comes to which currency a $ sign on a menu might indicate (i.e. a street-stand hamburger will never cost you 25 CUC).
8. Don’t necessarily follow all guidebook suggestions.
Yes, Hemingway drank his daiquiris or mojitos at certain bars, now so popular with tourists that hundreds wait outside just to take a sip and check it off their list. But I have a feeling that Hemingway would not today pay 8 CUC for a subpar daiquiri for which he would have to wait hours, when there is a larger, fresher, and less expensive drink waiting around the corner at a beautiful rooftop bar, with no line at all.
Of course, some of the guidebook suggestions are amazingly worthwhile. But again, research, or ask locals, and decide for yourself.
9. Do travel outside of Havana (and just to Varadero doesn’t count).
There is so much to Cuba that is unknown to so many! Of course, Havana is an absolute must, and Varadero is a popular tourist location for its beautiful beaches. But there is still so much more. Take a weekend trip to Viñales and ride horses through a tobacco field that produces the crop used for the famous Cuban cigars. Hop on a bus to Trinidad to see the city’s colonial cobblestone streets. Take a couple days to explore the nature of Cienfuegos; my trip to El Nicho, the waterfall and crystalline natural swimming pools underneath, I remember to this day as pure magic. Scuba dive in Playa Giron or Baracoa, go to a salsa festival in Santiago. There is no end to the experiences and memories that await you all around this entire island!
10. Enjoy some time “off the grid”.
Wifi is accessible in Cuba, more and more. But still, you first must buy a wifi card, and second must walk to a hotel that has a connection. Don’t waste too much time on this – the internet will still be there when you get home, I promise.
While in Cuba, focus on human connection. You will be surprised and refreshed at the depth and strength of memories you can make with others when no one is distracted by a smart phone in hand. As one of my favorite Havana restaurants has written on its wall,
There is no wifi here. You have to actually talk to each other.”
11. Be patient and flexible!
This is Cuba. Do not expect it to offer you the ease or efficiency of life in Europe or North America. No matter if you stay in the fanciest hotel or the simplest casa particular, you may experience water or power outages, difficulties with communication, or reservation mishaps. Stores or museums may be closed for random reasons with no warning, lines at the bank can last for hours, the wifi connection cuts in and out, taxis or tours often run on “Cuban time,” and some restaurants can take an hour or more to get you your food. And still, it’s the most incredible place to which I’ve traveled.
Instead of feeling frustrated, take a deep breath and remember that you chose to come to Cuba. This is life in Cuba for all people, Cubans and travelers alike. So instead, use your waiting time to strike up a conversation with someone next to you and connect. This is one of Cuba’s most powerful characteristics: the way its slower pace of life and lack of technological distractions cultivate an environment of true human connection.
Are you ready to take a trip to Cuba?
Crack open a guidebook, or get on the internet (probably accessible right from your home – crazy!) and start researching for your trip to Cuba. It will surprise you, challenge you, teach you, and leave you with sights, sounds, and memories you will cherish forever. There are few places in the world so unique in history, in culture, in people, and in a stunning mix of old and new, and there is little time to waste when such an adventure awaits. ¡Nos vemos pronto!
This article was contributed by Jakera Cuba, an organization that provides one of kind travel programs in Cuba that introduce travelers to Cuban culture and the Spanish language all at once.