A Cuban Adventure
I feel so lucky to have lived a life that includes traveling and exploring new places. It keeps me constantly curious about the rest of the world and all the treasures it holds. Cuba has so recently opened up travel to Americans after many years of a closed door policy, causing a lot of curiosity about the people and culture that exists behind its mysterious borders.
So when one of my closest childhood friends suggested a trip there in early July, when we would both have off for the 4th, I jumped at the chance. Lauren and I had the privilege of traveling together with our families growing up, and even embarked on a short trip through Europe with a high school group almost 10 years ago, so we knew we would be a good travel match.
Before I get into the details, I want to touch on the biggest question I’ve been asked since coming home: “How was Cuba, was it fabulous and amazing?!” And the truth is, Cuba is not the place to go if you’re looking for "fabulous." While it’s beautiful in its vibrant antiquity, it is still very behind in terms of technology and basic amenities that we are so comforted by here in the US. There is a lot of communist propaganda, evident poverty, poor sanitation control, and many buildings that are crumbling. There is a sadness to that beauty. You can feel it- the desperation, the desire for more. While this could be discomforting to witness, I find pushing the boundaries of comfort to be so important. I have been to countries, including China, Vietnam, and Morocco, where you still see poverty, oppression of women, and those sights taught me so much. Seeing the people of these places is an incredible reminder of how lucky we are. While we’re complaining about the lengthy Starbucks line or slow data service on our iPhones, there are families who live with no access to the internet and struggle to find clean water. So in short, Cuba had some amazing sights to see and I am excited to relay all my favorite moments, but just remember that not everything is as beautiful as it appears to be in photos.
A few things to note when booking a trip to Cuba:
1. You will need to declare a reason for your visit- you will be prompted with options when you book a flight, and usually “helping the Cuban people” and “educational purposes” will suffice.
2. You will need to purchase a Visa at the airport, so be sure to check your airlines instructions on how to do so.
3. You must bring CASH for everything because American credit and debit cards do not work. Look up the exchange rates before you leave to see if you’re better off exchanging American cash or Euros.
4. There is very limited access to internet, so if you’re someone who finds comfort in constant connection and the ability to research plans on the spot, this is something to consider before booking. It is not easy to send texts home or look up directions to your next destination. It’s a trip that requires planning, so look up where you want to go!
The first night, we settled in and ate an early dinner before heading to Fábrica de Arte Cubano. This place came highly recommended and it did not disappoint. It was essentially a more social experience than your typical art gallery. When we entered we got mojitos bigger than our heads for only $10- a drink I couldn't even come close to finishing by the end of the night. Each room had different art installations, from murals, to found objects, to film and media, to live music. And there was a whole room dedicated to food, too!
On our second day we booked an amazing excursion through Airbnb, which was not only convenient and trustworthy to do in advance, but we also didn’t have to worry about paying for it on site with cash. We went horseback riding through Viñales, a mountainous farm region about 2.5 hours from Havana. With the help of our Airbnb excursion host and our regular Airbnb host, we set up a shared taxi ride that was only $40 each way for each passenger. Remember seeing all the old cars in pictures of Havana? That’s no joke. Those cars are your only option for transportation, complete with a bumpy backseat and no AC. But it’s all about building character, right?!
When we arrived, we met our amazing tour guide Pupito, who paired us with our horses and we set off to meet a local farmer who showed us how he harvests all his crops- coffee beans, tobacco, bananas, mangos, and honey. We got to taste everything, too!
It was very hot as we cruised on our horses through the wilderness, but we eventually reached a fresh water lake where we took a dip and cooled off, followed by live music, lunch, and mojitos.
The next day was my birthday, and it was simply magical. We started the day as we started most days, with fresh fruit and coffee. Then we headed to the beach, Playa Santa Maria, which was about 15 minutes away. Not only did we soak up some sunshine but we made some new friends when I started to paint at my beach chair. It’s amazing how creativity is a universal language. Doesn't matter your age, nationality, or gender. Despite our barriers between English and Spanish, these kids bonded with us over the paints and paper I gave to them.
Eventually we headed into Old Havana to see the beautiful antique cars in the main square, grab drinks, and admire the government buildings, which are some of the only buildings in Havana that are kept up. It's simply beautiful, but another reminder of how little money is allocated to helping revamp the rest of the city.
To finish the day, we ate at La Guarida for dinner, a restaurant recommended by Obama and Beyonce (so of course we trusted it!). The rooftop view and sunset was incredible and the perfect end to my birthday.
And finally, the last day was used to rest up, and stroll leisurely around the city, admiring the colors and architecture of this amazing place. I left Cuba feeling hopeful for those people and their lives. Change is on the horizon and they are certainly ready for it. It’s time to make a beautiful place even more spectacular for all those who live there.