Huge delay in writing this post but I’ve been quite busy. I decided to go for my masters abroad and had to not only pack for a year but also settle in my new flat. Since many of you have messaged me specifically to know more about my itinerary, I’m finally getting to it.
Cuba has been open to many countries in the past but Americans have only been allowed to go to study/ or do research. Early this year, it was announced that Americans could now visit however we are still restricted to 12 categories
1. Family visits
2. Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
3. Journalistic activity
4. Professional research and professional meetings
5. Educational activities
6. Religious activities
7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
8. Support for the Cuban people
9. Humanitarian projects
10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
12. Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
So that means no TOURISM. If you’re American and find yourself in Cuba outside those 12 categories well congratulations, you are there illegally. As for me, I went to Cuba as a “student” -I got to the airport in Mexico, stated I was going to study in Cuba, paid for my visa and I was on my merry way. For those of you wishing to visit and would like to abide by the rules, there is a way. People to People travel are Organized tours that involve some sort of educational experience with local Cuban people. With this option, your tour would have a specific itinerary which you can always decide to deviate from once you get there but it is a beautiful loophole.
When I lived in Haiti, I knew of a guy named Miguel. To this day I’m still not sure what his occupation was but Miguel was dark skinned, lean and slightly hunchbacked. He was always in our backyard recounting tales of his Cuban grandfather. Surprisingly enough, he wasn’t alone, if I had a dollar every time a Haitian told me they have a Cuban relative, I’d be Oprah’s next door neighbor. Needless to say, this desire Haitians had for a Cuban tie left me puzzled and dreaming of one day visiting.
Mid-winter this year as I was booking a flight to Iceland , I saw a flight deal from Toronto to Habana. I had so many questions but those deals usually last a couple of minutes. Are Americans able to go? If not, are there loopholes? All these questions would have to wait. I quickly purchased my tickets and informed some friends of the deal. 2 friends (the boys) showed interest and next thing I knew we were in a cafe in New York planning our Cuban escape.
I arrived in Habana with a 12 lb backpack and although it felt like I’ve been planning this trip for close to 2 months, I was about to find out just how unprepared I was.
We arrived in Habana at 11 pm and the cuban immigration process was very simple. I was asked why I was visiting , I said I was a student, then presented the visa I got from Mexico, which was not attached to my passport. I worried about them stamping my passport but it seemed like common practice there to just stamp the visa sheet. From what I was told, Cuban want Americans to visit and they are well aware of the restriction on the American side so they make it as easy as possible and don’t ask too many questions. If you find yourself traveling outside these 12 reasons stated above, not stamping your passport in Cuba means you were never there. The boys and I exchanged money at the airport then took a taxi to our Airbnb for 25 CUC= $25.
WHERE TO STAY IN CUBA
Now that tourism is booming, there are several options, but if you are on budget or simply don’t want your money to go to big hotels you have 2 options. Casa Particulares and Airbnb. Casa particulares are operated my cuban families with $20/night you can get a room for 2 + breakfast. Most of these houses don’t have a website so you would usually ask your taxi driver. For me, I felt like the safest option was Airbnb, you get to see pictures of the apartment and pay online. Cubans who have foreigners staying at their place must keep records therefore you will have to provide your passport so that your host can note your DOB and passport number (so don’t be alarmed)
Our hosts’ apartment was right above an art gallery, she gave us a tour explaining that most of the people from her family are artists. The next day we woke up to find that we were in a beautiful colonial style house. The 1930’s 2 story apartment had a balcony overlooking Calle Pobre, a street although leading to the most touristy street in Havana Vieja was beautifully deserted. I stood on the balcony admiring Cuban life and with a slight nod greeting every passerby. Strangely enough it felt familiar, reminded me of the little town my father grew up in in Haiti but with a southern Italian flare. For 5 CUC each, Our host prepared us a Cuban breakfast before we went off to explore Habana Vieja
Getting used to the currency can be a little tricky since Cuba uses 2 currencies : the CUC and MN(Moneda Nacional)- tourists and some cubans use the CUC while most cubans use MN. $1=1 CUC= 24 MN
When we first arrived we saw a street vendor selling plates of rice and meat for 15- it wasn’t indicated wether or not it was CUC or MN. we approached him and asked about the price, he told us it was in MN which was the equivalent of 3 CUC ($3) not knowing the currency conversion of the MN at the time we bought 2 plates. Turns out the plate was actually worth less than $1. keep the currency conversion in mind will minimize your chance of getting ripped off.
I found it somewhat easy to get around Cuba. The narrow cobble stoned streets are not ideal for wheelchair users or anyone who uses any other assistive devices but there are several modes of transportation throughout Cuba.
Taxi– There are metered taxis in Havana, you can either have them run the meter, in which case they have to give a portion of the earnings to the government or agree on a price where they enjoy 100% of their earning.
Bici-Taxi– are pedal powered bicycle. from what I was told, it is reserved for locals however many tourists use them as way to explore the city center.
Collectivos are cheaper than regular taxis and even public buses. they are usually parked near bus stations and wait until they are completely full to make their journey. They don’t always drop you off at your exact location but they will drop you close enough.
Buses are mostly reserved for locals. Although it looks chaotic, cubans have a very fair system to board buses. Disabled people and older adults get to board first. Anyone wishing to stand in a queue screams “el ultimo?” to figure out who is the last person in line. If using buses it’s best to carry MN, a bus ride cost no more than 0.50 MN
Hitchhiking– I’m never a big advocate for hitchhiking but the boys and I went to the beach in Cienfuegos and we stayed so late that there were no taxis in site. After walking for a good 2 hours, it was getting dark and we found ourselves on a highway getting devoured by mosquitos. Hitchhiking was our only option.
Out of all these modes of transportation, if you have limited mobility the best way to travel is by taxi. If you choose other modes of transport, people are really good at helping and giving you enough time to board.
less than 5% of Cubans have access to internet. The only places where you will be able to use Wifi are near big hotels. You will need to purchase an internet card (anyone can guide you to the nearest location to buy a card) there’s usually a long line to purchase them. The cards are about $2 for an hour. They are also available to purchase in major hotels however it will be twice the price.
You can’t deny the coffee culture in Cuba. I’m not much of a coffee drinker but even I had to partake in it.
“un cafe seniorita”
I sat at this small restaurant while sipping on my coffee still in awe of this place and in disbelief that I was finally here. the first thing to do in Habana is to explore Habana Vieja or Old Havana. It is often referred to as the heart of the capital. In 1982 Old Havana was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is the most touristy place in Havana but the old streets, colorful houses, churches and street performers make it worthwhile. Personally, I have a hard time enjoying a city without beautiful architecture, I could walk around Havana all day. It was hot and humid, I wore a simple dress and a large hat to protect myself from the sun.
We walked around the city exploring its colorful colonial buildings. If you are a history and architecture lover here are some places to visit on foot:
Plaza de la catedral
Catedral de San Cristobal
Palacio de lo marqueses
museo de arte colonial
There were many things that I loved about Cuba but the cars, oh the vintage cars, nothing could compare. The boys and I went to the center and bargain with the drivers for a 2 hour drive in Habana and Varadero.We drove down Paseo del prado where just weeks prior, Chanel transformed it as their runway for their first ever fashion show in Cuba. We were told that police barricaded the area and cubans were not allowed to watch the show. Tourism is now booming in Cuba but to what extent? who is benefiting and as a traveller how do you make sure you are not part of a destructive tourism?
after 3 days in Havana we decided to explore the south. before departing I realized that I probably didn’t withdraw enough money. There are ATM in Cuba however americans cannot withdraw from them. I called a meeting with the boys only to find out that they had withdraw even less money than me. To say the least it was a hot mess. I suggested that everyone put aside $70 dollars for collective transportation. The money we each had left was not even enough to eat 3 proper meals a day. Our priorities were to stay hydrated so we made sure we bough enough water bottles then got acquainted to the local bakery. Knowing that I had money but not have access to it was frustrating. I looked into every possible solution , I thought of having my sister send money through western union but only cuban nationals can accept money through money transfer services and the money needs to come from a family member. For less than $5 by breakfast and lunch consisted of bread and honey and later I’d have a semi elaborate dinner.
We arrived in Cienfuegos and stayed at yet another Airbnb. this had more of a hostel feel (although I had my own bedroom). It was right in the middle of the city which made it easy to explore. Cienfuegos attracts many tourist however it is less touristy than havana, we spent the day exploring Cienfuegos on foot.
After 4 days exploring cities I was ready for the beach. we took a taxi to Rancho Luna where we spent the whole day sun bathing, sleeping and eating (on our tiny budget).
I was born on an island (NYC) and grew up on one (Haiti) its no mystery why I love to be near the ocean but beach days are always bittersweet. Although I’m a proud advocate for body positivity and occasionally plan workshop for high school girls, my body insecurities seem to always emerge on beach days. Shedding those layers and having everyone stare at you is just so scary, even scarier when abroad because different cultural norms come with different reactions. Surprisingly enough I got looks but not stares. (for bathing suit details read (6 items to bring on your next trip to Cuba)
My afro roots and my family’s strong ties to vodooism led me to Palmira, a town known for its Santeria Culture. I was told that the Museo Municipal was a must, unfortunately when we arrived the museum was closed even tough it was supposed to be open, and yes that’s Cuba for you. Before you make any big plans call to make sure they are in fact open. If you are lucky to be there in early December, there are several religious ceremonies taking place during that time. That didn’t stop us from exploring. Almost deserted with it’s beaten down road and building, to me that’s what makes Palmira so appealing. I also found the people to be friendlier here.
After 6 days dealing with budgeting, exploring cities and public transportation, we decided to end our trip near Habana. We rented a pool house in Playa Del Este. We spend our final days spending early morning at the pool , walking around town and spending the day at the beach. To be honest, there wasn’t anything too interesting there but it provided us with some much need peace and quiet.
Wherever you are, home country or abroad, you should always be alert. As a black woman, Cuba was one of the safest countries I ‘ve ever visited. I walked at night alone and never felt unsafe.
I had a wonderful time exploring Cuba, although the food didn’t quite satisfy me as a foodie, meeting the friendly people of Cuba and exploring Cuba through it’s vibrant colors, music and architecture was an unparalleled experience. I will tell you what my good friend told me. The best time to visit Cuba is 15 year ago, the next best time is now.