A Week in Cuba: Reflections and Travel Tips

We strolled up Calle 17 in the Vedado neighborhood in Havana, shirts sticking to our backs after an enlightening bike tour. It didn’t take long for two men to quickly approach us. “Taxi, taxi?”  

“Si,’ I replied. “Como esta?”

“Estoy luchando para alimentar a mi familia,” he replied with a shrug.

Rebecca caught enough to realize that he said I’m fighting to feed my family. We followed, hopping in a rusted red and white vintage car after he accepted a price of roughly 10 bucks for a return to our casa particular. There was a small cactus growing out of the backseat. Halfway home, the engine stalled out and our driver pulled over on Avenida 26 next to some closed storefronts with second story apartments, laundry flapping lazily in the breeze on small balconies. He popped the hood, grabbed a screwdriver, and within five minutes we were on the way again.

It proved to be a symbolic ride.

Fighting to make things work and scrap out a living seems to exemplify life in Cuba, where everything is available on the black market and everyone has a side hustle. They have to. We were told that government salaries average something like 30 dollars a month. Modestly successful taxi drivers earn more than government doctors.

And even though Cubans have many needs provided for by the State, including health care, heavily subsidized food staples, and higher education, one of our guides challenged us to consider the tradeoff. “But are we free? If I can’t save up money to buy a plane ticket or start any business I choose, I’m not free…”

This was one man’s opinion, and it seemed pretty clear that the Cuban people have conflicting opinions about their government. And there happened to be a historic referendum on February 24th, as the Cuban people voted on amending the constitution. 86% voted yes, 14% voted no, and our sense was that the dissenters have little faith in the Communist system.

Seeing a place still dominated by its Communist Party and attending ideology is eye-popping. Living in the States–and even traveling around the world–you take for granted the potential freedoms afforded by economic choice, even in impoverished places. In less affluent places like Tanzania, Georgia, and Vietnam, there’s still a relentless pulse of entrepreneurship and markets with abundant produce.

In certain neighborhoods in Havana, the lack of private businesses was glaring. Want to pop into a convenience store to buy a bag of chips or a pack of gum? Good luck. Want to buy beef or seafood? You’ll pay a premium. Despite being the largest island in the Caribbean, the country has virtually no fishing industry (they sold their boats off after the fall of the Soviet Union). But of course, resourceful Cubans have adopted techniques like using cheap condoms as fishing equipment.

But man, was it cool to dust off the buried high school spanish and do our best to support the Cuban people, one of 12 designated reasons Americans can officially visit Cuba. We supported the people by booking Airbnb’s (essentially homestays called casa particulars) and tours, where enterprising young Cubans taught us the basics of salsa dancing and led us on walking and biking tours. It was fascinating to learn about the history of the revolution, including Che Guevara and Fidel Castro’s famous yacht journey from Mexico to the shores of Cuba, where they landed with only 80 other men to spread their insurgency.

The first night, we stopped at a local bar and two strangers–Lasaro and his friend Edel–invited us to sit down at a white plastic table for a cold cerveza, latin music bumping in the background. Through sign language and patience, we shared some laughs and insights into each other’s lives. Before we left, Lasaro had swept up Rebecca for an impromptu dance lesson. If I haven’t mentioned it before, my wife is a badass traveling companion.

The second night, we wandered around the neighborhood near our homestay, struggling to find an open restaurant. A man offered to take us to a good spot–we hopped in his car and he provided us with a taxi service gratis.

The third night, our airbnb hostess made multiple calls to try and help us with transportation for our journey to Trinidad, a massively charming 500-year-old spanish colonial city on the Caribbean coast (also a place with a much better tourist infrastructure than Havana, IMO, largely due to higher percentage of private enterprise).

I’d like to go back someday. I’d heard people say Go to Cuba before it changes too much. It still feels really exotic, especially given its proximity to the United States. But for the sake of the average Cuban, I hope that it does change–so many are struggling due to a combination of factors, including the American economic embargo. This seems like such a silly relic of the Cold War, although it’s not clear whether the Cuban government truly wants better relations with the US.

Tips for traveling to Cuba:

Travel independently if you have an adventurous spirit! As Americans you can’t stay in a number of hotels because they are attached to or monitored by the Cuban government (according to the Trump administration). But you can easily book other accommodations. Here’s a list of other regulations to be concerned about–these didn’t affect our journey in any way.

Bring snacks with you. Though no fault of the people, the scarcity of ingredients and relative lack of flavor in the food we ate was a little surprising. It’s also hard to find snacks–especially processed food like granola bars, chips, crackers, etc. On the return flight from Havana to Boston, the hands grasping for bags of pretzels and Cheez-its were practically rife with desperation as folks craved packaged salty goodness! The best Cuban food that I’ve ever eaten happens to be from Louisville, KY, at Havana Rumba. I’m guessing items like a “Cuban” sandwich originated in South Florida because I never saw one on any menu.

Embrace the digital detox! In Cuba, internet access is spotty and sparse. You can buy scratch cards for access and then get on the internet in designated public spots. With that said, make sure you download the Maps.me app to your phone before travel. It was super handy having a detailed offline map at our disposal.

Explore beyond Old Havana. We saw cruise ships and tour groups come and go from Havana harbor into the charming area with renovated and crumbling buildings side by side. and while you get a tiny taste of Cuban life in the most famous areas of the Caribbean’s largest city, it’s too shallow a sample for my liking.

Check out the Fabrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory) while in Havana. This place is cool, a testament to the proud arts culture (of all types) in Cuba. During our two hours there, we enjoyed a flamenco performance and a number of visual arts installations.

Speak whatever Spanish you can muster. Most everyone we encountered was receptive and gracious in attempting to understand our espanol. Plus, it was fun to practice. You can travel in Cuba without knowing Spanish, but it seems to be a big plus. During one week, we have at least ten encounters with taxi drivers, vendors, or civilians who spoke no English.

Be patient. Things aren’t necessarily efficient in Cuba, from transportation to restaurant service. Sit back and enjoy a mojito. Or two. I think I’ve rediscovered my summer drink.