You’ve seen the news and you’re excited. As a part of his farewell tour of legislation, President Barack Obama and his administration is making Cuba more of a travel reality than ever before by easing restrictions and reopening our embassy on la isla. So what’s next? Aside from navigating your way there, there are a few things to know about visiting Cuba before you go. As a woman who has travelled to Cuba multiple times (7+), both on my own and with friends, my experience has been varied but very niche in the sense that my own culture allowed me to blend in more organically and I began to see Cuba for what it truly is—complicated. A beautiful, complicated mashup of culture, religion, politics and fun that will never leave you once you visit. If Cuba is on your list for this year, here is a quick Parlour style break down on what you’ll need to get started and what to do before you go and what to expect once you get there. No bathroom horror stories included.
First, A Reality Check
Due to the embargo, Cuba has been “cut off” from the United States since 1960 which placed a ban on the export of US food, medicine and goods. This has led to many Americans to falsely assume that Cuba has in turn, been “cut off” from the entire world and frozen in time. False. While the ban on imports from it’s most immediate neighbor has impacted the island greatly, Cuba has remained a popular tourist and limited business destination for the rest of the world since the 1960’s. There you will find cars from Italy and Korea, electronics from Japan and a kid skateboarding past you with an iPhone in his hand and an Arsenal kit on his back. German, Italian and Canadian tourists are everywhere, both in Havana and in beach towns like Varadero. In Havana, you will stroll pass some of the oldest (and beautiful) houses you’ve ever seen that appear to be crumbling on the outside, with someone watching baseball on a flatscreen tv inside. Due to the amount of Cubans living abroad both here in the US and Europe and South America, global influences and goods are everywhere and a crucial part of keeping Cuba as current as it can be within it’s limited capacity. Again, beautifully complicated.
What you won’t see is an over-abundance of pan-handlers, or any Feed The Children style poverty stereotypes. Cubans, no matter their financial status, are a very educated and proud people with their basic need of housing, food and education guaranteed. Your empathy will be better spent in supporting local businesses, going to local concerts, making friends and purposely leaving somethings behind. I’ll get into what that means below.
Also, as a woman of color, people may assume that you are Cuban. This can be an advantage and a hindrance based on your complexion as colorism and class issues still run deep on la isla. Small things like getting stopped while trying to enter a hotel (just say “I’m American” and they’ll let you in), or having foreign men assume you are a ‘working girl’ have all happened to me and other friends who have visited. But on the flip-side, I’m stopped less on the street by jineteros in high tourist traffic areas and can sometimes hitch a ride inside a maquinar based on my complexion and Spanish and if I’m on a roll, I can pay for things using pesos. Use your culture as a gateway to make friends and have great conversation. Many Cubans, Afro-Cubans especially, feel a strong connection to Black Americans and will engage in discussions about their own culture and want to learn more about yours. If you wear your hair natural, prepare for many questions about care and maintenance as girls love to flaunt their curls and discuss the latest styles and products.
1. Do Your Homework
Cuba is probably my favorite island destination due to it’s amazing cultural and political history, much of which is still active on the island today. With that, do your research. Both Frommer’s and Lonely Planet have two of the best written guidebooks on Cuba, that also give good chunks of history to read up on. This will help as you navigate your destination and will go a long way with locals, who make it a point to stay on top of American history and will ask you many questions if engaged. I have always preferred the Lonely Planet books and online boards as they give you real-time experiences from others and offer great tips as Cuba really does change by the minute. In addition, the LP guide also gives a raw break down on the culture of jineteros/as or “jockeys.” Every major city has their hustlers, but what makes Cuban jineteros unique is that they aren’t as much hustling to survive but more so hustling just to make some money and get some free, expensive meals. With that, they can be charming as hell but also extremely annoying and in some cases, a nuisance.
Again, get a book and take it with you. You more than likely will not have mobile internet service (unless you can get a foreign SIM and phone) while there and can pretty much can forget about anything higher than a dial-up line at a local internet cafe or business center. With that, handy tools like Google Maps and travel guides may not be available on your phone, and this is when the book’s maps and guides come in handy. Both books also include some important Cuban phrases and slang that are good to learn in addition to basic Spanish that will help you self-navigate. Case in point: Never order ‘papaya,’ always say ‘fruta bomba.’ Unless you’d like sliced vagina with your morning yogurt!
Also, while your credit card may work by the time you visit, don’t count on it to be accepted everywhere. Bring cash and use it. Take out even more than you think you will need before you arrive to Cuba. The Cuban exchange rate on the CUC vs the US Dollar are technically equal but the exchange rate will ding you a bit but don’t be mad—you have a few decades of history to blame for that.
2. Choose Local
While the desire to stay in a hotel like The Nacional or may be a draw for history buffs or a honeymoon, consider using Havana’s many hotels as places to visit for lunch or drinks and stay in a casa particular aka the original AirBnb. [Update: AirBnb is now available to Americans in Cuba and a host of casas are listed!] This almost 20 year-old system of renting out one’s house has two man benefits: you get to stay in a real Cuban home with real Cuban neighbors doing real Cuban things, and it also directly benefits a local family as opposed to a big hotel. And once you stay in a casa, you will also have word-of-mouth access to the local paladars in your neighborhood. Like casa particulars, paladars are in-home restaurants and takeaways that are a great, cheaper alternative to restaurants, which can truly be hit or miss. Everyone has their favorite paladar and people will be happy to help set you up with one that can either package the food for you to eat in your own apartment, or host you for a sit-down dinner. This is another great way to practice your Spanish and meet more local friends as many Cubans patronize paladars with their families and many of the smaller paladar hosts will happily join you for after-dinner rum and invite you to stay for a game of dominoes or join them in watching any sport. One of my personal favorites happens to be the one that Anthony Bourdain visited when filming No Reservations there, Los Amigos. It’s definitely worth the hype, and the wait. To get started on finding a casa particular, try Cuba Junky, who I’ve heard good things about.
3. Do Cuban Things
My godmother (who lives east of Havana) and I share an inside joke when discussing anything to do with Cuba—there is a more complicated “Cuban Way” of doing everything. But when it comes to relaxing and having fun, definitely do it Cubano as Cubans take relaxing very seriously. Stroll the malecón at night to see all of the different crews and groups dancing, free styling (Cuban hip-hop is it’s own mega culture), drinking, kissing and just enjoying the weather. Skip drinks at a bar and grab a bottle of Havana Club, some plastic cups and a bag of ice to sit/sip outside and people watch. Stop and get ice cream at the famous Coppelia (just be sure to say “ultimo” when looking for the end of the line), and look around for flyers to see what local musicians and hip-hop groups are playing. If you see a flyer for the band Van Van, just go, wear comfortable dancing shoes and thank me later.
When walking the streets of Havana Viejo aka Old Havana, stop by the main Parque Central and witness the men verbally go to war over Cuban Baseball. If it is baseball season, someone there or your lodging host can get you a ticket to a game. Take in Cuba’s many beautiful museums, art galleries and open air markets. And if you are staying in a casa particular and need to get groceries, indulge and take your time at the agros or open markets. It’s definitely best to ask a local to accompany you for the first time, especially if your Spanish is not fluent as volume negotiating is common (not bartering, which can be insulting to some) and that can help you both out. Here, you will also see more of the local peso economy at work. At press time, I hear they are phasing this system out, but there are technically two currencies in Cuba, the CUC and the peso. I broke it down a while back here. If you can successfully get people to sell to you in pesos, then you’re definitely passing for Cuban!
4. Leave Some Things Behind
As mentioned earlier, the U.S. imposed embargo has made it difficult for many Cubans to get access to many things we take for granted. Like Ibuprofen. I learned this the last time I was there as I was casually offered 10 CUCs for my unopened bottle of Advil and even more if my bag of plastic applicator tampons and moisturizer could stay behind too. While these are not hard to find in Cuba, name brand basics are way more expensive for locals to afford. With that, pack a little extra of your basics, and casually leave them behind in your hotel room or with your casa particular hosts when you leave. It will not see the trash and someone will be very, very grateful in return, and you’ll have more room for all the rum you’ll want to pack in your bag.
Overall, be safe and have fun. Politely ask people to take pictures of them (especially children) and try your best to speak Spanish, even if you need a little help. Go with the flow, lukewarm to cold showers included, and take in the food, the culture and the scenery for what it is—a country in the midst of a major transition. And if you can salsa, you can timba.Visit Barrio Chino for real, authentic Chinese food (thanks to Cold War era Chinese immigration), start at Dos Dragones and be a total tourist and have a mojito at Hemingway’s infamous Bodeguita de Medio. Both are my faves. Enjoy!
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