During the extent of a fifty-four-year embargo, Cuba has remained a mystery to the American public, yet with the recent move to re-establish relations with the US, curiosity seekers can now see what the country really has to offer.
What travelers will soon come to realize is that all of Cuba is a museum. We have all seen the photos and heard the tales of Detroit’s finest classics rolling down the streets in Cuba. If there is one thing that the Cuban people are incredible at, it’s the art of improvisation. Their ability to make something from nothing has allowed them to keep these 1950’s American classics running all of these years, and their resourcefulness shines through in everything they do.
It is true that the roads both inside and outside of Havana are in disrepair and that many of its structures are in poor condition, yet despite the dilapidation, the capital city is still stunning in all of its authenticity. So untouched by time that it’s almost beyond comprehension for a modern day American girl like myself.
Being one of the first American women to legally visit the country when it was on the brink of change, I am often asked for advice on Cuba. Well, my greatest piece of advice is, run, don’t walk. Things are changing quickly and it soon will not be the place you have heard about and imagined. Now that everyone seems to be jumping on the Cuba bandwagon, the best way to visit Cuba is to have some experiences that few tourists will have.
Transport Back to The 50’s
Stay at Casa’s instead of hotels. My favorite options in any travel experience are the ones that lead me to live like a local instead of a tourist. With the first tastes of capitalism, Cubans are taking advantage of letting you rent space in their residence, much like a bed & breakfast. Spanish for “home,” casas are one of the most affordable options for lodging. This is an amazing opportunity to interact with the locals and break bread with your host family.
I always jump at the opportunity to interact with locals and see how they live their day-to-day lives.
Concerning Cuba, it is an exceptional time in history for Cubans especially those venturing into the untamed waters of capitalism in a still very much communist nation. The people that are renting rooms and working in tourism have quickly had their lives changed for the better. Most rooms rent for the equivalent of $30/night. Just to put that into perspective, the majority of Cubans make $40 a month. Although it’s taxed, that money is going directly into the pockets of the Cuban Entrepreneurs instead of the hotels, aka the socialist government. Staying in a casa can offer any traveler an unmatched insight into Cuban culture. Even if you happen to be the type of traveler that enjoys the amenities offered by a hotel, one night at a casa for the experience certainly couldn’t hurt.
Learn Where Those Cigars Come From
Visit Vinales, where all of the famed Cuban tobacco is grown. The plantations are beautiful. Most importantly, you can purchase Cuba’s hottest commodity, Cuban cigars, right from the source. Visit local farms and plantations, see how the tobacco is grown, aged, and rolled into a perfect cigar. Most importantly, these cigars will only cost you about $1 USD a piece, so it’s the perfect opportunity to stock up!
Tan With The Locals
The Cuban beaches are some of the best in the world, however there are some local secrets. When interviewing my friend Frank Alpizar, one of the most sought after tour guides in all of Havana I asked him what is place most tourists don’t see in Cuba that they should?
“There are beaches near Havana where tourists barely go because they consider it to be very Cuban, but they should go there. They should go to the beaches, both on the east and west part of the city, because they normally go to the islands, and they’re nice but they’re very touristy. You should go to the beaches where Cubans go”. His suggestion is a beach by the name of Santa Maria.
However you decide to spend your time in Cuba, make sure you understand that you are visiting a place that has been largely closed off to much of the world for decades. Although, upon arriving, you will realize that the US was probably more censored about Cuba, than Cuba was from the US. Regardless, remember that it is not a glamorous destination. Streets and buildings are in disrepair, hotels are oversold and having a hard time keeping up with demands from guests.
Bring your patience, an open mind and you will be sure to have one of the most incredible life experiences. Bring too many expectations, and you will ruin it. Most importantly, get away from the other tourists and discover the real Cuba.
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