The natural inclination when most of us think about Cuba, is to think about vintage cars and cigars. My experience in Cuba was so much more than that. Cuba is other-worldly. Cuba is an alternate universe take on the Latin American culture. Cuba is both what is and what could have been. To understand how this place developed into this phantasmagoric destination, we need only look into the recent past of it's people. Cuba has a unique political and societal journey over the last 60 years that has left it unmolested, from a certain point of view, but also wildly underdeveloped from another.
We flew to Cuba through Fort Lauderdale, FL with little trouble. Currently (as of May, 2017), travel to Cuba via the USA has some restrictions. From our experience, these limitations are relatively mild. We traveled to the country with the intention of learning about and capturing Cuba's beautiful culture and people, and we received our visas to the country under the educational category. Once in the country, the Cuban people welcomed us with open arms. We were often stopped on the streets by locals and thanked for coming to their country. They wanted to praise the beauty of their landscape and show off the many cultural and leisurely pleasures of their nation. If you're contemplating making the trip but the travel limitations give you pause, I would whole-heartedly encourage you to drop those inhibitions.
Our accommodations were quite modest. When traveling, one of the things I value more than anything is a full submersion into the culture of the people I'm visiting. For Cuba, air conditioning is a bit of a luxury. The water isn't clean; you have to buy bottled water. The plumbing is outdated, and the apartments are meager. I think living like the people you're visiting is at least 50% of why I love to travel so much. There's a time for tourist hot spots; we certainly visited some, but culture and experience are so much more important.
Havana is a city of juxtaposition. Walking the streets, one of the first things you'll notice is the abundance of elegant French colonial architecture; however, neglect has left many of these buildings without a roof or windows. These areas are sometimes gated off from the general public, but often they're left completely unmarked. Many of the would-be balconies have fallen apart and are left with trees and plants taking up permanent residence. However, take a look across the street and see new construction, look down the road and see newer Korean cars, or look behind you and see a new business opening up. Havana is in a unique period in their evolution. With the recent trade restrictions lifted, wait too long to visit, and this city will have lost much of it's era static qualities.
While on our 4 day trip, we visited churches and museums. The history in Cuba is intriguing. There's an entire museum dedicated to the revolution. We also tried the Cuban cigars and rum: if you're particularly keen for an adventure, you can even tour the valley where they make the cigars. However, the core of our trip was spent journeying through the streets of old and new Havana. This is where we spent time with locals; trying our best to communicate in a language none of us spoke well. It's also where we found the best Cuban food; seafood is relatively inexpensive and rice, beans, and plantains are a core for most every dish.
What makes Cuba truly unique is the clear and vibrant Latin American culture that has been distorted by the taint of political communist revolution. On one hand, the people are open, friendly, loud, and bright, but it's counterbalanced by a dominant government hand. For example, in order to access the internet, you need to purchase "internet cards," which are only sold by the government. Think of going to the DMV every time you needed to access the internet. We waited in line for an hour to purchase ours. Many of the restaurants are government sponsored as well, which simply means that their menus, quantities, prices, and ingredients are all standard across the board. In fact, the only restaurants who are allowed to deviate from this standard are the ones built in homes. The strong government hand is why we see so many vintage cars. Back in 1960, Cuban officials took possession of US businesses in Cuba, and the US government put a trade embargo on them lasting for nearly 60 years. The cars are just the outward symptom of something evident throughout the entire country: Cuba is just now leaving the 1950s.
Special shout out to Pat Black who had the idea to go to Cuba! Follow him on instagram: @patblackattack for his photos and video of the trip. Wanna see where I'm headed next? Be sure to follow me on instagram: @stephenatohi