I'd like to begin this post with a bit of retrospective advise. No matter how experienced a traveler you are, Cuba has some particular nuances and difficulties that are unique to it, and in my planning and preparation, I could not find explicitly described anywhere. So as of May 2018, here are some general tips for Americans traveling to Cuba that I wish someone had made clear to me for the purpose of planning:
- The visa process is not as difficult as your think. Proceed with booking the flight as you usually would through one of the primary American carriers (I flew Delta), and as part of the flight reservation process, you must declare a reason for traveling to Cuba that is not tourism. I traveled under the 'journalism' declaration. You can reserve and obtain these 'Tourist Cards' in the airport at the departure gate. Keep this card very safe because you have to give them back when you depart. I'm not sure what would happen if you lost the Tourist Card, but I am sure that you don't want to find out.
- The local people love Americans. Don't think the political issues between our two countries has tainted the local society. Everyone is happy to chat, happy to learn, happy to teach, and happy to help you spend money.
- Do expect everyone to want to talk to you. Do expect everyone to try to sell you rip-off versions of all the usual things tourists travel to Cuba for.
- For a typical American traveler, bringing back a few Cuban cigars and rum is not illegal. Bringing back more than $800 worth is illegal.
- Airbnb makes everything easier and better in Cuba. Every Home we stayed in and every Experience we did while in Cuba was reserved through the online booking service, and all of it was fantastic. This trip to Cuba simply could not have been such a success without Airbnb.
- You will need cash. More cash than you think you'll need. Your credit cards and bank accounts associated with any American company or address are worthless. Take out more cash than you expect to ever need and just understand that the cost of exchanging USD to EUR and then to CUC is just part of the unique tax that Americans still have to pay in Cuba. If your run out of paper money, the only option is to find a way to receive money through Western Union.
Now that you have that context, what follows is my journalistic account of my five days in this incredibly unique country.
I arrived at the Havana airport a couple of hours after my friend Dan. I had the address of the home we were renting that night, and I was thinking through the necessary Spanish to guide the taxi driver to the home. I checked my phone. My Google Fi service, which operates in 170+ countries, was totally offline. When I walked out of the airport into the sweaty chaos of taxi drivers hawking fares, I couldn't help myself but smile. I was again in a developing country. I was again an outsider. I was again in my comfort zone.
After a 20 minute trip into downtown Havana, I was dropped off at the address that I showed the drive and began to seek the Airbnb reservation. I quickly found what I thought was the appropriate room, but Dan was nowhere to be seen, and the door was locked. He had the only keys, so I kindly began speaking with the neighbors of the condo complex and they assured me they had seen my friend earlier that day and that they were sure he'd be back soon. A kind old gentleman invited me to have a seat in his living room and put down my bags while I waited. I did just that and continued dusting off the Spanish I hadn't used in many years, all the while hoping that I was indeed at the right home and trying my best to not think about what I'd do if I wasn't.
Fortunately, I didn't have to wait long for Dan to return. With a breath of evaporating tension, I embraced the buddy that I hadn't seen in years. He unlocked the home, I threw my bags down, and we ventured out for my first afternoon in Cuba. Because our first planned event wasn't until the following morning, that afternoon, we were free to just get familiar with the immediate area. We meandered around the neighborhood and followed what appeared to be a main road all the way to the bay. We chose a restaurant that reached out into the bay to sit down and enjoy our first mojitos in Cuba. It was then that the full context began to roll over me. We had made it. We were Americans sitting at a restaurant in downtown Havana, Cuba, gazing north beyond the bay towards the United States, towards south Florida. Not thinking about work, not thinking about bills, only thinking about all the various forms of exploration to come over the next few days. This is me in my element; this is my peak.
After an impromptu journey to a prominent statue of Jesus Christ overlooking the bay with a friendly gentleman we had just befriended at the restaurant, we decided to get settled in early on night one. We had dinner at a quaint rooftop lounge very near our Airbnb home, discussed all that we hoped to encounter over the next few days, and then called it a night.
The following morning, we began our photojournalism tour promptly at 9am. The purpose of this tour was to have a local professional photographer guide us around the most interesting parts of Havana and teach us how to best get shots of the local city life. In particular, he gave us the courage to meet local people and get candid shots of and with them. As you may have already guessed from my online photo store, I'm no stranger to travel photography, but our host really helped reinforce that the most interesting images involve humans in their natural habitats and daily lives. I had once discovered this while living in Southeast Asia, but have since fallen out of practice. It absolutely seems intrusive and rash to walk around pointing cameras and people in a foreign country, but nine times out of ten, the reaction is a smile and a general curiosity why anyone would find them interesting going about their daily chores. Occasionally, there are people that prefer to not be photographed, but with a quick and respectful apology, there are never any real issues.
It was during this morning tour that I really began to grasp the full impact of the decades of trade embargoes against Cuba. Growing up in the United States, I am very used to all the various products, especially consumer packaged goods and electronics, being produced in another country, being imported, and being tagged with "Made in XZY Country". This is so common that brands in the US actually promote that a product is 'Made in the USA' as a differentiator. But in Cuba, a nation that has been punished for decades by global trade sanctions, everything must be produced domestically. The stamp of 'Hecho en Cuba' is on water bottles, beer bottles, soda cans, every bit of packaged food in the local tiendas, all the clothing in shopping malls, and just about every other commercial necessity for a functioning society. This both served to help me appreciate how important international trade is for a modern society, but also respect the adaptability of the locals to make the most of the goods and services they have at their disposal and produce almost everything a society needs to function internally. I greatly respected that, even as it went counter to everything I had learned in my international business education and career. Or perhaps because of it.
A natural effect of this exclusively domestic production, however, is the inability to import goods that may be produced cheaper in another country or the ability to leverage cost savings at economies of scale. The result of this was that everything in Cuba was more expensive than I expected. In tourist parts of town, there was only a negligible difference in prices than what I'm used to in the United States. Beers cost $2-$3, cocktails $3-$5. Meals range from $4-$10. Hotels cost $40-$80 per night. Taxis were almost more expensive than Uber or Lyft here in the States. I was honestly more surprised than I should've been by these higher costs. That's about on par with the rest of Latin America, but the Cuban economy is very different from that of Chile or Uruguay or Panama.
So the natural next question is, how do locals survive? The Cubans that I interacted with through Airbnb are probably all doing okay, but they were all clearly in the top 1%. Cubans that work in factories make the equivalent of $30 USD a month. That's one dollar a day. And while I did learn about a few of the provisions provided by the communist government, such as each family receiving a bag of rice and beans every month, that is in no way sustainable. Every Cuban that I discussed this with all agreed. That's why almost everyone has some sort of under-the-table, unofficial side business or side hustle that is unregulated and untaxed. That is quite literally the only way for anyone to survive.
The photojournalism tour was wonderful. We explored many parts of Havana that I never would've been able to see on my own. After three hours of wandering around town getting great shots, we needed to return to our home base and prepare for the next move. That afternoon, we had a driver take us the two hours from Havana down to the coastline community, Varadero, where we met our next Airbnb host for the next two days.
The morning of the 3rd, we needed to meet a guide in a town about 20 minutes from where we were staying in Varadero. Fortunately, we had arranged a private ride the previous evening, but it still required us to be ready and on our way at a very early hour. We arrived at our meeting location, wandered around the vicinity for about twenty minutes because we couldn't find our guide, and just as our panic approached a crescendo, we saw someone waving at and approaching us from a small park area. With a surge of relief, we joined our guide, followed him to his vehicle, and set off for the morning excursion.
We cruised over to a private beach side enclave, and almost immediately, our guide began showing unease about the ocean condition. While there didn't appear to be a storm approaching, it was quite windy, and the waves were cresting sharply. The plan was to swim out into the bay where there was a coral reef with plenty of fish to hunt and catch with spears. The guide said he thought it'd still be possible, but would be tough swimming for several hours and could get even worse. Because we were Americans in Cuba, and I had absolutely no idea what to do if anything went wrong, I erred on the side of safety. I made the call that I'd prefer the prudent option, and we set off to a nearby cave to experience our guide's contingency plan - swimming and snorkeling in a nearby freshwater underground cavern.
The cave diving, while not what we had originally planned, was incredible. We were maybe a couple hundred yards away from the rocky coastline. Hidden underneath some jagged rock outcroppings was a nook that at first didn't appear to be anything remarkable. But after venturing within, putting on our flippers and snorkels, and diving into the dark fresh water, the cave proved to have surprising depth and hidden corners and recesses that seemed to sprawl forever. Our guide, after enjoying a pre-dive cigarette, swam down to the very bottom of the cave, looked up at us, and beckon us to venture down to him. He lounged down at the bottom of the cave watching his disciples try and fail to reach him for several minutes at a time. He had given us pointers for how to handle depths greater than about 10-15 feet. Because the pressure on your body grows quite quickly, you're supposed to breathe out, letting air escape your lungs, and you're supposed to pop your ears, just like you do as airplanes take off. I tried both of those tactics, but still could only reach about half the depth of our guide. Not only that, but my empty lungs started craving air after about 20 seconds. Even though I proved to be not much of a cave diver, I did very much appreciate getting to have this unique experience with my friend. After a couple hours, we returned to the surface, our guide enjoyed several more cigarettes while we sipped a few local beers, then we proceeded back to Varadero around mid-afternoon.
This was our third day in Cuba, the middle day of a five-day excursion. Other than the strong winds, this was a beautiful day. I sat that evening on the front porch of our Airbnb thinking, reflecting, writing, sipping Havana Club with a splash of pineapple juice. I thought about all the various roads that lead me to where I sat that day. I thought of all the various roads I'll travel in the future. I'm not surprised that I'm quite pensive and reflective in such circumstances. For that day, the 3rd of May and my third day in Cuba, was my 30th birthday.
The day after my 30th birthday, we returned to Havana. We again had an organized event through Airbnb in the afternoon, so we arranged for another personal driver to take us on the two hour trip from Varadero back to the capital that morning. Once back in Havana, we first met our host family at the new home where we would reside that night, then quickly embarked on the final official organized experience of our trip. And I do think we saved that best for last.
This final experience was a guided sampling and history lesson of perhaps Cuba's most famous commodity - cigars. I don't believe I had ever smoked a cigar in my life before visiting Cuba. I was very curious to know what the big deal was. Its hard to even talk about cigars or Cuba without referencing the other. Its very much like Mexico and tequila or Spain and paella or Japan and sushi. I wanted to know more. I wanted to understand the famous legacy, and the experience we reserved provided exactly that context.
Our host had himself worked in cigar factories for years, and so was able to give us first hand details about what the beginning to end process of tobacco cultivation and cigar packaging and production encompasses. While this background was presented, we were also granted our host's favorite local cigar and encouraged to enjoy it, along with some high quality Cuban rum and Spanish-style tapas. I had no idea what to expect, but I enjoyed every bit of this. If you've never smoked a cigar, they truly do have a smooth, earthy taste, and lead to a gentle, relaxing head buzz. They pair perfectly with a full-bodied spirit and a sunset.
By this time, we were both running dangerously low on cash, so after the cigar experience finished, we picked up one last bottle of Havana Club, then returned to the balcony of our Airbnb home and reflected on the past several days. We were exhausted, but fulfilled.
Our flights left mid-morning on Saturday, May 5th, so we traded or last reserves of paper money for a taxi to the airport. Dan's flight left a couple hours before mine, so after he departed, I had some time to myself. I sat at my departure gate, pensive and reflective again. I was thankful that this trip went largely as planned without any unexpected disasters. Although we did come close. I only had one CUC left in my pocket. I couldn't even afford one last cup of coffee. But that was okay; I made it. All of the various places we stayed and events we experienced were a great success. Everything I had hoped Cuba to be, it was, and so much more. Unique in so many ways; exciting and challenging in so many ways. Much like the water bottles and the cigars and the cane sugar rum, I very much appreciate that my thirtieth cumpleaño fue hecho en Cuba.