There’s a lot you could say about Cuba, and on a number of different topics: politics, art, government policies, music, education, healthcare….
But as a visitor looking to get a glimpse into this unique island nation, there are a few things I think my girlfriends and I did right.
So here are my 5 tips for making the most of your experience while visiting.
Say yes to una casa particular
I’ll declare my bias: I’m generally not a huge fan of weeklong vacations at chain all-inclusive resorts.
Sure – I understand why the convenience is attractive in a lot of different ways. And don’t get me wrong, if you give me a free vacation to a resort with luxurious amenities – I’m definitely going. But I just don’t think we can equate spending a week lounging at an all inclusive with actually seeing and appreciating a country.
If what you want is to get a glimpse into Cuba: the history, the people, the politics, the grit, the old marble staircases in century old buildings, the reggaeton playing from the house of a neighbour, the man selling bread while singing his ‘jingle’ on the streets: then stay in a Casa. Trust me.
A casa can take the form of a room in a Cuban’s house, an apartment Cubans have rented out, or a bed and breakfast. We did all three and we had no regrets. Our hosts were all amazing and extremely helpful. You can access a number of casas through airbnb… but even before airbnb the casa system had long existed in Cuba.When you’re there you’ll see plenty of options that aren’t necessarily all available online. And because I know you’re wondering – yes, we felt very safe. Overall, we felt safe in Cuba. But when booking we also paid attention to reviews. We were also reassured of the system as while we were at one of our casas, a polite but firm immigration official came to ensure that the proper processes were in place and being followed by our host.
Sometimes its good to talk to strangers…
Because who likes snobby, entitled tourists? Not me.
I actually run away from those types when I’m overseas. Seriously.
Of course use your judgment and prioritize your safety, as you would anywhere you go. But don’t be afraid to converse with the locals.
Yes, some of us may have to struggle with the language a bit… but struggle if you must! You are truly depriving yourself of adding a whole other dimension to your experience if you don’t at least try to speak with the Cubans… even if speaking = charades. And since English is taught in school in Cuba, and tourism is important to the Cuban economy, it will be easier than you think to find someone who will speak at least a little bit of English with you.
I found most of the Cubans I interacted with to be quite friendly. Somehow with our bit of Spanish we were able to have some really interesting conversations with different people. When we asked open ended non biased questions about how Cubans thought Cuba could change, or how they would like to see it change, we found the individuals we asked were generally willing to share. One Cuban even asked us what we thought of his country – with what I thought was genuine interest.
Other times our conversations were just downright hilarious. And since it was trickier to access wifi and online reviews, we also got our best tips on restaurants, bars, and nightlife locations through asking different Cubans we met.
Consider hobbling over to another city…
Because why not try and see a little bit more if you can?
And with that in mind, after spending some time in Havana, we kind of stumbled on Matanzas, or the city of bridges as they call it. Initially we thought, well, it’s close to Varadero and offers good value casa options. But what a fulfilling experience we had!
The vibe of Matanzas was completely different from Havana. Immediately we felt that we had left the big city, and arrived somewhere with a very different charm. With mainly one and two storey buildings around, it’s hard to hide from the sun and her glorious rays as you walk through the streets. But with the cool breeze from the sea, the weather is perfection.
Not to mention Cubans actually live in Matanzas… unlike Varadero where the beaches are stunning but the tourists and all-inclusive resorts are plentiful.
Matanzas is a little talked about gem … it’s a simple city, but with everything you need.
We even got to share in a game of dominoes while having a beer in the middle of the street with a few new friends (Yes – there was a lot of Spanglish).
Needless to say, we were happy to take a taxi to Varadero to enjoy the beautiful beaches, if it meant that we could otherwise enjoy all Matanzas had to offer – including restaurants, and a nightlife scene.
Venture out of the “tourist zones”
For one, it’s cheaper. It was quite shocking to note the difference in the price of food at even one end of the street in Havana Vieja to another, and this is without acknowledging the fact that at many establishments in Cuba there is a local price and a tourist price.
Not only is it cheaper – but it truly is eye opening to see a bit of Havana without the frills. We actually stayed in the core of the city, but outside Havana Vieja. We were close enough to walk into Havana Vieja as we pleased… but far enough to see different versions of the city in the day and in the night.
The malecón is one spot you should definitely make an effort to see. The scene is completely different in the day than it is in the night when Cubans flock the wall to get together with friends, stroll with a lover, or blast some music.
Choose the Cuban food
It’s true. The array of spices and seasonings prevalent in other countries just aren’t as common in Cuba. So don’t expect to have the best pizza in the world in Cuba.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t have some great meals.
I found that I particularly enjoyed the seafood and Cuban dishes that were prepared by the hosts we stayed with. I also found that the food in many of the smaller restaurants was actually quite delicious. Throughout the trip we enjoyed lobster tails, smoked pork (called ‘lomo ahumado’ – thank me later if you enjoy pork), rice and beans, fish, churros with condensed milk, fresh coconut water and jelly, and lots of fresh fruit and juices.
PS… don’t forget to sample all the piña coladas and mojitos possible!