“When we focus on our gratitude, the tide of disappointment goes out and the tide of love rushes in.” – Kristin Armstrong

Aside from an interest in Havana itself, Cuba has never been a country where I had a strong desire to visit.

A part of it has to do with having visited countries where political control is tight or places where a country has just started to transition out of a socialist state.

In my experience, when I’m traveling in those countries, I feel the need to be more self-contained and cautious in what I say in public. (Because when you are traveling, the rule of thumb is to exercise caution –  you are governed under the laws of the country you are in) And yes although you are a tourist, and you can sometime weasel your way out of things, you need to be smart about what you can get yourself out of and know what you can’t.

In addition, the things I take for granted every day (i.e. my toiletries) and being able to just grab something from the supermarket I forget to bring on my trip is often not of readily available and easy to find.

As such, when it comes to a beach vacation, I would choose to go to Hawaii, the Mediterranean, anywhere that is more liberal instead.

However, Havana is a city and it is different from a beach!

Besides movies and having seen people’s colorful social media feeds with the old classics, it looked to be a romantically vibrant city.

And so when a friend asked if I wanted to go for a weekend to explore before it changes I said yes!

In preparation for the trip, I wanted to try and download as much information and things old school before I went as I knew I won’t have Wi-Fi at my fingertips.

As a Canadian, I did not have to worry about visa etc., for Americans, click here, as The Bold Brunette shares how to travel to Cuba as an American.

Before you go tips:

1). Download Cuba Travel Guide and Havana’s Map using the App Map.me.  Since Wi-Fi is scarce, these 2 apps were a lifesaver. it helped us get around as if we were on google maps while providing practical information about where to eat and what to do about the city.

2). Bring Snacks and the normal day-to-day toiletry and over the counter medications, you typically would bring when traveling and SOMEFirst day in Havana, we came across a ‘supermarket’ if you could call it that. We saw a bunch of people lined up waiting to go in. We thought it would be a good idea to grab a bottle of water and queued along for 20 minutes to get into the store. (sidebar- typically I am fascinated by the things you find in foreign countries’ supermarkets), but the one in Havana was literally bare and the water bottles were all at room temperature. It reminded me how lucky we are to have things so easily accessible to us.

3). Bring EUR/GBP/CAD cash. Cuba is a cash-based society, so bring more than you think you need. The last thing you need is to worry about not having enough money. When you arrive, you can exchange your money in the airport for CUC (the currency for foreigners) not (CUP) currency for locals. Before you leave, you can exchange it back as well.

*The only place we found that exchanged USD was at Hotel Nacional de Cuba, while we were there enjoying a sunset drink. It’s a historic luxury hotel that was developed and financed by the US back in the early 1930s and has hosted an array of infamous guests. The catch – they only exchanged it for Hotel guests

4) Find out what is the standard transportation costs.

As of May 2017 these were the prices:

  • Between the Old Havana, Vedado and Centro Havana neighborhoods:   5-10CUC
  • To and From the airport to Havana: 25 -30 CUC
  • From Havana to Viñales: 100-120 CUC
  • From Havana to Varadero: 110-130 CU

5) Learn the Spanish basics. I was lucky my friend speaks fluent Spanish but we arrived at different times so I had to use my un poquito español  I know to get a taxi and ask about prices. Brush up on some key Spanish phrases and your números.

6) Print travel documents. In Cuba, the only way to get Internet is to buy a Wi-Fi card and go to designated Wi-Fi Zones around the city, so it’s not convenient to try and find things you’ve saved online.  The going rate for a Wi-Fi card was from 2-5 CUC for an hour of Wi-Fi.

7). Book an AirBnb or Casa Particulares. For Havana, I wanted to experience the Cuban culture, so why not soak up the experience with a local while benefiting a family. We stayed in Vedado, a residential neighborhood (15 min away from Havana) where you’ll find many old styled Cuban mansions. This area seems to be better maintained than the downtown core itself where you will see a lot more building with architectural decay and run-down infrastructure.

8) Bring a face mask. In Havana, Coco Taxis were my favorite way of transport around the city. They are motorized speedy little rickshaws.  It felt great to feel the air blowing against your skin, but sometimes I wish I had a face mask to cover up the exhaust fumes that came out of the vehicles on the road.

9) Purchase water bottles from restaurants or hotels. It’s much easier than to find a convenience store or supermarket and 1 CUC was the standard price.

What to do once you are there

Here’s a great clip and write up by the NYTimes. Read it here. I came across this post after I came back but I have to say my friend and I did a pretty good job hitting most of the spots that were mentioned.

A couple of more things I would recommend doing:

Go to El Morro. It’s an old fortress where you can get a beautiful view of the city and watch the sunset.

A day trip to either to the beach as NY Times suggested OR go to Viñales. Viñales Valley is known for its tobacco fields, mogotes and caves. It’s beautiful and quaint.  (I now know where tobacco companies got their ad inspiration). A great day-trip away from the city to see the countryside of Cuba.

Tip: We booked our Viñales day trip when we arrived in Havana on our first full day exploring the city. In old Havana city center, you’ll find a bunch of classic cars all parked in different areas. We found out where the Vinales Taxis were congregated (in front of the Gran Teatro de La Habana) and asked about a day trip. We booked if for 120 CUC total for two people.

Is Cuba Safe

Yes. In the past and still today the government regulates almost everything. And even though Raúl Castro, the brother of former leader Fidel Castro – current Cuba’s president is sloooowwly easing some restrictions, people are cautiously optimistic. Cubans are abiding citizens as harsh punishments are imposed on anyone who breaks them.

So the worst crime that can happen to you is getting overcharged for your ride, or getting change back in CUP instead of CUC. The latter did happen to me, but I learned I could still spend the CUP change I got and learned that 25 CUP = 1 CUC. This is somewhat annoying, but in the grand scheme of themes, it’s no biggie.

Final thoughts

Havana is indeed going through a slow metamorphosis in shifting into the next chapter after the Fidel Era.

Without understanding some history and having side conversations with locals, you cannot possibly comprehend the reality of life in Cuba and why people act the way they do and why certain things are the way they are.

And when you don’t know, it’s easy to make up your own stories and judgments about the way of life in Cuba without compassion. This to me is not how one should travel. Travel is meant to open your mind and hearts to learn about another culture, what shapes their values and drives their behaviors. If you don’t, you will no doubt feel frustrated and feel your patience being tested. (My ego is no immune this, and have had to keep it in check too.)

In speaking with the locals, here are some things I’ve learned:

  • Under Fidel Castro’s rule, if he found out you owned more than what you should own, he’d strip you of your vehicles, land, TV, of whatever it is your owned;
  • A few years ago they weren’t able speak to tourists unless they worked in a hotel;
  • Anyone Cubans who were caught with foreign currency on the streets would be punished;
  • Since Fidel passed, Raúl Castro has began to slowly lift and ease restrictions;
  • Wi-Fi is something recent Raúl has allowed for the people to access;
  • Raúl has also said that once his term is up, he wants to allow Cubans to exercise their right to vote again;
  • They are given a monthly ration to cover their basic needs but often times it is not enough to cover and feed a family;
  • Educations and healthcare is accessible to everyone;
  • Before Fidel Castro passed away, he made up a law and said the country needed to mourn his death for a week without entertainment, so no TV, no music, no dancing. What a bastard eh?! wanting to control the Cubans and needing one final word even after his passing;
  • When asked, would you rather have Trump as your leader or Fidel. The locals said Fidel. They said, ‘we’d rather have order than chaos and a lunatic running our country.’

How to support local Cubans

  • Remember the extra toiletries I told you to bring? Donate them to the locals;
  • Purchase cigars direct from the tobacco farmers at a reduced price where the money goes into their pockets instead of the government who marks it up;
  • Support paladares particulares(privately-run restaurants). Similar to the cigars, your money goes directly to the businesses instead of to the government;
  • Listen to what they tell you with an open-mind;
  • It’s natural to be curious and ask questions but do so with grace and in private;

Would I recommend Havana?

Yes! It will enrich your mind and your perspective on your life and others’. Take in the experience, what you see and the moment you create for what it is and make it your own! Cuba is slowly awakening, and with more people visiting the country, there will be more opportunities for intercultural exchange and understanding between Cuba and the world fostering more opportunities for its people in the future.