The following post is brought to you by a friend of mine (Lorenzo Flores), that went on trip to Cuba earlier this year, and wanted to share their experience with us.
Some Things to Know Before You Go to Cuba
Disclaimer: I have family in Cuba, so this visit was legal. If you’re reading this post for tips on how to circumvent the system, I’m afraid I can’t help you. Also, because this was a family visit, I wasn’t in very touristy places. Logistics might be easier and the whole experience might have be more user friendly in and around Havana – alas, I was on the other side of the island, in Santiago.
So first off, very important – there are two forms of currency in Cuba, pesos (for nationals) and CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos, for tourists). The exchange rate for CUCs was roughly 1:1 with the USD when I went, but! If you’re converting directly from USD, the exchangers (thanks to our not-at-all messed up relationship with the country) will take about a 10% commission on it. A better bet would be to exchange any US money into whatever the national currency is of the country-you’re-flying-through-to-get-there and then go for the CUCs. Also, you’ll need 25CUC just to get out of the country. So, take the bills, put them somewhere out of sight and forget about them til you leave. ATM cards and American credit cards don’t work, so take more cash than you think you’ll need and budget hella carefully. Things are pretty cheap, but you won’t want to miss your plane, waiting on wire transfer.
Yes, the cars are really from the 50s.
Can I tell you – it is astonishing, the leaps and bounds we have made in automotive safety since then. My first car ride in Cuba was 3 hours long, on a country road (without street lights) that hadn’t been repaired in about 15 years, in a rain storm (at night), in a car that had been running since before seatbelts were invented. The roof, cushioned with an old blanket and duct tape, should have given tipped me off. Needless to say, it was a bumpy ride, and I arrived much more religious than when I departed. So, vintage cars are great photo-ops, but the experience of riding in one is way less glamorous.
A word about food.
While you’re there, please don’t kill any cows (I know, tall order). Killing a cow can actually get you a longer prison sentence than killing a person. Beef is in rare supply and usually pretty expensive. Watch out for the seafood. I was there during an outbreak of malaria, so everyone was a bit edgy about water dwellers, but even in the best of times, refrigeration is questionable. Best stick to chicken and pork or, safe yet, a veggie cuisine (the things they do with rice and beans will knock your socks off).
Don’t drink the water.
Did I mention don’t drink the water? Don’t drink the water. I stuck to bottled water (make sure you’re actually breaking the seal on the cap) and soda while I was there, except for once when I had a tiny bit of blended ice I had been told was made from boiled water. Don’t drink the water.
So… precautions out of the way –
What Should You Do in Cuba?
Yeah, it’s in the middle of July for Santiago de Cuba. Pretty much worth it. The heat of the tropical summer, the constant music in the streets, the rumba lines that go around the block, it is so sensual and joyous that, for me, it was practically spiritual. When faced with a float full of XL ladies tearing it up in teeny bikinis, it’s hard not love life just a little bit more. Grab a beer, grab a partner, and see where this citywide block party takes you.
It is cheap and it is beautiful. I had Santiago rum (hometown pride) – it goes down like water and gets you where it counts. I did not smoke a cigar. Another important note: when coming back through US Customs, do not joke about having a suitcase full of rum and cigars, no matter how deliriously tired you are. This is…something I learned.
Northern ones, specifically, which are for the tourists (Nationals are basically not allowed in unless they have a tourist with them and are otherwise relegated to the crappier southern beaches. Yeah, that’s a thing that happens.) I went to one called Guarda la Vaca (Save the Cow. See?) and it was beyond beautiful. Stand where the surf meets the sand and it’s basically sex for your feet. I was there in the summer and yes, it was hella crowded – a genuinely small price to pay for being surrounded by a living brochure for paradise.
Which is not too far from what Cuba is in some ways. Dilapidated? Yes. Poor? Hell yes. Under a corrupt and repressive government? It will piss you off in ways you didn’t know were even there. But it is undeniably beautiful. And the people are as unfailingly warm as the weather (which, full disclosure, as a New Yorker who makes eye contact with No One, takes some getting used to). Go during Carnivale. Sit on a bench. Guaranteed a person or a song or a bit of sunshine will sweep you away in no time!