What I learned in Cuba
I learned two invaluable lessons on my trip to Cuba that I couldn’t have imagined. I find it hard to trust people but somewhere between my safe haven in New York and Cienfuegos, Cuba. I learned what it meant to trust the unknown.
This trip taught me to trust others. Having that Nigerian mindset, it can be hard to trust people in “local” settings because of fear of getting duped. When I landed in Cienfuegos with no idea on how to get back to Havana, I had to follow my guts, trusting this guy who found me a “taxi collectivo”, their shared taxi, back to Havana. I was very nervous but he kept telling me to relax; eventually I had no option but to trust that he had good intentions.
This trip taught me to love my fellow citizen unconditionally. I feel Africans, especially Nigerians, can learn to love one another. Love your own people. The Cubans are all about community and love. People kept wondering if I was okay when they didn’t hear from me in days. Indeed I was! I was learning the art of love from the way the locals cared for one another and me, when they felt I was a part of their community.
Besides my personal life growth lessons Cuba taught me. There are a few things you could leverage from what I learned and what I would have done differently on the trip:
- Travel with someone who speaks Spanish or have a local in Cuba who is bi-lingual or download offline version of Google Translate: It was hard to have conversations with people because almost no one spoke English. It is nice to have someone who can have conversations with the locals. You can get better deals and tips.
- Travel with a group: I’m never the one to say this because I am the queen of solo travels (visited Cuba Solo), but Cuba is one of those places you want to travel with people. For so many reasons and not necessarily because the country is not safe. With a group, you can split a lot of the transport costs which can be very pricey in Cuba, you can also get someone to capture nice moments with you in the background without overloading your social media feed with only selfies.
- A week is too short in Cuba: If you are spending a week, then stick to 2 cities so you can get a full experience. Spend a few weeks so you can be flexible with your budget and reduce travel costs, especially if you decide to travel solo. If I had more time I would have taken the Viazul, local public bus, to the neighboring cities and gone with the flow without having to worry and stress about delays etc. Yes, the buses are usually not on time.
- Plan Plan Plan: Because of limited internet connectivity, you are best mapping out your itinerary to the best of your ability before your trip. Print it out so it serves as your guide. My plan was to go with the flow when I arrived in Cuba, and though it worked for me. It was slightly more difficult than I had experienced in other countries. Language barrier and limited access to internet made it harder to plan while i was there
- Do NOT go to Fabrica De Arte after 11 pm on a Friday night because you might not get in. This is an amazing art club to visit but it gets really busy after 10pm. You pay about 2 CUCs to get in. Keep your band for drinks – you pay for your drinks at the end of the night. You DON’T want to lose your band!
Things to Know Pre-Trip to Cuba:
- Download an offline map and google translate: I did this before going and it was very helpful. I used maps.me to navigate. Though it was not perfect on timing, but it helped a lot especially during my evening explorations.
- You will need a visa before going to Cuba. I used a travel agent based in the US – Cuba Travel Services – and Maylene organized my visa and ticket via email. When the process was complete, she sent me the hard copy via mail. For Africans, you can visit Cuba as long as you have a valid US or UK visa. You can apply for your visa in UK or in the US via an agent.
- Border Control: Be prepared to stay extra hours in immigration and customs especially if you’re African. They don’t see many African tourists, so the border officials will ask you numerous questions before they deem you fit to enter Cuba. They kept asking me for a proper form of identification besides my Nigerian passport; being able to communicate in Spanish helped me a little bit when I was talking to the officials.
- Internet Access is restricted in Cuba: Most Etcesa outlets sell the internet card but you can also purchase at hotels. El Hotel Presidente in Vedado had internet access in their lobby and the internet card was 2 CUC per hour. Internet card at Melia was 10cuc per hour. Most parks in Cuba have WiFi,so you can easily connect when you have the internet card. Tip: buy the internet card in bulk so when you get to a zone with free WiFi, you can connect. Also try out some hotel lobbies, you can connect without paying 🙂
- Fun fact: If you are in Cuba on Saturday: the local TV station shows Suits from 1:30 pm – 4pm
- Cuban Currency: The CUC vs CUP war. CUC is for the foreign tourist and CUP is for the locals. The truth is if you are spending CUC for basic things in Cuba, you are spending more than a local would using the CUP. The CUC is about 26 CUP. Please note that some places have their price lists in CUP but because they’re both called pesos, you wouldn’t know. Watch out for this – most local restaurants, taxis use CUP.
- Transportation within Cuba: Most taxi collectivos, local taxis, charge you 5 CUC to anywhere within Havana. The private taxis charge between 10 – 25 CUC. You can travel around town either in a rented car, a taxi collectivo, public transport (Viazul), a regular taxi.
- Airport Ride: The taxi ride from Havana airport to the city is 25CUC
- Navigating the country: You can explore Havana via rental car, vintage taxis, local taxis, shared taxis, public bus or tour groups. I had a mix of all transport options. You can get details on the car rentals at El Presidente Hotel in Vedado.
- Main streets in Havana: If you are looking for a starting point to begin exploring the old city of Havana, start with San Lazaro and Park Central. If you are in Vedado, start with Avenida Presidente, and Calle 12 y 23.
- Experiencing Cuba: You’re better off taking a shared taxi ride or hiring a personal taxi to Vinales because you can actually feel the experience of road tripping. It may be more pricey but if you’re a group, then splitting won’t be bad. If you have time, you can spend a night in Vinales in one of the Casas. There is also a resort that has a hike trail path to the valley. Nothing much to do in Vinales there but it is always a great place to connect with nature and the locals. Vinales is a town of 22,000 inhabitants. Commuting from Cienfuegos to Havana: There are a lot of taxi collectivos that leave from Cienfuegos to Havana – I even got a contact out there!
- Cuban Men: Hotness alert!! Cuban guys have beautiful eyes man. This will get you, so be prepared 🙂
- Where to Stay: In Vedado: Casa De Dora, Casa Martha, Casa Ana. Casas usually cost about $30-$45; $25-$35 in Old Havana and $35-$45 in Vedado.
- Places to eat at a decent price: La Isla De La Pasta, El Restuarante Chucheria, Lunch at El cocinero; Dinner at El Litoral; Watch Buena Vista at 9:30; dinner at El Litoral; Coffee at Cuba Libro
- What to drink: The best Mojitos, Rum (Anejo Blanco), Pina Colada, and Cigars you would ever have are in Cuba, and they are cheap too. Stack up – do not say we didn’t tell you!
- General things to do:
- Havana: Explore Old Havana, Vedado, Malecon, Revolution plaza, Park central, Cajon de hamme Afro Cuban art dance exhibit on Saturday, Avenue de Las Americas, National circus – perform every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Playa Santa Maria; spend at least a week here
- Trinidad: Playa Ancon, walk around town; it can be a day trip or spend a night
- Cienfuegos: Walk around town to the main plaza and square; spend a few days here
- Other Cities: Definitely visit other cities in Cuba
- Living with a host: If you are living with a host, check the terms. Breakfast is not free and most hosts don’t speak English. Be ready for that, though they can be very helful
- Cigars: There is a limit of $100 per person but I don’t think immigration officials check, so knock yourself out.
- How much do I need to go to Cuba: Expenses in Cuba is what you want it to be. It can be expensive or relatively cheap, though Cuba is not that cheap. If you are on a budget and traveling for a few days, you need at least $1700. This includes flight, visa, accommodation, food, and activities.
- Nice to Know:
- Bring your toilet paper along. If you are a sucker for premium quality toilet paper, then you may just want to carry yours to Cuba. The toilet paper was very weak.
- The airport shuttle bus in Havana is so old and beat. Some chairs didn’t even have seats.
- You may experience power outage while in Cuba. It is no big deal – it doesn’t last that long
- They have very similar culture to religious cultures to the Yoruba culture in West Africa
- You’re better off making friends with a local taxi guy who can pick you up at night. Be sure to negotiate
- Buy a CD of Spanish songs – they make for the best road trips.
- Make sure you negotiate – According to a Spanish guy I met on the bus, he tells the Cubans “Soy una turista, pero no estoy estupido”
- Beware of the stray dogs on the streets. Though they didn’t harm me – I was very nervous about them biting me
- Cuba is pronounced Kuba and not Quba
- 8am in Cuba means 9am 🙂 – Definitely got that West African vibe going for them
I will be sharing my daily experiences in subsequent posts. Please pardon the delay: I’m learning how to manage my time working full-time and running CountlessMiles full-time. I promise to be more consistent with blog posts.
Moni, Founder CountlessMiles