Ah yes, Cuba, a rather alluring and inaccessible country that for decades; had been a restricted area to visit being a U.S Citizen and all. It was a place I never thought I’d have a chance to visit in my lifetime after the U.S. severed diplomatic relations in 1961. I use to lay in my bed daydreaming of what life was like there. What were the people like? What did they know? Who did they think about? I use to imagine that Cuba would feel like something out of that one Jim Carey movie, "The Truman Show." The Cubans being Jim Carey’s character, happy and unaware that they were living inside an alternately constructed world, and us- the audience whom watched them from afar, aware of what was really out there.
I went into Cuba expecting "orchestrated tourism" and that feeling of "big brother" sense of surveillance; thanks to the many articles I had read prior to my arrival. So being the type of person who seeks to find the authentic parts of a country when traveling, the thought of this frightened me. Would I be able to dig deeper? Would I be able to ask questions and learn about the Cuban people on a different level?
Let's just say that all of my fears went completely out the window within the first few hours of arriving in the country. From our taxi driver Jorge, to Giselle our Airbnb host, to Fabio the Cuban cowboy we met in Vinales, even to the group of macho Cuban men in Varadero who took us out sailing; each person was incredibly open to share their stories and were more than willing to share their thoughts, concerns, issues and struggles. My mission to get under the country's tough tourist exterior was seamless. But you have to do the work. You have to ask the questions and put yourself out there. Otherwise, Cuba can be like any other country you visit. You can go and explore the touristy things; go on the vintage car tours, see a show at the famous Tropicana club and go with the herds of people onto buses to see the tobacco fields in Viñales, and yes- you can stop at the designed tourist spots to get that piña colada drink out of a pineapple.
Or you can do it differently.
You can walk up to a group of Cuban men and ask them where to grab some authentic Cuban food. You can sit in your three hour taxi ride and ask questions and get to know that person. You can sit on the balcony with your Airbnb host and have conversations over some rich, amazing Cuban coffee. And you can chat with your hotel cleaning lady and end up being invited over to her home for dinner.
One way isn't better or worse, or right or wrong. We all travel differently. For me, I crave the stories of the people, the hole in the wall restaurant that all the locals go to and the salsa clubs that the young Cuban crowds are going to. I don't leave the U.S. to find it in another country and I certainty don't leave my U.S. friends to find a different version of them in another place.
Challenge yourself to travel differently.
Stay at Giselle's place in Old Havana
Eat at La Guarida
Go salsa dancing at 1830
Flag a taxi down and go on a day trip to Viñales
Skip the all-inclusive resorts and get a hotel room at Melia Apartments in Varadero
Head downtown for a night in Varadero and eat a fancy meal at Varadero 60
Cuba can be quite a hard place to plan and navigate beforehand- send us an e-mail for help planning your next trip to this amazing country!