Someone posted an article on Facebook which spoke about visiting Cuba. How if you loved Cuba, you didn’t really experience it; that you stuck to the touristy areas and didn’t truly see the real Cuba. This was my comment, which triggered a lot more thought on my recent stop in Havana-
“I’m going to be honest – for some reason, Cuba was nothing what I imagined it would be. Although we were only there for roughly a day and a half, and the second half of my second day was running through a storm, something about it, just wasn’t what I envisioned. Once I get past that fact, I’m am most certainly glad I took the time to visit Cuba, and truly suggest for everyone to go, if they can.”
A group of us from Virginia booked a Royal Caribbean cruise which stopped in Key West, Florida and Havana, Cuba. If I had more time, I would have taken the time to research and flown into Havana instead of Miami. But I didn’t have the time to plan, nor the thousands for a tour company to handle all the arrangements. So Royal Caribbean it was, and it really wasn’t that bad looking back.
The main reason I’m happy I picked a cruise was because I didn’t have to worry about where to stay, my belongs, or food. I knew all the necessities were covered on board, and I just needed some cash to enjoy what I wanted while on the island.
Day 1 in Cuba-
We docked in San Francisco port in Old Havana on a Wednesday and as soon as we were able to get off the ship, we nearly ran off. The process was much easier than I had heard, and I’m super grateful for that. We just had to show our visa form, which Royal Caribbean had arranged for us upon boarding, and stand in line like you would at an airport. It was so organized, it didn’t even really feel like we were entering another country. Once we got through customs, we walked down to the other side of the port, and exchanged some cash. Apparently, the law in Cuba is that the exchange rate is the same everywhere, so no need to search for the best deal. Just exchange and go.
Right outside the port was a plaza, with this fountain. Already off to a great start, because I love lions! #sirfidel. Word of the wise: Be weary of hustlers , because they move fast. So fast, four of the guys in my group got hustled ~$10 in less than five minutes, having only crossed one street. Let’s just say, they learned super quick, to keep their eyes opened to strangers walking around and approaching people. No one was going to kiss them or draw a picture of them, unless they wanted them to.
Like most of my trips, first stop was food. We walked up and down a few different streets, taking in Old Havana, and stumbled across a super cute restaurant: MekedÉ. A quick look at the menu, and we were sold. Beers, pina coladas, coffee, you name it, we had it! Then the food arrived. Between us we tried salad, chicken, ropa vieja, lobster tail and pumpkin soup along with some more and all our standards were set relatively high.
From there we really just walked around since it started getting dark and contemplated taking a taxi to some clubs we heard about, but decided against it since it was like a 45 minute drive just to get there. Plus we had a tour early the next morning. We settled for a hookah lounge, that offered wifi and drinks. This lounge was super chill, and no one bothered us. The decor was quaint and cozy. So far so good, everyone felt safe and was having fun (well taking out the hustle early on in our adventure)!
From the lounge we just kept walking around and getting lost on the streets, making our way back to the ship, just by taking the long way. My favorite part of this stroll, was the live band we caught a sneak peak of that consisted of about 15 older men, playing instruments and singing some good music. We were definitely out of the states and I couldn’t be happier to see the life in this packed little bar, while everything else was quiet and dark.
Try coordinating ten people to get off the ship in time for an 8am tour! It’s nearly impossible. Some of us made it up in time to grab some breakfast, some just got lucky with a cookie on the go, and some just didn’t get anything. But, we all made it in time for our tour! Our tour was the Old Havana Heritage Walking Tour offered through Royal Caribbean. It was just 5 hours long, and 79USD. Which to me was not bad, a little bit of culture from a local, and we’d still have time to explore a more on our own. The tour included walking around some major squares and a bus ride away to a Cigar bar where we tried Havana Club, coladas and Romeo & Juliet cigars with some live music and dancing.
After all the hustle and bustle of the tour, we were free to walk around and do our own exploring. By this time, we figured one last solid meal in Cuba was a good idea. After all, it was lunch time. Except, this is when you could say everything started to go a little down hill for us. Still memorable though.
The restaurant we went into after reviewing their menu, ended up not offering any of the items we had wanted. Only thing available was a chicken dish, that we all ordered, and most didn’t enjoy. Actually, the two people that ‘enjoyed it’ were still pretty drunk from the Havana Club bottles. The rest of us that were able to realize something wasn’t right, just paid our tabs and were ready to leave. That experience, quickly turned into the joke of the trip, because we truly think they served us cat. But we’ll never know.
As soon as we were ready to continue, the rain that had started since we arrived, had gotten worse and suddenly I was reminded of hurricane season in Florida. There went our adventure to see Havana’s beaches, because the rain never stopped. We just stayed local and shopped a little in the boutiques along the way.
The rain was so bad, everyone was caught in stores and restaurant entrances trying to take cover or were drenched from head to toe. We were the latter, and even the inside of our bags were wet! Including my passport. Thankfully though, we were able to get one small plastic bag, that barely fit my camera, but covered it enough until we got back on the ship. After a quick stop at a bakery, in and out of a few shops for souvenirs, and trying our best to bypass floods, we all made it back onto the ship.
Now that you know the outline of our trip, let me tell you about what we observed along the way–
- Cuba is filled with kind human beings everywhere. From on the streets, in the stores and restaurants, to the bathrooms. So kind, that some of the girls in our group went back to the ship to get some of their stuff that they were willing to part with, and took it to a lady they met in the bathroom.
- A beer costs roughly ~2/3 dollars, and supposedly, that’s how much a house can cost (as per our tour guide, which I had him repeat that you could buy a house, for the price of a beer, and he said yes).
- Apparently majority of people own their homes in Cuba, they don’t rent usually. Except home purchasing is closely regulated by the government, like most other things.
- To include food and basic necessities. There are spots around town where locals can go to pick up their rations. Leaves you grateful for the opportunity to buy whatever you want, without having to pick between what you need.
- At a quick glance, everything looks decent. But when you look closely, you see the hope in everyone’s eyes for a change and better way of life.
- The colorful old cars that everyone sees in pictures of Cuba, are actually the taxis!
- You can walk around and get a million compliments, and it’s as sincere as can be.
- There is such a huge stray cat population, it’s crazy. This observation, is what supports the chicken experience mentioned earlier.
- Many people appear to live day by day. They don’t really have much options for changing their life, due to the limitations of options. As the government even monitors bank accounts. Also, hospitality industry is pretty big, and a common career path people study.
- The American interpretation of Cuba, is extremely different than what is actually Cuba. The bakery we went out of our way to try, had literally only like eight options. When in Miami, a bakery would be full the the brim with an assortment of pastries.
Despite some of the not so glamours observations, I truly believe everyone should see Cuba through their own eyes. Whether it be through an overnight cruise, or putting in the time to plan a trip, pick one, and just do it. Suggestion: If you have some items you know you can part with, take it with you and give it to someone you meet. You will undoubtedly see the happiness in their face. Also, remember you can’t use any cards in Cuba, so make sure to have enough cash to exchange and use depending on how long you’ll be there. Oh, and maybe avoid the cat, I mean chicken. Happy travels!