This time last year I was experiencing a life changing trip to Cuba. My first conversations in Spanish. My first girls’ trip abroad. My first time roaming the streets with locals in a completely unfamiliar place. This trip awakened the traveler in me and left me with so many amazing memories. Though there were tons of fun and relaxing moments, my time in Cuba was what I considered a cultural experience rather than a vacation.
I studied Spanish for two months before taking flight and literally started putting it to use the moment we stepped off the plane. I’m far from fluent, but was able to navigate through the city and even connect on a deeper level with some of the locals. It was from these conversations that I learned about how harshly poverty impacts the people of Cuba. Many shared their struggles with having limited food, resources and income for their families. Despite their circumstances, I was moved by the level of pride the Cuban people have in their country and culture.
In this post, I’ll be sharing answers to the most frequently asked questions about my trip, insight on what I learned and tips for those planning travels.
It’s only right that I start this post out sharing thoughts on the people of Cuba because there are so many who left a lasting impression. I was amazed by how warm and welcoming nearly every person we encountered was. The people of Havana celebrate Afro-Cuban culture, which we witnessed at the Gran Concierto at Sociedad Cultural Rosalia De Castro and performances at El Gran Palenque. Unlike the standoffish experiences I had late last year during my trip to Berlin, there were plenty of people who looked like us and wanted to connect. We were met with great company and conversation at each site we visited.
Whether you’re needing directions or just want to learn more about the city, it’s not hard to find someone who’s happy to help. Beware of scams though; as nice as the people were, areas more populated with tourists were definitely crowded with vendors and locals who have developed really creative ways to make money.
Before visiting the county, I read a lot of mixed reviews about the food. I walked away with the impression that you either hate it or love it; there didn’t really seem to be a middle ground. Thankfully, I enjoyed every meal we had. A couple of my favorites were Balcon del Habano in Vedado and La Familia in Havana. To this day, I’m still craving the Cuban piña coladas. I would drink one every day if I could….seriously. Most places we ate at had extremely tasty drinks at affordable prices. They also don’t mind adding a bit more rum upon request if you want to spice things up.
You could probably spend days exploring Old & New Havana. This is where you’ll find grand buildings like El Capitolio and the Old Town Square area. In addition, this is an area where most tourists visit so there’s tons of opportunities to see historical sites, attend events, book a tour of the city, eat at the most popular restaurants, etc. We took a day trip to Viñales to get a taste of greenery just three hours away from Havana. I fully recommend this full day experience that included horseback riding, visits to a few cool sites, a huge meal and more piña coladas! We spent our last day taking in sun at Santa Maria del Mar Beach.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
HOW DID YOU GET AROUND THE TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS?
At the time, we only had to worry about our purpose for travel when flying from America. This only required us to share that we were going “in support of the Cuban people”. We were able to get in and out of the country with ease with our passports and visas.
WHERE DID YOU STAY?
The cutest little home in Vedada with our AirBnb hosts, Regina and Leonardo. They were more than happy to arrange transportation to get around (at an affordable price), provided an amazing breakfast for a small fee and literally treated us like family. Click here to check out their home!
WHERE DID YOU EXCHANGE YOUR MONEY?
We exchanged some of our funds at the airport and when we were running low, our Airbnb host was kind enough to do the rest. I suggest you search blogs and travel groups to see where others recommend going for the best exchange rates.
CUC’s & TIPPING
Get a grasp of the conversions before you start spending. Also, be mindful that CUC coins are not like our change in the US; they are actually equivalent to dollars. Although I encourage tipping, we definitely overtipped quite a bit our first two days. The service was awesome so I had no regrets, however, our money would’ve stretched further had we been more mindful.
LEARN TO HAGGLE
Thankfully, I had AllieBe there with me for this one. Haggling isn’t really something that’s in my comfort zone, but it’d be wise to try it out if you plan to use taxis to get around the city. Most drivers were charging 5 to 10 CUC more than they should’ve before we talked them down. Some were pretty firm with their prices, but lucky for us there were swarms of them around to negotiate with.
LEARN THE BASICS
I included a few phrases and words that could be useful during your travels. In addition, you should definitely get the Google Translate app. Go to the settings and download the OFFLINE Spanish dictionary so you can use the app at any time without wifi.
PREPARE TO BE OFFLINE
Following up on my last tip, you may want to mentally prepare to disconnect from the world for a few days. My Airbnb hosts offered internet cards for 5 CUC each, which provided us with an hour of use per card. However, even with an internet card the connection is wasn’t the best.
BASIC SPANISH FOR TRAVELERS
Here are a few words and phrases that may help during your travels!
Thank you – Gracias
You’re welcome – De nada
Please – Por favor
I’m sorry – Lo siento
I would like…. – Quisiera ______?
Where is (location)? – Donde está ____? (i.e. el museo , la restaurante, la playa)
How much is it? – Cuanto Cuesta?
I am from (country, state, etc) – Soy de ______?
I don’t speak Spanish – No hablo español.
Do you speak English? – Habla ingles? (formal)
What time? – A que hora?
Check/bill – La cuenta
Bathroom – El baño
I also recommend learning numbers 1-20!
Cuba will always have a special place in my heart. I’m hoping one day I’ll have the opportunity to make my way back to experience it all over again.
Until next time…