You should take the journey to Cuba while you still can. Period. With research and good planning, a great time can be had by all. But it’s not always greener on the other side. Forgive us for the lack of sports, but we want to share our perspective on the ins and outs of this history enriched country. That, and why the regular traveler needs to do some homework to have a good experience in Cuba.

Playing basketball with the local kids in the pouring rain.
Playing basketball with the local kids in the pouring rain.

The last thing we want to do here discourage people from experiencing something new, but we do want to be real with the readers. I firmly believe everyone should experience everything at least once. This goes for food, cities, bungee jumping.. you name it. If I could do it all over again I would. Seeing a thousand pictures or reading articles and deciding whether you like something or not is never as good as just doing it once.

Why do you need to do it and not just talk about it? Because it’s hard to understand why someone can proclaim “Cuba is the best country in the World” when they’ve never left the island.

For starters, the people are wonderful and make every attempt to accommodate you. They love seeing you there because they know you’ll be spending money in their shops and supporting the local economy (or government).

Cuba is the best country in the World

Unfortunately in the few short months Americans have been traveling there has been an exponential rise in the amount of street hustlers trying to get your next penny.  A common example is a ‘taxi driver’ offering a ride in a local automobile (like an amazing ’55 Chevy) for $15. But he might not even own the car. He’ll walk over to someone who does and pays them $12 of your $15. Try to find a taxi driver who is IN their car or have it arranged by your host.

Classic Cars Lined up in Havana
Classic Cars Lined up in Havana

The lack of cellular and wifi service is an obvious difficulty. I don’t need to have access to social media at all times, but I do prefer access to look up restaurants, bars, and places to go.. nevertheless get directions to those places! Easiest way to solve these limitations is through proper research. You can also download an offline map. If you aren’t fluent in Spanish you likely won’t get to experience these things on the fly, but the next best thing is to grab an offline translator. Long story short, plan ahead!

The next small hurdle is the currency. With your credit and debit cards physically unable to withdraw cash or be taken at a restaurant, you’re required to bring a proper amount of USD to convert when you arrive (which they automatically take 13% off of, even though the exchange is 1:1). The solutions include asking a local (or your host) to exchange it for a better rate. And you can solve the ‘not having enough cash’ by simply bringing too much and converting as you go. You can exchange prior to arrival, but unless you’re staying for a few weeks or more, it’s not mandatory.

Hanging out along the Malecon
Hanging out along the Malecon

The plus side is everything in Cuba is dirt cheap. A decent meal can be as low as $3 and drinks hover around the same. I found myself ordering two entrees because I couldn’t imagine I’d actually be full on a $3 meal. I was constantly mistaken!

Down the list is the transportation to/from Havana. No need to worry about the ’12 reasons’ you are allowed to visit since that is looked at with a blind eye. You will however be forced to fork over a visa fee of $50-$75 depending on the airline. Sorry, no way around this.

While some airlines are already pulling out of Havana’s Jose Marti airport, there are still too many new flights with an airport that isn’t suitable for a plethora of flights. Long lines and lack of kiosks requires you to arrive 2-3 hours prior to your departure.

Enjoying cigars and rum in Vinales

Last and more personally on my list of observations is the government presence. We traveled to Vinales for a gorgeous horseback ride through the jungle to learn about cigars and coffee. We got a chance to learn about the structure of business for the people of Cuba. For this particular tobacco farmer their 6 acres of land was given to them by the government for free. In return, 90% of their product was to be donated back to be sold in government shops and the remaining 10% was theirs to keep. I’m glad the 20 cigars I bought went into that 10%.

The coffee (a lesser commodity) bean farmer we spoke with had a similar arrangement only he got to keep 75% of his crop. Regardless of the percentage it left me wary of the arrangement. They seemed to have no qualms. Their thought was they’d have nothing at all if it weren’t for their government, which I can understand.

George Bush Depicted in Havana
George Bush Depicted in Havana Museum

Our host advised us to spend as much time in locally owned businesses whenever possible. You can point these out by seeing which has the fastest service and likely has much more people shopping/eating at them.

Conclusion

The most important thing to remember is that in American society many of the ‘downsides’ to visiting Cuba are commonplace for the local people. Step into their environment to understand the culture better. Don’t take our word for it. See for yourself.. because everybody can be appreciated if speaking from personal experience.

Havana Cuba - Sports City Complex arena
Havana’s Sports City Complex arena

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