So my last trip pre-COVID was to Cuba. I had a whole plan for all my vacation days, and I had a week left over, and I had a few people recommend Cuba to me as a destination and I figured why not?
As an American, it’s hard to travel to. It’s probably even harder now. Frankly, that’s something that has always baffled me. I found the Cuban people to be warm and friendly. Of all the strange Cold War holdovers, it’s one of the strangest – we’ve decided that a small island in the Caribbean is our enemy, apparently. Fun fact, I was legally not allowed to work while I was in Cuba, because our company can’t be associated with them in any way. I had to delete all my work-related apps, like email, Slack, Gchat, Zoom, etc., and I couldn’t even check my notifications while I was there.
Anyway, to legally go as an American, you have to meet one of the official categories and follow certain guidelines. I went with Intrepid, which is a tour company that has a special itinerary for Americans under the “support for the Cuban people” category. We stayed local, we did cultural immersion programs, we met with nonprofits. Honestly, it was the ideal way to do it. It was a little more structured than the trips I usually choose, but it did feel like we got to connect to locals way more than most of the places I’ve been.
One of the things I loved about Cuba was staying in the casa particulares. Basically, the United States doesn’t want to support the government, so they insist that you stay with locals in Airbnb-style accommodations. There was a wide variety of places we stayed, which was interesting. We ate at only local restaurants, too. Nothing owned by the state.
Havana is beautiful. It’s one of those places that I would have loved to experience in its prime, because you can tell the buildings need more work on restoration. The government and locals are doing their best, and a lot of areas have been renovated, but there are a number of gorgeous buildings in disrepair. Obviously, it’s famous for the old cars, and we saw a lot of those. I got to ride in a few too (which I think my dad was jealous of!).
Most of my first day there was spent wandering. I forgot that I didn’t actually know where my accommodations were, promptly got lost, and then figured I’d be able to find it again, so I enjoyed my day of exploration. I saw a parade go through, walked along the water, and found some sort of fort to check out. The next couple days were with my tour group. We visited local artists, took a tour in historic cars, walked around some of the neighborhoods, and soaked in the atmosphere. I am a little sad I didn’t get to see a ballet. I don’t think they were performing while I was there, but I’ve heard wonderful things about Cuban ballet! We did get to see a dance performance by students and we took a salsa class, but it’s not quite the same.
The other note I have is this: as cool as Havana is, I appreciated the rest of Cuba even more. It is naturally and culturally beautiful, and I feel like I got a really cool look at a country that seems almost frozen in time. Beyond the rum, cigars, and classic cars, it’s a special place, and I’m glad I got to go before the world shut down.