For as long as I can remember, Cuba has been at the top of my list of travel destinations as I am half Cuban. Halston, who is also half Cuban, and I were set to visit in December 2017 with my dad and stepmom, but when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico my dad decided it would be best to postpone the trip while he dealt with his businesses.
Well, ladies and gents, it finally happened in early December!
But before we dive in, I’ll preface this blog by saying that seeing Cuba for my very own and seeing what my family left behind affected me in a personal way. This blog post will not go on and on and on about the colorful streets and vintage cars.
To me, that is not Cuba. That is what Cuba had to become.
I am incredibly thankful to my dad for taking Halston and me along, but it was less of a vacation and more of an educational experience. I’ll be sharing some of my feelings and observations upon arriving on the island and plan to write a follow-up post of our time in Havana that’ll sound significantly less moody because I haven’t yet wrapped my brain around the information overload that was learning about the island my family is from.
Our first stop was Ciego De Avila, a city in central Cuba and where my family is from. The city is located about 5 hours from Havana, so we hopped in a rental car shortly after arriving in Havana, which a family friend drove during the duration of our trip.
The drive to Ciego wasn’t bad. There weren’t that many vehicles once we left Havana, however, there were potholes aplenty as we traveled further from the city, which kept waking me up each time I dozed off. As far as scenery goes, there is so much lush, fertile, available land, that I found myself thinking, “If I were a developer, I would…” multiple times.
We saw a number of hitchhikers throughout the ride, despite us driving through these remote areas, and learned that this is one of the ways that Cubans who do not have cars or cannot count on public transportation get around. Government officials station themselves throughout the highway and if they see an oncoming car with available space, the driver is required to pull over, pick up the hitchhiker and take them to their destination. Another peculiar sight was the number of horse-drawn carriages. They were everywhere and not in the “touristy” New York way. Our car was one of the few cars in Ciego de Avila, as everyone traveled in carriages, as well as motorcycles and bicycles, many times with 2-4 people riding on them.
We arrived at our hotel in the late afternoon where I interrogated my dad on our family’s history, while we waited for our family friends to arrive for dinner.
In his time, my great-grandfather owned a successful citrus farm in Ciego de Avila, and my grandfather owned a thriving auto parts business in town. Fun story (and I bet you need one by now!), I once found a Cuban telephone directory from 1959 at Bongos Cuban Cafe‘s gift shop in Orlando while eating dinner with my family and we bought a few copies because it had my grandfather’s business listed! It was probably the best thing to come out of that eternally disappointing restaurant.
Before the Cuban revolution, my family was doing well. But once they made the decision to leave, they had to leave their homes, businesses, and belongings to the government. I found it peculiar that the buildings my family owned were not as worn down as the buildings surrounding them. We chose to not photograph other homes there because really, how would you feel if a tourist rolled up to your home to take pictures of it because of the way it looks?
While walking around town, we quickly learned that standing in line is part of daily Cuban life – to buy necessities, to receive government rations, to buy internet cards at ETESCA, for the bus, and so on and so forth. During our time in Ciego, there happened to be a soap shortage, so we saw crowds lined up waiting to see if a shipment had arrived. There is always a shortage of one thing or another, from food to medications to detergent, but Cubans learn to make do with what they have.
We spent a total of three days in Ciego de Avila visiting my great-aunt and her lovely, hospitable family, and long-time family friends. I saw where my family grew up, where my dad was baptized and where he went to school. But as the days went by, the more I learned about the day-to-day lives of many Cubans, from their unreasonable wages to the scarcity of basic necessities to building conditions, the more upset I became.
There is a lot more to Cuba than posing on vintage cars and by vibrant buildings. It feels like being stuck in a time capsule with no end in sight. I don’t think travelers visiting the tourist cities can even begin to understand what it is truly like or the culture that has been created based on the circumstances.
Our visit was eye-opening and I am immensely grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given throughout my own life.
How Were You Able To Travel To Cuba?
Americans who fall under the 12 categories listed out by our government can travel to Cuba. We went to visit family, so we were able to go and had no issues buying a visa at the JetBlue counter in Orlando.
How Did You Pay For Things?
We brought cash with us and exchanged our USD for Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), which you can do at the airport or at your hotel. This is not the Cuban peso (CUP), but it is the currency used in the tourism industry as credit cards do not work in Cuba. One CUC is equal to one USD. I would recommend paying ahead for as much as possible (accommodations, car rentals, tours, etc.), so that you aren’t walking around with large sums of cash or lose money whether it be by exchanging it back to USD or have it confiscated at the airport on your way home, which will happen if you attempt to pay in CUC at the airport. I would also recommend having a handful of change on you at all times as most restrooms have a bathroom attendant who gives you a bit of toilet paper. I carried flushable wipes in my backpack at all times.
Did You Have Wi-Fi?
Most hotels sell ETECSA internet cards. Ours sold them for 2 CUC for an hour of internet usage in the lobby. I went without Wi-Fi for the first three days but bought a few cards once we got to Havana to check in with friends and family. Many American websites were blocked, but social media worked well.
What Did You Eat?
Most menus are limited in their offerings, so we ate a lot of fish, pork, yuca, arroz moro, and congri throughout the entirety of our trip, including the days we were visiting family and friends. A lot of eggs for breakfast, which unfortunately I’m allergic to, so I survived on toast and granola bars I brought. When ordering at a restaurant, make sure to not have your heart set on a dish, because they might not have the ingredients to make it. Always have a back-up meal… and a back-up for that. Food was very affordable in Ciego de Avila. Dinner for five, including multiple appetizers and drinks, came out to around $50.
Do you have a completely different perspective from tourists of a vacation destination your family is from?