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A month later and I still am not sure how I feel about Cuba. It was beautiful and sometimes depressing, freeing and constraining, it was often a paradox. A paradox you enjoy existing in over and over. I went to Cuba for four days and four nights from Nashville, TN at 6:00 AM in the morning. Bleh. I’m NOT a morning person.
Honestly, I felt like I didn’t plan for this trip. I had been abroad a few times before thanks to Girl Scouts Destinations and a college scholarship, but this was the first time I ever paid for a big trip like this by myself and, most surprisingly, with my own money. My friend Nancy who’s a fellow blogger fwend proposed the trip jokingly, not knowing that I often go broke to go on life-changing adventures. So off we went, but this time I planned like a big-girl…. kinda. Anyway, Here are my top 13 tips for staying in Cuba and having the time of your life.
1. Bring your Spanish or a Spanish Speaker. I know this seems rhetorical, but sometimes you can skim your way through a trip with English and minimal fluency in a foreign language. I’m not fluent in Spanish and it would have been to my demise if it weren’t for my friend Nancy whose had 8 years of Spanish. She helped us bargain our taxi rides and knew how to tell people thank you for their kindness throughout our trip for the both of us. I knew a few things like Hello, Introductions, and thank you, but to have a full experience you should know Spanish or bring someone whose fluent.
2. Best apps for travel to Cuba. IPhones have redemptive qualities, like a bomb selfie camera and Apps to help you navigate around Cuba and eat some of the best lamb ever. I downloaded the Spanish-to-English Offline Dictionary, which was very helpful the hours I was there alone, but Nance downloaded Ala Mesa and These two apps were overwhelmingly helpful in leading us to restaurants and cool galleries around Havana. The offline map feature of the Ala Mesa app is very helpful for getting around the area too. Honestly, the Ala Mesa app led us to the best tortas and helados I’ve ever had. I still think about it. Get it.
3. Don’t overplan. Like I said, I didn’t really plan this trip; except for buying our tickets. In our short stay, we went to Jaimanitas, Fábrica de Arte Cubano, and extensively throughout Vináles to name a few places. I knew I wanted to go to Fábrica de Arte because I discovered it while researching afro-Cuban music to prepare for our trip. X Alfonso, who’s a famous Cuban musician, transformed an old Spanish factory into an artistic Cuban futuristic experience (think Old Kanye met Cuban culture met Basquiat). It is the one place I would go every year because I know I would be thoroughly surprised by something new and profound each time. From the open architectural space, to the concert halls attached to tunnels of art and sculptures. It was surreal and that only came from random exploration, like walking to the nearest hotel to see what day trips they offered at affordable prices. I feel like it’s the beauty of Cuba, when you unplug with it; you will find places that can only be found by luck.
4. Buy Your Tickets in the “Prime Booking Window”. I bought my tickets about two months out and two weeks later than I hoped I would (I’m still learning fiscal responsibility) and got them for an awesome price of 153 buckaroos. Yes. Flight analysts call it the Prime Booking Window, but its the short time frame when plane tickets reach their lowest price. You can read more about it here. It’s us millennials jackpot to being world travelers these days. However; I bought a one-way flight because I went to Miami for Rolling Loud Fest. That ticket went for as low as $77, which was a great excuse to create a combined trip. For me, it was an opportunity to learn the art of rest in Cuba and pay homage to my love of Hip Hop in Miami. And urban style, of course. So you could easily have a round-trip flight from Nashville to Cuba for $300. Issa Deal.
5. See it all as Art. It’s safe to say Cuba is one of the most beautiful countries in the world with one of the highest poverty rates in the world. One can see lush mountainsides with oxen or feel puny next to gigantic shells of 16th century colonial structures in Old Havana. It’s all so well preserved you can’t help but marvel at all you see. Even the pariculaires in their dilapidated grandeur, demanded your attention and time. It reminded me of Memphis, and how easily blighted neighborhoods can exist adjacent to wealthy estates. Just like many American urban cities there was immense beauty in the struggle and the wealth in Cuba. It was all unbelievably lovely. You can’t help but to be well aware of Cuba's complex history through their music and art painted on house exteriors. They are a country of people who use art to express themselves while in a repressive regime. Their colorful houses, colorful cars, colorful personalities, and colorful art, reveal that they are a passionate and creative people, which enlivened creativity within me and reminded me that art transcends circumstance.
6. Take your Time. The island is large and there are endless things to do, but know that its best to do a few things fully than a lot of things partially. I believed we had better experiences because we chose to do one thing each day and whatever time was left, was an opportunity to explore. For example, while at Fábrica De Arte a surprise performance of the International Jazz Day Festival’s Headliners happened while we were there. We had no idea the world's largest Jazz appreciation day was occurring while we were in Cuba, but I think it added to the adventure. We were explorers. We just knew we wanted to attend this art factory, but we had no intention of what it was to be and that allowed for the most amazing things to be seen and experienced.
7. Bring Toilet Paper or Wipes. For the past couple of years, there have been shortages on paper goods, so there is usually no toilet tissue in bathrooms outside of the resort or hostel you’re staying at. So always bring it with you when you go on day trips, especially extensive ones across the country. It may even be a promising idea to bring a role with you in your luggage if you’re a little indulgent with tissue.
8. Eat all the Calories. And all the Dessert(s). The food is phenomenal, the natural pína juice is even better. I’m still not sure which tops my list, both are too damn delicious. One of my favorite meals was braised lamb in red wine sauce with Arroz Congri and pína juice at My other favorite meal was grilled pork and vegetables with Congri. And pineapple. And caramel flan. And mangoes we stole off a mango tree at the prehistoric Nature park with male butlers who served you fresh mango juice. It was insane. Honestly, the food was euphoric. Best BBQ I’ve had and I live in Memphis, Tn. Did I add, no meal cost me over eight US dollars!
9. Exchange Your Money before you go to Cuba. There are no ATM’s in Cuba and it will save you a large percentage payout with a more fair dollar exchange if you do it ahead of time. I traded it at the airport because some articles recommended it, but I wish I would have traded them with my local bank, that’s what the guy who exchanged my money told me is best. He said exchanging with your bank is the most efficient way to get money for international trips and research shows this is correct. So exchange your currency for Canadian Dollars or Euros at least two weeks in advance, so that you can receive the best exchange rate once you arrive in Cuba. American Dollars don’t exchange well at the few places I saw it happen, like the airport. (Don’t know if that was really supposed to happen too)
10. We stayed in an AirBnb in Cuba. I felt a little bad n boujee. I can’t lie. We were staying in a modern Cuban apartment in Playa Miramar down the street from the Beach…for less than $250.00. Whhaaa! Since we were both comfortable with Airbnb we chose an awesome apartment and ended up with the most amicable host ever. His name is Dayan and he is very knowledgeable of day trips, museums, and tips to save money on taxis (they will try to inflate the prices). Plus, his apartment had all the amenities we needed to be more than comfortable during our stay and it was the perfect half way point from FuestaLand and Old Havana with the beach up the road. If you’re not sure what part of Cuba you want to stay in, we met people who went to Old Havana and asked for a room in a hostel since that is very common there. Plus there are a ton of resort-like hotels and villas that are well-priced if you want to wing it.
11. Boil Your Water and buy Bottled Water or drink lots of Pina Juice. It is advised that tourists not drink the water so we often bought water at the restaurant we went to or we boiled water and filled our empty water bottles up. I wouldn’t advise boiling water since there was sometimes a mineral film on top of it; so it was a great excuse to drink organic fruit juice with alllll your meals, which is better than any fruit juice in a box I’ve ever had.
12. Reflect and Appreciate Your Trip. Vacations allow us to reflect and grow. Cuba makes you reflect, forces you to take time to be present and pay attention to your surroundings which allowed me to grow on this trip. I think it's largely due to the lack of phone service and the relaxed environment. As I said earlier this was my first trip I could pay for and I never thought I would be able to do anything like this so soon, especially with my not -so- great ability to budget as I would like. However; God allowed me to go on a trip that showed me his grace is everlasting and his blessings can exceed our circumstances. I fell in love with Cuba, largely due to the art and music , but we’ll get to that in the second part of our #TheCubaSeries
13. Take Pictures. It was one of the few places that made me feel like a little kid with a disposable camera. Btw I brought a disposable camera with me and it was the best decision I made. I wanted to take pictures of everything. Perhaps it was a desire to have evidence that it existed just in case it’s restricted again in the future or it becomes tainted and diluted like places do when globalization happens.Maybe it was the allure of existing in a space that was once forbidden, so you feel like a rebel.