For as many documentaries that we watched and research that we did before our week-long trip, Cuba was still nothing like I was expecting. I’ve been having a hard time trying to put all of my thoughts into words, but I’m going to try!
Growing up in the US, Cuba has always been this mysterious place that was briefly discussed during our unit on the Cold War in history class, and that was that. I never learned about the role that the US played in securing Cuba’s independence from Spain, the United States’ occupation of the country, our interference in presidential elections, or the U.S. mobs’ role in building a huge number of hotels in Havana. If you’ve never learned about the country, digging into its history is fascinating and provides so much more context to how things ended up as they are today.
More and more recently, Cuba has been glamorized as a place where visitors can forget about the modern world for a minute and step back in time. I’m not going to lie – it felt very surreal to spend a week where modern cars were rare, but “classic” cars were on every corner, WiFi and a connection with the outside world was not readily available, and only cash was accepted. However, we quickly realized that this glamorization is extremely misguided.
Yes, Cuba in a lot of ways very much feels like it’s stuck in time. But from the conversations we had with people while we were there, it’s not because they want it to be that way. Their disdain for their government was brought up often, and graffiti all around Havana served as small acts of rebellion.
I don’t think I truly understood what an embargo meant in practice until we spent time experiencing it ourselves. The availability of many goods is sporadic, and often only available in limited quantities. This means that Cubans have gotten extremely creative with how to make things work – from recipes to car engines to art supplies – because you never know if what you need will be available.
The average government salary in Cuba is $44 a month, hardly enough to live on. This means that you’ll see teachers, doctors, lawyers, and many other government employees working a full time, 40 hour week, then driving a taxi, teaching private lessons, or working in the lucrative tourism industry after hours and on the weekends to make ends meet.
Speaking of the tourism industry, I had no idea just how touristy the island would be. Although it’s been off limits to most American tourists for decades, it has been a hotspot for tourists from all over the rest of the world (especially Europe and Canada!) There are tourist traps galore, and a super fun scam that we encountered at least five times a day centered on the how lucky we were to be there for the “last day of the [insert your choice of salsa, rumba, or cigar] festival” and an attempt to get you to buy fake Cuban cigars.
A question I have gotten asked often is, “I thought it was illegal for Americans to go to Cuba. How did you go?” First of all, while it is illegal for Americans to be tourists on the island, they are still easily able to go on a “support for the Cuban people” visa. This visa requires that Americans spend a “full schedule” (the definition of which is still very much murky) participating in activities that “enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities and result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba.”
For us, this meant we spent our trip actually getting to know Cuban people rather than sticking to places typically on a tourist’s itinerary. We ate at paladares, or family owned restaurants often located in the front rooms of people’s homes. We hired a private driver whenever we needed to go somewhere out of walking distance rather than taking a taxi. We stayed at casa particulars with families who rent out rooms in their homes to travelers and are identified by a blue anchor on the door.
We spoke with many artists about Havana’s exploding art scene, how politics comes through in the work they do, and what life in general is like in our two countries. We went on walking tours with locals to learn about Havana’s complicated history and the current climate in the city. We took a salsa class in a woman’s living room. We avoided government-owned shops and instead bought small trinkets and art from one of the many open-air markets.
When we ventured outside of Havana to Vinales, an area known for its tobacco farms and the home of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we saw a different way of Cuban life. We visited two small farms and learned about how tobacco, coffee, honey, and rum play central roles in their operation, as well as how the government automatically receives 90% of everything the farm produces to re-sell.
We learned about how cigars are made and saw the process first-hand, from growing to drying to rolling to smoking. It felt like a very full-circle, once-in-a-lifetime experience, smoking a Cuban cigar dipped in honey and sipping rum on a farm where the tobacco and sugarcane were grown and the honey was collected with the farmer who made it all happen.
We met up with local guides and made new friends from Japan and Italy as we explored the Valley of Silence on horseback. We especially enjoyed learning about the plants in the area as we trotted along (including what they jokingly call a “tourist tree,” because its bark is white during the winter and red during the summer).
While visiting Cuba as an American does take a bit more planning than anywhere else I have been, it was an incredible experience. Once you get past the strict itinerary required by the U.S. government, the knowledge that none of your credit or debit cards will work, be flexible with plans, and accept (or celebrate) the face that disconnecting from the internet is a necessity, it’s really not too different from traveling elsewhere in Latin America. Cuba is a complicated country and I could never do it justice in explaining how unique of a place it really is, but it also at times felt strangely familiar. We have never felt safer in any other country, and were warmly embraced by so many people that we met, eager to show us a side of the country that vastly differs from the narrative I heard growing up. If you’ve ever thought about visiting Cuba, stop thinking about it, and go!
If you are interested in purchasing any prints or seeing the fully gallery of photos from our trip, you can do so here! Don’t forget, 10% of all purchases go to International Justice Mission, the largest anti-slavery organization in the world.