On our very first day in Cuba, our colectivo driver, Josué, blasted some popular Cuban music as everyone in the car sang and danced. He drove like a crazy man, telling stories about beautiful women, speaking over the booming reggaeton beats of his speakers. There were six of us in the back of the car – the four in my group plus two Spaniards, all brought together by the smooth tunes and the humor (and terror) of barreling down a windy street WAY too fast for comfort. It was scary, yes, but it was thrilling.
And that’s when I knew my trip to Cuba would be a wonderful adventure.
Even though I only spent 4 days in Cuba, it taught me a ton. Admittedly, I wish I’d spent more time there (like this awesome 10-day itinerary in Cuba).When I came home, I shared with a few friends that my trip to Cuba was different that I’d originally expected. Here are a couple of the things I learned during my time there:
1. Cuba is a lot more than colorful houses and old cars
When asked about the image of Cuba that comes to peoples’ heads, painted houses and old cars typically come to mind. But after spending a few days exploring just a corner of this beautiful country, I learned that there’s a lot more to it than the cars and houses.
First of all, some mythbusting: not everyone drives old, classic cars in Cuba. In fact, most people drive somewhat older but relatively normal cars. The colorful, antique cars (especially the shiny, convertible ones) are often taxis that shuttle around tourists. To our dismay, we were surprised to find that riding in a classic convertible taxi cost twice as much as riding in a normal one!
Once we got outside of the heavily touristed areas, we started to see more of the Cuba that people call home. It’s the Cuba where you can buy a breakfast sandwich for 1 CUC (~$1 USD). The Cuba where people sing dramatic old Spanish songs on karaoke while sipping on mojitos. The beautiful Cuba where taxi drivers blast reggaeton out of the broken windows of their old cars while driving through one of the most beautiful starlit tobacco fields I’ve ever seen. The Cuba where there are so many interesting things to see and do (here’s some inspiration for must-do activities in Cuba). This Cuba? Yeah, it ROCKS.
2. Aside from connectivity, Cuba is fairly developed
Before I arrived in Cuba, I expected it to be somewhat similar to my impressions of Guatemala and El Salvador, or my experiences in Myanmar – colorful, charmingly dilapidated, with street corners full of stray animals and tangled electrical wires. I love these kinds of adventures, where the environment is so different than the one I know at home, but nonetheless I braced myself for the culture shock associated with it.
What I found, though, was fairly clean and well-maintained streets, free healthcare for all, and a well-developed transportation system from city to city. Granted, we did have a city-wide power outage while in Havana, but otherwise I was surprised at how well-developed the country’s infrastructure is.
It also comes with a developed country’s price tag, which was a bit of a shock to me. We stayed in casas, which are basically bed and breakfast-style accommodations in peoples’ homes, so they cost much less than hotels would have. However, large hotels cost upwards of $200 USD a night, so they’re basically the same price as in the United States! Meals ran anywhere from $8-12 per person (typical for a meal in Texas as well) and taxis were $5+ per ride.
Luckily…I didn’t have to foot the bills by myself.
3. In some cases, it’s better not to travel solo
When I got three random friends to come with me on this trip, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d posted on Facebook when I found a cheap flight to Havana and three people decided to hop on board.
A confession from my trip: we winged it. A lot. More than I’m usually comfortable with when I’m a) traveling alone and b) don’t have regular internet access to course-correct. When the bus was sold out on the way from Viñales to Havana, we simply called a taxi and split it between the four of us. We split all of our Airbnbs, bringing the cost per person of accommodation to less than $10 per night. There’s power in numbers, and this was very much highlighted during my trip to Cuba.
Also, when there’s no convenient means of communication with people, and a somewhat small hostelling scene, it can be a bit more challenging to meet lots of people while traveling. For this reason, it was really nice to have three of my good friends with me. We stuck together almost the entire time and had a blast. Even though I am a solo traveler at heart, I’m really glad I went to Cuba with a small group of adventurous people this time around. I saved a lot of money, felt safer, and got to share these awesome memories with some really wonderful friends.
4. Despite large influxes of tourists, Cuban people are super friendly
Everyone we met in Cuba was extremely nice. Everyone. And it didn’t seem “fake” nice either – many of the folks we met seemed genuinely interested in talking to us. Even better, they were SO interested in talking to us that they even listened through my barely-conversational Spanish abilities and spoke slowly so we could understand.
One great testament to the friendliness and openness of Cubans is their willingness to host tourists in their homes. Both sets of our Airbnb hosts were extremely nice and friendly, treating us like members of the family as soon as we walked in the door. It’s more than just Airbnb though – it’s customary to be able to walk up to a person’s home that says “room for rent,” knock on the door, and ask to stay in that house for the night. It’s simply the culture of travel there. Although I’ve used Airbnb before, I’ve never seen an openness to tourists that runs as deep as welcoming them into your home for the night, unannounced.
5. The Cuban identity runs deep
There’s something really wonderful about how proud Cuban people are about being…Cuban. There are Cuban flags flying everywhere, iconic images of Che Guevara stamped on almost every wall in sight. “Viva la Revolución” spray painted on cracked sidewalks, black and white images of Fidel hanging in peoples’ homes. The Havana Club logo is on every piece of glassware available, and people actually smoke cigars quite regularly. Being Cuban seems to be deeply ingrained in the lifestyle, and it’s always so inspiring to be around people who are deeply proud of their heritage.
As I walked around the city, I wanted to take home a souvenir to remember my time in this special place. I’d seen Cuban flags hanging in shop windows, but I didn’t really think much about buying one. Then, I saw a woman decked out in rainbow colors sitting on a street corner. In her hand, she held two Cuban flags.
“Can I buy one from you?” I asked her in my best Spanish.
She nodded, handing me one of her flags as I traded her 2 CUC. Before I walked away, I snapped a quick photograph of her, a memory I’ll cherish of all the things I loved about Cuba: the wild colors, the smiling people, and the strong Cuban sense of identity that accentuates the vibrancy of this magical place. Until I return, I’ll remember Cuba as the exhilaration of whizzing town the highway in our colectivo, the feeling of the reggaeton music still beating in my chest.
Have you been to Cuba? Did it surprise you? Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments!