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What is Cuba Really Like?

Travel to Cuba

 

As a Canadian traveler, Cuba didn't hold much of a mystery for me. We’ve always been allowed to go. The only way I really knew how to travel to Cuba was through an all-inclusive vacation package to go sit on the beach (with a day trip to Havana thrown in if you wanted "some culture"). So when the opportunity arose for me to travel to Cuba with ElderTreks to explore a completely different side of the island – I was interested, but not quite sold yet.

 

The ElderTreks Cuba itinerary is a truly unique itinerary in the industry. In 13 days it crosses the Western part of the island, covering Havana, Vinales Valley, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santa Clara. It was carefully created to see the highlights, but also to experience the people and the unique culture of the country. I think one of the major appeals of Cuba is the fact that you are able to visit a socialist state and understand how it works. Through visiting maternity homes, schools and a senior center, you get a feel for the programs and the effect that the government has on people's lives in Cuba. Everything from wages, education and food is controlled by the government, and on this tour you get a chance to see and learn more about this way of life. Reading through the itinerary, I started to get more excited about the opportunity to learn more about this unique Caribbean island.

While preparing for this Cuban experience, I spoke with many travelers who were a bit concerned about what the experience in Cuba is like. They mostly asked questions about somewhat negative topics, so after returning from Cuba, I wanted to share my thoughts on them here - If only in the hope that understanding how and why things are the way they are will set better expectations in traveler’s minds when visiting Cuba. On the same token, there are many positives about life in Cuba and I wanted to share those thoughts too.

Havana Musicians

Food is greatly affected by this and the embargo that was placed on Cuba. If you speak to anyone who's been to Cuba, they will immediately tell you their thoughts and opinions on the food. Yes, it’s repetitive, yes it’s relatively bland – but you only have to eat it for 12 days, not an entire lifetime, so just keep that in mind. You can, and will survive for a short amount of time. If you like ketchup, just bring your own.

Another common complaint is about the quality of hotels. Having come from my last trip where I stayed in only 5-star hotels, yes, Cuba was a shock for me. Sheets that don't wrap around the entire bed - if that's your biggest concern, traveling to Cuba might not be the best fit for you. AC is my weakness, I hate the heat and humidity, but most of the hotels didn't have any issues with keeping me cool at night, and for that I am forever thankful. Hotel staff aren’t paid to care about customer service issues (the same goes for restaurant wait staff) so what may seem like rude behavior in any other North American establishment, is commonplace here. By the way, this one took me the longest to learn...

But, wait, what about the positives?

 

Trinidad, Cuba

Cuba has incredible people who are willing to share their stories and their way of life. We met a tobacco farmer in the Vinales Valley who was eager to share how he works and how involved his entire family is. At the end of the year, and after all of that hard work, he has to ship off most of his crop to the government. He does get to keep some for himself (I bet you can guess which quality he keeps for himself?). There are also local artists who are still using an almost antiquated art form of lithography (which my Grandfather proudly did for many years), or pottery makers who are proud to show you their craft.

The music was also a huge draw for me. The upbeat nature of the songs and the infectious melodies made me want to tap my feet from start to finish each day. Watching Cubans dance was mesmerizing – the way their hips moved and they seemed to effortlessly glide across the dance floor. I was too shy to get up and dance for fear of embarrassment of my two left feet. I swear, Cubans are born moving their hips that way. It’s a gift, and I was sadly, not born with that gift. I think one of my favorite activities from the ElderTreks trip was a percussion lesson with a local musician. Although I was terrible (I have no rhythm), having a chance to play and make music was one of the moments I will cherish from my trip to Cuba.

Connection to home is also getting easier. You can’t use your cell phone as an American (and barely as a Canadian) in Cuba, but the internet connection has spread to local parks and outdoor areas. Although it’s not the best connection and half the time you might be throwing the internet card/phone at the wall, it works enough to check emails and to browse some social media sites, all while enjoying the beautiful park views. It can pretty much only get better (I hope) so things should be improving as Cuba-US relations progress. There is something, however, about going to a place where you can’t connect, and that is definitely another positive for me.

And of course, I can’t forget the incredible architecture, furniture and classic cars. Those are more of the reasons why Cuba is so remarkable. It’s like you are stepping back in time, remembering the beauty and simplicity of designs from the 50’s. Or if memories of a classic time aren’t you thing, perhaps enjoying arguably some of the best tobacco in the entire world is?

All in all, Cuba is a completely distinctive type of Caribbean island, it so much more than beautiful white-sand beaches, it is a place that can take you on a cultural journey and allow for a completely special type of adventure travel. Cuba is a place where you can explore and connect that few American travelers have had the opportunity to do so.

Do you have questions about Cuba and what it’s really like? Or have you been before and want to add anything else? Comment below!

 

Amanda Dunning - August 15, 2016
 

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