The idea was spontaneous and sure.
Jen and I were discussing my upcoming birthday and ticking off a list of potential activities. “Is there anything you want?” she asked.
“Honestly, no,” I said. “There’s nothing I want that could fit in a box.”
She and I worked together for years at a travel company so talking about places to go was a favorite pastime. I don’t remember who said it first, but when Cuba was mentioned we both just smiled. Si, regalo de Cuba (Yes, the gift of Cuba).
Less than two weeks before we left, we hadn’t booked anything other than our plane tickets. Our Americano bravado was lacking any details. Thankfully a friend recommended Joslin Fritz at Experience Cuba and she created a custom itinerary that took us in a travel triangle of Havana, Trinidad, and Varadero.
Even as experienced world travelers, there was much to learn as we prepared to meet our 500-year-old Caribbean cousin, just 90 miles off the shore of Florida. U.S. phones and bank cards don’t work and U.S. currency exchange has a hefty conversion fee. So we exchanged our money into Euros then traded that into the Cuban peso. Once our money laundering was done, we had to adjust our American pay-by-plastic habit and be more cash conscious. That, in itself, lent more awareness and appreciation to each purchase.
As of June 2017, only a limited number of U.S. airports had direct flights so we had a layover in Los Angeles then on to Havana. As we walked outside the airport, we were greeted by a full tropical thunderstorm that was a sign of the cleansing to come in the week ahead.
We were met at our casa by Marlon, who along with our driver Cubita, were our tour guides and personal pals for the week. Most hotels are joint ventures with the Cuban government but bed and breakfast-style casas are becoming common. We stayed in a 5-bedroom house that had been a mansion in the 1900s and our hosts treated us as extended family, setting fresh smoothies and full breakfasts for us on a dining table outside our bedrooms.
For three days, Marlon wove us through the sites and streets of Havana, which is home to 2.2 million of the 11 million people across the island. The neighborhoods were a mix of colorful homes and buildings in varying states of disrepair. Crumbled sidewalks ran alongside restored hospitals and playgrounds. Neighborhood parks were full of people using the designated wifi hotspots and internet cards (pictured below) since the wireless infrastructure is still limited.
To escape the afternoon sun, we would step in a bar for a drink. “Where are the places you go to eat?” we asked.
“Most of the restaurants are for the tourists,” he said, pointing to a dish on the menu. “See this? That’s about a month’s wages for most people.”
It was a $15 entree.
Our perspective deepened the next day as we visited an outdoor market. About 70 percent of food in Cuba is imported so, in 1962, the government started a food distribution system known as the Libreta de Abastecimiento (“supplies booklet”). Each family gets monthly rations of meat, rice, cheese, etc. and the markets list prices based on that month’s options. “Most of our meat is either pork or lamb,” Marlon said, explaining that the government controls the limited supply of beef and that most seafood gets sold to restaurants because it commands a higher price. True tourism supply and demand.
Cuba comes with a soundtrack. Music surrounds you indoors and out. We spent hours in the car with Cubita and Marlon sharing our favorite songs, trading phones and speaker plugs as we played carpool DJ. On these drives, Marlon brought his computer and showed us music videos of wildly popular songs like La Gozadera and Despecito. As the countryside rolled by our windows, we learned how Cuba’s free education system helps train doctors from all over the world and listened to President Obama’s speech in Havana in 2016. We learned, laughed, then turned up the music.
From our rain shower welcome, water became a symbol for us during our trip. We went to the gorgeous Santa Maria beach (above left) outside of Havana where the warm Atlantic Ocean felt like cashmere on our pale skin. We went snorkeling in the salty water of the Bay of Pigs (above right). The area was so unspoiled that we simply followed the trail of discarded sandals to enter the Bay on a two-rung ladder.
Across the street was Cueva de los Peces where a collapsed cave created a natural pool that was 230 feet deep. Still in our wet swimsuits, we ate lunch at an open air restaurant where they served fresh shrimp, lobster, fish, and crocodile (um, tastes like pork).
The best water we found in a week of amazing spots was the Salto de Javira waterfall in El Cubano National Park near Trinidad. After hiking in the heat, we came to a wide swimming area that wrapped around to a small cave where a waterfall spilled over the rocks. The cool water filtered into our bones and I found a mossy rock underwater where I could sit and absorb the beauty. Jen and I made our way into the cave so we could swim under the waterfall.
“I wonder how that bird got in here,” I said as she swam toward me in the cave. “Oh, that’s not a bird. Looks like there are bats in–”
“I’m out!” she yelled and swam away with Olympic speed.
I had to hold on to the side of the cave I was laughing too hard to swim.
We stayed in a local hostel in Trinidad, one of the oldest cities in Cuba, where we saw the early European influence in the building design, the local museums, and clunky cobblestone streets. We went to a local salsa club and spun to Spanish words then sat outside under the moon, drinking mojitos on stone steps.
Our last two days were spent in Varadero, a resort town, where we mingled with happy tourists and lingering couples. We sampled all sorts of rum goodness (“we call it vitamin R,” Marlon said) and stretched out into lazy days. We wandered on the beach and raced to write our names in the sand before the waves wiped them away.
There is no box big enough for the gift of Cuba and no blog long enough to do it justice (although I wrote this one for LinkedIn and still left so much out).
Less than a week after we returned, the U.S. announced it would revisit the détente. Another chess move in a long game of power and posturing from both countries. But, this time, I can see beyond the news headlines and have a better appreciation for the implications.
During our days, I would pause to take pictures and notes, trying to quickly capture all the stories. The funny thing is that the stories found me, much more than I can faithfully capture here. Offering there is only a quick snapshot of a different view of the world. A few moments, in a moment in time, when history seems both suspended and serendipitous. Whatever comes next, the story of Cuba of its people is still being written.