Think Travel; Not Vacation
Cabo, going home, skiing, San Diego — the list goes on and on when deciding on your spring break itinerary. Most likely, Cuba wasn’t on your list this year of spring break destinations, and without a little creativity, it wouldn’t have been on ours either. Our decision to travel to Cuba came to us about four months before break over the idea that we wanted to do something different. One of us, who had been to Cuba over three years ago in an overplanned tour-guided group through a curated section of the nation, said, “Why not go to Cuba? I’ve never actually experienced it.” We took his energy and excitement, combined them with our own curiosity and put some serious effort into researching and planning our trip. We knew that we wanted to see Havana, the largest city and capital of Cuba, but we also wanted to venture off the beaten path. A few areas that came to mind while combing through multiple travel guides were the cities of Vinales and Trinidad. Again, after additional research and planning, we felt somewhat comfortable with our itinerary.
During our travels, we combined our personal experiences to attempt to provide a figurative snapshot of Cuba. The first issue of address came from the obvious preparation efforts for the visit of President Barack Obama in Havana: The Cuban people’s regard toward their own political situation and how their culture is intertwined with many of the issues impeding progress today. Beyond local culture and politics, we felt it necessary to convey a few important reminders and tips about safety. Any country abroad is of slight risk to travelers; however, using your head and being aware of a few non-standard local practices is always helpful in feeling prepared and safe. Finally, one of the most obvious and unique parts of our trip were the sights. For all of the cliche references, Cuba literally is stuck in time. From ’50s era Chevys to Spanish colonial architecture, modern art deco and everything in between, the attractions, sights and scenery in Cuba were some of the most impressive events of our entire trip.
We hope that through our brief account of our stay in Cuba, you’ll share the same curiosity and excitement that we experienced during our time discovering this most unique spring break destination.
Politics and Culture
It’s impossible to visit Cuba without getting a taste of its current political climate. Cuba has been run by the Communist party since the 1960s and is currently governed by President Raul Castro. Unlike its more restricted and nationalist past, however, Castro recently began allowing Cuban citizens to own private businesses and even rent out rooms to tourists. These options give Cubans, who typically earn $45-60 per month, to make nearly the same amount in just one day.
During our trip, we stayed in some of these private rooms known as Casa Particulares which opened the door to more intimate and honest political discussions. And, even as tourists, we were able to experience multiple perspectives. One of our hosts pointed out the lack of a socio-economic class system in the country. The government ensures every Cuban receives the same rations, health care and resources they need to survive which brings everyone to a mostly uniform standard of living. Our host loved the this single class system because she believed it helped create a singular Cuban identity, and because everyone had what they needed, the political system drastically reduced the national crime rate.
On the other hand, we met other locals, a teacher and an IT worker, all of whom were fed up with their political system. They told us that giving everyone the same benefits, regardless of who actually works, creates free riders that slows their society’s progress.
Everyone we met was hospitable and kind. Even when we got stuck in a run-down, dangerous-looking place late at night, it honestly felt safer than most areas around USC. We also noticed the more relaxed pace of work as soon as we landed in the Havana airport — where we had to wait over two hours to exchange our currency because the tellers were socializing with one another. On a grander scale, there were large public projects and building renovations that were seemingly abandoned and covered in ivy as if the country had collectively given up on those projects. Regardless, Cuban society still functions in one of the most unique ways any of us had ever experienced.
Though Cuba has a relatively low crime rate, there are still plenty of pickpockets, scammers and regulations to always be on the lookout for. To those planning on venturing to Cuba sometime in the near future, here is a list of things we came across that every traveler should be wary of:
- Scammers and Illegal Solicitors: One effect of Cuba’s strictly controlled economy is that Cubans are constantly looking to make a quick buck off tourists. From bootleg taxi drivers constantly hassling you on the street for an overpriced ride to people offering to sell you illegal Cuban cigars out of their apartment, Cuban travelers must be mindful of their actions. Most solicitors will approach you on the street and attempt to spark up any sort of conversation: where you’re from, where the best food is, but be warned — these are not your friends. They just want your money. The best way to handle these situations is by politely thanking them and declining their offers while continuing on your way.
- Pickpockets: Though we personally never had issues with pickpockets, we were warned many times by our hosts and taxi drivers that thieves will target tourists in some areas of Cuba. They told us to be extra cautious at night in crowded music halls and to always either keep your valuables in your front pocket or locked in your backpack.
- Talking Politics: Even if Cuba feels like an inviting place and the people are open to all sorts of conversation, be careful discussing the current political climate and leader in public places. If you say the wrong things about the government or its leader Raul Castro, it is definitely possible to get in trouble with the secret police, who are constantly searching for opposers to the revolution. Again, we never faced an issue with the police, but it is best to be cautious by sticking with less controversial topics.
- Food: No matter how fancy a restaurant looks, always remember that Cuba does not have health codes anything similar to those in the United States. To be safe, drink only bottled water, stay away from undercooked meats and be careful about eating seafood or you might end up like Michael, who unfortunately had food poisoning on day six to eight of our trip.
Beyond the western Caribbean location of Cuba, the numerous valleys, mountain ranges, small harbors and urban colonial areas prove for a uniquely diverse and visual experience of the island. Our group visited three main cities: Havana, Vinales and Trinidad, all on the eastern half of Cuba, but also very different in scenery and local personalities.
The capital of Cuba, Havana, is home to numerous different sections of architectural theme. The oldest part of Havana (Habana Vieja) is home to numerous cathedrals and plazas, most of which were constructed near the then town’s inception in 1500. The overwhelming majority of these buildings display Spanish Deco architecture, while the more inhabited (and less frequented by tourists) areas to the west, such as Miramar and Vedado, are more modernized. A few top spots in Havana include:
- Plaza de la Revolución, which contains a large monument originally constructed for José Martí, and three massive silhouettes of Che Guevara, Mauricio Cienfuegos and Fidel Castro mounted on the side of nearby apartment buildings.
- Museo de la Revolución contains numerous artifacts from the revolution, along with warplanes, a 50 foot yacht that Castro took with other revolutionists named the Granma and an engine of a U.S. U-2 spy plane shot down over Cuba.
- Malecon is a promenade that runs east-west along the north side of Cuba and borders the Gulf of Mexico. It provides amazing sights of the ocean during both the day and night.
- Prado is similar to the Malecon, but runs north-south through the heart of Havana,and leads past the Capitol building.
- The Capital offers an almost exact copy of the U.S. capitol building in Washington, D.C., with a singular exception: It’s bigger.
- Any local cafeteria: Say goodbye to $8 entrees. In fact, almost every dish is about $1, and will fill you up just as much, if not more, than many commonly frequented tourist spots. Even better, the locals are excited to see you trying food dives where they themselves also eat!
- La Terraza: This rooftop terrace restaurant is slightly more expensive than a cafeteria, but still very cheap compared to many U.S. full service establishments. It boasts a great view of Prado, the Gulf of Mexico and the Capitol.
Viñales is a mountainous town located 140 km to the west of Havana, about a two hour’s drive on the Autopista Nacional, Cuba’s main cross-country interstate. With a population of 8,000, the quaint town features a vibrant downtown, complete with latin discotheques and eateries. The main attraction, however, lies just outside the town: numerous mogotes, or mountains, surround the area and attract visitors from all around. A few sights in particular:
- Monumento de Rocas Prehistorico: This monument, contrary to its name, does not contain prehistoric hieroglyphics, but rather a mural completed in the ’70s that is reminiscent of ancient paintings. Fortunately, the color choice is somewhat more vibrant, and entry is cheap. From entry to the viewing area, a trail leads to the peak of the rocks, and an incredible vista of the surrounding area.
- Restaurant Hotel Los Jazmines: A must-see at sunset, this restaurant has arguably one of the best views in Cuba. Perched atop a mountain pass, the viewing deck, which is also the dining room, overlooks the beautiful Viñales Valley..
- Surrounding farms: Viñales is popular for its agricultural production; among the most popular products are tobacco, sugar and coffee. Our trip afforded us the opportunity to take a horseback ride through each of these plantations and to a cave that had its own natural stream.
Trinidad was originally a Spanish Colonial settlement that still boasts its original 1800s architecture. About a four hour drive from Havana, Trinidad bordered by the Caribbean Sea. The city alone is enough to fill pages of sights, but other notable places include the nearby beaches and waterfalls:
- Playa Ancon: Over 5 km of white sand beach with beach dives and hotels. A touristy detour, but extremely scenic. The easiest way to access from Trinidad is either by renting a bike or a moped (as we did). It’s about 14 km to the beach (8.5 miles), so either method is totally doable.
- Torre de Manaca Iznaga: Most likely the best view you’ll ever see for $1, this once bell tower is located about a 10-minute car drive to the northeast of Trinidad. It’s a simple one hour detour from Trinidad and boasts views of sweeping valleys and mountain ranges to the north.
- Salto del Caburni: A gorgeous waterfall that is a short drive out of Trinidad, with clear water pools and the bottom. It’s a two-and-a-half mile hike up to the falls but absolutely worth it if you have the time.
The sheer size of Cuba affords travelers a great opportunity to view a myriad of sights, from white sand beaches to caves and rock formations. The easiest way to see as much as possible is do some research ahead of time, and also talk to locals. Ask around for not only the most popular or flashy spots, but also the places that locals frequent. In any case, do your best to have an open mind, take a step back and appreciate the amazing sights that Cuba has to offer.