As the case for many others, just a few years ago Cuba was not on my radar. But ever since the ban for travel of US citizens to Cuba was lifted, the little Caribbean island that has brought big political controversy over the decades sat prominently on my vision board as a must-see destination. I thrive off of visits to destinations that are rich in culture and history, and it’s an added bonus when it exists in a tropical climate with beach and sun. So, imagine my delight when I heard my parent travel company was hosting a cruise to Cuba inviting all of us travel consultants to attend, making it not just a bucket list trip, but a tax-deductible excursion as well. Winning! [Note: We cruised via the Norwegian Sky, a ship I had previously sailed to the Bahamas. For a review of the Norwegian Sky click HERE. Also, if you are used to 4 and 5 star luxury accommodations, I recommend cruising, as the hotels there aren’t quite up to American standards yet.]
As a caveat, let me start off by saying I had not done a whole lot of research on Cuba and what to expect prior to my visit because I wanted to learn and get the full experience of the country and the culture while I was there. I knew that it was a Communist nation but I hadn’t really thought fully about how that impacted the country and its residents. Needless to say, this probably was one of the most educational and mind-blowing travel experiences for me to date.
Thanks to my senior intern and research assistant, aka my mom (smile), my family and I had one of my best tour experiences to date out of all the countries I’ve explored. If you are visiting Cuba, definitely reach out to Fernando FerTours to schedule your tours! Our tour guide Alejandro was super knowledgeable about everything, having been born and raised there, and he was amenable to pretty much everything we requested along the way, including indulging us ladies stopping at every shop we saw in Old Havana LOL. Because we were a small group (7 of us), we were able to customize the trip to our liking and see and experience what felt like all of Cuba within the two days we spent there.
I’ll get to our exploration of Old Havana in a second but can you indulge me while I talk about my favorite part first? Can you guess what it is? If you guessed the food, you would be correct and you get a gold star (smile)! Me being the foodie I am, that was one of my most anticipated parts of the trip and Cuba did not disappoint. Alejandro, who did not lie when he told us he was taking us to the best restaurants in town, explained how fresh the seafood was to the point that your fish that you ate in the afternoon was actually swimming earlier that morning. So guess what I got an overdose on? Yes, fish and crustaceans! Because Cuba is a multi-ethnic society you get the best of the Caribbean, Spanish and African parts of their heritage in their foods. Each dish was prepared and seasoned to perfection and many of the dishes were styled so beautifully, I ALMOST didn’t want to disturb it because it was plated so masterfully. You notice I said almost right?
After talking to my colleagues who had taken other tours I realized that not everyone’s experience was created equal with the food. I also talked to some friends who had previously visited who did not have a good food experience either, primarily with the hotel restaurants. Therefore, I’m referring you to the places where we ate so you can be sure to have an enjoyable experience! Definitely visit Habana 61 (where I had my first authentic Cuban mojito!), El Biky and Vista Mar, with the latter being my favorite food experience of the trip. That had to do partially with the view, as it sat right on the water (hence the name – Vista Mar, translated view of the sea) and had a beautiful pool and lighting. I indulged in the seafood platter, which was amazing!
It’s essential to note, each of the restaurants I mentioned are known as paladares – small, family-run restaurants, usually in a converted part of a home. In addition to the quality of the food being better because it’s not mass produced, they have more of a homey, welcoming feel to them. Naturally, these types of establishments are harder to do with larger groups but if you can get to one, you should. Just thank me later.
During our excursion in Old Havana, which consisted of a walking tour around different squares where we saw many churches and museums, we learned a lot about the history and culture of the city of Havana, and of course the country as a whole. Some interesting things we learned: because education is completely free and they do not allow privatization of schools, Cuba has a nearly 100% literacy rate and close to 95% of Cubans graduate from high school. Also, due to free healthcare, the infant mortality rate is of the lowest of all of Latin-America. While homelessness is also pretty much non-existent, poverty is real there and close to 100% of the population makes less than $1,000/month (more than 80% earning less than $200/month). Nevertheless, the people for the most part were very welcoming and friendly and of course they loved us spending our American dollars there. Word of caution: women dressed in traditional garb will run up on you to take a picture with them and then tell you after the picture was taken you owe them $5. It’s a nice hustle, but trust they won’t ever get me again! In the words of George W., fool me once…lol.
My second favorite part about Cuba was the music, with the artwork at a close third. Being a lover of music, dance and everything entertainment, I truly enjoyed our “Havana nights” experience at the Buena Vista Social Club. The band was grooving all night with multiple artists coming up to perform and give you a taste of their own unique flair. I also had an opportunity to brush up on some of my salsa moves when one of the waiters propositioned me for an impromptu dance (see video here)! We even encountered an all-female band (two of the members were missing when I captured the video) at the cigar and rum shop we visited. How cool?!
My final unexpected surprise of the trip was the beautiful artwork we encountered at the old train station, turned market in Havana. The pieces bring out every part of the country’s diverse, multi-ethnic culture, leaving you a bit overwhelmed upon your departure. All of the artwork is fairly cheap with none of the pieces costing more than $200, and it helps that the market sellers allow you to bargain with them a little bit. I had an opportunity to purchase a striking piece of artwork that I’m excited to find a place for in my living room, among the other Afro-centric artwork that line the walls.
I could not complete my review without sharing my final highlight of the trip, which was having an opportunity to ride around for the afternoon in Cuba’s infamous classic cars. There are literally thousands of old American cars from the 1940’s and 1950’s that contribute to a significant portion of the transportation on the island, many of them serving as taxis. It was fascinating to see how well-kept and preserved many of the cars were. If you’re a car buff and thinking about buying one of them, think again. Most of them are owned by the government and if they are sold from owner to owner, they can only be sold to other Cubans in the country. Sorry folks!
I could literally talk all day about my precious two days in Cuba but I really want you to go and experience it for yourself. If you are a travel addict like I am and you want to get away from the norm of the same old travel destinations you visit, Cuba should definitely be on your list!