People We Love

READ: A day in Cuba with Summer

A day in Cuba with SummerLIFEI absolutely love to learn about new cities, cultures & customs, and I always come back from a destination reading more about the country I had visited (and realizing I should’ve done my research beforehand so that I could’ve appreciated it even more in the moment!). I had read about Cuba before flying out, there was still so much more that I had learned from being there.

So today I’m going to share a few experiences on things to expect when traveling to Cuba so that you come fully prepared, find a lot of enjoyments, and don’t have many disappointments!

The number one thing I’ve been asked is how to travel there. For US citizens, all you must do is go up to the counter of the airline you are traveling with and purchase a visa in the airport before your flight to Havana. When receiving your boarding passes, you’ll be asked a few questions about your trip such as where you will be staying and any sicknesses you may have had in the past. Because tourism is still not allowed to Cuba by US citizens formally, be sure to choose the “educational purposes” option and under that category the “people to people” option. If you were to be ask any questions in the way back, you can say something along the lines of learning Spanish while in Cuba, or completing a research project. Immigration on the way back was super easy for me thankfully!

The number one thing that surprised me and Cuba was the lack of food. I don’t mean grocery options— I’m talking about the minimal street food, snacks, and the variety of cuisine in general. A lot of the restaurants there are run by the state and so they all serve a similar menu consisting of ham and cheese sandwiches, lightly seasoned seafood, few protein options of beans, rice and meat, and fruit mixed with salad. This is really due to government policies in the past, ranging from the US embargo, to the lack of ability to expand agriculture in the city and so on. A majority of their food is imported.

On the other hand, because the island is so rich in growing fruit, their juices are to die for—  especially mango! You often see way more drink options over food options in menus. My recommendation would be to bring a lot of snacks with you and anything you might be craving throughout the day, because you will not be able to easily find it!

Another surprise was the lack of ability to use US currency. There aren’t many things to purchase, but for the few souvenirs I wanted to bring back home, I had to switch money with one of the group members since I had not exchanged my US money to euros in United States. From there I could come to Cuba and switch my euros to CUCs. There is not much Cuban money in the United States and there is not much US money in Cuba.

Pack everything you may possibly need on the trip. Whether it be bug spray, shampoo & conditioner, sunscreen, or even feminine hygiene products, it will be difficult to find it immediately in Havana. Be sure to bring extra clothing because you’ll find yourself getting very sweaty and hot throughout the day and changing clothes in order to keep cool. I found myself taking about 2 showers a day just cool down from the heat.

One thing to note is that Havana is super safe to walk in at night. The team and I found ourselves walking through the streets at one in the morning and very be huge crowds everywhere chatting and drinking. Now this doesn’t mean to not take any precautions as you should be careful everywhere you go but I definitely felt safer in Havana at night then I would ever in downtown East St. Louis at midnight!

I was told that the Wi-Fi signal would be bad but I didn’t expect it to be as hard as it was once we arrived. There is no public Wi-Fi in Cuba— instead you must bring your passport with you to a communications shop that sells Wi-Fi cards for purchase by the hour. After purchasing, you take the Wi-Fi card with you to a hotspot, which could be at a hotel or a park. From there you try to connect to the signal by signing in with a username and password. It’s often hard to get a signal because there are a lot of people in the same area. Also, Snapchat is one of the apps that does not work in the country. I learned to do without the social media, the emails, the updates for five days— and it was amazing!

One thing I did find to really appreciate about the country is because there is such a lack of Wi-Fi signal, a lot of people are always communicating. I sat and had a conversation with one of the souvenir shop owners and ended up spending an hour talking about random things in life with her using my broken Spanish. We had so much in common. It really felt like I went through a time warp similar to my childhood visits to Syria every summer.

The most amazing site was to see the old mixed with new. We would be walking through the city and see a brand-new BMW driving side-by-side with a horse and buggy picking up the garbage from businesses and homes. You’ll often find homes that look brand-new along side homes that are crumbling and partially renovated. There’s payphone, multiple libraries on one street, book and magazine sellers, and pretty much anything tangible since Google is not always an option for wanting to know things. Everything is just so stunning.

There were so many more sites and destinations within Havana I wished we could have visited, but it’s totally great because it leaves room to return again!