Heart Full from Havana: My Raw Thoughts & Unfiltered Shots
Sitting here, reluctantly finishing the last three Bono cookies that I bought while waiting for my flight home in the Aeropuerto Internacional José Martí airport (in Havana). I didn’t purchase any souvenirs for myself, just 4 cigars and 3 bottles of Havana Rum, for my boyfriend and his family. Although, only one bottle of rum made it through Miami’s airport.
Long story short, I had dropped one in Havana’s airport while purchasing the Bono cookies (yes, clumsy me). Since they were duty-free sealed, a kind restaurant owner opened up the bag and threw out the broken one, then re-bagged the other bottle. I went to purchase a new one from the duty-free store again, took it with me to Miami and TSA said only the re-bagged bottle had the correct duty-free packaging. Therefore, I couldn’t take the other bottle. So after 1 broken bottle and $22 CUC’s later, I only had 1 bottle of Havana Rum for my boyfriend.
Thankfully, this was at the very end of my trip in Cuba and I guess you can say that I left Havana with a bang. Okay, lame joke. But anyways, I’m sitting here trying my best to collect my thoughts. This time, it’s difficult to put into words all the emotions I experienced throughout this trip. There were quite a range of feelings from happiness to guilt to annoyance at times. I want to recount this Cuba trip as authentically as I can, with respect to the country and the people. However, if you know me, you know that I want to be as real as possible so I’m just going to get this one thought out into the open.
We are never entitled to anyone’s respect and with that being said, I never go into any trip assuming that I have a right to anything. Unfortunately, not everyone has this mindset. I want to preface this blog post by stating that while I absolutely loved my visit to this beautiful country, I want to remind you that your experience can truly change instantly with who you are with. When it comes to traveling, it is utterly important to choose who you want to surround yourself with — especially with a country like Cuba.
Luxury is not a word I would choose to describe traveling through Cuba; it is not the Maldives. However, it is a rich experience and by that I mean, rich with culture, people, emotions, and so much more. Cuba is more than classic cars and colorful buildings; Cuba is more than what you see on the gram. Like every country, it isn’t for everyone either, and that’s completely fine. Just don’t show up to a country and demand your expectations and viewpoints onto them. That is not ok.
With that being said, while I had a great time and created new friendships, I was also made aware of a lot of things. By the way, if you haven’t already figured it out already, this is not a travel guide. This post is strictly dedicated to my thoughts and experiences in Cuba, through my eyes and through the lens of my Yaschia T4 (film camera). From this recap, I hope to give you a slice of what Cuba is like — with the consideration that this trip was a sponsored press trip and therefore, I did have limitations of exploration. So let’s begin…
I had little to no expectations of Cuba, as I didn’t want to think of Cuba based off of other’s perceptions. I landed in a humid and hot country after a very uncomfortable overnight flight, but my mood was quickly lifted as I saw a driver waving a sign with mine and Layla’s name on it. He didn’t speak any English and Layla spoke a limited amount, so between the two of them, we figured out what our next steps were. He guided us to the currency exchange window before loading our things into his car.
Cuba does not accept any credit cards and the exchange rate between USD to CUC is terrible. From the $100 USD, I only got back around $85 and my receipt indicated a $5 “tip” was taken on my behalf during the transaction.
FYI: the only other place you can exchange currency are at the banks (in town) and no place outside the airport accepts USD. I suggest to exchange a specified amount before leaving the airport and then exchange more in town, after figuring out how much you’ll be spending during your entire trip. Do account for tipping as well.
We drove 30 minutes to our casita, which operates similarly to an Air B&B, but is owned and run by locals. The visa that we had for Cuba was under the “to support the local people” category, plus majority of hotels do not accept US citizens. I didn’t mind whatsoever, however do realize that you are renting a room in someone’s house so shampoo, conditioner, body soap, etc., are not necessarily provided. Be prepared and be mindful that their resources are limited.
Our first day was spent walking around Havana, getting a brief overview of the city. It was followed by dinner at a hip burger lounge. Right before dinner, I witnessed my first Havana sunset and it was fucking beautiful (see example here). A blazing sky with red, orange, and pink hues to end my first day in Cuba was the best welcome.
The itinerary we were provided was created by Acanela Expeditions, who were hosting us on this trip. It featured an array of popular plazas, local dining, and plenty of time to create. While it was great being able to create content without being rushed, I personally felt that I didn’t get to really experience Havana to its fullest potential. It seemed that we were revisiting a lot of the same spots throughout the week, to ensure everyone got the shots they wanted. This is great but at the same time, for someone like me — it was not beneficial of my time. I get my shots done very quickly and so, I was left standing around waiting a lot. In fact, I had about 12 IG posts and over 200+ photos by the 3rd day in Cuba (out of the 5 days total. So I actually chose to sleep in on my last morning there, while everyone went out to shoot (hah).
I understand that this trip was a blogger trip, in which we were brought on to create content, but I guess I’m also more accustomed to press trips that worried more about the experience itself versus photographable locations. I love being fully immersed in a country, learning about the culture and getting hands on with the city. I would’ve loved to see more of Havana —go inside the churches, see a show, go hiking, do a workshop of some sorts (i.e. cooking class or salsa lessons), have dinner with locals in their homes, or even actually get to roll our own cigars (we got to see how it was done but didn’t get to try). Don’t get me wrong, I am 100% grateful to have been invited but I was left wanting more. I guess that just means I need to make another trip to Cuba! Certainly do not mind going back at all.
We had two amazing tour guides, who I’m sure we annoyed during the week with our inability to stick to the timing of schedules. We were often late to lunch and dinner, hah. What do you expect with 12 creatives? People got lost, people wandered, and that’s what happens with large groups overall - creators or not. Bless their hearts for their patience with us and for taking care of all our needs. The guides even took the time out to take me to Mira Mar, which is considered the Beverly Hills of Havana, to get quality cigars for my boyfriend and his family. They refused to let me buy shitty cigars, LOL. Also, Armando (one of our guides pictured above) owns a beautiful red car and house, which he graciously allowed us to shoot with and in. You can bet that he watched us like a hawk around his car though, hah. I don’t blame him at all; it’s a beautiful car and the last thing you want is it getting damaged during a photoshoot.
During our week in Cuba, I saw the same reoccurring theme in every person we came in contact with. Their warmth, friendliness, and eagerness to be of help was contagious. You couldn’t help but want to talk to them, to take their picture, and just be friends. Despite the language barrier, people were so patient with us especially the servers in the restaurants, as we made poor attempts at trying to figure out what to order.
Speaking of which, I did not take any food photos but I can tell you that all their meals generally consist of rice, some sort of meat (lamb is popular), and potatoes. There is a lack of salt in most of the food so it can be bland to most Americans, but it was perfect for me. My favorite meal was a home cooked one by our hostess at the casita (we stayed at). It was chicken soup, a starch of some sort (I forgot the name but it’s a cousin of the potato), rice, marinated chicken, and fruits for dessert. Simple yet so damn delicious.
Another observation I made was that Cubanos truly enjoy the present, taking their time especially when it came to dining. At first I was put off by how long it took to get our food at every restaurant, at least 30 mins to get entrees, but then I realized that it was actually really nice not having to scarf down a meal. In LA, it’s common to eat on the go or forget to eat (which is my case), since we’re always focused on getting shit done. It was a nice change of pace, however I can’t say I adopted it into my daily routine.
That leads me into the joy I felt watching the kids play in the streets until night fall, every day. The lack of Internet and Wifi may have slightly bothered me, only because I KSOLE wasn’t with me on the trip and I wanted to tell him everything. However, I loved coming back to my room every evening to a phone battery of 94% (because I didn’t use it all day). Being forced to disconnect was a blessing. It also is the best excuse to avoid people too, haha. “Sorry, I’m in Cuba, can’t talk!”
On our third day, we visited Viñales (2.5 hour drive outside of Havana) to visit a tobacco farmer. We watched him roll a cigar and became obsessed with him blowing major smoke clouds from it. He invited us inside for coffee, which I gladly accepted, and shots of rum, that I politely declined. We spent some time exploring the farm and I, of course, made friends with the cats (all 3 of them).
Viñales is a contrast to the city, with beautiful Sierra de los Organos mountains and the Viñales Valley. I tried my best to capture the views, but the camera does not do justice. You just have to see for yourself when visiting Havana.
As previously mentioned, I left a day earlier than everyone else on this trip, as I had to be a responsible adult and get back to reality (aka grad school assignments). Not having Wifi was fun until I realized that my school is online and my homework is due every Sunday, so I returned to LA by Friday afternoon.
My last impression of Cuba was made by my driver at the airport. I woke up at 5AM, left to the airport at 5:30AM, fell half asleep during the 30-minute drive, only to wake up 5 minutes before arrival to see my driver singing along to a Meghan Trainor. Mind you, he does not speak English but knew all the words to “All About That Bass.” He dropped me off at the terminal, we said our goodbyes, and I gave him a $5 CUC tip.
I walked in, walked around the entire terminal, and could not find American Airlines. I started to panic because
1) my phone doesn’t work in Cuba
2) I had no wifi access
3) I don’t speak Spanish
I guess my driver was watching me from his car and didn’t leave right away, as I assumed. He came walking in, waving at me, and had me follow him as he went to ask someone where AA’s kiosks were. He guided me to the area and I realized my dumbass had completely walked by them earlier. After confirming I was okay, he then turned and said “Ciao!” and left.
Honestly couldn’t have asked for a last impression of Havana and Cubanos. Always so helpful, generous, patient, and kind.
Thank you Cuba for humbling me, for remind me of what’s important in life, and for allowing me to experience what I could in just those five days.
I will be back, someday.