La Habana, Cuba

“¿Oye que bola?”

I just got back from taking a cruise with my parents to Cuba and the Bahamas, and I had the best time ever with them! We spent a day at a private island in the Bahamas, which was uneventful to say the least; too contrived and structured for my taste, but the entire trip was a joy. Our experience in Havana, in particular, was magnificent.

Seeing the contrast of the old and new was delightful. I was gawking at decaying ancient structures and cathedrals while simultaneously hearing “Despacito” playing on the radios around town, and I loved every minute of it. I was captivated within an hour of walking and speaking to the ancianos (senior citizens). I also made friends with a tattooed dude in his twenties who started talking to me when he saw my half sleeve. He told me that his sister lives in Las Vegas, and that his mother and him will be following her in two years, after he completes his government service. I enjoyed speaking to someone of a similar age and being able to hear his hopes + ambitions. It makes you realize that all people are the same, regardless of their national origin.

We decided to stay away from El Malecón during the daytime, due to the extreme heat and lack of shade, and walked through the streets instead. This is where the magic happens. I was in heaven snapping pics of the antique cars buzzing by, unique street art and exquisite tile work. Every building is a work of art, and most are continually transforming.

My favorite locations were El Callejón de Hamel (pictured above), an alley with tons of street art and genuine Santeros, as well as walking through the Cayo Hueso neighborhood. I love to observe how the Habaneros truly live beyond where the tours typically take you. I also was surprised to see a jam packed veterinarian’s office with many dogs on leashes (a rare sight in the Caribbean), as well as parishioners worshipping in the cathedrals we visited, which I initially thought was banned.

I’m glad that we speak Spanish fluently because we really had the chance to interact with the residents, especially the senior citizens. They were so welcoming and willing to stop and chat with us. We could talk candidly about our governments and living situations, and find the commonalities between us. It was a true cultural exchange. They would get excited when we told them we are from Puerto Rico, they have a nice saying “un pájaro, dos alas,” which basically means “two wings of the same bird.” They’re our brothers and sisters, and they made us feel right at home in this expansive city.

There is construction happening on every corner, so this city is rapidly transforming. Havana has its stray dogs and decrepit buildings, but the history is so rich and its people are warm. I learned so much in just two days, I’m glad that I had the chance to visit before commercialism takes over. Our conversations were eye opening, and I loved seeing the movement and the heart of their unique culture. The creativity and resourcefulness of the Cuban people is positively mind-blowing; they manage to make masterpieces with very little, while keeping a bright outlook and staying thankful for what they do have. It really makes me grateful for all of the blessings in my life, and fuels my desire to travel even more. This island and its people have stolen my heart. It was an amazing experience, and one of my favorite locations thus far.

A few tips to keep in mind while vacationing in Cuba:

  • Eating in Cuba is a gamble. I spoke to other tourists who were dissatisfied with the quality and availability of food. The restaurants have limited rations and when the supply is up, there is no more food service for the day. I was told that this can happen as early as lunchtime. A pound of ham costs $30 and most entrees cost anywhere from $12 – $30 (1:1 equivalent with our U.S. Dollar), so we sauntered right back to the ship for our meals. 
  • Walk everywhere. This was the highlight of my visit. We got to experience the sights, sounds and smells of La Habana, which can only be attained on foot. The real flow of the city’s residents can be witnessed beyond the touristy areas, though it may be hard to communicate if you don’t speak Spanish. Also, those antique cars have no A/C and the tuktuk type motorcycles are very cramped, and no vehicles are allowed in certain sections of the city. 
  • SPEAK TO THE LOCALS. I learned more from the elder Cubans than I would have from any paid tour guide. We even had a guided tour from a pleasant octogenarian gentleman (pictured below). He took us right by Batista’s former mansion and explained how life was for him before the revolution. Truly a once in a lifetime experience. 
  • Cruises are the way to go. I recommend taking a cruise because of the included meals, as well as smoother transitions with customs and transportation. The ship docked right in Old Havana and  was within walking distance to most areas of the city.
  • Leave the fancy clothes + jewelry at home. This really isn’t the place to fault your fly pieces, particularly at night. Keep it basic and you can blend in easier, not to mention you’ll look wayyyy more approachable. 
  • Bring candy and/or any soap or shampoo from your hotel or cruise ship. My mom was asked for candy on several occasions by the local women. This is a huge treat for them and I’m so glad that my mom carries these lil ginger candies in her bag. Condoms are also very much needed on the island, and I wish I would’ve researched this beforehand. 
  • Bring a hat and UV protectant. It is SO hot and sunny on this tropical island paradise, so it’s important to stay hydrated and protected from the sun. I put sunscreen on every inch of my body and somehow still ended up with a sunburnt scalp where I part my hair. Bummer. 
  • Come with an open mind. Leave all the preconceived notions and propaganda at home. The Cuban people have more in common with us than you probably think, and they are willing to share their experiences with you. A smile and an “¡Hola!” can lead to an enlightening conversation and a great memory.

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Do any of you have plans to visit Cuba? If so, I’d love to hear about them! Keep those beautiful comments coming, I love hearing from you guys! Also, be sure to follow @nirvanazure on IG cuz I have hella pics that I’ll be posting throughout the next few weeks.

 

Namaste or ¡Chao pescao!
Mel

 

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