My obsession with Cuba
Let me start out with the fact that, while I was in grad school, I turned down a scholarship to travel to Cuba with my professor and a few classmates for spring break of 2014. This was about 8 months before President Obama made the big announcement about U.S. political reforms with Cuba. The trip was going to cost $2,500 total including airfare, boarding, food, and transportation for a week. I was awarded $1000, which was still not enough for me to pay the rest on a student budget. It was hard not to tell everyone who knew my situation to hit me upside the head because I missed out on such an amazing opportunity.
I had the distinct privilege of taking a “Cuba: Revolution and Reform” graduate course with UCSD International Relations and Pacific Studies Professor Richard Feinberg, the go-to expert on Cuba who was a direct policy advisor to the White House and other government entities. If you check out this storify about about all of the articles on Cuban reforms starting in December 2014, Professor Feinberg is mentioned in all of them. He told us in class that there would be a big announcement later in the year. I loved his class, but I also owe a lot of my sparked interest in Cuba to my University of Michigan friend/sista Amara Lopez.
Amara was deeply involved with the University’s blossoming relationship with Cuba’s world-class academics. She had the distinct opportunity of being the first group of students to study abroad in Cuba where they visited multiple Universities there. On her return in Fall 2011, she asked me to perform at the event “Cuba week” where she, her Professor, and classmates who were in Cuba together organized an event full of lectures, performances, music, and more that highlighted their time there just a few months back. I got the chance to learn Afro-Cuban folkloric dance and perform with one of Amara’s friends Sadie Yarrington, a dancer at the UM School of Dance. I also fell in love with the main performers who flew in for this event, Cuban Hip-hop group Obsesión (who I later helped bring back to perform at UCSD in grad school!).
1 year and 2 months later with a regular adult full-time job that paid just enough and a lot of crazy saving later, I made my dream happen. I believe that things happen exactly how they are supposed to, and it just wasn’t meant to be for me to go to Cuba in 2014. In June 2015, I was able to go to Cuba with my 81-year-old Abuela where I spent less than the $1000 that was originally awarded to me. The rest is unforgettable. In this post I will talk about what to think about when booking a trip there, what to do while you’re there, funny stories with my abuela and tía, and about how much I spent on each experience.
(Go all the way to the end of this post to see my listed budget information)
Booking the trip
I knew that my next trip had to be Cuba, but I had a family wedding taking place June 2015 in Colombia, so I wasn’t sure what to do. Then, I had the genius idea of searching for tickets from Bogotá to La Habana, and was pleasantly surprised. Avianca offered round-trip tickets for a little over $420! This was actually an advantage since most people fly out of Canada or Mexico to get to Cuba. Currently, JetBlue only offers one flight a day from Miami, and that’s as far as flights out of the US go. I didn’t think the price was bad, so I convinced my significant other Kyle, my tía Rosa, and my abuela Clara to make the trip happen. We planned to spend 5 days out of our total of 2-weeks we had off in Colombia.
Visa and documents
Kyle and I are US citizens, so we were already worried about what kind of visa or documentation we would need to acquire in order to enter the country. Fortunately, we had a former UCSD classmate that had his own business in Cuba called Cuba Educational Travel who provided us with documentation, which we actually didn’t end up needing at all. Cuba didn’t ask for anything except for a visa, they didn’t stamp our passports, and we had no problems with this coming back. My weirdest experience ended up being with Airbnb and their borderline prejudice policies about non-westerners not being able to book through them.
The only fee we had to pay for was some kind of informal tourism card or “tarjeta de turismo” that cost us $18 each in order to be allowed on the airplane in Bogotá. Currently, I don’t think anything else is needed to enter Cuba, especially if you enter through another country. Tourism cards depend on each country, like a tax to go to another country that isn’t USA or in Europe. Though US citizens no longer need a specialized license to go to Cuba, it is illegal to go for tourism specifically. Make sure you state you are going for educational or academic reasons. Lucky for me, all I do is travel in order to learn rather than for tourism ;).
Airbnb: the beginning of a problem
I saw a post online about AirBnB inaugurating new locations in Cuba to be reserved. I was proud to say I was one of the first Airbnb bookers in Cuba! Later, my excitement dwindled into a shriveled up stress ball, but I’ll get to that later. I found a beautiful and colorful home for the 4 of us to stay, and booked for only 2 nights because I was suggested by a friend to wait until I arrived to plan the rest of my trip. The reservation for 2 rooms for 2 nights cost $120 (which I later learned is waaaay too much even for 4 people). It was a freeing feeling to know that though some of our trip was planned, the rest would become whatever we wanted it to be with the suggestions we would take from local Cubans. I knew this was a very different Airbnb reservation because they asked what the purpose of our visit was to Cuba, which we had to specify as “educational purposes.” In addition, they asked for everyone’s passport and citizenship information. The day after I submitted this, I get an email from Airbnb stating that Colombian citizens are currently not able to reserve with them. WHAT!?!? Why? I asked them why this is being enforced if I’m the one booking the reservation and paying through my U.S. credit card? They said their policies did not allow it. I decided to usurp the system, and I described the situation to the hostess of the house in Cuba by writing her an email in Spanish to her private account (I later learned it was her son running her page from France), to which she later said it was no problem and that she reserved a spot for my aunt and my grandma. I had to change my online reservation from 4 to 2 people for official purposes, but for some reason their system would not allow me to do this. I believe there was a system error of some sort because they called me two times before the trip asking me to change the reservation from 4 to 2 people, which I described to them that I thought I had done this but the system wasn’t letting me. I figured since I was on the phone, they would do it for me. But no. More on what happened later in this post.
How Cuba fell in love with my Abuela
The day we left from Bogotá to La Habana with my “crazy crew”, I was giddy with energy, ready to explore a country I was dying to get to know for at least 4 years. Finally, the day had come. I wasn’t nervous at all that we were taking my 81-years-young abue who has a bit of trouble walking long distances, but no trouble at all talking to EVERYONE and having a good time. If you speak Spanish, she will talk to you and she will make sure to put a smile on your face. If you don’t speak Spanish, she will still try to make you laugh or smile. We landed, and already got confused about the difference in the two national currencies. I completely forgot that this was something I had learned about from my classes and friends who had been there. The convertible peso (CUC) is pegged to the dollar and only used for tourism businesses like hotels, touristy restaurants, tourist buses, souvenirs, and internet. The peso (CUP) is only used between Cubans, and $1 equals about $26.50 pesos. I didn’t truly start understanding all of this until two days later while there.
Let me tell you that it was really helpful to have a Spanish-speaking aunt who was experienced in traveling the world, has no shame, is a bit neurotic, and will do anything for a bargain. Rosita knows how to barter, and you can tell by the simple (sometimes crazy borderline hobo) way she dresses and her small humble apartment in Bogotá, but also by the way she only saves money so she and Clarita can travel. We realized we got a better rate for taxis if she approached them by saying “I’ve only got $10 CUC for the four of us to get to point A”. Most times, the taxistas would take it because they saw that we didn’t look like the usual European tourists (except for Kyle), we spoke Spanish, and we had our cute little abuela.
Clarita and Rosita had no issues striking up a conversation with everyone, and Clarita always loved to start the conversation with all Cubans by saying, “so, do you love Fidelito?” curious to know about everyone’s opinion and life. Many Cubans would describe their loyalty and support for Fidel, but many others were very frustrated but did not outwardly say anything specific about Fidel. We would all tell Clarita to be careful with that question, but all Cubans were very happy to talk to her. It was very surprising to me how eloquently all Cubans spoke. Not once did I meet a Cuban that I would consider to have had little to no education like you can sometimes pick-out easily in the US or the rest of Latin America.
Our casa particular, or home-stay that we had reserved on Airbnb, was outstanding. Doña and her husband were very welcoming. The first thing Rosita asked was where we could eat closeby, specifically where Cubans eat. It happened to be down the street. We arrived and were still confused about pricing, but we got pizzas (very different: more bready, cheese is always different in each country, and less tomato sauce) and beverages for the 4 of us for less than $5 CUC. We hadn’t even sat down, and Clarita was at it again asking all the restaurant workers questions about their life. She then asked, “A ver! Que tipo de musica les gusta bailar?” She was coqueteando with everyone and egging them on to start dancing. The lady, who we presume is the manger, turned on her radio. Not one second after we finished our meal, Clarita got up and started dancing. She got ALL of the workers dancing. They were so happy to be having a good time with us, that they gave us an appetizer dish of ham and cheese on the house. We had a blast while it was pouring rain outside, and Rosita even had to put bags on her feet to go find an umbrella once we were ready to leave.
We got to see museums, Plaza de la Revolución, Universidad de la Habana, el Malecón, and the more touristy old Habana areas. We wanted to go out dancing, but we were having trouble finding where Cubans went since everyone would direct us to touristy spots. We ended up finding a place to sit down in the Old Habana Plaza Vieja to listen to live music and have some drinks. The restaurant seemed really fancy, but we didn’t eat anything so we didn’t spend much. Again, Clarita got up to dance with a Cuban couple that was dancing very close by, but outside of the confines of the restaurant. It was clear we wanted to dance with Cubans while no one else got up to dance.
Airbnb problems continue
Now comes the Airbnb nightmare. I had come to find out on our first night that our reservation was canceled by Airbnb, and therefore $120 of the money that I had thought would be “all set” electronically now needed to be paid from our already small amount of cash we had in hand. It was canceled because of the issue of not taking my Colombian relatives off the tab, what I mentioned earlier in this post. Again, I thought this had been resolved the two times an Airbnb representative called me. I was freaking out because I was already tight on cash, and I knew it was close to impossible to take out money at banks or ATMs in Cuba (at the time), and we’re too stingy to take out money and get a hefty withdrawal + international fee tacked on. I knew it was going to be a hard task since internet is not readily available except for hotels and very few cafe internets. I tried logging in at a nearby hotel internet hub to contact Airbnb (impossible), asked my sister to log into my Paypal to send money, and emailed Doña’s son who ran the Airbnb account from his home in France. Nothing was resolved. In the end, with Rosita’s extreme saving and money-savvy genius, we were able to pay in cash. I have a distinct memory of us dishing out all of our cash in a pile on our bed like boy scouts, counting and planning for the rest of our trip there, and Rosita checking awkward hiding spots to make sure she included all of the cash she had. Imagine this scene: Rosita would jump up, say “oh, I think I have more!”, and then pulled out cash out of her bra, boot, or hidden spots in her hippie luggage. This happened at least three times, and knowing her, she didn’t disclose more money that she had hidden so that she made sure we had “in case of an emergency” cash. It was the most hilarious part of the trip. Kyle later said that the Rosita and Clarita duo needed to be made into a comedy show or movie. It will be the new-age double comedy act; a modern, Colombian, passionate, crazy, older single women version of Laurel and Hardy (el gordo y el flaco).
Our most favorite part of the trip was to Trinidad. Again, we asked commun y corriente Cubans where their favorite vacation spot was, and they said Varadero or Trinidad. We figured out that Trinidad is a bit less touristy than Varadero, so we decided on that. We were told we needed to organize our guagua bus transport at the Estación de Omnibus, and the only company tourists can use is Viazul. I was wandering around in circles because I couldn’t find Viazul, when a man stopped me. Normally, I would not stop to talk to a stranger like that, but somehow, the man got my attention. He asked me where I was looking to go and I said Trinidad through Viazul. He said, “ohhh yeah, it’s beautiful there. Would you rather get there in 4 hours rather than 7-8 hours, and for less money?” The tickets for the bus were $25 CUC per person. Thanks to this strange gentleman, the 4 of us were able to take a “black market” taxi to Trinidad for the same price of $100 total, and in much less time. Giovani was our taxista, and he offered to bring us back after two days because he had somewhere to stay.
Trinidad was MORE than worth it. The beautiful colors of all of the houses and small buildings were the best part about it. People were more relaxed than in the city. It had enchanting energy vibrating from each cobblestone, window, and person. Thanks to Giovani, we were able to find the Hostal Betty Saaveedra where we paid $20 CUC per night for the 4 of us to share 1 room for 2 nights. At that point, we had our plan down: let Rosita handle everything, she would barter, or we would ask in the best way possible that we wanted to do what Cubans did. We had also discovered potaje, which is what Cubans called their traditional black bean stew eaten with rice. Us Colombians were more than happy to eat that since we eat a similar dish, plus it was cheap to eat and delicious. We would ask, “pero donde podemos encontrar potaje?” and they would look at us stunned because most tourists ask for fancy seafood restaurants. Rosita had us almost falling over on the cobblestones laughing with two teenagers (brother and sister) trying to recruit us to eat at their grandparent’s restaurant. We later learned they recruit for both their grandma and grandpa, now divorced, and each with their separate competing businesses. Rosita has a screech-like infectious laugh, so the jovenes looked shocked, and then were almost falling over laughing with us. It was lightly sprinkling from the sky, so we were crying from pure joy in the Trinidad rain. I would say they are the best grandkids ever, staying neutral, and helping each of their grandparents competing businesses.
Though we went to the beach one day, the most important experience of our time in Trinidad was the music and dancing. It was way easier to get to, and it was cheaper to experience than anywhere we heard of in La Habana. Clarita requested music and dance every single day. We went to the Casa de la Música the first night for about $10 CUC each including one drink. I love it because it was in this small and traditional plaza surrounded by winding stairs that were used for guests to sit and watch the show. I was in awe of the band and performers. I caught Clarita staring at two handsome Jamaican men who were the only ones dancing on the stairs. We were sitting at the tables closer to the stage (we only got seats because we were with a senior citizens), and we could see many Cubans and non-Cuban Latinos going up to dance. Everyone else was sitting down (a sad 80-90% of the crowd), you guessed it, they were European or Anglo tourists. I was surprised to learn that Clarita wasn’t having a good time there, and she didn’t like the style of music. I can’t remember the style of music, or why she would think that because I loved it. It was the only location we visited in Cuba that she didn’t get up to dance at, even though she got asked to dance by several men! Kyle and I danced, and I danced with other Cuban men who asked. Towards the end of the night, I pointed at the Jamaican men because they were starting to leave, each with European women they were flirting and dancing with. Clarita quickly and quietly commented, “ayyy, que rico.” She knew what they were up to that night (wink wink). Side note: my abuela has an obsession with black men and loves to talk about her crush on Barack Obama, Will Smith, and Denzel Washington. Fetishizing much? Maybe, but I won’t get into that here.
The last night in Trinidad was spent at three different clubs or bar locations. The first was a small bar focused on Afro-Cuban dancers and performers.They got many of us to dance on stage with them. We left after 45 minutes. I know for a fact the second location was Clarita’s favorite. They played more folkloric Latin American music with heavy use of guitars. I remember there were a lot of Puerto Ricans at that location requesting songs they knew, and Rosita and Clarita singing along too, enjoying the parranda. I didn’t recognize too many of the songs, but I still had an amazing time. After an hour, the folkloric was done so they started the son and salsa, when the whole small room was up on their feet dancing. Especially Clarita. The last place we stopped at was more of a discoteca with a lot of young people and with more modern Latin music like reggaeton. They were all fascinated with Clarita. The best part was that she went up to a young black man to dance with him. We only stayed there for about 20 minutes. We started walking down and we realized we weren’t seeing bici-taxis outside now that it was so late. Clarita always took one with Rosita for like $2 CUC, while Kyle and I didn’t mind walking.Rosita, myself, and Clarita (with her little pink bow) dancing salsaThe cops nearby saw us helping Clarita walk and saw that we looked confused. They approached us to inquire, told us that it was too late for bici-taxis, and that they would be more than happy to give Clarita a lift to the Hostal. Kyle and I weren’t even riding in the cop car, and we already knew they were having a good time because of the cackles coming out of the vehicle once the first person opened the door. They were extremely polite and, of course, talked and laughed the whole short trip to our stay with Clarita.
End of Trip 😦
It was time to drive back to La Habana, and we were not ready to leave. Giovani said it was okay to stop in Cienfuegos for a short visit. We later found out that he grew up with a family that did not support the government, and therefore him and his family was either arrested or shunned from being able to get a job. It was very interesting to learn about his story and I can’t do it justice in this post. I can say that he fell for Rosita in a hilarious way that made her uncomfortable. He was short, younger than her, but he was relatively handsome with Cuban charm. All I could do was giggle and think, “daaaaang! My tía still got it!” He kept looking over to her sitting in the passenger seat with googeley eyes! I couldn’t believe it, and I think neither could she because she stopped her constant inquiring about his life when he started looking at her like that. Maybe I should have named this post “How Cuba fell in love with Clarita & Rosita?”
Betty Saavedra, the owner of the Trindad Hostal had connected us with a friend who ran her own casa particular in La Habana so that we didn’t have to worry about housing again (looking at you, Airbnb). We were able to have Betty solidify $20 CUC for the 4 of us for our last night in La Habana. Ana María was another welcoming, loud, passionate Cuban hostess with lively energy that spread around. She yelled at us because we had told her that we had been eating from a whole box of crackers, or paté or jelly for certain meals during the week in order to save money. She couldn’t believe we had forced Clarita to eat that way, and I think she is right. Especially since we discovered potaje 2 days into our stay there, or other cheap Cuban local restaurants that were delicious. She sent us to a restaurant down the street, and we ate a full meal with meat or fish, beans, rice, salad, fresh guava juice, and dessert all for $7 CUC for all 4 of us! The touristy places in downtown La Habana were charging $20 CUC per plate not including drinks or anything. We ate there for dinner our last night there, and an early lunch the next day.
Our last day was spent driving around because Rosita was convinced Clarita wanted to see the “elegant” side of La Habana, like she remembered it with her times with Abuelo. I was shocked because I had no idea Clarita had visited Cuba before! I asked her and she was sad to see that the infrastructure was so bad compared to 1956-7 Cuba. Rosita decided elegant meant the luxury hotels. Kyle and I had no interest to see that on our last night, but there is no getting an idea out of Rosita’s head after she makes a decision, so the taxista took us to all them. I’m pretty sure Clarita didn’t care to see them either, but we still made it into a conversation about the last time she visited Cuba. I found out my mom was with them as a baby, my grandparents were obviously still together (they have been separated for 30 years now), and they were on their way back to Colombia after trying to live in Culver City, California for a year. They stayed close to the Malecón for almost a week. Times have changed a lot for Clarita, especially after a revolution.
Kyle was really excited to talk sports with the hostess’ husbands. He gave his baseball cap to the “Don” at our very first AirBnB stay. The last night in La Habana, we were up late watching the NBA finals with the “Don” there. Kyle and him were talking the whole time about sports. Kyle and I were amazed to find out he was watching the game from the public broadcasting and with no commercials. Can you imagine if we could watch everything like Netflix, but on public broadcasting?
In the end, I could not have had a more magical time spent with Clarita, Rosita, and Kyle. My crew was outstanding, and we really made a good team as we did everything possible to not spend too much money on each experience we had. All of us live on modest incomes, so we had to make do. I learned so much from my Tia and Abuela. Most especially, I appreciate how they converse with people. They have a genuine curiosity to learn about other cultures, and about people’s lives that cannot be generalized. Cubans sure did fall in love with Clarita, but we all fell in love with Cuba’s music, art, and passion. We realize that Cubans don’t have the freedom we have in other countries, and the crumbling infrastructure needs a lot of work. In the end, they have the most educated population in the Americas, we didn’t see people on the street like you see in the U.S. or Latin America, and they all have access to high quality healthcare. I wish that one day we can all come together and and blend the best part of our cultures. The magic doesn’t stop there for me. Not with Clarita’s energy running through my own genes and veins.
Original UCSD trip I didn’t take: $2,500
Avianca flight: $420
Airbnb 2 night stay for 4 people (don’t do this!): $120
Taxi, one way in a city/town for 4: $10 CUC (show them you only have this amount to spend)
One full meal at a local Cuban spot, for 4 people: $7 CUC
One full meal at a tourist location for one person: $20-40 CUC
Black market taxi to Trinidad, round-trip for 4: $200 CUC
Casa particular, 4 people per night: $20-30 CUC
One alcoholic beverage: $5-10 CUC
I spent $420 on a flight, and went with $300 in cash (thinking my Airbnb was paid for electronically). Since AirBnB was canceled, I spent a total of $720 on this trip (thanks to a lot of help from my Aunt! She refused to let me pay her back at least $200 I should have contributed). I still spent less then $2,500 the UCSD trip was supposed to cost (woooo HUGE WIN!), but spent a bit less than the offered $1000 scholarship I declined (major sad face).
Total spent ~ $900
Recommendations I would have liked to hear before my trip:
1) DO NOT book Airbnb there if you are trying to go on a budget, unless you are going at peak times. It is cheaper and easy to find lodging when you land there especially if you speak Spanish. If you still want to organize through email/phone before you get there, I highly recommend http://www.casaparticular.com or http://www.casaparticularcuba.org
2) Bring plenty of cash (more than I did)
3) If you want to get to know real Cubans, avoid touristy areas. You will also save A LOT of money this way.
4) Take black market taxis to other towns if you’re with a group of 4 because it is cheaper and faster
5) Internet and ATMs are less accessible than most of Latin America & the Caribbean
To see more pictures from this trip, click on this link.