For as long as I could remember, visiting Cuba was on my bucket list. The vintage convertibles and colorful communism have made it a go-to destination for myself and many other young travelers looking to experience a time warp of communism, rum and tobacco.
This past April I got the opportunity to travel to Cuba with El Camino Travel. As a responsible travel advocate myself, I am always careful to ensure that the experiences I embark on make a difference, and at the very least do not misrepresent the cultures I choose to immerse myself in.
My Cuban experience was nothing like I expected. Instead of a time warped, isolated Cuba I saw a side of the Island that rarely makes it to our Instagram feeds. It became obvious to me that my expectations were based on a loose assumption of what it must be like living under communism. But I am glad to say that the experience challenged all my perceptions of a colorful Havana under a totalitarian government — something I look forward to whenever I travel.
In an effort to stay true to the ethos of responsible travel and challenge stereotypes of Cuba, here are 8 reasons to visit Cuba that you least expect:
1. Dance ‘Til You Drop
In Cuba, music and dance is as central to life as food and water. Not many know that Cuba is a historically central contributor to the Latin American music scene with some of the most renowned artists. I recommend joining any of the dancing locals outside the famous La Bodeguita Del Medio (the birthplace of the mojito!). I also recommend listening to live music on the rooftop of a Cuban Primo Ballerina’s home, Notre Dame des Bijoux.
2. Collect Cuban Contemporary Art
Did I mention that Cuba also happens to have a thriving art scene? Typical stereotypes of totalitarian states paint Cuba as a country that lacks in the art but that’s far from the truth. I recommend visiting the Estudio Projecto Comunitario Jose Marti on Pasado Jose Marti next to Hotel Inglaterra. Walk in and say hello to the artists lounging around listening to reggae and buy something. Its super affordable and independent. I highly recommend visiting the Fabrica de Arte Cubano — an independent space hosting pop-up exhibitions for Cuban artists. I managed to get my hands on handmade brass earrings for $10 USD.
3. Visit the World’s Finest Tobacco Plantations
Although tobacco is a stereotypical Cuban buy, experiencing a tobacco plantation is a totally different game. Cuba’s western Pinar del Rio region is hailed as the finest tobacco farming land in the world. Just two hours outside of Havana is the capital of Pinar Del Rio, Vinãles, where you can visit tobacco plantations passed down generations. Take a rickety journey on an ox-cart to the tobacco barns where you can watch as the tobacco farmer rolls the leaves into a cigar. Take the Puro Cubano outside and fire it up — exhale as the hills roll into the distance. You can buy a pack of 20 or more cigars for $15 USD! 100% handmade and organic.
4. Learn To Live In The “Here and Now”
Despite communism’s efforts to crush religion, the fall of the Soviet Union revived the practice of religion on the Island. In Cuba, “Santeria” is one of the most widely practiced religions that can be traced back to Yoruba beliefs in Nigeria. Despite its “voodoo” reputation, Santeria is built on the belief that living life in the here and now can overcome any hardships of life. Music, dance, and love are all aspects of Cuban life that have been a direct result of Santeria. Ask a local guide to take you to visit the home of a Santeria practicing Cuban.
5. Make A Cuban Friend
I think a common misconception about Cubans is that they are disconnected from the world. I can confidently say that Cubans are the most social people I’ve met with an openness to people from all walks of life. A favorite moment on my trip was during one of my frequent visits to the Wi-Fi park (Wi-Fi can only be found at the public parks in Cuba), when an old lady called Celia asked me if I wanted a cigarette. I spent the next hour or so engaged in a conversation with this woman about everything from love and happiness to the arts and politics.
6. Buy Perfume Made Since 1791
I think my favorite souvenir from Cuba was the perfume. I brought five beautifully packaged bottles with me and I don’t regret it. La Habana 1791 is a specialist store housed in a 18th century mansion that makes divine artisan scents from tropical Cuban flora. The place is stunning to say the least, and uses methods of scent making that have existed in Cuba since the colonial era. Their most famous scent is a male cologne that was first developed in 1791. You can also choose from a range of colorful handmade bottles to put your chosen scent in. It was the last thing I thought I would purchase— and totally unique.
7. Experience a Cuban Casa
One of the most peculiar aspects of Cuban life is housing. Every citizen has the right to a home given to them by the government making open-plan housing common with generations of Cuban families living under one roof. Its not hard to imagine that finding accommodation in Cuba is challenging especially with international hotels being almost nonexistent. However, the recent loosening of housing laws has encouraged the rise of “Casa Particulares” — an offline Cuban version of Airbnb. I highly recommend staying at a Casa Particular as its the only authentic time warp you will experience in the country. Totally authentic living.
8. It’s “Complicated”
If I had a dollar for every time a Cuban told me, “it’s complicated…” At first, it was difficult to understand why Cubans used that phrase to explain everything. The longer I stayed on the Island, the more it made sense. Cuba isn’t like any other place you will ever visit – it’s full of contradictions. It’s poor yet prosperous; it’s average yet extraordinary. To prove my point, check out Lonely Planet’s introduction to Cuba here.
That said, did you think this article was over? I decided to add two bonus reasons because even stereotypes can be beautiful too!
9. Take in the Eclectic Architecture
Havana is a collage of eclectic architecture. The City Center (Vedado, Veija and Paseo del Prado) brings together every style of contemporary Western architecture with some parts directly mimicking 1950s New York (Havana has its own Chinatown!) Despite the depreciated buildings and the shutdown of their various functions, Cubans continue to inhabit them— and you can walk in at any moment. I recommend visiting Hotel Inglaterra in Paseo di Marti . It used to be an American casino but was shut down post-revolution. Take to the rooftop for breathtaking views of Havana.
10. Ride a Convertible Around Havana
Despite convertibles being the most stereotypical of Cuban experiences, I recommend doing a convertible tour. Not only because it gives an overview of Havana but because it benefits many Cuban families. Cubans live on less than $20 USD a month which is contextually low. If Wi-Fi alone costs $1 USD per hour you can imagine what other services must be like. Tourism is a valuable resource with many families relying on it for extra income. So, go on, book that cliché tour but keep in mind that it’s not the only attraction in this beautiful country.