25 Mar Top 5 Reasons to Visit Cuba NOW
Since my return from Cuba at the beginning of March my mind has been affixed on the sights, sounds, tastes and feelings I experienced in this distant land that sits a mere 90 miles off the coast of Florida. My trip was the epitome of an eye opening experience and not only shattered my preconceived notions about the island but left me feeling a permanent connection to our brothers and sisters in the largest country in the Caribbean. Instead of giving you a play by play of the great time I had there I wanted to dedicate a post to the top reasons you should drop everything and make Cuba your next travel destination. You ready? Here we go!
1. Great People (buena gente)
This was by far one of my favorite trips based on local interactions. As noted in other posts, I’ve always found it important to talk to the ‘common man’ to gather a true sense of the pulse of a society. I didn’t fully know what to expect as my only interaction with ‘Cuban people’ has been in Miami, and while they are certainly Cuban by heritage they are overwhelmingly American in attitude, opinion and tolerance. As we traveled through the various cities we were fortunate to stay at ‘Casa Particulars’ which are private bedrooms inside of ordinary citizens homes. I highly recommend this as it gives you a chance to interact closely with Cubans who can give you the inside scoop on where to hangout and eat. I also ate some of my favorite meals in these homes(I’ll go into more detail in the next section.) The hosts at all the homes were kind and inviting and went out of their way to make us feel like we were a part of the family. They will also tell you openly about life in Cuba and their feelings of the government. As here in the states their opinions vary greatly with regard to what needs to changes and what aspects need to remain the same. A great thing that I noticed was that no matter the opinion they all carried a sense of pride in their country and an air of happiness in spite of their financial stresses.
This warmth extended to the the strangers we met on the street as we walked. When we asked for direction the Cuban citizens went out of their way to not only tell us where we needed to go, but in some cases they walked with us to show exactly where the building was located. Truth be told I’ve never felt safer walking down a street at night as I did while in downtown Havana. If one good thing can be salvaged from a communist regime that doesn’t allow guns on the island it is that people are naturally kinder to each other and work in harmonious ways because they are all in the same boat financially. Whether it was watching cars, pedicabs and pedestrians smoothly interact in the busy downtown or observing a young Cuban man open the door for a lady, the level of kindness throughout the island was welcoming and makes me feel a special kind of way about the people of the island.
2. The amazing Food (la comida increíble)
I’ll start by being brutally honest and saying during my trip I was fortunate to eat at some of the highest rated establishments as well as local underground spots with limited menus. Overall the food was nothing short of amazing. This was some of the freshest seafood I’ve ever eaten and the simplistic method used to cook added to the natural flavors I experienced. Even the chicken tastes better in Cuba because it’s all locally sourced and therefore does not contain the growth hormones and other harmful ingredients we find in chicken sourced in the states. Keep in mind these are naturally grown chickens so they were smaller than what I was used to but the meat tasted remarkably clean.
Restaurante Marinera in Trindad where I had one of the most succulent lobster and shrimp meals ever. I must note that lobster and shrimp were plentiful in all the areas we visited and refreshingly most of the places had reasonable prices. One of my favorite meals was one that was served at our home in Trinidad. When we arrived the host asked us what time we wanted dinner. We told her 8:30 and were met with a bevy of food starting with a fresh salad and culminating with a lobster, shrimp and fish filet main course with a side of rice and yuca. In traditional form we sipped Cuba Libres with dinner and enjoyed an expresso to prevent the obvious ‘itis’ from setting in. This was proof to me that fine dining experiences not only happen in 5 star restaurants designed to attract European tourists, but also at smaller eateries and even individual homes.
3. The Music (la música)
As a DJ in Miami I’ve been privileged to gain exposure to all many forms of Spanish language music: Salsa Merengue, Bachata and Reggaeton (and all of their major derivatives) just to name a few. But just as the embargo has prevented exchange of goods to and from the island there is also a lacking in exposure for Cuban artists to american ears. Sure Cubans in the states with a closer connection to the island may be able to access salsa music from smaller named bands via relatives, but a gringo like myself is usually stuck listening to familiar salsa artist like Celia Cruz and Cubaton artist Gente De Zona. The sounds we experienced as we trekked the island were incredible. As we rode in our 58 Chevy the driver played a smooth mix of authentic local salsa, many of the songs by bands that don’t have a mainstream album or video out. Even in the clubs a large portion of the music was from artists that don’t get any exposure in america but are producing amazing songs. I tried to Shazam a few songs so I could look for them but of course with no cell service I wasn’t able to immediately find the track names.
The biggest treat was listing to the live bands play as we dinned at certain restaurants. Several of the places we visited had a rotating roster of musicians that kept the environment lively with fresh salsa music and frequent interactions/collaborations with the guests. Some played an old school folkish brand of salsa while others belted out cover tunes that everyone could sing along with, but both enriched the experience of being in Cuba.
4. The Culture (la cultura)
This is the most important and I would think is a culmination of all the previous reasons. Any societies’ culture is attributed to historical influences and their application in current daily life. It is the catalyst for how a people identify themselves. Cuba was colonized by the Spanish in the late 15th century and during the transatlantic slave trade as many as 1.4 million africans were brought to the shores of Cuba to work for the Spaniards. By comparison less than 500,000 were brought to the United States and the US is a much larger land mass than Cuba. Hundreds of years later as the shackles of slavery faded a unique population was left in their wake. Not only blending the bloodlines of African and Spanish people but also merging in a cultural explosion. Needless to say the music, food and people are a result of this explosion and their homeland influences created a beautifully blended culture. For instance the African inspired drums are the backbone of all salsa music but are not complete without the sensuous strumming of the spanish guitar and piano giving us further reason to dance.
One of my favorite parts of the trip was our tour of CalleJon De Jamel which is famous for its Sunday Santeria services that are open to the public. Santeria, aka Regla de Ocha or the Lucumí religion, is an Afro-Caribbean religion based on Yoruba beliefs and traditions, with some Roman Catholic elements added. One of the area residents gave us a guided tour of the area and we were able to meet the artist that composed all of the art that filled the street. We were also treated to seeing an african dance ritual with several of the local religious practitioners. Within the art, dancing and music you could see the true culture of the Cuban people in its raw and uncompressed form. It was refreshing to see the combining of two very different cultures in a way that felt harmonious without lessening the influence of either. Even those that didn’t identify themselves as afro-cuban had respect for the Santeria religious practices and the diverse color mix on the island. America could sure use some of that kind of cultural harmony.
5. NO cell service and limited wifi
OK, I know this one sounds kind of odd but hear me out before you start lighting up the comment section. A big part of the reason we miss out on so much important stuff in our daily lives is because we’re preoccupied with the mini world happening inside of that 5 inch computer we call a phone. How many times have you been at a wedding, club or even on a date and glanced down at your phone only to get caught up reading a Facebook post or tweet and miss an important part of what was happening in front of you. Part of the reason I was able to fully experience the aforementioned greatness was because I wasn’t checking my feeds for the latest memes about presidential candidates or getting play by play updates about TV shows.
I can honestly say at first unplugging from the rest of the planet felt weird at first but it allowed me to gain a deeper appreciation for the world happening around. When we were riding in the car in between destinations like a child I starred out the window at horse drawn carts, cows grazing in nearby fields and people moving about the streets. I would’ve missed out on at least 75% of this if I was passing around anti-trump videos on Facebook or arguing in the comment section of a post about the color of a dress. If absolutely necessary 1 hour of Wifi is available at some hotels for 3-$5 but did you come to fly all the way to Cuba to to have the same interactions you do in the states, or did you come to expand your experiences? Just as I thought. Your phone should only be used if it has an awesome camera. If not leave it in the room and GO EXPERIENCE CUBA!
This purpose of this list is not to say that Cuba is perfect. It could definitely use some infrastructure upgrades, buildings could be made safer and dammit the people need more money making opportunities. But thats were you come in. The money paid by the state of Cuba to its workers is minuscule at best so most people rely on tourist like us to help the economy via Taxi rides, tours and art purchases. In a society where a cab driver makes more than a doctor we have a real opportunity to make an impact. I don’t know about you but I’ve never been to hospital in a foreign country but taken plenty of cab rides. So forget about going to DR again, cancel the plans to go to Miami because soon you’ll be able to venture to the beautiful country of Cuba for about the same price!