Fellow Instagrammer Darah Ghanem (@darahgram) has recently returned from a trip to Cuba, which seems to be THE place to visit this year and probably several years to come for many people. She kindly wrote the post below on her impressions and observations of this beautiful country:
For as long as I could remember, visiting Cuba was on my bucket list. The vintage convertibles and colorful architecture 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. I always jump at the opportunity to travel with El Camino as it’s a startup giving travelers an immersive cultural experience with a social impact. 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. For a better idea of what I mean, check out my experience with El Camino in Colombia here.
My Cuban experience was nothing like I expected. Instead of an 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 — a challenge that 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:
Dance till 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.
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.
Good morning world! 🌈 throwback to the time the super talented @villa_de_rosa took this photo of us at the Estudio Projecto Communitario Jose Martí – an independent art space for young Cuban artists. Art in Cuba is so abundant and affordable. I got two art pieces for $100USD and enjoyed the reggae tunes blasting in the studio. The pieces I got were signed by the artist himself and I also got to enjoy a whiff of the weed being smoked. Seemed as strong as the Cuban cigars they were also smoking. #TravelPostComingSoon #passionpassport #responsibletourism #suitcasetravels #peopledoingthings
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.
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.
On a voodoo rooftop. In Cuba people practice an Afro-Cuban religion called Santeria. Santeria is the product of the slave trade and is rooted in the Yoruba – a Nigerian people that were brought to the Caribbean by the Spanish. Though voodoo is part of Santeria, I thought the most beautiful bit was how it focuses on the here and now. Unlike other religions, Santeria isn't concerned with the afterlife. Its all about the life you're living now. Santeria continues to influence Cuban life including music and dance. 📸 Photo by @villa_de_rosa #elcaminotravel #responsibletourism #suitcasetravels
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.
Thank you @villa_de_rosa for capturing I think my favourite moment of all time. This is Kellie the cutest little Cuban omg I wanted to smother her but couldn't cos don't wanna be crazy tourist lady. #suitcasetravels #elcaminotravel #responsibletourism #peopledoingthings #Cuba #lifewelltravelled #lahabana #ig_cuba #theweekoninstagram
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.
Last but not least from Havana: buy perfume. I bought beautifully packaged, handmade artisan Cuban colonial perfume from Habana 1791. Each bottle was approximately $20 and smells divine! You can ask the chemist lady to mix up a totally unique scent for you or choose from their range. I bought 5 different ones, one of which was for my dad, a cologne that was first made in Cuba in 1791. #elcaminotravel #responsibletourism #cuba #havana
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. It’s 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 it’s the only authentic time warp you will experience in the country. Totally authentic living.
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!
When travelling in Cuba, expect the unexpected. Nothing on this island is like you think it will be – it's spontaneous and eclectic and determined to say "i'm here". Thank you to @elcaminotravel for consistently breaking my heart after every trip! I am so grateful for this amazing experience!! 📸 by the incredibly talented @villa_de_rosa #responsibletourism #elcaminotravel #suitcasetravels #ig_cuba #thisiscuba
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.
There's only one cliché in Cuba that I can't help but indulge in: the colourful architecture. Despite the deterioration of much of the buildings and structures, the glamour of Vedado and Paseo Del Prado continues till today. "Havana is an archive of every style of Western architecture between 1860 and 1960" – Cuban-American architect Hermes Mallea. To all my architect friends you better get your behinds to Havana! As they say, it's the last virgin city. #responsibletourism #suitcasetravels #elcaminotravel #cuba #havana #responsibletourism #lifewelltravelled #passionpassport
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.
Rosita is our pink 1950s Chevrolet convertible. I took this while we were driving around Old Havana and frankly this is just another stereotypical image of Cuba on the internet. Cuba is nothing like this. The convertibles are just for the tourists. Cuba is a place where things are, as our hostess Sara likes to say, "complicated". It's the first time in my life I visit a place and find it difficult to put it into words. All can say is that Cuba is way deeper than colourful communism and convertibles. #elcamino #responsibletourism #suitcasetravels #thisiscuba #ig_cuba
Remember, when travelling in Cuba it’s important to keep an open mind. It’s recommended to avoid speaking about politics and bragging about where you come from. Cubans know that they live a different life from you so try to keep any judgement at bay. Mi encanta Cuba!