When I came back from Cuba, my co worker who had always wanted to visit was so excited to hear about my experience. He ran to my desk on Thursday morning when I resumed at work and wanted to hear all about my trip. The conversation went something like this:
Co worker: Hey Victoria, how was Cuba?
Me: <I shrugged my shoulders>. It was not what I expected.
Co worker: What do you mean?
Me: It was humid, there was no internet, dog poop was everywhere and my airbnb was not as comfortable as I expected.
Co worker: <He laughed so hard> Its a small island, what were you expecting?
Me: <laughing along with him> Colorful PARADISE? haha
I knew Cuba would not be a paradise but my expectations and what I experienced did not align with each other for the most part. The purpose of this post is in no way meant to deter anyone from Cuba. This post is more of an account of my thoughts about Havana vs my experience.
I visited Cuba for the long July 4th weekend because I typically extend my vacation by traveling over the holidays. This post will highlight various aspects of my Cuban experience and I will talk about what I expected prior to visiting the island, and what I actually experienced.
The boarders of Cuba officially opened to Americans in 2016. Various people have taken advantage of this opportunity since then and I think it is a good thing. This is because while I visited Cuba, I felt the country had a ways to go in terms of development. Old Havana which is the main city in Cuba has a lot to learn from other cities in Latin America. The infrastructure for one could definitely be improved as the buildings are old, not well maintained, and internet is unreliable.
In order to use internet, tourists and citizens have to buy an internet card from a hotel or ETECSA counter, and proceed to hotspots around the city to use the internet service. I read up about this before I traveled so I was aware that getting internet access will be a challenge.
Before I start, I will like to say I do not think Cuba is frozen in a time capsule like a lot of people say. This is my opinion at least! Even though the island does not have a lot of infrastructure, Havana offers a large number of up to date comforts people in the more western part of the world are used to. I will discuss this more in detail in my post.
Before visiting Cuba, I spoke to a lot of people, and saw a lot of pictures on social media. Therefore, I already painted a picture of Cuba as a colorful and overly lively island in my head where there would be music in every corner, and I would get Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita” vibe from Havana. Here is what I thought:
Someone mentioned to me that the food in Cuba did not have much flavor. It did not make a lot of sense because I have been to a Cuban restaurant in Chicago, and the food had a lot of flavor in my opinion. The person told me that since the island was closed off to the US, they don’t have access to spices necessary to make food tasty (OK!). I asked more questions and found out they had not been to Cuba but were just talking based off something they read from a blog *sighs*.
As a result of this, I expected the food to be somewhat bland but I also expected the country to serve a lot of seafood since it is an island country.
Lobster and shrimp.. Yummy!
Street food: Fried rice and pork
Shrimp Alfredo- notice the darker color?
The day I arrived in Havana, I tried a lobster and shrimp dish. It was so delicious! I also visited two different restaurants that served pasta. The pasta was delicious but in one of the restaurants called “La Catedral”, the shrimp Alfredo tasted quite off. It had a darker color and tasted like fish. Yuck! I barely ate half of the meal. The food in this restaurant is so cheap but the Alfredo was a let down. The ham sandwich sold in old Havana was also very delicious. A street vendor opens shop early in the morning and several people stay in line just to purchase the delicious sandwich. It cost less than $1 and I ate a sandwich everyday while I was in Cuba.
In general, the food in Havana has its own flavor and you basically get more flavor and price variation in some restaurants over the other- just like anywhere else in the world. This is my opinion at least. One restaurant in particular served the biggest lobster I had ever seen in my life (I forgot the name :(. I stumbled on the restaurant very early in the morning on my way home from the club).
I honestly did not have any specific expectations. I know Cuban rum is very popular in Cuba therefore, I was expecting to drink a lot of that.
Pina colada drink
Mohito with upside down beer
I definitely drank a lot of rum, beer and a lot of mixed drinks made out of Cuban rum. I also tried mimosas which was really good. My favorite was the mohito with an upside down beer and sugar cane. Yum!
The mixed drinks tasted more like juice to me because they had low alcohol content and was overly diluted. I would stick to beer, mohitos or Cuban rum to get more value. A bottle of Cuban rum is also affordable and it is sold for relatively similar price in every store in Havana.
No major expectations here. Like every destination where tourists frequent, I expected a lot of souvenirs and to I expected them to be overpriced and more expensive in places where there are a large number of tourists, for example Museums.
Souvenir found in Old Havana
The souvenirs were not only beautiful, but also reasonably priced. You have to haggle so that you can get the best deal on items. There were several stores in old Havana that offered fridge magnets, wooden decorations, fans, paintings and so on. I bought a fridge magnet from a store and a beautiful wooden fan! They were both affordable and of course I haggled to get a deal. My mom collects fridge magnets so she was definitely happy to add a magnet from Cuba to the collection.
Architecture and Environment
Expectation vs Reality:
In this aspect, my expectations and reality aligned with each other. Old Havana captured my expectations in terms of colorful buildings, old architecture and beautiful murals. The environment was however not as clean as I expected and some of the old buildings were not well maintained. Outside of that, the old and colorful buildings were definitely a sight to behold.
Music and Art:
I expected bands to play on every corner, and I would dance to beautiful tunes as I talked through each street (more like a fantasy right)? I expected artists to display their work for sale on the street and I expected a multitude of art galleries in old Havana.
An artist in an art gallery
Artist painting in old Havana
Performers in a restaurant
I knew Cuba was a very musical country and I was definitely impressed by the bands at the restaurants and clubs. Though there were no bands on every street corner like I expected, there were bands on some streets where you find a lot of tourists. The music was captivating and women and men alike sang with beautiful, high pitched voices. Beware of the bands though, they always have a couple of CD’s handy, and they try to sell it to tourists.
My expectation also aligned with reality when it came to art. There are several art galleries in Havana, and several art shops where artists displayed their beautiful work for sale.
Now we all know that everyone knows Cuba for vintage cars. A lot of people say Cuba is stuck in a time capsule therefore, I was expecting 100% vintage cars including vintage taxis.
Though there was a large number of vintage cars, modern cars were also very popular in Cuba. Majority of the vintage cars were well maintained and quite picturesque. I enjoyed capturing the different colored cars, and I also got a few shots of the owners meticulously cleaning the cars. There was almost an equal mix of modern and vintage cars, even though there was a ton of vintage cars in Havana.
As usual the best part about traveling for me is meeting new people.
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