Visit any other Caribbean island or Central American beach town, and you could easily mistake one for another. But in Cuba, you always know you are in Cuba. The contrasting sights, smells and sounds are clearly Cuban and generally in your face.

If you go: (and you should)

Stay:
  • Skip the Hotel and opt for a Casa Particular (homestay) in Vedado rather than Old Havana, there are hundreds on AirBnB
Eat & Drink:
  • While touristy both Hotel Nacional & The Floridita are worth a stop for a couple of cocktails
  • La Catredal  –  The only place that felt like it catered to both tourists and locals. Cheap drinks. Great food.
  • Paladar Los Amigos – Tucked in an alley, great food with very reasonable prices.
  • Stick to cocktails when possible. The beer is no bueno (Cristal is the least bad)
Do: 
  • Cuba Ruta Bike Tour
  • Day Trip out of Havana to either in Vinales or the Bay of Pigs (but probably not both if you don’t have a long trip as the ratio of car time to adventure is not ideal given they are each 3 ish hours away)
  • Grab some culture music and drinks at Fabrico de Artes or Callejon de Hammel
  • Get a top floor cocktail at La Torre
  • Brush up on your Spanish – while very doable in english, our trip was enhanced by being able to communicate with more than just the tour guides.
Pack:
  • Patience
  • Wet Wipes
  • Cash (credit cards are essentially worthless)

Classic American cars of all types simultaneously fill the streets with endless photo opportunities & pollution. Centuries-old colonial buildings stand side-by-side with brutalist soviet-era housing complexes. Music, art and free loving culture pulse throughout the same streets that are filled with “Socialismo o muerte” (Socialism or Death) propaganda signs.

There remain only 5 truly communist countries (Cuba, China, North Korea, Laos, Vietnam) and whereas Vietnam felt communist in name more than reality, Cuba has a firmly communist vibe. There is no free press. Nearly everyone works for the state in some capacity (even the street dogs), and those that work for private businesses send most profits ( 95%+) to the state anyway.

Tour guides & locals alike were hesitant to offer up candid thoughts on the government, the Castros or progress in general. If you did get an honest response, it was in a hushed tone. Most tours, restaurants and sights are owned and run by the state and focus primarily in Habana Vieja has a distinctly manufactured feel to it.  As picturesque as it is, Cubans do not live here. Those that work here are dressed as Cuban stereotypes posing for tourist photos.

“There is an unwritten agreement in Cuba –  we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us”.

While the government employs nearly everyone, they do so at an unlivable wage of less than $25 US per month.  Our bike tour guide used the common refrain “The is an unwritten agreement in Cuba –  we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us”. Everyone has a secondary source of income whether it be relatives in the states, blackmarket cigars, or renting rooms in their home to the newfound influx of Americans.

And while the pollution and Fidel hang thick in the air, the people and their culture persevere. There is no such thing as being in a hurry. Time moves slow, and so too do the people. Each night the 9 km seaside Malecon fills with thousands Cubans and tourists alike enjoying live music, rum straight from the bottle, and the grade-A people watching.

The Cuban people are proud, and they want you to be in their life. Whether it be staying in their homes, eating in their Paladar (private home turned into restaurant), or riding in their restored 50’s Pontiac.  A simple hello led us into an all night adventure capped off with hours of rum, cigars and intense games of dominos on the street with a group of locals until near sunrise. On another night we followed the sound music into a packed Cuban pop concert and were not given a second glance even though we were clearly the only gringos to be found.

So yes, you should go to Cuba. It is as alive as anywhere I’ve ever visited. And yes, the sooner you go the less “ruined by tourists” it will be. But be easy on the nostalgia for days gone by. The days gone by were not good for most Cubans.

“And yes, the sooner you go the less “ruined by tourists” it will be. But be easy on the nostalgia for days gone by. The days gone by were not good for most Cubans.”

Cubans as a whole are not threatened by tourism because it is lessening is the pervasive poverty & communist grip (along with the pay-for-toilet paper outside the bathroom business model) so I’d recommend you not be either. It’s a long way from becoming Cancun anytime soon.