I know this will send my indie traveler cred tumbling down, but I have a confession to make: I traveled with a tour group in Cuba. The tour was just about a week long, had only six other members who were also backpackers, and left me with my days free to do whatever I wanted instead of following a tour leader the whole time. But still, it was a tour that allowed me to not have the independent traveler challenges I most likely would’ve faced while navigating Cuba on my own. And I’m glad I did it.
Last year’s backpacking trip to Peru and Bolivia had been all about challenge. While it was an incredible experience, I wasn’t looking to throw myself head first into that same type of travel struggle this year. So after I tried unsuccessfully to coordinate my schedule with other friends interested in visiting Cuba and my bit of research led me to believe that I had no clue where to begin planning a trip around the island, I booked a tour that would take away from the planning aspect and leave time for me to explore Cuba as I wanted to.
On my second day, after my jet lag and initial culture shock had been slept off, I went for a walk. I’d arrived a day before the tour began and had the day to explore before checking in with the group that evening. So I went from the Vedado neighborhood where I was staying to walk along the Malecon and then continued in the direction of Old Havana. I didn’t quite make it to Old Havana, but instead wandered through a part of town that was obviously poorer than I what I’d seen thus far.
My dark skin blended in with many of the residents who inhabited this crumbling neighborhood. Amongst Cuba’s impressive equality, inequality has been created by income from expat family members and tourism; two types of income that darker residents of Cuba are less likely to have access to. From what I saw, this was much more apparent in Havana than on the countryside. As I walked around, I took out my camera to snap some photos. I could tell that only then were the locals aware that I was a tourist.
Back at the hotel, I came across two people who would be part of my group. They were a couple from Melbourne in their early thirties. They said they were off to find something to eat. I asked why they didn’t want to go with the group to dinner later that evening. “We’re going to go along with you guys, but we have a special diet and want to eat before dinner,” they replied. I pressed for more information until they came out with the whammy… they were vegans. I laughed internally, wondering what kind of effect traveling in Cuba with two vegans would have on our trip.
Later, I met the rest of the group. My roommate was from Norway, there were two guys from Sydney, and a woman from Florida via Poland. The group seemed like it would mesh well and we were all within a 10 year age range. We went to dinner followed by drinks at a bar.
It was the weekend, and the city that seemed strangely quiet to me during the daytime was coming alive at night. It seemed like everyone of all ages was out walking around, drinking rum, or heading to the clubs and bars. We decided the best place to spend our first night as a group was at an open-air sit down bar where we could listen to live music and talk. As I sipped a mojito and conversed with my insta-friends, I couldn’t get over how incredible the band sounded. There, in a generic bar, I was listening to an amazing world class Cuban band who played with passion, but at the same time, played like it was nothing. No big deal. Es Cuba.