Exploring Havana and Settling into Cuba

by Ekua on August 30, 2010 in Cuba

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.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Andi August 31, 2010 at 1:50 pm

OMG, I didn’t even know there WERE tour groups in Cuba haha. My gf and I just sorta had the wind blow us around. I was so excited to read your posts, but now I’m missing Cuba so much I’m not sure I can continue to read LOL!!! I struggled BIG time being a veggie there. I mostly ate rice, beans, cheese sandwiches.

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Ekua August 31, 2010 at 6:27 pm

There are tours in Cuba, but I’m not sure how easy it would be to book them upon arrival, if that’s what you’re referring to. I only saw a tourism office once during the whole trip. To me, tourism infrastructure there seemed fairly non-existent or hard to find which is a reason why I was glad I did a tour.

As for meals, take out the cheese and then imagine what the vegan couple ate the whole time in Cuba 😉 I actually saw them again after the trip because they were in my city after traveling through Mexico. They said they wished that they’d traveled to Mexico first and then Cuba. They’d shed a few pounds in Cuba and then put it back on by eating really well in Mexico 😉

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Hal Amen August 31, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Sounds like a different sort of tour, at least. Nothing wrong with that!

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Ekua August 31, 2010 at 6:34 pm

Haha, yes. I think d.i.y. travelers often lump tours into one big forbidden style of travel, but it definitely wasn’t the stifling kind of tour that adventurous travelers love to hate.

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Mary R August 31, 2010 at 10:41 pm

A tour that gets you from one place to the next can be really worthwhile, especially if transit is difficult. It also introduced you to other people right away, which is nice.

I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba… good for you for making it happen. I want to travel with you, Ekua!

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Ekua September 1, 2010 at 8:29 pm

Yeah, I was really happy to meet people right away because I don’t think it would have been super easy to meet a lot of travelers there. It was low season and on top of that, Cuba doesn’t have much of a solo backpacker culture as far as I can tell. Yeah, we should totally meet up for an adventure whenever our paths eventually cross.

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Candice September 1, 2010 at 9:27 pm

Hahaha, group tours are so under-rated! Sounds lovely. Headed to Cuba next April, hopefully.

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Ekua September 3, 2010 at 5:25 pm

You should totally go, and the weather will be much more manageable at that time of year. Lemme know if you have any questions!

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Lola September 1, 2010 at 10:07 pm

“I know this will send my indie traveler cred tumbling down”…Haha!

I’ve taken a handful of pre-organized tours in my life, even one travel snob “forbidden” Contiki tour back in 2001(?). Since then, I’ve learned not to care what people think about how I travel.

We already know the benefits of traveling independently and more organically so I’m not going to re-tout them here.

But it also makes common sense, especially when someone has limited time in a particular region, to pre-organize portions of the trip especially for transportation and seeing as much as you want in a short time.

Glad you had a great time and also made new friends in the process.

Here’s a piece I contributed to on travel snobbery – http://www.travelblogs.com/panel-discussions/travel-snobbery-defined

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Ekua September 3, 2010 at 5:30 pm

Haha, I totally woulda done a Contiki back in the day, but I missed that boat. I’m nowhere near old, but I know I am too old for a Contiki tour.

There are certain travel styles that I’m not into (like super generic resorts), but tours really aren’t all bad if you know how to find the right one. Some of my most meaningful travel friendships have been formed on tours!

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Terri- Try Anything Once September 4, 2010 at 10:16 am

Hey there!

I am totally jealous of your trip. I went to Cuba actually 9 days after Sept. 11. That being said, it was for an history conference and I did not get to go to the beach or to Havana. I’m enjoying your posts. Thanks!

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