Updated: Aug 21, 2017
1. Pack Heavy, Leave Light
I had the pleasure of traveling to Cuba with a group of 10+ people, made up of family as well as old & new friends. We rented a gorgeous house in the residential neighborhood of Miramar- which came equipped with two drivers, a chef, and housekeeping personnel. My friends and I quickly bonded with locals that we met, as well as the wonderful people who helped us in our "home away from home." Between all my friends, we had enough shoes, clothes, jewelry and accessories, makeup, toiletries, etc. to supply a small village (I'm not joking). But by the end of our trip, we ended up leaving a lot of our belongings in Cuba for those that took care of us while we were there. It goes without saying that many do not share the same luxuries that many Americans take for granted. I encourage everyone that has the opportunity to visit to leave their excess "baggage" behind.
Looking for Wifi in Cuba is like looking for truth in politics : it exists, but it's a RARE find. Our house didn't have wifi, and none of the restaurants we went to had wifi either. Sensing our panic, our driver told us that it's illegal for the citizens of Cuba to have Internet and access to the outside world. But being the Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat addicts that we are, it was a tough transition. In order to get our "fix", we had to go to a place that was basically like the Black Market to find people selling Wifi access cards (they looked like calling cards, but they have codes to connect to the Internet). Then we had to find a place that had a connection, usually a hotel (we found this water front area with a beautiful view, pictured here). I say all this to say, that it was a MISSION. Not even halfway through the trip, we collectively said "forget it!" and just learned how to disconnect. The inability to constantly be connected to social media networks and emails was a refreshing and much needed break from the world, and it caused me to engage more with the wonderful sights, sounds, smells, and people around me.
3. Go Back In Time
The classic car culture of Cuba has less to do with style or preference, and more to do with politics. When the US Embargo was enforced 60 years ago, the last imported cars made their way to Cuba. As a result, the streets and parking lots of Old Havana and Malecon are decorated with vintage 1950's rainbow colored vehicles. Cuba's culture allows us to step into a time capsule, if only for a moment.
4. Cash Is King
If you don't do anything else in preparation for your trip to Cuba, do this: BRING CASH! This may seem obvious to some, but of course the lesson was lost on me. I'm a go with the flow, "what will be, will be" type of girl. Needless to say, I played myself by not taking out cash before landing in Cuba. To be fair, I tried to get cash at a currency exchange spot at Miami Intl. Airport, but because I had a very early flight, none of the currency shops had opened yet. So then I figured I'd just do it after landing at the airport in Havana...no big deal, right? WRONG! ATM machines are SCARCE, not mention because of the tense relationship between America and Cuba, the few ATMs that exist do not accept cards from US banks. Long story short, I had to find wifi (I already mentioned that struggle), contact my sister to access my bank account (thanks Morgan!), and then have her send my money through Western Union. Oh, and there's only like 3 places that offer Western Union services and half the time their services are down. Moral of the story kids: make sure your coins are in order beforehand.
5. Do It For The Culture
As previously mentioned, I traveled to Cuba with a crew. We were celebrating my friend Franklin's birthday, and he did an awesome job of planning our itinerary for each day of our vacation. One of my favorite things we did was go to dinner dressed in Cuban style clothing (a few of my friends are pictured in formation to the right.) It was amazing to fully immerse myself in Cuba's rich, colorful, beautiful culture. I highly suggest anyone traveling there to do the same.
6. Bend the Rules
A wise man once said, "don't ask for permission, ask for forgiveness!" Upon touring the city, we had the opportunity to visit one of the oldest and biggest cigar factories in Old Havana (pictured left). Before starting the tour, we were cautioned not to take any photos while inside the factory. Did we listen? Of course not. One of the many blessings travel affords us is to be able to hold onto the memories and experiences of our trip. And although most of these experiences live in the mind and the heart forever, there's no harm in having some documentation as well.
The most valuable takeaway from my trip can be summed up in one word: APPRECIATION. This trip re-enforced the value of loved ones, living simply, how truly blessed I am, and what a blessing it is to enjoy life, travel, and bask in beauty (I know it sounds cliché, but I'm just speaking my truth). There are literally millions of people in this world that haven't been able to experience even a fraction of what I have. And besides, I believe that enjoying what you already have opens up the door for even more blessings. Ain't life grand?