Exploring Cuba for the First Time
While browsing through potential study abroad destinations on my school’s website, I came across a trip that had just been added: a marine ecology trip to Cuba. After President Obama announced a loosening of restrictions between our two countries, Americans began to wonder how and when they could get the opportunity to travel to Cuba. This could be my only chance to experience Cuba and I wanted to take full advantage of it. Still, many Cuban-Americans were worried that this change would only lend credibility to the government. I wanted to be sure I was well educated on the cultural and social issues of Cuba, before deciding to go. This was one place you couldn’t really turn to a guide book or your favorite travel blog for the best advice.
When I began sharing my plans to travel to Cuba, people had some interesting reactions. Family members worried about my safety. Friends questioned whether I wouldn’t enjoy visiting Italy or Costa Rica instead. It didn’t sway me though; Cuba was a place teaming with history and natural beauty and it was somewhere I wanted to experience for myself. As a participant on my university’s first trip to Cuba, I was able to experience the country in a way many people never will. The Cuban people were friendly and eager to discuss what my fellow Americans thought of Cuba. Still, I also spoke with a lot of individuals who struggled to make ends meet. A woman I stayed with in Viñales had a job as a lawyer, but still earned barely enough to support her small family.
Havana is a beautiful city, but it has a lot of poverty. As cool as it is to snag photos of a classic car in Old Havana, you’ll also see some of the most heartbreaking affects of a communism regime. Infrastructure is crumbling and the old cars are mostly being used as taxis to draw tourists in. American tourism will certainly change Cuba, but what American tourists need to understand is that the Cuban government is contributing to most of their people’s struggles. One way that tourists can keep the money in the people’s hands and out of the government’s pocket is by staying with local families in casa particulars.
Strolling down the streets of Havana, our group certainly stuck out, especially once people realized we were Americans and not Europeans on holiday. We went snorkeling, hiked in a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and snacked on local foods. Cuba is a country that’s main tourism draw may start out as being its “untouched” status, but as more people begin to see the natural beauty this island has to offer, hopefully a different kind of tourist will be drawn to it.
I can safely say that visiting Cuba should be a priority. Not because you want to see old cars and crumbling infrastructure, but because you want to explore untouched reefs, see traditional farming practices, and help support a people that is extremely passionate about their country and its future.
• Internet access can be hard to come by, if you do find wifi it may be fairly expensive
• There are plenty of places to see beyond Havana, such as Viñales and the Isle of Youth
• Two forms of currency are used: one for the locals and one for tourists
• Buses are a convenient way to travel around Cuba
• Try and see if your school has a program to Cuba or if they will allow you to get credits for a trip with another school. Although restrictions are being lifted, it is fairly difficult for Americans to get to Cuba.