The Unexpected Adventure: 12 Things I Learned Traveling in Cuba

It wasn’t really on my bucket list of places to visit. And I had no plans to take a vacation for another few months. But when you’re invited to join a group on a guided trip to Cuba, a communist country only recently opened to U.S. travelers (and for how long?), you make it happen.

Americans in general are not yet flocking to Cuba as expected. As a destination, it remains an unknown as vast as the island itself — the largest in the Caribbean.

Here’s what I learned on this unexpected adventure:

1. So close and yet so far.

This scenic island nation is less than 100 miles off the coast of Florida — a short, direct plane ride from Atlanta. Cuba is surrounded by the warm ocean waters of the Gulf, and offers a lush tropical landscape, white sandy beaches, breathtaking valleys, colorful hillside villages and bustling colonial cities. It’s also a country where the people live in substandard conditions, cut off in every way from the rest of the world.

2. Rations aren’t rational.

We live in the land of plenty. But this. This is how most Cubans receive their monthly rations of food. It includes one slice of bread per person per day. Beef and basic toiletries are a luxury, and many rely on a thriving black market system. So the next time you shop, take a look at the length and options in the hair-care aisle alone and appreciate the blessings of not only abundance, but also choice.

3. Classic convertibles are the coolest.

You haven’t had this much fun since the ’50s — even if you were born later, as I was. These vintage cars are everywhere, and the pride of their owners. You’ll choke on all the diesel fumes they emit, but sitting in the back of a Chevy Coupe, feeling the warm breezes and listening to oldies on the radio and seeing the sights of Cuba make this one of the best cheap thrills of our time.

4. Sometimes you just need Wi-Fi (or a beverage).

I’ve had yet to experience a foreign country where Wi-Fi was such a rare commodity. For 5 CUC (the Cuban pesos tourists get to use) and the cost of a few caipirinhas at a swanky bar hotel, we accessed one hour of painfully slow Wi-Fi during our entire five-day trip. But don’t feel badly for me. It’s just another way the powers that be tightly control the flow of information coming in and out of the country.

5. Oceanfront property, no watercraft.

Think of Cuba and you see photos of a shirtless Ernest Hemingway fishing from his boat, Pilar. Picture revolutionaries famously crossing the Gulf to Playa Las Coloradas on the Granma. Even recall the USS Maine tragically sunk in Havana Harbor or desperately fleeing refugees after a communist takeover. Today? Aside from the European cruise ships regularly moored there, I didn’t spot a single kayak, fishing boat, catamaran or sailboat in the bays or beaches around Cuba.

6. The people can do small things with great love.

I met a woman at this tiny home converted into a church that serves a slum-like bedroom community of 120,000 people. She leads a church ministry that helps the sick, offering comfort where they can. It made me emotional to see how one person can do so much with so little. When I asked her if she had grown up in the church, it was her turn to tear up. She had been too afraid, she said, but the worst of it was that she hadn’t been able to bring her children to church either.

7. Mid-century modern makes for an eerie ghost town.

Calling all Mad Men fans. Here’s Tarará, a perfectly preserved beach-side neighborhood planned and occupied in the 1940s by mostly Americans, but later abandoned. This once-idyllic, gated community west of Havana has school buildings, parks, a yacht club, a church, the remnants of a drive-in theater and decaying art deco-style homes where only the ghosts of a pre-Communist era remain.

8. Spanish.

Truth is, I didn’t learn Spanish while visiting Cuba. But I learned that I should learn, a fact hit home when we traveled to the small, rural communities outside touristy Havana. The dozen or so Spanish words I’ve picked up living in South Texas — colors, numbers, foods of course — aren’t enough to talk with the people about the things that really matter — politics, faith, capitalism, education and, because we got to know some avid basketball fans, the five-time NBA champions, the San Antonio Spurs.

9. Jesus loves the little children.

Kids will be kids will be kids. It’s a universal truth that children around the world love to sing, dance and generally have a good time, and the same is true in Cuba. It transcends all. #sillyselfies

10. Here is the church, here is the steeple.

Throughout this country, cathedrals, churches and shrines were shuttered after the revolution, and the people I met have only recently, and bravely, begun to open them up again. It’s a wonder and a blessing so many of the structures are still standing given what the country has endured. Our travel guides took us to several churches in Havana as well as to the few that are coming to life now in small rural towns like Palacios. Arriving late there one evening, we entered the doors of a sanctuary full to the choir loft with women and children, a few elderly men, joyful music, salsa and a rock-star welcome.

11. Revolutions can last a long, long, long time.

National pride is alive and well here and the heroes of the revolution are still a big part of that. While the winds of change can be felt as capitalism slowly makes its way into the economy, the effects of a dictatorial regime are most prominent in the abject poverty and corruption that remains, in the seeming apathy and resignation of the young people, and in the weary faces of those who can never forget all that they lost.

12. What’s really in a Cuban cigar.

At a tobacco farm restaurant, we dined family-style on platters of delicious roasted chicken, fish and pork, several different rice and bean dishes, and a delicacy no Cuban is permitted to eat, lobster. (The penalty is jail time, we learned.) A tour of the curing barns followed this lunch where we were schooled in the secret ingredient of a famous Cuban cigar: Vitamin R(um)! Or maybe they were just having fun with American tourists?

If you go, keep in mind: Foreign currency exchange lines are very long. Tourists eat and drink well, and cheaply, in flourishing privately-owned restaurants. Your waiter likely makes 20 cents a day or less so keep your service expectations in check. The rum is good and inexpensive, and the minty mojitos do, in fact, taste better in Cuba. If you can, pack an extra bag of clothing, school supplies, diapers, toys or toiletries to leave behind.