I have long held a fascination with Cuba. For me it represented an oasis of hope bathed in the spirit of revolution. When I thought of Cuba, I thought of Assata and Angela and Che. I thought of the legacy of Afro Cubans and the willingness of Castro to end the persecution of blackness. I thought a place where a black girl could go and just be. My friend Vickie says I’ve romanticized Cuba and this is a prescription with which I cannot disagree.
It was this fascination and romanticizing that led me to select Cuba as the destination for my 35th birthday celebration. After meeting Angela Davis and hearing her speak of revolution and Cuba, I knew exactly where I wanted to go. I jokingly told my friends that we were going to find Assata and if I am honest with myself, it was only a half-joke. I believed the embargo to Cuba to be over as I’d seen President Obama and Beyonce & Jay-Z walk the streets of Havana. Once I dug into travel planning, I realized the embargo has not been lifted, but just relaxed. Considering the current administration, I knew we could not wait to go.
Cuba was many things for me: enlightening, empowering, educational, entertaining, enriching, all those good e’s. I loved seeing Afro Cubans move throughout the city with a self assured air that I do not readily see in African Americans. There are definite class differences that impact Afro Cubans disparately and those were obvious. As we walked through old Havana and saw the children working the crowd, I was reminded that nowhere is perfect for descendants of the Diaspora. But still on the faces of Afro Cubans, I saw a less encumbered look, maybe it’s being on a tropical island or not living under Trump, whatever it was, I envied it.
The American media has not done any favors for the Black American. Anyone who met us assumed we were rich, because a black person who could afford to travel, must be so. I will admit that the wealthy class still has aristocratic leanings and there were times when we weren’t so welcome. Upon entering a restaurant one evening, we were turned away at first. Then a second waiter saw how many people were in our group and offered us a beautiful table. Race and class, like in America, are definitely heavily intertwined.
One of the most entertaining interactions we had with Cubans was with a group of twenty-somethings on Playa de Santa Maria. They were as enamored with our Americaness as we were their Cubaness. It was a good time for a bit with them. Playa de Santa Maria is gorgeous by the way. It’s a smooth and expansive beach, where we paid 2 CUCs per chair and where I got the worst sunburn of my life. It’s also where we had an amazing time drinking Rum, eating whole fish and shrimp and swimming in the ocean. It was the most free I’ve felt in a long time.
Art is big in Cuba. During our old car ride tour, we stopped at a neighborhood that is entirely covered in mosaics, Fusterlandia. Be aware, it is TOTES a tourist trap, but a fun and gorgeous one. There are tons of artists there and this is where we purchased most of the art we brought home. The first night in Cuba, we hung out at Fabrica de Arte Cubano(FAC), a huge warehouse dedicated to art and music. It is a great scene with cool Cubans and tourists, dope art and good sounds. We enjoyed our time there taking in the art scene while finding good music around every corner. There are djs in different nooks and crannies and multiple stairwells. It’s a big maze of coolness.
There are many Black Americans travelling to Cuba. We ran into a group of Iotas, a Spelhouse couple, folks from DC and Miami and Atlanta. African heritage plays a role in the art and spirit of so much in Cuba. We saw many homages to Africans and Afro Cubans in our cultural excursions. The tomb where Castro is buried is named for an African saint. My favorite day was Sunday, which we dubbed Afro Cuban day. We traveled to Old Habana and hung out on Callejon de Hamel for the weekly Afro Cuban fest. There was Afro Cuban music, dancers, art, Santeria priests and a whole hog cooking in the middle of the street.
I recommend travelling to Cuba to anyone who can take the time to visit. I plan to return soon and explore more of the connection between Cuba and Black Americans.
Want to head to Cuba. Here’s some insight based on our travel plans & experience.
Airline: I recommend flying Delta to Havana. Delta makes the trip simple and the cost is low. For a round trip, 5 day trip, we paid about $400/person. This cost includes the mandatory health insurance required by the Cuban government. We also completed our mandatory OFAC declaration (see below) and paid the $50 for our travel visa through Delta on the day-of-travel at our departure gates. Getting through customs in Havana was pretty swift, but if you check your bag be prepared for a wait. Also there is no air conditioning on the arrival floor and you will feel it when there are 300 people waiting for bags. I advise you to be prepared to carry on everything you need, so you can hop in the currency exchange line and switch your Euros (change your dollars to Euros in the US) to CUCs. There are many rumors about airlines cancelling trips to Havana. Delta is not one of these, as it is mostly the smaller airlines doing this.
Travel Purpose (OFAC declaration): When we booked the flight, we had to select the reason for our visit. Tourism is prohibited under the trade embargo. We selected People to People as our purpose was to learn about the Cuban people and culture. There are 12 choices and you should pick the one that relates closest to your trip. If you select education, make sure you visit a school and take supplies for the students. If you select People to People, do more than bar hop, actually spend time ingesting the culture and learning from Cubans. Airbnb offers cultural expeditions hosted by Cubans that will meet these criteria. I highly recommend the services of my friend, Kasara Davidson, who runs a travel company, Diaspora Exchange Solutions, which will assist with itinerary building to ensure you are meeting the travel requirements. She helped us build our travel itinerary and her recommendations were perfect for our travel goals.
Lodging: We decided to stay in an Airbnb instead of a hotel. The price for comparable amenities ended up being a better fit for us. We chose Villa Malimbo, a seven bedroom home in the Vedado part of Havana. The photos of Villa Malimbo online showed a pleasant casa and we were excited that the price was only $150/person for 7 of us. The owners of Villa Malimbo, Belkys y Fausto, were exceptional. They sent taxis to pick us up from the airport and greeted us with their house staff. They even bought a cake for my birthday and threw me a fiesta before we headed to the beach. The house is staffed 24/7 with kitchen and security personnel. We were able to purchase water, snacks, soda and rum all day, which was helpful as there aren’t convenience stores that you can just hop into on every corner. Villa Malimbo also provides breakfast for 5 CUCS/person. Breakfast was good and enough to sustain us as we headed out each morning on our excursions. The home has bathrooms in each room, with toilet paper and roomy showers. Linens and towels are changed by the house staff and there is air conditioning in each room. The hosts gave great recommendations on where to eat and they ordered taxis for us to reach our daily destinations.
Food: Food in Cuba has a bad rap. Before we got there, I was prepared to live off KIND bars for five days. With our house serving breakfast each day, we were pretty lucky. We found great pizza delivery and a good diner called Nely’s on Calle 23 to hop into. We also enjoyed delicious meals at Star Bien at Calle 29 entre B y C and Imperio Sbarra Ristorante at Calle E y 25. We also had amazing service on the beach, brought to us from a local hotel whose name we never heard. We never ate food off the street though and were better for it, as we ran into many folks in the airport suffering from food poisioning. We all ordered Cubanos at Hotel Nacional one afternoon. I must admit, they were super touristy. I’ve had better Cubanos from hole in the walls in DC, than the ones at Nacional.
What to Do: As mentioned above, we spent our days touring the country. We did an Old Car Tour, which we booked here. (Be aware, if you or anyone in your group are plus sized, they will call it out. They say 4 people can fit in a car, but it’s really about 3 with the tour guide and the driver.). The tour was cool and took us to a mix of tourist haunts and seeing the beauty of the different neighborhoods and history of Habana. We spent a long day at Playa de Santa Maria, which is again, the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. We hung out at Hotel Nacional to get a quick wifi fix and search for Cubanos. This is where we ran into all the Americans (notably Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock were there for a press tour). We hung out in Old Habana at Callejon de Hamel, the Afro Cuban festival that pops off on Sundays. We spent an afternoon bar hopping down Calle 23, which is a main street and is peppered with bars and a cool Don Quixote statue. When I go back, I plan to spend two days in the country and horse back ride through the tobacco fields. I also hope to catch a glance of Assata.
A lot of people have asked me, “Why Cuba?”. All I can say is take a trip down there and experience it. For me, Cuba was an opportunity to ¡Vive libre!. I hope you get a chance to go and live free too.