In this week’s JetSetter Series, we catch up with Trusted Travel Girl’s Valerie Wilson on travel tips for a jaunt to the magical and mystical land of Cuba.
Being one of the first American women to legally visit Cuba when it was on the brink of change, I am often asked for advice on travel to the country. Well, my greatest piece of advice is, run, don’t walk. Things are changing quickly and it soon will not be the place you have heard about and imagined. Once you get there, here are some of the best ways to spend your time.
During the extent of a fifty-four-year embargo , Cuba has remained a mystery to the American public, yet with the recent move to re-establish relations with the US, curiosity seekers can now see what the country really has to offer. What travelers will soon come to realize is that all of Cuba is a museum. Now that everyone seems to be jumping on the Cuba bandwagon, the best way to visit Cuba is to have some experiences that few tourists will have.
Take the train to Hershey. At the same time Hershey was in Pennsylvania, there was also Hershey, Cuba. Milton Hershey first visited Cuba back in 1916 and is said to have fallen in love with the country at first sight. He immediately purchased a plantation and a mill to produce Hershey chocolate. In 1946, Hershey moved out due to political instability in the country, however, there are some remains still intact (very few). Adventuring outside of the tourist zones will always be worth the trek, even if there isn’t much to see. This is the best way to make memories, engage with locals, and head out on an adventure. Taking the train to visit Hershey is a great way to do this.
Engage With Locals
Seek out and talk to the local Cubans about what they like to do, where they eat, where they hang out, what they think of new relations with the US, baseball, food, music. But try to avoid a conversation about politics. Learn where the best secret local hangouts are from talking to them and about what their lives are like.
Support Cuba’s Growth
Stay at Casa’s instead of hotels. My favorite options in any travel experience are the ones that lead me to live like a local resident instead of a tourist. With the first tastes of growth and further development, Cubans are taking advantage of letting you rent space in their residence, much like a bed & breakfast. Spanish for “home,” casas are one of the most affordable options for lodging. This is an amazing opportunity to interact with the locals and break bread with your host family.
I always jump at the opportunity to interact with locals and see how they live their day-to-day lives. Concerning Cuba, it is an exceptional time in history for Cubans especially those venturing into the untamed waters of further growth in a still very much communist nation. The people that are renting rooms and working in tourism have quickly had their lives changed for the better. Most rooms rent for the equivalent of $30/night. Just to put that into perspective, the majority of Cubans make $40 a month. Although it’s taxed, that money is going directly into the pockets of the Cuban Entrepreneurs. Staying in a casa can offer any traveler an unmatched insight into Cuban culture. Even if you happen to be the type of traveler that enjoys the amenities offered by a hotel, one night at a casa for the experience certainly couldn’t hurt.
Get A Tan
The Cuban beaches are some of the best in the world, however, there are some local secrets. When interviewing my friend Frank Alpizar, one of the most sought after tour guides in all of Havana I asked him what is the place most tourists don’t see in Cuba that they should. “There are beaches near Havana where tourists barely go because they consider it to be very Cuban, but they should go there. They should go to the beaches, both on the east and west part of the city, because they normally go to the islands, and they’re nice but they’re very touristy. You should go to the beaches where Cubans go”. His suggestion is a beach by the name of Santa Maria.
However you decide to spend your time in Cuba, make sure you understand that you are visiting a place that has been largely closed off to much of the world for decades. Remember that it is not a glamorous destination, however, with its expected growth and development, the country is changing quickly. Streets and buildings are in disrepair, hotels are oversold and having a hard time keeping up with demands from guests. Bring your patience, an open mind and you will be sure to have one of the most incredible life experiences. Bring too many expectations, and you will ruin it. Most importantly, get away from the other tourists and discover the real Cuba.
To learn more and connect with Valerie Wilson, visit TrustedTravelGirl.com or follow her on Twitter and Instagram @TrustedTravelGirl.