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Travel to Havana, Cuba: A 5-Day Cultural Exchange
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Travel to Havana, Cuba: A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

Travel to Havana, Cuba: A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

Each year my family works to make our New Year’s resolutions different from the year before. We try to come up with something novel as we step outside our comfort zone and share our ideas. This year my New Year’s resolution was to make friends who were completely different from me. You can imagine my excitement when presented with an opportunity to travel to Cuba on a humanitarian mission. My five days in Cuba would prove to be one of the most impactful experiences of my life, in ways I never expected.

When I told friends and family about Cuba, everyone was incredibly curious. The real Cuba remains a mystery to most Americans after a sixty-year embargo and rocky relations between our governments. As we are reminded again and again, governments do not always represent their people. 

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

Along with 16 other Americans, my husband Dave and I traveled to Havana for a 5 day cultural exchange trip with CAYO, a Minneapolis-based non-profit which provides a music and cultural exchange. Their motto? “The world is better when you know your neighbors.” CAYO was founded by my husband’s high school friend and bandmate, Dr. Rena Kraut. Along with running CAYO, Rena is an educator and an active freelance musician who performs regularly with the Minnesota and St. Paul Chamber Orchestras, among others.

Our group was made up of 3 other professional musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra, 2 retired band directors (including Dave’s high school teacher), several American students of music (both high school and college aged musicians), and several music and art lovers (including me). We were a group of different ages and backgrounds and religions and together we formed a beautiful, shared experience. 

I knew very little about Cuba before visiting. The only things I knew about Cuba were the Elian Gonzalez case, Fidel Castro, the embargo, communism, classic cars, rum, cigars and music. I was excited to experience something new. 

Armed with a Support for the Cuban People visa, we began our journey to Cuba, traveling from Chicago to Fort Lauderdale to Havana. Our flight was half full. We were told that flights to Cuba are never full because everyone brings items Cubans desperately need and the plane would weigh too much if it was full. Everyone broke out in applause upon landing and thus began the week of appreciating the little things that we all take for granted as Americans. 

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

We did not visit Cuba as tourists, but in support of the Cuban people. This was not intended to be the sanitized private tours of Cuba which only visit the main sites and the most manicured parts of Havana. In short, the United States restricts travel to Cuba unless you’re there to enrich the lives of the Cuban people. For our group, we hoped the Cuban people would enrich our lives as well. Spoiler alert: they did.

Check out the video below for a view of Cuba through the eyes of a local, then keep reading for our full itinerary:

Our Cuba Itinerary

Day 1: 

Each and every part of our trip was designed so that any aid or enrichment we provided would not go to the Cuban government. Many of the hotels in Cuba are government-owned and the hotel profits do not reach the general population. Cubans could only stay in hotels starting in 2008, but most of them can never afford the cost. Americans are allowed to stay in “casas particulares” or private homes because it falls within our mission to support the Cuban people. We stayed in an Airbnb in Havana. Cuba only began allowing Airbnb’s in 2015 which made it easier for Americans to experience life in Cuba. 

We arrived before most of the group and decided to take a taxi to our Airbnb rather than wait for the group van since we had no way to establish their exact arrival time due to the lack of internet and connectivity. Our cab driver provided us with our first glimpse into the confusing reality of Cuba by driving us through various neighborhoods. We paid him with American dollars and it wasn’t necessary to take out any Cuban pesos.

Dave’s high school band teacher, Glenn Williams, was already in the Airbnb when we arrived. He had taken an earlier flight from Chicago and was relaxing inside. Dave was particularly looking forward to spending time with “Mr.” Williams since he had such a profound effect on Dave’s high school experience and his passion for jazz. They caught up. I took pictures of them catching up. Hours later, the rest of the group arrived, dropped their bags and together we went to dinner.

Dave and Mr. Williams inside our Airbnb catching up on 30 years

Tourist restaurants are prohibited for Americans since they’re government owned. Non-government restaurant ownership began in the 90’s and more than half of all restaurants are privately owned. Many restaurants are located in people’s homes. Our first restaurant was situated in a house on the water. The service was incredible and the food was delicious. We would soon learn that this was not indicative of “real” life in Cuba. Again, most Cubans could never afford to eat in this restaurant. Most Cubans can’t purchase meat or spices for their food.

After dinner, we all crashed. A long day of travel combined with the thick air sent us all to sleep and I was grateful for the bed and a solid night of sleep.

 

Day 2:

 

For many of the activities we were separated into two groups. One group was made up of teaching artists and professional musicians. The other group consisted of teachers, music lovers and first time Cuban visitors. I was in the music lovers group. 

Our first stop was to the home of two well known Cuban female rappers. Their home, which was considered a very nice home by Cuban standards. Upon arrival, we were offered a tour of their humble abode. The home had two bedrooms, one living room and a kitchen with a bathroom. The bathroom had no running water and we couldn’t flush the toilet. This is the case almost everywhere in Cuba. We soon learned that nine people live in the home. 

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

On the porch of our new friends’ house

We sat on dilapidated couches and chairs from the 1950’s and were spectators for our first of several private concerts. The rappers performed and our translator explained that they have to be careful with their lyrics. They are forbidden from complaining about the government and their words are censored.  If they talk negatively about the government, they can be punished. They can, however, rap about the difficulties of everyday life. 

Any performances that do not take place in private spaces are considered part of their monthly salary from the government. The monthly salary is $30 – $40 per month. Yes, month! But being a musician is one of the most lucrative jobs in Cuba because musicians and artists have access to tourists. When they perform for tourists they receive tips. Just one dollar makes a huge impact.

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange
Ration cards are still being used today. This month they were unable to get several of the items promised to them by the Cuban government

After the concert we were encouraged to ask any questions about life in Cuba. They told us how difficult life in Havana has become. There is a hopelessness when talking about change. They seem tired of life in Cuba, yet have a fierce love for their homeland and culture. Cubans are conflicted. The situation is complicated. Anyone who can leave is thinking about leaving. Leaving a country is never an easy decision. They said they’d never considered leaving until now.

There are shortages of literally everything. Pharmacies are empty, there are no grocery stores, nowhere to purchase clothing and little hope for change. Waiting in line for over eight hours for a bag of rice is the norm. Gas stations have cars lined up for almost 12 hours just hoping for the gas truck to arrive. Inflation in the past five years has increased over 300%. We saw their ration cards and how this month they were only able to receive seven pounds of white rice for their entire family. Because of this, they must purchase additional food on the black market. The black market is the only way to get anything not provided on the ration card. Cubans must spend three times the government rate for produce and any items not listed on the ration card. The black market operates on Euros or American dollars – both coveted currency since their value remains stable. The tips and income from our private concert could feed their families for months.

During lunch we heard someone singing loudly outside. This was the “bread man.” He rides through the neighborhood selling bread to anyone who can afford it. You see this all over Cuba for everything from bread to knife sharpening services. I loved how each street vendor has a distinctive song. It reminded me of running outside for the ice cream truck as soon as I heard its music. These moments felt authentic and special and provided a glimpse into what life was like about 100 years ago.

We brought food and supplies for the musicians. Their mother cooked for us while we watched a private concert. Together we ate lunch – a feast for Cubans consisting of rice, beans, yucca, beets, guava and chicken. The leftovers would feed their family for days. We exchanged information, took pictures and headed out for our next excursion.

Our next stop was at an elementary school. This school is located on a vibrant manicured street in Havana. The school looked like a Swiss lodge. Students in Cuba can get accepted to specialized schools starting at age five. The only schools with specialties are for music, art or sports. Because of this, musicians are well trained in the conservatory for years before graduation. This school was a special school for talented young musicians. Most of the teaching artists worked individually with students on the trombone, trumpet and more. 

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange
Elementary school for young musician in Havana

I spent the afternoon teaching an art class to music students. They were excited to experience an art class – a deviation from their regular rigorous music schedule. Originally, I brought enough supplies to make maracas using toilet paper rolls, duck tape and washi tape from my recent trip to Japan. I realized immediately that I had left half of my supplies in the van and needed to do a quick pivot. We made duck tape flowers. The kids were adorable and appreciative and excited. Appreciation is a big theme in Cuba. Teaching was the highlight of my trip and I wish I could have done it more. One student told me that it was the best “chorus” class he ever had. My heart was full…

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

After dinner that night, we organized and sorted our humanitarian supplies. Prior to the trip, Dave and I sent an email to friends and family asking if they wanted to donate anything. My community came through and we were blown away by how much our friends bought for the people in Cuba. For a week, our friends dropped off medicine, toiletries, art supplies and sheet music, music stands and a trombone. Everyone on our trip arrived with a duffel bag filled with both toiletries, medicine and supplies for musicians, and hope for change.

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange
Our group sorting humanitarian supplies inside our Airbnb to be delivered to four different schools

Day 3:

Day three was a day of art. This was our first full day in Havana. We started by visiting another Cuban home (apartment) inhabited by an artist and her family. This home was located on the fourth floor of a mid-sized building. You could tell from the outside that it was once a luxury building but would be condemned today by American standards. It was a shell of a building. The elevator shaft was empty and rusty and everything of value was stripped. Live wires hung from the ceiling. The curved staircases were made of slippery marble. One member of our group didn’t join us on the fifth floor because of the lack of railings and broken stairs. By the time I reached the 2nd floor, I understood why she turned back. Each story was two staircases high, narrow and without railings.

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange
Havana apartment building. Check out the stairwell – no railings!
Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange
Live wires everywhere!

Once on the fifth floor, we walked along a narrow balcony into a two room apartment. I didn’t feel safe walking on the balcony and walked quickly inside without looking down. I had no confidence in the stability of this building. Four people lived there. One small corner housed a modest art table. In the kitchen, we looked at mixed media paintings. We bought small paintings for $10. Again, we were encouraged to ask anything about life in Cuba. We asked about rent and mortgage payments. They said they just found the empty apartment and moved in. No rent. No mortgage. But also no improvements.

Since visiting this apartment, I’ve had nightmares. The balcony railing was connected to the balcony with chicken wire. The family has a four year old. I fear for her safety with such an unstable foundation and a railing attached with wire. One of our trip leaders told us that there have been balcony collapses in Cuba resulting in children dying.

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange
Kitchen inside Cuban home

 

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange
Notice the bottom of the balcony railing. The rusty railing is attached to the balcony using chicken wire.

After our apartment visit we went to Old Havana. We went to an old school print studio right off Plaza Vieja (old square). This was definitely a highlight for me as an art teacher. The space was a co-op of different types of print artists: lithographers, lino printers, screen printers and mixed media artists. I bought five paintings. They ranged in price from $10-$40. Artists can make more than doctors and engineers because of their access to tourists. These are the most coveted jobs.

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

Next we took a short drive to a place called Fusterlandia. Fusterlandia is home in Havana. A Cuban artist decided to mosaic his entire house using recycled tiles from dilapidated homes. The result? A home reminiscent of a Dr. Suess book. I loved it. I could live in a house like that. The coolest part of the story is that the neighbors all began to tile and mosaic their homes after he did. This was a definite highlight for me. Plus, there was a street vendor selling coconut water. It was a hot day and the coconut was delicious.

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

Day 4:

The next day we took a day trip to Matanzas which is about an hour and a half drive from Havana. Matanzas is the second largest province in Cuba and the 15th largest city. Matanzas is known for its poets and its Afro-Cuban culture since this was the city where the slaves arrived from Africa. The drive between Havana and Matanzas was interesting. Along the way we saw beautiful beaches, mountains and sculpture parks, people using horses and buggies as well as donkeys as a mode of transportation. There was so much fertile land and potential for farming. What was once sugar cane farms are now empty land perfect for farming.

 

Upon arrival in the city, we had hoped to see some live music, but the weather was crummy and instead we spent time looking around the old town. I felt a very different vibe in Matanzas. There were lots of propaganda posters, pro-Hamas signage and more enthusiastic military presence. The area seems more well maintained than Havana, yet the outskirts were poor. We saw fresh coats of paint, well dressed people and locals in restaurants. However, we found out after lunch that it was the graduation for the medical school and a big day of celebration. 

 

Since we had a limited time in Matanzas, our tour guide suggested we walk around the main plaza to see the most popular spots. We visited one of the oldest French pharmacies (beautiful) and a fully operational library reminiscent of the cold war era. Yes, they still use card catalogs to get their information and haven’t replaced the windows since the 1950’s. It had that old book smell that reminded me of my childhood. And propaganda posters and books including a section on Soviet books. We found a little spot along the water and grabbed a late lunch. People-watching in a cafe was a great way to see life outside of Havana.

 Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange
The old square seen from inside the French pharmacy, Matanzas

 

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange
The old square seen from inside the French pharmacy, Matanzas

After Matanzas, we took an hour drive to Varadero where we rented a casa particular on the beach. For several hundred dollars you can rent a beach house, enjoy great service, a home cooked meal and plenty of room to relax. It would be way too expensive for most locals, but for the 17 of us, it was a better way to see the beach and to relax. We were all happy to enjoy some downtime. Varadero is one of the best places to enjoy the beaches since they’re not rocky. While driving towards our house, we saw the remnants of beach resorts from the 50’s. I could imagine how popular the destination must have been. I’ve heard there are all inclusive resorts for foreign tourists, but I didn’t see any.

The rain cleared and while the sun never made its appearance, we did spend the afternoon at the beach. We grabbed some beach chairs and spent time just talking and laughing. The weather was cloudy but we were able to enjoy the ocean and each other. 

 Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange
The view from inside the beach house, Matanzas

We had a delicious Cuban meal, famous Cuban cigars, rum and live music presented by the Cuban and American students together. It was a beautiful and relaxing evening and I think we all needed a little downtime at that point. For good reason, since we had been running around for days and the beach was the best way to unwind and relax. The lobster that night was one of the best meals of the week. Did I mention that lobster is my favorite food?

Day 5:

For our last day we returned to Old Havana and got a glimpse into the “mural” district which sits alongside a predominantly Afro-Cuban neighborhood. The murals in Havana are mostly regulated since the government controls the messaging. Several murals contained pro-government art. Needless to say, I was far more interested in the people and the sites on the street. This was the only time in Cuba where I felt an anti-American sentiment. While we never felt unsafe in Cuba, we had one man tell us in Spanish that Americans need to leave and that we were “stupid.” When a few other locals began to gather around our group, we decided it was time to make our way to the next stop. There are practically no violent crimes in Cuba and no one has guns. Most Cubans are thrilled to see outsiders. 

Next we meandered to the more upscale and touristy area in Old Havana. There was a live band outside of a cafe and we all stood there listening. We watched a salsa lesson in the middle of the street. The music in Cuba makes people want to dance. You cannot break the Cuban spirit.

 Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

That afternoon we went to the Amadeo Roldán high school which is a music conservatory. My husband’s band teacher, Mr. Glenn Williams, was directing the jazz band and my husband (Dave) got to sit and play with them. This was definitely a full circle moment for him and one he will never forget. While watching the band, I looked out the window and watched the street scene. Amadeo was a perfect place to watch street life from above and a great way for me to watch families together, kids playing ball and people making the best of life with their limited resources. This is the spirit of the Cuban people. The architecture of the school was beautiful but hadn’t been updated in decades. That afternoon was the hottest weather we’d experienced in Cuba and the school was unbearably hot. Yet the students played their instruments without complaint. 

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

Our last night was pure magic. We were told we had 45 minutes to get ready and meet outside of our Airbnb. All week our schedule had been pretty loose and flexible so this was the first quick turn around. When we went outside we were greeted with a vintage car caravan in every color of the rainbow. I chose the yellow convertible classic car because I love yellow! Our driver blasted the song “Havana” and our car parade hit the streets of the city. With the wind in my face and the music blasting, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. 

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

After dinner we were surprised by a rooftop party at Alma, a store owned by the wife of the US CNN correspondent in Havana. Alma was the most beautiful boutique and the only real “store” I saw in Cuba. I bought a gorgeous purse crocheted with bottle tabs. Cubans are industrious and creative; they know how to make beautiful Cuban art from nothing. After my brief shopping excursion, we walked upstairs to the rooftop. Adorned with patio lights and flowers, the outdoor space was stunning. We listened to an incredible jazz band and the musicians in our group were able to perform with the Cuban band. Next, we were surprised by professional dancers and in minutes everyone was up and dancing. It was truly a magical night and one I will keep in my heart for years to come.

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange
Boutique Alma. The most beautiful store in all of Cuba, featuring only Cuban artists and artisans

Here’s what I purchased at Alma:

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

This purse was crocheted using can tabs from Cristal, Bucanero and Tukola tabs which are local Cuban beverages. 

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

 

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange
The professional dancers were the icing on the cake of an incredible evening

After the rooftop party, several of us decided to go to one of Havana’s famous jazz clubs. This was another great place to see live music and enjoy some rum. We had a great time and by 1:30am we were all ready to call it a day. We slept well!

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange
La Zorra y el Cuervo Jazz Club in Havana

Departure Day:

We didn’t have a sixth day but we did have a morning to check out Old Havana with a tour by a local musician. The Havana we saw on the last morning is the Havana most people see when they visit Cuba. We started at the Plaza de San Francisco and got a walking tour of Old Havana. During this forty-five minute walk, we were told the history of Cuba and saw buildings and churches built hundreds of years ago by the Spaniards. We ate in a beautiful restaurant with live music and said our goodbyes. After 5 days living and touring together, our group had bonded and it was sad to say goodbye. After lunch, our taxi driver took a few of us to the Havana airport and we began our journey home. 

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

FAQ questions about Cuba:

Are there direct flights to Cuba?

Yes! You can fly directly from several US cities. We flew Southwest via Fort Lauderdale and the bulk of the group flew American via Miami. The Havana airport is bare bones and they do not give you updates on your flight. Our flight was delayed yet the screen never updated with our new time and we almost missed our connection. Also, be sure to print out everything because there is limited wifi or access to the internet at the airport. We were unable to check into our flight status.

Can you use credit cards in Cuba?

No. Cuba is an all cash economy. We brought $250 each and went home with most of it. Granted, our meals and transfers and housing were all included in our initial payment. You cannot use debit cards either – there are no ATM machines.

What are the local restaurants like?

Even the nicest restaurants were inexpensive by American standards. The Cuban chefs rely on whichever ingredients they can access and there were often items on the menu that they did not have. Bring snacks to Cuba if you go. We were always hungry from all of the walking.

Is Cuba safe?

Cuba is very safe because committing crimes results in harsh punishment. There are incidents of petty theft, but we did not see any of that during our trip.

Anything else to know about traveling to Cuba?

  • Wear comfortable shoes; the streets are uneven and the sidewalks have large cracks. 
  • Bring any medication you might need; there is nowhere to find things you might find essential in the states.
  • Don’t flush any toilet paper. Toilet paper must be placed in the garbage can. Modern plumbing is hard to find.
  • Don’t slam doors or use force when closing car doors. They cannot easily find parts and replacements.

Do you have any other pictures from Cuba?

Yes! I took 2000 pictures in 4 days. Here are some highlights:

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange

Travel to Havana Cuba A 5-Day Cultural Exchange
View from inside the school. Notice how the two side windows no longer exist.