When visiting other countries, I prefer to see the culture and hang out with the locals. They often know the best places to eat, things to do and it allows you to learn more about the place you are visiting from there perspective. I planned tours and activities but the greatest time spent in Cuba was spending time with Cubans.
Read my stories below as I tell you how the local Cubans I met impacted my stay in Cuba.
Miguel at Callejon de Hamel
We left our Casa in search of breakfast. As we were walking down the street we met an Afrocuban named Miguel. I asked him,” where could we find breakfast”?. He stated that “we could find breakfast at Callejon de Hamel”. He offered to walk us there because he was headed that way. Although I wanted to politely decline, my friend Maria wanted to take him up on his offer.
At Callejon de Hamel (a short alley filled with restaurants, bars, arts and a place to listen to live rumba and dancing) he took us to a restaurant where we purchased food and at his request ordered him an alcoholic drink. After leaving Callejon de Hamel, Miguel took us to cigar festival. It is to be noted that it was not an actual festival. Cigar workers are allowed to take cigars home and sell them at cheaper prices. My friend Maria bought a box of cigars for $60 CUC.
After buying cigars, Miguel brought us to a WiFi park and demanded that we give him money for showing us around Callejon de Hamel. Maria gave him 5 CUC. He was very upset and insisted that we give him more money because he could not do anything with 5 CUC. I’m not mad at the hustle but I wish that he was honest about his true intentions. Beware of those people who want to show you around time because they may ask for a payment.
3 Cuban Amigos +3 American girls = Great night at the Malecon
After dinner, me and my friends Renee and Maria were walking down the street. We were approached by several guys who wanted to take pictures with us. After taking pictures we continued to walk towards our Airbnb and the guys followed along. Our plans for the evening were to chill out on our Airbnb balcony and have girl talk. Since the guys wanted to hang out, we decided to switch plans and walk to the Malecon to hung out with the 3 amigos.
It was extremely funny because they spoke limited English and we spoke limited Spanish but somehow we managed to have a full blown conversation about random things. They talked about their love for boxing as they were training to hopefully become professional boxers.
At some point, I showed them pictures of my travels to Thailand and I came across a picture of Pad Thai (Thai noodle dish with sea food) and they all begin to say the food looked expensive. I didn’t understand because the ingredients were noodles, shrimp, chicken, and nuts. If I bought this dish from a Thai restaurant it would cost less than $10. I now realize that seafood is a luxury item that they may not often eat due to earning a limited amount of money. We often take our life for granted not realizing that things that we eat or do may not be possible for others. Situations such as these make me realize how blessed I am.
I always hear about the term Afro Cuban. When I asked the guys do they identify as Afro-Cuban they didn’t really understand my question. After further explanation, they replied, “Si, African”. It made me think that we have coined the term Afro-Cuban to identify Cubans who have both African and Latin descent. I wonder if we have given them a name that they don’t use to necessarily describe themselves.
We stayed with the amigos until 4 am and quickly decided to call it a night as we had to wake in a couple hours for our next tour to Varadero. Unfortunately, we didn’t get there contact info due to limited wifi access. In addition, the pictures I took on my camera phone were not saved after being damaged.
Despite no physical evidence of us being together, I enjoyed hanging out with the 3 Cuban guys and I hope they enjoyed spending time with the 3 American girls.
Daniel and Danielles in Varadero, Cuba
As we arrived on the beach, we met Daniel and his little 5-year-old sister Danielles. Daniel was cracking open a fresh coconut for his sister. He offered me and my student Renee a sip and we graciously accepted. We spent the remainder of our beach time with them. I don’t have any little sisters, so it was fun to play with Danieles. She did not know English but it did not stop us from enjoying our time together. We played “Ring around the Roses in the water and played with the sand.
We talked to Daniel, who was is originally from Cuba but was visiting from Canada where he plays professional baseball. As we were talking he inquired about our plans for the evening. We informed him that we had no plans and he gladly offered to show us around for the night. We agreed that he would come back to our Airbnb around 11 pm.
After dinner, Daniel promptly showed up and we caught a taxi cab to Calle 62. Calle 62 is an outside venue where locals and non-locals come to listen to live music and salsa dance. I would recommend this place as there is no entrance fee and I really enjoyed the music.
I felt safe and comfortable with Daniel but I would use extreme caution when telling people exactly where you are staying. You do not want to be on Taken. If you are not familiar with the movie Taken, it was about 2 young girls who went on summer vacation in Europe. While at the airport they encountered a guy who agreed to take them out but instead kidnaps them on there the first day in the city. Eventually, the girls are found and rescued. Happy to say that this situation did not occur and we made it safely back to our Airbnb.
Airbnb Host Family Member
On Friday night our Airbnb host invited a young man who was their cousin to come by and greet us. He spoke English and was similar to our age. We went to a lounge that played American old school Hip Hop. The entrance fee was 5 CUC for me and my student Renee and 2 CUC for locals. The lounge was cool because I could sing to old music and reminisce. On the flip side, it wasn’t a lot of people and people were sitting down instead of dancing. We left the lounge and ate a Toke, a small cafe located near the Malecon. Toke had very cheap prices and the food was good. Despite the lounge being wack, I appreciate him taking us around town.
Our Airbnb advertised wifi but unfortunately, the wifi was not working our first night. We went outside to purchase wifi cards from a neighbor. After checking my email and Facebook, I was hungry but had no idea where to eat. We asked one of the ladies for recommendations and she offered to walk us to a restaurant located several blocks from the Airbnb.
Claudia took us to a small Paladar in old Havana call El Felix. I ordered Cordon Bleu, a dish that consisted of a piece of fried chicken stuffed with ham and cheese. The chicken was fried perfectly and had the right amount of seasoning. It was delicious and I am still thinking about the chicken as my stomach growls. I offered Claudia food but she politely declined and only ordered a soda.
We talked to Claudia about her life as a Cuban. She informed us that the Cuban government provides monthly rations to each family. They get a food ration which can include beans, rice, sugar, coffee etc. and 40 CUP’S per month. It is to be noted that CUP is the local currency and is lower in currency than CUC aka tourist money. Claudia further explained that it is hard for the average Cuban local to survive off the amount of money given to each family.
Claudia has a 2-year-old named Velidia who she was going to name Tiffany or Brittany. I asked where she came up with those names. She replied, “the movie White Chicks”, I thought that was so funny. Her mother said,” no American names”, which is how she came up with Velidia. Claudia believes that if she didn’t have help from her grandmother it would be difficult to raise her daughter. Her grandmother is able to send her various items for her small daughter.
I asked, “Claudia how she learned English”. Claudia said, “she watched American movies and listened to English music”. I think maybe I should start watching novelas and listen to Spanish music to become proficient in Spanish. I will let you all know how that works out.
Before flying back home to Los Angeles, we gave Claudia several hygiene products such as lotion, deodorant etc. These products tend to be more expensive in Cuba. Therefore Claudia was grateful for our generosity.
I was excited that Claudia showed me where the best fried chicken was and had an honest and open conversation about Cuba.
When I travel I enjoy the touristy locations but I specifically enjoy hanging out with the locals and seeing everyday life. Cuba is one of those places that is engrained in the culture, history, and life. I felt extremely safe with the locals and they made this vacation a great trip. Writing this post makes me want to book a trip back to Cuba ASAP.
Several things to keep in mind:
- Trust your instincts, if you feel that a person is only being nice for money say “No, Gracias”
- Don’t be afraid to talk to Cubans if you are not fluent in Spanish. Trust me your limited Spanish vocabulary will kick in.
- If you have items that you can give away such as clothes and hygiene items, they are much appreciated for those who will receive them.
- Go to recommended dance clubs as they often know the best places for music.
Do you hang out with the locals when visiting different countries?