As the relations between the US & Cuba open up Nomadik Adventurer Scott Poupis made the trip. He wanted to immerse himself in the authentic culture, experience the untouched landscapes, and snag some candid shots before tourism changes it too much.
Here’s the full interview:
You recently traveled to Cuba, tell us what was the primary motivation for that?
Not many American tourists get to see Cuba. Now that tourism is opening up there, I wanted to make sure I got to see (and photograph) the “authentic” Cuba before it changes. I wanted to see the classic cars and the bright buildings. When my friends invited me, I knew it would be an amazing experience and I would get to experience a vibrant culture.
I know it’s still a bit in the “grey area” in terms of legally being allowed to travel there. Tell us about getting the visa? Did you have to travel through another country?
It was super easy going through Mexico and buying a visa for $20 US at the AeroMexico ticket counter. We also made a trip out of it. I spent 4 days in Puerto Morelos as our home base. We traveled in the surrounding area, visiting ruins and swimming in cenotes the Yucatan is a trip in itself. I hear for $50, you can go through the US relatively easy now, but why not go through Mexico? Haha
Give us the high-level overview (where did you stay, what did you do)?
I stayed in an AirBnB in Havana right on the Malecòn, a 8km stretch of road and break wall on the coast. Most of my time there was spent walking around Havana. There is so much to see in the city. I tried to take pictures of as many bright buildings and classic cars as possible. Some of the cars still look so pristine because of the Cubans’ ability and necessity to work on them on their own.
I got to take a cab to Vinales and spend the day out there. It’s about 183.5 km (113 miles) from Havana to Vinales and takes about 3 hours due to road conditions. The highway out to Vinales is falling apart, our driver was constantly having to swerve around huge potholes and slow down for the occasional farmer crossing with horses or cows. Once you are out there you are surrounded by lush jungle, farms and beautiful mountain ranges.
What was the main difference you noticed between traveling there and other parts of the Caribbean or Central America?
I have been all over the Caribbean and Central America but I have never seen a county so impoverished. It is true that Cuba is iconic with their buildings and cars, but the citizens are struggling. It’s crazy to see a big city that is so run-down and whose infrastructure is falling apart. However, despite these conditions, all the Cubans I met were hardworking with a positive spirit. I also felt extremely safe everywhere I went, which I can’t say for all the countries I have been to.
What was your favorite and least favorite parts of the trip?
My favorite part was traveling to the countryside and I was able to see amazing jungles with huge waterfalls and mountains. Being able to explore Havana was awesome. It was great to meet all the people and hear their stories. My least favorite part was getting food poisoning on the last day that lasted a week. Every person I traveled with got food poisoning at one point or another. No bueno!
If any of our readers are thinking about making the trip, what’s some advice you’d give them?
If you have any extra clothes you can bring to donate or give out to the local people, they will be so appreciative. My friend passed on that suggestion and I brought a bunch of American brand surf and skate shirts. Since people don’t have access to new clothes, they were so grateful.
Go with an open mind. It’s not a glamorous city because of the poverty, but it is still beautiful, friendly and a fantastic experience.Go through Mexico and plan on having a layover for a few days. Two vacations for the price of one!
Not many people I met spoke English. Luckily, one of my friends that came is Mexican so he was our translator. Even he had a hard time translating because of how different the Spanish is.
There are two forms of currency so you have to be careful when you’re paying and getting change back. Definitely get cash because you cannot use American credit cards. The exchange rate is not as good as you would think. It’s basically 1:1 ratio with the US Dollar and the Cuban CUC, so you pay American prices for everything.
If you can find CUP (the other form of currency), you end up saving money at certain places but it’s a lot to process when you’re trying to go over an exchange rate with two forms of currency.
I highly recommend flying AeroMexico into Cuba. Just make sure you do not fly a Cuban airline because their planes are all super old sketchy Russian planes (but if you find a good deal, you might as well risk it!). Haha
I did have trouble finding super good food in Havana. Besides what our AirBnB host cooked and the day we went to the jungle, it was hard to find quality food (as proven by the 5 cases of food poisoning at different times throughout the trip). Bring protein bars and stomach medicine! They also have guava syrup to calm your stomach.
It was nice going there on our own rather than with a tour group. I imagine the tour groups cut out a lot of what we got to see, so it was nice to have our agenda.
I didn’t spend nearly enough time over there. I would love to go back and see more of the country and I plan on it!