Contributor: Sarah Arizaga
It was a heady feeling landing in Havana, just shy of two years without setting foot on the island. No matter how many times I have been, and how unenthusiastic I might feel about going (sometimes work is just work), I always feel excited when my plane touches down at Jose Marti Airport; when I get my first whiff of the pungent Havana air. This time was no different, except it was also very different. The scent of Havana was subdued by my mask, and for the first time, I had no idea what to expect.
It had been a difficult two years from the outside, as difficult as it can be watching a country you love slide into economic, medical, and political chaos while you are in your own home surrounded by creature comforts. I had become disillusioned, confused, and not sure whether tourism was part of the solution or enabling a problem. I arrived with questions on my mind-- could cultural tourism return to Cuba? Should tourism return to Cuba? During my weeklong stay in Havana, I found my answer. An unequivocal yes.
For the right type of traveler, now is actually the best time of all to go to Cuba. I can’t speak to the resort style tourism, although that seems to be going ok. I’m talking about a Cuban Adventures style traveler.
For a person curious to know about the “real Cuba”, a person who wants to know the people on a deeper level, who wants to cut through the gloss of travel brochure photos and get an idea of what life is like in this magical but troubled country, there is no time like the present.
To start with, you will still find all the things you need to have a good time. There’s plenty of bottled water and great quality food, whether it’s a noodle bowl at Asian-fusion restaurant Jama or traditional Cuban food at fancy-pants San Cristobal, a favorite for visiting US celebrities.
There are clean and comfortable places to stay which suit any taste and budget. You can stay at simple family home-style casa particulares that have walls adorned with quinceañera photos, or upscale boutique “hotels” like Malecon 663, with an artsy vibe, 24-hr room service, and a swank rooftop lounge.
The mojitos, daiquiris, piña coladas, and cold cervezas are all still plentiful. You won’t have trouble finding a candy-colored classic car driven by a charming chauffer to take you for a top-down ride through Havana. At night you can still relive the glamour of 50’s cabarets at the Tropicana, or go to concerts performed by Cuba’s most talented musicians in a variety of genres. The jaw dropping architecture and natural beauty of Cuba are just as present as ever.
It’s all still there, and if the quantity is a bit less, it’s made up for by what you’ll get more of, and that is the Cuban spirit. The strict pandemic lockdowns and scarcity have born all things creative and inspirational. This is the time to go to Cuba and meet the locals. This is the time to hear their stories, how they made a living without tourism, how they got medicine with empty pharmacies, how they evolved their businesses, served their communities, and dealt with the day to day when absolutely nothing comes easy. You can’t help but see the abundance of long lines and the crumbling buildings, both of which have worsened during the last two years. But now, as the island recovers from the pandemic and its various other challenges; there is more to be experienced. There is a lot of warmth, a lot of love, a lot of humanity.
While I didn’t get out to the other provinces, I have talked to other tourists and tour operators who did, and their impressions mirror my own. Now more than ever, there are experiences available to you that may be intangible and indescribable, but that will touch you-- and possibly transform you. It’s not enough to read it; you must listen, observe, and live these things first-hand. It’s something to process with your personal perspective and reflections on your own life and how you have survived the past couple of years.
The guides are ready, they want to leave their pandemic jobs and return to what they love. Their families want them to return because they were happier; in some cases their interim jobs robbed them of quality time with their kids. They miss appreciating the sights and the history of their island by sharing its story. They miss the exercise of mind and body and their English-speaking tongue. They miss the interactions, the opportunity to exchange, the challenge of capturing imaginations, of getting a laugh, of seeing smiles and eyes that widen in surprise.
In terms of the pandemic, I think what Cuba has accomplished is miraculous. In just a few short months it made a complete turn-around from the saddest statistics to being tourism ready. The population is nearly fully vaccinated with domestic vaccines. Cubans take precautions very seriously; it’s their culture and visitors do need to respect it. Wearing masks (even outdoors), being vaccinated, using sanitizer, washing hands; you will see locals do this religiously. Some places, such as hotels, do temperature checks. For now, Cuba requires the pre-arrival PCR. How ever you feel about these things, don’t let this be the reason you stay away. It’s completely worth the hassle.
Regarding the political situation, I didn’t perceive unrest in the streets, but ask honest questions and you’ll get honest answers. Whatever my opinions are about what the leaders of the country are up to, this much is now clear to me: this is not the time to boycott the island and the people of Cuba with the goal of political change. This is not the time to isolate, to abandon, to withhold. This is the time for support and for sharing. We have all in one way or another struggled over the past two years. We all need hope and human connection, and Cuba is a beautiful place to get it.