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Havana, Ohh-na-na

My husband and I just returned last week from Cuba, I cannot begin to explain how much we enjoyed ourselves. Cuba is a vastly interesting country, full of vibrant culture, kind & generous people and beautiful landscapes. Most of you may already know that there are 12 OFAC Categories to choose from when traveling to Cuba: We chose “Support the Cuban People” which is exactly what we did, we engaged in a full-time schedule of activities that resulted in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba, from sitting on the block and roaming the streets with the locals, cooking meals with Cuban residents in their private homes, Rented a private Cuban residence (casa particular), ate at privately owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shopped at privately owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropistas), we did all of this throughout Havana and Vinales. We planned on doing a day trip to Varadero Beach,but the two days we planned on going it rained ☹. If your time is limited go to Santa Maria del mar which is a local beach with beautiful clear waters , only 15-20 minutes from Havana, it's nice and not so touristy.

Anyhow, before you go, know some of Cuba’s history and know what daily life is like for its people. Understand that while Havana’s ability to transport visitors “back in time” is charming for you to experience for five days as a visitor (and you’ll have the opportunity to get some great photos), it means some very dismal things for the people living there.

Most importantly, educate yourself on how you can benefit the Cuban people while visiting the country. A few things I learned about the reality of life in Cuba, some of which I learned from some of the locals we met while we were there. You may have heard about Cuba’s remarkably low crime rate. That's pretty accurate, violent crime against tourists on the island is very rare and the country is very safe, we walked the streets of Havana and hung out with the locals until 2-3 a.m. every night, we never once felt unsafe (not that it means much, but I grew up in South Central Los Angeles and my husband is from Baltimore, Maryland, so it takes a whole lot to put fear in us LOL). But just like anywhere you go, always watch your surroundings. We were invited into the homes of some of the locals we met, this was a very humbling experience to see how most of them live.

The Cuban people are incredibly good natured, hospitable and friendly, but it is also because the punishment for committing a crime against a tourist outweighs the punishment for most other crimes (we were told that locals would get 2 years imprisonment time if caught selling internet cards on the street, sounds petty, right? 🤷🏾‍♀️). Of course, this is a great thing for tourism, but it does also hint at a twisted system that cares more about income from the tourism industry than its own people.

I also learned Medical and Education is free in Cuba, you can go to school to be a doctor and pay absolutely nothing, but the downfall is, whether they are a doctor, nurse, lawyer or engineer, the average monthly salary for a Cuban is $20. I was told that doctors wages were recently increased to $80 a month, still not much but better than before. This is set by the government as a standard. The exception to this rule are cab drivers. Cab drivers in Cuba make significantly more money than most doctors or engineers because they have private licenses provided to them by the government. Their salaries are not set by the state, meaning that they can charge tourists high prices (like the $25 to go from the airport to central Havana). If you’ll notice, that’s more than the average monthly salary. This means that highly skilled and trained Cuban people are forced to do remedial jobs like drive cabs and wait tables. (BTW, you must take a 2-year class for Tourism to be a server or bartender in Havana, per our tour guide).

While visiting Vinales, I learned that the farmers are forced to give 90% of the tobacco they grow to the government. The government then adds chemicals to the tobacco, seals the cigars with a harmful glue and sells them at an insane mark-up in government-run shops. If you have a chance to visit a cigar farm in Vinales, you will see that they remove the harsh chemicals (i.e. nicotine) before rolling them (they could just be telling tourists that as a selling tactic LOL), but I know I thoroughly enjoyed my Cohiba dipped in honey LOL and I am not a big cigar smoker. Be sure to take insect repellent, the mosquitoes 🐜🦗🐞will eat your ass up in Vinales. A day trip to Vinales with our driver cost $150 CUC round trip, we were picked up at 6:45am and returned to Havana around 5pm. Vinales is about a 2-2.5 hour drive from Havana . Our driver stayed with us the whole time, even had breakfast and lunch with us. We did some