Cuba Nearly Killed Me

Among all of the places we had on the itinerary for our year-long around-the-world adventure, Cuba was near the top of my list. I was determined to see the country while it was still authentically Cuban, before all of the American chain hotels and restaurants swooped in with their franchises and spoiled everything.

We were concerned about visa requirements for American travelers, but it turns out that we needn’t have worried about that at all. We purchased our visas for $20 USD apiece at the airport as we were flying out of Grand Cayman, and that was that.

Americans can only visit Cuba if they can prove that their travel falls into one of 12 categories, including visiting family members, official U.S. government business, professional research studies, and everyone’s favorite category — support for the Cuban people. We have several friends who’ve visited Cuba over the past couple of years, and even their Instagram posts are all captioned something along the lines of “here we are, supporting the Cuban people.”

Until this month, the easiest way to visit Cuba was by taking a cruise that docked in Havana for a port of call. But the Trump administration banned all cruise ships, yachts, and private planes from visiting Cuba, which threw many people’s vacation plans into a tailspin.

Now that cruising to Cuba is no longer an option, we recommend arriving in Havana from somewhere other than the United States. We flew in from Grand Cayman and then left for the Bahamas, and nobody even asked to see our visas. Even though we had it, we also did not have to provide evidence of non-American health insurance coverage, which is another requirement for travelers who arrive from the U.S.

The only hiccup we encountered upon arrival was the confiscation of Mike’s DJI drone, which Cuban customs officials explained was actually their compliance with a U.S. policy established to prevent surveillance of the American military base in Guantanamo Bay. We had no trouble picking it up from the customs office as we were leaving the country, so it wasn’t a big deal.

Since we were flying under the radar with our nonstandard visas, we chose to stay in an Airbnb just off Avenida 1ra (First Avenue) along the Habana Bus Tour route versus a government-owned hotel. At $39 USD per night for a full apartment with air conditioning, the price was right, and the location was convenient for us to explore the city on foot and with public transportation.

But the best thing about this Airbnb? It was just a couple of blocks from the Copacabana Hotel. Now, before you start dreaming of an exotic locale where Lola is the star, I will let you know that it’s far from the stuff songs are made of. But since it’s run by the government, it offers wifi, which is extremely hard to find in Cuba.

Cuban wifi is an adventure all its own. First, you have to find somewhere that sells access cards, which you can purchase in one-hour increments. Then you have to find somewhere that has wifi service, which is generally a government-owned hotel or the occasional park or other civic space. Finally, you have to make the first and second steps happen at a time when the aforementioned public spot has its router turned on, which is not a 24/7 guarantee.

We would typically be fine unplugging for a week and enjoying a break from the Internet, except that’s how we’re able to make phone calls and access maps while we travel. And, as it turns out, those two things are pretty important when you’re in a not-so-modern foreign place.

Mike had already warned me that there were other things I might find disappointing about Cuba. He’d read an article informing him that Cubano sandwiches — those amazing grilled combinations of tender roasted pork, salty deli ham, gooey Swiss cheese, crunchy dill pickle, and tangy yellow mustard — don’t actually exist in Cuba. I am delighted to say that his source was wrong, and I had a Cubano as my first meal in Havana.

He’d also warned me against drinking mojitos or other cocktails anywhere other than a government-owned establishment, since the ice would likely be made with unfiltered water that my American digestive system wouldn’t be able to handle. No problem there, since every bar offered at least one kind of canned or bottled Cuban beer that was safe.

But I wasn’t prepared for the grocery situation. Our Airbnb had a kitchen, and I was looking forward to cooking a few meals with local ingredients during our stay. There was a store two blocks from our apartment that had a steady flow of locals coming and going, so I ventured in to see what real Cubans were buying. Turns out, not much.

Yes, many Cubans are poor, which limits their shopping options. But the store also didn’t have much for sale. The most plentiful items included bottled water, sugary soft drinks, boxed juices, cookies, and a small selection of canned food. There were no fresh fruits or vegetables for sale, and we also didn’t see any produce stands in Havana during our visit, although we were told that they exist. And the meat counter, which ran the length of the store, only had selections available in a single section of the case, and those definitely didn’t look fresh.

We learned later that many residents and even restaurateurs in Cuba will use the food they have until it’s gone, even if it’s past the point of food safety. And we learned this following inquiries we made after I contracted the worst case of food poisoning I’ve ever had in my life.

I hoped mine was an isolated incident, but after talking with several friends who’d been to Cuba in the past couple of years, we learned that at least one person in every group also dealt with food poisoning during their trips. And on top of that, I spent the week in a fever-induced haze from a sinus infection brought on by the heavily polluted air. Those classic cars may be beauties, but they wouldn’t come close to passing an emissions inspection.

Our original plan was to use Havana as a home base for exploring the rest of the island, and I’d still love to return to see the beautiful Cuban countryside. I could also listen to live Cuban music all day, every day. And I’d happily enjoy many more Cubano sandwiches served with an ice-cold Cristal lager … in a freshly sanitized glass.