Because of a travel ban since the 1960s, Cuba has remained a land of mystery to many Americans.
Anecdotes from Cuban defectors and asylum seekers have provided snippets about life on the island, but to most Americans, the communist nation is best known as the focal point of a missile crisis in 1962 that brought the U.S. and the former Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war.
That veil of intrigue made Cuba a top travel destination for Grace Olguin, an advisor in the Study Abroad program at Cal Poly Pomona’s International Center.
Last December, Olguin (’13, sociology) checked off Cuba from her list of itineraries. She came back with a wealth of experiences and observations about life on an island nation very different than the country she calls home.
How did you come across the opportunity to go to Cuba?
Since studying abroad in Tanzania in 2012, I told myself I’d continue to travel to at least one new country every year. Between 2012 and 2015, I have traveled to 15 countries.
For 2016, I decided I would go to Cuba in November. Because of a busy schedule, I put off planning the trip. By the time I started researching, it was late October. I also was discouraged by the visa process because tourist travel to Cuba is prohibited under U.S. law.
In mid-November I learned from a fellow traveler that JetBlue issues visas to Cuba. I did some research and found an awesome deal: An LAX-Fort Lauderdale-Havana round-trip flight for under $500. I booked it just two weeks before the early December departure date.
What were some of your observations?
Cuba is very antiquated. From the terminals in the airport to the countertops of its banks, its cars, abandoned and dilapidated but quite colorful buildings, and markets, it’s like traveling back in time.
I also learned that tourist dollars are being used to restore many of the neighborhoods, starting with Old Havana. There are two currencies: the CUC (Cuban peso, used by locals) and CUP (convertible peso, used by tourists). Everything has two prices — a local price and a tourist price. (One CUP is equivalent to $1 U.S.)
Cuba is slowly modernizing. Wi-Fi was introduced to the island two years ago. Parks near hotels are Wi-Fi hotspots where you find locals and foreigners trying to stay connected. Wi-Fi is scarce and not free, not even for locals.
In the ride from José Martí International Airport to my home-stay accommodations in central Havana, I noticed a lot of billboards (but not for advertising products). Most billboards had a portrait or image of Fidel Castro or Ché Guevara, the revolutionary heroes of the country. (Castro died last November.)
Was this an eye-opening experience?
I realized how proud Cubans are of their country’s history and leadership. Cubans admire what Castro did for the country and the people.
Locals were very interested in speaking to foreigners, so I was able to have different conversations with different people. I learned they are very proud of the fact they are educated citizens because Castro made education free. They have free health care. They have jobs and they are looking forward to what the future may hold with tourism, which will help their economy.
Was the trip more than just a novelty?
I have gotten nothing but oohs and aahs at the mention of my trip. Cuba has been a forbidden fruit for American travelers but that is starting to change.
Most of all I love Cuba’s legendary music culture. It is the land of salsa, rumba and Latin jazz. I enjoyed live musical performances at the Havana International Jazz Festival as well as a film as part of the annual Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano, both of which took place in December.
What kind of reception did you receive from everyday people?
My accommodations were arranged by Hostal Peregrino Consulado and I stayed with a family in a casa particular on the second floor of an apartment building. Margarita, her daughter, Chiquis, who spoke English, and her grandson were very nice. I had my own room with a private bathroom. It was a good opportunity to live like a local and help a family.
I had wonderful exchanges with many locals. The world is full of good people who want to help you and show you where and how they live. I met some good souls.
I had mojitos with locals just outside of Hotel Inglaterra, spoke to musicians on street corners and had conversations with taxi drivers. Cuban people are very courteous, respectful, interested and pleasant.
Did you have the famous Cuban sandwich?
I did. The order came with two sandwiches and it was only $2.50 U.S.
I also fell in love with a Cuban dish called ropa vieja. The name of the dish translates to “old clothes.” It is stewed beef with vegetables, served with rice and black beans and fried plantains. I ate that for lunch or dinner every day.
Any other insights?
I made a friend in Cuba by wearing my Chance the Rapper hat. (Chance won three Grammy awards on Feb. 12; he also performed at BroncoFusion in 2014.)