Today we’re premiering our first destination look at Cuba, a place that many travellers rave about and one that’s firmly on Kiri and mine’s hotlist. Turning to Lizzie from Lizzie Goes, we’re going to find out just what makes this Caribbean island special. Ready?
1. Hi Lizzie! Could you briefly introduce yourself, your site and your experience traveling in Cuba?
Hey, my name is Lizzie. I was a digital advertising producer in Manhattan until earlier this year, when I quit and moved to Barcelona to travel and write.
I started my blog, Lizzie Goes, to document the things I did rather than the things I kept saying I was going to do, especially when it came to traveling. The result? I do a lot more stuff.
During my first trip to Cuba, I lived there for four months studying at the Universidad de la Habana. I’ve only been back once since then, since as an American it’s pretty tough. But Cuba remains the heart of my wanderlust and a place I still consider home.
2. What made you choose Cuba and what were your first impressions?
I’m half Cuban, so Cuba has always been a big part of my identity and my life. But until I got the chance to study there, I couldn’t go.
I went to Cuba with a lot of love but very few expectations. Most of the stories I’d grown up hearing about the country were over 40 years old. So my initial impressions felt like returning to a place I’d only ever seen in dreams.
3. How much money can someone travel around Cuba for? What are the greatest expenses? What things are relatively cheap?
Cuba’s not an expensive country by most American or European standards. But travelers should also familiarize themselves with the country’s money system before arriving, because there are two currencies in Cuba – the Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban Peso. Day to day, Cubans generally deal in Cuban peso. CUCs are also known as tourist pesos, because they’re worth a lot more. Make sure you get reasonable cover, like that at Good2Go, before you head.
The greatest expenses are anything that must be bought with Convertible Pesos, like internet usage, hotel accommodations or peanut butter (I personally eat a lot of peanut butter.) When I was in Cuba, the CUC was at roughly 80 cents to the American dollar.
In contrast, a Cuban peso at the time was worth roughly an American nickel. So buying fresh baked bread at a bakery, fruit at an agromercado, or a drink is pretty cheap. But buyer beware – most places will try to give you a menu priced in CUC if you’re a tourist, so you have to ask for prices in Cuban Pesos.
4. What is the local cuisine like? Did you find yourself trying new things or pining for the familiars of home?
I am a total Cuban food junkie, so I didn’t often find myself missing the food from home (factor in the peanut butter, and I was pretty much set.)
Cuban cuisine is an unbeatable fusion of traditional Spanish food with African influences. One of its most famous dishes is ropa vieja, shredded meat served over rice. Friend plantains, yucca, empanadas, oh man, the list goes on and on. I’m salivating just thinking about it.
Havana also has one of the most famous ice cream parlors in the world, Coppelia. You may have to wait up to two hours in the hot Cuban sun to get inside, but it’s worth every minute to get in. I kid you not – I dream of that ice cream to this day.
5. What cultural activities and events would you suggest everyone seeing or taking part in while traveling in Cuba and why?
One of the coolest events in Cuba is the Marcha de las antorchas, held every year on January 27 to celebrate the birth of national hero Jose Martí. Picture thousands of Cubans gathering at the University of Havana with homemade torches ablaze.
There’s also Cuba’s Biennial Art Festival, which begins in May. It’s an explosion of all kinds of art – sculpture, music, installation – all over Havana. Art is one of the few ways Cubans have to express political or social dissent, so you can imagine the emotion that goes into the work.
But one of the things I love most about Cuba is that it is a country that celebrates its culture, history and independence every day. There’s always music in the street, art on the walls, and somebody who wants to share it with you. I try to participate in the local art scene as much as possible.
6. What is your favourite thing about traveling this country? What is your least favourite thing?
My favorite and least favorite things about traveling around Cuba are actually the same – you must be willing to abandon whatever plan you set out with at any time. Cuba is a country where things break, transportation systems fail and plans go awry. That can all be a major bummer while traveling. On the other hand, in Cuba where you end up is often better than your original plan. Some of the most amazing places I’ve seen in Cuba and some of the most incredible friends I’ve made have been the result of my best laid plans having gone all to hell.
7. What things do you focus on most when you blog about this country? Why do you choose these things?
Blogging about Cuba, I just try to bring the country to life with as much love as possible. Even when I’m recounting a personal misadventure (of which there have been many,) the love I have for Cuba and the love Cubans have shown me is always my bottom line.
8. What’s one thing you can’t travel around Cuba without?
An open mind. It’s easy to reduce Cuba to a camp cliche of 1950s cars and socialist propaganda. I try my best to avoid that. Also, my laptop. So many people have CDs of amazing local music, and I’m always begging them to let me copy it onto my Mac.
9. What kind of response have you had to your blogs about Cuba? What post had the most interest?
Since most of my blog audience is American, Cuba is always a popular topic. It’s so hard for Americans to get to Cuba. I wrote a post about having my wisdom tooth removed during my first trip to Cuba, which was literally one of the craziest experiences of my life. There wasn’t enough Novocain, but the dentist who did the operation was one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. Most people read that story and tell me I’m crazy.
10. If you could think of one thing you wished someone told you before you started traveling in Cuba what would it be?
There’s really not much, except maybe to bring some spare toilet paper. And – guys, earmuffs on this one – ladies, bring your own tampons. And for the sake of your fellow woman, bring enough to leave some behind when you go.
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