Travel to Cuba with Access Trips
Laura Hobbs of Darling Creative has shared her experience with travel to Cuba on an Access Trips tour, this last December. She’s written an excellent blog for us with valuable insights for all Cuba travelers and allowed us to share it with you. We’ll be featuring her photos as well, and in future posts too. Thanks, Laura!
Cuba: 8 Things to Know Before You Go
By Laura Hobbs
Fascinating. Beautiful. Mystifying. Cuba is all of these things. If you’ve been considering a visit to the enchanting island, the time to go is now. It’s no secret that Cuba is in the midst of an incredible amount of growth and change, yet no one quite knows or can predict what all this transformation will ultimately bring the country and its people. Cuba itself is a conundrum, and that’s part of the beauty of it.
This past December, my husband and I bucked our usual solo-travel style and booked an Access Trips eight-day culinary tour, which came highly recommended by the New York Times and Nat Geo Traveler. It was our first experience with a guided tour—a decision we were shaky on at first, but ultimately, glad we did it. Cuba is one of those destinations where having a guide to help you navigate the country’s murky infrastructure is not only helpful, it’s a downright necessity. Not only that, but we met cool, like-minded people with whom we shared some incredible (and delicious) experiences.
With a bit of preparation and setting a few expectations beforehand, you can make your eight days in Cuba even more enjoyable, comfortable and rewarding.
Enjoy your break from the internet
Feeling the urge to check your inbox? Sorry, Charlie—in Cuba, American cell service is next-to-nonexistent and wifi is a pricey commodity. If you’re really suffering from surges of FOMO, a few Havana hotels offer pay-as-you-go wifi. Be sure you’ve brought your patience along with you; even in the hotels, wifi can be painfully slow or altogether unreliable. Enjoy your time away from the internet—stay up late with your travel mates and a bottle of Havana Club, sharing stories from other international adventures or back home. The internet—along with your burgeoning inbox—will still be there when you return.
This is largely a road trip
I hope you love old cars as much as the Cubans do—because you’ll be spending a lot of time in one. You’ll cruise the streets of Havana in style and go on extended journeys through some of the lesser explored parts of the island—and because of that, you’ll be clocking up to eight-hour days in the car (with regular stops for bathrooms and cafecitos, of course). Do what you need to do to get comfortable: bring dramamine if you’re prone to queasiness or a small pillow if you’re prone to drowsiness. Cuba’s roads are in (mostly) good condition and the Access Trips’ drivers make your comfort and safety their priority. And remember: in-car singalongs are always welcome.
Bring appropriate footwear
When you’re not in the car, you’re on your feet. You’ll be walking on this trip—a lot. From the shady side streets of Old Havana to Trinidad’s cantaloupe-sized cobblestones, the daily itinerary involves a lot of time on the tootsies. Be sure to bring appropriate footwear for walking, and a blister kit if you’re prone to sore spots. Take extra care walking the streets Trinidad: the cobblestones are irregular, bulbous and slick—especially when they’re wet. If you’re out exploring its charming streets at night, use your phone’s flashlight or a camping headlamp for extra visibility.
You will eat—A LOT
Your guides, your hosts and the restaurants all know you’re on a food tour—and they feed you accordingly! There is no shortage of snackage on the trip’s itinerary, which could leave you feeling a little overdone, especially after a few days. On the nights when no meal was planned, some of us opted to stay in and chat over a bit of wine and cheese, which offered a nice, light alternative to yet another gigantic meal.
Bring a carry-on only
Legend has it that Havana’s airport eats checked baggage for lunch. Well, not exactly, but that’s not too far from the truth. Once you deplane in Havana, the Cuban bustle is palpable, and claiming your checked bags at the infrastructure-deprived airport can take upwards of an hour. Not only that, but you’ll be schlepping that bag with you for the next eight days as you trundle your way through the island. (Fair warning: at one point, it goes on top of the car for your drive to Trinidad.) Save checking your bag for your return flight, when it’s full of all the rum, honey, and cigars you’re bringing home.
Pack a toilet kit
Oh, hand sanitizer, how I love thee. As Access Trips recommends, bring a roll or two of your own toilet paper, along with other restroom-related items. Many of Cuba’s facilities are, ahem, sparse and don’t offer toilet paper. My husband and I each made our own restroom kit: a Ziplock bag packed with toilet paper, wipes and a travel-size hand sanitizer, which we took with us everywhere we went. It’s one thing you’ll never regret having in your bag.
Cash is king
That rectangular plastic thing in your wallet—the one with the magnetic strip? It won’t do you any good here. In Cuba’s economy, cash is king—so bring enough for you entire trip. Access Trips’ estimation of how much you’ll need is spot-on. If you’re exchanging American dollars, it’s wise to exchange them into another currency—Euros or Canadian dollars are easy options—before departing for Cuba. Once you land at the airport, exchange your money there; waiting to do so until later in the trip costs everyone valuable time. And once you’ve got your CUCs in hand, be sure to keep plenty of small change for incidentals and restroom tips. (I was notoriously forgetful about keeping small change on hand, and got more than a few stink-eyes from restroom attendants for not tipping.)
Bring useful gifts
Along with the majority of our tour mates, we brought gifts of some kind and we quickly discovered that some were more useful than others. Stickers are nice for kids, but think practical when it comes to adult gifts. Peelers, whisks, bungee cords, Sharpies, batteries, hand sanitizer, lip balm and other useful items are hard to come by for Cubans, easy for you to stuff into a corner of your carry-on, and are always appreciated.
Most of all, be flexible. Be patient. Be kind. Cuba can be an overwhelming place, group dynamics can prove challenging, and travel can wear out even the most seasoned adventurer. For eight days, you’ll see, hear, smell and taste many new and intriguing things. Take your time and give yourself the space you need to make your Cuban adventure memorable and rewarding. Once you’re home, give yourself time to process all the experiences of your trip. You’ll have absorbed an incredible amount of (often confusing) information and made many new friends along the way. And just perhaps, you’ll leave the island with an urge to return to figure out the conundrum of Cuba once and for all. I know I did.
*Writer and photographer Laura Hobbs left small-town Arkansas for the allure and altitude of Boulder, Colorado in 2011. She spent three years in a cubicle churning out ad copy before jumping off the freelance cliff. Luckily, her parachute opened and she started her own business, Darling Creative, in 2015. When she’s not in front of her laptop or behind the lens, Hobbs can be found on her yoga mat, hiking with her husband, or sipping a good Malbec while cooking her way to a quiet mind. She’s flattered you read this far.