Our Neighbor to the South

By on 8 August, 2017 in Fun, Holidays, Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

Recently, Midtown Montgomery Living published a blog post called “Our Neighbor to the North,” about a day trip to our nearest neighboring city to the north. In response, we decided to visit our nearest neighboring country to the south, about 90 miles off the southern tip of our neighboring southern state.

Our state has had a growing relationship with Cuba over the past 15-20 years. The University of Alabama has established a Center for Cuban Collaboration and Scholarship, growing since Alabama-Cuba Week of 2003. According to the Foreign Trade Division of the U.S. Census Bureau, Alabama shipped approximately $32.8 million worth of goods, all categorized as food products, to the island nation in 2014. Additional good history about our relationship with Cuba can be found in this 2015 piece, capitalizing on the Obama administration’s loosening of travel restrictions between our nations.

Alabama shares a lot more in common with Cuba than simple access to the Gulf of Mexico. We both like sports. We both eat a lot of chicken. It’s super hot in both places. We both have strong agricultural sectors. There’s a lot of poverty in both places. More information on our state’s unique connection with Cuba can be found here and here.

We found our trip to be affordable, efficient and endlessly fascinating. We heard great music and saw great art. We sweated a lot, and rode in some of the famous “classic” American cars that are meticulously maintained. We stayed at a hotel, although many Americans are doing the “AirBnB” experience. We saw a lot of government propaganda, both on billboards and in museums. We saw Spanish colonial history, crumbling buildings, and the consequences of embargo. We’ve never been anywhere that pretty much doesn’t have Internet.

We stayed four nights, all in Havana, and still didn’t really see everything. It may be harder now to go there under the current federal administration, but that’s probably just a matter of time and political erosion until relations are finally normalized and the embargo fully lifted. Already, cruise ships are entering the harbor in Havana and spilling out tourists from around the world, taking home trinkets and photographs.

We recommend going, if you can make it work. It’s not as simple as flying to Europe, because there is some paperwork involved. And it’s probably not for everyone. Some people prioritize laziness and escapism for their vacations, and that’s fine. But if you’re open-minded and want to experience a nearby and fascinating culture, and you can travel with humility, patience and curiosity, you can gain life-changing memories just a two-hour flight from Atlanta. Here are seven key tips from our trip to consider when planning to go to Cuba:

  1. Know the law. There are 12 approved categories of visitor to Cuba, and “tourist” is not one of them. Depending on your category, you may have to sign up for an approved tour that will occupy most of your time on the island. Check ahead, and remember that legally you must save your travel documents for five years after your visit.
  2. Understand the money situation. There are two kinds of currency on the island. Convertible pesos (CUC) are the ones used by visitors, and they are pegged to the dollar (a 1:1 exchange rate). This is a little misleading, because if you change dollars on the island (at a bank, the airport, or your hotel), they are subject to a 10% fee. Better to get euros on the way out of the country and change those.
  3. Take a tour. We got oriented to the city and country through Locally Sourced Tours, and recommend the experience to absolutely anyone. It’s key to navigating the maze of the older parts of Havana, and the opportunity to talk to an actual Cuban is not to be missed.
  4. Stay hydrated. It’s very hot in the summer there, and you’ll need to drink lots of water (and no, mojitos don’t count as water). But the local tap water isn’t safe to drink (although we still drank coffee and had ice cubes in our drinks, etc.). Fortunately, there’s plenty of bottled water for sale on the streets.
  5. Expect to tip in many, if not most, situations. We discovered that at some museums, for example, the guides expect a small tip in exchange for services like offering extra information or taking your picture. It’s a good idea to have a number of small denomination notes or coins to use for this purpose.
  6. Don’t buy cigars on the street. Sometimes it can seem like everyone in Havana has cigars to sell you. Our tour guide told us that these are often made of banana leaves. Gross. There are plenty of places to buy real cigars, if that’s your thing. Note: Cigars are not our thing.
  7. Get out of Old Town. Habana Vieja is really amazing, and it’s easy to kill several days wandering the streets there. But there are some things you can only see if you get out of there, like the iconic Plaza de Revolucion. We experienced killer Cuban nightlife at the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, just a short taxi ride from our hotel and so worth it.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with one cat, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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