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  • Margaret Page

When in Cuba...

Over the past few years I have become a dancing fanatic. What was once a hobby has now become more of a way of life — I practice several times a week, go to workshops, and absolutely love learning new steps. Dance has brought so much into my life, including a bucket-list trip: Cuba.

Salsa, one of the most beloved dance forms in the world, originated in eastern Cuba in the 20th century. Like many styles of dance, it’s fairly easy to learn and fairly difficult to master. It’s exciting, spirited, and so much fun to watch! So when my friend and I learned about a salsa adventure in Cuba, we pounced on the chance to escape the wintry snow while honing our dance and Spanish skills.

We settled on an ambitious plan: Two weeks. Three hours of salsa and 90 minutes of Spanish lessons per day. Because we wanted to really experience Cuba, we decided to skip the all-inclusive hotels for a more authentic experience. And it was! Here’s what we learned along the way.

Homestays are fantastic. Cuba is full of beautiful hotels that cater to tourists, but five-star luxury is far outside what most Cubans will ever experience. We opted for a homestay at a casa particular for a few reasons. First, the homestay host receives the money, not a corporation or chain. Second, we wanted to see what day-to-day life is like for many people on the island. And third, it was convenient for our activities.

We stayed a Casa Nate, and the experience was everything we wanted and more. I had so many interactions I simply wouldn’t have had otherwise. I met a little girl who was about four years old; she was brought into the house by another woman who worked for Nate. Years ago, I started the habit of packing coloring books and toys for children in my luggage — it’s a great way to build relationships with people, especially if the language is a barrier.

Every day, the little girl came into the house with a doll that looked like Weird Barbie: her hair was chopped and spiky, an arm was missing, and she was in overall rough shape from being loved too much. I had packed an Elsa doll (from “Frozen”) in my suitcase and figured the little girl could use an upgrade, so I offered it to her. She was so thrilled that she gave me her own precious doll in return. That moment taught me more about the values of the Cuban people and their generosity than two weeks in a hotel ever could have.

The home stay was also a blessing when I sprained my ankle. My host was able to offer me help and saved me a trip to the doctor’s office or trying to figure out how to ask for pain medication in my not-quite-perfect Spanish.

It’s even less expensive than you think. My traveling companion and I were advised to allot $80-$100 in cash for every day in the country. Unlike other countries, you won’t find many places that take credit cards — the infrastructure hasn’t caught up to accommodate them.

That amount seemed perfectly reasonable to us, but not to our Cuban tour guide, who advised us to take far less out of our bank accounts. And our guide was right! I spent a total of $250 over two weeks. That’s it.

That $250 involved plenty of splurges, too. I ate lobster throughout the trip. I drank cappuccinos with excellent Cuban coffee. But, most importantly, the unexpected increase in our buying power allowed us to treat other people. We took our dancing instructors and tour guides out for dinner and drinks multiple times, which was a great opportunity to get to know them and the culture.

You’ll enter a different world. Cubans are famous for keeping their pre-revolution 1950s-era vehicles going long after most cars would have succumbed to age and overuse. Before landing, I thought the tales of these cars were overplayed — not so! Havana really is full of them.

Their continued existence is a testament to the resourcefulness of the Cuban people, a quality I witnessed over and over again. I didn’t see any retail clothing stores, for example, but I did see vendors selling clothes in parks. Material goods are precious and aren’t wasted, which is such a huge contrast to our big box stores and online delivery services.

A word to the wise: It is even more sweltering than you’d imagine (especially for me, who is used to the fairly temperate weather of British Columbia). My traveling companion and I had to wring ourselves out halfway through our dance classes, while our Cuban colleagues continued to look glamorous in the high heat and humidity. And on windy days they were wearing sweaters.

Cuba was so much more beautiful, dynamic, and inspiring than I could have imagined. If you ever get the chance to go, grab it! The Cuban people have endured decades of embargoes and scanty resources, yet they were unfailingly kind. It was a privilege to visit this magical island and experience it for myself.

Have you been to Cuba? What was your experience like? Do you have any tips you’d pass on to people who are planning a trip? Let us all know in the comments. 


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