Oriente Cuba: 7 Obversations We Learned


Last week, Yoel and I embarked on an adventure of a lifetime– traveling to Oriente Cuba.  Neither of us had traveled beyond what I call the “tourist golden road” of Trinidad / Santa Clara. And what I found there changed many perspectives I have of the place we call home. 

Often when people suffer from “culture shock” it’s because they went to another country.   Imagine experiencing that in your own country.

That was Oriente. 

So let me explain some observations I took away from traveling cross country and seeing our island beyond what we thought we would ever see.

1. Oriente Cuba is more beautiful than what I Thought

Cuba block sign on Santiago’s malecon

To be honest, much of the landscape between Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba is flat. Nothing much to see in terms of beautiful picturesque island-scapes. But let me tell you, once you get to Santiago de Cuba and from what appears out of nowhere giant mountains pressed up next to the sea it will take your breath away.  

2. We don’t understand now why Oriente, Cuba lacks tourism 

Oriente, in particular, Santiago de Cuba, is a tourist dream. Its a beautiful city pressed along the ocean with many activities both beach and nature around. The city itself is impressive, CLEAN, and filled with restaurants bars and shops.  

 In the 3 days we were there, we both noticed that everything was always on the menu. We never heard the dreaded “no, no temenos eso (no we don’t have that today)” as we often hear in Havana. 

Infrasture wise, the streets were lit, the streets without potholes, and signs everywhere telling people where attractions were. 

It just left us incredibly impressed. Were we still in Cuba?   How did Havana, with its trash lack of resources and broken infrastructure become Cuba’s tourist destination? 

But  why does Santiago have better and more things? That leads me to the 3rd observation 

3. If Someone Important lives there, its nice. 

It didn’t take long to realize that the reason Santiago de Cuba looks like a mini-Europe is because the most important family is from and still currently lives in Santiago. 

Outside of main cities like Santiago or Camaguey (camaguey was recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site, therefore maintained much nicer) infrastructure needs, lack of opportunity, general poverty was pretty noticeable. 

Granma is cited as the poorest provience in Cuba and we definitely noticed it. Which takes me to observation #4 

4. Theres millions of people in Cuba who do nothing all day. 

At every place we stayed at (Santa Clara, Santi Spiritu, Cienfugos, Camaguey, Holguin, and Santiago de Cuba), there were mass amounts of people who do nothing all day.   This isn’t that new to us as we see it everyday on the street corner in Pinar del Rio, but seeing it across the nation is pretty astonishing. 

At one point Yoel and I asked a bunch of 20-30year olds if they knew where the woman who was supposed to be working at the gas station (Cupet) was. They said “probably at home, theres nothing to do here.” 

I asked them if they had jobs and they all answered what most Cubans answer “inventando” or “inventing”.  In Cuba, inventando is doing odd jobs here and there to make ends meat.   They are not hired directly but rather just find little things to do maybe 3 times a week to make a bit of money. 

I couldn’t help but think that if entrepreneurs were supported, uplifted, and encouraged in Cuba many of those same boys could be employed by new jobs. 

As well with the drunks.

5. Cuba’s alcohol problem stretches across Oriente Cuba 

I couldn’t tell you how many times we came across drunks during our travels.  They seemed to be everywhere.  Again, something we are used to in Pinar but we never really thought beyond to the entire nation. 

In Cuba, there is AA but the culture to get sobered is not promoted nor enforced in society as much as you see in others. 

The problem got to be personal when Yoel and I fought over him giving a drunk a dollar when we was peddling – an action I cannot participate in.

 6. Pinar del Rio is the worst provience capitol in Cuba 

We stopped in every single provience capitol with the exception of Guantanamo and it’s a fact- Pinar del Rio is the worst one. 

In Cuba, the rumor of Pinar del Rio being the worst provience always existed since before and after the revolution.  

Despite its huge tourism coming for Vinales and Maria la Gorda, Pinar del Rio (the provience capitol city) lacks major infastrucutre, attractions, culture and general cleanliness. 

Let me give you an example: Every provience has plaza’s, a shopping center (bouvelard), several museums and art galleries.  Pinar del Rio has 0 plazas, 0 shopping center, 2 museums (one of which is in repair for years), and 1 private art gallery. That’s it. 

Pinar del Rio’s roads are in horrible shape inside the city and its buildings in dire need of repair. 

We constantly compared Oriente Cuba to our own city and we couldn’t help feel sad and shameful that Pinar continues to be the what we think, the worst one.

 7. Not every Cuban can travel to Oriente Cuba and we know it

The economy and the tight wallets get in the way of many Cubans traveling inside their own country. They are so desperate to leave to see the world they forget to see their own.  

We traveled across Cuba in motorcycle and it was the best and most economical way to see Cuba on our own terms. 

The entire time we felt blessed we were able to have an opportunity that most never get in a lifetime. And we cant wait to do it overagain… Maybe this time…WITH YOU! 

kisses at Holguíns loma

5 Things To Know About Cuba- Don’t Be THAT Rude Tourist

We’ve seen it all from just walking around the streets. The visitors who have just 0 clue to where the are. So before you come, here are just 5 things you need to know about Cuba before becoming that rude tourist. Ready? Cause I’m about to get REAL on you guys.

Being involved in the tourism industry in a poor country like Cuba, a very (under)developing country, we’ve come across all types of visitors.

Though I must say we’ve had amazing luck. Nearly all of our friends who visit have been incredible to us (even though we can’t communicate as much as we’d like, we still love you guys!).

But I still think its important to point out some things to keep in mind for all travelers.

Even the asshole ones. And oh, have we’ve seen them!

So, don’t be one.

Know Where You Are

This seems kind of obvious and you’re probably wondering “well yeah, duh marissa, I know I’m going to Cuba”

That’s not what I mean.

I mean understand the economic and political situation of a country before you go. You don’t need to be a scholar, but just some basic research. Google, Wikipedia, MariMundo, Mari’s Instagram. It takes maybe 10 minutes of your time.

When you understand the basics of a country beyond it being “poor”  or “developing” you can be prepared for dome of the things you’ll come across.  No matter where you go.

In Cuba, the combination of economic embargo and poor internal policy choices have made things pretty difficult in the past years.

There are scarcities, rations, and many basic items that are just not available. I don’t know how many times I have to tell people there are no Starbucks in Cuba. No McDonalds and definitely no CVS’s.

So bring all your shit (including cash) and don’t complain when you cant find anything. We cant either.

Things to know Cuba: Tourist man posing with women in traditional wear while woman takes a picture in the plaza

Things to Know: Don’t Get Upset Not Everything is on The Menu nor Available in the Market

When you come to Cuba, you’ll notice a full menu on many restaurants. Want that yummy lobster? What about the chicken breast!?

Nope.

It is VERY VERY EXTREMELY common that food items are not on the menu. This is again because of the economic situation inside the country.

We often ask servers, “today what IS on the menu?”

The privately-owned restaurants (that you should be going to if you are American) your dining at go through insane amounts of trouble to get supplies and food they need every day.

Supplies in Cuba don’t have proper distrubtion channels like you’ll see in first-world nations. Businesses don’t have delivery services and they don’t have suppliers.  

The supplier is the Cuban government who is supplying pretty much everyone, individual or  private business.

That means that private business owners have to run around Havana to see whats in the market.

Markets in Cuba don’t have the same products in them every day. They change every day and in every locations. One might have butter over there and no chicken. Another might have the chicken but no toilet paper. And the third one might not have anything at all.

Its craziness. So understand getting that food on your plate takes a lot of F’ING WORK.

DON”T ABUSE TIME – Phone Calls, Internet, And More

This is probably THE MOST ANNOYING thing we see daily. Please, for the love of God, don’t abuse peoples time.

Story time: I recently got an email at 6am from travelers already in Cuba asking if I could arrange a tour of Havana with someone I know, a cocktail class at a local bar, and a cooking class.

I scrambled to call Cuba to get my partner to make arrangement for the girls. That phone call is expensive both internally and externally.

Forty minutes on a cell phone in Cuba is $10 with a package. TEN DOLLARS! Text messages are $2.50 for 50 of them. 50!!

Its INSANELY expensive to call numbers and get things arranged last minute.

Result: They cancelled on us and then when they did book one of the classes, they didn’t show up.  

So they wasted our time, the restaurants time for reserving their spots, and lots of CubaCell minutes. CRYYYYYYYY

Cell phones aren’t the only thing that’s expensive, so is internet. So if you’re working with a guide or someone in Cuba please be conscious of the time you’re spending on coorespondance and calling them inside of Cuba.

Also, this isn’t just in Cuba but anywhere in the world, don’t be an asshole and make people arrange things for them and then not show up.

Yes, these still very much exist. Cuba 2019

Things to Know: We Tip Here

I know in some countries, tipping is not customary… but here it is.

Many times your guide, server, local jintereo (no judgement!) has to pay commissions to others and the money for the service does not go all to them.

So tip! Its expected here.

But tipping is not REQUIRED at a certain percentage as in the US for example.  In Cuba, its whatever you want to give.

Don’t Be On A Schedule

Cuba is not a place where your itinerary will be perfect. People are constantly late, cars break down (they are 70 years old after all or just…. Soviet), and things are just much farther than you think.

Plus theres no Uber (well there is SUBE), no constant internet, and no Amazon. Nothing you can do it about it anyways

So take a chill pill, relax, and enjoy the ride. Everything in Cuba… and I mean EVERYTHING gets resolved.

Cuban people help each other and foreigners out. The other thing that makes this place so magical.

Overall on the Things to Know before coming to Cuba

Realize that Cuba isn’t just unique for its look but also its system. Nothing here is particularly convenient and it takes a lot of work (and expense) to get your coordinate your travel plans/excursions working smoothly so you don’t have to worry about things.

Be corteous of peoples time, don’t complain theres no gluten free bread, and definitely relax.

After all, you’re in one of the most beautiful places in the world!

Woman standing at the Fort in Havana overlooking ocean
Me in Cuba. At the Morro Loving this Place!

Finally Uber in Cuba? The New Revolutionary App

Is Uber finally in Cuba?

No, but with its own twist of Cubaneo, “SUBE” is. With the arrival of 3g technology and a group of millennials who’s office is a WiFi Park, Sube Cuba is officially the country’s first ride sharing app! 

And to that I say: Hallelujah! 

The app came just in time. The Transportation Issue.

New constitutional provisions that prohibited many private taxis to operate was introduced around the same time mobile data was announced to the public.  

But before these changes were happening, the group of 4 20-something’s were already trying to solve an endless problem Cubans are confronted with everyday: transportation. 

That problem has been a major issue in this county for decades. The combination of the US embargo alongside domestic economic and political issues has damaged public transportation and the buy and sell of vehicles. 

This is especially true in Havana, Cuba’s capital.  With a population of 2 million people, the bus system is minimal and leaves many riders jam packed (unsafely I might add) in busses. 

Now with the new constitution crusading against unlicensed (untaxed) private taxi drivers, the problem got exponentially worse. 

Before, Many Cubans use “colectivos” as an option of public transportation. These private cars pick people up on a certain route and drop them off for a set price (usually around 10 pesos cubanos or 50 cents cuc per person).

Now after the provision, taxi drivers are required to have a license from the state, pay monthly taxes, forced to buy a quota of state gasoline (previously bought more frequently on the black market), and mandated to lower the prices of their services at the same time. 

So it’s only natural to know what comes next: very little taxis. 

That’s where Sube comes in. Before the announcement of mobile data, the group was already implementing the app via email service. But once the mobile data services were announced, it changed the entire game. 

How SUBE is Changing the Game

With Sube, Cubans and tourists can now upload the app and ask for direct taxis. Drivers have the option to charge their prices and accept rides. 

It works similar to Uber though not as advanced. There’s no “uber pool” or options of cars. 

But it resolves many issues people face on the island. Now with just an app you can have your ride waiting for you without standing on the corner forever. 

The app is completely free to download and use for both the rider and the taxi. 

Uber in Cuba: Sube Cuban app
Sube Cuba platform

An App with 0 Funding

The founders, Claudia, Darien, Damian,  and Luis Alberto sit in the WiFi Park everyday coding and designing the app. They have yet to monetize the app (a very legally tricky thing to in Cuba) so they make absolutely no money off creating the app. 

As of now they are just trying to perfect the app so it works perfectly and get the word out. They have about 3,000 users and the number is rising everyday. 

Claudia hopes that the app “resolves both Cuban problems and tourists problems.

Tourist App

Many times as a tourist you don’t know how much transportation is and you get ripped off just because you’re a tourist”. With the app, the price is confirmed before hand without the driver knowing country of origin a rider is from. 

Transportation is already tricky for tourist. But with Sube this makes it even better!

The app is only available through Android but they are quickly working on releasing it for iPhone. 

Just another amazing story of Cuban strength despite the technological and financial challenges. 

While many news publications will compare Sube to Uber, perhaps Uber might learn something from a group of four techies in a country where tech is far from modern. 

You can download Sube here and check out their Instagram and Website

10 Activities that Support the Cuban People in 2019

Coming to Cuba as an American (or from an American city) under the Support the Cuban people visa category and wondering what the “f” does that mean? After Trumps latest sanctions don’t worry, I got you.

As you might already know, visiting Cuba is completely LEGAL under this visa category even after Trump Administrations sanctions in June of 2019 (that cut off largely group cruise ships).  While in Cuba, you’ll quickly discover no undercover American patrol unit is following you around making sure you’re behaving and not drinking the communist kool-aid.

But, legally speaking, what does “Support the Cuban People” actually mean? Well according to the law, Americans are required to participate in activities that support independent institutions.

The Office of Foreign Asset Control, the US department that regulates these laws, gives Americans some examples: “Staying at a casa particular” or “eating at a paladar (restaurant)” are some of the things Americans can do.

They go on to state that you’ll need to provide a full-day itinerary of activities that support the Cuban people on the VERY EXTREMELY RARE chance they question you.

Need not fear, my American dears! Here’s a list of suggested activities Americans can do that also do something pretty cool…. actually, support the Cuban people.

Hey, if you’re in Cuba you might as well give back to the many thousands of entrepreneurs, local taxi drivers, and everyday hustlers trying to make a life on an island that’s experiencing a pretty hard economic situation.

  1. Take a Day Tour of Havana!

    • You can take a tour of the beautiful Old Havana with a local guide (me hehe) that takes you through the many historical parts of the city and gives you a local perspective of how many Cubans live.
    • If interested in this tour, shoot me an email!

10 Activities that Support the Cuban People!

      • Walk the streets of Habana Vieja with a local who gives you a different perspective
  1. Ride an American Classic Convertible

    • What is Cuba without the classic American cars? You can ride one as well around the city and its COMPLETELY LEGAL! The classic cars are owned by private citizens and help support the local economy.  Yes, its super touristy but it’s an absolute must DO!
    • 10 Activities that Support the Cuban People!

      Whitney Riding The Malecon!

  1. Learn how to make Cuban food and eat some!

    • You can just eat at a local restaurant, but why don’t you learn how to make a Cuban dish prepared by a local chef!? That why you are taking an “educational class” and filling your belly at the same time! Plus you’ll learn how restaurants in socialist Cuba are adjusting to the everyday struggles of getting more supplies, the right amounts of food, and searching how to make their new client bases happy.. tourists!
    • Want to learn how to make incredible Cuban meal inside a families home? Shoot me an email 

10 Activities that Support the Cuban People!

A typical Cuban meal: Rice, Beans, Meat and Veggies

  1. Drink cocktails with a Cuban mixologist

    • Learn how to make the classic Cuba Libre, Daiquairi, and Mojitos with a mixologist! Our friends at Jibarao in Old Havana are trained doctors of Nuclear Physics turned restaurant owners so they know how to mix REALLY well.
    • Lets drink it up with this class! Shoot me an email 

    • 10 Activities that Support the Cuban People!

      Learning how to Make Cocktails at Jibarao with our friends from New York!

  1. Smoke some Cubans in the Heart of Tobacco Country

    • Cuban cigars are infamous all over the world. I mean, if you’re coming to Cuba and NOT smoking a Cuban cigar, what are you even doing here?
    • Pinar del Rio, Cuba Is famous for growing Cuba’s best cigars and in the heart of the region stands Vinales, a small farming town. We take you there to meet our family friends who own a tobacco farm. Leo, Domingo, and Mingo will show you how to roll a cigar, educate you on how tobacco is run, and show you around our beautiful land!
    • Take this experience with me on my Vinales/Pinar del Rio tour!
    • 10 Activities that Support the Cuban People!

      See a Tobacco House where they grow the tobacco for the famous Cuban Cigar!

  1. Have dinner in the Cuban countryside

    • Homemade Cuban dinner in the countryside is the epitome of heaven. Seriously….we aren’t joking. Cuba has 100% organic food, but it taste even better prepared by guajiros (Cuba’s countryside people) and farm fresh.
    • Get an intimate view on how most Cubans live outside of tourism in the countryside with my FAMILY! <3
    • Take this experience with me on my Vinales/Pinar del Rio tour

10 Activities that Support the Cuban People!

My beautiful Norwegian friends escaping the cold winters and eating at our families home in Pinar del Rio!

  1. Stay at a Casa Particular

    • Mentioned above, but Casa particulares (“private homes”) are a great way to support the Cuban people. Since the liberalization of small businesses, the island has boomed with casa particulares tourist can rent.
    • Tip: In many cases, casa particulares are much nicer than hotels run by government conglomerates. They pay special attention to their clients and cleanliness is a priority.
    • Interested in staying in a Casa particular in Cuba? Email me here!
  1. Learn how to Dance Salsa with a Salsero!

    • If its not the rum, the cigars, or the cars that bring you to Cuba, you need to add DANCING SALSA to that itinerary.. NOW! Cuban music is recognizable all over the world and salsa dance is something every tourist should experience!
    • Learn how to dance salsa with a professional. Honestly, I cant even dance that well and he taught me SO much in less than an hour!
    • Get your rumba on, here!
    • 10 Activities that Support the Cuban People

      Alyssa and Megan getting their rumba on with our friend Carlos!

  1. Explore Cuba’s Nature

  • Cuba is a gigantic island with many parts still left unconstructed and untouched. See the lush tropics and almost Jurassic park-ish feeling the island has.
  • Whether its waterfalls in Artemisa (1 hour outside Havana) and in Cienfuegos or cascading rivers in Trinidad, Cuba has something to offer everyone
  • Click here for more information on Cuba’s nature!

10 Activities that Support the Cuban People!

Me walking through the countryside!

  1. Go to the Beach

    • Now this one might seem that it isn’t part of “activities Supporting the Cuban people” but who says!? You can hire a private driver that can take you there, eat at a local restaurant, and go to a local beach!
    • There are beautiful beaches near Havana and all around the island.. you can take a tour there with us or stay at a casa particular if far that supports the Cuban people with some pretty amazing views!