Why You Should Stop Saying You Want To See Cuba Before It Changes

Classic American cars and pastel colored buildings sound like a perfect photo backdrop. But what those photos don’t show are the cracked sidewalks, garbage-filled streets, food shortages, dilapidated infrastructure, and the fact that most of the population cannot live comfortably off their wages.

Over the five years of visiting Cuba, I’ve heard the following cringe-worthy phrases more times than I can count: “I don’t want Cuba to change,” or “I want to see Cuba before it becomes Americanized.” When I hear someone make these statements, it feels as if they’re saying that progressive change in Cuba is somehow a bad thing; as if keeping the Cuban people locked out of the world economy is somehow better.

Photograph by Janette Casolary

Castro’s regime has controlled essentially all aspects of Cuban life for the past 50+ years. Media is censored, internet access is very limited (although in December of 2018, internet plans on cell phones rolled out), and while health care is free, not all clinics or hospitals always have the necessary supplies available to treat people. Even though Cuban citizens are rationed food essentials every month, they’re in meager portions and it’s not enough food to last until the next month. In December of 2010, Cuba cut toiletries from the monthly rations. Now Cubans purchase them from a state store or on the black market.

The average monthly salary of a state worker is only about $29 a month. And despite this low monthly wage, the cost for everyday household items can get quite expensive. For example, shampoo runs about $6 per bottle, four rolls of toilet paper costs about $3, and a new pair of jeans costs about $40.

The truth is, daily life is a constant struggle for most Cubans living on the island. Food shortages happen quite frequently in Cuba and preparing a simple meal can often prove difficult. Gathering ingredients, for instance, for a meal can sometimes take hours, as most have to search (often on foot) for basic ingredients around various markets. And sometimes you have to walk several blocks to get to each one. When you do finally find the eggs, bread, milk, and aceite, sometimes you have to wait in long lines to purchase them. If you get lucky with only several people in line ahead of you, you’ll wait maybe 10-15 minutes. But if there are a lot of people ahead of you, be prepared to wait up to an hour or longer.

Tourists don’t often see beyond the old glamour of Old Havana or take the time to immerse themselves and truly learn about the way people live. And while the island’s complex and layered history is fascinating, if you take the time, you’ll learn that Cubans are eager and ready for change.

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Cuba Is Already Changing

In February of 2008, Fidel Castro officially stepped down and Raul Castro rose to power and loosened up some of the restrictions that were in place for over 50 years. He opened up a small private sector of the economy and worked to re-establish diplomatic relations with the United States. Up until 8 years ago, the only private businesses Cubans could operate were casas particulares (guesthouses), paladares (restaurants inside homes), or taxis. Now, the new laws allow Cubans more private entrepreneurship, and with the opportunity of being able to start a private business, new restaurants and retail stores have also opened up. Cuban chefs are bringing international flavors to the Cuban table (the chefs at restaurant Jama fuse Japanese and Cuban flavors), the very first design store (Clandestina - pictured below) opened up in Havana in 2015, and people are renovating their homes to be able to rent them out to tourists.

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Cubans Want to Be Included in the Global Community

With Cubans being able to travel outside of the country for tourism now, some people travel to Europe and even the U.S., further proving that Cubans are ready to welcome outside culture and information. They even have a very intricate underground network of distributing the latest and most current television, movies, music, and other online entertainment. The paquete semanal (weekly package) is delivered in the form of a USB stick and distributed around the island to many Cubans for a fee. This system of distributing information is coordinated by one man named Dany Paquete and is entirely on the black market. And it’s this weekly package that connects many Cubans to the outside world. It has worked so well that the U.S.-based electronic group Major Lazer put their entire discography on the paquete 2 weeks ahead of their scheduled concert, in hopes for a good turnout. The band wasn’t sure that Cubans had even heard of them, but the paquete worked: over 400,000 people were in attendance at the concert.

A McDonald’s or Starbucks Isn’t Going To Take Away from the Cuban Culture

Due to the trade embargo the U.S. currently has on Cuba, it’s not possible for U.S. chains to open up shop in Cuba. But even if the U.S. did lift the embargo, it doesn’t mean that a McDonald’s and Starbucks would pop up on every corner. Just like these chain restaurants don’t make Paris or Rome less appealing, they wouldn’t take away from the Cuban culture. The sense of community and warmth that Cubans share isn’t going to disappear. The structure of the homes in Cuba are set up in a way that makes it easy to converse with your neighbors, partake in gossip, and people watch. People wouldn’t suddenly stop playing dominoes in the street with their neighbors or stop sitting at the park to chat. Their kindness and helpful nature wouldn’t simply disappear with the arrival of a chain store.

People and Societies Should Evolve When They Are Ready for It

I’ve had conversations with local Cuban friends who’ve expressed that the people are ready for a change. They want opportunities, they want to be able to purchase the latest clothes and shoes, and they want to be able to express themselves politically. Sure, not every single Cuban may want this, but the surge in private enterprise over recent years shows that a lot people are ready for a form of capitalism.

On a guided architectural walk around Old Havana. Learning about history, culture, and politics through architecture.

On a guided architectural walk around Old Havana. Learning about history, culture, and politics through architecture.

It’s okay to be curious about a place and want to visit, but saying that you don’t want Cuba to change can come off a little insensitive. Instead of wanting to see Cuba “before it changes,” let’s support them during this transitional time.

And how do we support them? One way is by traveling to Cuba. Yes, it is safe to visit and legal for American citizens. While you’re there, visit as many privately owned establishments as possible, and actively take part in the discussions of the people who live there. Hear what they have to say about their native land, about their struggles and joys, about the ongoing of their daily life. By starting a dialogue, whether it be with your casa particular host or your taxi driver, it can be a truly rewarding experience for all the people involved. Rather than wish Cuba stay “in the past,” help the island nation move forward by bridging gaps, shattering stereotypes, and exchanging cultures.

Do you want to visit Cuba? Check out our group trips or send an email for private itineraries. You’ll share meals and have conversations with creatives and entrepreneurs, learn about what inspires local artists, and dance the night away at the best nightlife spots. Travel with like-minded people and have a great damn time.

All photos by Janette Casolary for Fisheye Journeys.

Author: Rocio Yepez
Founder of Fisheye Journeys

Photo by Janette Casolary

Photo by Janette Casolary

It's not always easy to track down Rocio. She's always been a free spirit, but since her epic solo backpacking trip, she's been consuming life in rather large quantities! Four months of travel adventure in southeast Asia will do that to a person!

By trade, she's a lifestyle, portrait, and travel photographer. Fascinated by the give and take between people, she aims to capture that magic instant BETWEEN moments - the "passing" moments, where little is offered, but so much is revealed.

When she's not capturing life on film, she may be in acting class, at the bookstore, or engaged in a class to learn something completely new. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and a strong mind to earn tenure as a permanent student at community college. If you see her flat-footed, be sure to snap a picture, that's about as rare as seeing her in a bad mood. She's constantly moving, exploring, discovering, and growing.

 
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Is Traveling to Colombia Safe?

With its beautiful landscapes, Caribbean coast, and vibrant metropolitan cities, there’s a lot more to Colombia than you may think.

For a few decades, Colombia has been synonymous with drug cartels and violence. Hollywood movies and the popular Netflix show Narcos depicts the cocaine trade of the late 1980s and the real-life stories of violence and bloodshed in the country. But a lot has changed since then.

Today, Colombia isn’t any more unsafe than some U.S. cities, and beyond the surface of conflict is a vibrant culture with warm, inviting people.

Photo by  Amanda Bjorn  for Fisheye Journeys

Photo by Amanda Bjorn for Fisheye Journeys

Colombia has come a long way in recent years
Despite the lingering stigmas, Colombia has come a long way and is continuously working to shed the image of a violent past. There is still work to be done, but with leaders working to improve social policy, Colombia’s future looks bright.

As with all travel, the best way to learn about a country and its culture is to experience it yourself. And when it comes to Colombia, no matter which part you visit, there’s something new to learn at every turn.

Photo by  Amanda Bjorn  for Fisheye Journeys

Photo by Amanda Bjorn for Fisheye Journeys

Photo by  Amanda Bjorn  for Fisheye Journeys

Photo by Amanda Bjorn for Fisheye Journeys

In 1991, Medellin had 380 homicides per 100,000 people. But as of 2017, that number declined to 24.

Statistics show that violence has declined
In the 1990s, at the height of the war with Pablo Escobar’s cartel, the city of Medellin (home of the Medellin cartel) had the highest murder rate in the world. In January of 2018, the former president, Juan Manuel Santos, revealed that the homicide rate in Colombia was the lowest it had been in the last 42 years.

In 1991, Medellin had 380 homicides per 100,000 people. But as of 2017, that number declined to 24. Integrating the most impoverished and violent neighborhoods with the city center has aided this transformation, as well as the addition of new schools, libraries, transportation initiatives, and other social projects. Gang control still remains a problem, but city officials have big plans to continue the development of this historic city.

Colombia has had a history of violence even before the Escobar days. In the 1960s, the Marxist guerilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) started a civil war. Over the decades, it left 220,000 people dead and displaced up to 5 million people from their homes. In September of 2016, in a transformative moment of Colombian history, FARC signed a peace treaty with the Colombian government. The country’s largest rebel movement turned in over 8,000 weapons to the United Nations.

With conflict significantly lessened, the country is safer than it has been over the last few decades. Colombia and its citizens are working to change the way people view their country, and it’s no longer what Hollywood films make it out to be.

Photo by  Joanne Pio  for Fisheye Journeys

Photo by Joanne Pio for Fisheye Journeys

Photo by  Joanne Pio  for Fisheye Journeys

Photo by Joanne Pio for Fisheye Journeys

Colombia has seen a rise in tourism
Tourism to Colombia has been on the rise for the past few years. In 2006, the country had 1 million foreigners enter the country. In 2017, that number grew to 6.5 million tourists, an increase of 24% from the previous year.

Photo by  Amanda Bjorn  for Fisheye Journeys

Photo by Amanda Bjorn for Fisheye Journeys

The increase in tourism has created a demand for new hotels in major cities, and rural areas that were once controlled by FARC (and largely inaccessible) now have potential for tourist expansion.

The government is also working to develop infrastructure for ecotourism, mountain biking, coffee plantation tours, and rainforest exploration for areas in the Colombian Amazon.

Colombia is a fantastic country. They’ve overcome a lot, and there are many exciting things happening here. It’s a great place to visit.
— Anderson Cooper

Want to visit Colombia?
Fisheye Journeys curates culturally immersive small group trips. You’re in for incredible experiences with local creatives and entrepreneurs. Click below to view the 5 night/6 day Cartagena itinerary.

Photos by Joanne Pio for Fisheye Journeys

Author: Rocio Yepez
Founder of Fisheye Journeys

Photo by  Janette Casolary

It's not always easy to track down Rocio. She's always been a free spirit, but since her epic solo backpacking trip, she's been consuming life in rather large quantities! Four months of travel adventure in southeast Asia will do that to a person!

By trade, she's a lifestyle, portrait, and travel photographer. Fascinated by the give and take between people, she aims to capture that magic instant BETWEEN moments - the "passing" moments, where little is offered, but so much is revealed.

When she's not capturing life on film, she may be in acting class, at the bookstore, or engaged in a class to learn something completely new. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and a strong mind to earn tenure as a permanent student at community college. If you see her flat-footed, be sure to snap a picture, that's about as rare as seeing her in a bad mood. She's constantly moving, exploring, discovering, and growing.

 
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A Look At Havana's First Asian-Fusion Restaurant with Chef Carlos Alonso Acosta

Cuba is not exactly known for its restaurant scene. Up until 2010, food establishments in Cuba were either state-owned or family-run restaurants (known as paladares), set up in family homes and serving traditional homemade food like rice, beans, pork, and plantains.

I remember going to Cuba for the first time in 2013 and mostly eating the same dishes over and over. It was always jamón y queso sandwiches for lunch, and although I'd try to seek out new dishes at dinnertime, I'd normally come back to eating some variant of rice, beans, and pork. And because Cubans rely on food rations from the government, many restaurants frequently run out of ingredients, resulting in limited menu options. 

Havana's restaurant scene has seen a recent boom in independently owned restaurants, due to the mix of tourist dollars and Raul Castro's new policy that allows Cuban citizens more entrepreneurial freedom. These are not your typical paladares; these restaurants are headed by ambitious chefs focused on bringing new culinary traditions to the Cuban table, with a heady mix of international flavors.

After 2013, some chefs have had the opportunity to hone their culinary craft outside of Cuba, under Raul Castro's policy of allowing Cuban citizens to exit the country for the first time in over 50 years.

Recently, I sat down with Carlos Alonso Acosta, chef at one of Havana's first Cuban-Asian fusion restaurants, Jama, to discuss his creative fusions and Cuba's burgeoning food scene. Known for their succulent pork belly tacos, mango daiquiris, and fried plantains with soy sauce and sesame seeds, Jama has a low-key vibe that entices even the most discerning foodies around. 

Photo by  Janette Casolary  for Fisheye Journeys

Photo by Janette Casolary for Fisheye Journeys

How did you become interested in culinary art?
My friend and I (the guy I'm currently working with) have been working together with a chef named Thomas Erasmo since we were 18 years old. [Erasmo] is a very important chef in Cuba. He's really the one who showed us and cultivated our love for this type of work, [especially] for food and service. Erasmo was Fidel [Castro's] chef for a long time, and he cooked for Celia Sanchez, too.

How long did you work with him?
Between the ages of 18-29 years old. 

Was it private or state culinary work?
State work. First in a restaurant called El Tocororo and then in El Rancho Palco. The restaurants belong to the state, but [Erasmo] ran these restaurants as if they were his. He loved them and did a lot of work for them. It's not like now, where state restaurants employ people who don't really have an interest in anything that happens in the restaurants. They only work there to obtain their economic benefits from the state. But Erasmo did the complete opposite. He poured his love into everything he did, and that's what he taught us: to have love for everything we do.

Is that how you learned how to cook or did you attend formal cooking classes?
We learned how to cook and do everything [with Erasmo in those restaurants]. We became interested, we studied, we looked for books. Our possibilities opened up and we got to meet and learn from new people, [including] chefs that came from France.

Then, I obtained my visa to the U.S. and wow, it was so important. Now, I know Los Angeles, and they have a very rich food culture. I also know Philadelphia very well. I go [there] every year, and find Cuban restaurants, Thai restaurants, Indian, Vietnamese, Japanese. I get ideas from there, as well. I currently have a dessert here (at the restaurant) that's made with sweet rice with milk and mango. I got the idea from Los Angeles.

Do Cubans eat sweet rice with milk?
Sweet rice with regular milk, yes. But not with coconut milk or mango.

How do you incorporate traditional Cuban flavors into your dishes?
I think about the ingredients and flavors that I like. And when I'm done with something, I give [my] restaurant team a taste. I ask, 'Do you like this? Try it, what do you think?' When our friends come to eat, I ask them what they think and they give me tips, like 'I'd like it a bit more crispy' or 'maybe a bit spicier', and I refine the recipe from there. 

For example, we have shrimp tacos here, but it's breaded shrimp. At first, we made them only with breaded shrimp and pico de gallo, tomato, cilantro, onions. But a friend of mine suggested I should add something spicy. And I added a bit of spice.

Our first time at Jama. We loved it!

Our first time at Jama. We loved it!

Are they industry friends? People that have culinary knowledge?
Just normal people. People that love to eat and love food. Like, if you told me right now, 'I'd like to try this mango daiquiri with honey instead of sugar.'

How receptive have Cubans been to Japanese food?
Good, because really, it's not strictly Japanese food. It's a fusion. We mix everything. People in Asia eat a lot of spicy food, and us Cubans use very little spice, if at all.

Have they enjoyed the sushi?
They do like the sushi because it's a very light taste. Cubans don't generally like the idea of eating raw fish. It's something new to them and their palate, but by incorporating breaded shrimp, they like it.

Why do you think fusion foods are important?
Because there is a margin for me to play with different opinions and my ideas. You can eat sushi here or a Mexican plate because I add Asian beans too, so you get to play with your imagination. You have a wider range of possibilities with fusion food.

What ingredients do you like to mix and play with?
Miso. And I really like to add a bit of spice to everything. Here in Cuba, something important we count on is pork. We roast it with a bit of sugar, a bit of soy sauce, salt - and that combination, at the end, when the meat is roasted, is really good. It leaves a sweet taste in your palate afterward and people love it. The pork belly, when you roast it with sugar, is spectacular.

What is your favorite restaurant?
*Laughs* That's not this one? O'Reilly 304 or El del Frente.

Where do you see the restaurant scene in Havana in 5 years?
I think that in 5 years, Cuba will be different - for the better. We're going to advance a lot in the gastronomy culture because now we are more educated on the subject and we have a different concept of the client. We give more importance to the client. We respect the client and give them what they want. And if we don't have [an ingredient], we do whatever possible so that the client doesn't leave with a bad opinion or a bad taste for the place. And I think Cubans are being more receptive, in that sense. 

Ryan has strong feelings about the Thai curry soup at Jama

How do you think introducing a different cuisine has changed Cuba?
By introducing new flavors, you start changing and educating people's palates. In Cuban homes, you mostly eat rice, beans, pork, you start changing and educating people's palates. In Cuban homes, you mostly eat rice, beans, pork, friend eggs, fried chicken or roasted pork. When you introduce other flavors - like salads, vegetables, fruits, sushi - people are experimenting with them and it amplifies their palate. 

If you could travel anywhere in the world right now, where would you go and what would you eat?
I love Indian food. Everything curry. I love strong flavors. But I would go to Brazil to get to know their food and culture. They cook with a lot of coconut.

What is your next project?
When this restaurant really takes off, one day I want to set up an Asian cooking school in the U.S. and teach.

Jama is located at Aguiar #261B, entre O'Reilly y San Juan de Dios, in Habana Vieja
  

What are your favorite restaurants in Havana? Comment below to let me know!

Author: Rocio Yepez
Founder of Fisheye Journeys

Photo by  Janette Casolary

It's not always easy to track down Rocio. She's always been a free spirit, but since her epic solo backpacking trip, she's been consuming life in rather large quantities! Four months of travel adventure in southeast Asia will do that to a person!

By trade, she's a lifestyle, portrait, and travel photographer. Fascinated by the give and take between people, she aims to capture that magic instant BETWEEN moments - the "passing" moments, where little is offered, but so much is revealed.

When she's not capturing life on film, she may be in acting class, at the bookstore, or engaged in a class to learn something completely new. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and a strong mind to earn tenure as a permanent student at community college. If you see her flat-footed, be sure to snap a picture, that's about as rare as seeing her in a bad mood. She's constantly moving, exploring, discovering, and growing.

 
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Is Cuba Safe?

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In short, the answer is yes.

Recently, under President Trump's administration, the Department of State released a warning to U.S. citizens urging them not to travel to Cuba. They also announced halting visa applications for Cubans wanting to visit the United States. This was in response to news that employees from the U.S. Embassy in Havana had become ill after alleged sonic attacks. 

Individuals working in the U.S. Embassy in Havana reportedly experienced symptoms such as hearing loss, dizziness, headaches, fatigue and difficulty sleeping. They were initially attributing all of this to recent so-called "sonic attacks", but scientists in a New York Times article say that this is highly unlikely.

The tumultuous political past between the two nations makes the travel process appear more daunting than it actually is. Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba were severed in 1961 during the Cold War. In 2015, former President Barack Obama and Raul Castro took steps to normalize bilateral relations. Barack Obama eased travel restrictions and U.S. citizens were given legal permission to travel to Cuba under one of 12 categories. Despite the Trump Administration's new regulations (which went into effect on November 9, 2017), our trips will not be impacted and you will be able to obtain the 'educational visa' to travel to Cuba. 

On a guided walk around Old Havana with local architects. Photo by  Amanda Bjorn

On a guided walk around Old Havana with local architects. Photo by Amanda Bjorn

I've received many messages and emails from people concerned about how safe it is to travel to Cuba. The day the State Department announced the travel warning to Cuba coincided with the arrival of a group I was to lead around Havana for 5 days.

The entire weekend I spent with the group, I didn't get the feeling that any of them felt unsafe or nervous in any way, even as we were all hearing the news regarding officials being pulled out of Cuba.

On our way to Salsa lessons in Centro Havana. Photo by  Amanda Bjorn

On our way to Salsa lessons in Centro Havana. Photo by Amanda Bjorn

Cuban salsa lessons in session. Photo by  Amanda Bjorn

Cuban salsa lessons in session. Photo by Amanda Bjorn

One of the travelers on that trip, Ashley S., shared her experience after returning home to the States. "If you're worried, please don't be. I felt incredibly safe. The Cuban people were gracious and sweet. I've been to 52 countries and was not in the slightest worried at any point during this trip," she said.

Despite the fact that many prestigious publications reported on the story (with journalists just accepting the situation at face value without conducting further research or investigation), the concern is understandable. But here are the facts: The Cuban government has repeatedly denied any involvement with this situation and Cuba's current president, Raul Castro, welcomed the FBI into Cuba to investigate the issue. It is extremely rare for a communist-socialist government to have anyone come investigate anything. This means that even the Cuban people are just as confused and baffled by all this as everyone else.

Street musician in Havana, Cuba. Photo by  Amanda Bjorn

Street musician in Havana, Cuba. Photo by Amanda Bjorn

It would not be in Cuba's best interests to cause any harm to any U.S. citizen. On the contrary, they are extremely protective of tourists and take security measures to ensure everyone's safety. Tourism is a vital part of the economy and it is highly improbable the government would do anything to jeopardize that.

With all of this said, Fisheye Journeys trips to Cuba are still scheduled as planned and will hopefully stay that way. The U.S. embassy is still open with minimal staffing and will be providing emergency services to U.S. citizens. The embassy phone number is +53 7 839-4100 and the Department of State's phone number is 202-501-4444.

World Nomads* is still providing travel insurance coverage to Cuba. 

Brands  such as Royal Caribbean Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, American Airlines, Airbnb, and others will continue business in Cuba, as usual.

The island-country needs tourism now more than ever, especially following the devastation of Hurricane Irma. Don't let this recent "news" deter you from your travels. I look forward to exploring all the beauty and wonder Cuba has to offer with you in the near future.

Nos vemos en Cuba!
Rocio Yepez

*We’re proud affiliates of these companies. If you use our links, we may earn a small commission.

Questions about travel to Cuba? Ask in the comments below!

Author: Rocio Yepez
Founder of Fisheye Journeys

Photo by  Amanda Bjorn

Photo by Amanda Bjorn

It's not always easy to track down Rocio. She's always been a free spirit, but since her epic solo backpacking trip, she's been consuming life in rather large quantities! Four months of travel adventure in southeast Asia will do that to a person!

By trade, she's a lifestyle, portrait, and travel photographer. Fascinated by the give and take between people, she aims to capture that magic instant BETWEEN moments - the "passing" moments, where little is offered, but so much is revealed.

When she's not capturing life on film, she may be in acting class, at the bookstore, or engaged in a class to learn something completely new. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and a strong mind to earn tenure as a permanent student at community college. If you see her flat-footed, be sure to snap a picture, that's about as rare as seeing her in a bad mood. She's constantly moving, exploring, discovering, and growing.

 
Is cuba safe_ (1).jpg
 

International Travel - 5 reasons you MUST go now

There's something nourishing about travel that cannot be synthesized, hacked, or otherwise substituted. We NEED it. Like a hummingbird needs nectar - people gotta roam. Travel brings new life to everything about the human experience - physical, emotional, spiritual, creative, intellectual - AND, it reawakens that smile you've been missing. Sound fun? It IS! And if it's done right, travel is even good for the planet. How's that for one-size-fits-all, awesomeness? Now, let's see how immersive travel just may change YOUR world ...