AS I was researching a trip to Cuba, everything I read led me to believe that I would have to constantly be on guard in Havana, would surely come back with Zika, and would struggle to keep my vegetarian diet.
Travel books and the internet were full of dire warnings about health, safety, comfort and language barriers. It took me about a day in Cuba to realise this: None of it is true.
If you’re considering a trip to Cuba, allow me to help by debunking the following myths for you.
THE FOOD IS TERRIBLE
Cubans can’t get many of the ingredients and spices we’re used to, so the food will be bland, I read on many a travel blog.
Yes, Cuba does have issues importing many products, but that just means the whole country is serving up organic, farm-to-table food that uses amazingly fresh ingredients and whatever’s in season.
I had some of the best meals of my life in Cuba — from creamy vegetable risotto that rivals Italy’s best, to squash flan: an innovative dessert that used ingredients from a farm that was mere feet from where I ate.
One caveat: I travelled to Cuba on a culinary-themed tour with Access Trips. Because the focus of the tour was on cuisine, we ate at some of the country’s best restaurants (the kinds of spots where it’s tough to get reservations), and in places that usually aren’t open to the public (like an organic farm).
On the nights that we had free time, we tested out restaurants recommended by guidebooks, and either we couldn’t get in (due to a lack of a reservation) or they weren’t nearly as good.
If food is the focus of your trip, definitely check out a food-themed tour.
IT’S UNTOUCHED BY AMERICAN CULTURE
Cuba has gained the reputation of being an island that’s untouched by time and outside cultures, but that simply isn’t true these days.
On the Access Trips tour, we were invited into the homes of Cubans, where American shows were on television. Many of the people we met talked about watching the Presidential debates, which air on Cuban TV (sorry guys).
American songs will follow Cuban ones in bars and restaurants, and Cubans will eagerly tell you about where Beyonce and Jay-Z ate when they came to visit. (Refreshingly, although my guide had heard of Beyonce, she had no idea who the Kardashians were).
HAVANA IS DANGEROUS
I read plenty of warnings against wearing flashy jewellery or walking around by myself, especially in downtown Havana.
However, I found the city surprisingly safe — there is a large presence of tourist police around, as they want to protect the influx of income that the industry has begun to bring with the arrival of more Americans.
I went jogging by myself in the morning and walking around solo at night, and I never felt that my safety was at risk.
Yes, as a solo woman traveller, I did experience the cat calls and street harassment that is unfortunately common, but it was more of an annoyance than something that made me fear for my well-being.
YOU’LL NEED A TON OF MONEY
I was on a tour, so the majority of my meals and transportation were paid for, but I still ended up spending significantly less than I bargained for.
Food, drinks, and taxis are all fairly cheap. A dinner at a nice restaurant cost me around $13, including appetisers and drinks. At upscale spots, a mojito might cost you 4 CUC ($AU5.20). When I hit a local spot to sample the country’s famed guava liquor, two glasses cost a whopping 65 cents in total. A 15 minute taxi ride averages 12 CUC ($AU16).
However, it is best to bring more money than you’ll think you’ll need. Cuba is a very cash-only country; I didn’t see credit cards used the entire time I was there.
IT’S ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE TO EAT VEGETARIAN
Google “eating vegetarian in Cuba” and one of the first results that pops up is a Forbes article titled “Cuba is a Tough Place for Vegetarians — And That Won’t Change Any Time Soon”.
The majority of the other search results are along a similar theme — bemoaning the fact that Cuban cuisine is too loaded with fish and meat to appeal to vegetarians.
I’ve definitely struggled with not eating meat in some countries — like in Ecuador, where they served me eggs and ham, because ham isn’t “real meat.”
I had zero problems avoiding meat in Cuba. Access Trips did a wonderful job, alerting restaurants ahead of time and making sure that there would be plenty of food for me to eat (and confirming with staff that there was no hidden meat or fish lurking in the dishes I ordered).
Even in the restaurants that I ventured out to solo, I had no problem communicating that I was vegetarian — the staff always knew what I meant, and would alert me if there was unexpected meat or fish within a dish that I had ordered.
Vegetarians will find plenty to eat in Cuba, and it will be delicious, varied, and fresh — and not just endless beans and rice.
YOU’LL COME BACK WITH ZIKA… OR WORSE
Mosquito-borne viruses such as Zika, chikungunya, and dengue are included in warnings for travellers to Cuba. And while you should definitely pack your mosquito repellent, these aren’t warnings that should scare you away (unless you’re in a high-risk group).
I spent time by the water and in the countryside and never saw or felt any mosquitoes. I was actually very surprised by the lack of bugs.
To be clear, I did load up on heavy bug spray after every shower and before going out at night — I’m not recommending going without.
My local Access Trips guide explained that the government sprays weekly for mosquitoes, which could explain why I never saw any. (For a more scientific explanation of how Cuba avoided Zika for much longer than many Caribbean countries, this article has a good overview.)
ACCOMMODATION WILL BE RUDIMENTARY
In Cuba, you’ll have two legal options for accommodations — you can stay in a government-owned hotel, or in a casa particular, a private house that rent out rooms (although, these rooms can be designed to be self-contained apartments, with private entryways and kitchens).
However, due to the lack of access to internet in Cuba, these can be harder to book on your own. I stayed at a highly recommended casa particular called FFF Apartment. It was in a centrally located but not-touristy neighbourhood (Street H between 17 and 19), and was very clean and private.
CUBANS AREN’T CONNECTED TO WI-FI
Drive down the streets of Havana at night and you might think the crowds of people on the corner are waiting to get into a hot new nightclub.
Look closer, though, and you’ll see that the glow is coming from the screens of smartphones and laptops, which means that you’ve found a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Although Cubans aren’t connected to the internet at every minute like we are, they definitely find ways to get online.
In order to get online in Cuba, you’ll need to buy a card (I paid $2.60 to $10.50 for an hour of access) with a login. The easiest spots to find Wi-Fi are at higher end hotels.
When in Cuba, don’t assume your phone will work well — data didn’t work on my phone the entire time I was there. Moral of the story: Check with your provider before travelling and scale your expectations about staying connected.
EXPECT TO BE QUESTIONED THOROUGHLY AT IMMIGRATION
Beyond “look at the camera please” instruction, the immigration officers I encountered while I was entering and leaving Cuba didn’t say a single word to me — they just stamped my visa and passport and sent me on my way. Arriving back in to the United States, the customs officer asked me where I had been. “Cuba!” I replied. “Nice,” he said, waving me through with a bored gesture. How times have changed.
AVOID THE WATER AT ALL COSTS
I stuck to bottled water for drinking, but I also ate plenty of fresh salads (presumably washed in tap water), and drank cocktails that contained lots of ice, and I didn’t get sick.
Diseases from contaminated water are a real concern in Cuba, so obviously, this depends on your tolerance for sickness and risk; but in my opinion, the icy daiquiris are worth the risk.
This article originally appeared on Smarter Travel.