A classic car in Havana, Cuba

Update: June 5, 2019—Yesterday, the Administration reversed a number of exceptions that have encouraged increased travel to Cuba by Americans in recent years. NPR reports that cruise ships and other recreational vessels will not be granted travel licenses, as are most people traveling under the “people to people exchange” allowance. However, those traveling for educational purposes are exempt. Since the news is still fresh, most reports quote sources who say that they will continue to monitor the ruling to better understand how these tighter travel restrictions will play out. Currently, national media outlets like Time are reporting that travel under the “support for the Cuban people” visa category is possible, provided your itinerary includes “meetings with the local Cubans, attending cultural events and staying at a Cuban family’s home, a “casa particular,” instead of a hotel.”

Cuba is a complicated country. Before traveling to Havana in 2018, I consumed anything that would provide even a fraction of context to help me understand a place worlds and decades away from my life in southern California. Inspired by the format of a recent travel guide I wrote for New York magazine, and the steady stream of questions from friends, family and acquaintances about my experience to the communist island nation, I’ve compiled a list of articles, a Netflix documentary and a podcast episode worth listening to as a (mostly food-focused) primer to Cuba.

I traveled to Cuba to learn how to take better mobile photos with Adria, an American friend and photographer who leads twice-yearly workshops in and around Havana, where she is currently accepting students for a 2019 trips. I also got a lesson on resilience, warmth, and thrift.

Thrifty like a rare plastic bag as makeshift restaurant take-away container, or a hunk of styrofoam as floating fishing vessel, for example. Nothing is wasted. Everything is used, reused, patched up and used again. And again.

From my American perspective, where I depend on and expect modern conveniences like wicked-fast WiFi, overwhelming dining and shopping options, and the opportunity to openly be my own boss (#freelancelife), these were humbling lessons.

That said, my list of what to read, watch and listen to before you go to Cuba, even if you aren’t.  

Noon in Havana, Cuba

Watch: The Cuba Libre Story on Netflix

At eight, hour-long episodes long, this documentary is like Cuban History: 101. The series begins with its indigenous population, the Tainos to evolving shifts of power. From Cuba under Spanish colonial rule, its sugar industry, as mafia haven, through revolution(s) and U.S. and Soviet relations, The Cuba Libre Story is a contextual baseline for the Caribbean nation.

The last episode ends with commentary about what Cuba will look like in 2018 and beyond as it opens itself to the rest of the world. Things are changing, for better or worse.

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Listen to: The Splendid Table podcast episode on Cuba’s paladares

Read: Explore Parts Unknown’s article on paladares

Cuba’s paladares, or privately-run restaurants hosted out of people’s homes, are a prime study on improvisation. In a country where the government determines what is produced, how much of it is produced and when it is produced, delivering a restaurant experience we’re used to in the U.S. – think set menus and hours, for starters – poses challenges. In the selected podcast and article linked above, storytellers take us behind the scenes of these clandestine eateries for a glimpse of the food shortages, black market deals, and fortitude necessary to keep paladares in business.

During my trip, I dined at La Guarida, arguably Havana’s best-known paladar. Its location in Centro Havana is colorful yet nondescript, like many streets outside of Old Havana. It’s easy to miss the minuscule sign indicating La Guarida’s existence. There, I ordered a decent fish dish with a side of shaved carrots and green beans, though was most excited about the coffee and rum combo I’d never tried before, a carajilla.

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When you return from Cuba

Read: This Miami Herald op-ed

After I returned to California, I felt conflicted about my visit. This op-ed hints at why. There were definite highlights; conversing with endearing and patient locals and the meditative lushness of its Viñales valley.

Would I go back? To be among the locals again and spend time in other parts of the country, I say absolutely; though in the current state of the country’s infrastructure? As intrepid as I’d like to consider myself, I’m not so sure. It’s complicated.

Follow these folks on Instagram for real-time scenes and updates:

For more information about the photography workshop I attended, visit http://www.aconica.com and follow Adria Ellis on Instagram.

For more of my photos from Cuba, check out my Instagram.