At the beach in Koh Nang Yuan, Thailand

By Norbert Figueroa, an experienced architect, travel writer, long-term budget traveler, and photographer with over 13 years of travel experience in over 139 countries and counting. @globotreks

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I travel solo most of the time, which has its ups and downs, but I think in Havana, me being solo was a major influence on how my days there evolved.

There’s also a chance that me being Puertorrican played a role too since after all, Cubans and Puerto Ricans see each other as cultural brothers.

An Unexpected Encounter

As per usual, I like to walk around cities, and Havana was no exception – even with its unbearably hot temperatures and high humidity that made me sweat every step of the way.

One of my missions in Cuba was to film more videos, so, before traveling there I bought a handheld stabilizer (like this one) to shot better, more stable videos. Easy, no? During my first day walking the city, I decided to play with my new toy. I walked several streets in Central and Old Havana trying to get decent shots, or so I thought.

A street in Old Havana, Cuba
Typical street in Old Havana

Unfortunately, one must learn to balance a camera on the stabilizer properly, and I failed to do that after a few attempts. All my videos came out wobbly and unfocused. Once I realized my fail, I sat down at the side of the road to let my frustration pass before moving on.

After a few minutes there, a man passed by and asked for a lighter. I don’t smoke, so I simply said no. Right after asking he saw that weird apparatus holding my camera and asked me about it, to which I replied positively. He immediately sat down next to me and we continued talking.

At first, I was suspicious of his intentions. After traveling extensively, I’ve already experienced all kinds of scams, and he seemed like he was onto something. Let’s say he sort of was.

His name was Alex, and apparently he had nothing to do that day, so he offered to show me around for a tip. At least he was honest about it from the beginning.

I didn’t want to since I wanted to focus on my filming, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it with him around. But, after a few minutes of chatting, I decided to give it a try and stated from the beginning that I would only give about $5 at the end of it all. Alex accepted, and I dismissed my filming plans.

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Cars in Havana, Cuba

At first, it all went like the typical tour in Havana, seeing the major sights like the Capitol Building, the vintage cars, the famous Calle Obispo, and El Floridita (where Ernest Hemingway used to frequent for his daiquiris), among other sights in the area.

He also took me to the heart of Old Havana where I saw the Plaza de Armas and the Palacio de Los Capitanes, followed by the Royal Force Castle, which is the oldest stone fortification in the Americas, and more.

In fact, Old Havana has so many interesting places to visit, that at every corner I looked I found myself curious about “that one place”, or interested in reading about “that other site”, and so on.

Alex did a pretty good job explaining things, but more than explaining about the cathedral, and the palace, and the fortress; I wanted him to explain “his Cuba” to me. After we had finished walking around, we sat in a café and talked about life in Cuba. (I wrote partially about this in my previous post.)

Havana, Cuba
Interior courtyard of the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales in Old Havana.

He went on to explain how he’s worked guiding tourists as a side gig, how he sells apartments “under the table,” and his experience in a Cuban prison, which did not sound easy or pleasant at all.

He manages to survive by finding anything, and everything, as an odd job on the street, but he knows that in tourism, is where the money is right now.

By Cuban standards, Alex lives “ok.” He’s able to pay for his youngest son’s daycare (which is $10 a month), he can buy extra food for the family, and even eat outside every once in a while.

An Impromptu Birthday Invitation

After some more talking he said, “Well, today is my mom’s birthday, and I should go to meet the family for dinner. Do you want to come?”

Here I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

Streets in Havana, Cuba
Alex in the foreground, chatting with a few friends in typical Cuban fashion.

Once we reached his mom’s house, which, in fact, is where all the family lives, I met Alex’s mom and his immediate and extended family. In the living room, they were listening to an American R&B concert, played via DVD on a TV that could easily be from the 90s.

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The welcome drink choices were rum, vodka, and Tukola (Cuban Coca-Cola). I started with vodka.

Even though I was not part of their family, they welcomed me with open arms and marveled at the idea of having a Puertorrican at their house, which apparently was a first.

We speak Spanish with different accents, but Habaneros and Puerto Ricans have the same bad custom of changing the Rs for Ls in most words, so it all felt like locals talking about any random stuff we could come up with.

Alex then showed me around the house. It was small and had only one bedroom. There was another bed in the living room that also served as a couch during the day. The bathroom had no shower, and the kitchen was barely wide enough to fit two people at the same time.

Even though Alex’s mom was the “birthday girl,” she demanded to be in charge of cooking. Since I was a guest, I was served first. I felt both welcomed and ashamed at the same time.

Here I have a family, sharing what little food is rationed to them with me, and making sure I was well fed (when in some cases they aren’t). The food was simple, but it was good by Cuban standards.

Many Cubans have to manage their culinary talents with low resources, so food is often under-seasoned or of bad quality. Thankfully, this meal was neither.

I offered to buy some Tukola and beer to help, which barely cost me $2.

Local meal in Havana, Cuba
A humble, yet good local meal with rice, plantains, potatoes, and pork.

Hello, Santeria!

While sitting there chatting, I saw a few small statues by the entrance. I asked Alex about them, and he said they were his mom’s protectors. He had his protectors in his room too. They practice Santeria, and I found that very curious.

Even though Roman Catholicism is the main religion in Cuba, Santeria is considered to be very popular among many. Santería developed out of the traditions of the Yoruba, one of the African peoples who were imported to Cuba during the 16th through 19th centuries to work on the sugar plantations.

Santería blends elements of Christianity and West African beliefs and as such made it possible for the slaves to retain their traditional beliefs while appearing to practice Catholicism.

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Havana, Cuba

Santeria can be easily seen on the streets. People initiating into the religion wear all white from head to toe for three months or longer while others simply wear amulets in the form of bracelets, chains, or others.

After getting a brief introduction to what Santeria is, Alex told me his godfather is a Babalawo, which means ‘father of the mysteries’ (in the Yoruba language) or Priest of Ifá. In other words, he is an important person in Santeria. He made the offer to pay a visit to him to get a “Cadenazo,” or brief reading. I accepted.

During my travels I’ve participated in all sorts of religious practices, from Buddhist to Islamic, to Hinduism, to Christian; so Santeria would not be an exception – even with its bad reputation of “negative” powers. I’m open to experiencing things firsthand.

Cadenazo in Havana
The chain…

Alex’s godfather’s place was even more humble. We sat on a small table in the living room, and there he performed the Cadenazo. It proceeded with him throwing a chain with what seemed like eight pieces of fruit shells.

He would read and interpret them according to how they fell and ask me to hold in my hands two different seashells (without him seeing in which hand was which). He would then ask me to place the shell in a given hand on the table, which he would then interpret according to the shell.

This process was repeated several times until he had a full read on me. While I won’t share the specifics of the reading, I can say that it surprised me more than I expected. Whatever any saint, god, or whoever told him, it identified quite accurately with me.

After that, I walked home and went on with life like any other day, but feeling like I made some friends in Havana.

I’m happy I got to experience so much and got to see a glimpse of the real Cuban life, including some of the strange and surreal aspects of its religions, social aspects, and politics.

This, to me, was more interesting than seeing buildings and shooting my video. And maybe, this is one of the best perks of traveling alone – easier access to locals.

Adventure Awaits


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  1. You were lucky. My experience in Cuba was nowhere near that – it was more like scams (which I quickly learned to recognize and avoid). I even spent a few days in a casa particular in Santiago, which belonged to a known local Santera, but she wasn’t the most welcoming person, and I figured soon enough that she would not appreciate any questions. I just left it at that and appreciated her home (which was on the rich side, by Cuban standards).

    A friend of mine is an anthropologist and she’s been to Cuba 3 times to research Santeria. She was also traveling alone and I think this actually made a difference.

    I am keen to go again – and see if my second time around my relationship with the locals gets better!

    1. Oh, I had my share of scam attempts. No doub about that. But after weeding out those attempts, the other real interactions surpassed the experience I was expecting to have there.

      I guess I was lucky to meet these people. Who knows…

      1. We don’t travel somewhere to make it more American, why travel then? Also from an American perspective, everyone wants to come to America and want us to bend to their cultures and traditions. I doubt there is anywhere that has an American pride day or a parade, we have them all the time celebrating other cultures. Peace!

  2. It was fun reading your blog. We travelers make memories and create experiences for lifetime. Great article. Keep sharing.

  3. great story! i also found the 90s style blurry chunky tvs super jarring. I caught myself gawking when I first entered the house I was staying. And I had a couple run-ins with Santeria practices. The place I stayed had a bunch of mythic amulets & blessings near the door. And I found the basis of their philosophies really interesting, similar to some other religions like taoism.

    1. Oh yes, Santeria can be found everywhere in Cuba and is such a strong and interesting part of their culture. I’m glad I gave myself the opportunity to experience it.

  4. I loved reading your articles about Cuba. I have a trip planned to Cuba in November. I have heard good and bad….but I wanted to go. Now, I am concerned with the suggestion from the State Dept. for U.S travelers not to go to Cuba. It seems that diplomats staying in hotels are the ones being attacked…..I am not a diplomat and not staying in a hotel. I am still wanting to go, but have several friends BEGGING me not to go. I have a trip planned with a travel guide. I have traveled with him to France, Peru, etc. He is great. Takes small groups (10-12) and he has been to Cuba several times. Would you go now?? Thanks. DeeLee

    1. Hi DeeLee –

      Obviously, it’s sad that this diplomat issue is happening there, but I’d still go. Like you said, you’re not a diplomat and not staying in a hotel, so you should be ok. This seems to be a targeted attack on them, and not on Americans, in general. Of course, you are the one who has to weigh in your safety, but if you feel like your guide is knowledgeable and he’ll “keep you safe,” I’d go for sure. I’d even go now without a guide, but that’s just me.

      Hope this helps!

      1. Thanks so much for your comments. I appreciate your feedback….and I am probably going…maybe just won’t tell family and family!!

          1. I am going for a planning meeting next weekend with my great guide and the group that is going. Yes, I do not plan to miss this opportunity. Thanks for your suggestions.

  5. After meeting with Glenn, my guide, today, I am even more excited than ever to go!! Ready to start packing my bags now!!