You've seen the photos of vintage cars and peeling paint. Now get to know the country behind the Instagram.

Photography: Michael van Vliet | Words: Megan McDuffie

“We’re now beginning our descent into Havana. In accordance with Cuban regulations, flight attendants will now be spraying a non-toxic aerosol mixture into the cabin. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Ten seconds later, a smartly dressed AeroMexico flight attendant, with an aerosol can in each hand, walked the length of the plane, distributing a fine odorless mist. Other passengers anxiously asked the flight attendant what it was that was being sprayed. He said he didn’t know, but that he was required by law to do it. It wasn’t until after the trip that we found out it was insecticide used to “debug” the plane, but at the time, it was a much-needed wake up call.

We were heading some place very different. Someplace exotic and exciting, but also bewildering and opaque. This wasn’t a trip to the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, or some other developed Caribbean destination. We were stepping into another world entirely. And there’s nothing like a compulsory mid-flight sterilization to drive that point home.

For the next six days we were going to be exploring Cuba, traveling from the bustling capital of Havana, to the colonial town of Trinidad, to the sleepy village of Vinales. The trip was organized by upstart tour company Coast to Costa that specializes in culturally immersive trips to Spanish-speaking countries like Spain, Mexico, and most recently Cuba. Our trip was being lead by the company’s charismatic and tireless founder: Andrew Tyree, who had the following words of advice about traveling in Cuba: “It’s not a vacation, it’s a journey.”

We arrived at Jose Marti Airport late at night and were joined by the rest of our travel group. We had just finished picking up our luggage, when we met our local right hand man: Jorge.

With a crackling voice and affectionate smile, Jorge was initially introduced to us as our driver, but we soon found out that he was a jack-of-all-trades. Whether we needed help coordinating accommodations, advice on picking a restaurant, or help exchanging money, Jorge was our man. And if he couldn’t do it himself, he knew somebody who could. Especially for a country as mired in bureaucracy as Cuba, being able to rely on somebody like Jorge to navigate the system was invaluable.

After we got introductions out of the way, we all piled into Jorge’s shuttle van and made our way into the center of Havana. Through the heavily tinted windows, we got our first shadowy glimpses of the country. Dim streetlights illuminated vignettes that flashed before our eyes: parked vintage cars, crumbly front porches, pedestrians crossing the street. At a stop light, a behemoth vintage Chevy sedan pulled up alongside us, filled with a half-dozen young men. We had just enough time to absorb the sight, before the light turned green and they rumbled off into the night. Was this reality? Or had we stepped back in time?

It was around 1:30 am when we arrived at the house where we were staying, and after traveling all day we were all thoroughly wiped out. So much so that even with the unfamiliar mattress and oppressive humidity, none of us had any problem falling sleeping.

The next morning we woke to the sound of Jorge’s boisterous voice; he had arrived early in order to exchange our US dollars. Cuba is the only county in the world to have two official currencies: the CUC (convertible peso) and CUP (non-convertible peso). The CUC is pegged to the US dollar and is designated specifically for tourists. The CUP is a highly devalued local currency that is used by Cubans. By using two currencies, government has effectively created two separate economies, one tourist-based and one state-based. While prices at restaurants would be listed in CUCs, state issued salaries were paid in CUPs. It is a strange byzantine system that we struggled to understand the entire time we were there.

Our first stop was to visit Old Havana, the iconic heart of Cuba. In many ways it was exactly what we were expecting: shabby concrete buildings, timeworn cobblestone streets, and lines of vintage American-made cars. Our feeds had been filled with photos like this for the past couple months, so we were fairly well primed. But we also saw a some things we weren’t fully expecting, like the sun-bleached state propaganda billboards denouncing the US embargo and the public memorials dedicated to communist leaders like Che Guevara, Ho Chi Min, and Vladimir Lenin. At first, these sights felt like novelties, perfectly tailored for an ironic touristy photo op. But their presence offered a glimpse into the country’s alternate interpretation of world history and served as a reminder that, despite the recent normalizing of diplomatic relations, Cuba remains a communist-run country.

Our trip here came at a very unique time in US-Cuba relations. During our stay, President Obama was scheduled to visit Havana, the first president to do so since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. This visit was a highly-anticipated event, which the Cuban people were looking forward to with great optimism and excitement. Everyone said how happy they were Obama was coming, and that they hoped it would ultimately lead to improved conditions. So while the government billboards said one thing, the message we got from the people was quite different.

After our time in Havana, our group loaded up into the van for a trip out to Trinidad. Along the way, we got into a conversation with Jorge, who was happy to answer our countless questions about daily life in Cuba. We asked about things like housing, property ownership, salaries, and car insurance, but he found it difficult to give definitive answers. From what we could gather, the government has a heavy hand in nearly every aspect of Cuban life, which creates a murky nexus of ever shifting rules and sub-rules. Even Cubans who have lived under this system for decades have a hard time explaining it, especially to free-market foreigners like ourselves.

We got another informal tutorial about life in Cuba when we stopped at a rural gas station and began speaking with a local man who worked in a nearby field. He didn’t speak any English, but was so happy to hear we were from America. In the privacy of the plantain field and with Andrew as our interpreter, he explained how he never thought he would live to see an American in real life. Through a series of pantomime demonstrations he attempted to convey the inequities of communism - with each of us playing the role of certain professions and he playing the role of the government. He told us if we wanted to see the real Cuba we need go to the villages, speak with the people, and see how they live. The heartfelt and emotional exchange left many of us misty-eyed, and had a profound affect on how we processed the rest of the trip.

We arrived in Trinidad late at night and checked into our house after dark. Similar to the house we stayed at in Havana, this was a casa particular. In English, it translates to “private house,” but it has come to mean “private accommodation”. With so few hotels on the island, the government finally started allowing Cubans to rent their homes to tourists in 1997. These casas particulares function like a cross between a hostel and a B&B, and offer a unique glimpse into the homes of everyday Cubans.

The next morning in Trinidad was a “free range” exploration day, but many of us decided to stick with Andrew, who had a special knack for getting into conversations with locals. Just within the first few hours, we spoke with a man cooking a cauldron of pig fat out on the street, learned about a beef stew recipe called Ropa Vieja, and chatted with a guy who had trained his dog to hump on command. That afternoon we fell even further down the rabbit hole, when a few words with a woman selling bananas on the street lead us to a back alley pottery shop, where we met the longtime owner, who showed us how to make a local cocktail called the Canchanchara.

After another day in Trinidad, we crossed back through Havana on our way to the tobacco-growing region near Viñales. We passed lush fields, low-lying mountains, and distinctive rocky mounts that dotted the countryside like gigantic haystacks. In this prehistoric looking landscape we toured tobacco plantations, rode horses through sugar cane fields, and explored one of the many limestone caverns. However, the most memorable experiences here, and perhaps of the entire trip, came from our visit to a family run organic farm called Finca Paraiso.

Since the 1960s, Cuba has relied almost exclusively on the Soviet Union for food. Despite having soil that is perfectly capable of growing crops, the government-run agricultural system instead concentrated all their energy on the production of sugarcane. This was exported to the Soviets at a premium in exchange for traditional food staples like rice and beans. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba found itself in the midst of a massive food crisis. During this Special Period, the government loosened the rules around private farming and began to allow farmers to sell surplus food directly to the population. But after so many decades of inactivity, small farmers had to relearn how to grow basic foods all over again.

Shortly after the rules were changed, a young couple, Wilfredo and Rachel, began cultivating a previously abandoned plot of land. They had never farmed before, but were compelled to learn by the need to survive. Heavy rains would wash away the soil, so they built terraces. Fertilizer was expensive, so they began composting. Chemical pesticides were not available, so they grew their crops organically. Nearly everything had to be learned first hand, but after a few years the farm started producing. At first they fed themselves, then their extended families, then they donated surplus food to hospitals and orphanages, and then finally opened a restaurant to feed guests. Now Finca Paraiso is well-respected establishment in Viñales, beloved by the community, tourists, and even the government.

On our last day in Cuba, we returned to Havana. Our flight was scheduled for the afternoon, but before we left, Jorge graciously offered to host our entire group for a farewell lunch. After spending nearly a week getting to know Jorge, we felt honored to be welcomed into his house.

While we ate, Jorge revealed his plans to renovate the second story of his house so he could turn his home into a casa particular. Despite being located just outside of Havana, he hoped that tourists would want to come and experience an authentic Cuban neighborhood. Having experienced Jorge’s heart-melting hospitality first hand, we knew this new venture would suit him perfectly.

As our plane lifted off the runway and the city of Havana shrunk beneath us to just another dot on a map, we were finally able to take a moment to reflect. Our trip was fascinating, eye-opening, and extraordinary on every possible level. But what we were left thinking about on the flight had nothing to do with what we saw, but the personal interactions we had, the conversations with people in the streets and in the field, hearing about their life experiences, and listening to their hopes and dreams for the future.

It is easy to romanticize about the architecture, cobblestone streets, and vintage cars, but the Cuban people are by far the country’s greatest attraction. Their depth, their resilience, and their eternal optimism should serve as an inspiration to us all. And for the opportunity to connect with them, during this very special moment in American history, we are completely grateful. [H]