Cuba is in the middle of a tourism boom. There are many articles detailing how amazing Cuba is but this is not one of them. Don’t get me wrong, Cuba has a lot of beautiful beaches, good food and charming towns, but there are lots of thing I wish I knew before I travelled there. Here is what to expect from Cuba.
Cuba is not cheap
I thought spending in Cuba was going to be like any other Latin country, turns out it’s more like going to Europe. One CUC (the currency for foreigners) is equivalent to one euro, so I spent way more money than I expected. There are some places that accept Cuban peso (the local currency) but they are diminishing by the minute as everyone sees the huge profit margin in overcharging foreigners.
I hate it when locals think that foreigners have money just because they are travelling. We don’t! We don’t have money because we are travelling. So, it really pissed me off to see this behavior so entrenched in Cuba’s touristic sector.
Transportation between cities is not cheap, a two-hour car ride costs 25 CUC per person, so anywhere you go ends up costing you 25 Euros, even a 2 hour ride to a beach. The public buses are cheaper but since scamming tourists is a great business they are always ‘sold out’ or its ‘dangerous’. We stayed with some friends for a while at the bus station and talked to the ticket guy which reluctantly sold us the bus tickets. The bus was completely empty.
Massive tour groups
I went to Viñales to see the tobacco farms and the green scenery, which was beautiful, but I encountered flocks of tourist groups that made it feel like any random town in Latin America. At 7 pm every restaurant gets flooded with tourists willing to pay 20 CUC for a cheese pizza, with their Che Guevara T-shirts and Revolution hats. Imagine if Che Guevara saw that scene; tourists being overcharged by capitalism while wearing his face on a shirt. Depressing.
These tour groups have skewed the transportation dynamics in the region. I stayed at a “Casa de Familia” which was more of a hostel than a family house, and since I arrived, the lady kept saying that I had to book my car leaving Viñales NOW, even if it was in a few days because everything would be filled out. I don’t know if she was just pushing us to buy, which was shitty, or if really transport fills up so fast which is also shitty. Another couple wanted to go to small non-touristic towns and the lady kept saying it was impossible to get there because most of the buses had predetermined routes either going to Habana or to Trinidad. Also she kept saying that taking buses from vendors on the street was dangerous and illegal so we should book with her for 10 CUCs more. We didn’t fall for it but the whole situation was extremely uncomfortable. She was filling us with lies and terror. We realized that the cars she was selling us were air-conditioned private cars while the others were small buses with no air conditioning, if she had explained that we could’ve made an informed decision. We ended up taking the bus which was fine.
Varadero was and still is the party site of old, rich ‘gringos’. Everything is over-priced, the service is horrible and the food is tasteless and overcooked, but is has an old fashion vibe that reminds people of a ‘better time’. The ‘Beatles’ bar is full every night with old people singing along to the hits of their youth. The beaches are very blue and the sand is very white but there is nothing extraordinary that is worth it. The value for money is cero.
As I said before, everyone in the touristic sector is trying to get money out of you and it seems like they have a prearranged agreement for this. You know you are being scammed but no one will tell you the right prices. People are really nice and helpful but they are like that everywhere in Latin America so I didn’t feel specially welcomed or helped.
Be careful with airport workers, they are specially mean, I know they hate their job and they get paid horribly low wages, but come on, everyone who works at an airport hates their job but I have never been so ignored, and mistreated in an airport ever. The exit stamp was a very light shade of pink and it wasn’t visible in our passports, so we asked the lady to do it again since we didn’t want to not have an exit stamp out of Cuba, the lady looked at me like I had just spit in her face, and told me “Don’t you see the ink ran out” and proceeded to stamp my passport aggressively 5 times in the same spot “You see, it doesn’t work”.
Cuba is definitely not a secluded communist island anymore. It has, from long ago, been invaded by capitalistic ideals. The first thing I saw when I got off the plane was a huge ad for a Samsung S7. Every single person in the tourism sector, drivers, hostel owners, etc have iPhones and the latest Samsung phone, HD TVs and state of the art technology. This is not inherently bad, people can have nice things but it creates more division between the normal working class and people in the tourism sector. Also, what are they using that phone for? There’s no internet.
In the central park in Havana (where all the vintage cars are) you can see a Mango or Zara store that’s surrounded with constructions of immense hotels. Word on the street was that they were being built by arab investors.
Bonus: lame museums
The museums suck. The revolution museum is the saddest museum in history. I was expecting at least a chronological historical recount of the revolution, with some fun facts, patriotic pictures, I don’t know, something interesting. What I found was an extremely messy museum (which is not free) that has random objects in display about random moments in the revolution like the piece of rope Che Guevara used to climb a tree (or something).
What I did like …
I liked the architecture, it does feel from an old time, that doesn’t need to be ‘modernized’. The fact that there’s no internet really influences how people interact with each other. There’s no rush, people chill out on the street, they are willing to talk to you and tell you about their lives. When you take the time to talk to people they will share with you their opinion on Cuba, on Castro, communism, climate change, colombian reggaeton singers, the Voice Mexico, etc. I found that cubans generally don’t like to give their opinion on politics, when you ask them about communism, Chavez or Castro they say things like “Yeah we don’t know much” “That’s how it is”, “Oh yeah I heard something about that”.
I think it’s hard to imagine living in a different system, of course if someone asks me if I wanted to work for no money, have no private property and not be able to leave a country I would say “No, Thanks!”, but if that’s what you know and it comes with free healthcare, job security, guaranteed housing and free education maybe you wouldn’t be so quick to change. When asking people if they would rather have options but no job, health or education they had to really think the answer. I don’t know which system is better, I think both are horrible and make people suffer in different ways.
We stayed on night in Matanzas, there’s nothing to do there, we went inside a tourism agency and they literally said “There’s nothing to do here”, but we saw part of the ‘real’ Cuba. That night there was a neighborhood assembly in the street we were staying, to discuss the achievements of local government, discuss problems among neighbors and recognize the good behavior of the citizens. There was a huge picture of Castro hanged on a window, speakers, a microphone and all the people of the street. At the end, they started to give certificates for good behavior, to young people, adults, elders, certificates for everyone! At the end, a little girl walked up and read the ‘Revolution Poem’ that detailed the heroic characters and successes of the revolution, the patience and resilience of the cuban people and the importance of sharing and caring for others.
Cuba is definitely an interesting place, if you wanted to feel stuck in the 60s’ the time to go has passed, but Cuba is still filled with interesting people and stories. I didn’t have the time to visit small towns so I would definitely recommend that instead of Varadero and Havana. Probably there you can be further away from the capitalist influence and the tourist scams. I don’t regret going but I had a completely different image of Cuba in my mind.