Having recently returned from a trip to Cuba as a freelance journalist, I can tell you that it is a place unlike any other. I’ve traveled a lot, been around, seen some things, but after about five hours in Cuba I knew that this was an entirely new experience, and one that would leave an impression on me. Let me say first and foremost that if luxury, refinement and a stress-free vacation is your idea of a good time, Cuba, as a whole, is absolutely not for you. However, if you are looking for an authentically challenging culture to navigate where people do things differently, think differently and have different ideas of what a “good life” is, then perhaps you should consider putting Cuba near the top of your travel list. This is why I wanted to travel to Cuba to meet, interview and interact with the people of Cuba to come away with a better understanding of this interesting place so that I can share it with you from an informed, first-hand perspective.
The Best Reasons to Visit Cuba or Avoid It
It’s Grubby and It’s Real
Yea, no pampering happening here on the streets of Cuba. Sure you can find some nice amenities in very expensive hotels or resorts, but even in those establishments it would not be anything like what you could find in the United States. Cuba is hot, it’s humid and it’s active. The people aren’t shut indoors under the air conditioner because chances are they don’t have an air conditioner. The people are on the balconies, in the streets, walking, dancing, playing – they’re active and that means that a traveler in Cuba is going to be active as well. You’re going to sweat a lot, you’re going to get grubby and grimy, your hands are going to be dirty, you’re going to get dirt under your finger nails and you’re going to look forward to the potential lack of hot water in the shower when you get one because the cool water is going to feel like a million bucks after many hours wandering the streets of Havana or trekking the trails of the Viñales Valley. If you crave a raw, sweaty, unapologetically third world experience then you’re going to have a blast in Cuba! And, if air conditioning and lounging by the pool in a picturesque town fit for a postcard is what you want, steer clear of the Cuban experience altogether.
Essential Gear: This thing saved my butt a few times in Cuba.
Lack of Customer Service Forces you to Adapt
Again, it’s all in what you want to experience. The unique nature of the Cuban economic system is going to challenge any traveler to work hard to get what they want. I personally love this aspect of travel because it helps you grow, but I want to make you aware that this is a major challenge when you go to Cuba. Outside of the few high end hotels and restaurants, there is utterly no notion of customer service in Cuba. Put out of your mind the crazy idea that the employee sitting at a ticket counter in the bus terminal is there to be helpful, answer questions and otherwise make your travel experience enjoyable. I can tell you from countless first-hand experiences that this could not be further from the mind of most of the workers in Cuba. Whether you get what you need or not, in my experience, is of absolutely no concern to the vast majority of employees in virtually all establishments. In fact, you may have trouble event spotting who is working and who is a customer because most businesses have no uniform requirements (or so it seems). The workers typically come in to work when they can (not by the clock) and do as they please while they go through the motions and talk among themselves, eating and drinking, and doing all forms of non-customer-centric activities. Remember, Cuba is a communist nation so the government runs everything and therefore, quality control is rock bottom in a typical establishment. Workers get paid the same amount (very low) regardless of production so the work culture has evolved into one that is there to handle the essential tasks of the job, not to be helpful or informative to you or I. I experienced countless instances where workers failed to even recognize my presence as I stood patiently at the counter waiting on them to finish feeding their children (who they often have at work), or casually talking with one another. When I said something, it was clear, without exception, that interacting with me was an unwelcome hassle and they typically just ignored me until they had finished what they were doing. I did come across a couple of hotels and a couple of restaurants where the employees looked like they genuinely enjoyed their jobs and was told by a number of Cuban tour guides and taxi drivers that this was most likely because they worked in high traffic tourist areas and made decent tips and had learned that a happy, helpful personality made them more money. I’m 100% fine with that mentality and welcomed these interactions and found myself returning to businesses where this type of experience was the case. So this is the on-the-ground low-down of customer service in Cuba.
The Food is Usually Plain but Healthy
Once again, in one of the few high end establishments, you will be able to find food that is really amazing, but in the majority of Cuba, the food is relatively bland. It tends to be a meat (mainly chicken, pork, beef, fish, lobster) that is baked or fried along with some beans and rice and a vegetable side or two. Seasoning of the food, in general, is lacking. This is odd because Cuba has a similar food selection as places like New Orleans which is world renowned for its cuisine. The difference is that a typical Cuban restaurant does not use the seasonings or preparation methods used in places with more tasty food offerings. Delicious sauces, fusions and well seasoned meats just are not something you will find in a typical Cuban restaurant. However, food is not that pricey in Cuba so finding a decent restaurant with great food at a decent price is not an impossibility. Each town or city is going to have a handful of establishments that will hit the mark when it comes to their food preparation and presentation. So in this case, like the instances in the sections above, if you are looking for a basic, raw and unpolished experience then Cuba is the place for you. And, if you have the expectation that you should be able to walk into any restaurant and have a great tasting meal, you simply are not going to be happy with your Cuban culinary experience.
Essential Gear: Never keep all of your cash in one place!
Communist Propaganda is Everywhere
I don’t take many things personally, so I was prepared to have a lot of signs that promoted things that I personally do not relate to. Likewise, I was not the least bit phased by the undercurrent of anti-American and pro-communist sentiment I heard in the conversations I had with dozens of Cuban people. In the end we all know what we know and we don’t know what we don’t know and if one thing is clear, the Cuban people have had very limited exposure to balanced political information over the past half century. Given these circumstances, I fully expected to see and experience exactly what I got. However, while there is some anti-American sentiment, the people are typically nice when you talk with them and they have a lot of questions and curiosity about America in general. America is as strange and different to them and what they know, as Cuba was to me. I understood this and worked to help them understand my country better by patiently listening and answering their questions. I did my best to remain calm and share my experiences with them and simply be the best representative for the United States that I could be. I found myself working to be compassionate with some points of view and as most of my conversations carried on, I found people to be open to suggestion and to other ways of thinking when they are engaged with respect and understanding. At some point you’re probably going to encounter a few things that could strike you as amusing or sad depending on how you choose to perceive them. For example, there are still books being sold on the streets, in the airport and in stores called things like “The truth about the CIA” and things of this sort. These kinds of things are relatively common and play right into the communist propaganda that teaches people that America wants to control everything and everyone and is out to rule the world and enslave other nations by making them financially dependent on the US. It’s interesting to see this type of thing because we don’t get a lot of that in most of the world, so I didn’t give it too much thought and figure that as the Cuban people become more exposed to Americans and online information, they’ll begin to see our nation in a more favorable light. Just know that you will encounter at least some kind of anti-American sentiment during your stay in Cuba.
The Alcohol is Awesome
Moving past politics for the moment, let’s get on with a topic that virtually everyone can find some common ground on and this is where you’ll see Cuba shine! The rum, the piña coladas, the beer – in Cuba, it’s all delicious! Fruity drinks use local, organic and freshly picked fruits, the beers are light and refreshing and the rum is smooth and of great quality. The alcohol scene is one of the best aspects of the Cuban experience in my opinion because there are so many varieties of drinks in any given region and the historic party culture that was Havana in the 1920s – 1940s has left its impression on Cuba with each establishment having its own specialty drink just waiting to be enjoyed. And, if you don’t drink alcohol, never fear, there are plenty of amazing non-alcoholic options available just about anywhere you go.
Essential Gear: Travel light, move quickly and stress free!
Cuba is Not Cheap
Cuba can be expensive so take a lot more money than you think you’ll need. Here is an example. I paid for all of my lodging using AirBnB before I left the states. I decided that I would stay in Cuba for 7 days so I exchanged 2,000 US dollars into Euros and then exchanged those into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) once I landed in Havana. Having no lodging expenses to pay for, I still spent every last cent I had during those 7 days. Now, it’s true that I took some very long private taxi rides instead of the buses in some instances, simply for the sake of convenience, but I can tell you for a fact that $2,000 US would last you an entire month backpacking around most Latin American countries. Not in Cuba! And remember that US banks do not yet have relationships with those in Cuba so using your US based credit cards or getting money from an ATM is not even remotely possible – forget about it!
Note: The reason I turned my US dollars into Euros before I went to Cuba is that converting US dollars into Cuban currency carries a 10% charge that is not charged if you use British Pounds, Euros, etc.
Note: Do not buy cigars from any place other than an official government store which are typically called “La Casa del Habano” in Havana. There are some others, but these are the most well known stores and they’re typically located inside of nice hotels. Street sellers sell well constructed fake cigars using cheap tobacco, banana leaves, and such, at inexpensive prices but these are not real so avoid this situation at all costs. There is no shortcut to getting quality Cuban cigars. If you are from the United States, your chances of having these seized upon entry to the US is high at this point in history although some customs agents may be lenient.
So back to the topic of Cuba being somewhat expensive…of course you could “rough it” and just go super cheap in Cuba if you wanted to, just like you could anywhere else in the world. But if you want to spend time in the bars, eat in a few nice restaurants and otherwise avoid stressing about money, then be sure to bring more cash than you think you will need.
It Seems that Everyone is “On the Take”
When I say everyone, I fully understand that there are exceptions. However, the many people that are going to go out of their way to engage you in conversation, which are the majority of Cubans you will interact with, are doing so to get something from you. I went as a freelance journalist so I interviewed a number of people who approached me on the street and once we got through with their sales pitches, I was able to ask some of them questions. Without exception they told me that any Cuban who randomly approaches you is more than likely trying to sell you something or is trying get you to buy them something. In my experience, the information the many people I interviewed was right on the money. In fact, out of the hundreds of conversations I had on the streets in Cuba, not one was started by someone else that didn’t focus on me buying something from them or for them.
Countless dozens of times I had a conversation that followed this exact pathology (take for granted I say “no” to each sales pitch):
- An introduction – “Hey how are you, where are you from, what are you looking for?”
- Small talk – “Oh you’re American, great country, I have a cousin/brother/etc in Miami. Is this your first time in Cuba, do you like it?”
- First pitch (sex) – “You looking for a lady? You want to have a good time?”
- Second pitch (cigars) – “My friend works in the factory and can sell you cigars very cheap, you’ll love it, only available today.”
- Third pitch (food/drink) – “Hey you want to have a drink, it’s your first time in Cuba, let’s party, will you buy me a drink?”
- Fourth pitch (cigarette/money) – “Do you have a cigarette?” “I don’t have any money, can I have one CUC for food?”
- Immediately scurry on to the next person without another word
It got to the point that I began telling them from the very start, “I don’t want anything.” Luckily I am a man with enough physical presence and a firm enough personality that this began to work quite well and they would immediately move on to the next person. What struck me as odd is how well these street salespeople spoke English in many cases. I asked a number of them why they knew English so well when even the workers in many of the hotels did not. Without exception they told me that it helped them make more money so they really worked hard to listen and practice English until they could speak it well. Actually, I found this quite impressive! While I had zero interest in buying sex, cigars or alcohol from a person on the street, I did find their overall motivation to acquire a new language to help build their business really skillful.
After a day I began to use these situations in my favor. Everyone was getting kickbacks for referring me to someone else. I know this is true because I asked a number of people and they all confirmed my suspicions as true. For example, the person who rented me a room referred me to a tour guide who then referred me to a taxi driver who would drive me to the next city. Once in that city, the person I rented a room from referred me to a man who gave horseback tours who referred me to a taxi driver who would take me to the next city….and so on. I quickly realized this was happening and began using it to my advantage. Instead of feeling cheated, I simply began negotiating with each person more. The guy who gave horseback tours knew exactly what it would cost to drive me to the next city because that kickback is how he made most of his extra income. So I began refusing the first offer and negotiating the price down to something more suitable. At this point I would agree to those terms and ask them to set it up. Without fail, they set up the next appointment for me and everything began to work in my favor and I didn’t have to try to make anything happen at all. In essence I hacked the Cuban kickback referral system. I personally love this kind of scenario because it tests you, it makes you adapt to your environment and it forces you to learn to work and live within it. If you love this type of interaction, you’ll enjoy Cuba as I did but if you are easy to take advantage of and have a tough time saying “no” then perhaps Cuba isn’t for you.
Essential Gear: Trekking through the Cuban outdoors is hard on the feet.
The Architecture is Amazing
Miles and miles of colonial Spanish houses line the streets of Havana and every other notable city in Cuba. Relics of a time gone by, these dinosaurs decay in the heat and rain but maintain their beauty despite decades of ill treatment, most living without upkeep or repair. The structural and design beauty of the city of Havana is something to behold. While miles of houses are caving in and falling apart while being occupied by multiple families, you can still make out the beauty in each and every one as you pass by. Havana is undergoing major restoration (see photo) efforts but it would take countless years to restore all of the homes that have fallen prey to the elements and the ravages of time. If a structure is still standing, people are living in it. Coming from the United States, this was one of the most dramatic encounters I had with Cuban culture. At first it was shocking to me to think that people lived in some of these buildings, but they do. And, to these people, these decaying buildings are home. So, I am not in a position to judge the type of homes these people live in. This is what they have and it meets their most basic needs for shelter and to most of them that’s pretty good. Once I got over the initial shock of realizing that these rotting structures were currently home to millions of people, I began to see the remaining beauty in their design and the quality with which they were built. Inside of the rusted iron and crumbling facades of the buildings are sturdy solid wood rafters and beams crossing thick, heavy, plaster walls all designed to stand the test of time; and that they have.
You’re Safe in Cuba
Cuba has very little crime. It’s just not part of their culture. A few of the Cuban tour guides and hotel workers I met explained it to me in this way. They told me that, with few exceptions, all Cubans are equally poor so committing crime against people doesn’t do much good. Getting along, cooperating and being generous to people helps everyone get more out of life than creating conflict. I can dig this type of mentality! I can tell you that I was in the heart of Havana surrounded by crumbling buildings in the pitch black darkness and I felt as safe as I ever have. That is not to say that no crime exists in Cuba, it does, but overall, you are quite safe. Given that, don’t be stupid. If you’re in a tourist area with a lot of people trying to sell you things, don’t go pulling out wads of cash for everyone to see. That temptation could be too much for some people to pass up. Be smart, enjoy yourself, dress casually, act normal and everything is going to be just fine during your trip to Cuba.
There are the best reasons to visit Cuba or avoid it according to yours truly! You can take this information for what it is; one person’s point of view based on first hand experiences and in-person interviews of various Cuban citizens. Nothing in this article is absolute, nor should you consider it to be so. There are exceptions to everything you’ll find in this article or any other article about any place on the globe. These are my experiences, my impressions and my understandings based on my experiences in Cuba.
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