I just returned from a week-long holiday in Cuba. I chose the Caribbean island partly because I envisioned a week of R & R on white sandy beaches with cool Salsa music, and partly because I was curious. Very curious to know what life was like in one of the last bastions of Communism.
As a Canadian, I know many who have traveled to Cuba for years, benefiting from the trade relationship to enjoy cheap holidays. But, as someone who works for an American company, I was conscious of how Americans have vilified Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution for decades. Now that the United States has restored diplomatic relations with Cuba and announced the loosening of a 56-year trade embargo, I wanted to visit the island before Barack and Michelle Obama’s historical visit this month changes everything.
How easy is it to get there?
It’s easy to travel to Cuba if you’re not an American or traveling from America. In my case, I’m a Canadian who also holds a French passport, and I flew into Havana directly from Paris, France. Our vacation was booked through a travel agent who arranged for our tourist visas at no extra cost before the direct flight. We opted for a beach holiday in the resort town of Varadero with an excursion into the capital city of Havana mid-week. Our son, who studies in Montreal, flew down to join us and I was pleasantly surprised at how frequent and inexpensive the flights were from Canada. I was, however, amazed that almost every hotel we looked at in Varadero was already completely booked in February. Was everyone as curious as I was to see Cuba before the American onslaught?
What did I expect?
They say the best way to travel is to go with an open mind. As a frequent traveler, I know better than to apply western standards when visiting developing countries. Still, I was struck by the many paradoxes. The Varadaro coastline is lined with mammoth size, luxury hotels offering non-stop beach and pool animation, mega buffets, and free flowing mojitos. Very western style; very kid friendly. In fact, parents will be happy to know that your children will occupy themselves with real activities because Internet and variety of television channels are rare commodities. Some hotels offer WI FI connections, which you can access if you buy an Internet card from the reception desk for the cost of two Convertible Pesos, the equivalent of two Euros, for a one-hour use. Naturally, the lobby next to the bar is the most popular place mornings and evenings, with people trying to log onto the Internet – which is down most of the time. If you have to watch TV, you don’t need English to watch sports. And, surprisingly, in our hotel we received CNN and were able to watch their non-stop coverage of the Republican primary debate in Nevada.
Food, always a highlight on any holiday trip, was a major disappointment. There was plenty of it available at all hours but the cuisine was pretty tasteless, even in the so-called best of restaurants. Now, if I had any expectation, I thought Cuban food would be flavorful, possibly spicy. Not so. And eating out in the private restaurants can be very expensive. You’ll find simple, bland food with Paris prices. One Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is worth one Euro. A dinner for four costs 170 CUC. Lunch for three in Raoul Castro’s private restaurant cost 90 CUC. A 15-minute taxi to the restaurant and back to the hotel cost 22 CUC each way. Haggle and you can ride for 15 CUC, or take the bus all day for 5 CUC. Even cheaper, hitchhike like all the locals.
The prices felt exorbitant when our guide explained to us that the average wage for a Cuban was about 120 CUC a month, and the equivalent was paid in a different peso currency to locals. Yes, a double currency is used for the haves and have-nots. As we drove from Varadero to Havana, we noticed the bustling tourist industry and the Cuban oil and gas refineries, and we couldn’t help but wonder where does all this revenue go? It surely is not reflected in the daily living standards of Cubans.
Havana – not to be missed
Havana is a beautiful and fascinating city, with its neglected colonial architecture, refurbished classic Chevrolets and Buicks, animated streets and open doorways that reveal decrepit winding stairwells, which inflame the imagination of passersby. It is a city frozen in time from the day Fidel Castro’s revolution swept into power in 1959. There are stencils of the Cuban leader and guerrilla rebel, Che Guevaro, painted on the side of buildings along with slogans dedicated to the glory of the revolution. Guided tours make the mandatory stops at Revolution Square or the Museum of the Revolution, which is next to Pavillon Granma, a memorial surrounded by Castro’s boat, truck, plane and missiles covered with plastic tarps to preserve their glory.
Tourist shops boast Cuban cigars, local rum and sparse tacky souvenirs, yet the local food stores are big with empty shelves. There are few products on sale, which explains why pasta, rice and tomato sauce are so popular. A black market for products exists, if you know who to ask, but resist buying cheap cigars from an unknown source. Despite the glaring hardships, the city is bustling with activity. The coffee shops are full, live Cuban music flows from every corner, locals move to and fro all day, children play the national sport of baseball, and even the unemployed are busy watching people go by.
Cuban people are friendly and they are more informed then we think. I have been to other newly liberated Communist countries and felt the bitterness, distrust or total indifference. Not here. Cubans are educated, thanks to a social system, and they are a proud people. Lisa, our trilingual tour guide, was a sociologist who gave up her post five years ago to waitress in a hotel, and now works with tourists because she can earn more than the meager monthly wage with tips. She proudly points out the country’s schools and universities, takes us to dine in private restaurants, explains why there are so many vintage cars emerging from garages to serve as private taxes now, and shakes her head when she admits wages are pitifully low and living standards dismal. Lisa freely answers our questions about the economy and tells us what she knows of the world outside of Cuba.
When people learned we came from France, they immediately offered their condolences for the Paris terrorist attacks. When asked what they expect from the renewed American-Cuban diplomatic relations and the move to loosen more than half a century of trade sanctions, the Cubans are realistic. They say it could bring much needed development and new opportunities, but they worry that they are not ready for the “tsunami” of American tourists and business that will now flock to their shores.
Would I recommend Cuba for travelers?
Yes. If you can visit Cuba now, go for it. The country is on the brink of massive change. If I could re-book my trip, I would plan to spend most of the week in Havana exploring the streets, visiting the museums and trying to meet the locals with day trips to nearby beach villages. I would also book it for the end of March when the Rolling Stones will give their first musical concert for free in Havana. For Cubans, the world they know and love is about to undergo a new revolution.