Cuba is one of the hottest travel destinations in the world right now. Its strangely alluring Communist chic, all that is left of an ideology that once vied to be the dominant force of the 20th Century. The “see it before it changes” rush is in full flow and the tourist infrastructure is barely able to keep pace. Ironically, all those people visiting before the US embargo ends are speeding up the pace of change.
I don’t think a month in Cuba makes me an expert but, bearing in mind the changes taking place, what would I tell someone who’s planning to visit this fascinating country?
1. Cuba, Last Chance to See. Judging by the number of tourists (over 3 million last year), and the businesses and property developers tripping over each other to get their hands on property and land, Cuba’s isolated existence is ending with a bang. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but change is likely to be rapid, widespread and leave plenty of casualties in its wake. Like any endangered species, this is your Last Chance to See the real Cuba. Whatever that means.
2. Cuba is full of tourists. They should have a sign at Havana airport that reads: Cuba Is Full. At least that’s how it felt over Xmas and New Year. Our casa owner in Havana said that, on New Year’s Eve, a young Brit arrived on his doorstep in tears. He’d spent hours walking the streets looking for somewhere to stay. He was offered the sofa. The tourist juggernaut is unlikely to end any time soon, so plan ahead.
3. Tipping is a lifeline for many people. Most Cubans are on government salaries, and the Cuban government pays lousy wages. A speech therapist we talked to earned $30 per month. He couldn’t support his family so he quit to become a taxi driver earning more than that in a day driving tourists. That’s the reality for most Cubans. Tipping is not just a way of showing your appreciation, it’s a vital source of income.
4. Sex tourism is thriving in Havana. The Soviet Union’s fall in 1991 destroyed Cuba’s economy, plunging many into poverty. The US embargo has kept Cubans in poverty. This has affected all areas of life, including efforts to end the sex trade. You don’t have to look far to spot sex tourists, visiting to exploit the steady stream of women and girls trying to support themselves and their families. It happens most places, but that doesn’t make the exploitation of poverty any less depressing.
5. Where’s the wildlife? Cuba has some of the most extraordinary marine ecosystems in the world, but on land things are very different. When a 4-kilogram tree rat counts as your largest wild land mammal things have reached a pretty low point. I was hoping for monkeys, sloths and other creatures we’d seen in Central America, but everything has been driven to ‘extinction’.
6. Stay in Casas Particulares. Cuba’s gap in accommodation is being plugged by entrepreneurial home owners who rent out rooms. This is the best way to get a feel for Cuban life and also puts $s into the hands of people who need them. Our stay was greatly enriched by meeting the families of the casas where we stayed. They’re great sources of local knowledge, will book a room in your next destination and organise transport.
7. Eat in your Casa Particular. Food in Cuba is far better than we’d been led to believe, and without a doubt the best food we had was in casas particulares. Who can argue with fresh lobster, fish, shrimp, chicken or pork accompanied by rice, beans, plantain, salad, bread, soup and fruit for €10? Just remember to take your own spicy sauce, it’s almost impossible to find.
8. Take a mosquito net. I hate mosquitos. I’m sure they play an important role in some ecosystem or other, but I for one wouldn’t be unhappy to see the end of them. There are very few mosquito-borne diseases in Cuba, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have mosquitos. Not a single place we stayed had nets, so if you don’t like being bitten take your own. Insecticide sprays are non-existent.
9. Transport. Invention being the offspring of necessity, Cuba has some of the most inventive forms of transport known to humankind. My advice is to use whatever’s available. Bullock cart anyone? Cuba also has the ViaAzul bus. Cheap and reliable, you’ll be hostage to the whims of the driver. Expect stops to buy cheese, pick up friends and chat with relatives. Taxis are affordable and don’t stop to discuss the price of chickens.
10. Jineteros aren’t so bad. Jineteros, a Cuban word for hustlers, seemed to be everywhere in Havana Vieja. We spent an afternoon in Bar Bilbao on Calle O’Reilly, watching a constant stream of jineteros trying to get tourists into the bar so they could ‘befriend’ them and remove some of their excess cash. It’s annoying, but rarely threatening. In the end, people are just trying to make a living in difficult circumstances. Elsewhere in Cuba we hardly came across any hard sell.
11. Cubans like a drink. When in Rome go to a bunga bunga party. When in Cuba drink rum. There are other kinds of alcohol but rum is ubiquitous and very cheap. What else is there to do with all that sugar cane? Havana Club is common, but at New Year the drink of choice seemed to be Ron Mulata. At less than €1 for a bottle it would be impolite to say ‘no’. Not many people did. Also try Ron Cubay and Ron Santiago De Cuba.
12. Manage expectations. Cuba is like nowhere else. It’s a country that comes with a weight of expectation that can weigh a visitor down. It’s also a country going through a seismic shift. Accept things won’t always go smoothly. The casa room you booked will have been given away. When you order a cheese and ham sandwich expect to eat the set lunch because there’s no cheese, ham or bread (it happened). Do as Cubans do, drink rum and get on with it.