Escaping from Cuba
Arriving in Cuba for me was an exciting experience. The flight went via Madrid and we had time to fill up on some tapas before taking the 8.5 hour flight to Havana. Because we were taking a connecting flight, we weren’t able to check in over the Internet beforehand and so when we arrived at the airport (very much in time) we were told that they had overbooked and that we probably wouldn’t be able to fly today. We checked our luggage in anyway and went “on standby” to get on the plane in case somebody didn’t turn up on the day. This was a rather irritating way to start a holiday that was booked 6 months before.
We made it to Havana finally and followed the signs to the taxis. Leaving the building was like being hit in the face by a warm cushion of air. Here we got our first taste of the famous Cuban cars. Cars fall into three different generations. There are (in chronological order) the old American classics, then the Soviet vehicles and finally the modern cars (from all over the world… except America).
The taxis are a crosscutting group. Many official taxis are modern, with air conditioning and are thoroughly comfortable. There are also many Lada’s working officially. The older American cars however seem mostly to be unofficial taxis.
We took a minibus taxi with several other tourists to the edge of Habana Vieja (old Havana) where we stayed at a “Casa Particular”.
The Casa Particular
The closest thing to this in England would be a B&B, except the Cubans have some strict rules on how they are operated. There are not state run, but are private individuals and families with spare rooms and an entrepreneur’s eye. It costs a flat monthly license to rent out a single room. The amount must be paid regardless of whether or not anybody has stayed in it during the month. The amount also depends upon location. In Havana for example it costs more than in other places in Cuba.
Cuban people have stunning social networks that a fully connected Facebook user would struggle to keep pace with. If you want to leave Havana, the boss of the Casa Particular will pass you on like a basketball player to his team mate on the other side of the island, arranging transportation and
making all necessary arrangements. This is certainly worthwhile for the owner of a Casa Particular because the favour will be reciprocated, boosting the room “utilisation” for all members of the network.
Many Casas will be full upon arrival, despite having made a reservation. This is seldom a problem as each Casa owner will offload their surplus guests to neighbouring Casas, a favour which again will be reciprocated.
It is also common to be provided with breakfast for a reasonable price and dinner will normally be prepared if it is asked for. Doing this will up the price of your room somewhat, and will be a similar price to eating out at a cheapish restaurant.
Tourists in Cuba are a commodity. Being connected to the tourist industry (or the black market) is good money and will knock you up into the Cuban “upper class”. The division is very much apparent, and it would probably have Che Guevara turning in his grave. Tourism has flourished (and is actively encouraged by the state) since the collapse of the Soviet Union, to compensate for the loss of its biggest trading partner. With its spectacular beaches, snorkelling, diving and hot climate, tourism is a gold mine to be exploited. You can’t help feeling however that it has chipped away at the very foundation of the revolution’s principles.
Having two currencies makes this class distinction rather more defined. Cuban pesos are for purchasing staples such as bread and vegetables, whereas the highly prized Convertible can buy luxury items like those that can be found in most European stores (albeit with a rather more limited selection). If you have access to Convertibles, you are an “upper class” Cuban, otherwise you’re poor. Not just a bit poor, but really poor. Many sources will tell you of the pitiful amount of money earned by Cubans. This only applies to those without access to the sacred Convertible. Staying in a Casa particular, especially in Havanna, you’re likely to be pleasantly surprised by the standard of living.
Families operating Casas are automatically pushed up into the “upper class” (assuming they can cover their initial costs). Operating a room is expensive, but one week of having a guest, having breakfast and they will have certainly recouped the cost of the monthly taxes they have to pay. The remaining days (perhaps 3 weeks in the optimal case) is just profit (an order of magnitude higher than a lower class Cuban). Those Casas taking the risk of operating unofficially (without paying taxes), will be earning yet more money.
If you would rather forgo the Casa scene, you can expect to pay between 3 and 5 times more per night (probably between 70 - 120 Euros) for a nice hotel. Hotels will provide breakfast, a clean room (usually) and a television set with CNN. Many of them are in very nice buildings and are quite luxurious. We stayed for the last few days in Havana in a variety of hotels which, while costing more, gave us some much needed privacy.
Not the finest cuisine in the world. You are likely to eat beans and rice, fried chicken and bad hamburgers. If you like fruit and fruit juice, you’ll probably be very happy. If you’re brave you can eat very cheaply, but be wary if you have a problematic stomach. Restaurants often run out of ingredients and it can often be a frustrating experience being offered a menu, choosing a dish, then being told that it is unavailable. This happens even in the best of places in Europe, but when your second, third, fourth and fifth choice are also not available, you are left ordering the only remaining dish as your choice, and wondering why you were given the menu in the first place.
It is certainly possible to eat well, and good food, but as with many things in Cuba, the price, location, and outward appearance of a restaurant often have no influence whatsoever on the quality. Sometimes the nicest food can be found, cheaply, in a restaurant that looks a bit rough around the edges. Try to get a recommendation from somebody that knows the area.
Ice cream can be very cheap (costing practically nothing) and tastes pretty good too. Bread can also be purchased in Cuban Pesos and if you can bring your own sandwich filler, you can eat cheaply and deliciously. Finding meat, or cheese, or anything to put in the bun might be quite hard however, so keep your eyes open.
As for non-local cuisine, it is possible to eat a very authentic Spanish Paella in the “Restaurante La Paella” and have a live flamenco show while you eat.
Idols of the revolution
Fidel and Che aren’t just historical figures, they are symbols that permeate everyday Cuban life. You can hardly miss the postcards and billboards, and carvings and t-shirts, all bearing the image. You might have thought, as I did, that the worship of Che Guevara was mainly the territory of the European and American youth and that people inside of Cuba would have wildly different views, (perhaps one of quiet respect), but you would be wrong. The popular icon is liberally applied to houses, billboards and tourist paraphernalia.
Arriving in the various towns of historical importance, you will be greeted by a huge inspirational board, explaining what great deed took place there. You’ll also get to see famous quotations from Che, Fidel, Raul and other giants of the revolution.
As you walk around town, you will often hear enchanting music pouring out into the street. The traditional style of music (that which you will hear on your “Buena Vista Social Club” CD) is called Son. Other types of music that you will hear are Salsa, and Reggaeton (appealing to the younger listeners).
Salsa and Son are often played live in restaurants and for few coins can entertain you for the duration of your meal. There is a broad spectrum of quality in the available live music and you’ll certainly be given the change to purchase a few CDs of the performing groups. The CDs will also vary greatly in quality, as it is unlikely that the average Cuban musician has access to the kind of recording facilities that their European or American counterparts enjoy. Regardless of the quality, if may be worth buying a CD if you enjoyed the music simply to offer your support.
Salsa is the name of the game when it comes to dancing in Cuba. Like Cuban Spanish, Cuban salsa is rather different to the style of salsa that you may have learned in your home country. There are many places that offer classes, although it will be difficult to find one running outside of the tourist season (also applies to flamenco and guitar lessons). Ask your host family, or just friendly individuals on the street if you have trouble finding something because everybody knows somebody who can help you out. Cubans have music in their blood and there’s bound to be somebody willing to teach you if you can reach an agreement on the price.
There is some fantastic scenery and wildlife in Cuba. If you are a keen birdwatcher, you can expect to see many varieties of bird, including eagles, vultures and hummingbirds.
The island is covered with limestone, providing some spectacular caves and rock formations. In the town of Viñales you will be able to see some wonderful views and enjoy horse riding and hiking into the mountains.
In the Zapata peninsular and also on the “Isla de la Juventud” (Island of the youth), there are crocodile reserves which are open to the public.
If you get bored
We found that the fortress in Havana was well worth a visit. It costs a small fee to get inside and the tunnel under the bay means that it is a cheap taxi ride from Old Havana. Every night at 9pm, a cannon is fired, which can be heard throughout the city.
The lighthouse visible from the Malecón is also open to the public and it is possible to climb to the top and see the view back to shore.
If you’d prefer a quiet stroll, the cemetery is also well worth a visit.
If you are planning on travelling to Cuba, you may wish to read the following tips. They may enhance your time spent on the island.
- Cuban Spanish is quite hard to understand and slightly amusing to native Spanish speakers. When a word ends with “R”, it is often pronounced as an “L”. This turns the innocent “el mar” (the sea) into “el mal”, which sounds like “the evil”. “comer” (to eat) becomes “comel”, “mujer” (woman) becomes “mujel”.
- Avoid travelling to Cuba alone. It will be much cheaper if you have a friend/partner to share accommodation with.
- Before you go, make sure that you fully understand what a Cuban Peso is, and what a Convertible is. They use the same symbol and so its pretty easy to get conned. 1 Convertible is approximately 25 Pesos, so muddling them up could cost you.
- Never accept the first price you are given. Get used to haggling at least a little for everything. 99% of prices are negotiable and you’ll often be offered a high price to start with.
- If you have seen the documentary “Buena Vista Social Club”, you should be aware that the legendary place is no longer in existence. People will almost certainly tell you that the place is very close, “just around the corner” and that they know personally the owner. This is a scam and is intended in some devious way to get you to pay lots of money for drinks at some random bar. We were warned about this scam and, having never taken anybody up on their hot tips, are unable to explain to you exactly how this scam works. The unnerving thing about this scam is that you can be having a nice conversation to a Cuban family on a walk about town and they will start trying to con you.
- If people ask, tell them that this is your second, or third time in Cuba. People will be less likely to try the above tricks if they think that you’re a Cuba pro.
- Always check hotel and restaurant bills. Its frightening just how many errors are made, and how the errors always seem to cost the customer and not the establishment.
- Never buy cigars from people in the street. They are almost certainly fakes. If you buy a box, look for the hologram.
- If you take your mobile phone with you, it will probably not have the reception that you’re used to. Try the foyer of the Hotel Sevilla for a bar or two. People attempting to call you from your home country may be somehow redirected to somebody else. It happened to Laura, her family called and a Cuban woman answered. We were on the airplane returning home, and the Cuban lady was lying, telling strange fibs that she knew us and that we had lent her our mobile phone. This is another con (I have heard similar stories from other travellers) and again, I’m not able to explain how it works, but it probably going to cost a bit when the phone bill arrives. Perhaps it would be helpful to tell your loved ones about this if you are intending on taking your phone.
- When leaving the island, leave around 25 Convertibles per person to pay the airport tax. If you don’t you will have to bail yourself out using your credit card just to be able to get on the plane. Nobody explained this airport tax to us and it left us swearing and angry as we had just blown our last 50 Convertibles on some CDs in the airport shop.
- Finally, don’t be too defensive. Somebody will almost certainly try to con you in some way at some point, but there are many many warm hearted and kind people in this country. It is very easy to start ignoring people who were only after an interesting conversation.
For me, Cuba was a difficult holiday. The trip cost more than double what I budgeted and we experienced some very unpleasant things and were conned and almost mugged (we had to shout for the police) and had to sleep in flea infested beds in rooms full of cockroaches.
It was still worth the hassle and problems to see this unique culture and meet some really wonderful people and see what life is really like for Cuban people.
My final advice would be this:
- If you want to have an all inclusive holiday, diving, beach etc. go ahead. Cuba will cater very well to your needs. There are some very very nice hotels.
- If you want to see how Cuban people live, and are prepared to rough it a bit, you’ll be in for an enjoyable, but bumpy ride.
- If you are a budget traveller, please beware! You are going struggle.
- If you want to learn Spanish, go to Guatemala instead. You’ll go broke in Cuba and probably leave frustrated.
I called this short article “Escaping from Cuba” because I don’t want to paint it as some island paradise. Cuba has some terrible economic problems and daily life for Cuban people is hard. I could never live there and I probably won’t go back on holiday there. Laura and I found that after 2 weeks we had had enough of the prices and constantly being harassed to buy cigars and being conned. We decided that we would try to leave early and see if there were any flights to Grand Cayman, Jamaica or even Mexico. It turns out that leaving the island is not as easy as it seems. Returning from the airport broken hearted and despondent, the island welcomed us back into its loving, if slightly harassing arms, and we stayed for a further week. Finally however, we were both glad that we stayed as we were able to see considerably more of Havana and we were able to leave with a much more positive outlook.