For our 20th wedding anniversary, Hanneke and I decided that a trip to Cuba was the perfect way to celebrate this milestone in our lives and relax. The reason we chose Cuba over other popular warm weather destinations like Panama, the Caribbean or Mexico was threefold;
- Cuba is a bit different than other all-inclusive travel destinations but still offers that relaxing beach experience which we both needed for at least some of the time.
- Even though Trump has closed some of the doors that Obama opened towards Cuba, it’s only a matter of time before the American tourist hordes invade the island and change it forever – we wanted to preempt that happenstance.
- I’ve been in love with Havana for years already and really wanted to get a feel for it in person, in order to plan a longer trip there sooner than later.
Before traveling to an interesting place that I haven’t been to before, I like to do some research on it, including it’s cultural and political history. Cuba is one of those countries that has a very complex and fascinating story which continues to this day. You can buy your own books on the subject (I recommend this one and for sure this one) but here’s a brief outline to whet your appetite. Feel free to skip ahead to a muse on the Cuban identity or our experiences there if you’re not in the mood for some rambling prose.
A Brief History of Cuba
Early Years (3100 BC – 1800 AD)
Cuba was first populated by people who navigated there from South America and consisted mainly of small agricultural clans. The earliest evidence of humans in Cuba is from around 3100 BC. Various roving clans either replaced or displaced each other on the island over the centuries before 1492. In 1492 the Spanish explorer, Christopher Columbus screwed all of their lives up pretty emphatically by “discovering” the Caribbean and its many treasures. I’m pretty sure the people who lived there already knew about it, so the way we think of his “discoveries” is somewhat interesting. The first full scale guerrilla warfare in Cuba was organized by the indigenous peoples against the Spanish but this ended predictably with the leaders of the movement burnt alive and the eventual total control of the island by Spain in around 1514 with the founding of the precursor to the city of Havana.
After settling the island and setting up tobacco plantations, the Spaniards were faced with a labor shortage. They first worked the indigenous people to death (literally) and then started importing and working African slaves to death after the 7 years war with the British who imported thousands of slaves over a ten month period. Interestingly Spain traded Florida for Cuba with the Brits as part of the war settlement. By the 1800’s sugarcane had replaced tobacco as Cuba’s main source of wealth and with free labor (surprise, surprise), the profits from sweet toothed Europeans and Americans really started adding up. Slavery wasn’t abolished until the end of the 1800’s in Cuba and America was its biggest source of income, buying over 80% of it’s sugar exports.
Middle Years (1800-1955)
There were many rebellions, upheavals and revolts over the several hundred years between the Spanish discovery of the island and the late 1800’s. Obviously, America always had its sights set on acquiring this island and many presidents spoke and schemed on the issue. Jose Marti is a Cuban hero who advocated for Cuba’s independence from Spain and resisted annexation by the USA in the late 1800’s. The ten years war resulted in Marti’s death and despite being vastly outnumbered by Spanish troops, the so-called “Mambis” prevailed and started taking over the island from Spanish rule. In 1898 the congress of the United States agreed to intervene on behalf of the Cuban people and assist in kicking Spain off the island. The USA promised it would not seek to annex Cuba for itself but when Spain gave up and surrendered the island, Cuba was left out of negotiations and the the USA didn’t immediately leave the island either. In 1899 an American governor was appointed and by the early 1900’s American investors were quickly taking control of the sugar plantations despite America’s insistence that it wasn’t annexing the island. There were a few agreements in place supposedly preventing the USA from an all-out take over of the island (Teller and Foracker Amendments) but once some legal loopholes were found there was no stopping them. Imports from the USA went from $38 million in 1905 to over $200 million in 1918 and exports went from $86 to $300 million over the same time period! Throughout the early 1900’s there was a nervous “back and forth” between Cuban demands for complete independence and the United State’s financial ambitions and unofficial occupation of the island.
In 1933, for the first time in Cuba’s history, a patchwork political party of young and inexperienced revolutionaries enacted a series of reforms that were not part of a forced negotiation with either Spain or the United States. It didn’t last long, however. In 1934 a US backed government, led by Fulgencio Batista took power. Batista won the 1940 election and pursued some reforms including his own term limit which precluded him running again in 1944. With new prosperity in the 40’s came new government corruptions and Mafia attention from US based organized crime families. Fidel Castro was part of the political party expected to win the 1952 election on an anti-corruption campaign, but instead Batista grabbed power in a coup three months before the elections and became Cuba’s new leader. Despite some early economic prosperity under Batista, soon the strong unions present in Cuba resulted in a widening gap between Cuban people and their neighbors to the north – the Americans. Cubans wanted to prosper like the Americans and wanted to be free of the increasingly heavy yoke of Batista’s corrupt government. In 1953 the young lawyer, Fidel Castro and his brother Raul tried to overthrow the Batista government for the first time in Santiago de Cuba. They were captured and imprisoned until 1955 at which time they were released and fled to Mexico where Fidel and Raul met other young revolutionaries including Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.
Early Castro Years (1955-1991)
Over the next few years, Fidel and his guerrillas waged war on the Batista regime until finally in 1959 with the encouragement of the United States, Batista fled Cuba and Fidel took the reigns of power. And this is where the story gets really muddled depending who’s telling it. The very short version is that Fidel deeply disliked the States for its initial support of the Batista government and vowed not to get too close to the Americans – in politics or economy. It didn’t take long for the US to realize Fidel was going to be an issue for their interests and within 6 months of his taking power, the Americans were already trying to get rid of him.
Events escalated very quickly with the Cuban government seizing (“nationalizing“) private investments all over the island and appropriating companies and land from foreign (i.e. American) investors. Fidel was a socialist and many of the seized assets were distributed to the Cuban people. Many Americans were forced to leave the island with nothing – leaving their houses and possessions behind, including their cars. This is where most of the old cars in Cuba come from. With the cold war escalating and Cuba adopting a socialist ideology, the US was getting very nervous about Fidel. By 1961 Kennedy had imposed a trade embargo on Cuba and then the Bay of Pigs happened. Although the Bay of Pigs invasion obviously failed, the CIA continued to sponsor terrorism and subversion in Cuba against the Castro regime and this obviously led to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962 which pushed the world to the brink of a nuclear conflagration. Because the USA had stockpiled nuclear arms in Turkey, nearer to Russia, the USSR had motivation to find a spot for their own medium range nukes closer to the USA. Cuba fit the bill perfectly and agreed to do a deal. Thankfully the situation was calmed through some last minute negotiations which included the Russians removing their nukes from Cuba, the USA removing nukes from Turkey and the USA promising not to invade Cuba.
Fidel continued to align with the Soviets and other Socialist regimes after the missile crisis and the relationship with the US continued to grow more and more sour. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans emigrated and fled to the USA from 1959 to 1993 both legally and illegally. This is why there are so many Cubans living in Florida today – which is only around 90 miles from Cuba. The economy of Cuba was largely propped up by the Russians and with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba entered it’s so-called “Special Period”.
Late Castro Years (1991-Present)
This was a rough time for the Cuban people and is known by them as the special period. The US tightened its embargo during this time, hoping for the downfall of Fidel, making things even harder for the average Cuban. It’s always the regular people that suffer the games of politics! Things were so desperate that people were killing random cows all over the island and even animals from the zoo and their pets just to have something eat. This is why cows now belong to the Cuban government and killing one is worse than killing a human. You’ll get up to 30 years in jail for killing or buying illegal beef in Cuba today, a strict measure as a direct result of the special period.
Desperate for another source of income, the Castro government opened the Cuban doors for Tourism in the 90’s, even allowing US dollars to inject much need foreign currency into their coffers. By 2004, with the USA pressuring the Cuban government to stop using its currency (due to the long standing trade embargo), the confusing double currency system was born in Cuba. Essentially the Convertible Peso (CUC) became a 1:1 Cuban replacement of the USD for use by tourists, while the Meneda Nacional (MN or CUP) remained the local Cuban currency (also worth 24x less than the CUC). In 2014 Cubans were allowed to start using CUCs and tourists could use CUPs, making things almost more confusing than before! We were told more than once by our tour guide – who had a degree in economics – that it doesn’t make sense, so don’t even try.
Fidel Castro effectively handed over the reigns of governing to his brother, Raul in 2006 after falling ill. In 2008, Raul officially took over from Fidel. President Barak Obama reopened talks with Cuba and even the US embassy in Havana was reopened in 2015. The Trump presidency is a step backwards for US / Cuban relations but things are slowly moderating and Cuba is gradually opening up and seeing its people’s economic lives improving as a result. Small businesses are now privatizing (obviously paying tax to the state) and many farms are also passing from the state to private ownership. The Cuban people are housed and fed by the government using a ration-based system and are also educated and receive medical benefits for free – including dental work! There are no homeless or people living on the streets. The elderly and mentally ill are also cared for by the state. There are many misconceptions surrounding Cuba and the Cuban people, some of which I’ll address below.
The political scene is about to change dramatically for the country in 2018, as Raul Castro has announced that he will not be running for re-election as part of a 10 year (two term) limit he introduced on his election to power in 2008. For the first time in many years, there will be no “Castro” on the voting ballets for the Cuban people. This could be a great or a bad thing. Time will tell.
The Cuban Identity
The whole country of Cuba is, for the most part, very openly pro-Castro – vocally and proudly supporting Fidel and now his brother Raul. While I do think that the country is much more tolerant of new ideas and open discussions than 10 or 20 years ago, it was clear to me that they have been somewhat indoctrinated by their (free, government run) education system to a very pro-Castro, pro-Socialist worldview. I should point out, however, that we are no different with our own politics or education for that matter. We all tend to be very pro-Capitalist despite some major shortcoming of that ideology, not the least of which is our enslavement to debt and consumerism. I guess we all tend to focus on the positives of what we agree with and the negatives of what we don’t. How many Canadians would freely cop to, and discuss the residential schools issue or other blights of our recent past?
Despite Westerners obvious doubts, there are many successes with Cuba’s form of Socialism and our tour guides made sure to point them out to us. Unlike most other countries, Cuba has no homeless on their streets. Nobody goes hungry – they all get allotted government rations every month. Everyone is educated to at least high school. This includes room and board if they have to attend a school far away from home (i.e. if they live in the middle of nowhere). Every Cuban has the same access to electricity – no matter where they live. Every Cuban is housed, including the old and infirm. Medical care is totally free – including dental work and many required medications – which are very expensive thanks to the embargo. Cubans have, for the most part, very close-knit families and communities. They build their houses with flat rooftops so that the next generation can add a layer to live in when they get married. Cubans are wise with family planning – too many children only produces issues around living space and food rations. Men are obligated to serve in the military (1-3 years) while women are allowed to sign up, but not forced to. All Cubans go to university for free (well – free after serving in the military that is…) and can pursue any career they want. If they move out of Cuba after their university training, they are obligated to send some of their earnings back for a period of time but otherwise they are pretty much free to choose their own destinies. There are no drugs on the streets. There is zero tolerance for them and it shows. Cuba felt very safe to me – much safer than Tijuana or even a lot of areas in my home city of Calgary.
Small farms are slowly being privatized again and other small private businesses are also being allowed, such as the “Casa Particulars”, or Cuban B&B’s. Of course, these private enterprises are being taxed heavily. Welcome to the wonderful world of Capitalism!! The Cubans we spoke to were very well educated and openly admitted that their country has deep economic issues. They admit that Fidel made a huge mistake aligning with the Soviets as strongly as he did. They don’t hide the fact that the double currency of CUP and CUC is hurting the average Cuban and that the extremely high price of goods (thanks to the embargo) is impoverishing them. They hate the fact that with 14 years of university education they are better off being tourist guides, thanks to the generous CUC tips, than being doctors, accountants or lawyers. Cubans have a sophisticated way of surviving their harsh economic realities and as a so-called Money Tree (the more pesos that fall from you, the harder you’ll continue to be shaken) the tourist is a very important part of this strategy.
Like any country forged by revolution, myths are just as important to Cuba’s core identity as some of the more uncomfortable objective truths are. In Canada we have our Hudson’s Bay explorers, Pioneers and Voyageur myths which leave out many inconvenient truths as well. Cuba’s current identity is a deeply proud one. They constantly remind the tourist of their defeat and thwarting of the United States at the Bay of Pigs followed by decades of the Castro regime’s constant defiance towards the USA. They deeply and openly dislike the United States – but who wouldn’t given the decades of trade embargoes, CIA-backed conspiracies and constant political and economic interference since the early 1900’s and even much earlier when Spain was also breaking their backs? Cubans are especially proud of the four heroes of the 1959 revolution; The brothers Fidel and Raul Castro, the Argentinian freedom fighter Che Guevara and, Camilo Cienfuegos. (They get very annoyed with tourists who only know the first three and forget about Camilo.) There is no advertising in Cuba, except when it comes to quotes from any of those four heroes of the revolution. It was interesting to see billboards with Fidel alongside some pretty infamous leaders such as Salvador Allende from Chile. Ernesto “Che” Guevara gets by far the most attention on billboards, graffiti and merchandise around the country with Fidel running a surprisingly distant second. Interestingly, I didn’t see any propaganda from Raul Castro, despite him being in power for the past decade, he seems content to be in his brothers shadow for the most part. Like any true Socialist, the Castros apparently live quite humbly and their families avoid publicity and live normal lives like everyone else. Just like the Trump family. NOT.
I was impressed by most of the Cubans that we met. They seem to be a very strong people who have come through some very dark times as a polite, intelligent, kind, generous, honest (for the most part), humble, smart and very positive people with a wicked sense of humor buried just under the surface. Despite many folks being turned off by the so-called “tipping culture”, I found it the opposite. Once I understood how financially challenged the average Cuban is, and how much they depend on the tourist for valuable CUC, I realized that they are actually holding back when it comes to tips. My advice is that if you want to be tight with your precious money, go to an all-inclusive in Mexico, or go on a fancy cruise instead of Cuba. If you are a kind, generous and open personality you will fall in love with this special place despite the fact that you will never be more than a Money Tree to the Cubans, as a rich western tourist. C’est la vie. They can’t help their situation and you can’t help yours. #noapologies.
Cuba and the Tourist
There’s two Cubas within the one country of Cuba. One is the Cuba that the Cubans live in every day, the other is the Cuba that tourists and outsiders see and experience. This is somewhat true of any country, but in Cuba it is a bit different and I believe a lot of the misconceptions about Cuba come from these differences. Here’s just some of the negatives we heard before going to Cuba;
- Food is awful and bland
- Water isn’t safe for drinking – even at the resorts
- Way too many Cuban people begging for tips
- Hard to get good service
- Poor and run down country
- Suspicious and openly hostile Communist government
Money and Tips
I think there are some truths buried in all the dire warnings, but they are exaggerated by tourists who lock themselves in the all-inclusives along the white sand beaches and pontificate based on very limited interaction with actual everyday Cubans. Along with the two money systems (CUC and CUP), comes a natural double standard. Imagine that Canadian workers were paid in cents what the tourists paid for in dollars. I’d make a dollar a day working as a laborer up to maybe 20 dollars per day as a doctor, while a visiting tourist would think nothing of tipping their tour guide $20 or more for a good days work! Now imagine that regular goods, such as shoes, clothing and any extras like alcohol, toys etc. were priced, not in cents, but in dollars. This is the way it is for Cubans. They are paid in pennies and expected to support themselves with dollars. It doesn’t work.
Many tourons hear that the average monthly wage of a Cuban is 40-50 CUC and they think that they don’t need to be tipped properly. Do some research and you’ll quickly realize that even 200 CUC per month doesn’t pay for a families needs in Cuba. Even a top-tier doctor isn’t living large on their salary. Imagine you made $500 / month. How well would you be living on that with a family of four or five in Canada? Sure! Basic food needs are met by the government rationing system, but you still need to pay rent on your tiny house or apartment, buy shoes and uniforms for your kids and anything extra is for you to provide including fresh food and drink, phones, some medications and transportation. Even a cheap bottle of rum is 5-7 CUC. That’s almost 1/4 of the average Cuban monthly salary! There are no mortgages or loans in Cuba. You want a house? Pay rent for many years, get lucky with an inheritance, US relatives or save the cash yourself. You want a car? Forget it. The average Cuban can never buy a car – remember there are no loans! An old Russian Ladacan cost well over $15,000 CUC, nevermind the gasoline and repair costs. Those nice old cars you see in Havana are worth over $40,000 CUC – way out of reach for the average Cuban. Cars are passed down like heirlooms in Cuba and unless you have rich relatives sending you lots of money from Florida, you aren’t getting one. Purchase and read this guidebook to understand much more about how the everyday Cuban lives and survives.
Considering the previous paragraph, I think the Cubans are very reasonable when it comes to tips. Sure! Some go around with their hands out (still less aggressive than most Canadian beggars IMHO), but even if they manage ‘only’ a few CUCs per day from sympathetic tourists, who can blame them? They’ll make more than a teacher in a month of part-time begging! That’s like making $5,000 / month here in Canada just by asking the occasional tourist for $1! I tipped generously, but fairly and got great service and lots of smiles in return. I understood my role as the dumb tourist Money Tree and didn’t let that bother me too much. Our maid got $1 CUC per day with a personal handwritten note asking about her and her family which she answered in English. We got great service as a result, so I had no regrets spending that $10 for the week. Other resort staff got $1 CUC for good service, including servers, suitcase assistants or towel attendants. Our Sunwing vacation rep got $20 CUC at the end of the week to thank her for her hard work and excellent recommendations. Our tour guides got the standard 10-20% tip at the end of a long day of escorting a bunch of naive tourons around their country. We ignored street beggars and were left alone after a firm, “no”. We had no issues with Jinateros or Jinateras in any of the cities we visited, but being firm and ignoring pestering Money Tree pickers when necessary is simply part of traveling anywhere. I felt more harassed the weekend I got home and tried walking into a Tim Horton’s in Calgary only to be blocked by two locals who physically blocked my path before finally relenting and letting me pass by when their tree shaking didn’t produce any fruit.
Food and Drink
Cuban food is not bland. Cuban resort food is often bland due to them still figuring the rest of us out. They don’t want to offend the delicate tourists with all our allergies and food sensitivities, so they go with “average” and end up being accused of having bland palates. Also, the resorts can’t source any food from the USA or affiliated companies. Resorts can’t source local seafood or beef either – food such as lobsters and cows are owned by the government and there are heavy fines (and jail) for harvesting them for yourself. The beef you do get is mostly imported from Alberta, believe it or not! It’s mainly chicken and pork for meat in Cuba, and locally grown fruits and vegetables for sides. I have to say that I ate healthier at our resort than I eat at home. Authentic Cuban food is apparently quite delicious, but since we didn’t eat a lot of local dishes I can’t comment on that. Cuban coffee is to die for! I couldn’t get enough of it – dark and deliciously smooth. Even the powdered milk they used didn’t ruin the taste. Cuban pop has almost half the calories of American pop thanks to using sugarcane rather than corn syrup. I preferred Cuban pop by a fair bit to the crap we drink here, although I didn’t drink a lot of it. Cuban cigars were, as expected, a wonderful experience. I don’t drink much, so I can’t speak for Cuban rum, although a lot of folks around me weren’t complaining.
If you know me, I tend not to worry too much about drinking water from various sources. I generally drink directly out of streams when hiking and I figure that if the locals can drink the water without dying or getting sick, I probably can too. That being said, it’s no fun being sick on vacation so I took pretty good precautions with water. I did drink some tap water on occasion and predictably I was fine. I think if I stayed longer in Cuba, I’d drink most of the tap water there without worrying too much about it.
Is Cuba poor? Yep. Is it impoverished? I don’t think so. People in warmer countries live differently than we do in frigid Canada. We look at their tiny houses with some apparent need of repairs and we think that they must be destitute. While the average Cuban could certainly use a few more CUC per month to make their lives a bit easier, the vast majority do have a roof over their head and enough food to survive. Personally, I think we could make do with quite a bit smaller abodes than we currently aspire to in our country. When you think about all the debt most Canadians are enslaved by simply so they can keep up with the Joneses next door, I have to wonder who’s really better off?
It is true that the power grid in Cuba is notoriously unstable. A few months ago a huge chunk of the island was without power for days. Communications are also very limited. Forget about roaming on your cell phone and especially roaming with data! Wi-Fi is only available in certain areas for a limited time at limited speeds and for around $1-3 CUC / hour. Roads are rough – and that’s the few paved ones. Towns and cities are hot and crowded. Infrastructure is aging. It’s certainly a different sort of chaos to what I’m used to in Canada, but that’s why I love to travel – it opens my eyes to other people’s realities and makes me rethink mine.
Government and Safety
I didn’t notice the government other than the monitoring of internet (providing my passport to get access) and at the airport which is pretty much the norm for every country nowadays. I only saw soldiers at the Che memorial and a few popular tourist sites in Havana. I saw very few police. Compare that to Mexico where we saw armed guards and cops everywhere, including in trucks with mounted machine guns cruising the neighborhoods we were working in! I saw way more police and armed guards in Los Angeles than in Havana – a LOT more. Of course, I realize that this doesn’t mean the government wasn’t watching us – I’m sure they were! I just never felt unsafe – and as a tourist that’s a good thing. Please note that Cuba never was a communist country. Socialism and Communism are different. Do your research.
The crime rate in Cuba is quite low. For the smart tourist (i.e. don’t do drugs or go looking for trouble), I’d say Cuba is a much safer destination than a lot of other warm-weather destinations including Mexico, Panama or others. Cubans know that they need tourist dollars to survive. The government deals very harshly with folks who interfere with this 3rd largest source of money to the island. As I stated earlier, I felt quite a bit safer in Cuba than a lot of places back home.
Our Experiences in Cuba
As typical western tourists, we didn’t really get to experience the “real” Cuba other than through our tour guides’ stories and our two excursions, which were still very touristy. But I’m not going to apologize for that! Whenever I travel, I’m a tourist. So what? We enjoyed our experiences in Cuba immensely and are planning to go back for a more authentic Cuban trip soon. But make no mistake. No matter how hard-core you think you are, as a traveler in Cuba you are an outsider and a tourist. You can’t become a Cuban no matter how hard you try – it’s literally impossible. Che Guevara is the only non-Cuban to be honored with an authentic Cuban citizenship and you are not him!
As tourists looking for nothing more than relaxation, warm weather, and white sandy beaches, we stayed at a lovely all-inclusive resort called Sol Palmeras and had zero regrets with this decision! We stayed in one of the bungalows situated apart from the main resort area and awoke to the sounds of morning doves and other birds every day. At night we sat on our little porch and enjoyed the distant sounds of happiness going on at the main resort, along with the more relaxing sounds of night birds and ocean waves nearby. We enjoyed the a la carte restaurants and the buffet much more than we thought we would and I ended up losing a few pounds thanks to the healthy options available.
Every morning we’d skip breakfast to go for a long stroll on the beach before heading to a small outdoor cafe near our bungalow for a light brunch and fresh cappuccino. This small cafe seemed to be unknown to most of the other resort guests as we were almost always the only ones there. After brunch we’d head to the beach for a few hours of reading, relaxing and swimming in the clear water. This was the cleanest and warmest ocean water I’ve ever been in. The beach was fine white sand and free of debris or litter. I was very impressed with the beaches. We even managed to find a spot along the water that had both shade and sunny options and was away from the main lounging area and noise of the other touron hordes. I’m starting to think that Hanneke and I are a bit antisocial… Seriously though, we really felt like we were on our own private vacation whenever we wanted to be.
There were tons of socializing opportunities – we just didn’t want them on this trip. After a few hours in the hot Cuban sun we’d head back to the outdoor cafe for a delicious afternoon cappuccino or fresh orange juice – enjoyed with a nice cigar of course! Then it was back to the beach followed by another long walk along the ocean, as the sun started to set at around 17:00. A refreshing shower in our air conditioned bungalow was followed up with a private a la carte dinner at any one of the 5 restaurants on site. All of them were delicious with a nice atmosphere and all were largely empty when we were there – either early or late. After dinner we’d enjoy more cappuccino or wine on warm balconies around the main resort, with live entertainment echoing over the humid air and adding to the ambiance. We’d also use our Wi-Fi cards to do quick updates in the evenings. After enjoying the warm evenings (so nice compared to the biting cold we get in Calgary even in summer) we’d retire to the bungalow for some Netflix – saved on an iPad. This Heavenly routine comprised 5 of our 7 full days in Cuba. It was sublime, I’m not gonna lie! (BTW – our devices all plugged directly into the outlets with no issues except for Hann’s flat iron which required a converter and the large iPad charger which didn’t fit in the plug – we just used our smaller iPhone chargers for it.)
Despite the fact that we were at a cushy all-inclusive resort in Varadero, Cuba is still Cuba. I’ll illustrate what I mean with an example. In order to eat at the a la carte restaurants, we had to book them in advance. As I was booking our next few dinners, I noticed that nothing seemed to be available when we wanted it. I deftly palmed a $1 CUC in my hand and let the lady helping us book our restaurants see it. Everything magically opened up! We got all our bookings exactly when we wanted them and she got her “tip”. It didn’t stop there though. When she heard we were going to Havana she promised that “her husband” (yeah right) could take us for half the price and twice the fun. On hindsight this would have been a fun adventure, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have ended much cheaper. This is just the way things are done. Everyone gets a slice of the action – unofficially and away from the government of course. For the rest of our stay, me and the booking lady played a game where she never knew if I was going to tip her and I didn’t know if she was holding back on me for a tip. I liked the game but many polite Canadians won’t like it or won’t even know they’re part of this game at all. You’ve been warned. If you think you didn’t have your money tree shaken in Cuba than you got it shaken more than most!
What about the other two days that we didn’t spend laying around drinking cappuccinos, swimming in the ocean, wandering perfect white, sandy beaches and reading books under shady palm trees? We did two very touristy excursions from the resort via tour companies. Naturally there were less touristy options but who are we kidding? Just because you aren’t with an official tour company doesn’t mean you’re not a tourist in Cuba. You are either Cuban or you’re not. That’s it. An experienced Cuban tourist just gets their Money Tree shaken a bit less than the newbs – but probably way more than even they are aware.
Next time I travel to Cuba we’ll likely spend time in a Casa Particular rather than an all-inclusive for at least part of the time, and I’ll likely be more prepared to jump in a taxi rather than a tourist bus, but honestly I really enjoyed our excursions for several reasons;
- Our guides were very well educated, spoke excellent English and provided us with mini courses in all things “Cuba” over many hours of travel time. This was a very cheap education IMHO and worth the price of admission even without the destinations themselves.
- The buses were MUCH more comfortable than the local cars. My step counter was well over 30k steps on our Trinidad excursion from the rough roads – and that’s in a comfortable ride. That same trip in an old 1950’s car would likely have rendered me incapable of walking for the rest of the week!
- We managed to hit some of the more popular spots which gave me ideas for next time on avoiding these hot spots at peak hours and which ones were worth coming back to, such as Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad.
A quick note about washrooms in Cuba. If you’re outside a resort make sure you have the two following, very important items. Without these two things, your day just got a lot more interesting;
- Toilet paper – none of the bathrooms at any of the restaurants or museums we went to had any available
- Small change for the attendant or you really look like a newb and will be treated like one
If you’re going to go on an excursion from anywhere within a few hours of the city of Havana, you have to visit this unique place. It’s just one of those places you should see. I’ve had a dream of walking the old streets of this vibrant city with a Leica camera for many years and I was not disappointed to finally get that opportunity. After passing through the city of Matanzas we spend another hour or so on the bus before arriving at the old city wall of Havana, near the Revolution Museum, Museo de la Revolucion. Our tour guide, named Rey, regaled us with tales of Fidel and his crew coming over from Mexico in 1959 to kick off the great Cuban Revolution against the Batista government, and we saw the modest boat (“Granada“) that that they used, as the bus drove on by the rather uninspiring show of force.
Our first official stop was the infamous Plaza de la Revolucion, in Havana. Apparently every major Cuban city has a “Revolution Square” but this one is extra famous thanks to Fidel’s famously long speeches that he used to make here – up to 7 hours long! Millions of Cubans have assembled in this square for various reasons and speeches over the years. Along with the drab concrete buildings housing the ministries of the interior and communications, there is a spectacular 100m+ tall monument to Jose Marti and two interesting murals of the 1959 heroes of the revolution, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos who is often incorrectly labeled as “Fidel Castro” by many uninformed tourists. What many people don’t seem to understand, is that the quote under Camilo’s mural is a reference to his reply to Fidel’s question at a revolution rally in 1959 when Fidel asked him how he thought he was doing. Camilo responded with the now infamous words, “You’re doing fine Fidel”.
Our next stop was all about la bolsa negra or the black wallet that drives the everyday Cuban economy and is a key component of the average Cuban’s economic survival. I overheard many fellow tourons complaining bitterly about this stop and how long it took, but seriously – what did they expect?! This was the key stop for not only our tour guide but for a whole industry of Cubans who’s main source of income is tourist buses filled with hordes of visitors and of course fat wallets. The stop wasn’t advertised as a money grab for our tour guide and his relatives, but rather as an “opportunity” for us to buy authentic Cuban coffee, rum and cigars. I thought it was hilarious when Rey stepped behind the counter in the store and helped sell the products – he didn’t even pretend not to be related to the so-called “random” shop owner. The owner was very entertaining and the epitome of a Cuban rum and cigar magnate – all a good show to shake our money trees that much harder. I thought the flaming cappuccino was pretty neat in the store’s adjoining coffee bar and the coffee and cigars were certainly delicious to enjoy on our balcony later that night! I certainly wasn’t offended by this stop on our tour. I wouldn’t go back, but it was fun and entertaining to experience one time. As a side-note, the cigars at the duty free shop in the Varadero airport were pretty much the same price as the ones I bought in Havana. Same with the rum. Everyone needs to be paid – don’t expect to get anything cheap unless it’s highly illegal and counterfeit.
Next up, after the shopping excursion was my favorite part by far, a walk through Old Havana. After disembarking in the Plaza de San Francisco (1575) near the Basilica Menor y Convento de San Francisco de Asis, we proceeded to explore some of the more touristy areas of the old city. Again – la bolsa negra dictated exactly which museums, stores and sites we stopped at but since it was all new to us, we didn’t care. Hann and I both readily agreed that next time we’ll spend at least 2-3 full days exploring Havana. This excursion was just a nice taste for a later trip. My 18mm Leica lens worked fantastically in the very tight confines of Old Havana – especially with the towering old buildings and crowded squares. Highlights for us in Old Havana included;
- The Old Square – Plaza Vieja
- Plaza de Armas
- Castillo de la Real Fuerza (1558)
- Museo de la Ciudad (1792)
- Plaza de la Catedral with the Catedral de La Habana and surrounding old mansions
We didn’t have very much time to explore any of the sights in depth, but as I indicated earlier, we got enough of a taste to come back some day with more time to explore. As the tourists started leaving the old city and the shadows grew longer we sat in an old cafe and enjoyed a cold Cuban Cola with a freshly purchased cigar. The bustling street just outside of the cafe faded from consciousness as we sat there and peacefully enjoyed a few minutes in the refreshingly laid back atmosphere. This moment made me want to come back during off-peak hours more than anything! As we drove out of the city I glanced back at the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro (1600), the Fortaleza de San Carlos and the impressive Cristo de La Habana looking over the Port of Havana and I knew I’d be back some day.
Three Cities Excursion
Our second excursion was quite different from the Havana one. We decided to visit three important historical cities located in central Cuba;
- Santa Clara – founded in 1689 and an important site of the 1959 revolution when Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos won an important battle here. It’s also the site of Che’s Memorial and Mausoleum.
- Trinidad – founded in 1514 and an important historical city with lots of culture but also lots of tourism traps.
- Cienfuegos – a city with French origins and some nice plazas and parks.
The only fly-in-the-ointment with this excursion was the sheer distance we’d have to travel to get to these three cities from Varadero. It would be far enough even on newly paved freeways in comfortable cars, but on the Cuban road system we were in for a bit of an epic drive. The total kilometers would be around 650 and the total time driving would be well over 9 hours! We decided that to see all three of these places in one long day was worth it – we could always come back longer some other trip if we thought any of them were worth exploring longer. Our tour guide for this day was a very well educated with 14 years of university education in a wide range of topics including economics, philosophy, English and French. She was teaching herself German as well – because why not?
Unfortunately, the rest of our tour group on this day were a bit less impressive than our guide. First of all, the Canadian couple from Vancouver who sat beside us was nice enough but they weren’t prepared for the long, bumpy ride and quickly tired of the heat and rough back seat ride of the small bus we were in. Next there were a couple of women from a small bush town in Ontario. I’ll try to remain polite, but they did not make me very proud to be a Canadian. They meant well, I think, but they were very condescending to the tour guide and to the Cuban people in general. Typical white privileged tourists that knew better than anyone else including the Cuban with 14 years of post-secondary education!! Two other Canadians – from Quebec – didn’t elevate our collective Canadian reputations, I’m afraid. They were also not at all suited to such a long, hot travel day and were frankly, quite rude. They sent food back at the restaurant, complained about the heat, could barely walk 10 feet without a rest, and talked loudly inside Che’s Mausoleum – one of the most revered and respected memorial sites in all of Cuba!
Thankfully we had one interesting passenger to hang out with. Maria was originally from Serbia and currently working for the United Nations out of Afghanistan. She was a very interesting person to converse with and was an astute and respectful traveler. This excursion really highlighted the importance of the group when doing really touristy stuff like this – it’s not enough just to have a great tour guide. We truly felt sorry for our group leader most of the day as she had to remain polite and smiling while wanting to strangle most of us, I’m sure. We left the resort early on Thursday and drove the first 3.5 hours to Santa Clara and Che’s memorial. Our tour guide, Mirella, spoke frankly about many topics including Cuban politics, economics and philosophy. She openly admitted that there were problems with her country, but also wasn’t afraid to point out the many positives of a Socialist ethos. We were a bit disappointed in the two Ontarian “know-it-alls” who kept interrupting and pontificating over the poor guide, but c’est la vie.
When we finally pulled up to the Che memorial we only had about 15 minutes to look around before being rushed through the mausoleum and museum there. I got some great pics despite the rush. There was a long lineup at this important cultural site. As I stated earlier, Ernesto “Che” Guevara is the only non-Cuban to be given a status of “Cuban citizen by birth” in February of 1959 after his important contribution to the revolucion. Cubans love, respect and admire Che and I was deeply embarrassed for our group when the ladies from Quebec started talking loudly inside his tomb. On hindsight, a lot of tourons don’t seem to do a lot of research on excursions before signing up for them.
After the interesting visit to Che’s memorial, we piled back on the bus for the 1.5 hour ride to Trinidad. We watched a documentary on Che while absorbing more rough highways and our tour guide educated us on the education system and the meaning of the different colored uniforms worn by Cuban school kids;
- Kindergarten – white top, blue bottom and scarf
- Primary – white top, red bottom and scarf
- Secondary – white top, yellow bottom and scarf
- Plantation schools – white top, navy blue bottom and scarf
- Medical students – white top, purple bottom
We spent too much time eating lunch at the charming Restaurante Trinidad Colonial in Trinidad. The reason it took so long? Our group first didn’t like the private room our guide had arranged so we waited 30 minutes to get another spot. Then half the group (guess which half) sent their food back because they didn’t like it. By the time we finally finished lunch we only had about 30-45 minutes to check out the town square, Plaza Mayor, and some of its surrounding attractions.
Amazingly Hann and I had time to blast up the very narrow steps of the Palacio Cantero tower which offered some pretty unique views of this small, but historied city. Trinidad is named after the Christian concept of the Trinity and is located in the only Cuban province with a Latin name, Sancti Spiritus or “Holy Sprit” – one of the members of the Trinity. Trinidad is also one of the best preserved cities of the Caribbean from an era when sugarcane plantations were like modern day oil and gas companies and a mainstay of the local economy. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988.
The black wallet was part of our experience again in Trinidad. The cost of the Underground Cuba Travel Guide was worth this one experience that we would have missed out on without it. We literally had about 45 minutes to enter the Palacio Cantero museum, climb the tower and then race around the Plaza Mayor before our tour bus left for Cienfuegos so we could see some of that city before dark. It took us a few valuable minutes to find the bottom of the steep staircase running up the tower inside of the museum. Even though the tower looked empty from outside and there was nobody coming down the narrow stairs, we were blocked from going up by a smiling women attending a rope across the bottom step! My first thought was that this was a simple crowd control technique. It made sense as the the stairs were extremely narrow near the top and there was only so much room for folks on the tower itself. BUT. The tower and stairs were pretty much empty! Hmmm. After thinking about it for a few minutes, I blatantly offered the attendant a $1 CUC “tip”. Sure enough! The rope came off and up we went! The couple behind us quickly employed the same technique with the same positive result. Remember – the tower is free to climb with a museum pass which we’d already purchased. This was simply la bolsa negra at it’s wonderful best. I’m sure if we would have started yelling, or simply waited long enough we would have eventually been allowed up – but for the cost of $1 CUC I wasn’t going to bother with all that. This sort of thing would likely bother a lot of people but I found it immensely entertaining – trying to figure out where I was trapped in a la bolsa negra situation, and where I was simply experiencing a normal delay or misunderstanding.
After a nice late afternoon walk around the Plaza Mayor, it was time to jump back on the bus and drive 1.5 hours to Cienfuegos before dark. I enjoyed the Parque Jose Marti especially in the late afternoon calm when the local residents came out for impromptu games of soccer and a late day chat with their neighbors. I got my favorite car photo here with the lovely Catedral de la Purisima Concepcion in the background while walking around the park. Sitting there in the warm evening sunshine, watching the locals start to come out as the tour buses left made me, once again, want to stay another day. I didn’t expect to have that reaction in Cienfuegos for some reason, but I did. After a much too short break here, it was time for another 2.5 hour drive back to our resorts in Varadero.
It’s all about the Expectations
Our experience in Cuba was much better than I was expecting from reading online reviews and talking to people at the office who’d been there recently. I’ve decided that Cuba is all about expectations. If you are ready to experience a socialist tourism destination than you’ll love it. If you’re expecting a warm-weather “easy” destination spot like Mexico or the rest of the Caribbean, than you’ll likely be a bit disappointed.