Behind the Buzz: A Cuba Travel Story

Behind the Buzz: A Cuba Travel Story

Let me start by saying I did like the buildings.

A few months ago after reading a few blogs and a lonely planet magazine which had included a helpful list of countries that it deemed a mistake not to visit this year, Cuba appeared on our radars. It was actually Steph who first brought up the idea.

“Its a good time to hit it.” She told me, and rightly so, as the trusty guidebooks and travel behemoths so sagely preached in their various publications. Cuba took over 4 million tourists in 2016, a mind-blowing figure, double what is had ten years ago. Now the country was open to the USA for the first time in decades and it was expected to bring in 1.4 million new American tourists this year alone. With upscale hotel rooms increasing prices by 120% over the last two years alone, things are undeniably changing in Cuba. Though we couldn’t fly direct from Chicago, a layover at Miami seemed straightforward enough, then a one hour jaunt to the island would get us there to see it first hand.

So the research began, and what an exciting prospect! Stupidly cheap mojitos with strong cuban rum, delicious Cuban cuisine, French and Spanish architecture to marvel at, with the added spectacle of a city falling into ruin after half a century of economic exile. 1950’s cars miraculously still purring, salsa dancing in the bars all night long and some of the best beaches in the Caribbean. I started to wonder why Cuba hadn’t been on my hit list already, after all, being British meant I could have visited anytime. I began to get so excited I contemplated quitting my job and just going the following day.

That urge was dutifully curtailed however by our first facial slap of the Cuba experience.

Though no real visa is required for Cuba travel, the country have invented what they term a ‘travel card’ to gain entry. This useless paper exercise goes as follows; you pay $50 per application, this money (I naively persuaded myself) must go towards the country’s improving infrastructure, perhaps healthcare or schools. Perhaps my hard earned cash would prevent some young Cubano from a life of Mojito and Cigar addiction. Fine I thought, you then have to pay $25 per card for the privilege of applying. Mildly perturbed I began to wonder how a company can tell you you must have something, then when you try to get it, be charged for your interest in the subject. This fee was clearly going to the airline who organize it. When they followed this by adding a huge delivery fee I almost cancelled the trip. In the end it cost $200 for the cards, which officially only cost $50 each. Math has never been a strength of mine, but even I could see things didn’t add up here.

We flew early on a cold Chicago morning in April. I couldn’t believe how much I wanted sun on my skin. The flight to Miami and then on to Cuba was uneventful and swift. After we landed and hopped off the airplane, the first job would be currency exchange. Cuba has a curious dual currency system. Locals use the Pesos, termed CUP. Meanwhile if a tourist attempts to pay, they are charged in CUC and customarily ripped off. The purpose is essentially to allow tourists to access upscale goods with the CUC being 1:1 with the US Dollar, whilst the government can pay locals in CUP, worth 25 times less. It actually has real repercussions for the nation, for example, many well educated Cubans, doctors, lawyers etc. are leaving their jobs to work as tour reps, or to open Casas as it means they get paid by tourists in this far more lucrative currency. The biggest issue to us is that neither currency is used off the island and american bank cards don’t function over there. The end result, you bring in money in Euros or Canadian Dollars, convert once you’re there and if you run out of cash, you starve!

We headed to the first currency exchange window we could see. With nobody in line we bounded up.

“Hola! Could I convert this please?” I presented my conservative cash wad.

“No.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Down” he said, waving me off.

Steph and I turned in confusion, baffled by the curt reposes and lack of direction. We haplessly wandered downstairs and eventually out of the airport to see the currency exchange out front. My eyes slowly widened as I noted a line of perhaps a hundred people, all waiting for a counter with a single man on the till. It dawned on me immediately that the country was seriously ill prepared for its 5 million expected visitors, though with two other windows turning people away, it seemed more like they just didn’t care.

CubaWe somehow organized a cab to drive us to Havana and take some euros instead of CUC. We knew we should be able to find a bank in town and make the rest of the currency conversion that evening. The drive was short, and though our cab driver had to stop twice to ask locals where to go, we eventually arrived in a Havana back street blocking about eight cars, two bikes and a man pulling a cart of curious looking foods.

Cuba cab
To experience ‘real Cuba’ and save money, the blogs and guides we’d read suggested staying in an Air BnB or what the Cuban’s call Casas. Mostly they seem to be families who rent out a room and shower. They work out at around $30 a night or close to it and certainly play a part in lowering your trip costs, plus the premise is you get to mix with real local people. Cuba is changing rapidly and the rules regarding personal freedoms are beginning to alter with it. Cuban’s were only given the right to run these privately owned Casas in the last few years so this could be the most acute insight into cuban life that you’re likely to get.

Our host, Ivis wandered into the dark front room of her casa to meet us. As she hustled toward us she reeled off a lengthy string of sentences in Spanish (which sent me back to my middle school language lessons with Frau Kallow) and I felt the panic rise. Steph jumped in and showed a lot more ingenuity than I, miraculously deciphering the odd word here and there, turning the ghost of Kallow’s flailing hand gestures into rough translations. I couldn’t believe how she was gaining any understanding! Steph nodded, responded with similar gestures and the odd words, again somehow getting the message across as I stood trying to decipher if they were debating the quantum mechanics of black holes or where to by a ham sandwich.

Ivis was lovely, she actually exchanged our money from american dollars into the local currency right on the spot, pulling out a wad of hundreds of dollars to do so, business was clearly booming. Over 4,000 new rooms were added to Airbnb in 2016, who knows how many more will open in the coming years. The accommodation was simple, a room with a double bed, a shower and a fridge, however we did have the ability to wander onto their communal balcony and look out onto a classic cuban street scene.

Cuba StreetsWe got a quick but desperately needed shower and hit the streets. Havana is, at least superficially, what you think it will be. As we walked out of our building and headed north toward the malecon, where we’d heard the locals gather in the evening to watch the sunset, I marveled at the architecture and the sumptuous gritty decay all around us. As we walked I began to wonder about why this dilapidation is such a draw, and if Cuba would get anywhere near as many tourists without it. For my part, the image of Cuba that I took in with me was the old colonial buildings and classic cars. I suppose i’d never really thought about why, but that was the only image I had of Cuba, that and cigars. I settled on the notion that it was simply unique. Sure there are places in the world with older buildings, but they aren’t crumbling down so consciously. There are old classic cars elsewhere in the world, but they don’t line streets with such density, and of course there are cities in the world which have crumbled to the ground, but they don’t still have a population living in them. The best way I can describe it is to say that it feels like you’re walking through a densely populated ghost town.

Cuba BalconiesWhen we hit the oceanfront we were halted in our tracks by a road that appeared to have been designed with mass tourist execution in mind. Cars were flying past in both directions over multiple lanes and as we scanned east and west we saw no semblance of a crossing in either direction. Without warning a couple of a similar age to ourselves motioned out into traffic to our right. They didn’t hurry or hustle, they just casually walked. My mouth dropped open, they were smoothly gliding between vehicles as if the cars were merely a holographic training exercise. They made it to the other side without incident, and my attention fell back to our own attempt. No crossings, no traffic lights, no breaks in which to hastily maneuver across, I still believe the Avenida de Maceo to be a method of population control.

The malecon is nice; its a long stretch of sea front bordered by a hefty sea wall on which you can situate yourself with a beer in hand whilst observing the sunset. Bright oranges will light up the decrepit remains of the once great waterside mansions and people will mingle in a scene that seems to feel oddly melancholy and romantic. You could spend an evening right here on a nice night.

We did not. After twenty minutes or so a curious looking fellow with a air of mischief about him walked right up to us, he uttered something in spanish then went to grab Steph’s beer right from her hand. “No!” we shouted as if telling off a bad dog. In complete  shock we simply stared at the man for a few moments, he then made a second attempt for the semi consumed bottle. We swatted our assailant away once more and off he trotted to the next couple he could see. “Well I’m good to move on if you are?” I said sarcastically.

Cuba maleconWe headed to Chacon street, to a bar restaurant called Chacon 162, a pleasant enough establishment in a cute alleyway with a cobbled street and nice feel. The food was mediocre but at this point we were still far too excited to let it bother us. Mojitos were cheap, though we waited about half an hour for a server to acknowledge our presence each time we ordered, to the extent that I believe my blood alcohol level was lower upon leaving than upon arriving.

We ended the night by heading to one of Cuba’s most famous bars; (home of the daiquiri according to our guide book) La Floridita. Opened in 1817 with the name “La Piña de Plata” (The Silver Pineapple) it changed its name after the owner was persuaded by north american tourists. Writer Ernest Hemingway frequented the bar and this helped make its name. I enjoyed the drinks while a couple of dancers entertained the guests ate the doorway, before coming around for cash moments later. It was a lively hang out, full of tourists but somehow kept a friendly and relaxing atmosphere. We left a little later feeling fairly inebriated and made our way back to the room for the night.

The next two days we spent exploring the city. We walked everywhere, ignoring the constant ‘taxi!’ shouts from men semi-demanding we quit seeing their lovely streets and instead pay an extortionate amount of money to miss it all. We strolled from cafe to street market to museum to cathedral to rum tour. I smoked cuban cigars and drank coffee whenever possible and felt completely and totally… disappointed.

Havana isn’t an inherently awful place, it has quaint squares, warm weather and plentiful access to alcohol. But here’s the thing, non of the things are unique to Cuba, and non are that good or substantially less expensive when compared to just about anywhere else. The squares feel like something from Spain or Italy only not as nice, old or friendly. The buildings are interesting but the same applies. Drinks are okay but not great and the food is flavorless and made us both sick within three days.

When it comes to the food, lower your expectations, it’s really not a trip highlight. We’d read about delicious cuban cuisine and I’d enjoyed great cuban food here in the states. No no no. One of our daily grinds was finding a place to eat which served something more than rice and beans with either plain fish or shredded beef (ropa vieja). A standing joke in Cuba is “what are the three biggest failures of the Revolution? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” You are not going to put on weight. Cuba has been using the ‘ration book’ for the last 50 years, with every citizen being supplied the appropriate amount of food to remain healthy, one of its major issues is that its 50 years out of date and notable missing items include green vegetables and spices, thus the modern food is lacking flavor.

A good deal of people get sick (both Steph and I suffered, and we ate in more expensive places), so you’re best sticking to certain food groups. There are some places in Havana that we recommend, Cafe O’Reilly does great coffee and good simple food. Los Nardos opposite the Capitol building is one of the better restaurants we found, though the queue begins in Havana but ends in Tokyo. Finally Cerveceria Antiguo Almaden de la Madera y El Tabaco (quite a mouthful), is a cool new hang out built on the harbor front on the southern most point of San Ignacio. It seems to be a converted shipping warehouse and the place has a tasty brewery on site. In general however, expect bland meats and beans.

The museums can be interesting, but most of the information is in spanish only. What Fador heralded as one of its *Fador choice items, the Rum Museum, though quite interesting (an informative tour lasting about twenty minutes), is in fact simply a tour around the Havana Rum sales department. It’s certainly not a museum.

CubaOne morning we went to Plaza de la Catedral to see the Cathedral of Havana. Its a very nice cathedral, particularly from the outside where you notice quickly that the walls are made of rocks filled with the shells and fossils of sea creatures. In the square meanwhile, husbands were being cleverly hustled by women dressed in the stereotypical cuban attire, the only place yet that we’d seen such clothing in reality. As wives wandered off to examine the architectural treasures, the ladies would fly towards the poor defenseless men who looked on in bemusement. While the shellshocked men turned white the women would strike poses, tightly grasping the men who seemed to be playing dead and hoping for the best. Some of the more fragile men would give in immediately while others would make an attempt to flee the predators, sometimes being attacked from both sides, the predators were working as a pack! Jostled into position the men would find their wives, daughters or sons flying over to get pictures of the torment, for which the women demanded payment before letting the men go free. I sat watching their deft approaches for a while, before something much more shocking caught my attention.

Cuba womenMy eyes spotted a man, stood against a wall in full tourist trapping attire, complete with ten inch cigar and cowboy hat. I pulled my gaze down to my guide book and looked at the image on the cover, then back up to the man…back down…back up. I looked at Steph and swapped a look that roughly said drop everything, we need a photo with this man right now’ and we motioned over. After we had our shots we looked over the photos and sure enough, we had just met the man on the front cover of the Fador Cuba Travel Guidebook. I was shocked. Appalled even. The image they had  chosen to represent this country to anyone wishing to visit was a total fake. A man who dresses up in a costume for pictures with tourists. it hit me there and then that what had just happened was like a mini representation of the Cuba experience, the image of Cuba projected into the outside world simply isn’t there, simply isn’t real. It’s not bad, its actually gritty and interesting, it’s just not what you are told.

cuba actorBy day three we had definitely ran out of options and decided to spend the day strolling the streets and sipping drinks in the pleasant sun-filled plazas. It was around this time however that our realization about transport had occurred. A trip to Vinalez was meant to happen the following day, but we realized to get there and back would only allow maybe a day there, maybe an afternoon, before having to begin a return trip, plus the cabs were quoting $120 each way. We had to cancel. Cuba is not cheap to get around. Instead we settled on an extra day in havana before making a trip for two days to Veredaro, which had been touted as the Caribbean’s most amazing stretch of beach in a number of blogs and books. A nice way to finish a week.

We couldn’t find a cab for under $120 to get us there. I had read in almost every blog that the easiest way to travel is to head to the hotels and they will assist in finding you a fair priced ride. Well, we weren’t allowed into the first two we attempted and the third informed us that their services were for guests only. No one even hinted at the slightest twitch of a smile and we felt like the whole town had become oddly annoyed at us for reasons beyond comprehension.

In the end I decided to look into the Viazul, a bus company which had been mentioned in our guide book for all of one fleetingly short sentence. I had to hike out of Havana, one hour in the heat to find it, and when I arrived I met the front desk with terror. The room was hot and packed with equally frantic tourists, all looking to book short jaunts around the island. I found myself at a disadvantage once more with my lack of spanish. I’m english, and I am a productt of awful language education at school but I am always looking to learn a little of a language in new countries. A visitor should always try to make the language effort, but I also feel like if someone attempts my own language I would be helpful and encouraging in return, I didn’t feel this verbal pat on the back once in Cuba.  Not one of the ladies at the kiosk spoke a word of english so I used the translate app once again to help get the message across. Conveying routes, numbers and dates without a common tongue is not simple. I felt like three year old attempting long division without being taught how to count. Once the lady had printed my ticket on her HP Deskjet 1, plugged into what seemed to be an Attari, I was still oddly uncertain as to whether I had a reservation at all. As I turned to leave, a large rat (the first I’d seen remarkably, given the state of the streets) ran across both of my feet in a swift dash for the exit. I knew exactly how it felt, so I followed right after it.

It turns out the Viazul is a clean, comfortable ride indeed. It cost us just $20 for two tickets and got us to Varadero in three hours. I was stunned, having spent a full day trying to find taxi’s or hotel buses and shuttles, here is a service which is timely, clean and cheap. Why the hell is this not being advertised to everyone as they land, hell before they land! This is clearly the best way to travel and yet it’s hidden away if its trying to remain a secret. Favor spent pages discussing travel, but less than three lines mentioning this, the most useful travel tool for a potential visitor. Insane.

Feeling pleased to be away from the city and near a tropical paradise, I began to relax. Of course, I shouldn’t have. Nipping into the booking area of the Viazul terminal in Varadero we enquired about tickets back to Havana, being aware we should probably book ahead.

“We have no bus for the next ten days”, came the response.

“No buses?! We have to be back in two!”

The lady didn’t even attempt fake sympathy, and went back to her screen. In shock, we walked out into the street and saw a car hire company.

“Let’s just see how much.” Steph said. “Anything less than $120 would mean its an option.”

We walked in to find a woman at a desk sat in silence looking rather displeased at the interruption.

“Hi, we are wondering how much a rental would be for one day.”

“One hundred dollars” her response.

“Oh great! Can we go one way and leave it at the airport?” I asked with growing optimism.

“Yes.”

“Fantastic!”

“What’s your availability?” Steph interrupted, as if knowing there must be a catch.

“Thats the thing, we have no cars”.

I couldn’t believe it, I felt like driving a car up her arse, except clearly this car rental didn’t have any to utilize. Steph all but lost her mind, expletives erupting as we turned and walked out. A few seconds later we began to laugh, I think it was pure delirium, what else was left to do? After a day of exhaustion attempting to get here, we were now stranded and no one seemed to be inclined offer any help or advice at all.

We hit the beach the next day, determined to have a morning of relaxation before trying to find a way home. We were stressed, there’s no way around it. We’d been sold the prospect of the trip to Varadero as a quick and easy day trip. I guess it is for prepaid all inclusive hotel guests, or if you’re in a group to share the ludicrously high cab fees. But as a couple, getting there and back is a mission. There’s no way to prebook transport, no cheap options other than bus, and this will be sold out weeks in advance, and we’re not even in peak season! We found our way to the beach front and hit the next disappointment. The loungers are hotel guests only, and there isn’t a cafe or drinks facility anywhere. We sat for a while on the sand, then decided to stroll up the waterfront. We encountered endless tourists who were guests at the all inclusive hotels lining the front. No small restaurants, no cafe’s, no facilities for independent visitors to the area at all. We wandered through two hotels and looked at the guests, now suddenly made up of large white american and Canadian tourists. “Look! I have a coconut filled with Mojito!” one loud uncouth women shouted running whilst stumbling through a lobby.

“So this is where they all are.” I muttered.

Varadero is, like most of the Cuba we saw, not as you’d expect or as the pre-reading suggests. If you’re not in one of the hotels, you will struggle. There are one or two decent restaurants along the stretch of coast, but you’ll spend a long time walking to find them. The beach is beautiful, but useless as you run out of water pretty fast and can’t find a place to escape the sun without having a trusty hotel umbrella, reserved only for their wrist band wearing guests. Once again we were being sternly reminded that visiting Cuba outside of the tours and all inclusive hotels is just not easy.

Cuba BeachIn the end I bribed an umbrella guy. I was actually pretty pleased with myself, carrying out a smooth handshake-exchange of cash which got us two umbrellas and his protection for a few hours. Then we spent the rest of the day finding a way back to the airport. It turns out that the hotels often contain reps for Cubatur, a travel excursion company. We got onto a tourbus for $25 each and headed to the airport the following day. Yet again, a traveling facility which should front and torment on any guidebook’s ‘essentials’ list, seldom mentioned.

Since returning home I’ve spent some time trying to reflect on the week. I was conscious of feeling pretty despondent about it and though I always want to be accurate with my travel stories, I’d also like to give a balanced view. Cuba, like its currency, has two very different versions of itself. Cuba is unique, no doubt about it. If anyone tells you it isn’t then they’ve missed the point. It’s ruggedly stunning, charmingly grimy and bafflingly backward. One thing it isn’t though, is what you expect it to be. I think its in part an issue inherent to travel blogging, no one wants to look downbeat, every blogger wants to be seen as a travel pro. If they haven’t had a good time, then boy will they make it seem that way! Well thats great if you just want to look at their instagram photos on your office lunch break, not so much when you need some accurate advice.

Havana is cool. It is. Its unique, grungy and stunning. It would make for a great three day visit. In my opinion however, it’s still not quite worth the cost and effort to get there. To fly in from Chicago with an overnight back on the airport floor, paying flights and $200 extra for travel cards then hundreds more on cabs? Nope. If you have time to see it without having to stressfully keep to a schedule, or you can get a cheap direct flight (i.e. you live in Houston or Miami) then maybe.

I thought for a while about why it left such a taste in my mouth, I’ve been to poorer, more desolate places, and loved every second. Eventually I came to realize what it was; the people and how they treated us. Certainly not every person, our first two Casa owners were lovely and insanely helpful, but I have never been anywhere in the world and encountered such rudeness so consistently. In numerous restaurants we had waiters or waitresses who wouldn’t even give eye contact. In one, our waiter actually dropped our plates on the table whilst looking away, almost smashing my water onto me. Whether it be the bar owner in the Plaza spitting “fine, whatever!” at us when we didn’t immediately enter his establishment, or the lady at the information desk who turned away from me mid conversation, or the waiter who told us his courtyard seating was closed, only to seat people once we’d moved on, the examples are endless. We encountered a hostility I’ve never experienced anywhere, akin to what I imagine racism feels like. We were always pleasant, unassuming and open minded, and it took four days of these frequent interactions to break me. Were we unlucky? Do cubans dislike the new and increasing onslaught of tourism? I have no idea, but ultimately that will be my lasting memory of my first Cuba experience, and thats a sad fact.

I really did like the buildings though.

 

Keep Traveling

Richard

 

If you’d like our 6 ESSENTIAL TIPS for a Cuba trip, click here.

 

 

Cuba

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