Before some of you start sending me death threats in the comments section (as nearly happened for Why I don’t like Laos) know this: I don’t hate Cuba. Nobody mistreated me there or mugged me or stole my camera or ripped me off terribly bad. Cuban people, for the most part, were super friendly to me.
But there are too many issues about Cuba and traveling there that tend to get ignored. On the other side of those warm, chic Instagram photos of big classic cars, beautiful women dancing, and old men smoking the world’s best cigars is the reality of traveling in Cuba. Those are the issues I intend to address.
I have heard all too often from other travelers, bloggers, or Instagramers how awesome Cuba is. After day seven in the country, I was still trying to figure out what was so awesome about it and why foreigners love it so much.
Mostly, I would say, that Cuba didn’t live up to the expectations that I had in my mind. Expectations are always a dangerous thing and they are my problem, not the destinations’. I shouldn’t blame Cuba for not living up to its expectations in my mind. Last year I came away from two days in El Salvador with my interest curiously piqued. Was it that wonderful? Not really. But no one is telling you that you’ve got to visit El Salvador. It pleasantly surprised me.
I traveled for seven days in Cuba: Havana, Trinidad, and La Boca. I can only speak about my own experiences in these places. Maybe I needed longer in Cuba to describe the situation more accurately, but I will tell you my thoughts from the time I spent there.
You’ll hear this from travelers who’ve visited Cuba. I think the aspect of travel in Cuba that people like most is the fact that it looks and feels like 1960 in much of the country. Unfortunately, what is a cute novelty for foreign travelers, is a reality for Cuban citizens. Foreigners love to ride in Classic American cars or relish a few days of being disconnected from the internet. But what outsiders enjoy is exactly the result of decades of systematic oppression by the Cuban government and other governments like the United States. Cuban people have no choice in the matter. They are forced to live in 1960 whether they like it or not.
Cuba is like a tropical Soviet Union just after its collapse, with no products on the shelves. But almost worse than that. It’s like Khrushchev-era Soviet Union, frozen in time but economically like early 90’s Russia.
Cuba has a special currency for foreigners. This is what you get when you exchange Euros or US or Canadian dollars. Cuba does its best to keep you from obtaining the local currency and operating within the local economy. This means you’re usually paying much more for everything.
Most places that have a struggling economy like Cuba, are cheap places for foreigners who have a strong currency. When services are slim and the economy is weak, we travelers think we’re entitled to cheap travel. That’s the way it generally works around the world. Cuba is not the bargain destination you’re expecting. I knew this coming to Cuba so it wasn’t a shock to me. But before you go you should get a realistic expectation of travel costs in Cuba.
I’ll be the first to admit my Spanish language skills are not adequate, but I can at least feed myself, get a bus ticket, and greet people properly. To me, it felt like every aspect of travel in Cuba was harder than it needed to be. I’m mostly talking about the logistics of actually traveling from one place to the next. The process seemed incredibly inefficient for a country that relies on tourism for revenue.
“There are two things I hate about Cuba: the weather in the summer and the government.” These are the words of a Cuban entrepreneur who I met. I would add to that list, foreign governments, like the United States, who have held a trade embargo on the country for decades. This is certainly a huge factor in keeping the country from developing economically and becoming more prosperous.
I normally tell people not to bring snacks from home when they travel because it’s fun and interesting to shop and buy local snacks. That’s usually great advice except for Cuba where it’s hard to find food. First, there are no supermarkets, and second, there are very few options for eating out. Most restaurants are tourist-oriented restaurants and I don’t like taking all my meals in restaurants anyway. They are expensive and I prefer to eat takeaway or cafes which are more casual. I also occasionally like to cook for myself when I travel, something that is not an option in Cuba. One day in Havana, I found a nice, small, local paladar and considered it a victory.
When I’ve traveled around Latin America over the past decade, I always leave with the same feeling: my soul does not feel at home here. I may (and do) love traveling in places like Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, and Peru, but I never felt at home in those countries either. I would totally recommend traveling to all those places.
In Colombia, there are brilliant colonial towns, a gorgeous coffee country, stunning beaches, ruined ancient cities, national parks, great nightlife, and the warmest people in South America. But that doesn’t mean Colombia captured my heart and soul.
When I’m in South Asia, East Asia, most of Europe, or the Middle East, I do have these feelings. My heart and soul do feel like they belong there. These are nothing more than personal prejudices that can also work in opposite ways. Some travelers fall in love with Cuba for precisely the reason I have not.
I did have some good experiences in Cuba. I spent time talking to my homestay hosts, who were all wonderful people. My host in Trinidad gave me great insight into life in the country.
I had some nice opportunities for photography. The light was great in the morning and evenings and Cuba is definitely a photogenic place with colorful buildings and smiling people.
The weather in January was fantastic. Warm to hot days and cool nights. A great time to visit.
Havana (as well and the whole of Cuba) has a long, fascinating history. Old Havana is slowly being restored but much of the Old City’s infrastructure is crumbling. Read up on the history before you go.
I heard bad things about the food, but I only had one bad meal during the whole week. The rest of my meals were good. My problem was not that the food was bad but that it was hard to find good food and there are few other options besides restaurants.
In the end, I would never tell anyone not to go to Cuba. But I would tell them the following:
This means trying to support the Cuban people directly with your tourist dollars. Staying at casa particulares, or homestays. It means trying to interact with Cubans and learning about their life: joys and struggles. It means avoiding government-run resorts and restaurants. And lots more.
I love traveling and exploring countries independently. For Cuba, I might recommend most people to join a small group. Cuba isn’t ideal for independent travelers and a group tour to Cuba will help you manage your travel time more effectively and get you to the best restaurants and accommodation. A good group tour will also connect you with Cubans. Consider the tour that I offer at my company: Experience Havana Tour
This goes against my advice for every other country, which is to get beyond the capital city. This normally allows you to see the ‘real’ country and its people. But Havana is so rich in culture and architecture that I think it provides great insight into the country and its people. Focus on Havana and you won’t be disappointed with your time spent in Cuba. Use this Travel Guide to Havana.