Firstly I must say that if you think this blog post will be only about praising the beautiful country Cuba is (and it is) then you will be disappointed. I will try to convey the truth of my experience in Cuba and I will not put any sugar in it. I will also advise you to read a bit about the revolution in Cuba so that you can read this blog post about Cuba taking in consideration the circumstances of its people.
My first impression of the city Havana, where I stayed for a week, was that it looked like a city that had been under attack, under fire, for the last months or years. The buildings that were once beautiful once are now breaking down, still standing thanks to wooden stakes. The streets and roads have many holes in it and you must be careful of every step. Then I saw the beauty of the city too. I am not talking about the old cars, renovated for the comfort of the tourists (almost every car you could see on the streets are taxis, both for tourists and some community ones for the locals), or some beautiful old buildings that have been renovated as museums for tourists, I am talking about the amazing life of the city. It seemed that everybody is on the streets despite the crazy hot and humid weather.
As I tried to convey in my last paragraph, a lot (if not most) of the money invested in Cuba is in Tourism. The buildings that have been renovated are restaurants, Inns or museums. The cars that have been renovated are the taxis for tourists (the community ones are not renovated). You must be thinking “but they have a communist political system! They also must invest a lot in education and health…”. If you insist in talking about it, I will not let you down.
It is true that education is free. But what I have noticed from the people I had the chance to talk to is that many people don’t see the point of going to college. Girls have kids very young (on average 14-15 years old, and who told me that was a gynecologist) because they know they can still finish high school with the help of their families and then they don’t want to go to college. As I said, most money is in tourism and to work in a hotel or to be a taxi driver you don’t need further studies. The only further education worth it (money wise) is to study for police academy, the profession in which you can earn the highest wage (75 euros/month), and compared with a medical doctor (that earns 45 euros/month) you don’t need to study that much.
It is true that medical attention in a hospital is free. But for you to have surgery you will have to pay a “regalo” to the administrative system to be put in the front of the queue. Then you must give blood to the hospital, and if you can’t someone has to do it for you. Then you must give another “regalo” to the doctor. If you need medication in the hospital, it is free. But if you need medication after you go home you have to pay for it, and sometimes you pay a lot.
To be honest my trip to cuba also showed me some wonders. One of the things it is really worth to see and buy in Cuba is the art. You can find amazing art for good prices. The old cars are also amazing to see and it almost seems you are in a old movie the all time. But the really triple treat is the Rum (and the cocktails you do with it), the coffee and the cigars (Puros). You can say you can buy them at your home town but that is not exactly true. Further in these blog you can find some pointers for people visiting cuba, there I will mention how you can only get the most amazing cigar (accordingly to my dad) in a small town in cuba, hand made by the campesinos, with no brand. You can find ground coffee from cuba in your town, but in cuba you can buy freshly ground coffee and coffee beans. The rum you can buy in your city, but only in Cba you can taste the most amazing cocktails made by their original recipe.
But not all was good, there was specially one thing that really got in my nerves:
Everything had an hidden price. You go to the bathroom in the restaurant, in the airport, in the hotel… you need to give a “regalo” to the lady that hands you toilet paper (and I swear it is not to keep the bathroom clean). You eat in a restaurant, you take a taxi, you buy something, you pay for its price and you still always need to give a “regalo”. Someone points you in the right direction in the street, gives you an information… you need to give them a “regalo”. A lot of what I know now about the Cuban culture and history (as the salary of medical doctors and other things I have already mentioned) were very costly because people approach you in the street, look very helpful telling you a lot of interesting stuff (where to buy cheap rum, where you can have a nice lunch…), answer all of your questions (about politics, about the country…) but they are always looking after a “Regalo”, a lunch in that nice place they told you about…. Something. I am not a cynical person by nature. I swear. However, in Cuba, after a few days, if someone smiled at me I would run, fearing for my wallet.
One of the things that makes this situation even worse is that you can’t see to where all the tourism money is going. They have two coins, one for locals that is worth 1/25 of an euro, but another for tourists that is worth almost the same as 1 euro (the CUC). Almost everything in CUC costs the same as in Europe. One lunch or dinner is 15 CUC in most places. So you can imagine that tourists spend a lot of money in Cuba paying a lot in CUC and plus the “regalos” but what you see around you is a country living in poverty. People may not be starving, and may not be dying in the streets for not affording an hospital, but they are, without a doubt, poor.
Talking about fearing for my wallet, and now giving a more positive light to my Cuban experience. One of the good points of going to Cuba is that you feel safe always. There is no crime in Cuba, specially for tourists. In every street there is someone responsible for that street. That person must know if the children are going to school, if every adult has a job… if they see anyone stealing from a tourist that person will get 40/45 years in prison. And, as I already mentioned, the most well paid profession is police officer and there are a lot, really a lot, of them. In a 2 hours travel you can see at least 10 police patrols. As you can imagine people obey the traffic laws.
(Conclusions after the next segment)
Now I hope to give a few pointer to people that are planning to go to cuba:
- Don’t buy cigars (Puros) in the streets. Most of the times they are palm trees in a cigar form. If you want to buy something different that you can’t find in any store in the world go to Vinales (a 2 hours drive from havana) and buy cigars from the “Campesinos”. They need to sell 90% of the tobacco production to the government, but they keep the best 10% for themselves.They make their own cigar, with no brand, and they take the part of the plant with nicotine so it is not so bad for your health and it becomes softer. The cigars will cost you from 2-4 euros each depending on your capacity to negotiate the price and the quantity you will be asking for. You can go to vinales by taxi (130 euros for the day, 150/160 if you count the “regalo”) and see other things in the area besides the tobacco production such as the indian cave. You can also take a bus near the zoo in havana, but in that case you will need to stay one night in vinales which is not a great problem because in the bus stop there you will find people that have renovated their houses to make them an Inn for tourists asking you if you need a place to stay the night.
- The best restaurants in Havana are the ones top listed in Tripadvisor. It is also ok to go to a “Paladares” (houses that are turned into a restaurant) but sometimes they are even more expensive and definitely not so clean.
- Do not drink tap water. They only have one brand of bottled water and it is awful but still better than getting sick. Only ask for drinks with ice (like mojitos and daiquiri) in places like the ones in tripadvisor where you know the ice is not made from tap water.
- It is a great plan to go to the beach (las playas del este) for one day. You get the bus in front of the Hotel Inglaterra. It passes every 30/40 minutes from 9 am and you can came back to Havana until 6 pm. There are many beaches, we went to one called Tropicoco because some locals told us it was the one with best facilities like a sun umbrella for 2 Euros, sun beds (don’t recall the price) and lunch and drinks in the beach. The water is amazing! Super hot and of an amazing blue.
- Another tip is to take with you soap and pens. A lot of people are asking for them in the streets and it is always a good way to give a “regalo”.
As a wrap up I would say that the life of the city, the amazing coffee, cigars and rum (mojitos and daiquiris), the cheap and amazing art and the beach were the best of Cuba. But there are a lot of problems in that country and I don’t know if we can blame the embargo for all of them. If you plan to go to Cuba just for a resort you may not notice most of them but if you go to Havana and talk to the locals you will find out a totally different side of Cuba that is not about hot sea water and great cocktails.