Cuba. A vibrant melting pot of ancient Afro-Cuban, Spanish and French influences and antiquated customs and ideals. Dynamic, captivating and imminently colourful. But you have to go beyond what is being personified. Beyond the colourful Cuban facade. To get a sense of the real Cuba. A place of wonderfully frustrating contradictions and sporadic history. You soon learn that everything begins and ends at the Cuban Revolution.
I had dreamt of going to Cuba someday. Have a different kind of holiday experience. I like to buck mainstream trends you know. So, when the opportunity presented itself, I didn’t think twice. Flights were cheap. Tours were affordable. And I was conveniently on summer holidays from postgraduate studies. Everything fortuitously fell into place for this eternal wanderluster. Book a Cuba vaycay! You only live once girl! DONE. Cuba here I come!
I remember reading on the internet you have to be wary of the Cadeca (Money Exchange) at Jose Marti International Airport. Apparently, it’s notoriously bad for ripping off tourists. It’s a crock. Don’t believe everything you see on the internet about Cuba. In fact, it’s best not to have any preconceived notions. Leave them at the airport. And don’t believe the stereotypes either. Like “why aren’t there any ‘old-school’ cars at the airport?” “Isn’t Cuba supposed to be full of them?” Once you pass Revolutionary Square, you’ll be faced with an explosion of colourful vintage cars Y’all. Chevrolets will be everywhere! Every colour under the sun. Name your colour Cuba has it! A novelty and a rarity because you don’t get cars like that anymore. It’s like you’ve stepped back in time. Literally.
Havana. Man what a place! Such an eclectic and expansive city. I absolutely adored La Habana Vieja otherwise known as “Old Havana.” Mysterious laneways with hidden gastronomic delights, ancient markets, endless souvenir shops and Rastafarian themed bars playing salsa and tango beats all hours of the day. Nobody does a mojito quite like Cuba. A mojito or two a day keeps the doctor away. This is how you roll the Cuban way in the old Capital.
Since the internet is renowned for being ‘dodgy’ in Cuba, it’s best to book an organised tour before you go. ‘Winging it’ as the saying goes, will give you a brain aneurysm. Trust me. You can’t really wing it in Cuba. The internet is suicidally slow or non-existent half the time. Be prepared for your beloved iPhone to be rendered obsolete as soon as you hit Cuba. Regardless of international roaming baby, it won’t work! You’ll be phone-less and internet-less more or less all the time.
Blissfully disconnected from technology for the majority of my time in Cuba I was. The first few days it felt like my throat had been slit. But after a while, I got used to it. You can purchase internet cards from ‘black marketeers’ lurking suspiciously in the public park areas. To be connected means to resort to higher ground. Internet-access is only available in Cuba’s public park areas. For an Aussie who is used to be plugged in 24/7, that took some getting used to.
I even managed to pick up a little Spanish along the way. Try to learn the basics if you can, because English is pretty much non-existent in Cuba. Get yourself a Spanish phrasebook. It will help you along the way if you get in a ‘language jam.’ Plus, the Cubans will love you for it! They are so appreciative when non-Cubans make an effort to converse with them in their native Española.
Let me tell you banking in Cuba is an interesting experience. You have to line up, and lines are usually, as long as the River Nile. Just to get into a bank and change money. It takes forever so avoid banks where you can. Go to a Cadeca instead. It’s quicker and less painful. Also, forget about using debit cards and credit cards. It’s dubious as to whether they’ll actually work or not. Cash is king in Cuba. So bring lots of it. Not U.S Dollars either the tax is rife. Take Euros or Pounds to change into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC’s) when you get there. Remember you can’t get Cuban money unless you’re in Cuba. Thems the rules!
Going to Cuba means doing things properly. I recommend hooking up with Cuba Locally Sourced Tours. Their tour groups are small, and all of the tour guides are locals from all over Cuba. Meaning, you actually get to experience the diversity of the country through the eyes of its people. I experienced Cuba in all its glory. From Havana to Cienfuegos via Playa Giron and the Bay of Pigs. Cienfuegos to Trinidad via Santa Clara. Trinidad to Camaguey to Santiago de Cuba to Baracoa. Baracoa to Guantanamo to Holguin and Viñuales and back to Havana. All worth visiting to appreciate Cuba’s magnificent and picturesque landscape. And the bonus is you’ll meet other wanderlusters too!
Hotels are insanely expensive in Cuba. Staying in Casa Particulars is the way to go. I met so many humble and hospitable Cuban’s who treated me like one of their own. I will always treasure their overwhelming generosity. A fiercely patriotic bunch, Cuban’s have learnt to survive on very little in the way of material comforts. They haven’t got a lot, but they have big hearts. I recommend unleashing the humanitarian within and take some prearranged trinkets and gifts from home. Show off your gratitude.
A bonafide tourist hot spot now, Cuba is slowly starting to break free from the shackles of a tumultuous past. Its history is rich and complex. Completely frozen in time. You get a sense the revolution here will never be over. It’s like they can’t let go. History is defined by heavily valorised figures. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. As I mentioned before, everything is about the Cuban Revolution. And only the Cuban Revolution. There’s no in between. Yet to determine their future. Move forward with time.
It’s still a communist-slash-socialist state. It’s lagging behind. You have to be careful what you say and who you talk to. The government controls everything. It’s a Police State. They are everywhere. They are always watching. Sometimes it can be unnerving. Especially, when you’re travelling around the countryside. Fun times being scrutinised! But they’ll usually look at your passport and wave you on. The political landscape also appears to be progressing. Well, sort of. Raul Castro (Fidel’s younger brother) has stepped down, and the new President Miguel Diaz-Canel took over in April 2018. There are time limits for Cuban leaders now. The average Cuban is reasonably optimistic about the future I find.
Cuba surprisingly exceeded culinary expectations too. I felt like royalty eating seafood 24/7! That stuff costs a fortune back home in Australia. Not in Cuba. Cheap as chips would you believe! Cuban food is simple and tasty. Not bland by any stretch of the imagination. Beef is a bit of a rarity though. The bog standards are chicken, lamb and seafood and rice with black beans. Ah, the memories! Breakfast on terraced balconies, lazy days on rocking chairs overlooking the ocean, cello concerts at night, Cuban theatre, salsa bars and dancing, free-range eggs that taste like spun gold, guava and mango jam on crusty oven bread, freshly squeezed juices, strong coffee, freshly roasted banana chips and Cuban-mojito sauce on BBQ fish. Ah, the simple life in Cuba…
My advice to anyone is don’t believe everything you read and hear about Cuba. Go to this divine country with an open mind and open heart. Accept the paradoxes and the frustrations along the way. Revel in its vibrant culture and antiquity. Leave politics at the door. Along with your prejudices. Integrate with its people. Stay in Casas. Do the salsa. Do the tango. Get massively inebriated on mojitos. Dare to go somewhere different. A place where Americanised and other Western-style takeaway places and glorified Multiplex Shopping Centre’s don’t exist. Heaven if you ask me.
Experience this wonderfully eclectic country that is so incredibly different, for yourself. Just do it. Just get on a plane. Just go! Changes will be slow and incremental even though U.S embargos have been lifted. I highly recommend going before ‘it gets ruined.’ Before it becomes heavily commercialised. Before multinational corporations get in there and invest. Before mass consumerism really takes off. Probably a fair way off, but still.
Who knows just how Cuba will shift, change and evolve. Whatever happens in the future, Fidel, Che and the Revolution will presumably maintain a ghostly presence on the periphery. Catching up with the rest of the world is by no means an easy feat. Cuba needs international investment. And lots of it. It’s biggest trading partner is Venezuela and indeed only Venezuela. Will the country preserve ‘old days and old ways’? Or, will it join the march towards progression and advancement? I have no idea at this stage.