In every blog post, YouTube video, Instagram pictures you’ll discover the same content. A happy and colourful Cuba where people smile. To be stuck in the 70s doesn’t cause problems for anyone. To save you from a lot of disappointments (especially if you have only 2 weeks a year to spend on holidays), read the following article.
Cuba was one of the most tiring and difficult places I’ve been travelling to. Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Serbia, Mexico and 27 other countries are peanuts in comparison with this paradisiac island.
Only a few honest people will tell you in a transparent way their experience in Cuba.
First let see the context. I travel with my girlfriend Amanda Kobus. We work online and usually live in big cities around the world. We are not hobos hitchhiking, but we like to travel on a small budget (around 1200€ per month for two). For this Christmas 2019, we decided to take a full break and spend 3 weeks in Cuba.
I believe that our experience will be different with an all-inclusive trip. You just need to follow your group, take photogenic Havana pictures and eat your European food in luxury restaurants.
Personally, Cuba was one of my dream. I’ve been dancing salsa for 3 years. I had so many expectations and desires from the island… It was a heartbreaking trip.
Our arrival on a new planet
Our spaceship from Mexico arrived at 1 pm. We had to escape all nice guys who kindly wanted to exchange money for you. This scam is famous. Their trick is to give you CUP (moneda nacional) instead of CUC (moneda convertible). The currency for an intergalactic traveler is different…
Then we saw a new species: the taximen. Taxis hold a monopoly on all transportation to/from the airport. No alternatives exist (buses, metros, Uber, Lyft, Gab etc.). No choice, you need to pay 25$ to get to the city center (half the price of our plane).
We leave our bags to our casa particular and look around for some space food. That day in the capital of Cuba, it was a total blackout.
No electricity for 4 hours. Cubans act as nothing was wrong. They continue to shop in the dark. In front of pizzerias people just wait that the oven works again…
At that moment, we understood two things about Planet Cuba,
- Cuba holds a lot of monopolies and scams. It’s going to be expensive and for no reason.
- Problems like no electricity and waiting 3 hours for a pizza are considered as normal.
Cuba: a failing empire
Cuba is one of the biggest Caribbean islands. By its nature, old architecture, long history and colours, it’s beautiful. Despite its beauty, the country it’s very challenging to live in.
Because of some government decisions Cuban citizens struggle every day. We are astronauts who love to live like locals. We face some of their issues.
The art of waiting
During my holidays in this country, I’ve spent around 30% of my time waiting.
Capitalism is not the best system, but it brings competition and performance. In Cuba all competition is crushed by the government. You’ll encounter only state-owned bakeries, supermarkets, one telecommunications company Etecsa, etc.
- The amount of shops is very limited in all the country. Government recently tried to boost entrepreneurship, but without any success.
- 90% of jobs are paid by the government. Employees are civil servants with absolutely no incentives to do better or faster. A receptionist from Etecsa has no interest to be kind or fast for you. She will earn the same salary anyway.
You’ll end up waiting 2 hours to buy a bus ticket, 1 hour to go to the bank, 1 hour to buy a Wi-Fi card, 30 minutes to enter in a bakery etc.
Could you imagine the true cost of all this wasted time?
Seriously, 2 hours to make a deposit at the bank. From an economic perspective, it’s a black hole. 11 million people every day spend one-third of their time just waiting. In reality, for locals, it’s not a big problem. Indeed, unfortunately most of Cubans are unemployed.
Food & products scarcity
The concept of a large supermarket doesn’t exist in Cuba. You won’t find a huge Walmart with thousands of products. State-owned shops have 10 to 20 products only. Be ready to walk because they are not many.
The food is expensive, more than in Belgium. Some examples,
Milk: 2,7 CUC – 2,4 €
Can of vegetables: 2,3 CUC – 2 €
Nescafe coffee powder: 6,5 CUC – 5,8 €
6 bottles of water 1,5 L: 4,2 CUC – 3,7 €
Water was a subject too. We can’t drink from the tap water. So, we end up paying 3€ per person per day just for water.
Make sure you bring every object with you. You can struggle to find toothpaste, shampoo. All products are hard to get. My friend, Cheyenne, spend 3 weeks to find a lighter. Good luck if you need to buy something special like menstrual pads…
Control of the Internet
Do you want to control your citizens? Block access to the Internet. Seriously, on the 33 countries I’ve discovered, Cuba is the only country which limits Internet penetration.
So, how does it work?
You need to pay a 1-hour Wi-Fi card from the government. Then you can go to public Wi-Fi zones (often parks) to check our precious emails. The Wi-Fi is slow and is around 0,2 MBS. Don’t try to Skype.
One of my favourite activity while travelling, it’s to discuss politics, history and future with locals. I like to see their point of views. It was hard to get a conversation about the communist regime. Any critics against Fidel and their economy is perceived as an insult. According to some blogs, you could end up being reported to the police…
The brainwashing from the government was effective. On the 5 different national TV channels, 2 are dedicated to praise Cuba Revolution and their heroes.
Everywhere you can see Fidel, Che, Jose Marti, Cienfuegos. On 500 years of history, we remember only 4 revolutionist males. Such a pity.
Patria o Muerte? Do you accept to die for a government which enslaves you and brings poverty nationwide?
Their spaceship is falling
Infrastructures, cars, routes everything is falling apart. In la Habana, if you see a bit further than the colourful walls and touristic areas, you’ll notice how the situation is bad.
Walls and roofs collapse. 60 compacted families live in building ready to fall. Cubans can’t get any construction materials to renovate and improve their situation…
First they can’t afford it. Secondly, those products are subjects to regime blockade. They need to get them through the black market…
The beautiful cars from the 60s pollute like a carbon manufactory. They reject black residues which will stay stuck in our throw. Buses are fixed with adhesive paper. Forget all security principle like a seatbelt. There are non-existent.
Cubans are generally nice. Most of them were friendly and with a sincere laugh. Unfortunately, we had the bad luck to meet a lot of assholes during our trip…
You’ll pay more and it will be normal
If there is something that I hate, it’s discrimination on price. Because I’m a white Westerner, I must pay more than locals. You take a collective taxi (colectivo), Cubans will pay the ride 0,30 €, you’ll pay 5 €.
Around the world, it happens often that we pay (around 20%) more. It seems logical. We earn 4 times their average salary and it’s a way to help the local economy.
On Planet Cuba, you’ll often end up paying 20 times the normal price… 1 banana in a market cost 3 cents (uno peso). I’ll pay 1 € with negotiation.
You are just a big wallet
Let’s face it. The average monthly salary for a Cuban is around 18 €. You can be a nurse, a doctor, engineer, secretary… The salary is set by the government. A savvy tourist can spend that amount in only one day. Usually a two weeks vacations costs around 450 € per person. Some tourists can spend more than 2000€.
What does it mean?
Tourism represents 40% of the Cuban GDP. The country survival depends on you. Locals won’t see you as a potential friend, but as a potential 2 months’ salary. When you give 2€ as tip, you give 10% of an average salary. Imagine in Europe, tourists give you 250€ as tip. The relation you can have with locals is distorted…
The tourists and the rest
Tourists are the main economic resources for the government. We have a special position.
- It’s illegal for a local to drive tourists in a private car.
- It’s illegal for a local to host you without authorization. Foreigners are allowed to stay only in casas with a blue sign outside.
- It’s illegal for a tourist to use another bus company than Viazul. For this one, I need to check the Cuban law, but they forbade us to try the cheaper alternatives.
To be honest, it was hard to socialize, and my Spanish is not that bad! It was only possible only with our hosts. They were a bit obliged for good reviews…
A man who succeeds his taxi scam can afford to buy food for half a year. Tourists are gold. Cab drivers make more money than engineers and doctors. Scams are a bit everywhere. Some examples that we experienced,
- The currency trick that I presented in the introduction.
- Friendly locals will take you to bar and restaurants and will charge you a commission.
- Cubans will sell you in the street outdated Wi-Fi cards 3 times the normal price.
Salsa as an industry
Roh… This was my biggest disappointment! As a salsa dancer, one of my dream was to dance like hell in Cuba.
- When you have music in bar, it’s definitely for tourists. There is absolutely no good vibe. Musicians don’t even smile! They will play Chan Chan, Guantanamera, La Bamba and then ask for money.
- In the few parties, I’ve been it was mainly reggaeton. Locals can dance but on an average level. It’s not a crazy and technical salsa. You have salsa schools everywhere, but the teachers don’t have half my level and I’m only intermediate…
Salsa still exists and if you are lucky you can find amazing places. My advice? Follow always the music. If you see a lot of white people, skip it. The best places are crowded with Cubans.
You don’t use plastic but…
I was first happy to discover a country which uses so few plastics. You buy something you can be happy if you receive some tissues. People put their delivery pizzas in a plastic bag . Unfortunately, less plastic doesn’t mean better management of the waste…
The raise of the Cuban Jedis
The Force is strong in Cuba. Many have chosen the dark side because of necessity. Still there is a light. The country has still a vibrant culture with beautiful landscapes and kind people.
A way to disconnect
Cuba was one of the few countries in the world, where you can try to do an Internet cure. For Amanda and me, it was a failure. Our addiction was stronger than expected…
I enjoyed seeing that people socialize with each other. Cubanos live outside and don’t spend so much time in front of their screens or televisions. They have no choice you tell me.
To my experience, I’ve the impression that the Cuban population is in good shapes.
A few only face obesities. They are poor, but everyone is poor which creates a kind of equality. From a homeless to a director, the gap is really small (around 100$ differences).
Safety for the entire planet
Cuba has a very low crime rate. The law is heavy to defend their precious golden tourists. A crime against a tourist outweighs any other crimes.
You still will find macho males who try to impress white girls, but in general the country is safe.
Individualism but certainly not in adversity
Individualism in Cuba prevailed. You need to fight no to be skipped in the queue. You need to fight no to be served last. In some local restaurants, Cubans are served first.
Meanwhile, we have seen true kindness and generosity. Our host served us tea when we had food poisoning. She acted like our mama. At the pharmacy, they had no medication for us. So, a neighbour generously prepared a drink (based with lemon & bicarbonate of sodium).
Don’t be a stupid intergalactic tourist
- Ok, I miss this rule. Don’t speak about politics. Don’t criticize anything. Seriously, your life depends on it. Freedom of speech is not something common there. You can’t save the country with your ideas. Just give to locals another perspective.
- If you want to help the country to get better. Participate in the true economy (casa particular, paladares, small private shops). All luxuries will go to foreign investors. All public businesses will end up nowhere.
In Cuba, you will come back in time. Some people like it. Personally, we couldn’t stand it. We can’t accept to be scammed with a taxi when we know how smooth it is with Uber. The concept of “décroissance” (limit growth) seems frugal and almost impossible after my Cuban experience. Nobody wants to come back to the past. It’s slow, boring and useless.
The government changes. The Castro brothers are not in position of power anymore and recently they had the first elected President.
Take my reflexions into consideration, but it doesn’t have to stop you. Despite its politics, the counry is still beautiful and incredible to visit. Cuba won’t be your best resting holidays, but it certainly will be your best memories.
Bonus funny learning : True value of currency
Cubans live on pesos CUP. As foreigner, you’ll have CUC (pesos convertible). 1 CUC is around 1$, 24 CUP. If you pay with a note of 20 CUC, Cubans complain because it’s too high.
When we cashed out from an ATM, we received bank notes of 100 CUC. It was impossible to change…The change office didn’t want to change our money. None of supermarkets or restaurants wanted our money neither. In the end, our 100 CUC (around 90 €) had absolutely no value…
Solution? We had to eat in an expensive restaurant for gringos like us. 35€ the diner for bad food, but we could exchange our money .