A Peruvian friend who I’ll call “Guitarra” recently spent a week in Cuba. He said it was the worst vacation he had ever taken.
Here’s a summary of what he told me.
The disappointment started as soon as Guitarra landed at the Havana airport. He and his family were slated for a week in the resort town of Varadero, a three-hour drive from Havana. After getting off the plane, they could not find the hotel shuttle. Nobody had a sign or anything after they passed customs. No information whatsoever. After an hour of frustration and panic, he asked around and finally found his bus driver seated near the exit, waiting for his passengers.
The driver did not move from his seat for two more hours. He had 25 tourists to pick up, and he wasn’t leaving until all 25 arrived. No sign, no words. Just waiting until they found him.
The driver sat on his bench until all 25 tourists arrived. The Latin ones who spoke Spanish all found their way in short order, but the confused gringos straggled in slowly. For the last 30 minutes they waited for just two gringos.
When they finally got on the bus, there was a tour guide inside. He stood up after all the tourists were seated and introduced himself in English and Spanish. He added that if anybody had any questions, he would answer them. Then he returned to his seat behind the driver, where he sat for the entire three-hour drive without saying a word. The 25 tourists rode for three hours through lush forests and coastline – without a peep from the tour guide.
Guitarra hadn’t thought about the capitalism-vs.-communism arguments for decades. But by the end of his week in Cuba, Guitarra figured out that these people were going to earn $25 per month whether his hotel did well or not. Hell, they’d earn that regardless of they came to work or not. So they would not expend any energy whatsoever in sticking their necks out. The problem’s not that incentives are misaligned, it’s that there are no incentives.
Guitarra was expecting a nice hotel for $300 per night. But one of the bedposts was broken, so the mattress was on the floor. A screw was missing from the curtains, so they didn’t close completely. He started to think he had fallen victim to a scam.
Guitarra says the beach was nice … better than anything in Peru but no more than an 8 out of 10 (he gives Panama’s a 10). But natural beauty aside, there was nothing to eat or drink. No huts or vendors patrolling the sand to serve him a beer. He had to walk all the way back to the hotel to get a glass of rum, which would be gone before he got back to the beach. And there was no eye candy like in the popular beaches of Brazil or Mexico. All retirees and nothing to eat or drink.
On that first day, Guitarra pieced together how much of a rip-off it was to visit Cuba, one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. Cuba has two legal currencies: the Cuban convertible (CUC) for tourists and the Cuban peso (CUP) for the impoverished masses, and the CUC is pegged to the dollar.
Everything a tourist would by – a restaurant meal, a bottle of liquor – was priced in CUC. Guitarra had thought he would be getting a great value by spending in the streets, but he could not. Tourists can’t change CUC into CUP, and even if he could there wouldn’t be anything you’d want to buy. The only nice stuff is at stores and restaurants which serve tourists and whose products are priced in CUC. The masses don’t consume, Guitarra says. They just sit in their houses, existing. He called them zombies.
Guitarra assumed he would be raped on the roaming charges for his phone. But he wasn’t … there is no internet. There is no cell phone service. He never had bars. He bought a prepaid card but the service was so poor he just gave up. He had no internet for a week.
The general attitude spooked him. People weren’t menacing, but not friendly. They didn’t know how to be friendly. There is no money to be made, no service to provide. On the other hand, everybody is afraid of running afoul of the state security apparatus. So people learn to keep their mouths shut. Don’t stick your neck out, especially when it concerns foreigners.
Guitarra said the food was awful. The people can’t afford to eat much more than rice with beans, so they haven’t enjoyed the prosperity required to experiment in the kitchen. On Day 3 he had a barbecued pork plate that was good. That was the only good food he had.
That was all I have from Guitarra. But here’s a gem from These 10 Photos Will Make You Rethink Your Trip to Cuba:
Cuban cuisine is based on imported rice, black beans, government issue cheese product #1 and enough sugar to give you diabetes in a week. It tastes about as good as it sounds …
The one upshot to Cuban food is you don’t find yourself overeating, which is good since properly functioning flush toilets are almost unheard of.
Now I should note that Guitarra is something of a right-wing fascist. Those aren’t completely my words … I mean, I’ve said that to him, and he doesn’t disagree. So here’s some more balanced feedback from longtime reader and commenter, Mr. Gringo.
I had an almost identical experience to your friend. I agree with everything with the exception of the people. At least where we were, they are incentivized by tips. Certainly not the worst holiday I’ve had.
I wanted to take my wife and kids somewhere with a nice beach and guaranteed sun, so the alternatives were Mexico or Dominican Republic. I chose Cuba because it was the cheapest. Having lived in Latin America and done a little research I didn’t have high expectations. Cuba used to be wealthy but they have only been open to tourism since 1997 with government-owned hotels which are largely separate from the main Cuban society.
We chose the beach resort of Cayo Coco, a strip of cays off the main island. It’s a paradise with some of the best beaches I’ve seen. Palm trees, white sand and crystal-clear, warm sea. The weather is good and the whole place is made visually charming by the old vehicles and characterful buildings.
Hotel staff at the hotel were friendly, they would remember our names and drink orders. They certainly know how to work the tourists for tips. Even the janitors who wouldn’t usually have contact with public find ways to interact with the guests, like carry around a baby monkey so you ask for a photo.
Cuba has a colorful image of music, cigars and cocktails but the living standards are low. Everybody in Cuba needs to have some kind of hustle to meet even basic needs. But I always felt safe. I didn’t see any evidence of crime, drugs or prostitution at all during my stay. One or two beggars in town but they were no way aggressive, unlike the ones in Colombia.
And I thought Colombian cuisine was bad… Our hotel food was seriously lacking in both flavor and variety. I expected Caribbean-style fish, spicy beans and tropical salads. What I got was mostly rice and cremated pork. And it was the same every day. Not a French fry or condiment in sight, but some weird choices like pickled sprouts and broccoli for breakfast. Worse than Colombian food.
I guess they can only serve what they produce and what’s in season. Maybe all the smelly cheese and weird pickled stuff is for all the Russians and Eastern Europeans.
Our hotel was supposedly 4 stars but the facilities were poor with many things broken or out of service. There was no mini bar in the room, shabby curtains and a balcony door that wouldn’t open. There were broken tiles around the pool which my son cut his leg on. My daughter had a mosquito bite which became inflamed so we visited the onsite medic. They charged $40 for some cream and antibiotics.
With the separate currency for tourists, you can expect to pay $20 for a short taxi ride. We took a trip downtown in a pristine ’59 Chevy which was a joy. There was little to do, no shops and I didn’t spot a single card machine or ATM. But it was interesting to see how the locals live.
Our guide took us to a restaurant which seemed to be somebody’s living room. An old geezer with hair dyed black sang Guantanamera through a speaker next to our table. The lunch cost $25 each, a bit expensive for plain meat, rice and plantain. I’m used to paying $5 for that in Colombia. The overcharging left a bad taste in my mouth, even after the bad food.
Our all-inclusive package was $1000 per person including the nine-hour flight from London. We spent a further $400 on extra activities. $4500 may sound like a lot, but my wife and kids were happy to see a beach and I spent my time sipping Cuba Libres by the pool.
If you are visiting a place like Cuba which is fairly new on the tourist map, understand that they are still learning how to do things. Have a bit of patience and expect an authentic but occasionally bumpy experience. There are plenty of European and Russian tourists currently visiting Cuba, but the best thing was NO UGLY AMERICANS.
The next testimonial comes from my old corrida buddy and paisano from Missouri, Jake of Nomadic Hustle.
Traveling in Cuba left me more than unimpressed. While Havana certainly had some charms, there is only one way to truly describe the place: SHITHOLE.
The decrepit buildings, lack of infrastructure and propaganda on every corner is a sight to behold. But I sure as hell won’t be going back.
And I’ve been to many shitholes. This isn’t my first rodeo. Cuba is just on another level. A higher degree of shithole.
My buddy and I spent one day in Playa del Este, the closest beach town to Havana. The place was stunning – crystal clear blue waters, white sand and smooth waves. But the crowds were too much. People on top of people, kind of like South Beach except no high rises or decent food, and everyone was swimming in oversized basketball shorts and crusty white t-shirts.
My advice: Never, ever go to Playa del Este on a weekend!
After a day at the beach, we headed back to our Airbnb in Havana. We smoked a cigar on the balcony and went out for dinner. Now, even in Havana’s more tourist neighborhoods there aren’t many restaurants. Hell, we’d tried most of them already.
So when we stumbled upon one that looked fancy and more modern than anything we’d seen in Cuba, we walked up a small staircase and saw other foreigners. Figured that was a good sign.
We sat down, the waiter came by and we ordered around $40 of food and drink. A few minutes later, the waiter brought out the water bottle we ordered. It’s one of those big glass ones that they leave on the table. Maybe 40 ounces or so.
He poured us each a glass and walked away. I took a swig. The water tasted chemical, something like gasoline and dishwashing detergent. I immediately spit it back into the cup.
My buddy looked at me with a WTF face.
“Try your water!” I say.
“Why?” he looks confused.
“Just try it.”
He took a sip and spit it out too.
“That shit isn’t right. It’s either from the tap or there’s a drug in it,” I said.
We didn’t even talk about it. We just got up and left.
The waiter ran after us down the stairs asking what’s wrong. We told him to kick rocks in a less civil manner.
Our theory is that the Cuban waiter had refilled the branded water bottles with tap water after washing them out with dish soap. Thought we wouldn’t notice. I distinctly remember him not opening the bottle of water in front of us and immediately pouring it as he arrived at our table.
They tried to get an extra $2 or $3 on a $40 bill, which ended up costing him the full $40 instead. A true dipshit.
And in many ways, the retard waiter is a microcosm of life in Cuba. Shit just doesn’t work how it should. People just don’t think or act how they should. The country just isn’t how it should be.
My opinion on ole’ Cuba: go for two or three days. The place can be magical for a few days.
Don’t expect to get any work done or to get online. Don’t expect people to act like normal, civilized humans do.
See the sights. Smoke some stogies. Snap some pics. Make sure to cruise around in a classic car. Hell, buy some of the fantastic art they sell in the streets around Havana. Drink fine rum for pennies on the dollar.
Then get the fuck out and never return.
Or at least not until the government figures out how to unf*ck itself and the damn near helpless populace (AKA, it’s “ruined”).
Twilight Zone courtesy of Wally Nowinski
Despite being the guy who put this article together, I’m not deterred at all. I want to visit Cuba … before it’s ruined.
But I wouldn’t have any misconceptions that it would be a fancy beach vacation, or a gastro-tour or even something I’d take my family to. Definitely not the children, but what I’d want to see wouldn’t even appeal to Wife.
I’d be interested to stay in Havana and go back in time. The pictures of the deteriorating shitholes and old cars look like going back in time to the 1940s. The apathetic people seem like a warp into the Twilight Zone, a real-life trip with no hallucinogens. It looks weird, intense, REAL.
But I won’t get to do that given my wife. To give you an idea who I’m dealing with, the top of her wish list in the United States is Disneyworld. Actually, Disneyland is her #1, #2, #3, #4 and #5. Her top picks in New York were Times Square, Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty, whereas I wanted to explore Greenwich Village, Lower East Side, Little Italy, etc. She says I’m “boring.”
So no Twilight Zone for her. That seems to be Cuba’s draw … for now … before it’s ruined.
Have you been? Agree? Disagree? Tell us your story in the comments!
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