Let’s Go to Cuba … Before It’s Ruined!

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.

Guitarra

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.

Food

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.

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.

Nomadic Jake

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.

Ever.

Or at least not until the government figures out how to unf*ck itself and the damn near helpless populace (AKA, it’s “ruined”).

My Thoughts

 

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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13 comments

  1. Not to pick on only Cuba, I’ve had a worse time in San Andres, Santa Marta and Cartagena. They are cheaper but the Colombian hotels offer indifferent service and no one speaks English, they serve poor quality food and crackheads wait outside to aggressively sell you cheap Chinese crap.

    I once bought a tour package to parque Tayrona but they took us someplace else. We later found out that this was because the government limits the number of people allowed entry into the national park per day. The local tour operators know this but they sell you the package anyway and take you to a different place.

    Maybe this could be part of a bigger piece about tourism infrastructure in latin America?

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  2. My brother took an overnight train from one side of the island to the other.

    It was beautiful to watch the sunset over the tobacco fields with his girl.

    Then the cockroaches came out in the car. Hundreds of them. He stayed awake all night defending his girl with a flip-flop.

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  3. I completely disagree with the picture painted of Cuba. Traveling to Cuba is adventure travel. It doesn’t operate the way other places do. If you want to go to Disneyland, don’t go to Cuba. If you want to see horses pulling carts that are buses, then go. Or Camels, which are big containers pulled behind a diesel truck, then go. If you want to see oxen pulling plows, then go. If you want to go to open air discos where $1 buys you a liter of rum that you pass around, then go. If you want to try food in Paladar’s in buildings from the 1700s, then go.

    If you understand what you’re getting into and want adventure, great music and very friendly people, then go to Cuba and experience a different culture. A culture where if people get $5, they buys a couple bottles of rum and invite their friends around for a party. Where, everyone plays sports and if you have a baseball game at 2 in the afternoon while you’re at work, your coworkers cover for you, because playing baseball is more important than work.

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  4. @ Andy – Interesting feedback.

    The first two stories were from guys looking for family vacations, but Jake is single and slaying, and he speaks Spanish. So where did he go wrong?

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  5. Adventure travel?

    Being taken on state sponsored tours and buses is adventure travel? Being told state sponsored propaganda day in and day out is adventure travel?

    Being ignored by locals who can’t even hold eye contact with you on the malecon for fear of the police walking…

    That makes people a little less friendly.

    In fact, while I met some solid Cubans in my short trip, the people seemed fairly desperate overall.

    Willing to do almost anything for a little money.

    Not over friendly unless offering you something. Tourism. Nothing more. Nothing less.

    I’m sure that changes the further you get from the tourist areas.

    But I found Dominicans and Mexicans to be far friendlier and easier to just chill around.

    Although I’m biased when it comes to the DR, as bachata is far superior to salsa in every sense.

    It sounds like you may have spent more time in Cuba than I did and got off the tourist trail, but that’s hard to do in Cuba on a short trip.

    The whole country seems like one giant attempt to polish a turd when touring around.

    I’m glad I went, but have zero desire to head back.

    I can find adventure without dealing with the BS that comes only in Cuba.

    I do hope the country eventually figures it out because some of those hustlers were pretty sharp and would do damn well in a capitalistic society.

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  6. The hotel was $300 per night? Is that correct? I know that a lot of beach hotels are in that price range, but I’ve never paid anything near that much and I could. I just value my savings too much to do it. Are you saying that someone from Peru went to Cuba and paid $300 per night? Google tells me that the average salary in Peru is about $600 per month. He must be one of the 1% in Peru.

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  7. @ Steve – It was a $100 all-inclusive per-person per-day. Thanks for the tip, I’ll edit that to be clearer.

    @ Andy and Jake – in private emails with Andy, I think I’ve identified what created the disparity in experiences. Andy went in 97 and 98, before the govt banned the US dollar and forced all tourists to use the CUC, basically putting a greedy middleman in between tourist consumer and every vendor on the island.

    One consistent theme I’ve heard from everybody who has been to Cuba, and not just the three who contributed to this article, is that it’s NOT CHEAP. That may have gotten even worse since Venezuelan aid was drastically reduced, which coincided with the time the Obama admin opened up tourism.

    But the angle I don’t have an internet investigation answer for is how to break into the local social scene (Andy’s playing baseball and partying).

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  8. Yeah, that’s 20 years ago.

    Things have definitely changed and not for the better.

    Hell, I would have loved to have gone to Cuba back in the day. I’m sure you had one hell of a time Andy.

    Cuba is not cheap in any which way currently. Everything is a hassle and you can’t get around without the heavy tourist “tax” that comes from the government and the hustlers alike.

    You can travel and/or live for far cheaper in Mexico, DR, Colombia, Peru, etc.

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  9. The most frustrating part of Cuba is not being able to interact with locals beyond a transactional level – things usually swing around to them trying to get CUC out of you.

    It *can* be done cheap (casa particular for $25-$30/night; street food like pizza, spaghetti is about a dollar, fruit and vegetables at street stalls are cheap…just make sure you convert some your currency to CUP to pay for these things, drink Ron Planchao instead of Havana Club, etc. And there will always be some local with tinted windows willing to drive you between cities for cheaper than the Viazul government tourist buses, even though they’re not supposed to).

    Tough to feel like you’re having an “authentic” experience (forgive the term). Best times I had were in the mid-sized cities like Santa Clara and Cienfuegos. There’s less of a police-state feel than in Havana. Locals will chat to you without worries of getting in trouble with police. And not everyone will try to get money out of you. Some just want to chat to a foreigner. In the smaller cities, we were able to drink, eat and talk with locals and had a decent time. In Havana, this was near impossible.

    My advice for Cuba would be: get some local CUP currency in addition to the tourist CUC currency, so you won’t get gouged left and right if you just want some quick food, best way to “connect” with locals is to spend some evenings on the Havana malecon with a box of Ron Planchao. A lot students/young people there. They seemed less paranoid about talking to foreigners and less likely to try to get $$$ from you. And don’t bother with resorts. Much better off in Mexico or Dominican Republic for that. Cuba is best done walking the streets.

    Also, bring a lighter(s)! A lot of people smoke, but almost no one has a lighters to spark up. Lighters make friends in Cuba.

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  10. Hola , I have been going to Cuba since 2006 about 4-6 weeks every year , Canadians, Germans , Italians , UK etcc , have been going to Cuba since late 1987-88 , Russians and east block nations well… since Castro . many of the comments I agree with but many are very misleading most comments talk of , Cayo Coco and Varadero , all cayos and varadero are special zones almost no Cubans are allowed to live in all the cayos ( cayo largo, cayo santa maria ) , Varadero is also a special controlled zone but many live there . its Cuban Comunista…. the government controls everything and most of its people so there is no incentive to perform unless you are a chosen one with special skills they are good at finding talent and nurture them . Cuban Beaches are the best in the region ( I have been to Panama,,Venezuela in 1988, Colombia 8+ , Peru first time January this year , Guadeloupe , Antigua, most USA eastern coast beaches Maine, SC, Florida etccc, ) so I know whats a good beach . for service yo gotta tip ( I.. one time with Friends the Hotel we were in ran out of Beer in the lobby Bar at 4 am we Paid a police patrol and they went to buy us a 24 can case of cold beer gave them 5 cuc with a bottle of Rhum we bought cheap at Hotel Bar !!! ) if you tip you will get whatever you want Cubans will go out of there way to please you . there are almost no Seadoo or boats in the sea so you can swim anywhere without fear of getting your head ripped out , with the exception of Havana Beaches Coral reefs are all still alive close to the shore just walk in from most beaches and enjoy the best Snorkling for free for everyone no need to hire a boat $$$ ( Bring your Gear almost none are available ) . prices are now insane since POPE Benedict visit , prices Doubled for everything in Havana then Obama prices X 4 , 2010 I could get a plate of PORK rice & Beans , Salad and fresh fruit juice of the season ( Mango, Pina , fruta Bomba etcc) for 25 nacional 1 USD now its 8 to 12 CUC . ( moneda nacional is available change from CUC , 1 USD =1CUC = 24 Nacional in Cadecas , Banks do not change moneda nacional to tourists . all American credit cards do not work in ATM’s but most European and Canadian Bank credit cards and bank account cards work 5USD charge + whatever your fees are . beware many atm’s only have 5 cuc or 10 cuc notes so if you see more then 1 atm ask which one has higher value bills …. USD get a 10 % surcharge so bring EUROS , AUS dollar , CAD anything but USD . I could go on for 200+ pages . get out of Tourist areas there are plenty rooms in Casas to rent cheap negotiate 1 or 2 nights is usually 25 cuc but longer stays can be as cheap as 12-15 cuc a night ( outside of Veija HABANA ) all casas a Alquilar are controlled by gov and must have private bathroom you can easily see them they have a small blue Anchor sign painted on or over house Door, red Anchor is rental for Cubans . if you go through A1BNB you will most certainly pay more also if you ask your taxi or anyone else for help in finding a room they will then go see renter to get there commission usualy 1-2 cuc every night you stay so if you use someone say its only 1 night ….then renegotiate . I will be going to Cuba mid April or July but Before CARNAVAL DE BARRANQUILLA in COLOMBIA , hope this Helps REMY from MONTREAL Canada

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  11. Go, go GO to Cuba! It is a fabulous destination. However, some of what is written above is true, there is little incentive to “stick one’s neck out” to provide great service, and in some (well, in a number) of cases, you will find that things do not work in the reasonable, predictable, logical manner that you might expect. WiFi / internet access is difficult and challenging, Using the US dollar will cost you, as is described above. And Varadero has amazingly beautiful beaches but not a lot to do outside of laze on the beach or shop for trinkets/souvenirs.

    The jewel of Cuba is Havana, which is full of charm, amazing art and museums and sights and activities galore. Do your reasearch before you arrive because – as mentioned, it is not easy to access the internet! And because of this, places do not advertise a lot online. Figure out where you would like to go (buy a guidebook to bring with you) and go there, and sometimes if you are lucky you will find they are having some sort of dance or other performance or event, once you arrive.

    Also, find out how to use the transport in the way that Cubans do. Shared taxis (collectivos) make travel inexpensive and give you exposure to everyday Cuban life. Yes, the older cars – many or most are taxis and many of the nicest ones can be hired individually by tourists for a huge price. However, many of the not-quite-in-tip-top-shape but certainly adequate ones can be hailed along certain routes and for just a few CUC you can arrive close to your destination. Be prepared to walk a lot, bring along downloaded maps on your phone via Maps.me or Google Map. Don’t believe the indications on Maps.me of restaurants with WiFi, they generally do NOT have it. There is a wide variety of food to be had in Havana and much of it is quite good, but the government-run food places have very cheap but very boring meals. And often what is available is just a subset of what is on any printed menu, so be aware of that in advance.

    Stay in a casa particular. This is also a great way to get to know a local Cuban family! If you are American and you book through Airbnb, it will reduce the cash you need to bring in country (Americans cannot access Cuban ATMs nor use American credit cards in country, so you will need to bring all the cash your trip requires with you upbfront.) The 3 Airbnb’s I stayed in each provided a delicious daily breakfast as an option for an extra $5 CUC per day – the meals were huge and really tasty and had a variety of foods so that you would start the day well fueled. And there are many delicious restaurants in Havana. If you go, also do not miss going to Habana Vieja, which is the most developed part of town, with many, many restaurants catering to foreign standards. Also, off the beaten path but worth a visit is the smaller town of Mantanzas. It is not far (1/2 hour’s drive or bus ride) from Varadero and the government has done a fabulous revitalization job there in early 2019. It is worth a day trip or an overnight stay to see the wonderful artwork and take in the cultural offerings of this gem of a town.

    Learn some Spanish words if you don’t already know some, be patient, take paper with you (for the toilets and small change for attendants too) everywhere you go, and ENJOY visiting this amazing country!

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