What is it really like to travel to Cuba now?
The internets are full of articles with headlines such as “CheapAir to start selling direct U.S.-Cuba flights on Wednesday”. If, as a U.S. citizen, you read only the headline and the first sentence you may think you are now free to book a vacation to Cuba. Finally you can go independently and do as you please when you arrive! This is why you should try to at least get as far as the third paragraph in articles, even if doing so risks popping your enthusiasm bubble.
The rules for Americans have not changed for tourism to Cuba with the exception of how licenses are granted. According to OFAC (Office of Feeble Attempts at Confusion) here’s the change. (Note: If you are a citizen of another country and have gone to Cuba and stayed at a resort you will have had a completely different experience than I had. Americans can not use the beaches and are required to attend two to three educational or cultural presentations per day.)
For Americans to go legally the best bet is to go with a company with a license to provide “People to People” trips for travel to Cuba. On April 10, 2015 Blonde returned from a People to People trip to Cuba taken with Gate1Travel. Although not generally a fan of group travel, Blonde was fortunate enough to be part of a startlingly congenial group and fortunate enough to have excellent guides.
With all of the thoughtful reflection of 24 hours (about half of which was spent sleeping) here is my opinion of what it’s like for Americans to legally travel to Cuba as of now.
Travel to Cuba is Confusing
Why? Because the transition is so sudden and the difference so overwhelming.
In our case we flew on a charter flight from Miami. After that 45 minute flight we were in as foreign a country as if we had flown halfway around the world and landed in Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe has Mugabe and Cuba has Castro; two aging rulers who wield absolute power, and whose policies have resulted in abject poverty for the great majority of their citizens. Both seized private and commercial land causing business owners, foreign investors and wealthy citizens to flee. (Mugabe brought constant violence and war to his country and Castro did not, so they diverge in that regard. Also, Mugabe does not have a beard.)
So what does this have to do with Cuba being confusing? Mostly in the sense of disparity/dissonance. You leave a first world country and emerge in a third world country. As our bus left the airport in Cienfuegos I looked around in horror/fascination at the poverty we passed.
Then we pulled up to what appeared to be a fairly fancy-pants hotel, the Jagua. We checked into our rooms and I was amazed to see that I had a suite with a large separate living room, one and a half baths and a view of the Caribbean. Fabulous! Much like me, it was built in the 1950s and is in serious need of renovations, but still has its charms.
We assembled for dinner in a beautiful outside dining area where we had a decent meal and a charming band. Clearly we were the “haves” in a country that is mostly “have nots”. Or so I thought until I tried to take a shower.
No water. Not in the sink, the shower, the toilet, not anywhere. A “bath” with WetWipes took away some of my sense of privilege. Luckily the next day we had water, but only cold water. Really cold. Shrinkage cold. The third day we had hot water, but it was rusty.
Travel to Cuba is charming
The strict requirement of People to People trips is that you have to visit two to three cultural or educational institutions per day. It should come as no surprise that the institutions you visit have been carefully vetted to show Cuba in the most positive light. And they do (even if I only believed a fraction of what I heard.)
Music, dance, and visual arts have historically been prominent in Cuban culture. They’re also a state-sanctioned way to express creativity and individuality (not free speech, but why quibble?). The talent and joy we saw at various artistic venues was delightful.
Another charming thing in Cuba is their love of color. Unfortunately, 99.8% of Cuban is in near-complete disrepair. But where someone has been able to paint they have done so with bright, cheerful colors. Lovers of beige may recoil in horror, but I loved the orange, pink and blue homes we saw.
Travel to Cuba is frustrating
I experienced a case of a disappearing toothbrush. Annoying, but go to the Cuban equivalent of CVS and just buy another one, right? Wrong. It beats the hell out of me where Cuban citizens get their Kleenex, snacks, toilet paper (it’s BYO, toilet paper is very rarely available) or their latest issue of The Economist (or, more importantly, People Magazine).
You will rarely (best case) have access to the internet and when you do it will be expensive and unreliable. In some restaurants you can buy a bottle of semi-OK wine. However, in the very few places that sell wine by the glass the wine isn’t drinkable (in my slightly snobby opinion). You can’t get coffee to take-out. They do not have any sort of disposable cups.
I could only replace my toothbrush in a hotel gift shop and nearly wept privileged-person tears on the rare occasions when a toilet had a seat. (The hotel toilets had seats.)
Travel to Cuba is somewhat depressing
In the U.S. we are reading hopeful and fearful pronouncements daily about tourism to Cuba. Fearful: Watch out – McDonald’s and Starbucks are on their way! Hopeful: Oh goody – there’ll be a Four Seasons in Havana next month!
Um, neither of these is true. They’re good click-bait to stir people up but they aren’t realistic at all. Cuba has not modernized essentially anything since the late 1950s. Literally every week dilapidated buildings in Havana just crumble to the ground.
There isn’t the infrastructure to support the needs of the dreaded/hoped for American businesses and that infrastructure cannot be built quickly. Yes, it is possible that Cuba may soon have more access to the internet. But the people are poor and will not have the money to buy computers. And if they somehow miraculously acquire the internet and computers they will have to learn to use the internet, computers, social media, email and all of the other things that your grandmother still hasn’t learned.
Between 75–90% of adult Cubans are employed by the state in relatively low-paying jobs. Trust me on this, they will not convert easily to a workforce able to meet international tourism expectations. Although the tourism sector has been an area of rapid growth for the last 10 years it has clearly not been developed to standards you can readily find on other Caribbean islands.
When you go to cities you will see adults rubbing their arms as if they have something in the other hand, writing in the air and doing other gestures to plea for soap, pens, pencils, markers and chewing gum. It’s very hard to look at an elderly lady and not be able to at least run across the street and buy her a couple of bars of soap. But there isn’t anywhere you will find to do that – at least within the strictly controlled structure of a People to People trip.
We quickly peeked inside a bodega, where Cubans spend their government issued monthly food rations. Seeing the paucity of options was dumbfounding.
Travel to Cuba is loaded with propaganda
Some is so overt it’s hilarious (although it would be in your best interests to wait to laugh once you’re back on the bus). Just imagine if the NRA and Fox News sponsored tours of the U.S. with Sarah Palin as your tour guide. You would return to your country with a perspective of the U.S. that possibly might not jive with the reality or beliefs of a significant proportion of U.S. citizens.
At least U.S. citizens can find other sources of information, and mock or seriously dispute opinions and policies they think are wrong. In Cuba you definitely have to go along to get along.
We heard so many people described by our guide as “heroes” or, alternatively “very important people” that we began to think those were the only two categories of Cubans. And don’t even get me started on the “Seven Wonders of Cuban Civil Engineering” (the first example of which was done by the French)…..
Also we heard how Cuba eradicated illiteracy in 6 months! Take that, you Sesame Street imperialist Yankees!
Travel to Cuba is worthwhile for those who know what they’re getting into
Here’s a list of Americans who probably would not enjoy a People to People trip to Cuba:
- Foodies or wine connoisseurs
- Beach lovers (Americans are not allowed to use the beaches under current rules)
- People who expect toilet paper and toilet seats
- People who cannot sit through multiple presentations a day
- Anyone who pays for their travels using a credit card. (I don’t care what you read – they are not yet accepted.)
- Anyone thinking they are going on “vacation”. This is a learning experience and a trip, but it is quite tiring and most decidedly not a “vacation” in the sense of relaxation and doing as you please.
- People who just can’t “do” group tours
- People with difficulty walking. Because of the rampant disrepair Cuba is a giant tripping hazard of crumbling steps, unmarked drop-offs and even deep open holes here and there in the sidewalks.
Characteristics of those who would be likely to appreciate a People to People trip to Cuba:
- Educators – We had several current and retired teachers as well as others who are clearly lifelong learners. They were there to learn and smart enough to know when they were hearing obvious BS.
- Repeat travelers – Go now to see Cuba Ground Zero and return in 5 or 10 years. That should be fascinating. After 2018 Raul Castro says he will no longer be in power. His successor has been appointed but a Cuba without a Castro running it creates an intriguing question mark.
- Creative sorts – The arts are plentiful and often of a high caliber. Cuba inspired Ernest Hemingway to write The Old Man and The Sea so maybe it will spur creativity in you too. (Or alcoholism, but presumably that malady was not the fault of residing in Cuba.)
- Architects who are not prone to despair. There is beautiful architecture but it’s mostly in such poor condition that only emotionally-distant architects should visit.
- People who want to say they’ve been to Cuba because that’s where the cool kids are all going
- People fluent in Spanish – most Cubans do not speak English and it would be a better experience for everyone if visitors spoke Spanish.
- Amish wannabes – Horses and buggies are a common form of transportation and no one has cable TV.