Given the changing relationship between Cuba and the USA, and the fact I was already so close (in Cancun Mexico), I decided to check it out – foolishly without much preparation. The stories I had heard from other travelers had diverged massively – people either seemed to hate it, or love it. I didn’t know what to expect..
Cuba can be a brutal wake up call for an unprepared backpacker on a budget, but once you learn the ropes, and get out into the countryside – you can see why so many people love to visit. By the end of my trip I was sad to leave and I wish I had booked a few more days (and bought some more money).
The experience you have in Cuba is dramatically different depending on the type of traveler you are. Cruiseliner tourists, or people on a honeymoon or very short break with a higher budget will have a completely different experience to those really wanting to see and feel how the locals get by.
Oh yeah, one critical tip … bring all the cash you’ll need for the trip when you arrive.. don’t rely on withdrawing from ATMs (especially if you have a US bank card!)… I learned this one the hard way.
Unique (and memorable) day to day experiences
– Wifi parks – Public parks jammed packed with people socializing whilst staring at their smart phones / tablets! There are very tight restrictions to where you can access wifi/internet – i.e. can only access in designated parks after you purchase access. This leads to hundreds of people hanging out in the park together using wifi at the same time, especially late at night when it is cooler – a sight to behold. It is a bit of a twist on the connotations on introverted behaviors we see in the west.
– ‘Ultima!’ queuing – Cubans have this system where instead of lining up in a straight line, they stand around randomly, each person needs to know who the person is in front of them. When new people arrive they call out ‘ultima’ to ask who the last person is. This system works well for very small groups of people, but I saw it fall apart terribly several times for larger groups and the ensuing chaos.
– Dual currencies – CUCs and CUPs (or locals call them ‘cooks’ and ‘pesos’). So confusing and unnecessary. The CUC is approx 24 times more valuable then the CUP. In many places (such as museums and some modes of transport) foreigners are charged CUCs (i.e. pay 24 more times the locals). Can feel like another slap to the face. The traveler needs to pay close attention to which currency they are being charged / receive change in.
– Ultra lazy workers – Going into a government run restaurant for a pizza. I thought it had 4 customers sitting in it, I turned out they were all workers. After putting in my order for pizza, I saw the hierarchy of the workers as they passed on the order one by one to the boy who stood up and got me my pizza!
– Unbelievably cheap rum! – quick question: which do you think is the cheapest out of 1) 350ml bottle of water, 2) 350ml of straight rum, or 3) the local cuban version of coca-cola (Tukola)? Answer: Buying straight rum, 350ml only cost 10 pesos (around 40 US cents)!! Cheaper than the cheapest bottle water! The rum was around 4 times cheaper than local beer by quantity. Extremely cheap rum and staying in hostels is a dangerous combination..
– Bad timing for brown out – stuck in elevator – Was a bit unlucky to have a brownout while I was in the elevator halfway between floors. I was stuck for 35 mins pressing the various alarm buttons and calling out for help. Finally one of the tenants yanked open the door and I was able to jump down to the 8th floor. It was all a bit sketchy. Brownouts seemed to happen roughly once a day while I was in Cuba.
– Quickest way to turn someone vegetarian – show them the conditions of the meat in the local meat markets…
– Confronting prostitution – Disturbing scenes of ‘pimps and whores’ on the main streets. I was not expecting this. Many of the main streets you are approached by young girls or pimps. Not just at night in a hidden away area – but right in the middle of the day, at some of the main attractions. It was shocking. Also shocking to see the number of grey haired old men dining and drinking with very young looking girls at some of the restaurants.
– Embracing the local transport system (much cheaper than what most foreigners pay) – Ihe local buses are reliable, safe and scenic and you go can go decent distances up to about 40 kms (unlike what you’ll read on the internet – I took over 15 different trips with no bad experiences), and cost approximately 240 times less than what you’ll pay taking one of the taxis targeting foreigners (that is half to one local CUP, vs 10 to 50 CUCs).
Jah-maica. Time for some Cricket & Reggae music!