Cuba is truly a unique place on the planet. So much history of it's inhabitants being screwed over
by outsiders. The Revolution. Castro. The Mariel airlift. The American blockade. 50 years of
stable, socialist government.
I just spent 3 weeks there, backpacking around by bus and staying in casa particulars (rooms in private houses).
I kept away from air conditioning, bottled water and restaurants.
I did a lot of advance reading.
I had lots of expectations. I was quite surprised with conditions on the ground.
I had travelled in hot, 3rd world countries before, where English is definitely not prevalent.
All in all, Cuba was harder to get around that I
expected. Oh yeah. I'm also not in my 20's anymore. It was an amazing trip. I am extremely glad
My overall inmpression: With 50 years of stable government and it's location, resources and weather, Cuba should be
doing better that what I saw. Yes, there is a base, minimum standard of life that is higher than
around it (basic health, food rations, education, electricity), but the average standard of living
was still quite a bit below what I had expected. The infrastructure (roads, public buildings,
tourist facilities (outside the all-inclusives) was quite a bit lower than expected. To quote
from a popular tune
"she ain't pretty, she just looks that way..."
Does socialism work? I have lived on kibbutzim in Israel before and in my opinion, the concept
worked pretty good in that small scale and for that time period in the life of an emerging
in Israel have almost all switched over to private enterprises now.
I think that socialism was a very good answer for the first 30 years after the Revolution.
But it's time to move on.
Any country that feels it has to exert so much control on its inhabitants and won't let them
publically complain or even travel at will
is doing something inherently wrong. On a more personal scale, the problem is motivation.
Socialism thwarts, hides, ignores, represses, punishes
I was fortunate enough to have a few quite detailed conversations with some Cubans and the
feeling I came away each time was their sense of dispair, frustration
and a very basic acceptance that life wasn't changing anytime soon. Each person said at
least one thing that made me embarrassed to be sitting there
coming from such a free and rich society.
We travel to have new experiences and meet new people. You visit Cuba for a few weeks and you
understand why so many people who visit fall
in love with the place and it's people. You also understand why so many do what they can to
help out. The people are
so nice, they are working so hard. Socialism got them to where they are. It won't get them to
the next level.
Ongoing socialism on a large scale does not work.
I arrived at my dingy, cheap hotel (right on the Malecon, catering to Cubans and budget-minded travellers like myself and the Duffys)
in a state of shock. The road in from the airport was busier, much fuller and much more
rundown that I expected. The array
of vehicles was quite amazing. Russian junk, old American cars, scooters, motorcycles and
of course horse-drawn karts
and lot of hitch-hikers, in large groups of 50 or more. No English in the airport, the taxi
or at the hotel
reception. Of course, I had about the same amount of Spanish, so I guess it was fair.
Headed out into the city. Man, was I ever lily-white and conspicuous. A hustler's dream.
really get used to getting hustled all the time, but you can get better at dealing with it.
I was definitely fresh meat.
A nice, polite, friendly, self-conscious Canadian who wanted to meet and interact with Cubans.
My basic run in Habana was the Malecon, Galiano up to San Raphael, over to Parque Central and
That kept me pretty occupied each day I was in Habana. San Raphael was a riot. Lots of noise,
music, food stalls and very gregarious Cubans.
I tried to eat all my day food in Cuba off the street, and San Raphael was the place for that
Everyone should have the pleasure of visiting Habana and spending a nice evening on the Malecon.
I had found some live music, a beer outlet,
converted some money into both local pesos and convertibles, had a local ice-cream (helado),
met a fellow traveller (Kjartin from Norway) and eaten
some questionable food.
The sun goes down, I'm not so conspicuous (yeah...right) and I am really enjoying myself.
Watching all the colourful 1950's cars go by as
all sorts of people and families stroll by with tons of kids, with people hawking all sorts
of foodstuffs. I'm in heaven.
I'm even making friends with some hustlers (who all have either an affliction,
a birthday, a brother in Toronto, a chica, some cigars or money to
exchange). It was a magical evening and one of my best memories from
My jinteros get arrested
Ideally, socialism doesn't require that you control the minds and bodies
of your countrymen, but for some reason, that's what happens in
socialist states. In Cuba, the same omnipresent police force that
controls the locals can also be used to keep them from bugging the
tourists too much.
Sunday morning I get up and head out to the Malecon to watch the sun
come up. There is a small crowd of locals having a small rum party near me, and 2 of them
detach themselves to come give me the once-over.
After a few minutes of back and forth banter, we are just schmoozing.
One of the guys has pretty good English and had been to the U.S. as a
youngster in a judo tournament. The 2 police guys stroll over and ask
for these guys ID cards. They call up the details on their little radios
and with 5 minutes, the 2 are hand-cuffed and let away. This is not a
movie. I'm in this scene and trying to argue with buddy to leave these
guys alone, we are just talking.
is a lot of arguing and yelling going on, but I'm invisible to these
police guys. I am totally stunned. Next, the rest of the drinking party
come over, trying to convince me with their 5 words of English that I
have to go with them to the police station to try and get these guys
out. The boys are all drunk. I'm arguing that if the police didn't
listen to me in the middle of the situation, why would they listen later
on? In short I am now wandering up Galiano with some drunk Cubans at
6:30 on a Sunday morning, headed for the police station a few kms away.
I end up drifting away from these
guys. Their attention span is all over the place. They are arguing with
everyone they meet on the street.
Welcome to Habana, boys and girls.
Bruce gets scammed
I try the breakfast at the hotel. Passable and barely that. Other than
the wonderful soups at the casas, I did not enjoy the food in Cuba. The only
spices seemed to be salt, garlic and peppers.
Next, I find the train station and after quite a struggle, they convince
me that there is not a train to Pinar del Rio. (Lonely Planet disagrees
and now I'll probably never know). I wander the streets toward the Astro
bus station, finding out about all these salsa parties starting up as we
speak, free for me if I go in now.
A Cuban couple goes by and it's Ray (from the hotel, security, remember me from yesterday?)
Of course I remember him. He introduces me to his girlfriend who has
pretty good English. We sit and talk for a minute. They ask me what I'm
doing and next thing you know, I'm in a conveniently located travel agency buying a bus
ticket to Pinar from their good friend. Only problem is, they want 50
convertibles. Lonely Planet says around 6-8. ....FINALLY... the little
bells in my head get loud enough. I'm being scammed.
That's not the embarrassing part. It takes until the next day for me to
realize that it wasn't Ray from the hotel who was scamming me. The guy
just played on that most human of emotions: "of course, I remember you from
Bruce ends up in the wrong town
I do get my bus ticket, but instead of an Astro ticket to Pinar, I end
up with a Viazul ticket to Vinales. Still don't know how this happened.
What kind of bus system do they have that basically requires me to reserve a ticket
a day in advance? In Trinidad, it took me 2 hours in the bus station,
just to get a booking agent to sell me one.
I did try a show up and buy once. Another new experience for sure.
I spend day #3 in Habana in some museums, on the Prado, looking for books in English,
wandering back streets, buying pastries, listening to live music. I end
up in a cafeteria that sells in local pesos. Being the only tourist in
there, I attract some attention and end up making some new friends. I
buy my lunch in local currency, but these guys end up dragging
convertibles out of my pocket for baksheesh. It's a lot of fun, but it
does take up energy. It's tough being that 'on' for so much of the day.
Overnite, my room floods a full centimeter in a big rainstorm (I wonder how the people in all
those condemned-looking buildings around me fared). Have to taxi to bus station (lots of
arguing in Astro vs Viazul stations). No price dickering in the rain
either. Taxi costs as much as the bus. Welcome to Habana, Brucie.
My Cuba Trip Movie
Vinales. Home Sweet Home
I could live in Vinales. I liked the place so much, I spent 1/3 of my trip there, coming back in the 3rd week for some
R&R on the way back to Habana. I had a great casa, the village was less
than 10,000 people. The standard of living was high because of the 300
casas in town. Nobody hassled you, as the casa people could hook you up.
If not them, one of the two travel agencies in the main square. I got
swimming, horse-back riding, hiking, caving, a baseball game, music. It
Not booking ahead if possible, I end up in some interesting situations.
Showing up on the bus in Vinales (I thought I was going to
Pinar...remember), there were literally 50 people outside the bus trying
to get about 12 of us inside to stay in their casa. They make good money
off us tourists, but of course, the gov't doesn't just take a cut, they
require a guaranteed 100 convertibles a month for the licence, whether
you rent the room or not. Of course, any sort of per rental basis tax
would be scammed around big time, so it makes sense.
I pick the person with the cheapest rent ($15 pesos) and off we go to the
poorer side of the village, thru fences and a sawmill and down a few dirt
roads. Initial impressions were quite scattered, but the place was
lovely, the room great and the casa and it's owner (Margot) contributed
greatly to my enjoyment of Cuba.
I hiked about the little village and out in the tobacco fields among the
magotes and the next day, did the same on a horse (Marguerite) with OshNeal.
We visited his buddy Romero on his tobacco farm, then
his buddies at the cave for a swim. Every service in Cuba had a base
price, then the little propina tips along the way, plus the side trips
to try and extract a few more sheckels out of your pocket. It took me
awhile to adjust to this, and once I did, I enjoyed myself more.
Vinales. Caves, the Mural and Hitch-hiking
I spent the next 2 days hiking out to some of the local caves and tourist sights. Put me near a bunch of tourists and I get all freaky, so
making my own way was fun. I enjoyed the walking a lot and had some
interesting hookups with locals. I hiked up to one of the 2 local hotels
(stunning view) and then cross-country for a few kms to a road, where I
bummed a ride with Homer and Alberto on a horsecart. They were
drinking some god-awful local rum brew (I made it thru 3 weeks of Cuba,
no cigar and no rum. Blasphemous!). I got on a local truck with Eduardo.
His comment about most likely never seeing another country but Cuba was
At the Pre-Historic Mural (it is huge), I spent some time in the local
campesino (Cuban campground with small huts, just like Israel), making
some new friends (I had tried to sneak past buddy who worked at the
caves the day before and he remembered me).
Walking, I got to see so many things. People just going about their
daily business. Kids going to school (on trucks, backs of bikes,
motorcycles, walking), people selling food in road-side stands, people
on horses, working in the field.
At the casa, I was being fed by a series of people. I had the only
bathroom in the place, so whoever was feeding me was using a bathroom in
someone else's house. Again, a very gregarious, sharing society. Margot
took some of the money I was paying her and spent the day at the beach.
My leftover food was being put to good use (some person or some animal
finished everything off or it was re-cycled into my foodstream).
Every light I saw in Cuba was flourescent, electricity being a large
part of a person's expenses. Plastic bags were washed and re-cycled. I
never saw a washing machine, or god-forbid, a dryer.
With so few cars in Cuba, hitch-hiking is not a sport, it's a job.
Trucks are duty-bound (I think gov't runs some of them) to stop and load
up the back with a seemingly endless line of Cubans. They even have
people whose job is to make sure this process runs smoothly (Cuban-style
smoothly). I did my hitch-hiking outside towns. These people needed
No idea what the current un-employment rate is in Cuba (maybe 30%+), but
I saw a lot of seemingly idle people. That being said, I also
saw a lot more people working their butts off to get themselves to work
and their kids to school.
Trinidad. Horseback-riding and swimming
Took 2 buses to get to Trinidad (up to Habana,then over). The roads were atrocious.
Hitch-hikers waving local and convertible pesos. What gov't structure
has this percentage of people trying to get from A to B by hitch-hiking?
Arrived in town and did the 'pick a casa owner from this group' game.
ended up with Eliot, a teacher who spoke a few languages. He always
looked a tired and maybe a bit down. He was working his butt off. I
stayed at his Aunt Luisa's casa, a gorgeous spot. The other room had
Andre (Italian) for 2 nights then Lisa and Dominique (British) for 2
more. Good conversations in English for first time in Cuba.
The hustlers in the Plaza Major area were aggressive, but the rest
of the place was fine. I can't say that I was impressed with any of the
museums I was in while in Cuba. Museum staff pushing items on you while
you look about was definitely a new experience for me.
Eliot hooked me with up with Luis and a great horseback-riding experience
with Parahito who was a good size bigger than the horses in Vinales. The
terrain was quite hilly and definitely generated more adrenalin than the
nice, comfy ride in the tobacco fields around the magotes. We ended up a
at small waterfall (Luis's buddy was pushing mohitos). Got in a nice
swim, ate some mango right off the tree and generally had an excellent
time. Parahito even got into a full gallop a few times. Easier on the
parts and mucho fun. Note to self, swimming followed by a few hours on a
horse just might get you a few saddle sores.
I enjoyed my stay in Trinidad. I went to the Casa del la Trove (traditional music) each
night and listened to some pretty good music. Ended up buying a beer or
two for locals in every music spot I was in Cuba. Out on the streets, it
was the other people coming up to me usually with the aim generating some coin.
In the Troves, it was me coming up to the locals and making something
happen. I think I am at my most comfortable, sitting in a bar,
listening to live music.
My original todo list for Cuba involved lots of walking and as many
different types of transportation as possible. The infrastructure and
language problems had me give up on the train/plane options pretty
quick. That being said, Trinidad has a day train with a steam engine. I
spent a full day on this beast and enjoyed myself, other than the fact
that it was mostly tourists (no groups, thank goodness).
I got out to the Boca beach while in Trinidad. This is the local
beach as compared to the Hotel Tourist beach a few more kilometers away.
I really enjoyed the local walking, and the swim at the end of the walk
was a real treat. In a place as dense as a Cuban town, you meet a lot of
people in an 8 km walk.
I noticed that the locals say hi a few different ways. A lot of 'holas',
but also the short version of 'buenos dias' cut down to just 'buenos'.
After almost 2 weeks in Cuba, I felt comfy enough to start throwing in a
few 'buenos'. Tourist chic.
As poor as a lot of the housing was, both in Habana and out in the
country, it looked like damn near everyone had access to electricity,
which in most cases would also mean a fridge and a TV (for the baseball...and of course...educational purposes)
Tipping in Cuba
It's tough enough dealing with 2 completely separate monetary systems in
a country that you don't speak the language in, but how do you tip for
services received. My answer...stick with what you know. In Canada, I tip
a decent percentage, even more if the service warrants. But how do you
tip when the local $$$ is only 1/24 of the tourist convertible peso.
Obviously, you tip in convertibles, but the how much is quite variable.
My horse guy was quite upset when I tried to tip the guys in the
swimming cave a full peso. He made it quite clear that $.25 was more
than enough. Damn tourists! Inflating everything they touch.
In a few cases, I over-tipped on purpose. If I had spent quite a bit of
time with someone (the horse guys, the baseball game, beers in a bar), I
tended to express myself with a big tip. Everyone happy on both sides.
Giving my horse guy Luis a tip worth about 2 weeks pay in local currency
(about $10 out of my pocket) was a nice surprise.
Locals drink rum, beer is really too expensive.
In a local cafeteria, lunch might set you back about 5 local pesos. A
beer in this situation would be about 20 pesos. In Canada, that's like
putting out $50 for a beer. The only way locals get beer is if they
generate convertibles. I bought beer for a local in pretty much every
music situation I was in. Again, both sides happy.
Holguin. City of bikes and locked doors
Did not like Holguin that much. Nice enough spot, 3 big plazas all in a line.
But it was too big to get outside of easily and too small to be funky.
My Trinidad casa person called ahead and I had Renaldo waiting for me at
the bus station. He biked me over to Ruben's casa, but Ruben had already
rented the room to a physical person (as compared to me hopefully coming
in on the bus). No biggie. He hooked me up with Sonja. Nice enough
place, but plastic bedsheets, no toilet seat and no key to the casa (had
to get buzzed in and out each time) made this not my favorite casa
Holguin is a city of bikes, thousands of them. I was surprised at the
lack of bikes in other places. Not here. All the downtown lower flats
were rented parking spaces for bikes. I had my best and longest
conversation with a Cuban here in Holguin. About 2.5 hours with a young
doctor (Victor). It was a wide-ranging conversation. He was well aware of
American politics. I didn't really
learn anything new, just confirmed a lot. As Victor said 'the government
owns the schools, newspapers, TV, radio. If I wanted to get 10 people
together to complain about something in this square, we'd all be in jail
within 20 minutes'. With the news we get in Canada, I asked if
he felt that the situation in the ground will change in the next 5-10
years. The answer was a very distinct NO.
Originally, I had planned to go to Santiago de Cuba first and in
hindsight, the side trip to Holguin was a mistake. I missed a chance at
a big baseball game and due to travelling burnout, decide to backtrack.
Couldn't deal with the size of Santiago de Cuba in the
mental and physical shape I was in. Took an overnighter to Habana and
daytrip back to Vinales. Was refused the bus to Vinales as it was considered full (each bus trip
in Cuba had something happen that I didn't expect). I had not booked the
day before, so was at their mercy. I did end up on the bus on a last
call rush. This place is stressing me out.
I can't count the number of schoolkids I saw and heard in a few weeks.
It seemd the country was full of schoolkids. Considering the poor
transportation infrastructure, I also saw quite a few ways to get those
kids to school. Imagine biking thru town with 2 of your kids tacked onto
your bike at 7:30 in the morning. One on the back fender and one tucked
between you and the cross-bar. Check out the accompanying picture of a
tractor pulling a trailer load of kids. A lot of Dads biking or walking
kids to school. Of course, everyone in their uniforms. I saw kids on the
back of motorcycles (no helmet). There is a pretty serious helmet law
in Cuba, and I always saw adults on motorbikes with helmets. No so for
anyone on a bicycle or kids on motorcycles.
Vinales. Whew! I need a break
Back in Vinales, I decided to act more like a tourist on vacation. I
booked a trip to a baseball game, another to the beach, did some
emailing and phone calls, bought some books, went to church, hung out with other
backpackers, hiked out to the hotels to take sunup/sundown pictures, spent a day
It was wonderful. I met lots of people from all over the place (English,
Polish, Swiss, Slovenian, Italian, Portugese, Spanish, German, French,
Souht African, Argentinian, Australian, Danish, Irish, Japanese, Israeli),
swapped some stories and really enjoyed myself. I was back in the same
casa. I could so my own laundry, had my own fridge, a hot(ish) shower.
The trip to the beach was a first for me. Sun, sand and water all day.
Bit of schmoozing with the girls from Argentina, Israel and Canada, bit
of reading. A relaxing day, but definitely a one-off for me.
The baseball game was a riot. Instead of a solo trip, the booked tourist
trip got me a seat in a van with 6 other backpackers (none of whom knew
any baseball), tickets ot the game, a lunch and a guide (Francisco) who
spoke English. Nice way to enjoy a day. Cubans are very gregarious and
they take their baseball seriously (see embedded movie earlier in this
We were told that the stadium had no bathrooms. I'm still working on
that one. Francisco didn't want to take us? Didn't want us to go alone
or in groups? Were there really no bathrooms?
I used a travel agency to book a charter bus back to Habana. They spoke
English and the bus made stops in town (right at the Deauville) instead
of just the Viazul station in the outskirts of Habana. Much
better service (no stop off to get you to use the pay bathrooms and
tourist knick-knack stalls). Same price. Live and learn.
A sad farewell to Margot at my casa and back to the big city.
To say that I enjoyed Habana the second time around would be quite the
understatement. I'm better at transportation, I have a serious tan, I have
more working Spanish, I've seen a lot of hustlers, I have adjusted to
the heat, I know my way around, my cheap-price hotel bookings pan out,
my first hotel has a pool, second is a 4 star (Cuban), I have tickets to
the ballet and I can shrug off hustlers with a glance. Too cool!
I'm going to eat in a real restaurant, use the pool, use the AC, buy
some gifts. Wow! This is a lot of fun. Budget couldn't handle a few days
of this, but for the last day, it is a well-earned treat.
Like I said, everyone should get a chance to spend a few days in Habana.
It's like New York, Rome, Jerusalem, London, Athens or Cairo or any really big old city. Lots
of work and hassle but always a very unique experience.
I eat in the El
Medina, an Arab restaurant (2.5 hour lunch), find the local Jewish
synagogue, hit a few museums, wander a lot of tiny, busy streets in which
I am the only tourist, buy some local pastries out of a cardboard box,
hang out on the Malecon.
Thoughts on Cuba
I'm still working on this part. I saw so many things I didn't expect.
I did quite a bit of political reading before visiting, even more in
Cuba. It will take a few weeks and some time away for me to finish this
Like I said, Cuba is a very unique place. Instead of a chicken in every
pot (altho that is true as well), it seems to be electricity in every
home and all the kids in school.
You can try this link if you want an insider view. I'll add
more tags later on