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Member Name: fizzywizzy
Date: 09/08/05, updated on 15/07/09 (653 review reads)
Advantages: Like nowhere else you'll ever go - friendly, fun, beautiful, hisotirc
Disadvantages: Can be hard work at times
This year I finally made it to the "Promised Land" (as I used to call it in my idealistic youth). Before going I read voraciously about the country, its history and its customs but nothing could have really prepared me for three weeks of backpacking in this strange country of contradictions.
Everyone I spoke to on the subject, it transpired, was an expert on Cuba - particularly those who had never been there! I was told about the grinding poverty, the fantastic health service and the high risk of being robbed but what is Cuba really like?
Having safely returned, I can now debunk some of the myths surrounding this beautiful jewel of the Caribbean and shed some light on the enigma that is Cuba.
In the 1940s and 1950s Cuba - and in particular Havana - was a mecca for American tourists. In fact the first time Cuba stuck in my mind was when Marlon Brando whisked Salvation Army babe Jean Simmons for a night of cocktails and cha cha cha at the Tropicana in "Guys and Dolls". Of course the revolution changed all that. After several years of hiding out in the Sierra Maestra and Sierra del Escambray regions of the country Fidel Castro and his guerillas finally took the city of Santa Clara late in 1958. Days later President Batista, little more than an American-operated puppet, fled the country leaving Castro, Guevara and the other rebels to celebrate.
For many years perceptions of Cuba have revolved around its political status. It is only really since the 1990s that tourists have returned to Cuba, finally taking notice of its clean, white beaches, its abundant wildlife and its charming welcoming people. In these respects Cuba has as much, if not more, to offer as its neghbours such as Jamaica or the Bahamas. However much Cuba's profile increases, though, this is still an astonishing country full of bizarre quirks that will never cease to perplex the first time visitor.
The drive to boost tourism is a consequence of several blows to Cuba's economy. Most significant of these is the collapse of the Soviet Union and the break-up of eastern Europe as a communist bloc. Until that point it was with countries in this region that Cuba had done the bulk of her international trade - import and export. For many years Cuba had exchanged sugar for fuel with the USSR and suddenly found itself in the dire position of llosing practically all her fuel imports. Castro declared what was known as the "Special Period" - a series of measures and reforms designed to get Cuba through these troubles. To some extent Cuba has got through thses hard times but many measures continue to operate; while we were in Cuba we experienced a couple of timed power cuts - designed to save valauable electricity supplies (holiday makers staying in purpose built resorts will not experience this, independent travellers are almost certain to).
It was during this period that the USA tightened its already harsh trade restrictions on Cuba which had been imposed immediately after the Revolution. To this day the embargo has had far-reaching effects on Cuba. It severely restricts Cuba's ability to acquire medical supplies, receive much needed fuel and even prevents ships which have docked in Cuba in the last six months from docking at any American port - this eefectively means that few cruise ships stop in Cuba because the majority of Caribbean cruises start or finish their voyage in Florida.
The economic crises of the 1990s resulted in the government resorting to what constitues an enormous contradiction with its political ideology. Alarmed at the vast number of its citizens trying to escape across the Straits of Florida, Castro announced several measures in response to growing demands from Cubans to be able to undertake small-scale private business ventures (which I shall mention more later on). Without these concessions Cubans would almost definitely have lost all faith in their leader; the concessions have given ordinary Cubans the chance to shape their own destinies and it is down to these concessions that Cuban tourism is starting the slow march to make up for lost time.
WHERE TO GO
Cuba offers travellers a wide range of destinations and activities - beautiful beaches, historic colonial cities, historic revolutionary monuments, an astonishing number of museums and large areas of wildlife reserves. No trip would be complete without a visit to Havana, Cuba's bustling capital city, the biggest and busiest city in the Caribbean. The old towns in both Havana and in Trinidad de Cuba on the south coast are UNESCO protected and offer the chance to explore some wonderful colonial architecture. Further east from Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba is the party capital of Cuba with unmissable carnivals at various times of the year.
Beach bums will love Varadero (from where you could easily take in at least a little of Havana on a day trip), Guardalavaca in the far east of the island and Cayo Coco with its white beaches and coconut palms in the north east. Cayo Coco is also the place to go to see flamingoes.
Santa Clara is the place where people wishing to learn a bit more about the revolution head. There is a massive monument to Che Guevara here and a museum dedicated to the revolution in addition to the unmissable Museo de la Revolucion in Havana.
Wildlife buffs should head to the Zapata peninsular which is great for bird-watching and the nearby Bay of Pigs from where some of the best scuba sites can be accessed.
Independent travellers will find that Cuba is pretty easy to get round. Most buses intended for Cubans are pretty grim, churning out black smoke which then re-enters the bus through the glassless windows. These "Astro" buses may be a cheap way of getting round the island but Viazul are only a little more expensive and offer ten times the luxury. Viazul fares are payable only in Convertible Pesos (see currency) and as a result ordinary Cubans do not generally use Viazul. Most major towns and cities are linked by Viazul - the only problem is that most routes only operate once per day which means that at some point you'll have to arrive somewhere at a pretty useless time. Since Cuba has only one motorway most of your journeys will be on bumpy roads. Pay the extra so it's not quite as unpleasant!
Trains in Cuba are few and far between- they also take ten times as long as the bus! The only other viable alternative is to hire a car which is expensive and best done if travelling in a group.
Cubans usually hitchhike - a result of the Special Period measures which decreed that all government vehicles are obliged legally to pick up hitchers and fill any empty spaces. Drivers of other vehicles are not legally obliged to do so but are strongly encouraged. At major road intersections men and women dressed all in yellow, known as "amarillos" ("amarillo" is the Spanish word for yellow) greet hitchers, jot down where they are heading and then stop each vehicle with empty seats, allocating on a first come, first served basis. An excellent idea, don't you agree?
In towns people get around mainly on foot but for longer journeys go by horse and cart taxi or bici-taxi - a rickety tricycle towing along a two-seater cart. This can be perilous because of the number of huge potholes but after a few rums you barely notice. Fares are generally cheap - around a dollar for a ride across town but agree a price first. In major cities its possible to travel by taxi in one of the old American Cadillas or Impalas which have been lovingly taken care of.
Cuba has two currencies. The American Dollar was accepted until November 2004 but now the main currency used by tourists is the Convertible Peso - one of these is the equivalent of one US Dollar. These are what Cubans want to get their hands on because it means they can shop in Dollar shops which sell all kinds of consumer goods they could not ordinarily buy.
The other currency is the Cuban Peso. There are 25 of these in a Convertible Dollar. You should change around fifteen pounds into Cuban Pesos in order to buy street snacks, ice creams and to drink in Peso bars which are generally the most atmospheric.
If you take travellers cheques remember to take the receipt with you, many banks will not encash cheques without this. Be prepared for a long wait in the bank. Cuban bank tellers are very slow! You can then change a few Convertible Pesos into Cuban Pesos at a Cadeca - which is purely for exchanging cash.
FOOD AND DRINK
The Cuban diet is quite limited although tourists in all inclusive resorts will find that a wider range of food is available. Cubans start the day with a very light breakfast but tourists usually find they are offered bread, sweet pastries, eggs and fresh tropical fruit.
Lunch is usually provided in works canteens and those who do not have this facility eat on the street. Street food tends to be bread buns filled with ham or pork or very greasy pizzas costing only a few pence.
There are two main kinds of restaurants in Cuba. First is the state-run restaurant. These are mostly over-priced, serve and limited range of food and offer no customer service at all. In our experience the food was terrible, the staff indifferent and the toilets appalling. It seems strange that this kind of restaurant still exists in a country trying to boost tourism.
However, there is hope for the independent traveller. One of the concessions to allow Cubans to earn their own money was to allow Cubans to set up small private restaurants in their own homes. There are some limitations though - no more than 12 seats, no advertising and these restaurants, known as "paladares", may not serve beef, lobster or shrimps, some may not even serve dairy products (although most do offer these foods anyway, so long as you are discreet)! Many of the guide books list paladares but they do open and close with some regularity so its best to hunt them out for yourself. In some areas touts will try and lead you to them unless you want to pay a couple of extra Pesos commission. You will almost always pay in Convertibles in a paladar.
Cuban cuisine is advertised as "La comida Criolla" and this usually means a choice of pork, chicken or fish served with fried plantains, rice and beans ans a salad which ranges from excellent (with avocado and radishes) or poor (cabbage and tinned grey beans). Dessert is usually ice cream or "flan" (actually creme caramel).
In Havana you can get a rough interpretation of Italian, a passable take on Middle Eastern food and Chinese style dishes but in the main you will eat what Cubans eat. After three weeks I thought I would cry if I saw another plate of rice and peas!
Drinking revolves around rum. Well what else? Its ridiculously cheap and Cubans even take their own bottle on a night out rather than buy from the bar. No-one seems to mind. Cocktails are few except for ones using rum - Cuba Libre, Daiquiri and Mojitos (a refreshing mix of rum, crushed mint leaves, lime juice and soda water - great on a hot afternoon).
The national beer is Cristal - a light, crips and refreshing brew. Others include Mayabe and Bucanero, both good beers but my favourite is Cristal.
Cubans simply wouldn't know what to do without music. Each bar has its own band, some admittedly are pretty poor but they do add to the atmosphere. Everywhere you go there'll be people playing in the streets, in bars, music blaring from vehicles, from houses (everyone owns a big CD player) - salsa, merengue, son, Cuban folk music....
Each town has a Casa de La Musica where bands pay nightly and admission is cheap but look out for other concerts. There's always something going on.
Another concession made to Cubans in the 1990s was to allow Cubans to rent out rooms in their homes to tourists. Since competition can be fierce quality tends to be very good and we almost always had our own private bathroom. In may homes we had our own terrace to sit on too. Expect to pay around 25 US dollars a night for a double room. but you can bargain if staying a few nights. In some places you will be greeted at the bus station by landladies with rooms to let, otherwise look out for the green stickers on peoples front doors.
All will offer breakfast for a negotiated rate and some will offer eveing meals too - much more than you can eat but ALWAYS delicious.
Like state restaurants, government run hotels are best avoided. There are no campsites as such for tents but you may be able to strike a deal with someone in areas with no hotels.
In the main Cubans are friendly and polite people and getting to know some Cubans enhances your stay and your understanding if this complex country. It is fine to talk to Cubans in bars, many Cubans will approach you to chat - often this is to sell cigars or to get you to their mother's paladar but sometimes its just out of curiosity. Its useful to have at least a few words of Spanish as most people, even in the tourist industry do not speak much English. Contrary to popular belief, Cubans do not get arrested just for talking to a foreigner in a cafe although women should bear in mind that some of the handsome young men are probably looking for a European girlfriend to help them leave the country. This is not a generalisation - I saw this at first hand and discussed it with several tourists who visit Cuba every year!
If you are offered something you aren't interested in a simple "Non, gracias" usually suffices, dogged persistance is rare and the hustlers quickly move on to someone else - time is money after all.
Cuba can be hard work though. It can be tiring and even in winter temperatures can be over thirty degrees and the noise and fumes of the bigger cities can be oppressive on very hot days.
Museums are closed for no apparent reason; restaurants have only one out of twenty items on the menu; its impossible to buy a lighter; pizza sellers earn more than doctors; Cubans do not form a line to queue but turn up and ask who is the last person....Cuba really is a weird and wonderful place! But with a little work one which I think has something to offer all the family and both independent and all-inclusive travellers.
(Prices are not rock bottom but value is pretty good. A meal for two should cost around 30 US Dollars including drinks and three course. Museum entry is normally only about two dollars. A beer costs around two US Dollars. )
Cuba is a destination which should be appreciated now before the American embargo ends and Cuba loses all that is Cuban!
Summary: Cuba - where style, rhythm, culture and histroy blend beautifully