While it’s fresh in my mind, I thought I would postpone writing about beautiful Mexico in order to write about this.
And the ugly (sad, rather)
Obviously these reasons are just purely down to personal experience and have given me a chance to vent. Cuba does have some great things to offer tourists, among which are the colonial treasures of Trinidad and Santiago, the vibrant music scene, the crystal waters of Varadero and the karstic landscapes of Viñales. I loved the architecture in Havana, the beaches and the landscape. Yet lets face it, visiting these beautiful places is hardly representative of the situation in Cuba as a whole. My issues were purely linked to the system, not to Cuba as a country. So here we go with the Cuba-bashing…
1. It’s expensive. You’ve probably heard this before, and it’s right. A taxi into Havana from the airport will set you back 25 CUC, the average casa particular costs another 25 CUC per night. While food outside of Havana can be found for around 1-3 CUC, in Havana it’s on a par with London — a meal costs anything from 8-15 CUC.
2. It’s inundated with photographers. Since the media hyped America-centric idea emerged that Cuba is changing, “storytellers” are coming in the thousands to document a country in transition. Just a note, British tourists and many other have been coming to the island for over twenty years and Cubans are very accustomed to tourists. Many of these aforementioned photographers seem to be photographing the same clichéd scenes making cringeworthy statements such as “they are so poor, yet so happy”, all the while their hunger for schadenfreude is often quite apparent.
3. Which brings me onto the next point, casual sexism and racism is abound. It doesn’t seem frowned upon. Seriously. My partner who is Argentinian but of Asian heritage couldn’t walk outside the building without being called “China”, and when I walked the streets alone as a woman I was appalled by the number of times people thought it okay to stick out their tongues at me in a disgusting manner. Considering the tourism industry in Cuba, many of its citizens should get a bit more in touch with the 21st century.
4. Cuba fumigates everywhere regularly without giving much/any notice. Obviously this has its advantages, namely fewer mosquitos and cockroaches (though I saw these anyway), though waking up in a cloud of insecticide without warning is not a pleasant experience.
5. The food. I had heard prior to visiting Cuba that the food was bland, that there were food shortages. From what I saw there are plenty of good ingredients in Cuba, people just don’t know what to do with them. Most people eat a lot of meat which obviously requires plant food, and yet there are often vegetable shortages. If carnivorous, expect spam and other types of processed meat. As a vegetarian in Cuba get used to daily omelettes, rice and beans, overripe fruit and watered down, overly sweet juice. As a vegan, you just get the latter plus the worst tasting avocado I have tasted in the world.
6. In general Cubans are unhappy with the system. Free healthcare, education etc sounds great but from what we learnt this is extreme capitalism under the guise of communism. E.g. A man said he paid $200 so that his wife would not be left to die during pregnancy, while the average salary was around $20. Get a dentistry job and your anaesthetic might be rum. University is ‘free’ under the condition that you work for the government for five years after graduating, after which even doctors will still earn the average salary. Plus the government only pays for course fees, not living fees. The Cuban government makes a big deal of sending doctors and money to other countries to look communitarian but did absolutely nothing to help those who lost something to Hurricane Matthew. Varadero is a peninsula almost exclusively for tourists though apparently all Cubans dream of going there. I met a Cuban who said he saved his measly earnings to pay for his honeymoon for three nights in an all-inclusive, he had inferior treatment to foreigners despite paying double. Everyone we met seems to want to go to Miami so that they can see the fruit of their labour.
We get Varadero, in the meanwhile Cubans bathe and do spots on a beach surrounded by roads, the bay cut off from the sea by a bridge, on which stand fishermen and the occasional peeing man. The beach at Matanza
7. Being ripped off. This is a common complaint, but I know this is something to be expected in developing countries and so went to Cuba with an open mind. In one restaurant we got charged 8 CUC for a dish on one day, and on a different day got given a different menu — the same item cost 2 CUC. We got given the first menu on a different day and queried it, and the waiter apologised profusely saying that it was an ‘old’ menu. I don’t think this was the case as in many places in Cuba locals are charged a lot lower than tourists. While I can appreciate that tourists can probably afford to pay out more than local people, quadrupling the price does seem excessive.
8. “The customer is never right in Cuba” said one casa particular owner when she placed us in a room without air conditioning and a private bathroom, as was advertised. This seems to be very true though if Cuba is to host many more tourists from the US in the near future, it will have to appeal to them and their yelping culture.
9. No internet. There is internet in Cuba though it is limited to hotspots, mainly public parks and fancy hotels. In order to use it you have to buy an internet card and one hour will cost you between 2-5 dollars. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. I managed to read six hefty books during my stay there and wrote three short stories and 15,000 words of a novel. This would be the ultimate place to visit if in need of a digital detox. At the same time, I need internet for the work I do (mainly online journalism), for research and to stay connected with friends and family. Often we felt more isolated due to the lack of internet and had problem booking accommodation in our next destination. This led to being ripped off more often.
10. It’s not the cleanest of countries. This doesn’t usually bug me, though in a so-called communist country, you’d think making public spaces inviting would be somewhat of a priority. If the streets in Havana were not bad enough, smaller cities such as Cardenas have serious problems with overflowing sewers and there are canals full of stagnant, stinking water.