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In February 2020, I took the trip of a lifetime to Cuba.
After my 10 days in Cuba, I can safely say it wasn’t what I expected.
Was it the funnest, most relaxing or enjoyable trip of my life?
Was it one of the most interesting trips of my life?
Is it easy to travel solo in Cuba?
Tricky things about Cuba
1. You can’t bring Cuban money in or out of Cuba.
2. Many ATMs are out of cash.
3. US bank cards don’t work and there’s a 10% fee added to exchange of US dollars.
4. Due to economic sanctions, you can’t buy many day-to-day products like shampoo. Pack everything you need!
5. The internet barely works. You need to pick up a scratch card from an ETECSA store then log in from hotspots in public spaces. And even then it doesn’t really work.
All these things considered, I was kind of stressed the couple of days before my trip. Because I was flying hand luggage only from Mexico (it was £150 cheaper than checking bags), I had to find everything I needed in under 100ml bottles. This meant buying empty bottles and dispensing my suncream and moisturiser.
I was also worried about money as I’d just lost my Revolut card and my only other was a MasterCard. Even though it was UK-issued, I’d heard that these sometimes aren’t accepted in ATMs as MasterCard is American. Basically, I needed to work out my Cuba budget and bring all my cash in Mexican pesos to exchange when I arrived.
Arriving in Cuba
When I landed in Cuba, my airport experience was unlike any other. Havana airport looked straight out of the 1950s and was a bit of a shambles. I was told I needed a certain form to exit the airport but the desk that issued them told me I didn’t need one. With a bunch of other confused travellers, I went between the two desks trying to get myself out of the airport (in broken Spanish). It took ages!
Once I finally escaped, I was greeted with the next challenge: queuing up for currency exchange. Luckily, I was the fourth person in the queue but it still took an hour. There was just one window open with a guy counting bills as slowly as he could, it seemed.
I felt awful for the people at the back of the queue. If it took me an hour to move four places, it must have been dawn before the 50th person got their Cuban currency. It was midnight already so I was grateful to jump in a cab and head to my hostel.
My cab was $25 for a 20-minute ride, no bargaining. Being used to $5 rides in Mexico, the Cuban prices were already hurting my head.
The next day, I stepped out onto my balcony and looked down over the streets of Havana. The stress of my arrival dissipated. Below, locals hung out their washing and chatted in doorways of four-storey buildings as retro cars cruised by. Yep, I was actually in Havana!
Of course we’ve all seen the Instagram photos of Havana. Those pink Cadillacs and colourful houses.
Is it all as it seems?
Well, partly. The colourful houses exist; so do the Cadillacs. There are indeed parts of Old Havana that are truly photo paradise.
But there are also backstreets upon backstreets of rundown houses, construction and piles of trash. I even heard a rumour that there are houses totally derelict inside yet the exteriors have been licked up with a pretty coat of paint. I soon learnt that aesthetics are central to Havana yet it’s not all it seems.
More to the point?
The people. Take your eyes off the Insta facade and you’ll notice what they’re doing. Not dining in swanky Old Havana restaurants, not riding in the passenger seat of Cadillacs.
I’m aware there’s a divide between tourists and locals many places in the world but I’ve never felt it stronger than in Cuba.
I wanted to know more and as a result, spent much of my time in Cuba trying to work out…
What’s life like for Cubans?
In many ways, it’s tough. Firstly, monthly wages are as little as $20 USD. This is because, under communism, the government own almost everything.
Instead of restaurant owners or taxi drivers keeping their profit, they’re required to give it to the government who then pay citizens equally. At best, it’s ‘fair’ that everyone gets the same. At worst, it’s a controlling, money-hungry system nearing on dictatorship.
Because wages are so low, a ration system exists. Lines stretch around the corner as people queue for basic food items.
Due to the nature of communism, things like education and healthcare are free. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for those things being accessible to all. But when Cuban wages are considered, they have to be.
People need basic freedoms and decent wages, not just freebies.
The two currency system
This baffled me at first. When you visit Cuba as a tourist, you’ll withdraw or exchange your money into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) which can be used to pay for accommodation, transport and meals in touristic restaurants and cafes.
However, the locals are paid in a different currency: Cuban pesos (CUP). As a tourist, you can switch some CUC to CUP in a bank and benefit from the much cheaper prices of local food sold in pesos. Meals cost 5-10 CUC ($5-10) in touristic restaurants but around 20 CUP ($1) in local restaurants.
2021 update – the CUP has now been scrapped!
Originally, I assumed this two currency system was to keep tourists spending at higher costs. But as someone pointed out, it’s probably more sinister than this: to prevent locals from affording luxuries.
When earning and spending in CUP, it would be impossible to afford Western-style food, luxury cosmetics or really, anything that goes against communism.
Connection to the rest of the world
Whatsmore, Cubans are rarely able to leave Cuba. An appointment at the visa office costs around $2,000 which equals about eight years’ salary. It also won’t necessarily be granted.
The situation with the internet also impacts life for Cubans. The internet isn’t heavily censored like China’s but it’s simply hard to access. Cubans can purchase mobile data but it’s so expensive that it’s impossible for many.
If the Cuban government want to cut their people off from the rest of the world, they’re succeeding.
How to help?
What frustrated me about visiting Cuba was my helplessness.
Yes, I could take a local cab but the driver wouldn’t get my money. I could eat in a restaurant without it reaching the family who run it. I could stay in a hotel and my money would simply be passed onto the government.
During my travels around Asia and Mexico, my spending has helped local people. The problem in Cuba is that, for many years, the money hasn’t trickled down.
Things are improving, slowly. Now Airbnb is allowed in Cuba, locals can rent out their spare rooms and host tours and activities.
Sadly, 60% has to be given to the government but it’s something, right? If locals can lead a tour at $20 per head and attract 15 customers per time, there’s still close to $200 dollars coming their way after deductions.
The last couple of years have changed everything in Cuba as this would have been a wild dream even 10 years ago.
Attitudes of men in Cuba
Aside from my frustration at seeing how people live under communism, there was one other BIG pet peeve from my time in Cuba:
Harassment from the men.
I’ve travelled to many places with questionable safety reputations such as India and South Africa. People have been quick to warn me but I’ve never experienced anything but kindness and generosity from the locals.
Yet, the one place where the men were actually inappropriate and creepy, no one warned me about?
Before I go any further, I’ll mention that Cuba is a very safe country. The men aren’t going to hurt you (perhaps they’re too scared of their communist government). It’s all talk and bravado. That doesn’t make it right but it does mean you’re safe as a solo female traveller.
Still, I felt uncomfortable and harassed during my trip to Cuba. Men catcalled, beeped their horns and trailed beside me seeking my attention however many times I told them to get lost. It was relentless.
They weren’t aggressive or threatening. It was old-fashioned, toxic chivalry; the idea that if you compliment a woman, she should be grateful. Her tiny sense of self-worth could be based on little else, surely? She may be acting coy but you simply need to wear her down.
Much as I wanted to stay out of whatever 1950s ego trip they were on, it was impossible. I fell out with a taxi driver who insisted I was being oversensitive and should feel flattered. He even managed to point out a woman being harassed on the streets, saying ‘she doesn’t mind! She knows it’s a compliment!’
Getting to know the locals
It’s shame when a few people ruin it because, aside from the creeps, I met so many lovely and friendly Cubans, both male and female.
A highlight of my time in Cuba was taking a bar crawl in Havana with a 25-year old Cuban, Andito, and his buddies. Since Airbnb Experiences are now legal, they take tourists to their favourite bars and show them a vibrant, non-touristy side to Havana.
Hanging out with Andito, his brother and a few of their guy and girl mates was so much fun. Really, they were just regular 25-year-olds and it was so interesting to hear about Cuba from their perspective.
Cubans may not live under the best government but that doesn’t stop them enjoying life. Cubans love to drink, dance and socialise. Many are loud, passionate and infectious. Perhaps the Cuban spirit is stronger for everything they’ve had to overcome.
A learning curve
I can’t deny things about Cuba were challenging but there was a lot I really enjoyed. One of the main things was the learning curve: truly seeing how life works under a completely different model of society.
Aside from that, I loved Havana. I spent days wandering around, chatting to friendly locals in parks, sharing my peso pizzas with street cats and marvelling at the architecture and retro cars. And riding in one!
While there were plenty of things I liked about Cuba, I wasn’t blown away by the food. Of course, that could be partly because I was coming from Mexico!
There were a few dishes I enjoyed like ropa veija, a dish of pulled steak with rice, black beans and fried plantain. But for the most part, the nicer dishes with fresh ingredients were served in more touristic and pricey restaurants.
Due to the ration system that many locals live with, ingredients are hard to come by. There’s a lot of preserved food like spam.
During the evenings I wanted to grab something quick and affordable, I could only find limp hot dogs or ‘peso pizza’ topped with can-style meat or tuna. I hope for locals’ sake they’re able to cook better meals at home.
While the food wasn’t my favourite, the cocktails were!
Cocktails in Cuba flow freely and are very affordable. I often drank pina coladas for $2 or less. Not only were they cheap but they were absolutely delicious.
Cuba is the home to the mojito and the daiquiri so I loved going to the Havana bars that invented them: La Bodeguita del Medio for mojitos and El Floridita for the original daiquiri, invented by the hotel bartender during US prohibition when many Americans would visit Cuba.
Life is not convenient
I learnt that life under Cuba’s version of communism can be hard. While it’s the least of many people’s problems, I couldn’t help but marvel at the lack of convenience.
Booking a bus across the country was so complicated on a clunky website that needed your passport that I took taxis instead. There were no taxi apps since American companies are banned. You can’t get a takeaway or visit a supermarket. You can barely buy conditioner or toothpaste due to trade sanctions with the rest of the world.
It made me realise how accustomed I am to convenience. Whether it’s dinner, a cab or a gift for a friend, usually when I want something, I reach for my phone and order it. In Cuba, there are no shortcuts.
I was also surprised by the cost of visiting Cuba. The worst bit was getting around. Including the return ride from the airport and a return trip to Trinidad (a smaller city in Cuba) from Havana, I spend $160 on government taxis, similar to what I’d live on in Mexico for a week!
Unless you live on peso food, which isn’t tasty or nutritious, you can also spend a lot on food and drink in Cuba. I battled quite hard to find local dinners taking CUP rather than the tourist restaurants in Old Havana which only took CUC and weren’t overly different in price from eating out in the UK.
As I left Cuba, I knew I wouldn’t forget my trip quickly. It wasn’t like anywhere I’d been before, probably because Cuba isn’t like anywhere else. For that alone, I’m so glad I got to visit and learn about Cuba first-hand, rather than from a book.
But I can’t lie: I was happy on the flight from Havana to Mexico City. I was going to call an Uber and it would be a fifth of the price of a Havana taxi. Then, I would order takeaway food to my bed, browsing my options. I was going to have a feast and it would be cheap and there would be no canned ham. I was not going to be harassed on the streets. THERE WOULD BE CHEESE AND FRESH VEGGIES. THERE WOULD BE INTERNET.
Leaving Cuba, I couldn’t wait for things to be available at my fingertips. Convenience. The freedom to browse and make a choice for myself. Communism is clearly not the life for me… But capitalism will destroy Planet Earth in even less time. What we gunna do?
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