The Czech bloke we met in the mountains of Mexico told me that Cuba was Disneyland.
Having never been to Disneyland, I can’t say for sure, but I think he’s mistaken.
Perhaps he meant ‘like Disneyland’ now that the country is beginning to open up, but still. It’s not Disneyland.
We went prepared
For weeks we’d been stockpiling Mexican pesos ready to change into Cuban convertible pesos knowing that ATMs were sparse with high fees and card payments were uncommon.
We knew how time consuming and pricey it was to buy internet access, so we bought an old-fashioned guidebook and went cold turkey on the wifi for 3.5 weeks.
And, apart from the Airbnb in Havana, I’d booked all our accommodation in advance via an agency that sorted us out with casas particulares (without me even scrutinising the photos)!
There are some Cuba cliches that run true
Vintage cars are the norm. Chunky Soviet-era Ladas and American pink cadillacs roam the roads as if the last six decades never happened.
The well-maintained cars are often owned by moonlighting professionals who earn more money driving tourists around the sites of Havana than they do in their day jobs as dentists and doctors and teachers.
Crappy old Ladas were the most common car for us. The boys would groan whenever we got one. Exhaust fumes would fill the back seat and the ubiquitous reggaeton would thump on and on.
Music is everywhere
Fraser was in seventh heaven… this is what he says about music in Cuba:
From traditional trova played live in Havana’s cafes and bars to booming reggaeton blasting from passing cars, music was everywhere in Cuba. It was often played for the tourists; a sleepy looking band of buskers in Trinidad would suddenly come to life at the sight of a tour group being herded up the cobbled street towards them. But it was never anything less than part of the fabric of daily life. In Cienfuegos, a 10-piece band rehearsed in a bar’s courtyard once the sun had lowered just enough for there to be shade. Every now and then, they would stop playing so that, with the help of their young band leader, they could talk through and perfect a tricky intro or some precisely placed horn stabs. In Santiago’s Casa de la Trova the music starts every afternoon and goes on till well after midnight just as it has done for over sixty years.
All of this music is made in the face of the US enforced embargo on Cuba. Musicians don’t have access to the latest LP percussion instruments or Gibson guitars. The upright electric bass played in Cienfuegos had been made by the bass player. The tres, a three string Cuban member of the guitar family of instruments, would be made out of a modified guitar. In Santiago, percussionists made drums from sawn off pieces of sugar cane. It was the very opposite of ‘all the gear and no idea’.
Cuba has been through some tough times in the last sixty years, especially during the years after the break up of the Soviet Union and subsequent withdrawal of Soviet support. But it’s hard to imagine how any set of circumstances would diminish the Cuban appetite for and love of music.
There is no advertising in Cuba. Services and businesses are government run, so there’s no competition. Huge roadside hoardings declare socialist values and political triumphs.
‘I am Fidel’ is daubed, by hand, on many walls. It’s a kind of communal love affair. But ask someone what they think of Raul and they’ll evade the question.
Life in Cuba is slowly changing
More people are allowed to run their own small businesses and they can now buy and sell property.
But walk into a food store and you’ll find half empty shelves. Department stores sell random imported goods from anywhere not affected by the US embargo. There’s very little choice and very little of anything. Even finding shops was difficult, lurking as they did behind dark brown windows without any of the usual bright signage or window displays.
Onions, bananas, tomatoes, bread and other things were sold off the back of bikes. The sellers shouting out their wares from the early hours to late afternoon.
The food was awful
I’m sure there is good Cuban cuisine, but we didn’t find it. When you’re travelling like this, restaurants become a necessity, not a nicety, and when you’re aiming to keep costs low the high-end restaurants with good food are out of bounds. We’d see the same plain and unhealthy dishes at nearly all the restaurants we visited. With little choice at the budget end of things, I skipped meals to avoid eating badly. The best food was cooked by our hosts in the casas particulares.
We were shocked at the prices in Cuba. The popular, beautiful, government run hotels in Havana were £200+ a night. Main dishes were often £12 or more. But prices for locals were a tiny fraction of what we found ourselves paying as tourists.
Locals use the monedad nacional (or CUP)
In Trinidad, we wanted to buy some pizzas from a pavement kitchen but the guy wanted 3 CUC from us whilst the locals were charged 10 CUP – five times less! Fraser offered the equivalent in CUC, but he was having none of it. Fraser was adamant he wasn’t going to pay through the nose and we returned armed with CUP from the horribly inefficient bank 1.5 hours later (and also bought a pizza for the Polish man who was having the same problem).
In Santiago de Cuba, we wanted to go to a youth ballet performance but we had to pay 25 times extra as tourists! In protest, we walked away but we felt frustrated, thwarted and sorry for ourselves. We were beginning to feel like money on legs.
We understand about paying extra as tourists – we had to pay loads more in Sri Lanka to visit popular temples and gardens and stuff – but this was just a small, local, youth performance.
And the pizza guy? I’ve no idea. Was it pig-headedness that stopped him taking the CUC? Or would it have cost him money to change the CUC into CUP? Who knows.
Town and city hopping
From west to east, we travelled the length of Cuba on the special Viazul tourist buses and stayed 3-5 nights in each town.
The capital Havana was, by far, the best place we stayed. Our Airbnb host was young, friendly and wore his heart on his sleeve. He even babysat the boys one night so we could go to the uber-trendy Fabrica Arte nightclub to hang out with international hipsters and drink super-strong mojitos.
Cienfuegos was atmospheric. We stayed in a townhouse crammed with rocking chairs and ringed by a balcony where I’d watch the horse-and-cart taxis, slightly mesmerised by the sound of the horses’ hooves.
From Cienfuegos, we went snorkelling at Playa Giron, aka the Bay of Pigs. The water was warm and clean and there were a few fish, but the real pleasure was being somewhere straight out of my GCSE history books and getting out of the city.
Trinidad was beautiful but touristy with its tidy squares, well-preserved colonial architecture and cobbled streets.
Camaguey was more of a working town. Huge, noisy cattle trucks served as local buses, belching black fumes and crammed with people staring out from the gap at the top, just like cattle.
Last was Santiago de Cuba. A city with no pretences, it’s busy and choking with pollution. I learned how to time my breathing just right to avoid inhaling clouds of exhaust fumes as old motorbikes screamed past.
We couldn’t find much to DO in Cuba
We spent a lot of time sitting in cafes, playing countless rounds of Uno, just whiling away the time.
Fraser and I drank cheap cocktails to liven things up and we’d keep reading the guide book, searching for anything! Something to do!
Most tourists wander around carrying the same out-of-date Lonely Planet guidebook, visiting the same places and eating in the same tourist restaurants.
It was hard to live even a smudge like a local, though we did grill our hosts and our taxi drivers on what life was like for them.
Life for locals
In Santiago, our host had given up her 20-year career in paediatrics to run the casa particular she’d taken over from her aunt who’d moved to the USA. Because she was a qualified doctor in a specified area, she was forbidden from ever leaving Cuba. She bought in extra gallons of water because she received government-supplied water only twice a week.
In Cienfuegos, our host had given up her poorly paid career as a Spanish professor to make more money running a guest house. Her only son lived and worked in Miami. He was due home to visit his pregnant girlfriend whom he was going to marry so that she too could leave Cuba for the USA.
A socialist life
Would living in a socialist country be liberating? Free from hyper-individualist ambition and accompanying consumerism and stress? Free to enjoy government funded music, dance and culture? To live in a society where people shared what they had so that everyone could get by with little? Unencumbered from relentless information feeding in from free media, television and the Internet?
Or would you feel trapped?
We discovered a new kind of freedom. Even though we all got a bit bored in Cuba, we discovered Uno, the boys created endlessly in Minecraft, Fraser devoured unread drumming magazines, I re-read many books and together we drank quite strong cocktails in the afternoons.
Cuba is laid-back, verging on lazy. In some areas, like its restoration of the colonial city centres, it’s progressive. It’s also incredibly backwards and crumbling away. People wait for hours for buses and stand in queues for everything. It’s as if they have nothing more pressing, so why not just wait.
I can’t see it staying that way for long. The world is pushing in and Cuba’s people are reaching out.
But Disneyland it is not.