Thursday, 18 February 2016

A Cuban Experience

Downtown Havana 
Recently, my brother and sister-in-law spent time in Havana and Varadero, Cuba.  Their brief visit to Varadero was at one of the many all-inclusive resorts.  Their choice of accommodation in Havana was in a Casa Particulare, or a private home, which the Cuban government has allowed its residents to rent out to tourists since 1997.

Cuba has always been popular with Canadians; however, it seems now that its doors are once again being opened to American tourists, there has been considerable interest in seeing the country before it (once again) becomes "Americanized".  While tens of thousands of Americans have descended upon Cuba this past year, that number is expected to be somewhere in the millions by next year. 

Old Havana, declared a World Heritage site in 1982, is the finest and largest example of colonial architecture in the Americas.  That said, while one might marvel at magnificently preserved pre-revolutionary architecture, one will also be  acutely aware of thousands of decrepit buildings and vacant lots.

My brother and sister-in-law returned with differing opinions of Cuba but one thing they both agree upon, this was a trip that varied considerably from other vacations; one which exposed them to the realities of life in Cuba, rather than a polished version most tourists will see from the balconies of their all-inclusive resort. 

In case you're considering visiting Cuba in the near future, in the words of my brother, here are a few tips.

Vinales countryside 
Cuba is, I think, a unique travel destination.  The simple fact that it’s a communist country makes it so.  There is beauty and there is ugliness there (as I suppose there are in most places).  One minute you can be standing on a street in Havana barely able to breathe because of the pollution and the next you’re bouncing down a sidewalk to the beat of the music wafting out of several doorways and windows.  Havana is most definitely a photographer’s paradise as is the countryside around Vinales.  If you’re into a country that may seem a bit out of the ordinary (in both good and not-so-good ways), then Cuba might just be a place that you’ll want to consider visiting.  I’m talking about Havana mainly as I don’t consider Varadero representative of the country as a whole.  Varadero consists of miles of all-inclusive hotels, beaches and tourists – very nice in its own way, but not indicative of the country.  Gauging Cuba after visiting Varadero would be much like gauging Alberta after visiting West Edmonton Mall.  These Cuba tips are all based on our experiences – we were mainly in Havana and Varadero – with a side-trip to the Vinales region.

Money  We just took Canadian dollars.  Credit cards are usable, but only in the large hotels and banks (I would just take cash).  We exchanged our Canadian currency at the Varadero airport right after we landed.  Hotels will exchange our dollars also (they will also exchange from Cuban CUCs back to Canadian dollars when it’s time to go home.  You take a beating both ways – I think $2000 Canadian got us somewhere between $1400 & $1500 CUCs.  Be careful that you don’t get Cuban pesos instead of CUCs when getting change back after buying something (this only happened to us once).

Accommodation What they call a 5-star, we would call a 3 ½  star (it’s just the way it is). Lots of people we know take toilet paper with them just in case (we took 5 rolls and returned with 5 rolls – so I guess we were lucky).  There will most likely be something wrong with your room – it could be low water pressure, or a toilet that doesn’t flush so well or maybe a leaky roof (again, that’s just the way it is – if you want it to be just like it is in Canada, then Cuba is not the country for you – if you’re looking for something a little different, then Cuba is right up your alley. 
You gotta love the cars in Cuba!
Transportation You’ll be asked a thousand times as you walk down the street if you need a taxi – or they honk at you a lot also (their way of asking if you need a taxi).  We used taxis a lot. ALWAYS negotiate the price before you take a ride (dickering is expected). Make sure that the price you’ve negotiated is for both of you and not each of you. The old taxis are awesome, but there are new vehicles also if you’re going on a long trip. Both Havana and Varadero have “hop-on-hop-off” buses for tourists.  Basically, they follow a set route and you can get on and off wherever you like (they cost 10 CUCs) – a great way to explore a city (you’ll recognize them because they’re double-deckers with the top deck being open air.

Food Again, not like it is at home, so don’t expect fried chicken to taste like our fried chicken. The food is okay – it’s not great, but it’s okay and it's fairly bland (I met a couple of people who took along their own ketchup).  Don’t get me wrong, there’s really nothing wrong with the food – it’s just different from ours.  Surprisingly, not a lot of veggies there. They love pizza! Who would have thought?

Rolling Cigars
People The people are awesome – generally very friendly and polite and often we heard people singing as they walked--something you don’t see at home every day. Quite often Cubans would start a conversation with us and, more often than not, the conversation ends with “can you please give me a peso to help feed my children” or something similar.  Get used to it – they are a very poor people.  This happened in Havana a lot, but not in Varadero.  Not once did we ever feel in danger or that we were someplace where we shouldn’t be.  We brought things like candy, toothpaste, good hand-soap to use as tips – stuff that is just very hard for the common person to obtain.

We googled Cuba to death before leaving. We also U-tubed the places/areas we knew we’d be visiting.  It’s a great way to get an idea of the country and of the people.  There are also a few U- tube videos with tips of what to do and what not to do.  They’re helpful. 

My best advice for any destination is to travel with as few expectations as possible and with an open mind.  If you do that, Cuba (or any other place for that matter) will rarely disappoint.

Source:  Photos and commentary provided by Ken Hoskin: