37 countries later, I finally set foot on Cuban soil.
Cuba is a fascinating place where the Spanish guitar probably first fell in love with the African drum, creating the most interesting genres of music which we all dance to today.
It is also a place where the story of colonialism, neo-colonialism, revolution and progress unfolds in such dramatic fashion, and is still a work in progress.
Overall, a country with friendly Cubanos, passionate music, frozen-in-time street-scenes and in my opinion, an impending paradigm shift in how the country will progress towards the latter half of the 21st century.
Logistics: If you are travelling from the US, the most convenient points of transit are Mexico or Canada (direct charter flights from the US are increasingly available, but still tremendously expensive). Bring Euros or Canadian dollars to exchange at a local cadega (money exchange). Speaking Spanish will be very helpful, although most tourist-related infrastructure in Havana will be able to communicate in some form of English.
You could probably read guidebooks online or your Lonely Planet to get an idea of what to see/do in Cuba, so I will instead share with you 4 random things you probably should know, from my experience…
- Taxi particulares – these are the local taxis (basically any 1950s-looking car with a taxi sign up top) that you should definitely be taking because they cost about 10 times less than a “yellow taxi” which I presume caters to foreigners. The local taxis do, however, go on certain routes and so prior to hopping on, you will need to ask if the driver is going in your general direction. Each person needs to pay 10 local pesos (~0.50 euros at time of writing). If you get a chance to, peer under the hood of one of these old 1950s Chevrolets, you will be surprised to find a retrofitted Nissan or Toyota engine in there!
- Local food stalls – the prices in Cuba, especially where tourist volumes are high, can vary significantly. I have paid as much as 15 convertible pesos, and as little as 1 convertible peso for the exact same meal. Speaking Spanish will help, because you can walk around and ask for directions to local eateries. Trust me, you will know right away when you are in a local eatery – there will hardly be any foreigners around. Make an attempt to stray a little off the beaten track/tourist hot spots in Old Havana, and you will be sure to find plenty of local options around every corner.
- Drink the coffee (from the local street stalls) – Cubans brew their coffee along with molasses, which produces a bitter-sweet concoction fit for kings. They cost about 1 local peso per tiny shot, so a full cup of coffee may set you back a whole 5 local pesos. You can also have the same drink in a restaurant at about 10 times the price at a local stall. Go figure.
- Go to Trinidad – period. One of the first things you will notice about Trinidad is the sound of horse hooves against the cobblestone streets and peddlers hawking bread and pastries from their bicycles. I have been to a few colonial towns (San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, Pelourinho in Bahia Brazil etc) and none have come across more real and pure as Trinidad. Although tourist infrastructure such as restaurants, bars and hotels have sprung up, most of Trinidad still remains in its tranquil form, with Cubanos living their lives as it seems to be half a century ago. Again, veer off the Main Square into the side streets and you will find the true Trinidad sitting there unblemished. Also, hike up the track past the bar-in-a-cave to the top of the cerro where the communication tower stands, chat up the security guard and he may just let you into the compound where you can get a 360-degree birds’ eye view of the entire valley.
Cuba moving forward… will be an interesting story to witness!
From what I have noticed, the socialist state does a pretty decent job in providing free education, healthcare and subsidized sundries for every Cubano. Roads are good, most people have a roof over their heads, and general happiness is still derived from family ties and social activities (dancing, music, sports etc.). However, the growing income disparity is becoming a sizable issue at the back of everyone’s mind. Although tourist-serving establishments/ jobs pay a higher tax to the state, the prices being charged are ~10times higher than the local equivalent, and this provides a select group of the population with higher purchasing power to enjoy modern luxury goods (think smartphones, new cars etc.). Imagine the monthly salary of a state-worker of 15 convertible pesos, which is the equivalent of a single meal at a nice restaurant.
To quote my taxi driver:
“… development for Cuba is good, but development will also bring in maliciousness, greed, and other related things that will eventually harm a big part of our society, like what it does with most capitalistic countries.”
The ability of the next government to help spread the fruits of growth and development to all the Cubanos will be critical to the survival of one of the world’s last remaining bastion of Socialism.