Cuba is a world unto itself. It’s like no place else I’ve ever been, and in some respects, I hope never to encounter a place like it again. We visited beautiful and amazing places and got a small glimpse of a vibrant culture filled with many friendly and creative people. However, it was a challenging journey filled with needless hassles and a strong sense of otherness that we didn’t experience in other countries. Cuba is changing rapidly and experiencing the difficulties of today’s Cuba is probably something I’m glad to have done, but it was painful indeed.
If I had one piece of advice for anybody contemplating a trip to Cuba it would be: Don’t go to Cuba in July. It is hot and, in some places, buggy. The second thing would be to plan ahead. There is very limited internet access and it is never free. Some things like buying bus tickets, plane tickets, and renting cars can easily be done online a few weeks ahead, but trying to do these things in person (or even on line if you find access) is a huge challenge.
If you enjoy package tours and are willing to pay what they cost, I’m sure you find Cuba to be a beautiful and friendly country. Your experience will be one of high end hotels with fully stocked Gucci shops and day trips from Havana to see the sites on an air conditioned bus. I’m sure it will be lovely. If you have friends or family in Cuba I’m sure you could have a fabulous time as well. They will have figured out the ropes and know that you can usually get eggs at the blue house 3 doors down and pork at the market 5 blocks away, but not at the one 3 blocks away even though there is a big sign advertising pork. They will know the inter-city bus schedule, or at least how to find it, and you will be able to take the (very uncomfortable) bus for around fifty cents wherever you want to go. They will be able to direct you to the best twenty cent egg sandwich and dollar pizza. If you don’t fall in either of these groups Cuba can be a frustrating experience.
The locals are largely unable to give you any advice since they don’t ride the tourist buses or eat in the tourist restaurants. Furthermore, they assume that this is what you want to do and are almost unwilling to give you and information about local places. The lines for everything are excruciatingly long; milk, bus tickets, tourist information, airline check in will all take you much longer than expected. I will say that the Cubans are all surprisingly polite about standing in line and will always make sure to ask who the last person in line is and wait their turn patiently, the same cannot be said for our fellow tourists. For example, to buy bus tickets to Vinales we had to go the day before to buy the tickets. The office is a little outside of town so it was a $10 taxi ride to get there. After aggressively defending my place in line for an hour and showing our passports we bought our tickets ($45) and managed to bargain down to $8 for a taxi ride back to town. We had to try 2 taxis because the first one we tried smelled so strongly of exhaust that we had to exit the car before we even went anywhere. The following day we took a $10 ride back to the terminal to catch the bus. We checked in and were assigned seats. We boarded the bus among the last people without thinking much about it. What we found on board was that our assigned seats were not really assigned and everybody had been assigned the same seats. We ended up sitting in the very last row of the bus where the air conditioning didn’t reach and the engine generated a huge amount of noise and heat. The grand total total was $73 for a miserable three hour journey (it should have been 2 hours, but there was a 1 hour stop at the tourist restaurant where you could buy bad $5 sandwiches (if you were lucky enough to get one before they ran out) and pay $1 to use the toilet. Compared to Quito where it was a $0.75 (for 4 of us) city bus ride to the intercity terminal and a $3 bus ticket for a two hour ride (total $12.75) this was a shocking amount of money. If you missed the bus in Quito, no matter, there will be another in 10 minutes. On the way back from Vinales to Havana we stopped off in Las Terrazas for the night. However, it is not possible to book tickets from Las Terrazas to Havana. Availability on the one and only daily bus to Havana is completely dependent on how many tourists got off the bus at the Las Terrazas stop between Vinales and Havana on the day you want to go. We saw several buses for Cubans but were unable to get any information on how to take them or when. The stress of this was too much for me so we took a private taxi back to Havana. We thought about renting a car for this journey but this is nearly impossible unless you reserve online months in advance. The only other option for car rental is to go in person to all the big hotels after 5:00 the night before you want to rent a car and see if any have miraculously appeared for the next day.
The second full week of our trip we spent in a tiny village at the southern end of Isla de la Juventud, which is a smaller island separate from the main island of Cuba. The village of Cocodrilo receives some domestic visitors but hardly and foreigners. Our host there was very friendly and we found an 11 year old who loved in Miami but was staying with his grandmother for the summer but the rest of the village seemed almost scared to talk to us. Usually, but not always, people would respond if we greeted them walking down the street, but they never initiated contact with us. Our host said that until 5 years ago talking to tourists could get you in big trouble. I guess the attitude of the people is a relic of a (hopefully) bygone era but after people trying every which way to talk us out of a buck for the last 6 months this standoffish behavior seemed strange.
I think that some of our negative impressions of Cuba have to do with it being the last stop on our trip and our general readiness to return home. Other factors beyond the control of anybody, such as heat and mosquitos, certainly didn’t help our experience. The annoyance of a 10% surcharge on changing our dollars to Cuban pesos was a slap in the face too (although not nearly as annoying as the embargo must feel to Cubans). Cuba was fascinating and like no other place that I have ever been. For that reason I’m not sad that we went. If I had to do it again I wouldn’t go for so long and I wouldn’t go in the summer.