“Weeelll…that doesn’t really make sense”.
A phrase uttered a shocking number of times throughout our 3 weeks in Cuba, in a lot of different variations from amused to bemused to disbelieving to barely contained frustration. Welcome to Sort-Of Communism in the 21st Century. Of course, I’m sure it will be mainly these unexpected oddities and incomprehensible methods of living Cuban life that will stick with us long after all the pretty colonial houses and white sand beaches fade and blend with many of the other beautiful Latin American nations we’ve visited. We expected something different, but were surprised to find something altogether unrecognizable, and far more unique than we had imagined.
The one constant throughout our time in the fascinating, fluctuating, confusing country of Cuba was the nearly universal tourist’s rallying cry, “We just wanted to get here before the Americans!” When it comes to the seeming inevitable American invasion, tourism-style, the exact when, how and how many are yet to be determined, but there is no question what the majority of global travellers are expecting – a mass influx of people taking advantage of the close proximity of a relatively unknown Caribbean island (flights from Miami could be as short as 1 hour). Bring on the bored, the curious, the beach-deprived and, maybe most of all, the formerly Cuban. After a week of self-enforced inactivity and excessive alcoholic intake, we made our escape from Varadero to roam freely about the country and discover for ourselves just where the tourism landscape sits at this point. Certainly things have changed plenty already and we were not going to see old, dowdy Cuba, but it was possible we were still ahead of the most dramatic of the changes to come.
As Cuba’s stuttering and uncertain transition from isolated communist stronghold to burgeoning Caribbean paradise moves relentlessly forward – quite rapidly from the perspective of a changing culture and personal economic outlook, incredibly slowly if measured in terms of their sluggish attempts to embrace 21st century technology, the only thing we learned for certain was that, for better or worse, almost nothing matched our expectations. In less than a decade their profile summary has changed from “Defiantly Communist” to “It’s Complicated”, with “Open to Offers” hovering enticingly on the horizon. Nearly every aspect of Cuban society seems to reflect this unclear evolution, from the helplessly inefficient bus system to their consumer scarcities to their continued insistence that horses are still a reasonable method of transportation in an urban setting. The only thing definite from day to day was that yet more of our uneducated and naïve expectations would go up in smoke (deliciously smooth cigar smoke, but still).
Outside of the all-inclusive beach resorts like the one we stayed at in Varadero, almost all accommodation in Cuba is in the distinctly Cuban version of B&B known as “casa particulares”. Essentially, you rent a room in somebody’s tiny home for a correspondingly low price (usually 25 CUC = $US25). So the value is good, the people tend to be very friendly, for a little extra you can get breakfast and/or dinner, and nothing beats walking back and forth through a stranger’s living room for making you feel like part of the family. On the other hand, having “local life” all around you, so to speak, can be unnerving at times, such as when they decide 6 am is a good time to beat the carpets, or when you notice the owner’s pet parakeet at the window watching you clip your toenails.
Cuba employs two different currencies – the CUP (Cuban peso) which only local Cubans use and which exchange at 25 to $US1, and the CUC (convertible peso, and generally referred to as “kooks”) which exchange as equivalent to a $US when changing from other currencies but, oddly enough, at a much worse than equal rate for actual $US. The CUC was originally designed strictly for tourists but now seems to be slowly taking hold as the standard currency in all areas of society, and word has it they have already started working on making this the country’s sole currency. This may sound confusing (as it certainly appears to be for the various cashiers who have conversion charts taped to their registers), but let me assure you, this very basic explanation only scratches the surface of the stunning complexities and inefficiencies inherent with this poorly conceived system. Were this an economic essay rather than a half-hearted generalization about a country I’ve explored only in the most rudimentary way, I would go on to discuss many more thrillingly provocative concepts we witnessed such as exchange premiums, foreign currency tariffs, tiered pricing, credit card regulation and exchange fraud, but I’ll refrain from boring you, or myself, and tell you to simply trust me when I tell you that tourists pay a lot more than locals for just about everything. Although considering that Cuban skin colour ranges from basically Congolese dark to Alberta-bowling-alley-manager white, and that blonde is a popular choice of hair colour, with good enough Spanish anyone could conceivably pass for a local and really work the system. Needless to say, though, my clumsy Spanish convinced exactly no one of any Cuban heritage, and not only because Cubans strangely seem to have agreed as a group to drop the letter “s” from their vocabulary entirely, but also because I regularly say things that translate to “If possible, I ate the terrace for breakfast” and “He say I really love horse. Very good.”
As I discussed in my Varadero entry, the internet in Cuba at this point in time seems to be, let me see, how would I put it…? Abominable. Or something to that effect. Best I can tell there seems to be only one significant provider, the telephone company Etecsa, who sell cards in different denominations of internet use, the most common being 1 hour for 2 CUC. Of course, that’s the official rate, and only twice in 5 cities did we find an Etecsa office that actually had any cards left to sell, and one of those charged us double, so I wouldn’t use permanent marker when adding that 2/hr number to your budget. More likely they will suggest you “look for guys on the street, they should have”, who will usually charge 3 CUC, or, in certain cases you can buy them for 4.50 from the extortionate hotel of your choice. Then, once you have somehow managed to pinpoint the correct greasy punk cruising the square, one selling merely internet cards and not fake cigars, questionable pot or furtive hand jobs, and have gotten yourself a card, now you need to find a semi-comfortable place to sit in the busy plaza, packed with people because, and this is the best part, that is pretty much the only place in town with a signal. That’s right, at this point the national telephone and internet provider is only willing to spring for one router in each city (from what we could tell), forcing anyone with a need or desire to get online to journey down to a particular park, hunt for a seat and pray it doesn’t rain, while they frantically attempt to get the most possible usage out of their preciously allotted time. It adds a whole new element to that already agonizing decision on whether you should switch your profile pic to a brand new version of your half-smile-from-above-selfie, or if that time might be better spent getting the latest on another celebrity beach bod instead. We did find one casa particular in Cienfuegos (Casa Amarilla) that actually had a signal at their house, although we still needed to use an Etecsa card once we logged in, and I never did actually manage to make it work on my phone. I can’t say for sure that there isn’t another way, somewhere, somehow, but if there is, the people we met certainly weren’t coughing it up.
Viazul. Oh, to fully describe the baffling bureaucracy and mystifying business model of this government-run tourist bus service would take hours, or roughly the same amount of time you might spend in line attempting to find out the following day’s bus schedule which, for reasons unclear to us, or anyone who has ever used a calendar or clock, are kept strictly under wraps like they represent the crucial third key for the nuclear launch, or the latest Survivor results. Here are just two (of many) examples to help you understand just how messed up this system is:
- It is not only more efficient, but literally less expensive, to travel from city to city in a taxi than by bus.
- There is a daily Viazul bus from the popular tourist town of Viñales to the popular tourist city of Trinidad. However, there absolutely is not a corresponding bus that goes from Trinidad to Viñales. Apparently, Cuban buses currently only run in one direction. That, and something I barely understood having to do with the bus driver going to a nearby beach town to sleep, then driving back alone, or at least that was what I caught after waiting an hour to make it to the front of the line, spending most of that time watching the guy “working” at the second Viazul desk by, rather than deal with any of the fifty waiting customers, instead while away the day sorting receipts and occasionally taking scissors to a troublesome hangnail.
What we expected
A proud, glorious, yet somewhat worse for wear, Spanish colonial city with a quaint reliance on monstrous pre-embargo American cars and a single-minded devotion to ripping us off.
What we found
That we were pretty much on the money with regard to appearances, although by staying in Habana Centro instead of Habana Vieja (Old Havana) we learned that for the most part the physical disintegration is even farther along than you’d realize restricting your wanderings to the neatly restored tourist areas. A number of common passive-aggressive tourism descriptions came immediately to mind such as “fading glory”, “defeated grandeur”, “aggressively dilapidated” although occasionally just “dirty”.
Of course, this didn’t necessarily diminish the beauty of the place, full of grand old buildings, classic old houses with high ceilings and colourful tiles, picturesque squares surrounded by ostentatious government buildings and immense Catholic churches, and a scenic malecón that was surprisingly unable to cope with the routinely massive waves crashing in from the Atlantic, the huge rollers smashing over the wall to drench the walkway and road making for a fun excursion for tourists, but wreaking plenty of havoc with already problematic Havana traffic.
One other thing we noticed about Havana:
For a city that is supposedly “really safe” for tourists, there sure are a lot of people selling things from behind protective steel bars.
What we expected
We were really looking forward to this reputedly beautiful old colonial city directly across the island from Havana on the southern coast. Smaller, cuter, cleaner, more relaxed (like the difference between FM and AM, or prostitutes and strippers).
What we found
Well, it started off on a weird note when our share taxi arrived ten minutes early, for reasons we would soon come to understand all too well. We were joined by a pair of older Italian guys, one of whom spoke fluent Spanish and made an immediate connection with our gregarious and strangely excitable driver. Unfortunately, we soon began to develop suspicions regarding the root of his ebullient demeanour, as he chattered away like a prisoner recently released from solitary, twitched and fidgeted incessantly, all the while pounding back more bottled water than we’d seen the rest of Cuba drink, combined, to that point. Our suspicions were seemingly confirmed when he suddenly pulled a hard right to barely make the final exit down to a crossing underpass where we simply had find out what was up with the crowd gathered down there. His utter disappointment that it did not turn out to be the aftermath of a gory, horrific car crash but rather the starting line for a fairly tame-looking motorcycle rally was only too apparent, and frankly more than a little disturbing. With little choice in the matter we did our best to ignore his overly fast, occasionally erratic, driving, although the sassy Italian in the front seat slowly morphed from our driver’s best friend to his sworn enemy, as his increasingly critical comments eventually led to an uncomfortable final hour full of sullen frowns, defiant air conditioning battles and a small plastic bag tucked into the collar of a shirt to demonstrate just how desperate the fight against cold breezes had become.
Once we arrived, however, safe and sound, I should add, we found that Trinidad was everything we expected and more. A beautiful old city full of colourful little homes, grand cathedrals, authentic Spanish architecture and pleasant plazas. The “more” referring mainly to cobblestones, with Trinidad having taken rough, uneven street construction to an entirely new level of genuine /super-irritating, and long lines of street stalls where locals spent the entire day celebrating whatever obscure Latino holiday happened to be taking place at the time by scarfing down ham, chorizo and cheese Cubano sandwiches and cheap plastic cups of beer while dancing anywhere their ample lower halves would fit. One of the most photogenic colonial cities we’ve seen anywhere in Latin America, and believe me, we’ve seen our share of vivid cement homes and bright yellow churches. During the day the influx of tourist groups was a bit overwhelming, considering the small section of town of interest to most covered just a few square blocks, but mornings and evenings were blissfully peaceful, with the entire place exuding a relaxed tranquility seemingly at odds with its status as Cuba’s number two tourist destination (after either Havana, or the duty-free cigar shop in the airport, I’m not sure which).
Other things we noticed about Trinidad:
They still use an incredible number of horses. And for all sorts of purposes, not just leaving treacherous trails of feces to even further complicate the lives of tourists already struggling mightily to gawk at all the pretty buildings and adorable, fedora-clad old men while simultaneously navigating the rough cobbled streets in high, precarious (but obviously essentially stylish) pumps.
If you feel the need to take a break while hiking to the city’s highest, most scenic viewpoint, partway up you will find an actual “discoteque”, with a tiny round door that makes it easily mistaken for a hobbit pantry, but actually provides access to what would I can only assume would be an extremely dark dance floor, a disappointing lack of sexy dancing ladies and a single, undeniably depressing disco ball.
Renting bikes to explore the countryside was only moderately successful. We saw a lot of interesting scenery in a bucolic rural setting. On the other hand, though, our gears were really only a vague concept, neither bike had any brakes worthy of the name, and Laynni’s kickstand fell down every 2 to 3 minutes, like annoyingly malfunctional clockwork. Of course, they cost $3 for the whole day, so it was a trade-off, I suppose.
Location was everything in Trinidad, and we were thrilled with our little casa particular (Casa Margely) directly across the street from a cute little plaza that remained relaxed even as something of interest always seemed to be in progress – groups taking a break before or after church, a band of old men playing with an enthusiasm that belied the near certainty that this was the same set of Cuban favourites they’ve probably been playing every day for 50 years, other, less musically talented, old men drinking beer and gossiping vociferously, groups of kids playing soccer, and even dogs humping each other, usually in a charmingly non-consensual manner.
What we expected
We made plans to stay in Punta Gorda (Fat Point), a formerly rich area inhabited by old French sugar tycoons way back when, as in when the French built this city and its impressive and efficient system of wide roads, logical grids and, supposedly, top of the line hygiene systems. It is a short walk away from the centre via the scenic malecón and, rumour had it, was once again a living epitome of “fading glory”. Like a distant facsimile of Miami, except with more…actually, probably just about the same amount of Cubans.
What we found
Well, there is “fading glory”, then “faded glory”, then “the tiniest hint of some possible glory long, long ago”, and that is roughly where much of the area fell. Mostly the parts with a lot of rusting hulks of old vehicles and roughly-fenced chicken farms. However, amongst the detritus there were also a lot of colourful homes with unusually spacious yards (front and back), and even a handful of alternately beautiful and bizarre structures, tending toward a mix of art deco and neoclassical (so I read, I certainly couldn’t pick neoclassical out of a lineup, unless the only other members of the lineup were ancient British castles and west-side duplexes).
We only spent 2 nights here, and with no particular plans for the area that seemed to be plenty, as we wandered the Punta Gorda area, admired the impressive variety of sea and bay views, hung out on the malecón near the El Rapido fast food joint (incidentally, also the 50,000 person city’s main “internet area”) eating deliciously cheap yet nutritiously dubious “pizza” and bologna and cheese bocaditos, then strolled the city centre for a while with its tiny version of the Parisian Arc de Triomphe and numerous cafés. Plus, on the way to Cienfuegos our taxi driver played an 80’s love song album that was pretty much exactly my Grade 7 make-out mix. So that was pretty weird.
What we expected
A small, relaxed town surrounded by tobacco farms and amazing natural scenery, and haven for tourists grown weary of the colonial city rotation.
What we found
A small, relaxed town surrounded by tobacco farms and amazing natural scenery, and having almost wholly given itself over to the gods of tourism. I would not be exaggerating to estimate that entirely 50% of the houses in Viñales are registered as casa particulares. Probably close to 75% of the horses regularly spend their days ferrying inexperienced tourists around the nearby valleys and stunning mogotes (steep-sided limestone hills). At least 90% of the restaurants are geared toward foreigners, and a solid 100% of the guys that flag you down on the street will be offering either cigars, bikes to rent, taxis to somewhere, anywhere, or to generously introduce you to some terrific hombre they know who just happens to have a couple horses kicking around with nothing to do.
Of course, none of this unanticipated commercial acumen did anything to diminish the beauty of the area or our enjoyment of the variety of activities on offer. If anything, having all the options right at our fingertips, and with an endless number of eager folks around to help us realize these exciting aspirations (for a relatively generous fee, in most cases), made Viñales the easiest of our destinations in which to simply be a tourist. Biking along the relatively quiet roads through the limestone mogotes, floating through huge caves on underground rivers, horseback riding through the Valle el Silencio past rustic farms to stunning viewpoints, with occasional stops to “learn about the process” of making cigars and coffee which, incidentally, also happened to coincide with opportunities to buy cigars and coffee, or simply wandering the town and its surrounds, enjoying the laid-back atmosphere and continuous views. Then the rain came, with shocking ferocity, and we spent a full day simply hanging out, reading, writing, and watching a movie (Sicario, centred around the horrific violence taking place around the Mexican drug trade, which was excellent, although not exactly ideal viewing to get us excited about an impending trip to Mexico).
Now, for some random generalizations about Cuba, based on all of 3 weeks spent exclusively in popular tourist areas:
Cuban bus travel appears to be under the shaky guidance of a drunk and sadistic taxi driver focused on running the entire venture into the ground to further his own greedy interests, Major League-style.
I never thought I would ever again see a place that treated the internet as a luxury rather than a necessity.
Even their mobile phone system seems shockingly rudimentary, considering we have met Tanzanians who own three different cell phones. Six things about Cuban telecommunications that I almost couldn’t believe:
1) How many pay phones there are in Cuba.
2) How many people use those pay phones on a regular basis.
3) How many of those pay phones are out of order.
4) The fact that, first, I actually stood in line to buy a phone card then, second, actually stood in line to use a pay phone.
5) That I’m fairly certain, in hindsight, that most of these phones were covered in urine.
6) That I did this many times, on many different phones.
Obviously, with all the travelling we do it is easy to critique members of the tourist industry, since inevitably there will have been someplace that did it, whatever “it” happens to be, much better. But in Cuba, with their small community of fledgling entrepreneurs who have only been in the game for a handful of years and have probably never been to the other side of Cuba, let alone to another country, examples of people actually doing anything the best way were few and far between. The casa particular owners are definitely the most advanced, probably because they seem to rely on simple, universal tenets of hospitality – friendliness, cleanliness, helpfulness, and eggs in the morning. All of which go a long way. But beyond that it is clear that as a group these are very inexperience business people, often with no idea what foreigners want or expect of them, but working hard to figure it out as they go.
Of course, then there are the government-run organizations (Etecsa, Viazul, Cadeca, etc.), which are simply hopeless.
Private or public, basically any place in Cuba where a person sits behind a desk will be lined up out the door.
While we did not see a large amount of visible poverty (although we did spend most of our time in the likely more affluent tourist areas), it does seem as though scarcity of goods and lack of supply are still very much a factor. We didn’t see a single grocery store or confectionery that fits the common Western definition, and the ones we did see had barely enough product to make their shelves look useful. And, of course, were generally lined up out the door.
There is something about Cuban music I like better than the music in Mexico or other Latin American countries. It is probably all about the bass.
Baseball is huge in Cuba, regularly turning poor, cocky farm kids into rich, cocky defectors playing in the big leagues. Unfortunately, our visit coincided with Cuban playoffs, which not only did not feature teams from any of the cities we visited but, I soon learned, is also a bit of a sore point to ask people about.
Finally, something Cuba has in common with everyone else. Regardless of what kind of weather you get, it is always El Niño’s fault.
If you try to flag down a taxi that is already full, he will signal this to you with a motion that most closely resembles the gentle cupping and kneading of another man’s testicles.
What we expected
A vibrant, sunny island proudly demonstrating a peculiar cultural mix of boisterous Latin America and relaxed Caribbean island life. Maybe with some lingering examples of quaint Western communism, a lot of cool old cars, and more Castro and Ché Guevara paraphernalia than you can shake an overpriced Cohiba at.
What we found
A captivating world different in so many ways than any place we’ve ever been. A place literally rooted in decades past. For example, horses still make up a significant portion of the traffic, even in downtown Havana, and it is only recently that it became (somewhat) legal for people to actually sell a vehicle (hence, streets filled with cars that Humphrey Bogart once drove).
Anyway, as I’ve already discussed, Cuba certainly involved its share of complications, but on the other hand there aren’t many places left where you can sit outside on a famous colonial plaza drinking pints of microbrew for $2 each. And despite all the obvious examples of Cuba’s strange methods and old sensibilities, the full scope of just how culturally distinct it really is didn’t actually hit home until we were on the bus pulling into Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and found ourselves marvelling like awestruck country folk at all the bright neon signs, abundantly stocked convenience stores, real car dealerships, glass-fronted shops displaying hundreds (hundreds!) of pairs of shoes for sale, and even passed a bakery that wasn’t lined up down the street. It was at that moment we realized that as much as Cuba may have changed over the past five years, it is still one of the strangest and most unique places we’ve been. And in a world where all places seem to becoming more and more the same, that definitely makes it a place worth exploring beyond the beaches.