A Little Confession… Cuba Gets an “ish” from Me

I have a confession to make about why I rarely mention the eight days I spent in Cuba a year ago … I stayed mum because much of it’s lukewarm. And I steer clear of overtly negative posts on a country or city because travel is so very personal, and I’d hate to steer someone away from visiting Cuba because of a mediocre review from me. So hear me out, because a lot of people might not agree with this, but I will probably not travel back to Cuba—and definitely not while the US embargo is in place.

Earlier in the year I met my travel buddy, Louise, in Cuba for a week of fun—it was totally legit for her to go, she’s South African. For me, an American, it was a bit trickier and I felt some general malaise and anxiety for the several weeks leading up to my trip.

"Streets

But that was all just the fear of my government, repercussions, fines, lying, people being angry with me. I’m a tiny bit of a goody-goody deep inside.

I abide by the rules, so Cuba was huge for me.

And I’d love to say government restrictions is the reason I don’t plan to go back to Cuba, but that’s only part of it.

I didn’t absolutely love sum total whole of my experiences as I sorted through the memories on the flight out of Cuba. I was sitting in the cramped, nearly antique airplane with a mere foot of legroom, my head cocked sideways because of the planes curvature, and it struck me that I felt relatively ho-hum about it all.

I had just dropped nearly a thousand dollars in Cuba and yet never felt like I was able to get under the country’s superficial tourist exterior. And I really thought I would before I left.

I wasn’t going to a resort so Louise and I stayed at casa particulares, family run guesthouses, throughout our stay. We were there with the locals, and yet so clearly on the tourist path controlled by the government.

Cuba Viva Fidel

At times I felt like the experience was a well orchestrated government-run show where so many of the locals were smiling and friendly but they were cautious too, watching their words and keeping a physical distance.

They were very friendly but not always open.

And that’s out of fear. The touristy areas of Havana and other city centers are closely monitored and all of my interactions were, well, orchestrated. The police keep tabs on the tourists, the tourist restaurants, the tourist taxis and the locals fear getting overly friendly because of the possible harsh repercussions.

I feel like I could have done Cuba better, that there is another side to this country that I just couldn’t see and touch because I was a CUC-carrying  tourist. The CUC, the convertible peso, is the tourist currency in Cuba and main currency non-Cubans are encouraged to use; it’s stronger than the US dollar and the vast majority of tourist transactions and money exchanges use the CUC. On the beaten path tourist travel in Cuba is tightly controlled by the government and when you hand a local a CUC it is then given back to the government in the way of hefty licensing fees to operate a tourist-centric business (cabbies, busses, guesthouses, restaurants).

La Habana Vieja, Cuba

The local currency, on the other hand, the Cuban peso, is remarkably cheaper and works outside the tourist channels.

Which we got our hands on some pesos a few days into traveling within the country. With my passable Spanish, (much better now but merely passable at the time) I convinced a pizza vendor at one of the street-side hole-in-the-wall shops (literally a hole in the wall looking out over the cobblestone street) to deliver my change in pesos instead of the initial CUC he had handed to me.

Cuba got a whole lot cheaper on the peso, and a lot more fun.

I wish we had changed some money into the peso on the very first day because we were welcomed a bit more warmly at the establishments that dealt in pesos. The peso was our ticket into the other side of Cuba, and on the other side of Cuba the interactions were less constrained. Less fear perhaps?

I just wish more of the experience had been like that.

Cuban man with a cigar, TrinidadOur salsa teacher Doors of the world, Trinidad, Cuba style.

The “ish” side of this comes from the fact that I felt like there were few opportunities for me to really set off and explore. The government controls were effective in keeping me right on the line all the other travelers frequent.

A fellow traveler rented a car and drove the length of Cuba over several weeks and thus stayed in the tiny towns and ate at small local spots—surely she saw an intriguingly different side of Cuba from my experiences.

I would love to go back one day in the hopes of perhaps finding a less sanitized version.

Here’s the thing, this isn’t necessarily a post on “is it ethical to travel to Cuba?” though I didn’t love the fear and caution exhibited by the locals. Moreso this has to do with my lasting impression leaving. I went with the expectation that I could give money into the hands of the locals since I wasn’t staying at a resort and instead traveling through several Cuban cities albeit via the tourist bus/tourist taxis. That expectation never materialized and I ask myself, “how do I overlook the fact that I spent a huge sum of money and most of it went through the tourist channels to support the current government?” I have traveled in other communist countries and it just wasn’t the same experience, I was able to go local and not feel like Big Brother was watching me every moment.

The Malecon in Havana, Cuba

I guess more than anything I’m confused. Though I may go back some day in the future, I can’t wholly explain why I didn’t enjoy traveling in Cuba. I loved the salsa dancing (even though watching me dance salsa is akin to witnessing a spasming fish gasp for one last breath on land), the people were friendly and welcoming, the country is beautiful. There are many elements of my trip that I loved and enjoyed, just not what it all added up too.

Does that make any sense? What are your experiences in Cuba and would you ever travel there?

Heading to Cuba?

Check out A Little Adrift’s guide to responsible travel in Cuba

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87 Responses to A Little Confession… Cuba Gets an “ish” from Me

  1. Shannon September 27, 2016 at 2:53 pm #

    I realize this is coming quite a bit late after the original posting (and comments, too), but I came across this when looking for similar exit opinions to mine. I just got back from 10 days backpacking in Cuba, and right now it is September 2016, so the relations with the US have eased slightly. (For the record I am also American, but I am a permanent resident of Canada, and read enough before going to feel confident that it wasn’t too big of an offense to travel there.) I experienced many of the same feelings you did…like “meh” and “ish”, and the same confusion about how the country really works. However, even though we got ourselves some pesos, we were turned away from using them a time or two (museums) and honestly, the logic made sense…the dirt cheap prices should be for the people who are a part of the system. And what’s more, in some places, the CUC and peso prices were the same. But at the same time, it felt so strange, as you say, to be kept at a distance from “real” Cuba, and to feel like our spending (which was pretty expensive for us, since the CUC is tied to the US dollar and we were converting from CAD which was not in our favor) was not stimulating an economy that the people could profit from.

    HOWEVER, the most challenging part was the locals actually being TOO much, in our case. We felt like walking ATMs. We were approached a lot, mostly for taxis, or we were cat-called to no end. (We were two women traveling). We didn’t feel like the locals would be at all in trouble talking to us. In fact, in Havana, on two separate occassions, a couple would approach us, tell us there was a “free salsa festival” and that they would lead us there, and would continue talking to us until we got uncomfortable enough to try to shake them off. We have no idea where they would have lead us, but we had some other travelers tell us to be weary of people telling us there is a festival, because there wasn’t any salsa festival, or cigar festival…these were scams to give these people tips or something. We were also approached for change or cash on the street, for soap, clothes… and never did I once feel like anyone in the government was watching.

    So perhaps certain things have changed since you’ve been there, but this was by far the weirdest travel experience I have ever had. It wasn’t bad, as you said, we enjoyed the beaches and did have some great conversations with people once we got passed them trying to milk us for money. But from what I saw, the Cubans are a desperate, isolated people, aching to be part of a world that only comes to them in the form of white tourists, which is pretty depressing. I would be depressed, too.

    • Shannon O'Donnell September 29, 2016 at 12:05 am #

      Wow, it sounds like a lot has changed for the Cubans, but it’s having some blowback as the country opens. It must have been frustrating and disheartening to be seen as a walking ATM. I have been in other places in the world were I felt that way, and it’s hard to overlook it when you’re forced to constantly be on the offensive. It’s interesting that it was easy to get the pesos. I understand that museums would push for tourists using the CUC. The only place I was really able to spend my pesos was on things like street food and the such.

      For a nation that has been under such tight control, there is bound to be a long adjustment period as large wealth disparities start to appear when more tourists descend. You have me intrigued to return one day and see how things have changed. Thank you for sharing your own experiences there. It’s so interesting to hear what just six years has done to the tourism industry, as well as the Cuban people.

      I am heartened to hear that you still enjoyed aspect of the trips and came away with good memories alongside the others. Like you, I loved aspects of it, but other parts were hard to reconcile with expectations for a tourism experience.

  2. naamnlqheem October 20, 2015 at 5:25 pm #

    I’m Cuban. Thanks God I don’t live there anymore. Cubans are too stressed out about survival. Food, destroyed houses, transportation, constant surveillance from the political police. They don’t really care about being warm or friendly anymore. Most of the population wants to leave the country.

    • Shannon O'Donnell October 21, 2015 at 1:20 am #

      I got the sense of that when I was there and it was very hard to enjoy the show the government orchestrates for the tourists knowing the locals feel that way. Thanks for weighing in on this piece.

  3. Claudia Luxembourg May 21, 2015 at 4:06 pm #

    You know, Shannon, I really enjoyed your post. It is perhaps the first time I read someone being so honest about Cuba. I remember before I went there, reading hundreds of blogs and commentaries, all expressing enthusiasm for the country and the people. Don’t get me wrong. I loved it too, and I would love to go back. But I did not find those loving, warm, people that were described. I literally just felt… like a CUC. Do I make sense? There was no way of scraping the surface and finding out what the real Cuba is. There was no way to interact with the locals other than for business transactions. And mind you, I do speak very good Spanish!

    • Shannon O'Donnell May 21, 2015 at 5:30 pm #

      I know exactly what you mean Claudia, the interactions hinged on being tourists and spending money, from the locals there was also very little push for deeper conversations. It was a tricky place to get under the skin and find people willing to talk about their lives, the issues in their lives, and the deeper nuances of their culture.

      • Claudia Luxembourg May 22, 2015 at 3:33 am #

        I would love to share with you a post I wrote for another blog. Nothing massive, but it talks about the love/hate relationship I have with Cuba. Mind you, it took me a lot of effort to be “kind” and keep a balanced perspective and not use bad words! I will send you via email if that is ok :)

  4. Amanda Jane Walters February 21, 2014 at 2:34 am #

    This is very interesting as I felt very similarly towards Cuba. We were fortunate to meet some lovely Cuban women who were amazing at salsa dancing. I approached them in the square to see if they could teach my friend and I. They told us that if they are seen speaking to tourists they can get into trouble by the police. Anyway as we had built up a rapport they wanted to teach us. They took us to their very small one room home and we had to walk 10m behind them so it didn’t appear that we were with them. Once inside we had to shut the door even though it was scorchingly hot. Only then did they relax and they gave us the salsa lesson of a lifetime. Such amazing women. The whole family were introduced to us and they were very kind and warm people. But as soon as that door opened at the end … We were sneaked out and had to again follow behind. The people of Cuba when you get under its skin are amazing…but unfortunately it’s not a side that is easy to see.

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 23, 2014 at 1:42 am #

      Hat similar experiences! And I am sorry that it is that pervasive in the country… After many of the commentors noted that they had more open conversations with many people, I had hoped it was isolated. How fun was the salsa though! It was one of the experiences I was so glad to have to the country. :)

  5. Maximuz May 12, 2013 at 11:39 am #

    Awesome post. I don’t feel so bad that I can’t go. While you’re right in not wanting to be too negative, there is a lot of realism and true expectations in negative posts. :) I still however hope to go some day.

    • ShannonOD May 13, 2013 at 10:33 am #

      My friends who blog at Neverending Voyage (http://www.neverendingvoyage.com)
      just got back and they generally really enjoyed it, so it’s good to keep your dream — you may go and love it there! :)

  6. Nilda September 10, 2012 at 6:57 pm #

    I am cuban, fled the country when I was three. I completely agree with your feelings. I hear so many tourists talk about their wonderful experiences in Cuba….but the truth is, they are not experiencing the real Cuba. I haven’t been back there for the same reasons you state….I don’t want to support a communist government that gives nothing back to the people with my money. But I have many Cuban friends that still have to go there to visit their families which are trapped there. The people that live there have nothing to eat, no medicine, nothing. My friends have to take everything…medicine, coffee, soap, clothing, bare necessities and half of it is taken by the police when they arrive. Young girls prostitute themselves for a pair of jeans or a decent meal.
    I’m glad you wrote this article. Tourists need to know that their money does not make life better for the locals…only the government….and that the Cuba they are seeing is NOT the real Cuba the locals are living. Sad but true.

    • ShannonOD September 11, 2012 at 9:03 pm #

      Hi Nilda, like you, so many of the other travelers have raved about it — and I do know that experiences for travelers can really vary depending on how controlling the government is being that year, but it comes down to a sum total of control and repression spanning decades. It’s hard to overlook that. Thank you for weighing in, one of my Cuban friends shares your sentiments and does not have any desire to return, knowing what his family went through to get out.

  7. Ava Apollo April 25, 2012 at 11:34 am #

    I didn’t think about how much it might matter to use local currency.  It was interesting seeing how much your experience changed after you switched! 

    • ShannonOD April 26, 2012 at 4:18 am #

      It’s intriguing how different it can be just a block off of the more touristed restaurants in the cities I visited! The more I ponder back on my visit to Cuba, the more I think I’d like to go back and try again! :)

  8. Horizon Pacific Vacations December 23, 2011 at 12:44 pm #

    Thank you so much for your post. Obviously everyone can walk away from a country with their own opinions on what they experienced.  It is nice to hear an honest opinion without simply bashing their experience. I agree though there are so many amazing countries to travel to and to experience.  So if its something you didn’t walk away from with a huge smile on your face, is it something you want to spend time and money to do again?  Thanks for you honest opinion.  

    • Anonymous December 23, 2011 at 10:14 pm #

      I don’t quite understand the bashing people do either :-/  I realize my experience was so highly personal that all I can do it share what I saw; and for what it’s worth, I would return to Cuba again one day if the opportunity arose! Cheers and thanks for weighing in on this  :)

  9. cherrysberries July 9, 2011 at 8:33 pm #

    Sorry that you didn’t have an enjoyable experience. Do you think you’ll return and give it another chance?

    I came back from Cuba with mixed feelings – there were parts that
    I liked and disliked. While I enjoyed my time there and stayed with
    locals too (so glad to hear you avoided the resorts) … I came away
    feeling sad upon seeing the poverty and harsh reality of their every day life.

    • Anonymous July 10, 2011 at 2:54 pm #

      I do think I will go back someday, particularly if I am with someone else
      who really wants to visit. I don’t have an overwhelming urge to visit right
      now, there are so many places I would love to visit for the first time, but
      I would definitely go back and give it a second chance :) Glad you had
      elements you loved from your visit as well!

  10. Dina VagabondQuest July 9, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

    I haven’t been there even though keep planning on going there. I want to see what a communist country looks like. It might be selfish for me to want to inspect the living in a communist country (including the government projects and propaganda) while the people is suffering from it, but while I want to visit the country before the change happen, I also wish the change will indeed happen in the near future for the best of the people.

    • Anonymous July 10, 2011 at 2:56 pm #

      I definitely recommend that you go and visit the country if you’ve always
      wanted to. That being said, some of the other communist countries feel
      differently in my opinion. Cuba was unique, perhaps because it is so small
      and thus easier for high levels of control. :)

  11. mackenzie101 June 28, 2011 at 10:39 am #

    I am always suprised when I hear someone say that they did not love Cuba. My husband and I were there for 3 weeks over Dec 2009-Jan 2010 and neither of us can wait to go back, even with the epic travel time to get there from Australia. It is one of my two all time favourite countries.
    Not once did I feel that my experience was “manufactured” from a tourist guide and never did I think I was being watched by the police or the government. In fact without the ability to speak or understand any Spanish at all we still had amazing interactions with the locals, even to the point of being invited into random houses to dance with a family. Every person we met was very open about their thoughts on the government and what they thought about the country, the politics etc.
    I was carrying around nearly $20,000 worth of camera gear and not once did I fear being robbed or in danger.
     We even had dinner one night with someone who fought with Che and Fidel in the Sierra Miestro.
    We managed to travel most of the country with the exception of the Vinniales area.
     We did a huge amount of research before we went and I wonder if that helped our positve experience.
    While we were there we met some other travellers also from Australia and they had a totally different experience to us and hated Cuba.
    I cant wait to go back, hopefully at the end of this year if all goes to plan. And that in itself is unusual because we generally dont go back to the same place as there is so much of the world we still want to see.
    I am a bit worried that we could have a totally different experience next time and come away not liking Cuba, but I really hope not!!
    Happy Travels

    • Anonymous June 28, 2011 at 5:31 pm #

      So glad to hear you really enjoyed Cuba, I know the feedback from others was
      really polarized on that front, and really and truly just could have been a
      fluke of when we were there (terrible storm for the whole week) and who we
      happened to encounter. I do actually have some good memories of Cuba, it was
      an endlessly intriguing country to observe and think about, I just don’t
      think I was able to get under its skin…

      That being said, you have me intrigued some more, it’s definitely a place
      I’ve put on my “to be reconsidered in the future list,” if a friend wanted
      to go, I would give it a second shot :) Enjoy planning your travels!
      http://hereishavana.wordpress.com is a great site of a woman living there if
      you need any tips, she’s in love with the country and people and could
      surely offer some advice for some more fun things to do, see, and
      experience!

  12. Abi March 2, 2011 at 9:02 am #

    It’s a shame when you travel somewhere, anywhere, and feel like that. But it seems to happen to everyone. I had a really “ish” time in India. For my part, when I went to Cuba I found some things strange (the high cost, once a day bus that was obviously designed to keep tourists where the authorities could keep an eye on them…) but actually found the people incredibly chatty and approachable. There was rather less to do than I had imagined, so I ended up going for long walks or sitting around the casa particular chatting or dancing. (I was forced into both, honest!) Even though my Spanish was bad, it was passable, and it didn’t seem to deter anyone from talking…So I suppose I’m agreeing with Faraz’s comments. Maybe there was some friction because you’re from the US – or maybe it was just one of those things.

    • Anonymous March 3, 2011 at 5:34 am #

      Thanks for weighing in Abi – the diversity of opinions in the responses have
      really highlighted how personal each of our travel experiences have been.
      Not sure when you went, but in some towns I saw the tourism industry picking
      up, with day trips out of Trinidad to surrounding areas, horse treks, that
      sort of thing. As for India, you’re not the first to mention that India
      didn’t quite jive with you, the people you meet, time of year, all of that
      can have such an incredible effect on the experience! Glad you enjoyed your
      trip to Cuba though, outside of the costs! :)

  13. Katrina February 23, 2011 at 10:00 am #

    Hi, Shannon!

    I appreciate your honesty. I also appreciate the fact that you wanted more than a resort-based experience. I enjoy both rough travel and luxury/tourist-oriented stuff, but probably would have picked up on the same reticence in the residents (resident reticence? ;) that you did even if doing the resort thing.

    On my blog I strive to focus on the amusing (and bemusing) parts of travel, so I have a different focus than many travel bloggers. There are a few countries/regions I’ve been avoiding because I would not know what to say to be both honest and upbeat! And yeah, at least one of them is a ‘holy grail’ destination for many travelers.

    Also, I totally, totally get the mix of middle finger plus stealth rule follower. I’m in the process of applying for dual citizenship. This excites me to no end precisely because I can continue to give the middle finger and also enjoy benefits that I previously could not — all while *following the rules.* Oh, the madness!

    Very articulate post. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Anonymous February 25, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

      Thanks for weighing in and sharing your thoughts Katrina – I completely
      understand the your reticence to post some of the more serious and
      potentially negative thoughts on you blog since your audience is really
      coming there for a bit more light hearted and fun. Even on my site I took
      some pause to ponder how it would be received.

      Have to say, I am *completely* jealous that you qualify for
      dual citizenship…that’s one of my dreams, to find a way (marriage?!) to
      finagle dual passports so that I can **cough, cough** visit some alternative
      destinations – and even legal places. Two passports will undoubtedly make
      traveling in the Middle East a lot easier if you head there! Good luck with
      that, I won’t tell a soul ;-)

  14. Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 8:58 am #

    Just saw this comment :) Thanks Andi xoxo

  15. Ekua February 2, 2011 at 6:09 am #

    I’ve recently been writing about the less than stellar time I had in India, and it’s been kind of nerve-racking. I know people from India who could potentially see my blog and get upset and it also seems like a lot of people don’t like to read travel stories that are not peppy and verge on being controversial. But in the end, I can’t not write about that trip and I can’t not be honest about it!

    When I was in Havana, at times I felt that people were very reserved, even when I was completely on my own and blended in with the locals. My next stop was Vinales for three days, and that was really enough time to peel some of the layers off. A lot of people were friendly from the beginning, and after a day or so, people were actually pretty open, even about taboo subjects like tourism in Cuba. I think what might throw people off in Cuba is that opposed to a lot of other tropical third world places, people aren’t in your face because you’re a tourist. By the end, I actually appreciated it the genuineness of my encounters with people there.

    • Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 8:47 am #

      India really is a touchy subject for a lot of travelers so I can see how touching on that would make you nervous – it’s touted as the holy grail of travel destinations, but in truth, it’s a country that you either love or hate from my experience. You have to stay true to your experiences though because the reality is that you are certainly not the only one to travel to India to mediocre results, so sharing that is key, it helps mitigate expectations for future travelers. :)

      So pleased to know that you were able to dig a bit deeper into the Cuban culture in your visit there, I would have loved to talk more in depth with the casa owners about their thoughts…perhaps next time if I ever make it back! Thanks for sharing your thoughts Ekua :)

  16. Amanda Williams January 31, 2011 at 3:05 am #

    Great post! I don’t think you should have worried about giving Cuba a “bad” review. Most people, I think, understand that travel preferences are different for everybody. I enjoyed reading about your experiences and disappointments. And, after reading this, is sounds like a traveler’s perceptions of Cuba probably depend a lot upon their expectations of it going in. You were hoping to make real connections with the locals, which obviously didn’t happen. But if someone else went there wanting to hit up the resorts and soak up the sun on the beach, I’ll bet they wouldn’t be as “ish” about it. But, that’s why some people love certain countries and others hate them!

    • Anonymous February 7, 2011 at 11:23 am #

      Thanks Amanda. You are spot on about the expectations playing a role in it – I am not a resort traveler really, so that wasn’t high on my list, but I had also gotten a lot of the recommendations from vacationers – whoops! :) I think it’s a place you really do need to see first hand if you’ve ever wanted to visit!

  17. leslie January 28, 2011 at 8:19 pm #

    Interesting post. I’m glad you shared your perspective on Cuba, even though it wasn’t glowing. I’ve been to places that others praise and had a similar reaction. I’ve never been to Cuba but was a Spanish major in college and read Cuban literature by contemporary authors. I’d love to experience it in person.

    • Anonymous February 7, 2011 at 11:20 am #

      I think that if you’ve always wanted to go that it’s definitely work checking out first hand and experiencing the culture outside of the cities – that might be the key, to get out of the city and go to the smaller and thus less touristy towns (bonus that you speak Spanish, that’s imperative!) :)

  18. Andrea and John January 28, 2011 at 8:18 pm #

    Really enjoyed this. I had no idea about the tourism orchestrations you described. Having never been there, I can’t tell you about my experience. But reading this does make me less inclined to visit. I have spoken to people who have experience with Cubans or who have visited and they described the same “hushed whispers” mentality (and actually speaking in hushed whispers) that you describe. It’s a shame, really. I lived in Miami for four years and really got to know quite a few Cuban-Americans…lovely people with a great culture.

    • Anonymous February 7, 2011 at 11:15 am #

      The thing is, some travelers have really loved it there – and have managed to just meet those right people willing to pull you into their house and share their stories, but on the whole the hushed whispers were really prevalent. I’m from Florida, so like you, I have a handful of Cuban friends and their parents were born over there so the culture is quite strong and as you said, really lovely. :) If the opportunities arise, I would say go and see for yourself, but perhaps don’t put it tops on your list!

  19. Michael Hodson January 28, 2011 at 5:13 pm #

    I don’t think it is bad at all to write a “bad” post about a place you visited. Everyone’s experiences are different in every place and I, for one, hate blogs and magazines where ‘everything is great and rosy and perfect.’ Because it clearly isn’t. I have loved many, many places and really disliked some. In fact, I have written a number of posts about my bad time in Ethiopia, which is a country that most everyone else I know simply loves. I try to be particular about it — I had a bad time, but that doesn’t mean that someone else is going to have a bad time — it was just me writing about my experience. Glad you write this post… though it still seemed like you pulled some punches a bit. I really want to see Cuba BEFORE the embargo is lifted (but my Spanish isn’t good enough right now), because I think that once it is lifted, it is quickly going to change. Probably change a lot for the better, but the chance to see this little bit of history is now. Hope I get there soon — whether I have a good time or not, it will be a unique experience regardless.

    • Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 8:43 am #

      Thanks weighing in Michael, part of my hesitation stemmed from not wanted to be just another American hating on Cuba which is why, like you pointed out, it’s about being particular, saying, look, this is what happened and why. As for visiting – go, if you’re been wanting to it will definitely change vastly once Americans make it a holiday retreat, and a big fear being that some of the wonderful architecture will be destroyed once a lot more US tourism dollars start pouring in…will be intrigued to hear your thoughts once you make it over there! :)

  20. Aly January 25, 2011 at 11:06 pm #

    Interesting post. I appreciate you unwillingness to be entirely negative (because you are right, travel often depends entirely on the traveler)…but I also appreciate your honesty on this post. I have to admit I have been wanting to go to Cuba for some time, but I get such mixed reviews. Some people have loved it, some have loathed it. Your post makes me think that perhaps this split is because there ARE two sides of Cuba, like you mentioned. So perhaps I am getting reviews of two different worlds? Gave me something to think about — thanks!

    • Anonymous January 26, 2011 at 5:00 pm #

      I think you’re right on about the split – and then there’s also the people who go to Cuba very much for the beach resorts and complete packaged experience, they get precisely what they want, stay at the beaches and have an amazing time. That’s not my style of traveling so I was hoping for more, and yes, expecting something different from what I got. But I have heard that renting a car or a motorbike and traveling the country like that is sooo very opposite to what I experienced! Food for thought if you head that way anytime soon! :) Thanks for weighing in on this Aly!

  21. Kim January 23, 2011 at 9:22 am #

    Shannon, I’m with you on what you went through. I experienced a very similar experience on my trip to North Korea (although I wasn’t breaking any laws in going there). There I was in one of the poorest countries in the world being living in “luxury” with all the food that I needed at my disposal and no access to the local currency (or even local shops). It was a totally guided tour – you can’t travel there any other way – complete with the “spook”, but I’m glad I went. There is a huge debate among travelers about being “authentic” and I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to get an “authentic” experience – and that even applies to the places that I’ve lived in for years. I decided to stop worrying about it and enjoy the trip and appreciate the experiences that my hosts provided (which is no more than you would do if you had guests coming to stay and wanted to show them the “best”). In spite of the control I got to see some of North Korea and even more than my hosts would like to have “disclosed”, but you can’t hide everything. Would I go back? Probably not – but I wouldn’t say no if the opportunity arose again.

    • Anonymous February 4, 2011 at 4:07 pm #

      I loved reading about your North Korea travels – it’s one of those places I will likely never see as it is, but it’s fascinating. I’ve heard other accounts from travelers similar to you…there is certainly a VERY controlled aspect to the travel (waaaay more than Cuba) but yet you are getting a small window into the culture no matter how structured the visit. Thanks for sharing Kim, my thoughts on N.. Korea are the similar to echo you said, not looking for a way to go, but maybe wouldn’t say no… :)

  22. Anil January 22, 2011 at 5:50 pm #

    I quite enjoyed this post Shannon – I can imagine the controls made it difficult to find your ‘travel groove’.

    Sometimes you go somewhere and things don’t click but I like hearing the perspective, especially about a place that has so many misconceptions about it.

    • Anonymous January 26, 2011 at 4:48 pm #

      That was one of the difficulties of Cuba – sorting through all of expectations, versus what I was seeing, versus what was actually happening behind the scenes! Thanks for weighing in Anil :)

  23. Anonymous January 22, 2011 at 2:24 am #

    Hi Conner! Thanks for weighing in, and clarifying, I really appreciate your
    opinion and depth of response – I know that in a mere week I wasn’t even
    able to scratch the surface of Cuba.

    I’ll make a clarification in the post about the CUC – I really had no idea
    and before I had left read this information on other blogs (like you said,
    pervasively bad advice) – then the armed guards and surly currency exchange
    booths had me so nervous I didn’t even think to ask!

    Concerning the guest houses, some of the conversations I did manage to get
    out of the taxi drivers and the home-stays was that the fees were enormous
    and do monthly even in the slow seasons, and that this can be difficult to
    pay to the government in the casas that get less business…so in that way I
    found if frustrating to learn that the licensing fees were so high that some
    people had trouble covering them and having anything left over
    (capitalistic perspective on my part no doubt perhaps).

    My expectations (and lack of experience in countries with high levels of
    control) surely impacted my perspective, couple that with a week of your
    epic rains and it just felt “ish”…I plan to read your blog though, and if
    the situation improves wouldn’t mind going back with a more open and
    informed perspective.

    So many thanks for weighing in, I’ll change the misinformation in the post
    :) Cheers and happy weekend!

  24. Leighmcadamtravels January 22, 2011 at 2:14 am #

    I know lots of Canadians that go – if not year after year – then pretty regularly and have nothing in the way of complaints except that the food is mediocre. I have to think that the illegal aspect weighed heavily on you – as it would for me. I’ve never been but have always wanted to see the country by bike. I read Che Guevera’s biography years ago and would like to see some of the places he lived in.
    A week never gives you much of a feel for a place under the best of circumstances so I wouldn’t beat yourself up over your negativity. I’m probably the only person (along with my husband) that hates Tahiti (too frigging hot and very $$$$$). We all ave countries that don’t meet our expectations.

    • Anonymous January 26, 2011 at 4:39 pm #

      A week was definitely not long enough, but yet it would have been so hard to go for longer because it’s so expensive and Americans have to carry in all the cash they’ll need for their stay! But, as you said, it’s hard to really see the country, and having a focus, like seeing places in Che’s life would lend a really interesting focus to the trip, a lens through which to experience the country.

  25. The Constant Complainer January 21, 2011 at 10:03 pm #

    Shannon, Happy Friday. And it’s been a while for me visiting… So Happy New Year, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, etc. I hope this finds you doing well.

    And while Cuba seems interesting, for many of the reasons you mentioned, I’m not in a big hurry to go there. Although the dancing sounds fun though!

    • Anonymous January 26, 2011 at 3:07 pm #

      Thanks for popping back in! Hope your new year is off to a wonderful start as well :) The dancing was a highlight, I learned just precisely why I only dance salsa in the privacy of a dance studio for now! Do you salsa?

  26. Jennifer January 20, 2011 at 9:09 pm #

    Hi Shannon, I know what you mean about not wanting to put up a negative post. I was hesitant to post my ambivalent feelings about Uruguay since so many people love it.

    I don’t think I would go to Cuba while it’s still illegal as a US citizen. It seems like too much hassle. I hope the embargo is lifted when Fidel dies because it’s stupid. There are plenty of Latin countries I haven’t been to yet that I don’t have a great desire to go to Cuba.

    • Anonymous January 26, 2011 at 4:24 pm #

      It’s a tricky line to walk, when you know there’s the potential to enjoy a place, but yet at the same time had a different experience. Like you said, there are still a lot of Latin countries to visit so I won’t be heading back anytime soon, but down the road would consider visiting after the embargo is lifted if the opportunity presented itself, just to see if I could find the other side so many people loved!

  27. Bula January 20, 2011 at 5:26 am #

    An interesting post. I have to agree with you that there is certainly a controlled presentation to tourists to portray a land of prosperity. What I liked about Cuba was that you just had to work that harder to find those little authentic experiences to get a real feel of Cuba. The casa owners were very open about how they relied on tourists for their livelihood. We stayed with a dentist, a lawyer, and a doctor, and all of them stressed how they were barely making any money in those professions. One night when we were stumbling back from a night of dancing salsa in the only — and therefore, extremely touristy — club in Vinales, we walked by a house where an old man was playing the guitar and was flanked by an American couple. They invited us to join them and treated us with aged rum and cured sausage. The man proceeded to tell us about how he used to run a restaurant, and how proud he had been of his business. Then, the government caught whiff of it (as it wasn’t government-sanctioned) and closed it down. He has never been able to get over the pain of losing it. He spent the whole night telling us about life in Cuba and serenading us. It has been one of my favourite experiences. In Cienfuegoes, we met some locals who took us to a club that only locals frequented, and we spent all night drinking extremely cheap peso beer and experiencing a different side of the culture. I can think of countless experiences: getting accosted by prostitutes, watching Cubans pile into the back of trucks to get to cities, standing for hours in a line at the local ice cream palor, Coppelia. I agree that there is heavy surveillance, but as the hysterical man on the street told us “In Havana, there are two million people. One million of them are the police.” I have to say that Cuba was one of the most interesting places I have been too, and besides Korean, one of the last truly communist countries. That’s quickly changing, so I think it’s definitely worth going to see the country.

    • Bula January 20, 2011 at 5:28 am #

      Also, where did you go when you were there? I really wish I had seen even more of the country.

      • Bula January 20, 2011 at 5:30 am #

        Also, whoops. I meant North Korea, not Korean. I will stop inundating your wall with posts now.

    • Anonymous February 1, 2011 at 5:51 pm #

      Sorry for the delayed reply, I appreciate that you put out such a thoughtful comment and you own experiences in the country. I love the nuances of your experiences in Cuba, it sounds like you were able to cross paths with some very open locals and see a side of the culture I flat out missed while I was there. I didn’t have a ton of time in the country because I was limited on funds, so my week was barely long enough to find the small towns and tiny side streets with locals willing to share their stories.

      My experience was also directly affected by the fact that I knew I was traveling through a communist country and didn’t quite like some of the realities I was facing (doctors running cabs at night to make ends meet) so it’s interesting that it’s for this precise reason you recommend going. Throw in the 6 days of continuous rain and a handful of friendly casa owners who were soooo nice, but also cautious, and it all just frustrating. I went to Trinidad and Havana (also popped into Coppelia several times!) and had planned to go to other Vinales as well but was stopped by the rain.

      There were a myriad of reasons for the -ish and stories like yours are precisely why I left it open and noted that I still think people may enjoy a visit, but I had some personal hesitations on returning.

      Thanks for sharing – also interested in when you went? I know that travel there in the early 2000’s was a bit more lax than in the past couple of years, where controls are tightening back down again…

  28. Anonymous January 20, 2011 at 12:51 am #

    I never knew Cuba restricted things like that. It’s a place I’ve always fancied visiting though. You should write about your negative experiences too. The world isn’t rosey everywhere and it’s nice to know this. Also the truth stops random speculation, and people guessing what it’s like; whether that is positive or negative.

    • Anonymous January 22, 2011 at 2:05 am #

      Thanks for the support Rob, and you should definitely still considering visiting – if anything you will likely go a lot more open to the experience too. I had some expectations set, and like you said, speculations that hadn’t been answered, so a lot of the control came as a surprise. I’ll be intrigued to hear about your experiences when you make it there! :)

  29. Corinne @ Degustinations January 19, 2011 at 10:00 am #

    I’m interested in seeing Cuba but I’m not sure that I’d go there in a hurry. I’ve been to places where you feel the surveillance or even out of place so I can relate to what you’re saying. I wonder if it’s the same for any visitor or just for those from the US.

    • Anonymous January 22, 2011 at 2:03 am #

      Definitely not just US citizens – in fact, there was very little delineation between the westerners, tourists are tourists and I was actually really surprised to see that the block truly is one-sided, Cuba wants American tourism!

  30. Ivy J. January 19, 2011 at 12:07 am #

    I guess that’s what you get when a country is so infested with government surveillance. Don’t you just hate when your travel experience feels so fake? It’s like losing the whole point of the trip. It’s sad that people are so influenced by politics, I imagine Cubans would be extremely friendly and outgoing normally…

    • Anonymous January 22, 2011 at 2:01 am #

      They really are! And I did manage to have some fantastic conversations throughout my week there to be sure, but I just wasn’t prepared for the amount of government infused into everyday life over there.

  31. Connerg January 18, 2011 at 12:11 pm #

    Hello from Havana! My name is Conner, Ive lived here for 9 years as a journalist. The good news is, you’re not alone – a lot of people feel “bleh” or “ish” about Cuba. One of the reasons – as you point out – is it’s so damn expensive. Its also complex and there’s a lot of misinformation out there, some of which is repeated in your post.

    This one gets me bc its an oft-repeated error: “the convertible peso, is the tourist currency in Cuba and is the only currency non-Cubans are technically allowed to use.” Totally false. non Cubans are allowed to use pesos cubanos just like any cuban (and any cuban can use CUC). You change your dollars or CUC for them in ANY money exchange (Cadeca). What can you use these for? Food, movies, some concerts, cigars, beer. You just have to know where to go to use them.

    One thing I always counsel people when coming here is do your research. Some of the misconceptions you had (that you would be putting $$ directly into locals pockets by staying in their homes; the money issue) would have been dispelled with a bit of research. Do you know how much good you did by staying in those peoples’ homes? At least for their families? I don’t know how you equate running a guesthouse with govt control – these folks host voluntarily, of course, paying the subsequent taxes to do so (PS – everyone lives virtually rent free here – no mortgage on that guesthouse!)

    Also, a good way to track the expectations with the reality is to write down everything you expect to find in Cuba before you actually come here and then keep a journal while here to see how the expectations measure up. Finally, for anyone who can’t speak Spanish at a conversational level, Cuba will be a different experience. Sucks, but that’s the way it is.

    Im sorry you had this experience – I probably wouldn’t come back either. Hopefully with all the changes a foot, things will improve!

    If you have any inclination to revisit the island virtually from an “insider-ish” POV, my blog is http://www.hereishavana.wordpress.com

  32. Brianna January 18, 2011 at 3:18 pm #

    This is a negative point for Cuba but it always helps to be honest. You never know what will come out of your honesty. Maybe some of the Cuban representatives will read this and will resolve to make it better. I myself also don’t understand why the Cuban government would be so tight fisted to their people. Anyway, don’t worry, if I have the chance to visit the place, I still will.

    • Anonymous January 22, 2011 at 1:58 am #

      I’m glad I haven’t dissuaded you from traveling there! There really are beautiful aspects to the experience and you may really jive with the place, and the locals. It was surprising more than anything to arrive and see the sheer level of control, perhaps if I had known beforehand I would have gone prepared to overcome that hurdle better. :) You’ll have to let me know your thoughts once you go!

  33. Ayngelina January 18, 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    Definitely a tough post to write as so many people rave about Cuba.

    In the end I’m sure there are a lot of people who felt similarly to you. I haven’t been yet but it’s good to keep realistic expectations that I may not get the experience I’m looking for.

    • Anonymous January 22, 2011 at 1:53 am #

      And perhaps more than anything you if you go you can consider that you might have to really make a point to go off the track – that’s what a lot of people in the comments here have noted, that you have to get out of Havana and the city centers!

  34. Audrey January 18, 2011 at 11:19 am #

    It’s always best to be true to what you felt and your experiences. That’s what blogging is about – we all have different experiences and feeling about a place. We visited in 2007 for ten days and had a really great time. I’m wondering if our timing might have helped through – it was still possible to exchange dollars for pesos easily and we never dealt with CUC (it was either dollars or pesos). Although even with pesos it was hard to find anything to buy sometimes – I remember eating lots of those pizzas as they were some of the only things for sale that we could buy! Even though our visit was during one of Castro’s “take it easy” moods (it ended shortly after we left with lots of imprisonments) and people were mostly really outgoing, you could still feel a bit of the tension from time to time as people would warn you that there were undercover police around. However, we never were offered tours or activities by any of the casa particulares, which makes me wonder if the tourism trade has gotten more “sophisticated” in the last years. One of our most memorable experiences was when we got stuck in Baracoa with no availability on the tourist buses and had to take a local train to Havana from Guantanamo to catch our flight – made us realize there was more of the country and culture to explore. I’d be curious to return and see how it is now and whether my perspective has changed.

    • Anonymous January 22, 2011 at 2:14 am #

      With the CUC and the money it brings into the country (it’s valued above the US $ and a 10% charge for exchanging US $) could explain some of the tours and the such – I wouldn’t put the level of packaged tours on par with many countries, but there is definitely a palpable tourism industry in many cities now. Your experience sounds so intriguingly different in just the span of a couple of years…there’s no doubt if I went back I would really dig deeper and go more local, I think the week I was there I was just too affronted by the control and shiny veneer (and absolute crap weather) to figure out how to get around it all! I’d also be intrigued to hear your thoughts if you go back! Thanks for sharing your experiences Audrey :)

      • Audrey January 28, 2011 at 5:23 pm #

        Just realized I messed up the dates of our visit! We visited in the spring of 2003 – can’t believe it’s been that long! I would love to go back sometime in the near future to visit areas we missed last time and to see changes (good and bad).

  35. zablon mukuba January 18, 2011 at 7:04 am #

    Cuba sounds like a place with tight restrictions, and i dont think i would be able to enjoy it

    • Anonymous January 22, 2011 at 1:51 am #

      There is a lot of freedom as a tourist, you barely notice the controls unless you look closely at the situation. But traveling in places with those types of controls can really alter the experience!

  36. Faraz Shibli January 18, 2011 at 2:38 am #

    I’m sad to read you didn’t feel you had an authentic Cuban experience. But I’m not sure what you mean when you write that there were few opporunities for you to explore due to government controls.

    I visited Cuba a few years ago from the UK and my impression was that, despite the heavy reliance Cubans have on their tourism industry, there were many authentic experiences to be had — both inside and outside Havana. If you walk around a lot, you can find some streets away from the main tourist areas in Havana where you won’t see many tourists at all and can grab a meal with locals. Kick around a football with schoolchildren in the park. If you felt the locals acted with fear and caution and you had to leave Havana for an authentic experience, you needn’t necessarily rent a car. Take a bus to a smaller, lesser known town away from the capital and walk around or rent a bike there and get to grips with the place. Go up a town clocktower, smoke a cigar, have a Bucanero beer and catch some great views of the Cuban countryside. Find a willing guide and explore the countryside on horseback. Visit smalltown local art galleries and bars where you won’t find many tourists but can try to fumble through a salsa with the locals nonetheless. None of these things are especially expensive either.

    Because Havana in particular is so geared up for tourism, I appreciate it’s hard to see the authentic experience that lies a fair way beneath the surface. But perhaps the trick, as with so many tourist-saturated countries in my opinion, is to either (a) get out of the city or (b) stay put and look for things to do that seem untouristy — even ordinary — yet can turn up some of the most authentic and memorable experiences possible.

    Just my $0.02.

    • Anonymous January 18, 2011 at 4:54 am #

      It may have helped that you blended in a bit more, but it went beyond just skin color, although that was an obvious differentiator (I’m undeniably pasty white). I just felt like it was hard to find any taxi not willing to take me right to a licensed guesthouse in the next town, and that the owners of the guesthouse really encouraged us to do precisely what a guidebook would recommend (ie go to the resort beach, take a horseback riding tour). It REALLY didn’t help that it rained heavily 6 of the 8 days I was there, made exploring outside of the tourist restaurants a bit harder.

      I did like Cuba, there are elements that are amazing but I absolutely saw the caution, even when I wandered on the back streets outside of the tourist towns, on the faces of the locals. If caught talking with us they could face jailtime – no joke, and that was evident. Locals talked to me, they salsaed, I had a great time, I just felt like there was an openness missing throughout a lot of the interactions.

      Anyhow, thank you for putting in your two cents, it’s important for anyone who reads the post to see your comment and realize that there are so many varied opinions and experiences to be had! And I am very glad that you managed to find the smaller towns and personal interactions – if I ever make it back I will certainly strive to go a bit more of the tourist path! :)

    • Faraz Shibli January 18, 2011 at 3:00 am #

      In fairness, I should add that I’m non-white and some Cubans either asked if I was Cuban or were openly curious about my background in a friendly way. So, to some extent (but not entirely), I avoided the overly persistent cigar sellers and traditionally-dressed cigar smoking women vying for custom. That said, I was travelling with my girlfriend who is white and British.

  37. Caz January 18, 2011 at 2:04 am #

    I spent 4 days in Havana in 2009 and found exactly the same thing – locals who were afraid to even give directions to tourists, and a general wariness when dealing with foreigners. On the other hand, we also saw a lot of the same old tricks to get money from tourists – the authentically dressed woman with the enormous cigar begging to have her photo taken and then demanding money, and the overly-persistent cigar sellers following you down the street for hundreds of meters. The CUC prices seemed grossly over inflated. That said, it was an amazing trip, a chance to step back in time – the classic cars, crumbling buildings and cigar factories. I’d recommend visiting now before the thawing relations with the US mean Cuba ends up losing all of this character in favour of golden arches and Subway on every corner (even now, contrary to what you might expect, the preferred foreign currency to exchange/pay entry tax at the airport is the USD). Friends who have travelled outside of Havana say that the scenery is well worth a look, but it really helps to speak some Spanish.

    • Anonymous January 18, 2011 at 4:44 am #

      The price of the CUC is off the chain – it my eight days traveling in Cuba some of the most expensive I’ve spent anywhere in the world! I do agree on pretty much all the points you made – there was definitely the attempts to sell things under the table, in Trinidad it wasn’t quite as bad though, I think that there’s a lot of that in Havana and less in other areas. And seconded on the “go before it’s Americanized beyond recognition, would be a shame because seeing those restored older cars is such a lovely part of Cuba.

  38. Anonymous January 18, 2011 at 5:29 am #

    Hmm, we haven’t travelled to Cuba yet, but many of our very close friend have been several times; many for weeks at a time. One of our very good friends lived there for 3 years and runs a bicycle charity there. Everyone tells us constantly that we have to go. I have never heard of the locals being afraid to talk to anyone, I will have to ask them more about this. It is interesting that you felt that way. Maybe it was because you only had a week there and were stuck in the tourist areas? Maybe it was the underlying fear that you said you had about getting into trouble. Maybe it made you look at things in a different way or read into peoples actions. I don’t know, just a guess.
    I certainly understand that each country is different for each individual though. We have loved countries that other people can’t stand and hated ones that everyone loves. That is what our blogs are for though, to share our thoughts and feelings on a country, not someone else’s.

    • Anonymous January 22, 2011 at 1:50 am #

      There is definitely an element of me being very within the tourist channels, and that’s where a lot of the fear is focused. I have heard that there is less control outside of the tourist centers in each of the key cities…unfortunately it was a combination of their very real fear and hesitation to open up and some terrible weather (rained all week) that made it hard to get out of the cities. If it’s a country that’s always intrigued you it’s definitely worth going! :) As you said, travel is so personal that you guys may love it (particularly if you have a friends living there!)

  39. Laura January 18, 2011 at 1:46 am #

    Shannon, I’m so glad you finally wrote about Cuba after all this time! I think it’s worth sharing, as I told you before that I had no idea how controlled the locals’ interactions were with tourists. I would love to go to Cuba, especially to see the architecture, but that feeling that it’s not exactly a ‘genuine Cuban experience’ but rather a ‘genuine tourist in Cuba experience’ is a bit bothersome.

    • Anonymous January 18, 2011 at 4:27 am #

      Thanks for weighing in Laura – I have no doubt you would have an amazing time from the architecture point of view, that would give your trip a clear purpose to meet locals and ask questions…ones that they’d probably answer! I know that genuine is such a hard thing to find, since it’s all there and genuine in its own right, I just wish there had been less fear pointed in my direction.

  40. Brooke vs. the World January 17, 2011 at 11:00 pm #

    Never been, want to go, but I have a feeling I would feel the same — especially with that tiny bit of worry deep down. I think, at this time, Cuba can be a difficult place for us to travel and grasp as real.

    • Anonymous January 18, 2011 at 4:25 am #

      That was part of it, I wondered if there was an element of me just truly not grasping a system so very different than the way the US operates. It’s worth visiting if you’re intrigued to go, definitely. I don’t regret going, the country is flat out gorgeous in areas. :) Thanks for weighing in Brooke!

  41. My Kafkaesque Life January 17, 2011 at 3:18 pm #

    Interesting post. I’ve never been to Cuba, but unlike you, I’m Slovenian and when I was young, they were “our commie allies”, I think I would not walk around there with so many fears like an American citizen, which is the biggest enemy of Cuba since decades. But if I ever make it there, i’ll keep your observations in mind.

    • Anonymous January 18, 2011 at 4:22 am #

      The thing is, it’s not that I was walking around with fears, once I got there I was super safe even as an American, but I was alarmed by the level of fear from the locals – they were not supposed to talk to us so when they did it was very guarded. But, it’s an interesting country and no doubt you learned a lot about it growing up and would enjoy it on several levels I have no relation to. Thanks for weighing in!

  42. Andi Perullo January 17, 2011 at 1:49 pm #

    Oh wow, I was so surprised to read this post! Cuba totally got under my skin when I was there. I might not have had the most authentic experience, but it still was life changing. I’m saddened to hear that you weren’t equally mesmerized. But, well, to each their own!

    • Anonymous January 18, 2011 at 4:21 am #

      I actually wondered what you would think – I know you had such an amazing experience! I would like to go back one day, maybe in the far future and dig deeper :)

      • Andi Perullo January 18, 2011 at 12:22 am #

        You know what I admire about you? Is that even though your 1st experience didn’t live up to expectations, you’re still willing to return and give it a 2nd chance. Love it!