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

Last updated on January 2, 2023

(Story from a trip to Cuba in January 2010)

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. And if I did, it would probably be on an educational Cuba tour where someone helped guide me through the best experiences.

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 of Trinidad, Cuba
There’s no denying that Trinidad holds a certain charm.

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.

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
Beautiful architecture in Havana leaves a strong impression on travelers exploring 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, Trinidad
Our 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?

Don’t forget to book travel insurance for your trip—a great policy provides coverage in case of medical emergencies, lost or stolen gear, adventure sports riders, and more. I’ve used IMG Global for more than a decade highly recommend it!

Cuba Travel Guide

Planning a trip to Cuba? This detailed Travel Guide to Cuba outlines possible routes, nitty-gritty details, and a collection of tips and advice sourced from the ALA community.

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

  1. I traveled to Cuba before the pandemic. I stayed with locals. My comments are based on my actual experiences. Items we take for granted such as deodorant, were limited or not even available. Many facilities and homes lacked simple items such as toilet seats. Towns outside the main cities had stark conditions. I saw billboards with pictures of Fidel or Che that you are watched. I have stayed in touch with families that live in Cuba. Basic items and food are very limited. Things have gotten worse for the common person. I am not being negative. I am not taking political stands etc. This is the truth I experienced. Cuba has beautiful areas that are untouched and not spoiled by extensive commercialism. Please form your opinion on real life experiences.

  2. I feel that Americans have been sold the idea that Communist Cuba is, at the very least, under suspicion. For some reason, they fail to see the aspects of quality of life that are better (for the poor, and possibly the majority) – healthcare, education, gender equality, basic food security, heck even lower environmental degradation – than they are in the US. To preserve this situation in its isolation, Cuba needs to protect itself from the inequalities which differential influxes of dollars would create. When its isolation breaks, it will go the way of Russia – or the USA.

    • No, when you go to Cuba you go to a sovereign country, which decided to be independent. Those dictatorship labels are a sham, there are countries that are very friendly to the United States that commit horrendous crimes, and yet they are classified as democratic, and in the past all dictatorships in Latin America were supported and even created by the United States. Let’s get rid of that old ghost of communism. Cuba is an enemy of the United States by decision and actions of the United States itself. And in any case, the “communist” government of Cuba is in charge of providing the people with all basic services (health, education, basic food basket, etc.), therefore by visiting Cuba you help the people.

  3. As a cuban and witt all due respect Cuba is a dictatorship and the money spent there serves to repress, torture and kill. I bet things dont look that cute from this point of view

    • hahaha this is really funny! Come on please! Here (in Cuba) there are no cases of murdered journalists, there are no cases of murdered opponents (as in democratic Colombia), there are no young people blinded with pellet shots (as in democratic Chile). Be more serious, more rigorous with your words. Kind regards from a peasant engineer, and your fellow countryman!

  4. I travel the world non-stop now for 38 years..been in and out of Cuba. Perhaps stop thinking of what Cuba can do for YOU, and think what you can do for Cuba. I’ve never ever been monitored by military police etc. Absurd!. Next time hook up with charitable groups before you go and help them. I bring medicines to animal rescue groups who have nothing for the many strays of Cuba. Who struggle on their meager salaries to feed the parksfulnof stray cats, etc. Please do not go back to Cuba..they do no want or need you and your selfish, self-centered attitude. Yes you wasted a trip, you could have done something meaningful.

  5. I first came to Cuba in Feb. ’13 under the auspices of a Religious visa with a few buddies who’d been to the island often.
    We hired a car and we’re, as far I could tell, unminded.
    I met a girl the second day and 4 months later we got married. We have 2 kids.
    I retired from work in entertainment in 2016 and worked as a local when “Fast and Furious 8” shot in Cuba.
    I acknowledge that my circumstances are different and I relate to your experience. There are innumerable little things that play a part in having a great trip anywhere and Cuba does miss on many of those little things.
    The embargo and the pandemic are making life more problematic.
    I encourage people to come to Cuba. The people are so welcoming, friendly, and ready with coffee or rum for someone passing by. Knowing some Spanish is helpful and cubañol is a slight mish mash.
    I haven’t been on a tour and can’t speak to that with any credibility.

  6. We spent a week in Havana and Pinar del Rio (a cigar thing) in February 17. Did a two bedroom air b&b in Centro. Two round trips from Ft. Lauderdale and the air bb was just under $500 for both of us.
    Jet Blue handled the visa on the plane for $50.

    We didn’t have a guide or educational premise. We went “people to people”. I did a tremendous amount of research. The best advice I received was to bring toilet paper. And they were correct.

    We brought five suitcases, two which had donatables. Everything from eyeglasses to basic meds and school supplies, which was the best. Nothing like seeing a bunch of kids light up with marble pads, pens, pencils and crayons (our fav pic is with the kids).

    Anyway, we bonded well with the locals at one of their bars/recording studio next door. I’m sure the money didn’t hurt either.

    We ventured out on our own with a rough plan each day and night. We slept when we got back. Local bars, jazz, cigars and beautiful people. You can see the struggle in their faces. I get the fact that most of our money spent goes to the gvmt. That being said there are things you can do to help the locals. One of which is stated above. Besides that left room for plenty of stuff coming back.

    We wanted to see the island in it’s natural state, before there’s a Dunkin, cvs, McD’s on every corner. If that happens Cuba will be just another island. We will eventually go back when everything calms down.

    • What a wonderful experience you were able to coordinate for yourself. I’m so glad to hear that it was positive for you, and that you were able to bring in supplies and other things to donate to locals—amazing! Thank you for sharing your experience.

  7. Well even if after reading you post I agreed and disagreed with you. It is true nowadays people still leave with fear in Cuba I have to highly disagree with some comments here. I’m cuban and let me tell you “business owners” you don’t really know Cuba if you don’t know that people since they are young they’re are obligated to follow the government ideas and are brainwashed throughout their whole lives… no thanks I’m better staying in US I miss my family and friends but I feel way better out of Cuba I feel free. Even if I have to restart my life Cuba is better without the socialism

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective as a Cuban Misaki, it’s valuable to know how those who have lived it feel about the country.

  8. I read your post thoroughly twice, strongly disagree with almost every word. I’m Kirk Webster, and have traveled through 133 countries including my first visit to captivity Cuba! I fell in love with the caring, kind people number one, beaches, cigar farms, and especially with how challenged the Cubans are, yet they’re happy! My suggestion, contact me as I guide my own small groups around all of Cuba, legally and have since 1998! Things HAVE changed since then as American tourism has brought dollars into the people’s pockets via the casa particulars you mentioned and the family run restaurants called palidars. Trust me, I know La Habana like the back of my hand, but go off the beaten path to places not I’m guide books. I’ve made lifelong friends with many locals so if you take my tours you’ll go INTO the baseball dugouts before the game then sit in the front row seats to watch the game. What tour operator does that? No one! Ok, allow me to enlighten your future Cuban experience and you’ll be writing a far more encouraging article after seeing what I’ll show you. I’ve taken travel agents, doctors, business owners, a former Navy Seal, and many friends around Cuba, and not one had less than a real very FUN time! Many have returned with me 2-3 times so enough said. Por favor, reach out here: TravelWithKirk@gmail.com.
    I guide small private groups from
    November to March/April, and have legally since 1998. I’m returning December 29-January 5, with NYE in Havana…fiesta!
    Oh, I’m also a published travel writer, and see some valor in this article, pero es no correcto. Salud! “Cuba” Kirk as I’m called.

    • Hello, I disagree with Everything you just spouted.. I lived and agreed completely with the article but I totally disagree with your comment.. I have lived in San Miguel del Padron, La Cabana, Cuba with my wife fir the lady 3 years. The country is a hell home.. you being a tour guide won’t and doesn’t make it any better. I am sure that you split your profits with the communist government
      How can you sit and say that it’s better. How is it better. Do you have milk for the children or chicken for the families. NO!! Everything in the tourist sectors are now controlled by the Communist party. The just passed another law that made it illegal.for any small/medium business including art and snacks illegal for a y local to sell that isn’t an employee of a state owned company.. I’m wondering if the Communist Party is paying you to post the lies in your response. The communist Party cares nothing for the locals and forced into exile any who disagree with their ideology. There is no more CUC or tourist currency but the CUP, or national peso, is worthless.
      So, I’m still confused as to how you are a your guide in Cuba and not an employee of the state. So quit your lying.
      I have pictures of the REAL Cuba, not the one you and the communist party are trying to sell foreigners. Please stop this lie you’re trying to sell as facts. Because I know FOR A FACT that you can’t run any business with any ties to tourism on the island unless you are employee of the state. 45% of the GDP of Cuba is from tourism and with as hard up as the Cuban government is for euros and other freely convertible currency they aren’t letting anyone or anything that they don’t control make any money from tourism in Cuba.
      An example of it is my wife can not even go with me to the tourist poles or the tourist hotels. I wanted to take her to one of the 5 star resorts there for out 5th anniversary, but because she is a Cuban national she is not allowed to enter the hotel. Oh, we are able to enter one of the 3 star cuban national hotels but not the foreigner only hotels. The reason for that is so that the Cuban people don’t desire or see what is available to the rest of the world and the communist party members but not the True Cuban People..
      Cuba is a repressive nation that the government steals from for its own selfish gains. The Cuban people are starving while the government and the members of the Castro family, Diez-Canal and the State Security officials eat and live like kings…
      I beg all of you reading this article.. unless you have family in Cuba, do not go there for vacation. The communist government couldn’t supply ambulances or medical care for it’s people but they could buy 800 cars for tourism. It can’t provide basic necessities for the people like bread, milk or chicken, but it can sell it online to there family members outside of Cuba to have delivered. It sells things that every Cuban should be able to purchase but only in Freely Convertible Currency not what the Cuban people are paid in..
      Oh and one last thing.. the exchange rate for the national peso is 25 CUP for $1 USD, but US dollars are no longer accepted in the official Casa De Cambios. But on the informal market (not controlled by the government) you can get up to 70 CUP per 1$ USD and 90 CUP of 1 Euro.. so before using the official exchange houses, ask the local at your casa particular for the informal market. He’ll be able to point you to someone who will test you fairly.. if not.. here is my email address. Contact me and I’ll meet you and give you a better exchange rate than the communist ever will…


      Brett Gregory
      San Miguel del Padron, La Habana. Cuba

      Just remember any money you spend in the tourist areas doesn’t help the Cuban people. It only goes to further repress them by going into the Communist Party members overseas bank accounts..

    • This is wrong. Infact in Cuba it is now longer allowed to exchange dollars for Cuban Pesos.. in January 2021 the tourist paso was abolished and only the national currency, the CUP, is legal tender.. you can trade 7 different types of foreign currency but the US dollar is not one of them.
      BUT…on the infernal market you can get up to 70 CUP to $1 USD and up to 90 CUP for one Euro.. AT the CADECA’s, or exchange houses, you can’t exchange USD at all and the exchange rate from Euro to CUP is only 27 to 28 for 1 Euro…
      Think before you travel to Cuba and don’t bring US dollars. They are as worthless in Cuba as the CUP outside if Cuba… Oh, one lady thing, any CUP you don’t use you will be stuck with.. the Cuban government does not return foreign currency for the CUP. The exchange only works one way…

  9. I think it’s a little presumptuous of you to voice these people’s looks and actions as guarded.
    A lot of these people love their government and wouldn’t want ours for the world.
    They’ve been Socialists since 1959.
    Even Russia turned almost Democratic at a certain point in history then went back to Socialism when their government changed.
    Most people want everyone to have a chance at owning their own home irregardless of the money they make.
    All people make the same amount of money and what gives them importance is the quality of their work not what they get paid.
    Here we have to hunt around for good workers over there they are in overabundance.
    Giving ourselves praise for work not being accomplished unless the other person overpays us is our way of living.
    Look at the simple jobs like working at Mcdonald’s.
    Look how many times these kids do a bad job and still want to be paid and get a raise even.
    They might not be millionaires but they do have something we don’t have PRIDE in the work they do.
    Oh by the way, I am Cuban born and I possess this pride a lot of AMERICANS take for granted

    • Wow, you are one of the Communist Party’s 0aid spokes people. No where in the article did he talk to the people about politics.. The Cuban pehe are scared to death to talk negative in the communist because to do so is an offense against the government and state security will be at their do arresting them. Also, they have to be careful because people like you ,who know nothing of Cuba, and some of the Revolution believers in Cuba will report them to the government if they say anything negative or make any money or deals that aren’t approved by the government..
      No where in the article did the writer say he discussed politics with the people.. but he did see the regression the communist government has done to the people.. also, only those the government pays with bags of food or other meager rewards praise or defend the government.. just last week the government took workers from their jobs to repress those who were going to march for charge in cities throughout the island.. If you look at all the videos of public species and Rally’s of the government members.. you can see that they made those people from the different state work places go. They went to the site and bused them.to the rally. Look at all the athletes from Sports City, all the state office staff with their uniforms… And if they don’t clap.or yell when they should, the person sitting or standing next to them will tell state security on them for not being enthusiastic enough.. The snitch will get paid and bag of food and the victim will be interrogated and by made to yell “Viva Fidel” even if they don’t believe it.. and if that isn’t enough they will threaten the family or the job of the people.
      So stop with your excuses and lies… This articles is one of the more truthful articles about Cuba I have read in a long time……unless of course if you are paid or a beneficiary of the Cuban government.

    • Born and raised for 30 years ;I am Cuban and I can tell , is not socialism is a dictatorship.
      To know Cuba such a complex situation you need at least one year living on foot.

  10. Shannon,
    Just returned I was January from 2 week visit to Cuba. They were guided some of the time by Locally-sourced Cuba, a company that is owned and operated by Cuban people. The gods are bilingual, intelligent, experienced and licensed by the government. But that does not restrict their comments, history and openness which was excellent. We also stayed in Casas particulares found each host to be friendly, open and willing to talk about anything without fear of reprisal.
    So when you say you are feeling restricted to the beaten path Allowed by the government, I have to disagree. We have full access to anyone we spoke with, and spoke with many people randomly, we shopped anywhere using either pesos or Cucs, and rarely had anyone fear the local government watchdogs.
    As for your feeling that the money you gave passed through the hands of locals that deal only with tourists, and then into the hands of the government, you are mistaken. Trust Revenue has dramatically changed the lives of tens of thousands of Cuban families and individuals. People leave educated positions as Doctor, engineer or teacher two ply the tourist trade, because they get great Revenue for their family compared to what they would from the government. And the government taxes only about 10%, comparable to low-middle income in USA and much less than Europe.
    I encourage everyone to travel to Cuba, build relationships, education, cultural ties and gradually require our government to remove the embargo. It is not the Cuban government that is the problem for accessing the real Cu a, it is the USA government that restricts tourism so tightly, to one of 12 carefully controlled methods of travel.
    I’ve traveled to over 40 countries, some of the multiple times, slept in very poor villages, and my experience in Cuba was near the top of my list for openness, culture, fun and desire to repeat.

    • Hi Stew! Thanks so much for weighing in on what it’s like there now. Over the years I’ve talked to so many travelers, and it really feels like it’s a rollercoaster situation over there in terms of what you will face as a traveler interacting with locals due to the government’s latest policies. It sounds like a lot has changed for the better there, and it’s on my list to make it back there now that a decade has passed and a lot has changed! Thanks for sharing your situation on the ground since it’s been a while since I my visit!

    • That’s because you are a Cuban or you spent a your time in the tourist areas.. First of all there is no more CUC.. Second, it’s against Cuban law for anyone to own or operate a business in the tourist poles or sectors that are not state owned.. 8 can’t believe the number of you communist party, state security liers that have responded to this honest article.. yes the Cuban government has legalized some 150 plus small to medium sized private business, but that is only in the areas of production and services for the public.. it is illegal to operate a private business that is not owned and controlled by the communist state in any area that is a tourist zone. Also, you communist idiots sound so stupid blaming the failures of the Cuban government on the US Embargo.. Do you know that the US government is responsible for 80% of all chicken that comes into the Cuba. It’s the Cuban governments poor leadership skills and selfish agenda to stuff their own bank accounts and pockets with the fortunes of the country than to offer a better life for the Cuban people… I wish that all you state security jerks and Revolution regime supporters would quit lying to to potential tourist about Cuba. This article is one of the most truthful reports on what tourism is really like..

  11. Hi! Love your writing and since we visited Cuba this year, your post caught my eye.
    We had an incredible experience and I was “lost in space” one evening and brushed my teeth with the water, so yes, very sick for weeks. STILL, every waking moment ( except the time in the bathroom) was fascinating to us. We also stayed in the Casa Particulars, therefore the whole family took care of us, taxi’s tours, etc.
    I would highly recommend going to Cuba. Feelings, opinions and attitudes are mixed and ever changing.
    After a few days with he family, I was felt comfortable enough to ask one of the family members ( He is around 30), how he felt about the government and living in Cuba, Here is what he said, “There are a lot of opinions, but I live in a society where my children are safe on the streets with no fear of rape or trafficking, there are no guns or drugs on the streets”. “It’s not perfect, and there are some bad people, but my children and I have free medical attention; education and Fidel has taken care us”.
    I have the utmost respect for the Cuban people, with the exception of the government and I was happy to see that the the heavy reins of the government are loosening slightly. We would love to return.

    • Hi Debbie, thank you so much for sharing your experiences and impressions. Cuba is such a fascinating place and with it just opening to tourism it’s an intriguing time to visit. How wonderful that you were able to become on such warm and open terms with the family at your Casa Particulare. Again, thank you for articulating just what made your time in Cuba so special.

    • The reigns of the government are no where near loosening.. in fact that are tightening on ANYONE who thinks or believes differently.. oh, and if the medical was do good why did the medical system completely collapse during COVID-19… oh let me guess.. it’s the US Embargos fault right? See that would make since if thebUS embargo stoped Cuba from receiving medical supplies from the US but it doesn’t…infact the embargos exception are food and medical, but with payment made up front.. Many countries would trade with Cuba despite the embargo.. it’s just that Cuba has nothing to trade except for the Revolution and that’s worthless outside of Cuba…

  12. I live in Cuba and felt very bad when i hear someone did not feel well here, specially if that has to do with their interactions with the people. I have never seen a tourist wanting to talk to someone in Cuba and this person not answering every single question with a smile. I even think that we Cubans sometimes are so kind with tourists that they might think that we want something from them (to be honest some people are dedicated to try to get money from tourists). Sometimes with treat tourists as if they were coming from another world. Dont take me wrong , what I mean is that because we were so many years isolated from the rest of the world, not many tourists traveling here. When they started to come many were so surprised that had the feeling of being receiving someone from Mars. We give all kind of priorities to tourists, many times if there is a line to exchange cash we let them to pass first, or to buy in a shop first. I have been to different countries in the world (Germany, France, The Netherlands, Chile, Mexico, Greece, Spain) and I have never been treated the way I have seen tourist are treated in Cuba. I think that if you want to talk to someone in Cuba, just approach anyone on the street ask whatever you want and you will see that common people are friendly and open. Learn to distinguish between common l people (those minding their business, not willing anything from you) from those who are apparently more friendly and approach you to try to get something from you, these last ones are sometimes criminals. So dont be dummy.

    You can not expect that in Cuba things will work as good as in your countries, specially if you come from US or other developed countries, the economy here is weak in part due to the blockade of the US for more than 50 years and in part due to inefficiency of the productive system.

    Finally just a comment about those who sad they dont want to give the money to a communist government but prefer to give it to people directly.

    Lets say I ( or anyone else) dont own a Paladar, dont own a room for renting, dont have anything to do with tourists (as is the case). You come and give the money to those who do have houses to rent or something like that, what you do is increase the incomes of these particular people making they earn hundreds of times more than the other people that dont work in CUC areas, they are the ones who increase prices of things in Cuba, of cars , houses , etc. However if you give it to the government at least a part is returned to us as services (education, healt for example). Take into account that the largest investments of the government in Cuba are in health (which is completely free and education which is also free and this requires money).

    • I was in Cuba Nov 2017 and March 2018. I liked Cuba. While I am from ex Soviet Union country, Estonia, I understand Cuba very well. Estonia was occupied by Soviet Union ( Russia) for 50 years.
      Problem is that Americans never understand a Cuba. Including sometimes Western Europe too. People from these countries are a bit naive and afraid too much. Sorry Americans, I actually love you:) Have been to US 3 times.
      I had no problems in Cuba. I was a solo traveler, My main problem is that I can not speak Spanish. Una cerveza por favor only. But it good, to start a conversation. Just a joke.
      I did not feel that Big Brother was checking me. Yeah, only then if I was together with my Cuban chica. Really who cares. If tourist is normal and trets Cubans politely, everything is ok.
      One problem is really, Cubans should speak more English and in tourist area all people wants too much money from tourists. But sometimes you have to tell, it is too much, I give you 5 CUC instead of 10. Result is that you will have a deal for 6 CUC.

    • EOW, another communist employee.. you are I both know that education is not free in Cuba. You are told what to study and what field you can study for.. Then when you go to University you are made to work in the coops or other state owned company’s for free. As for the Cuban medical care, we will let that speak for itself after it’s collapse during COVID-19. Also, the Cuban doctors of the Henry Reeves Brigade are worthless. None of them.have licenses to practice mefice within or outside of Cuba. 90% of the doctors could not pass a basic medical knowledge exam for a vocational nurse in any other country… Plus the Cuba government sells their services for $100k’s of dollars while only paying the doctors a pitance of what the government receives the their services and threatening their families with not paying them if they speak against the government or defect while in other nations… Cuban health system is crap by any standards and the world found out just how bad durning COVID-19…

  13. I’m a Cuban who lives in Havana. I really love the post. I found the post when I was searching some information and tips of the best experiences in the others provinces of my country, and was really surprising to find this sort showing that not everything is sheer and joy.

    I think that what made your trip so “ish” was probably the 6 days of rain, and maybe a little lack of tips to improve your experience. I want to share with you some Cuba side information, so you can have a much better experience when you come back. You’ll see, I’m a student of the University of Havana, one of the historic and architecture landmarks of the city, and I have seen a lot of tourist having the same troubles that you’ve exposed in your post.

    Cuba have changed a lot since your last visit, with a big increase of tourists arriving to the island, so there is a lot of people taking advantage of it. That’s the reason why may happens that a lot of people approach to tourist for taxis or to sell something.

    About the currency problems, you don’t need necessarily some pesos to go to establishments that use pesos, you only need to be aware of the exchange rate (1 CUC = 25 pesos), now almost every place accepts both currencies (except museums). There are a lot of places to eat really good meals for no more of 50 pesos (2 CUC). The average price of pizzas is 15 pesos. Ask to your host for this places and he will show you, every neighborhood has at least one.

    You need to know about the different ways to travel in Havana, if you want to save some money and some waste of time too. The public transportation “guagua” costs barely 0.05 CUC (1 peso) for Cuban and foreign people, it’s a cheap and good way to travel if you avoid the peak hours (6:00-9:00 am and 4:00-7:00 pm). The “Almendrones”, a Cuban kind share taxi or Uber (?!?), are a taxi with fixes prices that covers all the city and the prices go form 0.50 CUC (10 pesos) to 1 CUC (25 pesos) depending of the distance, for me this is the best option for you, the only problem is that you need ask where to take the “almendron” to go to your destination. About the normal taxis, I dare to say that none of the Cuban people use this kind of taxis except on especial occasions, so you can take advantage of that they’re only focus on you. Always try to get down the price as much as you can and take it to the limit, if this one goes away, don’t worry, let him go, and use his limit price as base for your next time. Lift your hand for every car, almost everybody with car in Cuba use it once in while like a taxi.

    If you want to find people willing to talk and share with you without any interest in your pocket, I recommend the Malecón and the campus of the University of Havana. Each group of more of 3 people in these places are perfect to talk and discuss, and find out all kind of thing about Cuba. The university is more crowded on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The Malecón is crowded almost every day, but more especially the weekends.

    To travel outside Havana, I can only recommend places where I have been. I’m nature guy, so I only go outside my dear Havana to go hiking in the mountains and the beautiful and completely save rain forests (we don’t have any kind of dangerous animal here in Cuba). In my opinion the best option is the Turquino National Park, a place with astonish views, especially if you go and climb the mountain very early in the morning. I also recommend El Nicho, Topes de Collantes y Las Terrazas, this places have all kind of waterfalls, caves and beautiful ecosystems.

    I hope this tips can make your experience in my beautiful country better.

    • Your advice is incredible! Thank you so much for sharing the detailed ways to get around and really experience Havana. I am sorry that this comment was lost until now, but I am thankful that you shared your insider perspective on how my next visit might be better, more in tune with the locals and hopefully free from rain! Many, many thanks, ~Shannon

    • I totally agree with Gelin. I just returned from Cuba 5 days ago. I found the people very easy to talk to and very willing to discuss everything. They are a little guarded around specific political issues but the will talk very openly about life in Cuba. Despite what our government is saying, it is very safe and easy to enter Cuba and to return to the US. The one experience that Gelin mentions about being free to talk with anyone, always have you guard up to scam artists, even on the college campus. Please go to Cuba now, they need our support and our money to keep moving forward.

      • I had a good meal in Havana Centro, where local Cubans eating. A small soup, main course and a Cristal beer. Can you imagine, it was 4 CUC. It crazy, it is nothing for western person. And a meal was very good.
        I was in very hot restaurant La Familia, where a main course was 20 CUC. it is private restaurant in Old Havana. Food was not very good.
        If you see a kiosk for a pizza and price is in CUP, in national money, you just give a 1 cuc or 2 Cuc. No problems. It is usually bit more than price in CUP, but small tip is normal. No CUP for tourist. Today, never.

  14. 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.

    • 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.

  15. 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.

    • 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.

  16. 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!

    • 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.

      • 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 :)

  17. 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.

    • 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. :)

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

    • 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.

  20. 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! 

    • 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! :)

  21. 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.  

    • 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  :)

  22. 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.

    • 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!

  23. 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.

    • 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. :)

  24. 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

    • 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

  25. 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.

    • 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! :)

  26. 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.

    • 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 ;-)

  27. 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.

    • 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 :)

  28. 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!

    • 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!

  29. 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.

    • 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!) :)

  30. 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.

    • 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!

  31. 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.

    • 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! :)

  32. 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!

    • 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!

  33. 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.

    • 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… :)

  34. 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.

    • 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 :)

  35. 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.

    • 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.

  36. 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!

  37. 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!

    • 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?

  38. 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.

    • 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!

  39. 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.

    • 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…

  40. 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.

    • 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! :)

  41. 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.

    • 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!

  42. 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…

    • 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.

  43. 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

  44. 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.

    • 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!

  45. 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.

    • 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!

  46. 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.

    • 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 :)

      • 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).

    • 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!

  47. 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.

    • 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! :)

    • 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.

  48. 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.

    • 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.

  49. 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.

    • 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!)

  50. 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.

    • 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!

  51. 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.

    • 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.

  52. 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.

    • 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!

  53. 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!

    • 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 :)

      • 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!


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