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.
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).
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.
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.
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?