By Jody Hanson
Why visit Cuba? Because it is one of the most relatively unspoiled islands in the Caribbean with friendly people, great music, bland food and low prices.
After the Americans imposed a trade embargo in 1960, the island went into a kind of time-warp stuck in the 1950s. Cars have been kept running with parts from other vehicles, a bit of snare wire, and sheer mechanical determination. Coke bottles have now been recycled so many times that the name etched in the glass is smooth.
While Americans have been prohibited from travelling to Cuba, other nationalities – particularly Canadians – have been going there forever. I made my first trip to Cuba in March 1978 and my second in February 2015. And I can report that things haven’t changed all that much.
Avoid the Hoards
People who just want a break by the ocean tend to head for all-inclusive resorts that range from super-cheap – by western standards – to luxury. Here tourists can lie on the beach, soak up the sun and be fed and watered without having to do anything other than saunter up to the table.
Those who are more adventurous – and really want to get to know the people and the place – can opt for local accommodation. Options include bed & breakfast, a room in a private home or renting a villa.
Mixing and mingling with the locals gives you the opportunity to see the country from a more informed perspective. Renting from the people who live there also helps support the family – and most can use the money. So instead of supporting the multinational hotels, stay with some Cubans and help boost the local economy.
Geeks and Internet addicts beware. The only country with worse Internet connectivity than Cuba is North Korea. The government Internet shops cost $4.50USD an hour – and you have to use their old, slow computers. And as they have a limited number – like five or six – you may have to wait.
Wi-fi at five-star hotels – where you can use your own laptop — comes in at a whopping $10USD an hour.
Further, because Cuba is off limits to Americans PayPal may block your account – even if you don’t use it. After my sojourn to the island it took me 77 days – complete with numerous phone calls and emails –to get the block lifted. The fact that I am Canadian didn’t matter as it is an American company.
Like most of Latin America – except for Mexico and Peru – the food tends to be tedious. So unless you really get excited about black rice and white beans or fried pork skins be prepared for solid, but simple, cuisine.
If you are a spice fiend, pack a bottle of hot sauce in your handbag or day-pack to avoid taste-bud withdrawal.
The eateries to seek out are the paladares restaurants. These range from family dinners in private homes with a couple of extra chairs at the dining table to truly elegant operations.
Places to See
Seeped in culture, history and with an air of mystery, Cuba has a lot to offer. This includes attractions such as Old Havana – worth a day –the Bodeguita del Medio where Hemmingway wiled away the hours and the stained glass windows of Casa del Conde Jaruco.
Things to do
With 3,000 km of coastline sprinkled with beaches there is swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving for those so inclined. Beaches in Casilda Bay are particularly well-known for their white sand and clear water.
Given that Cuba is famous for its cigars, visit a factory and learn to roll your own. Right next to the cigars is the famous Cuban rum. Just be careful it doesn’t knock you on the back of the head as you swill away the liquor that slides down your throat.
Other activities include hiring a 1950s car to tour you around the town for a half day. Or join the spontaneous locals and dance in the street. They may offer you a guitar and expect you to play.
Like many countries, Cuba has a grey or underground economy that parallels the official one. The state is reluctant to officially license or authorize business, so it leads to a recognized – but tolerated – avoidance of bureaucracy.
Like the paladres restaurants and the home-stays, if you need a taxi to the airport, someone will have a friend with a car. No taxi license required and everything is cash under-the-table.
Want a guide? Someone will know someone who speaks English so you don’t have to go through an official agency.
Another Reason to Visit Cuba?
In addition to everything already mentioned, time spent in Cuba is a delightful vacation from consumerism. No shopping malls; no McDonalds; no Black Friday sales.
And that alone is a good enough reason to visit the island.
Jody Hanson is an insufferable travel junkie who has visit 107 countries – 67 on her own – lived in nine and holds passports in three. She has visited all the countries in North, Central and South America except for Venezuela, Guyana, Surname and French Guinea. She wrote this article on behalf of Tucan Travel who offer all types of adventure excursions to Cuba and all over Latin America.