May 14th is our 30th anniversary and I wanted to do something special for Sandra. So, little did she know, when I prepared the budget and talked to the bank about my Antarctica trip, I made sure that there was enough money included in the cash flow for a special gift for her. Lord knows, she sacrificed a lot for my special year!
Cuba would not have been my first choice for a Spring Break vacation: no surfing; sketchy political implications of spending our tourist dollars. However, to say that Sandra loves 50’s American cars is an understatement. When we talked “places I want to see,” Cuba was always at the top of her bucket list. Old cars are part of the culture on this island nation like nowhere else in the world. The facts that the island is home to:
- one of the nicest all-inclusive resort white sand beaches anywhere
- a UNESCO heritage site with amazing architecture (another love for my wife), and
- warm tropical weather at a time when it is still cold at home
These were just added bonuses. OK, why wasn’t Cuba on my bucket list!
When I discovered that the nickname for Cuba is “The Pearl of the Caribbean,” facilitating my wife’s dream for our “pearl” anniversary became a no-brainer. I purchased and hid the tickets for her to discover on Valentine’s Day while I was away adventuring in the Antarctic. Solo travel is not her thing, so, YAY! I got to come!
If you have ever contemplated a trip to Cuba, here are five things you should know:
1) Go now!
Seriously. Go now. If there is one thing that became obvious on our trip, it is that Cuba is in transition. With former sugar-daddy Russia’s move to a free market economy and even communist China embracing a mixed economy, it is hard to imagine Cuba as a pure communist country for long. Don’t tell Fidel, but it could be argued that it is not really one now. The signs are everywhere. The French are in the process of building a huge marina on the tip of Varadero in anticipation of a possible thaw of tense relations with the US. Europe is there. South Korea is there. China is there. South America is there. And obviously Canada and Mexico have interests there. Even in our government-sanctioned tourist bubble, we met locals who talked with quiet hope (and some apprehension) about change… I suspect at least in part to the recent relaxation of travel restrictions (both in from the US and out from Cuba) and the handover of power to the seemingly more pragmatic Raul Castro.
It is not hard to imagine Cuba transitioning into a country more like the Dominican Republic (or a mini-China) within the next 20 years. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing per your political leanings, the reality is that it will be different. It is hard to imagine a Cuba with 1 in 5 cars on the road being a 50’s vehicle if the US embargo is lifted, for example. (Even if the US embargo stays, those cars will eventually be replaced by Hyundai’s and Peugots.) Given that we primarily went to see Cuba’s “car show in the streets,” I am so glad we went now to witness the spectacle.
(In the “more-my-thing-than-my-wife’s,” if you are a political junky, it may also be one of the last chances you’ll get to witness a small-scale communist society in inaction. I found it very fascinating.)
2) Visit Havana
Going to Cuba without visiting Havana is like going to France without visiting Paris. If you are staying elsewhere, arrange a tour that will allow you to see the architecture of Old Havana, ride in one of the 50’s car convertible taxis, and take in a show. We bought our tour via our Air Canada representative on site at our hotel. We took a day trip to the capital and it was one of my favorite parts of the holiday. (I’ll eventually write a post about that trip/Havana separately.)
3) Go with the flow
To paraphrase Monty Python, Cuba ‘tis a silly place. The best way to describe what I mean is by telling a couple of stories that became my metaphors for the country.
One evening, we were at one of our resort’s a la cart restaurants. Across from us, three Spanish-speaking families sat at a table enjoying their time together. Their three young children sat at an adjacent “kids” table. Unfortunately, wineglasses, previously set, were left on that table. That didn’t last. One of the children accidentally bumped a glass. It tipped, rolled off the edge of the table and fell, shattering into pieces. And so did the children. The girl who actually started the glass rolling burst into tears. She was inconsolable. And the other two younger children followed suit wailing.
The waiter calmly took action. He quickly joined an empty table to the adult table, then lifted each child safely to their parents. Calm was eventually restored.
But that was all that happened. The shattered glass remained on the concrete floor for at least an hour. No one, including that waiter, made any effort to clean it up the entire time we were at the restaurant. I don’t think they have lawyers in Cuba!
Leaving the country was equally as perplexing. After paying the exit tax (Note: exact change only!), the next step was to go through passport control. Imagine a series of little rooms like barn stalls, side by side, where you can’t see through to the other side. You entered and talked a customs agent who looked over your papers and verified your identity. Satisfied, the agent buzzed open the lock on the door leading to the holding room for the next stage… the carry-on baggage scan and security pat down. Nothing too weird, right?
Well, imagine that there were 14 plus active customs stalls, but only 1 scanner line! Those doors kept blindly dumping passengers into a room that quickly developed a queue that snaked back and forth so many times that you couldn’t find the end. So many anxious travelers, some still slightly inebriated, were trying to figure out what the heck was going on. There was more than one “you butted in” argument that nearly led to a fist fight. I’ve never wanted a crowd control ribbon so much in my entire life.
Such were the paradoxes of Cuba – city buses that arrived occasionally; tour buses that arrived and left exactly on time; super-talented, classically trained dancers and musicians who ran the entertainment, but who had a really hard time starting on time, if at all; the “closed for lunch” sign that stayed up all day at the activity booth; the bar without ice. Sometimes it was frustrating, but eventually you just had to laugh and roll with it. Or in the case of the whole customs thing for my claustrophobic wife… survive it!
4) Take what you need…
Before you go, think to yourself, “Is there anything I need to ensure my happiness on this trip?” If you can name anything, and I mean anything, take that with you. You cannot just run out and buy what you need in Cuba and what/when things are available often seems random.
I’ll spare you the gory details, but I ran out of a certain over-the-counter medication on the trip. No meds at all were available at the hotel store and I ran out on a day when the resort medical facility was closed (see #3 above). I was SO grateful when Sandra managed to find a fellow traveler willing to give us some of their pills or I would have been in diapers trouble.
Similarly, imagine a buffet restaurant filled with everything from omelets to tiramisu. It wasn’t great food, but there was lots of it and lots of variety. Yet, during the entire week, there was only one day where there was any butter. The locals blamed the embargo. It made me laugh… It’s not like the French don’t make butter!
It was hard to grumble, knowing that so many on the island have so little, but still, it was interesting.
It should also be pointed out that this take-what-you-need principle applies to toilet paper. We always had enough TP at the resort, but any bathroom we visited off site had no toilet paper or paper towels. You didn’t need to be a guest at a hotel to use the hotel lobby washrooms, but you needed to come with your own supplies. Or, if you were lucky, you could pay a tip to the bathroom attendant who might have what you need.
5) … including enough money for taxis/tips.
We loved our hotel housekeeper… coincidentally named Sandra. She met us each day with a smile and hug. She worked very hard… very long hours, 6 days a week. Tipping her felt like helping a friend.
However, our Canadian-ness nearly messed that up. We are SO used to ATMs that we didn’t think to bring much cash. The problem is that ATM cards are useless in Cuba. High service-charge cash advances at the hotel bank taken from credit cards were in theory possible, but expensive. (Note: US-based credit cards generally can’t be used here either. There is also a penalty for US cash.) Taxis and most stores only took convertible pesos… cash. (Exception: I was grateful that we could pay for our trip into Havana on credit card through our Air Canada rep.) Effectively this is a cash only country and you should plan to bring that cash with you (I’d suggest Canadian Dollars or Euros). Our reserves dwindled quickly. We should have brought more.
Reading my thoughts above, you might get the sense that we didn’t enjoy ourselves. The reality is the exact opposite. We had a very good time. We felt safe. The beach was amazing. The cars were awesome. The architecture in Havana was astounding. We are both glad we went, but now that we’ve been to once, we don’t feel compelled to return. There are just too many other places we want to visit first and Cuba is just too far away from us to be a spontaneous, inexpensive destination.
But if you’ve never been, go.