So…. I got an Australian passport and I went to Cuba! Yay! It was much easier that way. Americans have to jump through hoops. My friend Yen flew over from Sydney to travel with me to Cuba (and to Costa Rica as well).
I might as well just jump into it: I have super mixed feelings about Cuba. Yes, aspects of Cuba are nice, but there’s always more to the story. Healthcare is free for everyone and it’s pretty good. I love free healthcare! I wish America had free healthcare! Yay for Cuba! Except doctors get paid the equivalent of $24 per month. That’s not enough to survive on even if you are single without a family. Most doctors have to drive taxis after hours to be able to make enough money to survive. The average wage for everyone is about $19 per month. Many families rely on money sent from their families overseas in the USA or other countries. Roads are freshly paved… when dignitaries like President Obama come to town. The architecture is beautiful and many buildings have received UNESCO funding for restoration. But the majority haven’t. And they are falling apart. Food rations are provided by the government, but they are basic and aren’t nearly enough to live off of. In the 1990’s – after the collapse of the Soviet Union – Cuba basically had a big famine and the average Cuban lost one-third of their body weight. It’s great if you want to lose weight, but this was the 1990’s. Not the 1890’s. WTF, Cuba? Seeing all of the old cars – and riding in all of the old cars – is super neat, until you realize that they are spewing out all sorts of black smoke and they constantly break down. The propaganda machine was strong in favour of communism, but the museums and official literature fail to mention how so many Cubans fled from it in the early 1960’s… and in the 1990’s… and even recently. Up until very recently, Cubans were easily able to get visas for Ecuador. They’d go and then try to make their way overland to the USA via Colombia, Central America, and Mexico. Learning about this, Nicaragua – friends with Cuba – closed their border to Cubans at the Cuban government’s request. So, many Cubans became stuck in Costa Rica and Panama. Those two countries have intercepted thousands of Cubans already in 2016. Thousands! This year! And we’re only in April! So, Mexico and all of the Central American nations (except Nicaragua) pitched in and provided airlifts to bring the Cubans northward (avoiding Nicaragua) to help them get to the USA. If it’s as good in Cuba as they want you to believe, then why is there still a massive exodus in 2016?
Most importantly: communism has failed. And those clinging onto it are suffering the most. Cuba has two currencies: the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC). The CUP is the national currency used by the people. The CUC is for tourists and is pegged 1 to 1 with the US dollar. So the CUC is worth a lot more. Those people working in tourism have access to tips and tourist dollars. So they are getting comparatively rich very quickly. For example, my tip to my tour guide for the week was more than a doctor makes in a month. Multiply that by fifteen people on our tour and you can see that a disparity is growing quickly. Which is exactly what communism aims to eliminate.
What a clusterfuck.
Cuba was a beautiful country and I met some very nice people there, but maybe my thoughts on Cuba actually aren’t so mixed…
A few highlights of my time in Cuba:
Most of my time in Cuba was spent in Havana. Which makes sense. It’s the biggest city and the capital. As Havana is in Latin America, I of course saw some churches and cathedrals. But I mostly tried to avoid them because I didn’t want a repeat of being templed out too soon in Asia. To counterbalance it, I also visited Havana’s most prominent Jewish synagogue. I spoke with the staff there and may have found some information on some of my family members that fled to Cuba from Europe in the 1930’s (and then fled Cuba for the USA in the 1960’s). I need to compare notes when I get back to my mom’s house in Florida.
Old Havana – the historic old centre of the city – has several beautifully restored plazas which make for a great walking tour. The Malecon – an 8 kilometre waterfront promenade – was also a great walk during the day, at sunset, and at night when it seemed the whole city came out to socialize – just hanging out on the sidewalks. As Havana was an important Spanish settlement, there are a handful of forts to visit. My favourite was Castillo del Morro. Perched across the bay from the main part of Havana, the fort offers great views. It is still used today as navigation for boats entering and exiting Havana’s port. The one peso ferry ride to get there was definitely within my budget.
Museums were also on the agenda. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes has a whole building devoted solely to Cuban art. The Museo de la Revolucion talked about how everyone was happy with the revolution… Right. The Museo de la Ciudad was set in a nice building and that’s about it. And the Museo de Naipes (playing card museum) was less a museum and more just someone showing off all the random playing cards they’ve collected over the years. None of the museums were particularly outstanding.
Elsewhere in Havana, we visited the fancy shmancy Hotel Nacional, a Buena Vista Social Club (apparently there are a few), a gay club (where topless men left the stage and were replaced by a flamenco band – WTF?), and the Necropolis Cristobal Colon aka Christopher Columbus Cemetery… where he isn’t buried.
Our group stopped in Santa Clara to check out the Che Guevara Monument and Mausoleum. He is idolized in Cuba. Based on the information I received, he was sort of a dick. We also saw the pretty town square.
UNESCO-listed and beautifully restored Trinidad is one of the major tourist destinations in Cuba. The town’s main steps serve as a big club at night. The Museo Historico Municipal has a few interesting displays and a great view from its tower. We took a salsa class (I am apparently terrible at salsa dancing but I think it’s because they made me dance with girls. Yuck!) and went to a nightclub deep inside a cave in a hill just outside the town. Nearby, a national park had a nice little hike to a waterfall, and Yen and I rented bicycles one day to get out to the gorgeous beaches.
Our group had a brief stop in the city of Cienfuegos. The city also has a lot of beautifully restored buildings – just like all of the other UNESCO sites in Cuba. One of the highlights of our quick stop was to check out some stores. Our guide took us to a store that sold good in CUP and another that sold goods in CUC. Both were shitty, but the CUP store was definitely shittier. There is no selection. You want shampoo – you get shampoo. You don’t get to pick your brand and scent. There’s only one. Maybe two or three options if you’re really lucky. But really, you’re lucky that they have shampoo at all. Communism.
Just outside of Cienfuegos, we stopped at the infamous Bay of Pigs to take a nice swim in the beautiful waters.
The more rural area of Viñales was our home for two nights. Here we took a day trip to the gorgeous Cayo Jutias for a day at the beach. We also visited an organic farm where we had a delicious meal, a tobacco farm where we got to see how a Cuban cigar is rolled, and a nearby liquor distillery. The distillery – in the city of Pinar del Rio – was pretty shitty. Comparing to the other alcohol tours I’ve done in other countries, it was fairly evident that quality control, occupational health and safety, and sanitation were not really on the mind. Ick. We also visited the Las Terrazas biosphere reserve on the way back to Havana.
Food - the anti-highlight:
I know this blog is already long, but I can’t blog without mentioning the food. The food in Cuba is… not so great. The Cuban food in Miami is better. The reason: Miami has ingredients. Cuba doesn’t. There are no big grocery stores in Cuba. It’s all little government shops with little selection. I had four types of fruits in Cuba: pineapple, papaya, guava, and banana. That’s pretty much all they have. The vegetable selection was not much better. Chicken, pork, and seafood are available, but beef is scarce. It’s restricted by the government because they don’t have enough cows and it’s costly anyway. Even one of their national dishes – ropa vieja – is made with lamb in many restaurants because they can’t get their hands on beef. It’s ridiculous. Rice and beans are prevalent, as are fried plantains. Restaurants have been allowed to open since 2011, so we were told the food is a lot better now than what is was in the pre-restaurant era. But the restaurants still struggle with the same lack of ingredients. I did manage to get some shitty Chinese food in Havana’s old Chinatown (nearly all of the Chinese left after the revolution) and shitty pizzas were prevalent and cheap. But they were usually terrible. Like, offensive to god terrible. It’s amazing how one country can fuck up a pizza so bad everywhere.
To drink, there was lots of fake Coke and fake Sprite. And lots of rum. More rum than you can shake a stick at. I don’t normally like rum, but I’ll give the Cubans one thing: they make a good rum. I had pina coladas, daiquiris, cuba libres, and mojitos. I like mojitos.
But the rum doesn’t excuse the food. It was like the exact opposite of my food porn from Mexico City. By day 11, it was definitely time to head to a place where I could switch up the cuisine. But first, let me take a selfie.
To see more photos of my time in Cuba, follow this link: