Cuba was one of the more difficult places I’ve traveled to.
There, I said it.
Not a lot of people openly say this about their trip to the island. They post the colorful photos of the couple blocks in Havana that are photogenic, and don’t say anything more about it aside from, “It was an amazing trip.”
But when pressed, those same people say things like “Cuba broke my heart,” “It was a hard trip” and “I still haven’t processed my visit.”
Because, while Cuba is amazing (and it really is), it is also challenging, heartbreaking and tries your patience in more ways than you can count.
And I want to talk about that side of it – about the parts no one posts on social media (myself included) and about the things that no one really wants to say.
I’ll start this out with a little anecdote…
One night during our trip, we were waiting in the living room of our Airbnb in Vedado for a cab to take us into Havana. If you aren’t familiar with the geography of Cuba, Vedado is a more suburban neighborhood located about 15 mins. from Havana that is mainly made up of old mansions. It’s a great place to stay during your visit because you aren’t right in the middle of the city and therefore, the casa particulares are bigger.
We had reservations that night at La Guarida – one of Havana’s nicest restaurants that has served the likes of Beyonce and Barack Obama. It’s one of the only restaurants in Cuba that actually honors your reservation and even has a 15-minute grace period before giving away your spot.
We were panicking a little because, in true relaxed Cuban style, our host had called for a cab over an hour ago and still… nothing.
Finally giving up, our host told us that her neighbor had kindly offered to drive us into the city himself.
We were about 5 minutes away from La Guarida when we were pulled over by the Cuban police. We waited for 15 minutes while the neighbor spoke to the officers behind the car.
We had no idea what was going on, but the longer we sat waiting, the more nervous we got.
Finally, the neighbor got back in and said, “Los pagué. No quieren que estemos juntos.”
“I paid them off. They don’t want us to be together.”
When pressed, he continued to explain that it’s against the law for him to drive around with tourists in his car. In other words, the police had seen a local Cuban in a car not marked “TAXI” driving around a group of white people.
Aside from the overt corruption we had just witnessed (that is similarly present in many places), I was most disturbed and surprised to learn that the government imposes restrictions on how the Cuban people can interact with tourists.
And just like that, combined with the previous day’s event of touring the inside of an average Cuban’s home in Havana, I began to struggle with the way Cuba is presented on social media.
Moments like this are impossible to convey in a photo of colorful buildings. The daily struggles of the Cuban people and the tight grip that the Cuban government has on its people can’t be fully discussed in the caption of a smiling girl laughing out the window of an antique car.
They are impossible to convey as a social media influencer whose brand’s success hinges on photos of beautiful landscapes and luxurious hotels.
And while many, many “Instagram-famous” destinations have their slew of problems (Bali, Turkey, Greece, etc.), I feel particularly moved to write about Cuba because it is an up-and-coming tourism destination that I think needs to be handled with care.
I struggle with the question of how I can discuss the un-social media worthy parts of Cuba while also simultaneously encouraging people to visit.
Talking with others who have also visited the country, it seems that most are asking themselves the same thing.
It’s been almost two months since my trip to the island and I still haven’t formulated a good answer, but for now, I’ve boiled my message down to this:
Go to Cuba, but go responsibly.
I cannot begin to explain how much I enjoyed my trip. Cuba is a vastly interesting country, full of vibrant culture, kind & generous people and beautiful landscapes.
But before you go, know Cuba’s history (I love this video by Vox!) and know what daily life is like for its people.
Understand that while Havana’s ability to transport visitors “back in time” is charming for you to experience for five days as a visitor (and does make for some wonderful photos), it means some very dismal things for the people actually living there.
Most importantly, educate yourself on how you can benefit the Cuban people while visiting the country.
Before I go into those tips, here are some facts about the reality of life in Cuba, some of which I learned during my trip from locals:
- Cubans have un Libreto de Abastecimiento (meaning “Supplies Booklet” or ration cards) which allow them to get a certain number of products per month. These monthly rations do not include items we take for granted like soap, toilet paper and tampons. The rations have also gone down significantly over time and are oftentimes not enough to feed a family.
- You may have heard about Cuba’s remarkably low crime rate. It’s true – violent crime against tourists on the island is very rare and the country is very safe. This is in part due to the fact that the Cuban people are incredibly good natured, hospitable and friendly, but it is also because the punishment for committing a crime against a tourist outweighs the punishment for most other crimes. Of course, this is a great thing for tourism, but it does also hint at a twisted system that cares more about income from the tourism industry than its own people.
- Whether they are a doctor, nurse, lawyer or engineer, the average monthly salary for a Cuban is $20. This is set by the government as a standard.
- The exception to this rule are cab drivers. Cab drivers in Cuba make significantly more money than trained doctors or engineers because they have private licenses provided to them by the government. Their salaries are not set by the state, meaning that they can charge tourists high prices (like the $25 to go from the airport to central Havana). If you’ll notice, that’s more than the average monthly salary. This means that highly skilled and trained Cuban people are forced to do remedial jobs like drive cabs and wait tables.
- The farmers in Viñales, the beautiful area of Cuba most known for its sprawling tobacco fields and mogotes, are forced to give 90% of the tobacco they grow to the government. The government then adds chemicals to the tobacco, seals the cigars with a harmful glue and sells them at an insane mark-up in government-run shops.
- The infrastructure is falling apart. If you fail to see the direness of the situation in Habana Vieja (the more colorful, tourist-popular area), head into Centro Havana and to the outskirts of the city to understand how truly devastating Cuba’s infrastructure is. You’ll notice broken windows, collapsed roofs, split walls. You will jump over huge holes in the concrete ground while trying to stroll the sidewalks. There are instances of buildings crumbling to the ground simply because it’s nearly impossible for Cubans to get their hands on construction materials to improve the situation.
- Food is scarce and you will see this very clearly when you walk into any supermarket or store in Cuba. “Having fish for dinner” is not as simple as going to the market and choosing from a selection of seafood. In Cuba, “having fish for dinner” is something that needs to be planned weeks in advance and can only be done by buying through Cuba’s black market.
- As I mentioned above, not only is it illegal for a local to drive tourists in a not private car, it’s also illegal for a foreigner to sleep in the home of a local without authorization. It’s also illegal for a local to socialize with tourists in public for an extended period of time. I don’t know why this is.
Having said all of this, I do realize that some people might be turned off by the idea of visiting, but I don’t want this post to have that impact at all.
Cuba is worth visiting – it is worth your money, your attention and your love. I only want to draw attention to the way Cubans truly live because for some reason, nobody is talking about it.
I think that the more we talk about it, the more complete of an understanding we will have for the situation and the more knowledgeably we can travel there.
When you do book your trip to Cuba (which you should), here is how to travel to the country responsibly:
- Bring products to the people. As I mentioned above, ration cards prevent Cubans from having access to very basic things. Bring shampoo, conditioner, body soap, detergent, tampons, pads, etc. with you. Give them to your casa particular host, your waitress, your tour guide, whoever. These items are very expensive and difficult to come by for local Cubans because the government has deemed them “unnecessary.” They will be accepted with gratitude.
(Go here for a full list of things you should bring).
- Bring business to private enterprises. In the 90’s, the Cuban government began giving out private licenses in order to fuel a very small private sector. These licenses are primarily given to restaurants and homes. The food you will find at paladares particulares (privately-run restaurants) is significantly better than the government-run restaurants because it needs to be for these restaurants to stay in business. And the experience you will have staying at a casa particular (private homestay) will be exceptionally better than that of hotels – you will have a far more authentic experience and experience firsthand the kindness of the Cuban people. These private businesses are the future of Cuba and you should do everything you can to support & nourish them during your visit.
- Buy cigars in Viñales. The cigars in Viñales are better and far more organic than those in the government-run stores in Havana. Save your money for Viñales, where the money you spend on buying cigars will go directly to the people who actually grow the tobacco.
- Get involved with a volunteer program, like First Hand Aid.
- Don’t be an asshole. Don’t complain incessantly about your restaurant order taking longer than 30 minutes (Cuba is relaxed and your meals, in general, will take much longer that this). Don’t be that person who doesn’t know a word of Spanish and refuses to buy a Spanish phrasebook. Or that claims they know how to solve all of Cuba’s problems after a week-long visit. And for the love of all that is good, don’t be the ultimate kind of asshole that participates in sex tourism and prostitution.
- Finally, rave about Cuba! There is a huge knowledge gap about Cuba, so talk about your trip to everyone. Tell everyone you know about the amazing memories you made during your visit and encourage them to go and make some of their own.
Cuba’s problems are incredibly complicated. The lift on the travel ban that prevented Americans from entering Cuba does not signify a complete and total victory. It only signifies a small step towards (what I hope will be) a bright future for Cuba. Through some combination of internal reformation, elimination of “El Bloqueo,” and increased tourism, I pray that we see this future unfold in our lifetime.
But in the meantime, visit Cuba responsibly and knowledgeably. Soak up every bit of beauty and culture the country has to offer, and get to know the amazing, resourceful and resilient people that live there. They make Cuba the beautiful place that it is.
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