CUBA: THE BEST 10 FACTS (AND MYTHS)
Cuba has been one of our favourite destinations since we took our first group tour there back in February 2013. We thought we would share some observations from this energetic, welcoming and endearing destination and we invite you to explore this with us.
1. It’s Alive and Pumping
Yes it is. There is a new mood following slight easing on the economic front. More opportunities are open for individuals to operate in a market system which means more stuff in shops and markets, on the streets, or made at small factories. More tourism means more cafes and repairs to infrastructure. And Cubans love to be outside – playing music, preparing meals, sitting and watching, tending their cars, parading their charming self and travelling.
2. It’s Old
Havana will soon be 500! The party is being prepared now with the cleaning and repairing of the monumental public buildings along with the numerous plazas. At the same time the improbable task of renovating housing is underway through a world first self funded financial arrangement. Not only are the buildings being repaired, but new hotels, museums, restaurants, galleries and community centres are incorporated into the scheme. Havana is an exciting city. Regional centres also are wonderful and their characters very diverse.
3. Grumpy Old Men and Women
Some of these characters have stern faces and look older than they are, possibly as they have lost teeth and/or endured hard lives. But it is easy to get them to smile and laugh. First appearances could be off-putting but all people (well most) are lovely, friendly, helpful and up for a joke. If you speak a little bit of Spanish ‘hola!’, ‘buenos dias’ and ‘gracias’ you are on your way to receiving a big friendly smile.
4. The Food is ..Well
Very good – if you know where to go. Otherwise ready yourself for cheese and ham. With the relaxation of rules on private business there are more small restaurants in homes offering very good meals in attractive settings. Meals at hotels vary depending on hotel category and supply. But don’t worry you won’t go hungry. The worst that can happen is you will end up bored and never be able to look at a ham and cheese toastie for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, junk snack stuff is available more readily than a banana but at the end of the day at least there's always a cocktail!
5. All the Cars are Collectible
No they are not. Some are rubbish rust buckets and attract stares as it’s hard to believe they go. But there are a lot of American yank tanks powered by Jap engines. Look out for the Lada limousines too. Lada’s cut in half with an extra section inserted to make them six doors. Backyard jobs mainly and a creation following the collapse of the USSR. With anything consumerable there are fewer and fewer yank tanks and more Nissans and Hyundai’s. But Havana has a continuing exhibition of restored behemoths cruising and available as a ‘taxi’. Negotiate fares and take pictures with the cool dude driver (they think they are).
6. Smokers and Drinkers
Well catered for, although there are many non-smoking areas so smokers DON’t have free range. Cigars of course. A big, tasty phallic model will set you back substantial dollars while something from the laneway will be very cheap, and probably nasty. Tour groups come to Cuba just to indulge with all manner of fresh Cuban se-gars. Rum, more rum and everything to mix with it is all over the place and very inexpensive. Pina Colada, Mojito, and many others are everywhere, even at fuel stops and roadside cafes. Good Havana Gold is just a few dollars per litre. Including tax.
7. Two Left Feet
If you can’t dance you will be the odd person out. Everyone dances and salsa is the pet step. Two steps forward, back, left and right. Simple, while the music is slow. If you haven’t practised and are stumbling, some gorgeous young lady or handsome man will volunteer to teach you.
8. Shambolic Mayhem
Many expect Cuba to be a mess because of the one party rule with Fidel at the wheel (actually his younger brother Raul has control). Shambles, to the visitor is not obvious. Public transport runs, shops open, TV goes, power is on most of the time. The most obvious effect are buildings. Many of the state owned (which is just about all) have not been repaired or renovated for decades due to the cost individuals (tenants) would incur, the Sate would incur, and the condition. This is not to say that pre 1959 everything was neat and trim. Far from it. The current regime inherited lots of decay, didn’t have the resources to fix it, but is now ‘on the job’. It will never be finished. Privately owned buildings are easily identified by their condition, but this is changing. As for administration, we as visitors don’t need to bother or busy minds in this, apart from asking a Cuban what they think. They will have an opinion.
9. The Great Outdoors
True, there is more to Cuba than their jewel in the crown, Havana. There are wonderful beaches with clean sand and clear water, almost as good as Australia’s. There are many places for walkers and trekkers. Kayaking, canoes, diving, bike riding and horse riding are all popular activities in Cuba. But there are few operators with short to medium duration packages as yet. Diving and fishing have been offered ever since Mr Hemmingway popularised the activity.
10. Everyone is Welcome
The American Embargo bogey hangs around and the impact is noticeable, but the Cubans have worked around this issue. As they say ‘everyone is welcome', it’s the US government that tells its people they can’t come here’. Despite the economic impacts of the embargo, us as allies of the US are not ridiculed but made perhaps even more welcome. On the other hand many Cubans would like to go to the US, and stay.
Thanks to Val a longtime Active Travel friend and tour participant on our inaugural Cuba tour back in February 2013 for allowing us to use some of his stunning photographs from the tour. You can see his entire Cuba photo gallery on his website here.