Getting to know Cuba in seven days

Me and the fam just got back from a seven day March break-ish vacation in Cuba. It’s the first time I’ve ever been. I loved it and would definitely go back for many reasons but mainly to discover more and understand its complexity and challenges. I’d probably go biking again too, but that’s the subject of another post.

We stayed five days in Havana and two in Varadero. They’re probably the most popular destinations in Cuba. Varadero because of the beaches and resorts which promise no-brainer ‘all-inclusive’ sunburning sessions. Havana because it’s incredibly cool but complicated.

Before I rabbit on incessantly like an expert about things I’ve only just discovered, I should say that I was merely an observer on this trip. My partner, Irene, did almost the entirety of the planning and research for the trip as well as having the conversations that inform this post. I owe her much gratitude for this.

Getting the jabs to get there

If you’ve contemplated travelling to Cuba (or anywhere in the global south) you have probably heard the stories about traveller’s diarrhea and all the other various ailments you can come down with just by being there. I’m neither a doctor nor a travel expert but I will say that in preparation for this trip, I got an Hepatitis A vaccine, a prophylactic course of antibiotics called Dukoral to prevent the runs, and a rabies vaccination.

And I came back unscathed. I should say that I got the rabies vaccine because I was planning on doing some road cycling outside the city and a travel doctor recommended it. I did get chased twice by dogs while I was out riding but both times I was able to outpace them.

Check out what the Canadian government recommends, understanding that they are cautious in the extreme.

Get a VPN before you go

If you use the internet at all, put a VPN on every device you plan to bring to Cuba before you go and get it set up, including paying whatever fee they charge. Before you go. I mean really. Because once you’re there it’s too late. And half of the internet doesn’t work in Cuba. Some people blame the government. Some blame the US embargo. I saw evidence of both. Like a website might be viewable, but when you try to buy something, the purchase fails because the site’s payment gateway is US-based and blocks requests from Cuba. The Apple App Store, for example, is unavailable in Cuba but is available to tell you that, presumably because it’s Apple’s decision to block it, not Cuba’s.

Requests to other random sites throw up a generic web server generated ‘You are not authorized to view this URL’ message, which looks more like the government blocking a site. The only way around this is to get a VPN and connect to the internet pretending to be from Canada or some other country that isn’t Cuba. Although if you pick a random country you may have trouble accessing sites, like your bank, that expect you to be connecting from your home country.

An e-SIM will be cheaper than roaming

I got an e-SIM for my phone so I could use the Cuban mobile carrier for data. It doesn’t solve the proxy/blocking problem, but it solves the problem of Canadian Telco’s outrageous roaming fees. Be forewarned, though, that internet access in Cuba is slow. And using a VPN will make that worse. So do not count on having viable internet access when you’re there.

Your plastic money is useless

A dinner bill from a restaurant in Havana
The bill from a Havana restaurant. That’s 300 CUP = 1 USD, by the way. It would have been $160 USD at the official rate. Transparency is good.

The only time I used a card to pay for anything on this trip was the cab getting to and from the airport in Ottawa. Everything in Cuba is cash. Yes, there are some stores that take credit cards or Cuban money cards only, but (a) they seemed as barren as everything else and (b) their prices were based on the official exchange rate, which, well… read on.

The nearer you get to tourist spots, the more likely you’ll be able to use US or Canadian dollars or Euros. Indeed some restaurants, stores, hotels, tours, post prices in USD. But to buy a thing or a service from a Cuban you need to think in CUP (Cuban pesos) which means dealing with the wild and woolly world of the exchange rate.

The government sets the value of the CUP against foreign currencies itself, international money markets being the tools of global capital used to keep the boot on the neck of the global south and all. To which I would add they are also the tools of grifters whose stolen billions make the cheeky efforts of your average Cuban market vendor to peel a couple more notes off of your bankroll seem comically insignificant.

However there’s the government rate and there’s “what everybody pays.” In March 2024, when we were there, the official exchange rate was around 120 Cuban Pesos to one US Dollar. That’s what you get if you exchange money at an official currency exchange or if you use a Canadian bank card to withdraw CUP from a (rare, often broken) bank machine.

But the informal rate is radically different. It was around 320 CUP per USD when we were there. You can track this rate on El Toque. It’s much closer to what vendors, hotels and restaurants will use to convert USD to Pesos. You can exchange money informally all over the place. Walk the streets of Havana or Varadero as a tourist and every second person who solicits you for something will offer to exchange dollars for pesos.

I never tried exchanging-money-with-random-dude. So I have no idea how that goes. Badly, I would guess. AirBnB hosts, restaurant operators, tour operators, other solid people you meet and who you will see again will be able to or will know how to exchange currency safely at a reasonable rate.

They’re not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. They won’t offer you the El Toque rate. You’ll get close, but they will take a cut — like eight or ten per cent. I think this is fair because they face the risk (they can be fined or jailed if they’re caught) and even affluent Cubans live a life that’s a crap ton harder than us tourists.

Wherever you exchange currency you always want to see the CUP amount and the USD amount side by side so you know whether you’re winning or losing in the bargain. There are tourist-oriented restaurants that will give you menus with only USD prices. I’m told it’s best to avoid these as you’ll have no idea where — or more accurately at what exchange rate — they came up with that price.

If you’re shopping for something and they offer a price in USD, ask what it is in pesos. The vendor will whip out their smart phone, do the math and show you. Then you’ll know what kind of a deal that Ché t-shirt really is.

Getting around in the hagglemobiles

In Havana, public transit exists, and it is possible to rent cars, but the former is rare and the latter is expensive and complicated. Most of the time if you’re not self-propelled, you’re in a taxi. There are no meters in Cuban cabs. Indeed many have no markings or signs at all. Cubans get around Havana in cabs too. They work like impromptu buses, riding up and down the main thoroughfares, picking up people until they can fit no more, then dropping them off (presumably) closer to their destination.

They haggle with the driver about how much it’s worth to drive them 12 blocks down the Paseo, if the vehicle is already full, depending on the cost of gas, whether the cab is clean, whether it goes faster than a lawnmower etc.

Tourists can hire cabs all to themselves. But the drivers will expect to be paid more. How much more is an open question. It ends up being a bit like analog Uber. More expensive at night, in places where a lot of people want cabs, nicer (or less toxic) vehicles cost more, etc. But unlike Uber you can argue with the driver. They expect it. And at markets, hotels, restaurants, clubs, etc, the drivers or their touts hang around to pick up each others’ rejects. So if they think they can take you to your AirBnB for what you were willing to pay, they’ll introduce themselves. Do be aware, though, that you do get what you pay for and that if there are roadworthiness standards applied to cars in Cuba, taxis are evidently exempt.

Where to stay

We stayed in what the Cuban government would call casa particulares… that happen to be rented and arranged on AirBnB. Both in Havana and Varadero. The people who operate these casas surrender a fair bit of the income from renting on AirBnB both to AirBnB and to the government, but they cannot afford to pass up the trade that they bring. We were told that our payment goes to AirBnB, which transfers a chunk of the money to the Cuban government, which in turn transfers a portion to the apartment owner (often much later) in the form of credit at specific stores. If you buy breakfast from your host, they have cash with which to purchase food and other items unavailable in the designated stores. Breakfasts in both places we stayed were excellent.

We would highly recommend both Airbnbs: Casa Torres in Varadero, and this apartment in Havana. The Varadero apartment is owned by a lovely couple, Sonia and José Louis, who went out of their way to make our stay enjoyable and stress-free. The Havana apartment is managed by siblings Ana and Alberto, also kind and generous souls who helped us navigate the city, secure day-trip transportation to Las Terrazas (an eco village one hour southwest of the city) and answer our many questions.

We went at a bad time but in general, don’t go to Cuba for the food

In March 2024, the country was/is in something of a crisis, spurred by high gas prices and shortages of food, medicine and other products. Cuba gets a huge amount of its foreign currency from tourism, and it’s just come out of three years where COVID dropped that to zero. And since Venezuela has been cutting back on gas exports, the country has had to seek other less favourable sources for gas and oil, driving up the cost of gas some 500 per cent.

This has led to other shortages — including food and medicine. The government has cut back its food allotments to Cuban citizens and store shelves everywhere seemed to be empty. Bread, for example, was really hard to find.

Restaurants offer mostly pork, fish and seafood. Cafés offer hamburgers and the ubiquitous ham and cheese sandwich. Also available is jamon which, while technically translated as ‘ham’, usually means ‘spam’.

I’m a vegetarian so I went into this trip with low expectations. I found my best meals at restaurants featuring cuisine from elsewhere — Italian, Lebanese.

It was pretty common to go to a restaurant and be told that half the menu was unavailable. But you make-do. And in light of what Cubans have to deal with — electrical shortages, empty shelves, hospitals with no supplies or medicine — grousing from tourists about whether the lobster was big enough or the pulled pork was tender enough seem insensitive in the extreme.

Political ghosts

Revolutionary tour of Havana. Best tour out there.
Shelman, in front of the Capitol

To land in Cuba, you’d never know you were in the ruthless dictatorship that our neighbours to the south speak of. There are hotels, restaurants, cafés, souvenir shops, taxis, tour buses, roads, stoplights, etc etc. Just like anywhere. Capitalism has wheedled its way back into Cuban society.

And yet the country and its people are still being punished because 60 years ago they chose a revolutionary path out of poverty and oppression. Sort of like America did 150 years earlier. Evidence of that is everywhere — in the decaying opulence of the buildings and hotels in Old Havana, the hundreds of US-built cars from the 1950s that form the backbone of the city’s taxi fleet. In some ways it seems stuck in time.

In other ways Cuba has marched forward. Its health care system and pharmaceutical industry punches well above its weight – indeed a lot of health outcomes for Cubans are far superior to those for Americans. It has banished illiteracy. The current crisis threatens this progress.

That history — and how its present has dealt with that inheritance — fascinates me. So much of what’s viewable in Havana — the murals and street art, the names of the streets themselves, the imposing, austere architecture of relatively modern buildings, the fleets of Ladas and Brabants, and of course the Plaza de la Revolucion and the Museo de la Revolucion (which is closed and will be for some time for renovations) — merely hint at that past.

A lot (most) of the stories are set aside in daily life. Begging to be told.

To scratch that itch, we found the Cuban Revolution Tour. Shelman, the guide, is an academic and a researcher who does this as a sort of side-hustle on a pay-what-you-can basis. Arrange it in advance and you walk (gently with many long stops) through old Havana while the guide points out the buildings, the statues, landmarks, and the stories behind them.

But while so much of the narrative around tourism in Old Havana focuses on the pre-Castro era (think Monopoly Man figures with big cigars barreling along the Malecon en route to some rum-soaked orgy), Shelman’s tour focuses on what came after that. See, I’m not all that sentimental about neo-colonialism. I kinda see it as problematic.

Shelman stops at all the statues, the Capitol etc, but the most interesting stories he told were in a small square before two non-descript buildings one of which had been a state-run grocery store and a tourists and foreign currency only market kitty corner to it. And in front of the Granma replica.

We ended the tour at a community centre, Garabato, that works with young people and seniors in a low-income neighbourhood, using participatory theatre, visual arts and other expressive arts methods. Tour guides contribute a donation of their tips to Garabato, and most of them volunteer, leading workshops in art, language, tech or another area of expertise.

If you want to do a walking tour in Havana, Shelman is your person. He is a history scholar, artist (film) and community educator passionate about Cuban culture. Plus he is simply a lovely human – engaging, funny and generous.

The improvised revolutionary monolith

He talked about how Castro’s movement came ashore, ran away, came down from the hills and ultimately came to power. About how things shifted after the CIA-supported invasion of the Bay of Pigs. About how the government handled land reform, housing reform, trade with the Soviets. The missile crisis.

Some of this history I knew from my own studies but told by someone who’s lived it — and whose family lived it — it seems a very different story. The revolutionaries and the government they formed seemed like they were flying by the seat of their pants — improvising in uncharted territory. This story is quite different from the one about the calculating monolith of doctrine and control. More plausible, I’d say.

He talked about contemporary Cuban struggles as well — the government’s efforts to replace sugar exports after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its struggle to get ahold of hard currency and shore up the value of the Cuban Peso, the shrinking value of Cuban citizens’ money cards, the moves to permit and expand private ownership of property and business.

At the end of the tour (he used his Cuba-only app to hail us a ride) I felt like I had learned so much more of Cuba’s history — history that mattered — than I would have if I’d done one of the ubiquitous classic car tours.

If you’re interested in Cuban history, my partner recommends Cuba: an American History by Ada Ferrer.

Donations

If, like us, you go to Havana and want to donate items, consider Cuba Libro. It’s a café in the Vedado neighbourhood that collaborates with a number of community-based organizations and has a solid anti-oppression practice described on the website and visible to us as visitors. We brought food, over-the-counter medication, menstrual products and school supplies. To find out what Cubans need at a given time, check out the Facebook group Cuba Travel Tips. Also in that group, in the Featured section, you can find information on currency/tipping and health insurance requirements. 

Varadero: the broiling beach paradise

A long spit of land, two hours’ drive from Havana offers some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Varadero has been developed into a tourist factory of sorts, with large resorts lining the shore. It’s not crazy built up like Malaga or Fort Lauderdale, but the spirit of the all-inclusive is very much alive there.

We spent two days there, beaching. But we stayed at a tiny casa particulare whose hosts were remarkably welcoming, kind and full of stories. What I’ve written about food, currency, taxis, the internet applies in Varadero too. I would just add one significant point. The sun.

You’ve all heard at least one white-skinned acquaintance/friend/family member eschew sunscreen saying “Oh I don’t burn,” like somehow they are genetically immune to ultraviolet rays. They have never been to Cuba (or anywhere near the equator) I would wager. You will burn. Quickly. 60 SPF is kind of the minimum ante for a sunny day at Varadero, I feel. Don’t worry — even with that goop slathered on — you will get the tan you seek. Cubans call the arbutus tree (you know, the one with blotchy red and white patches) the tourist tree for a reason.

The beach in “downtown” Varadero, where we stayed, is less crowded than along the hotel strip further along the peninsula. It was also super clean.

Earnest hopes for a better future

I really loved Cuba, warts, weirdness and all. What Iittle I have seen of it is amazing and beautiful. There needs to be space in this world for a country and a people that have chosen a path to development that prioritizes health and equality over profits. That sounds naïve and I’m certainly ignoring many of the problems that have evolved with the Cuban government when I write this. I do so because the way things are run here are not all that different. There’s inappropriate exercise of influence and power here too. Look no further than the premier of our great province. But it’s not a reason to cancel the whole project, tear it all down and leave it willy nilly to the billionaires to manage as we do here.

4 Comments

  1. Hey Chris, fun to come across your blog on the Cuba Tips page. WE will be heading back off resort with the teenagers next winter. Will message you for more tips when we do! Thanks for this,

    Malina

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