Cuba is like a prince in a poor man’s coat: behind the sometimes shabby facades, gold dust lingers. It’s these rich dichotomies that make travel here the exciting, exhilarating roller-coaster ride it is. Trapped in a time warp and reeling from an economic embargo that has grated for more than half a century, this is a country where you can wave goodbye to Western certainties and expect the unexpected. If Cuba were a book, it would be James Joyce’s Ulysses: layered, hard to grasp, serially misunderstood, but above all- a classic.
I fell in love with Cuba, and I fell HARD. What did I love about Cuba? So many things… First, the people. They are kind, friendly, helpful, educated, and resourceful. The culture- family oriented, fun loving, and they live their lives in the open. Front doors are open and family, friends, and neighbors are always coming and going. The music and dancing- When I was in college and for a few years after, I would go out salsa dancing a few nights a week, but I had not done that in 9 years. In Cuba, I danced every day I was there except one when I was ill. I also love the fact that it can frustrate you one minute and unexpectedly inspire you the next.
Being a Communist country, there are things that are difficult to grasp. The salary is very low, around $25 a month. As a tourist, everything seems so cheap but it’s not to Cubans. They cannot enjoy many of the things in their own country that tourists come to enjoy. A Doctor and a waiter make the same salary. My guide was an Industrial Engineer, but works as a tour guide because the tips are good. It seems that people who work in tourism- guides, drivers, etc. have it better because of the tips. Pretty much everyone rents out rooms in their home to tourists. There are many positive changes in Cuba in recent years, that started around the time Raul Castro assumed power…
- 2008- Raul Castro is officially inaugurated as Cuban president and embarks on his first set of reforms, permitting Cubans access to tourist hotels and allowing them to purchase mobile phones and electronic goods.
- 2009- The inauguration of Barack Obama signifies a long awaited thaw in Cuba – US relations. In an early act of rapprochement, Obama loosens restrictions for Cuban – Americans returning to the island to visit relatives.
- 2011- Raul Castro signals an economic thaw by announcing that the government plans to cut half a million jobs from the state sector and open up private enterprise to over 175 licensed businesses.
- 2014- Following a prisoner swap, Barack Obama announces the reestablishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba and a raft of measures including telecommunications aid and the easing of financial restrictions.
I don’t dare have political discussions there, but I wasn’t shy to ask my new Cuban friends about what they like most about Cuba, and what they don’t like. Many would say that they love the country and the culture but dislike the system. But others say they love it there, have absolutely no complaints, they have everything they need, and have never thought about going anywhere else, because they live in paradise.
I loved the natural beauty. Beaches, waterfalls, mountains, lush valleys, beautiful birds, and flowers. I would like to go back for a hiking tour- I did not make it to most of the best spots for that.
I loved the fact that it is so safe. Gun crime is virtually nonexistent and murder rates are below those of most Latin American countries. No drug problem in Cuba- possessing and selling drugs is seriously punished, you’d be looking at at least 20 years in a very rough prison.
In terms of physical safety, Cuba is a dream destination for women travelers. Most streets can be walked alone at night. Our group had hung out with a family from South Africa a few times, I was a little surprised when one night the father sent his 2 teenage daughters to walk back to the casa by themselves after midnight. He said it was the only place in the world he would ever let them do that. Violent crime is rare and the chivalrous part of machismo means you’ll never step into oncoming traffic. But machismo cuts both ways, protecting on one side and pursuing- relentlessly- on the other. Cuban women are used to piropos (the whistles, kissing sounds, and compliments constantly ringing in their ears), and might even reply with their own if they’re feeling frisky. For foreign women however it can feel like an invasion. It’s harmless. The best thing is to just enjoy it, and ignore it.
Another thing that made my trip so special was my group. We were a group of 13- 2 other Americans, 2 British, 1 French, 1 Scottish, 5 South Africans, and 1 Australian. I really enjoyed getting to know everyone. We had a lot of laughs!
Locally Sourced Cuba Tours – http://locallysourcedcuba.com did an excellent job all the way around on this trip. I highly recommend them. The pre trip communication was excellent and everything went smoothly, and that is not easy in Cuba. Another great thing about this company is that they never charge a single supplement! You don’t pay any extra for traveling alone and wanting your own room.
Manolo the guide was stellar. He really made sure everyone had a good time, and he did too. He knew I liked to dance, so I was never without a partner when the salsa music started.
Ariel our driver was always so professional and made us feel so safe with his driving. He could turn that bus around in the tightest spaces. Never taking a drink ever, even at dinner when the driving day was over, he took the responsibility very seriously. We became good friends. On the last few nights, long after everyone else had gone home after dinner or nightlife, we would sit out in the plazas talking and laughing. I’m still trying to figure out why so many tears came when I said goodbye to him.
Faye. What can I say. It is so nice to meet another young lady that loves to travel on her own. I sure wish I had more friends like her back home. We got along so well and I would love to do another trip with her someday. I had to get up a 3 AM on the morning of my flight. She set her alarm and woke up at that crazy hour to see me off. There were more tears.
I have been home now for 10 days, and every single day I have thought about how and when I can go back to Cuba. If you are reading this and are interested in going, either on your own or with a tour, please write me. Now that I have been with a tour, I would feel comfortable going on my own, and I have access to good resources for booking accomodations and transport.
- Lonely Planet Cuba 2015
- Locally Sourced Cuba Tours