An introduction to Cuba

Monday, October 26, 2015


Cuba is a very odd place to be, I think that's why I chose the word planet. For us it really was an otherworldly experience. Imagine visiting a place where society is exactly the opposite to everything you have ever come to understand and know? Where things are structured differently and people live a completely different concept of life. It's very difficult for me to wrap your head around how far from conventional western living Cuba is, especially when you're backpacking. We encountered many issues, heard things we wished we hadn't and mostly had to come to terms with things we didn't like. 

Cuba at a glance

 ✓ Language: Spanish

✓ Currency: The CUC or the Cuban Peso - The CUC is the main currency available to tourists, the Cuban Peso is a local currency 

✓ Street food: $1-$5 - Get used to pizza's and jamon y queso bocadillos 

  Restaurant food: $10

  Mojitos: $1 - $3 depending on location

 ✓ Taxis: Expect to haggle and expect to pay more than you should

 ✓ Where to stay: Casas particulares - The homes of the Cuban people

All prices in US Dollar

Arriving in Havana


From the second we arrived in Havana we immersed ourselves in the Cuban way of life and soon began to learn some desperately ugly things about the political situation in Cuba. Because of everything I was able to experience during my time in Cuba the memories I have will always be bittersweet.. Although I cherish the time I spent within this colourful culture I still feel confused and frustrated.

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The streets of Havana, colourfully colonial


Confusion in Cuba

Communism is easy to understand in theory but seeing it first hand makes the concept hard to stomach in my personal opinion. Havana is a spectacular place to visit and Cuba in general as a destination is mesmerising. No other place I have visited or will visit will be as much of a mystery to me as Havana.  There is so much to see and learn from this mind blowing country but certain things about the Cuban situation left a sour taste in our mouths.

The colonial architecture is neglected and everything appears to be half finished and in need of  love and rejuvenation. The sensory experience Havana has to offer is endless and that certainly goes beyond the standard tourist hotspots. Havana is dirty, raw and real. It's residents have neglected the aging architecture and waste lines the streets and bay. Although there is a lethargic feeling in Havana it is a very compelling city, a city we chose to return too several times during our visit to Cuba.

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1950's classic American cars



Embracing Havana

Havana, as capitals go, is the heart and soul of Cuba. It's essentially everything good, bad, exciting and unknown about the country in one city. It's big but it's dirty. Havana is very polluted and unsanitary in most ways.

The streets of Havana themselves are busy and bustling all the time, but not int the same way the streets of Barcelona or London are. The busy streets are full of a what felt like a type of aimless busy to me. On the streets of Havana there are people everywhere, the streets are literally alive. There are people around at all hours of the day, hanging around attracted to the easy lure of tourists maybe. There seems to be a lot of doing nothing in Havana and I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing.

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Exploring Havana, walking down the other end of the Malecon where the water is heavily polluted with oil from the neighbouring factories 

Lots of time was spent in the Cuban capital sitting around with locals and wandering the streets with no real intent, just a desire to explore. Although the majority of people in Cuba are in employment, many locals spend their days hustling tourists.

In Havana there's always live music coming from somewhere, rum drinking (particularly mojitos) and the distinctive smell of a smoking cigar somewhere close by. I did often wonder if this was the real Havana or a Havana based mirage for us tourists to see. I  admire the laid back atmosphere in Havana and wonder if this feeling comes from Caribbean island culture.

I was so intrigued by the locals and everything they had to tell me. I spent as much time with the Cuban people as possible, knowing it was my best chance to engage and learn from them.From hours spent fishing on the malecon, to chatting on bus rides and in collectivos the Cuban people taught me a lot. From these exchanges I learnt many things about the Cuban way of life and it isn't all cigars and rum.

Cuba is a truly captivating destination, one that is truly unique to the world and one so different to the place I come from. Often, my first hand experiences in Cuba left me dazed. At times I felt anger towards the lifestyle the Cuban people had been forced into. The poverty I witness was one of the biggest motivators for this feeling.

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Central Havana, the newest and most prized area of town. All spruced up for the visit of the Pope



Getting around Havana - the hustlers paradise

As big as it is the majority of Havana can be explored on foot although every taxi driver you meet will tell you otherwise. The old centre of Havana, I feel, has a lot to offer culturally and once you get used to the hustling and begging you actually begin to appreciate its charm. The cathedral is in a surprisingly quiet and clean location with limited restaurant hustlers and sellers. During our first stint in Havana the pope was due to visit and lots of cleaning and maintenance was taking place in the majority of the locations we visited, especially around the cathedral. Obvious interviews were being filmed in the cathedral plaza but it remained mostly uncrowded compared to the other residential streets. 

Often, especially around the tourist areas of Havana people would stop us in the street and ask to take our clothing. We spoke to a gentleman in his 40's who told us clothing was a big problem in Cuba and I had no trouble believing that. Each of the Cubans we met were hoping of a new standard of life, from a University student who stopped to practice his English to the restaurant hustlers and everyone in between. I can't blame them but from what I saw I couldn't stop feeling like they didn't really help themselves.

To read more about Avoiding the Hustle in Havana and Cuba click here

Let me explain. In Cuba, they don't produce clothing, that's what the man told us. Does this mean people should turn to tourists for hand outs? Or should it go beyond that?  I felt like a lot of people were looking for handouts while we were in Cuba and I don't mean that to be disrespectful to Cuban's it is simply the fact of the matter. 




Escaping the madness

The Malecon is nice to walk for some escape and you can avoid the street sellers, hustlers and big talkers if you can stand the un-shaded concrete long enough. The old town of Havana has more charm than the other areas of the city, Jamie and I chose to spend most of our time there hunting shade on uneven and confused cobbles.

The hustle was a daily struggle. We were approached on many occasions to buy people baby milk, alcohol, food and even give up some of our personal possessions. It's obviously very saddening to see this and it's deeply upsetting to think that these people have lived a lifetime without such items. It appeared that this had worked many times before and people almost seemed expectant. This led me to question the relationship between the Cuban people and tourism. 




Questions in Cuba

The Cuba I got to see was a complacent one. The people of Cuba were unhappy with their situation but not willing to take a stance. There is no real incentive to work or succeed beyond what is expected of you. This is not something I just woke up and decided, the people we engaged with told us so themselves. A surgeon working as a restaurant hustler in old Havana. A Geologist turned taxi driver in Trinidad. A budding musician turned casa owner in Viñales. Many educated and well trained professionals leaving their jobs as doctors, teachers and scientists to be closer to the tourists. Again, a false economy. I think a lot of the complacency I witnessed in Cuba was born from the lack of capitalist culture. 


Che on a building at Cuba's - heavily secured, heavily armed - Revolution Square and the narrow neglected streets of Havana

On a bus ride from Playa Giron to Playa Larga we met someone who was willing to shine some light on national wages for us.  He made so many interesting arguments that I now feel compelled to share them. He talked about the marginal difference between a bus drivers monthly wage and a doctor's. He told us that in Cuba, it doesn't matter how long you work or how hard you work everyone gets the same. Do you really blame anyone who wants to leave that behind and work with tourism? It's human nature to want better yourself financially. It has nothing to do with politics.  

More Havana, More Revolution Square


Half the story

We spent most evenings fishing on the Malecon whilst in Havana, during sunset the temperature was just right. The locals would come over and sit with us and talk fishing with Jamie. We spent several hours down on the waterfront and we were able to meet a man who told us many compelling and fascinating truths about Cuba. On our final evening in Havana we met with our friend from the Malecon to spend our final evening drinking and learning together. Our friend talked hardships, hopes and dreams. Ever aware that people could be listening. He had grown up and lived in Downtown Havana all his life and even took us on a tour of his neighbourhood introducing us to more family members and friends. The Cuban people are some of the most social I have ever met.



On the waterfront with our friend we learnt some hard truths and about tourism in Cuba. We learnt of trading rations with restaurants, we learnt exactly why lobster is so cheap and we also learnt of how the Cuban people's lives are limited further by tourists unwilling to listen and learn.

Our friend from the Malecon talked about eating beef, something so trivial to you and I, but something so important to him. He had eaten beef once in his life. He told us that in his country, in Cuba. The beef was for the tourists. He said, 'It's for the restaurants'. A tragic truth if you ask me.

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People in Cuba are always friendly even when they have ulterior motives. This friendliness is something engraved in the Cuban culture, something infections we witnessed all over the country and not just in Havana.

The limited knowledge of the outside world in Cuba makes the friendly people very interested and eager to learn. The Cuban Revolution and Che Guevara (a non-Cuban hero in Cuba and king of all revolutions) are always top of the subject list. Of course, everyone's interested in what you know of the great Che. 

As someone who is all about learning I found Cuba deeply fascinating, Havana being the very height of that fascination. Cuba is the kind of place everyone should see in their lifetime. From our first night on the Malecon with the fishermen to each breakfast we chose to have in our casa's and each taxi ride in between. We met some truly charismatic individuals during our stay in Cuba. Every day was different, each filled with wonder, excitement and a new set of questions.


Living and learning - The truth about Havana and Cuba

To me Cuba is not mojitos on the beach, salsa dancing and sunsets. It's entirely different. It's a repressed nation crying out for change, unable and unwilling to do anything and desperate to tell someone. I feel lucky to have been given the opportunity to spend so much time with the Cuban people, listening, learning and realising.

We faced many difficulties whilst in Havana and in Cuba as a whole. Even buying water, a basic human right became a mission. We also found that it's difficult to be a non-conventional tourist in Cuba. There is a tourist stereotype in Cuba and it's not difficult to see why. The division of cultures starting with currency and restaurants right up to the understanding of Cuban culture was so apparent to me.


Cuba is actually by far the most hypnotic country I have ever visited. And each of the people I spent time with during my visit made each day incredibly fulfilling. But I ask you this.  Am I expected to like everything I saw in Cuba? The political situation? The deprivation? The ignorance and the unhappiness? The desire for change but the unwillingness to take a stance? Should I turn my head and let the things that I found unsettling pass? Am I just supposed to brush off my understanding and write about beaches, mojitos and stray dogs to please people. Or should I be true to myself and my Cuban experience? Cuban culture is undeniable brilliant but scratch the surface and there is a much more profound Cuba ready to be analysed by all. 

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