Cuba remains a mysterious place to many people, specifically Americans who are now again prohibited from visiting the country. Fortunately for me, I was able to slip in and out in the short time span that Americans were legally allowed to visit. In addition to having the time of my life, I discovered that there are a plethora of myths surrounding travel to Cuba.
Before going, I received many warnings, scoffs, and comments in the vein of “why do you want to go to Cuba… it’s dangerous.” Me being the brat that I am, I feel obliged to debunk several of these myths which are thrown around as illegitimate facts. Sure, bad things happen… maybe I got lucky, who knows?
What I am certain of is that while traveling through Cuba in April, I could not grip my mind around how many contrasts arose between what I read or heard, and what I experienced. From the idea that everyone was going to attempt to swindle me, to the rumor that locals couldn’t talk to tourists, and everything in between, there’s a lot of inconsistent information floating around online.
Let’s push ourselves past the common misconceptions, cloudy facts and bad experiences of others to see the true reality of what travel in Cuba is really like.
This notion could not be further from the truth! It was not uncommon to see Cubans dressed in clothing with American Flag graphics from head to toe or hear “I love America” shouted from across the street. In addition, I had several thoughtful conversations with locals who identified Americans as their neighbors. Though, with the embargo reinstated, I doubt their opinion of Trump has improved.
Ahh the ever sobering reality of being in a foreign country. You surrender control and hope for the best. You use common sense and try to rely on internal devices to protect you. I have experienced this feeling… but not in Cuba. Sadly, I heard about numerous experiences where foreigners found random costs added to their bills at restaurants. Perhaps we got lucky, but it didn’t happen to us once.
No, not everyone is trying to swindle you. But there is a reason that the Cuban word “jineteros” is dedicated to the hustlers. It is a problem. Warning: do not throw this around, it’s a highly offensive term. There is an ubiquitous hustle buzzing around you at all times, and scammers are just waiting for naive tourists to fall for their tricks. This can be avoided though, by using common sense!
It’s not often you visit a country with two currencies, so you have to familiarize yourself with them both to avoid getting short changed. Don’t follow anyone anywhere, don’t change money on the streets (guilty, but I recommend avoiding it), and bring enough coin for tips. To clarify: tipping is not a scam, but it does add up. From the guitarist serenading you at the patio cafe to the attendant at the baños, everyone wants a tip. At one point I was asked for a CUC $20 because a magician sneakily stole Steve’s watch and gave it back.
Creepy tricks = zero tips!
Ok, this one is relatively true. Forever? No. It’s more accurate to factor an hour wait from when you order your food. This is a stark contrast from American eating, which revolves around the industry incentive of “turning tables” to get customers in and out as quickly as possible. Cuba aligns more with European dining, where meals are a destination meant for socializing.
There are places where you can get “fast” food. Or you can instead savor Cuban culture, relax in your seat and enjoy the live music and various renditions of “Guantanamera” and “El Chan Chan.” Trust me you will hear these classics enough times to learn the words verbatim.
When researching what to pack I read to bring travel sized pouches of salt, pepper, and hot sauce because the food would be bland. It’s true, it’s rare to find salt and pepper on tables. I wouldn’t recommend people visit Cuba for the food alone, but I did have some delicious meals. Organic farming is a way of life in Cuba so many meals I had were fresh and light.
Sure, I had some substandard and even bad food, but I can’t call Cuban food bad just because of those bad apples. I had amazing vegetable risotto in Havana, savory soup at a farm in Viñales… and discovered the best snack in the world: fried plantains. Legitimately, my bar of expectations for snacks reached new heights with those fluffy-on-the-inside and crispy-on-the-outside freshly fried delectable treats.
Perhaps my favorite food of all were the homemade Cuban breakfasts at the casa particulars. Eggs, bread, local fruits and fresh squeezed juice… what more can you possibly ask for?
Cuba is a developing country. Categorizing countries into first, second or third world countries is not relative to how our world works anymore. It’s outdated and now considered offensive. Yes, the cars are old, the water is not drinkable and the infrastructure in many cities is in disrepair. However, Cuba is modernizing. There is now internet, and Cubans have free education and medical care. I can think of one developed country that lacks two of these important qualities, *cough* USA. Just sayin’…
Do you know why American banks cannot do business in Cuba? Because, as the bank teller told me in America before I left for Cuba, the U.S. government regards Cuba as a “high risk” country. In a nutshell, I felt safer in Cuba than any other country I’ve ever traveled to. Cuba is considered high risk or dangerous to people who haven’t recovered from the Cold War. It’s 2017, guys, GET OVER IT.
This myth is heartbreaking to me. When pondering what a high risk country looks like, bloody images of soldiers evading gunfire in conflict war zones arise. The biggest danger I ran into while in Cuba was breaking my ankle on the cobbled stone streets of Trinidad.
Cuba is not dangerous for tourists. I’m not trying to throw a blanket over the fractures that do blatantly exist. What I am saying is that if you have never been to Cuba… don’t consider it a dangerous or high risk country.
Internet is available in Cuba. Big hotels have it and locals seem to be able to access it without any trouble. First you purchase an internet card from a cafe or store. Then you have find a place with Wi-Fi. We were told to look for an ETECSA sign, signifying a Wi-Fi spot, but had more luck keeping our eyes peeled for crowds of people looking down at their phones.
Anytime I tried to get on the Wi-Fi, I would get kicked off about every 2-3 minutes. I don’t know if it’s just my phone, but Steve had the same thing happen. This circumstance didn’t trouble me too much. Instead of using GPS, I asked locals for directions, practiced my Spanish, and got to know people. Try it, it’s very fun!
There’s this stigma that because of Cuba’s contentious history, citizens aren’t allowed to talk about it with foreigners. I can’t say whether or not this is true legally, but I didn’t experience it. Politics, economics, and Cuban-U.S. relations surfaced in several conversations I had with locals and owners of the casa particulars we stayed at. I think the underlying message here is that you get out what you put in. If you’re curious about something, ask. If you want to know how people feel, all you need to do is talk to them.
There is some truth to this. Unfortunately, begging is a constant thing. Moreover, you will be inundated with people trying to sell you something. If I had a penny for every time I heard “taxi!” screamed my way, well… I’d have quite a few dollars. For the most part, a “no gracias” will suffice, but in all honesty it does wear on you. I don’t mind it in the streets because I expect that. Perhaps the most disheartening moment for me was when I was eating at a restaurant and the staff started asking me for my belongings. I splurged on a filtered water bottle so that I could drink water without buying bottles, I made the mistake of buying a pink one which many people wanted to give to their daughters.
It can be very uncomfortable, you feel like a jerk because of the fact that you have things. Often times I felt that simply because I traveled to Cuba I was regarded as wealthy, despite my being a struggling student in my own country.
It’s a very humbling experience that is bound to occur, you just have to keep your composure, be compassionate and respectful. Bring something that you’re willing to give up. We brought little key chains from home that said “I love LA” and some people brought candies for the kids. Having a little something to give helps bridge the gap between you and the locals.
Of course, I save the best for last. I wouldn’t call this idea a myth because that adds a negative connotation. People complain about the smell of exhaust, but where else in the world can you go and see streets lined with classic American and Russian cars. Sure, sights like horse and buggies and people actually socializing in the streets and children playing outside are scenes of the past to some of us. It is an endearing visual spectacle of old-school tradition. But Cubans don’t live under some sort of outdated rock. The people are up to date on current events and they’ve adopted modern amenities like A/C and internet.
Cuba isn’t exactly frozen in time, it’s simply a playground for nostalgics.
Have you been to Cuba? Comment below with what surprised you most and if you were able to debunk any myths of your own!
So now you know the truth about travel to Cuba. Click here to read about daily life for the locals in Havana, Cuba.