Destination: Cuba May 2009
A Super-Charged vacation, which was full on and full of fun
Facts on Cuba:
v Ruled by Fidel Castro since 1959 for 49 years, Cuba finally handed over the reigns to his younger brother Raul Castro in 2008.
v Cuba is the most populated country in the whole of the Caribbean.
v Cuba is home to hurricanes and destructive storms since it lies on the path of violent weather.
v The island of Cuba is the seventeenth largest island in the world by land area.
v The total land area of Cuba is 110,860 kilometers square.
v Cuba attracts around two million visitors per year.
v It has a number of beaches, colonial architecture, favorable climate and a rich cultural history to invite tourists from all over the world.
Our Vacation in Cuba was specifically to celebrate my 21st birthday (again). I’ve always been intrigued by Cuba and this was my opportunity to explore!
We arrived in Cuba at about 6.30 pm. It was still light outside and very warm. We were received by a group of about 20 guards, standing fully armed all around the exit of the aircraft. I immediately felt like a POW and was sure not to make eye contact with any of them – just in case they thought I looked suspicious!
The guards let us into the airport terminal and directed us to the booths ahead (customs and immigration). There another guard would question every individual as to reasons for entering Cuba, prior visits, etc. The word “interrogation” came to mind.
Once outside of the terminal our large group were told to exchange our money at the money bureau and we were guided (amid more guards) to shuttle busses, which were waiting to take us to our respective hotels.
Cuba has two currencies; the Cuban Peso (which is the currency that the locals are paid with) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (a currency specifically used for and by tourists).
Tourists cannot use the local currency and the Cubans are not able to use the convertible pesos unless they take the money to the bank to have it exchanged (at which point they will be investigated on how they received the convertible currency). One Cuban Convertible Peso is equivalent to 25 regular Cuban Pesos. $1.20 CND will buy you 1 convertible Cuban Peso, yes that’s right, the Convertible Cuban Peso is a stronger currency than the Canadian dollar!
As you can well understand this split currency causes much bribery and corruption, particularly in the tourism industry, where tourist guides and hotel staff, including waiting staff are able to get tipped in Convertible Pesos and when they bank their money there are no questions asked (by the government).
The average monthly wage in Cuba is 18 Cuban Pesos a month per person regardless of age, or profession. People in more senior positions within a business unit are liable for a better income, i.e 2 or 3 Cuban Pesos more than the average worker, however a maximum of only 25 Cuban Pesos per month can be earned by any one person.
The Government provides housing. Residents who are able to live in their houses for 10 years are eligible to own it with no money being exchanged. Sadly, if one moves around quite a bit the prospect of owning your own home becomes harder to grasp. Each home is occupied by between 12 and 20 family members!
Hotel Rules and Regulations
The resort that we booked from Canada was massive – not quite my cup of tea, since I don’t particularly like crowds.
Check-in was simple. Hand over your credit card for incidentals and receive a blue plastic band on your arm to identify you. (I’m surprised we weren’t chipped or tattooed).
You sign for your room key and also for the lock to your safety deposit box. You are warned that if you lose the keys you will be liable to pay $25 pesos before you leave.
We paid for an upgraded package, which gave us one bottle of rum in our room, a daily mini bar restock, coffee and tea and an ocean view, however when we got to our room we had none of the above. Kim called reception to inquire about the mistake and we were asked to return to the reception for an exchange. The reception man looked at us and said the first thing that needs to change is our armbands! He cut the ones we had on off and replaced them with a silver VIP band, then he reassigned us our room.
Off we went in search of the new room, only to find that this one was even further from the sea and the room had absolutely no stock – especially not the rum we were expecting.
It took them three goes before we got an ocean view room and a bottle of rum – but no stocked fridge and certainly no coffee. In fact we got no coffee, no hand soap and no “stocks” for three days in a row. I spent my birthday in Havana – the capital city of Cuba. It was a lovely day. We flew into Havana at 6 am that morning and went on a tour of the city – by bus. We were then dropped off at Revolution Square for a day of shopping… Girls, don’t get all excited here… there’s absolutely no fun in shopping since they have no shops to speak of. Certainly no Burburry, Prada or La Coste!
Havana is a beautiful mix of colonial architecture and distant memories of a once extremely opulent and highly wealthy country.
Sadly after the revolution, the country was not kept to the same standard that it was previously in and it began to decline. The buildings are still there but they are very run down and shabby.
The streets are narrow and cobble stoned and there is evidence that the pavements were once tiled with high gloss ceramic tiles.
Dwellings are among businesses and because there is absolutely NO advertising it is hard to know which doors one can enter and which one should stay out of.
The difference, I noticed was that if it was a shop of sorts, the doorway would be easily accessible, but if it was a dwelling then there’d be a person sitting at the entrance obscuring your entry.
The main mode of transportation is bicycle. There is a large number of bicycles on the roads and an even higher quantity of bicycle taxi’s.
One also sees a high percentage of horses with carts, ancient cars and people operating wheel chairs – I kid you not!
The Medico (hospital) is in the centre of Revolution Square, among shops, houses and dead street rats.
The average age of the Cubans is 35, with a 97 % literacy rate. There are only two pathways for any individual living in Cuba: the schooling pathway or rehab.
Most Cubans are very highly educated and due to the scarcity of jobs, there’s a strong probability that you will be served by your waiter who is actually a qualified doctor or attorney.
The Government opens up a certain number of positions a year for students. They will say, “right this year we have enough positions for 20 doctors”, if there are 60 qualified doctors then the other 40 qualified doctors can either go on to study something else, or they can enter into the working environment as something else which is more needed, i.e a gardener or cleaner.
Toilet paper is a rare commodity! Every trip out of the hotel we were advised to take our own toilet paper with us. The situation was so severe that when going to a washroom in the city (any city in Cuba) there is no toilet paper at all and if one goes into a hotel, one has to ask for paper – if you’ve forgotten to take your own... and in that event you are given three single ply blocks.
My favourite activity during the entire trip was getting a ride in a hang-glider, which had a rubber duck attached to the bottom of it. The hang-glider took off from the sea and landed in the sea.
We spent time snorkeling in a marine breeding ground at the inlet from the sea into the estuary. The currents were wild and we had to hang onto ropes to be able to swim against the tide.
We went boating, twice. The first time we were taken on a boat ride in the mangrove swamps. A beautiful area filled with air plants and orchids clinging to the mangroves. We also saw a humming bird perched on its nest about 20 cm above the water.
Our second boat ride was riding in convoy two people per boat and swapping half way for a return ride. We did an obstacle course, which was awesome.
We went for a long bicycle taxi ride and visited a cigar factory. We also took a steam train ride and went to a sugarcane mill, where the locals put on a play for us.
We took a bus ride to the capital city of the province we were staying in – Ciego De Avila – about two hours drive from where we were at.
We walked around the city and went to a museum. We went into a pub where the locals played music for us while we sipped rum punches.
We hired motorcycles for a day and rode all over the island. We went to a city called Moron – not pronounced like you think; it’s pronounced “Morong” and the locals are highly offended if you call them Morons!
The Cuban food is rather bland. Their main meals are seafood, pork and chicken – no beef even though the countryside is littered with roaming cows.
The Cuban people are very friendly, with a quick sense of humour. They have clearly been brainwashed over the years as their stories about the country and Fidel and Raul Castro are all the same – word-for-word.
They praise Fidel and continually tell of how fortunate they are to have him and Raul as their leader. They all say they are happy with communism and that they have absolutely no complaints.
But one can notice the corruption on the streets and in the resorts. The locals sell cigars on the black market, in fact they sell anything on the black market and they will do anything for a tip!
The country-side is very tropical with many palm trees. The beaches are very white and the water is an awesome aquamarine colour.
We were told that no journalists – especially not from the USA - are allowed to come into the country to interview anyone or to write stories about what is going on within.
I went in search of books on Cuba but all I could find were books about the government and the country from a government perspective.
Magazines are nowhere to be found and cable or satellite television is unheard of. For those fortunate enough to own a television, they are still using the old bubble television; no modern wall mounted televisions anywhere!
The few shops that we did go into were incredibly hot and stuffy. The government switches off all electricity during periods of the day and luxuries such as air conditioners are not found. Some shops have the luxury of a small floor or counter mounted fan, but other than that, there is no other means of cooling the buildings down.
The shops sell anything and everything – all mixed together. From plastic containers to tin food to material nappies! Shelves are sparsely filled, and what is there hardly seems worth the effort.
No one is allowed to take a handbag into any shops, handbags have to be handed in at the front of the store, no cameras are allowed in the shops at all – which I found rather confronting because my camera is part of my anatomy.
The banks are very secure too. One is ushered into the bank and told by a guard which queue to stand in. If that’s the wrong queue then when you get to the front the girl behind the glass partition will tell you to stand in another queue and so forth. One can go from one queue to the next all afternoon if one is directed to the wrong queue in the first instance.
There are security cameras everywhere, so it would be really difficult to break the law and get away with it. One gets the sense that ‘Big Brother” is always on the look out for law breaking citizens. Cuba is well worth a visit if you are prepared to be transported into a bygone era. There is still a huge amount of beauty around and the people are incredibly friendly and helpful.
If you are planning a trip however, do be sure to get all your inoculations up to date!