Understanding Cuba: What No One Talks About

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I’ve been hearing stories about Cuba since childhood, as my parents went on their honeymoon there. Then, I ended up in high school that had Jose Marti for a patron. To European visitors, Cuba has been opened as long as I can remember, but the country has never experienced a tourist boom like it happened with Thailand or Egypt. It was just one of many islands with stunning beaches in the Caribbean. Of course, on top of everything, it had the old cars and colonial architecture, but so did some other countries in the region.

Since the US lifted a ban on traveling to Cuba almost 2 years ago, it seems to me that Cuba has become a new ‘trendy’ destination. We can’t deny that Cuba is experiencing a tourism boom at the moment. On every travel forum, someone talks about going to Cuba on a weekly basis, and even my American friends who barely travel, suddenly want to visit Cuba on their next annual leave. Why?

Truth to be told, since the ban was lifted nothing had changed in Cuba for the first year. Nobody built new hotels, resorts, new attractions or new beaches haven’t opened. But it’s not only that. Even before the ban American could technically still travel to Cuba through Mexico, purchasing their tourist card (visa) at the airport, just like they’re still doing these days. So I’m asking…

Why does everyone want to visit Cuba now?

Vinales Cuba

Cuba is a truly unique country, surrounded by many myths, and filled with antagonistic ideologies. Its natural beauty, overwhelming cultures, and contradictions is one of a kind. But, as I already briefly said in my travel tips for Cuba article, there are many misconceptions about traveling there.

Many travelers who go to Cuba, stay in Havana, Vinales, and Varadero. They enjoy the tourist route and come back home, astonished how fun Cuba was, but complaining that the food was awful and there were lots of scams. Those who visit Cuba on newly launched cruises, usually spend a day or two maximum in Havana loving the old cars. I heard the same thing countless numbers of time.

One would say that the sudden increase of tourism in Cuba is a good thing, but knowing what I know – after my visit to Cuba, I’m not entirely sure about that. Cuba isn’t there only for tourists’ entertainment. Going to Cuba isn’t the same things as going to Riviera Maya in Mexico, and that’s what many people simply don’t understand. The situation in Cuba is often hard to understand even for Cubans, leave alone visitors who spend a very short amount of time there.

Cuba street

I myself, still have a lot more to learn about Cuba, this is why I’m planning on returning at some point, but here’s what I can tell you so far. I was fortunate enough to visit smaller towns with no tourists at all, and thanks to my fluent Spanish I was able to have longer chats with locals.

I began to struggle with the way Cuba is presented on social media. Especially since it’s one of the upcoming ‘Instagram-famous’ places. By no means, I’m saying not to visit Cuba, quite the opposite. But if you visit, please understand the place beyond the colorful walls on Instagram.

Cuba ethically


Cuba isn’t going to get ‘Americanized’

One of the biggest misconceptions about Cuba is the perception of it being Americanized. That’s why everyone should rush to see it – many people say. Here’s a spoiler alert: the country isn’t going to change very soon. While the cruises dock there these days and hotel chains like Kempinski are purchasing lands, the situation in the country isn’t going to make it commercialized anytime soon. Because who’s going to pay for the renovation of the road that leads to the fancy hotel?

In fact, due to the increase of tourism the country is experiencing various problems. Starting from the fact that the country did run out of beer a few months ago, because tourists have drunk it all, through terrible roads and lack of many gas stations, to heavy limitations on dollar exchange. The country isn’t ready to become the next spot with luxury resorts outside of Varadero and fancy Michelin star dining.

With current Trump administration, things have become even more uncertain. No one knows whether the new U.S. President will live up to his promises of reversing Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba if, in his own words, the island “is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people”.

I saw an article by a fellow travel blogger some time ago that said they people painting buildings, rebuilding old walls and the capital building was full of scaffolding. This person made a conclusion that Cuba is preparing for something big, such as an influx of Americans to come and visit. While it’s a fair observation, as Havana is being constantly renovated, it’s only an illusion. In fact, if I didn’t talk to locals I’d have thought the same thing.

Cuba capitol

Scaffolding at capitol building

Apparently, Havana has ALWAYS been under renovation. Locals explained to me that when someone important comes to town, political delegation or the Pope, the main streets leading from the airport all the way to the capital building are being painted and rebuilt. New bricks, new bright colors, new ornaments – everything looks colorful and shiny.

It doesn’t last very long, as it’s made in a crappy way in order to someone to get money for the new investment when the time comes. Also, the constructions don’t touch any side streets, ‘because they won’t let the important people go there’.

I know this issue too well from Poland, a country with the same communist past, where these ‘investments’ were happening way too often. The most obvious example would be the infamous tunnel in Warsaw where someone decided to spend millions on building a tunnel (that actually ended up being not tall enough for trucks) on a perfectly good road right next to the river. The reason? To put some grass on top of it so someone up there could make a lot of money.

Cuban women


Old cars aren’t a cool ‘back in time’ experience to Cubans

We all go to Cuba to experience the old cars. They’re cool, they’re cute. I remember some of these cars from my childhood, especially Fiat 126p known in Poland as ‘Maluch’ that’s making its debut in Cuba nowadays. My mom had this car, my grandma had this car, everyone had this car. There aren’t any of them left in Poland anymore, but in Cuba they’re everywhere. It was cramped and hard to drive, but it was economical so that’s why they’re in Cuba.

Understanding Cuba: What Noone Talks About

The old ‘Cuban’ cars are actually very expensive and extremely hard to maintain. When we arranged with our taxi driver to take us to Vinales he asked for $15 per person. To us, it wasn’t much for a 2-hour drive, so we thought we’re getting a good deal.

The driver showed up to our casa particular late, but didn’t want to tell us why. The owner of our casa told us that the driver was up all night repairing the car, as it broke down the day before. He gave us the word that he’s going to be there and he wanted to make money, so he was. But he had to go through a lot of trouble to get his car ready for us.

On the way to Vinales the driver opened up about the car situation, explaining that in order to buy this car he had to sell his apartment, following a divorce. He said: ‘Once I divorced, I bought an apartment but had no car, so there was no work for me. I moved out and got this car, but it keeps breaking as it’s very old’.

The reality is that those classic cars aren’t the only cars available in Cuba. There are many modern models out there. Once I arranged a car rental (which was a new white unknown to us model) and took it around smaller town, we always received many strange looks. It wasn’t because we were 4 white people in a car, but as I was told later, it’d be just like cruising around a small town in Nebraska in a Ferrari or Lamborghini. No one local can afford those cars.

Vehicle at Vinales gas station

Vehicle at Vinales gas station


Cuban aren’t kept away from the rest of the world

There is a perception that because the internet still isn’t available to everyone, it may seem that Cubans must be living in their own world, only exposed to the information their government wants them to hear. During my first stay in a casa particular I was astonished how much do locals know about the world, its history and culture.

When I said I was born in Poland, I ended up having a discussion about some details from Polish history I didn’t expect anyone foreign to know. Locals use their friends and relatives abroad to send them books, newspapers, and magazines to learn. They’re definitely not living in their own bubble. They aren’t brainwashed.

In terms of the impact of foreign culture, bars play modern pop like Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran or Demi Lovato on a regular basis. They know the latest songs and listen to them on their phones or MP3 players.

Houses in Cuba


Cuba has advanced medical care

If you’re worried about potential scary diseases in Cuba, you can stop now. Cuba is very poor, and yet the country has some of the healthiest and most long-lived residents in the world. But that’s not all. Thanks to government investment in scientific research (I think it’s worth mentioning that any government’s actions can be classified as just black and white) Cuba is way ahead of the medical innovations than the US.

If you turn on the TV in the US, you’ll see the crazy amount of commercials promoting biological drugs that work for many autoimmune diseases. Humira, Enbrel, Stelara, just to name a few. I notice it a lot since I have psoriasis myself, but biologics aren’t yet available for me as a non-citizen. It turns out that while these drugs are ridiculously expensive in the US or Australia (approx. $46,000 a year) since they’re new and supposedly its production cost a lot, they were innovated and used in Cuba for a while for a more affordable price.

Let me give you another example: CimaVax vaccination. It targets a growth factor in cancer cells in a way that can arrest the spread of the disease (particularly for lung cancer) and costs a $1 to make! Cuba is an unlikely global leader in public health and scientific investment.

goats Cuba

Petting a goat at Cuban house


Cubans can’t see some pretty things you can see

While travelers can stay in some of the Varadero’s luxury resorts and hang out on one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen, unfortunately, Cubans can’t share the same experience. And I’m not talking about the issue of affordability of the resort, but the beach itself.

In Varadero, there’s only a small amount of public beach. While officially, beaches in front of resorts don’t belong to them, locals aren’t allowed to go there. If they try, the police will take them off the beach immediately, as they don’t want locals to hang out with tourists. While some visitors want to enjoy a high standard of accommodation and would prefer to see only the ‘fake bubble’ of Cuba within the borders of the resort, I’d ask myself a question: why go to Cuba then?

This is also why I recommend staying in casa particular over a hotel, as you can get to know and talk to some locals, support them financially, save more money (because hotels are expensive), plus the standard of casas is usually high.

Line to the store in Havana

Line at the store in Havana


Think who do you want to buy cigars from

After a few days in Havana, I got to visit Vinales in the western part of Cuba. Vinales is known for the lush sprawling tobacco fields, as most of Cuban cigars come from there. Tourists almost always buy cigars in Cuba without thinking where they came from, and I would have probably done the same if I didn’t stop by a small farm.

My friends and I were taking photos of a goat standing in front of the tobacco barn when an old lady gave us a sign to come in. So we did. She showed us around her farm, explained us the drying process and showed us how she rolls the cigars. After the tour, she asked us if we were planning on buying some cigars and since we did, she explained to us how does her business work.

It turned out that every tobacco farmer is forced to give the government 90% of their produce. They pay an absolutely ridiculously low money for the amount of work involved. The governmental factory then adds chemicals to the tobacco, seals the cigars with a glue and fancy stickers, packs them in a nice box, and sells them at an insane markup in government-run shops. We paid less than 1/3 of the price the cigars normally costs and they were seriously the same, minus the fancy sticker.

Cuban cigars

The lady made us promise we won’t post any photos of her face.


So what can you do to visit Cuba ethically?

Bring useful things that you can give locals. Painkillers, toys, school supplies, gardening gloves, vitamins, sunglasses, fishing lines, and clothes will be welcome.

Stay at casas particulares instead of resorts and big hotels. Another issue with big hotels chains entering the Cuban market is that there will be no more shortage of housing, and therefore need for casas particulares. While Cubans will be hired to work at these hotels, they won’t make more than 15 or 20 CUC a month and get standard food ration cards.

It isn’t enough money to have, especially considering that one night at casa particular costs visitors 20-35 CUC. After the governmental fee reduction, they can still make more money on a few nights than for a month’s work at a new hotel.

casa particular Cuba

Buy cigars directly from farmers in Vinales. This way you can make sure that the money goes directly to those who produce tobacco.

How to Visit Cuba Ethically?

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Don’t visit Cuba just because it’s trendy because it’s now sort of opened to Americans. If you want to visit Cuba ethically, try to understand the history of the country and its situation. What can be cool and different to you, might not be to locals. This is why no one should treat Cuba like the next ‘Wonderland’ and complain about its faults, but respect it for what it is and help locals when we can.

Questions? Thoughts? Let me know in the comment section below!

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13 Comments

  1. Oct 28, 2017 / 7:56 am

    Wow! I loved your stories and captured photos. Amazing!
    Take good care while traveling.

    More post to go.

  2. Oct 28, 2017 / 9:33 am

    I’m so glad you addressed this in a post. Cuba has been at the top of my bucket list for years because I wanted to learn about the history of the country and how it has developed. Your tips were really helpful but I had one more question. When do you think is the best time of year to visit Cuba?

    • Oct 29, 2017 / 6:09 pm

      It’s usually advisable not to visit between July and October due to hurricane season and wet days, but apart from it anytime really.

      • Oct 30, 2017 / 7:44 pm

        Thanks I will look into it. I just started following you on Instagram and I love your latest pictures btw.

  3. Oct 30, 2017 / 2:17 am

    Excellent post. I’ve been turned off by people who go to Cuba and seem to blantantly ignore what life is like for the people there. I’m glad you’ve outlined how to travel there ethically, and some of the problems that Cubans face, and how we can be cognizant if we do visit. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Michael
    Oct 30, 2017 / 2:45 am

    I couldn’t agree with this article more. My wife and I visited Cuba in June for our 10th wedding anniversary. We stayed in 2 different Casa’s and spent time in Havana and Vinales. Staying at Casa’s were beautiful and we wouldn’t have done it any different. Our hosts even offered to cook for us and they were the best meals on the island. They are also the most genuine people we’ve ever met, so much that we didn’t want to leave. Everyone we met on the island was warm and welcoming. They generally want to know your story and where you’re from and surprise you with what they know. We would spend hours just walking around through the different parts and enjoying conversations. It’s just different, yet so refreshing. I agree with the cigars in Vinales. We were also told about how the government takes most of their crop. We bought most of our cigars there and everyone at home that has tried them has loved them even more than the traditional government cigars. We can’t wait to return to travel to even more parts of Cuba, we want to take our kids next time to experience it as well. To show them what life should be lived like. Loving every moment and those around you. To make new friends and spend an evening on the Malecon with strangers laughing and enjoying the breeze. It can’t get here soon enough

  5. John Smith
    Nov 2, 2017 / 1:11 pm

    Cuba had a dramatic history, and exploring those phases of Cuba will be so fantastic in this new era. Thanks Anna for sharing a nice post.

  6. Hazwani
    Nov 5, 2017 / 1:46 am

    Hi Anna. Thank you for writing from a different perspective. Now I know what is actually going on behind the colorful photos of Cuba in the social media.

    I couldn’t help but notice a few repeated sentences/paragraphs in the article. Perhaps you may want to go through the article again and get that sorted out. Apart from that, it was beautifully written.

    Keep on writing. You are good at that.

    Have a good day Anna.

    • Nov 5, 2017 / 5:42 pm

      It could be my WordPress editor that recently copies and pastes stuff for some reason. Thanks for letting me know!

  7. Ed Tow
    Nov 5, 2017 / 12:45 pm

    YES – an amazing, eye-opening post. My wife & I went a couple of years back, … and while the tour was given a “religious” “people-to-people” structure [of necessity, then, for Americanos!], we definitely WERE “in a bubble.” I suspect that for Americans, in particular, even in 2017, one has to be pretty savvy and determined to do it your way, but it’s not as daunting as a 500-mile “hiking trip,” among many other alternatives.

  8. Nov 11, 2017 / 12:45 am

    Hi anna . Thats a good out look on cuba . There is alot behind the scences that people dont know about

  9. Safford Oakley
    Nov 14, 2017 / 6:47 am

    This article is very interesting and showing the true face of current Cuba. For all who think Cuba is going to be another Thailand this will be a eye opener. Every country has it’ s own ups and downs and Cuba is the same. Like Cuba has advanced healthcare but home situation is not good. Thanks for this interesting article and keep these kind of things coming. This is what should we called a real travel blogging. Cheers.

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