Cuba, like every other country out there, has its quirks and also its downsides. I plan to be frank because that’s honestly the best thing I could do for the island I fell for. And really, this is not meant to discourage anyone from going because I think everyone should get the chance to visit at least, as you’ll see in the second half of this article.
Here are the 5 things I love and hate about Cuba:
5 Things I Hate
- Piropos definitely top the list. Coming from the United States where catcalling happens but where there is huge campaigning and shaming against it, this was a little strange. However, having lived and visited Mexico, I was not a stranger to this familiar time of catcalling that was neither usually aggressive or crass. On average, foreign-looking women or tourists would get the most because of perceptions of tourists (and especially American tourists) being naive but also being unavailable. Because relations between Cubans and foreigners are low-key not encouraged (due to Cuba’s history which involves several waves of emigration), catcalling is a sort of limited connection and power over foreign women that isn’t existent in any other space. Many people say it’s best to ignore them and I definitely agree. If they get out of hand or the person gets to close/ makes you too uncomfortable, a quick “dejame en paz” which means “leave me alone” will do the trick. But don’t be surprised when professional hotel staff, restaurant workers, taxi drivers, or policemen partake in this disgusting ritual.
- Hustling was wide and rampant. And while I didn’t like it, I realized that it was necessary. I mean, how else are people going to go about living their lives if not by making money. The biggest money is in tourism and tourists so, putting the pieces together, you do what you have to do. Mostly, this happened in Old Havana in shops where people tried to sell things triple their worth or sell fake cigars, etc. Be smart and do what feels right. Regardless, I felt it was way better buying from small shops and individuals than to the bigger state chains or hotels.
- Access to certain goods I sometimes needed. When I ran out of deodorant and toothpaste I was in a doozy because I couldn’t find any in stores and hand sanitizer (which I highly recommend you bring) cost 7 USD for 3 oz. This simply meant that I had to be better prepared or a better traveller which is good advice in general but it also meant that I had to bring enough peanut butter to last me a semester (although I only brought enough for 2 weeks) and anything else I might need since Amazon doesn’t work there (for you naive travelers out there). This was really inconvenient only for the first couple of weeks but then you learn the tricks to make things yourself or your friends are usually kind enough to help out.
- Bad roads and potholes. While some more popular streets are usually free of road damage, most Cuban sidewalks and streets are speckled with holes and rubble. However, this was only a disadvantage when it was rainy and rubble washed around everywhere or when I was going out. And although I wasn’t wearing heels (don’t bring heels!), it hurts walking in flats on uneven sidewalks.
- The Way Tourists Act in Cuba. Sometimes, no a lot of times people visit countries without having read up on their history or current state of affairs (I know I do this). That can be particularly damaging, especially in places like Cuba where most of what we know are stereotypes and histories as told by major powers like the U.S. This leads to people sneering at people experiencing homelessness in Cuba because “socialism means everyone is taken care of so this must be a hustle” or the occasional “that’s so cheap” when going to a shopping plaza. What one has to realize is that the average monthly salary for Cubans comes to equal about 30 USD but is often less than that and many people are unemployed. Cuba has a huge tourism industry and everyone caters to it and around it. Up until recent years, cubans were forbidden from renting out hotel rooms even. Much of the “historical” areas tend to be catered towards tourists so they leave out the damaging parts of U.S. imperialism and the hardships of the country. It is out job to be informed and act appropriately while in these spaces with cuban people. It is our job to not be arrogant and patronizing. I’ll leave that to you to take care of.
5 Things I Love
- The food is something I loved and missed dearly. At my homestay we would get a breakfast buffet of various sliced in-season fruit like fruta bomba, guayaba, and platano dulce along with toast and jalea and smoothies. For dinner we would often have bean soup, rice and avocado, and salad and, of course, dessert. In my case, my moms would get me vegan pie! And as far as traveling goes, Cuba is one of the most affordable destinations where I would usually spend 22 MN or less than 1 USD on lunch and where splurging on a bougie restaurant with a 4 course meal would leave me 10 USD short. Not only is everything typically fresh (which has its ups and downs, namely regarding the blockade) and local, but its varied. The only thing I heard complaints about was the lack of spice and tase with some foods but I just add salt and I’m good to go. Moreover, vegetables and meat tend to be more expensive so many means will have very little meat. In other words, being a vegan was okay while in Cuba because my host moms were creative in making meals and people were rather accommodating with not adding cheese to pasta or using olive oil instead of butter. I would often get the side eye but then I would explain and they would say it was “interesante“.
- The cafe cubano was to die for! I have the biggest sweet tooth so discovering cafe cubans after never having liked coffee (sorry Starbucks) was a godsend. Basically, it’s a shot of espresso that is half dissolved sugar. I would always have one or two during our classroom break at about 11am just for a boost and treat. It is also usually offered for breakfast if you’re staying at an Air B and B or casa particular.
- The friendliness of the people. While it is always good to be vigilant and guarded, it isn’t good if it’s to the point that you aren’t speaking with any real Cubans. The you would have missed out on the experience of a lifetime getting to know wonderful people with unique perspectives on the world and otherwise. In my time there, I would visit the other “moms” in my building every evening for some chisme and cafe (gossip and coffee if you will) and go out in the evenings with fellow students around town. Strangers were always interested in where I was from (because my Spanish was so good being raised in a Mexican household) and what I was doing there. They would always be excited that I was Mexican-American and shocked when I said I was studying there for a few months. Walking around with a smile always got attention and I made many friends out of it.
- Cuban resilience had a huge impact on how I viewed the island. During my stay in Cuba, hurricane Irma happened and we were evacuated into the States. But during this time our Cuban families and the staff at the school stayed behind, witnessing the immense damage caused by the flooding and storms. Yet, people continued playing in the streets, enjoying each other’s company and afterwards helped with the clean up. That is something incredible that the state does, is it’s resilience work that other places (like Florida) lack. This is because they are prepared and know how to deal with problems like these. The biggest issue was both the water pipes which were filled with sand and that the water rose feet higher than expected which left more property and houses damaged. In any case, 2 weeks later my group was back in Havana and we were astounded at how much was already fixed and done.
- Accessibility, being a tourist, to many of Cuba’s natural wonders and picturesque cities like Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Vinales, and Varadero. This is something that I had to really reflect on and appreciate because I quickly realized that not every Cuban has every opportunity to travel like I did. For instance, I went with a group of friends to the beach resort Varadero for a weekend getaway which was incredible. However, when I was relaying my weekend plans to by boyfriend (who was Cuban) he said he had been to Varadero the spring before but that it took him months of saving up to be able to go.
- I know I said 5 but I just had to add this final one. I LOVE Cuban patriotism. I had never experienced or seen anything like it and it was almost odd how in love people were with their country. Whether this is from an early-age breeding (probably not possible because we do that in the States but not everyone is patriotic) or from a unique commitment to one’s country they cannot leave (simplistic deduction), or something else, I was obsessed. Cuban holidays had to do with past heroes and wars and everyone would celebrate, singing songs they learned in school, donning Cuban flags, and encouraging everyone to join in. Being that I consider myself rather unpatriotic given U.S.’s history and current state, I was perplexed and intrigued with this notion of patriotism and commitment. Maybe it’s the propaganda or compulsory military service, the censorship or maybe a mix of everything I mentioned and more. It’s something I’d like to look into more, that’s for certain.
All in all, I had the most incredible experience in Cuba and would do anything to go back now. I tell everyone that they have to visit and see what it is that enamored me because it truly is magical and amazing, but also a wonderful opportunity for those that are interested in science or medicine or art or literature because this country turns out the best and brightest of them all with incredible education systems and professional circles. It is also a great place for food lovers or nature-obsessed granolas.
If you have anything you particularly love or hate about Cuba, feel free to leave it in the comments below!