Cuba Survival Guide Feb 2016
Havana is no longer frozen in time, at least not completely. With Cuba’s guarded openness to private enterprise grabbing hold, classic American cars and salsa singers now share the cityscape with new and inventive offerings in food, culture, night life and hospitality. No other city in Latin America, or perhaps the world, can claim to be having just the kind of moment that Havana is experiencing now after so many decades of being shut off from the rest of the world.
For visitors, the capital is a mash-up of past and present, freedom and restriction. It’s a city of architectural decay, but also creativity, where artists have turned a defunct cooking-oil factory into a performance space, bar and music venue that on any given night makes Brooklyn look as cool as a suburban Ikea. It’s a city where finding ingredients for a stellar menu requires feats of Promethean ingenuity; where opera is subversive, and kitschy too; where the Internet is just arriving, fully formed and censored; and where young Cubans without money are fleeing, while those with connections and ideas await great success.
Officially, some limits for Americans remain in place. Despite restored relations with Cuba, tourism is still banned by the embargo but Americans are flocking to the island, wanting to savour the “forbidden fruit” before Starbucks and McDonalds arrive. Adventurous Europeans having been travelling to Cuba for years but it’s only recently that Cuba has become so popular that travelers might mistake it for a mainstream destination.
So many people wanting to visit Cuba at the moment that we have put together a survival guide which helps you prepared for a trip to Cuba, the country that is ready to entertain and confound.
Expect the unexpected
The first rule of any trip to Cuba is that nothing is set in stone. Even though your booking was made a year ago and your agency has confirmed that all is in place, things can change quickly and at the last minute. The Cuban tourism industry continues to be controlled almost entirely by the State and its reservations systems are fallible and rickety. By law, most of your services will have to be booked through the central reservations systems – designed for the good old days when barely a European or an American came to the island. Now that Cuba is so popular, the system is critically overstretched and things do go wrong frequently. Go with the flow and take it as part of the Cuban experience.
Cuba really is buzzing at the moment and you will probably come across your fair share of frustrations and hotel cancellations – enjoy Cuba for what it is! A gloriously disorganized, original and off beat place. And if your guide does announce a last minute change of plans, rest assured that everything possible has been done to try and avoid the change.
If you’re lucky enough to enjoy a night in a casa particular or a meal in a paladar then you will experience the beginnings of private enterprise in Cuba and you’ll appreciate how efficient,warm and hospitable Cubans can be when they are given the opportunity to run things for themselves.
What will my accommodation be like in Cuba?
Cuba is experiencing and unprecedented rush of visitors; tourism is up by more than 30% in one year and all accommodation is currently very overbooked. The Cuban Ministry of Tourism has responded to this rush by raising the prices for accommodation and other services by 100% in the last 12 in an attempt to control numbers of visitors to Cuba. But people still keep coming so expect to find full hotels and restaurants wherever you go in Cuba.
Guaranteed hotel reservations are the biggest issue at the moment and it’s wise to expect your accommodation to change at the last minute as the rickety reservations system buckles under the sheer weight of numbers wanting to stay in Cuba. Even though your agency will have reserved rooms months in advance, the central state-run reservations system will only confirm reservations a week or so before your arrival and will often make last minute changes to confirmed reservations. Please understand that your agent will have done everything within their power to get the best possible solution for you. These last minute changes are part and parcel of any trip to Cuba for the foreseeable future.
Hotels in Cuba are famously overbooked and unkempt. For years Cuba languished as a forgotten backwater and the chic hotels of the 1950’s slowly became more shabby than chic. Think Fawlty Towers and you’ll begin to get the picture! While some decent restoration work has been implemented on many hotels, especially in Havana, there is very little budget for maintenance so it’s quite common for hotel rooms to have minor plumbing problems and noisy air conditioning. It only takes a short visit to a Cuban home to realize that conditions in hotels are far superior to the average Cuban dwelling.
Regular visitors to Cuba quip that the hotel star system doesn’t really apply in Cuba. The general rule of thumb is to remove a star or 2 from the advertised standard to get a fair idea of what to expect.
As hotels become more expensive and as more people want to have a genuine experience in Cuba, Casas Particulares are becoming a great alternative solution. These can range from quite luxurious and stylish hostels in Havana to very simply country rooms in Trinidad and Viñales. Even though you will be staying in someone’s home, don’t expect too much interaction with your hosts. Most understand that their guests want privacy so will leave you alone unless you specifically make attempts to strike up conversation.
Rooms have en-suite bathrooms (poor water pressure is the norm and most towns only have running water on alternate days so shower quickly to ensure the water tanks don´t run dry!) and air conditioning units. Décor can be an eye-opener; some rooms will be so plain that they resemble a room in a friary while others are painted in a carnival of colours and decorated with kitsch silky curtains and matching cushions. All will be spotlessly clean.
What’s the food like?
Until recently the simple answer to any question about Cuban food was to state that it was pretty awful! Dreary meals of rice, beans with chicken or pork and a cabbage salad is what the Cubans have been eating for decades so it’s easy to see why Cubans chefs have got into a bit of a rut. Things are changing, however, and there are now some decent paladars ( private restaurants ) in most towns. True, the menus can be a bit repetitive but what’s not to like about cheap lobster?!
Don’t expect spicy food as Cubans hate anything with a hint of “picante” but do expect plenty of gutsy home cooking with an emphasis on creole cooking: black beans, fresh fish, lobster, roast pork and chicken dishes are the staples with more and more restaurants trying to do something a little different with the limited range of ingredients available locally.
Havana is the place to be more adventurous and a paladar like La Guarida would compete with any world class restaurant in terms of variety and quality of food. You’ll need to book weeks in advance though!
Are there any health worries?
Cuba is a tropical country so it’s a good idea to take extra care with personal hygiene to avoid stomach upsets and infections. We recommend that you carry anti-bacterial gel with you at all times and use several times daily and especially before and after meals.
If you’re keen on Cuban coctails then we recommend that you only drink them in really clean restaurants and bars where the water for making ice will have been filtered. When in doubt ask for your drink without ice or go for bottled or canned drinks instead. Tap water is drunk by the locals but will almost certainly give foreigners stomach upsets.
You should bring a good repellent with you and make sure that you apply both during that day and night. The Aedis Aegypti mosquito bites during the day and is the carrier of dengue and zika. While it is highly unlikely that you will catch either disease in Cuba, mosquito bites can cause an allergic reaction or become infected in the hot, humid climate.
If you’re staying by the beach, make sure you apply repellent in the morning and in the evenings just before sunset when tiny sand flies nibble. The bite won’t itch for 24 hours but when it does, boy does it itch! Take anti-histamines orally for a couple of days to stop the itch.
Health and Safety
Generally speaking Health and Safety hasn’t come to Cuba yet. The basics are there so you don’t need to worry about whether your bus is safe to travel or if your bike has been well serviced. They have. But in general there is no obsession with health and safety and many of the safeguards we take for granted are not in place.
So expect some or all of the following:
- Potholes. Part and parcel of any road trip in Cuba. If you’re on a bike you’ll have an even more urgent need to avoid them!
- Cracked Pavements. Most pavements have their fair share of cracks and uneven surfaces so take care when walking – even in the centre of Havana – and wear comfortable shoes.
- Jineteros. This is the local Cuban word for a hustler; offering to take you to eat at their cousins paladar, or to drink a mojito in their home or offering you cut price cigars they are the most charming band of hustlers in the world and can usually be batted off with a polite “No Thanks”
- Dodgy Electrics. Loose wires and electric showers are part and parcel of a Cuban home. It’s not unusual to see loose wires in hotels and some of the casas particulares still use the electric showers. We would love to eliminate all of them but these risks to health and safety will probably be part of Cuba for a number of years to come.
- Dehydration. It’s quite easy to get seriously de-hydrated , specially during the first days of your trip as you acclimatize to the heat and humidity. Make sure you drink plenty of mineral water and try to avoid drinking too many mojitos.
- Standards of hygiene. Cubans are extremely clean and house proud but lack the cleaning products which we take for granted. This can make it extremely hard to give the impression of a well cleaned bathroom when, for example, the tub is stained by hard water deposits. Replacement taps, toilet seats or broken tiles can be impossible to buy due to the US Embargo which still makes importation prohibitively expensive, so even hotels sometimes lack the basics or fail to replace leaking taps or faulty toilets. This can give the impression that high standards of hygiene are not being demanded of cleaning staff. No matter what standard of accommodation you’ll be staying in, expect some of the equipment to be faulty!