Ever since the travel ban to Cuba was relaxed, there has been a flood of tourists wanting to “see Cuba before it changes”, as if Cuba will become Cancun overnight. Many people go to Cuba and expect some mix between South Beach and Punta Cana, a little Frank Sinatra with a dash of Pitbull. Frankly, if you’re expecting a 5- star luxury resort experience, that infrastructure just doesn’t exist yet. While Cuba is rich in history and culture, the weathered charm of colonial architecture and pastel-colored buildings temporarily mask the fact that the cities are crumbling and the photogenic vintage cars are polluting the air with exhaust fumes. Things rarely happen on time and the most structured plans can completely fall apart. Based on the looks of bewilderment I’ve seen on the faces of tourists, here are the things you need to know before you book your trip to Cuba:
1. The embargo hasn’t been lifted
Many Americans are unaware that although former President Obama re-established relations with Cuba in December 2014, the US embargo remains in place. Technically, U.S. law still prohibits tourism to the island, making it necessary for Americans to declare their trip under one of the twelve categories approved by the Department of Treasury. This might sound very bureaucratic, but it’s just an extra form to fill out at the airport and a fee to pay for the Cuban visa. What truly makes the embargo a burden for Americans is that you cannot legally make financial transactions in Cuba- and even if you could, your credit cards don’t work there. Plan on bringing enough cash for unexpected emergencies as well as your daily needs: food, lodging, transportation, excursions, etc.
2. Parts of socialism actually work
Given America’s political agenda against communism, it is difficult to get unbiased information about Cuba. Thus, some tourists travel to Cuba, expecting to encounter deeply entrenched poverty and blatant oppression. While Cuba isn’t rich by most standards, many Cubans have a standard of living that surpasses their neighboring islands, and many parts of the US. Violent crimes are almost unheard of. Health care and education is free, making Cubans the healthiest and most educated people in the region. Housing, food, electricity, and water is heavily subsidized by the government (albeit not without its pitfalls). Finally, while Cubans do not enjoy the freedom of speech, mobility, and dissent that have becomes stables of democracy, few are actually targets of political repression. In recent years, most Cubans clamoring to the shores of the US have been economic migrants taking advantage of the generous social benefits they were allocated until recently.
3. Toilet seats aren’t a thing/ Toilet paper can be scarce
Aside from the initial suprise at realizing that the embargo is still in place, the fact that even some of the finest restaurants and upscale casa particulars lack toilet seats is another thing that is hard for most tourists to wrap their minds around. There are toilets, but toilet seats are an added luxury that most Cubans deem non-essential- and when you must go, you will find that you agree. Toilet paper can also be rare, or rationed out by a bathroom attendant, so bring your own wipes with you when you travel.
4. You’re going to have to adjust to being disconnected
Remember the days before you Snapchat-ed every mundane detail of your daily life and updated your Facebook status every few minutes to ensure everyone that you were immersed in the greatest experience of your life? Well, that is what Cuba is like. T-Mobile is said to have coverage in Cuba, but is hard to connect to their network and not worth the hefty price just to “slay for the ‘gram”. Thus, you will have to put your phone away and depend on your guidebook for restaurant recommendations, talk to people for directions, and be engaged in the conversations around you. Although you can purchase a government-issued wifi card for an hour of access, the wifi is limited to certain public hotspots. These unmarked areas will be the only place in Cuba where everyone is looking down at their phone and frantically sending messages, making them easy to spot.
5. Everything tastes the same
From succulent pork and shredded beef to the classic Cuban sandwich, Cuban cuisine in Miami is a delicate blend of flavors that leaves you feeling content. All the spices and seasoning that makes Miami Cuban food delicious are wholly missing from Cuban cuisine on the island thanks to the embargo. From street food to a five-star restaurant, everything in Cuba tastes bland. I’d strongly suggest bringing some Goya and Adobo seasoning in your bag to casually Salt Bae your food.
6. Your presence is distorting the economy
It’s also important to note that while we as tourists might be privileged enough to complain about the plate of food on our tables, the record surge of 2.5 million visitors last year has caused food staples to become unaffordable or unattainable for average Cubans. Restaurants and hotels pay a premium to snap up food for to satisfy tourists’ appetites. In a recent article, the New York Times states that “rising prices for staples like onions and peppers, or for modest luxuries like pineapples and limes, have left many unable to afford them. Beer and soda can be hard to find, often snapped up in bulk by restaurants.”
7. Con-artists are plenty
Cubans are well-aware of the allure and mystery of their island and people, and how to manipulate the ignorant foreigner abroad. Tourist areas are filled with street hustlers and con-artists that approach you supposedly needing help, or offering you unsolicited help or an overly eager welcome. The most common scams in Cuba are fake cigars, fake money, and people who need money for a supposedly hungry baby; however, I’ve been genuinely impressed by the level of sophistication of some scams. Because it was hard to tell when Cubans are being genuine with you or using you as a walking ATM (friendly and affable as long as you’re buying), I’ve found it difficult -but not impossible- to establish relationships with them. This isn’t surprising given that living under the communist regime has made many Cubans masters of reading people and telling them exactly what they want to hear as a means of survival. Some scammers are emboldened enough to lure a gullible and lonely person into falling for them to use them as their ticket out of Cuba or just as a sugardaddy/mama.
8. Cuban art deserves your attention
Many Caribbean island sell some variation of the rasta man or the dancing morena cliché art in tourist areas. Aside from Haitian art, Cuban art- in and out of galleries- is some of the most distinctly beautiful and creative artwork I’ve seen in the Caribbean. Rich paintings fill the narrow streets of old Havana and the Feria de la Malecon with everything from traditional scenes from everyday life in Cuba to homages to Afro-Cuban culture. The artworks aren’t cheap so be prepared to haggle. Make sure you also receive the proper paperwork from the seller to travel out of the country with your purchase.
9. Santeria isn’t a secret
It’s a common misconception that religion is outlawed or practiced in secret in Cuba. However, Santeria (also referred to as Yoruba), a deeply AfroCuban religion rooted in ancestral African beliefs, is so popular in Cuba that you run into the practitioners dressed in all white or with beaded bracelets signifying their Orishas on every corner in Cuba. Unlike in Western cultures where traditions rooted in Africa are often viewed with scorn or suspicion, Santeria is deeply integrated into Cuban life and openly practiced.
In short, if you need McDonald’s and Instagram as crutches to enjoy your vacation, Cuba is not yet the place for you, and it might never be. Cuba is an experience for those who want to put away their phones, get off the resort, and immerse themselves in a rich culture and history that has been closed off to many for some time.