Cuba, the land of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro has a certain ‘romantic’ revolutionary ring to it. Let’s explore what this Caribbean island has to offer! Expect idyllic colonial towns, pristine beaches, vintage cars. However, we will also experience the downsides of decades of a communist, socialist regime…
Plan your itinerary beforehand
During this road trip, we started in Havana and made our way West up to Camaguey. Originally we planned to drive all the way to Santiago de Cuba on the West Coast. Although Cuban roads are in fair condition and desolate, they still are not the fastest roads in the world. On top of this, realize that Cuba is huge! To give you an idea: The fastest route from Havana to Santiago de Cuba (and back) takes you 24 hours, this does not include any scenic routes or stops. Santiago de Cuba is supposed to be a nice town to visit, in addition, it is close to the US naval base & detention camp Guantanamo Bay, of which you can have a peak from the hills around it.
Downsides of Communism
Cuba is one of the few remaining ‘true’ communist regimes in the world. Meaning its citizens earn low amounts of money, most businesses are state-owned and the state provides for its citizens with free healthcare, free schooling and via food coupons (see a food distribution point below).
However, heavily depending on sugar export and facing various sanctions, Cuba has been going through some rough financial times over the years and have started to rely more and more on other sources of income, like tourism.
Two different currencies
Introducing these relatively very rich tourists, made things very complex, especially if you like to maintain the original socialist setup of low wages. Hence Cuba introduced a different currency; the Convertible Peso (CUC). The local population is not allowed to (personally) possess this currency, neither are they allowed to change it to their currency the Cuban Peso (CUP). This obviously poses many problems, especially where the tourists interact with the local population, paying for services and products. This also meant that having a job in Tourism is likely far better paying than in any other sector (if only because of tipping).
US Dollars undermining Socialism
In addition, the Cuban government allowed foreign currencies to be sent to its citizens. This especially got out of hand when allowing the US Dollar to be sent, most of it coming from Cuban family members residing in Florida. This meant a steep increase in prices and made it possible for families to buy luxury goods, like refrigerators and other non-Cuban produced goods. Obviously, only the Cubans with US family members benefited from this, meaning decades of equality were broken.
Beware of tourist scams especially in Havana
The introduction of Tourism money and US dollars, and likely far more other factors, slowly led to inequality. This has made the local population (even more) corrupt and this also has its downsides to tourists, especially in Havana. Beware of the many tourist traps, if people are behaving nice, do treat them with caution. Let me give you an example:
We were walking down the streets of Havana, having a peek in one of the stores where the local population can spend their coupons for food. A friendly Cuban couple explained the process. They invited us for a drink in a bar where also the “Buena Vista Social Club” had played (I cannot even count how often I heard that claim, ever since).
Tourist trap alarm bells ringing…
Obviously, my tourist trap alarm bells were ringing already, but how bad could it be? Worst case I pay for a few drinks, the couple seemed nice, spoke good English, and could make us understand this interesting country better!… Of we went, and a few streets further we sat down, had some drinks and talked about Cuba, the regime, the future, etcetera. Amanda liked the couple so much, and even gave away her sunglasses to these ‘poor people’. All good, until the bill was presented. It was around 50 USD, which was ridiculous!…
Thinking it was the bar that overcharged, I tried to get help from my new Cuban friends. Unfortunately, it became quickly clear he was in on this scam as well. Also, involving the police would not make a difference I was told… After the necessary scolding and anger, I paid around 25 USD and left, with a disillusion richer and lost trust in the Cubans…
How to not get scammed in Cuba?
Very sad, as this was one of our first experiences and throughout our holiday we have not interacted much with the Cubans. Even though outside of Havana I this problem is far less existent, for us the harm was already done… We spoke to more tourists and many had similar stories…
Top Tip: Enjoy Havana as a visitor, it has beautiful buildings, an old promenade and many sights of interests. Browse the alleyways and have fun! However, leave the interaction with locals for your trip through the countryside. People, there are much more friendly and less focused on your money.
Below the photo of our Cuban “friends”:
Well, that was quite an introduction, but it provides a bit of necessary context and caution! Now, let’s explore the country!…
Exploring Colonial Havana
Already mentioned above, be aware of the tourist scams! To be safe, just limit your interaction to the local population!… Enjoy the city’s sights and save your energy and socializing for during your road trip!
Like all Cuban cities, Havana really seems to be coming straight out of history books! The town is full of colonial buildings, which had limited to no restoration ever since. It results in a unique vibe. The whole city is covered with wall murals and graffiti praising the revolution and its leaders…
Stroll over the Malecon boulevard, check out Morro Castle for sunsets over the city.
Do check out the various colonial buildings and churches… Also, take a tour in one of the vintage cars!
Also visit the Museum of the Revolution, including occasional hints of communist propaganda.
Top Tip: In Havana, but also in other cities, we stayed in a Casa Particular (homestay). This way you not only instantly provide income to the local population, but the service is also much better than staying in a state-owned hotel.
Driving through the Cuban countryside
It is time to leave Havana behind us… as soon as you hit the Cuban countryside you notice there are almost no other cars on the road. Apparently, this is because Cubans are not allowed to travel from state to state without an official reason. Also, most Cubans likely do not have any funds to take any trips in the first place.
What is also different from other roads in the world is the lack of commercials. Reason for this is that Cuba produces most of its own goods, hence there is no reason to market state-owned goods, that have no competition! However, you will come across many billboards, however these mainly indicate where crucial battles have been won or to pay tribute to Cuban’s political or military leaders…
Pinar del Rio
Before we head West, let’s drive East to Pinar del Rio!… It is here where you can visit one of the many cigar factories. Obviously, Cuba is famous for its Cuban Cigars.
Cienfuegos is a little town, apart from some colonial buildings there is not much to do.
Top Tip: When driving through Cuba, do keep a look out for Crocodile farm signs. We visited one on our way to Cienfuegos.
Likely by far, my favourite city in Cuba is Trinidad! It has idyllic streets, beautiful buildings, and very friendly people. It is here where I partly restored my faith in the Cuban people, after our Havana experiences. Do check out the many restaurants and bars with live music and dances!
When you leave Trinidad, you will pass by Manaca Iznaga, a tower overlooking the sugar fields stretching towards Camaguey.
Like many other Cuban cities, Camaguey has its fair share of colonial buildings.
It is here that we slowly returned towards Havana again…
The town of Santa Clara is all about Ernesto Che Guevara, as it is here where this revolutionary found is final resting place in the Che Guevara Mausoleum and Memorial. Che Guevara died in Bolivia leading an armed uprising in 1967. His remains were relocated to Cuba.
Santa Clara was chosen as the location in remembrance of Guevara’s troops taking the city on December 31, 1958, during the Battle of Santa Clara. The result of this final battle of the Cuban Revolution was Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista fleeing into exile.
Cuba’s pristine beaches
Throughout your road trip, make sure to visit as many of the pristine beaches all around the island. It is just an amazing experience that no one else is around. Bring food and have a picnic for lunch in between destinations!
Top Tip: Bring your own snorkelling gear to explore the beautiful underwater world! Also, bring water shoes so you do not have to worry about the many sea urchins.
In stark contrast to Cuba and its earlier mentioned pristine beaches stands Varadero. This is Cuba’s resort enclave. When we visited we were surrounded by loud Canadian tourists. Depending on your resort, it may be a nice place to unwind a few days at the end of your holiday, before heading home. This is exactly what we did…
However, in case you are planning on solely visiting Cuba (and thus Varadero) for the sunshine, I would strongly suggest any other Caribbean island. Given the U.S. embargo, you have a very limited choice of food (no Western brands). On top of this, the low Cuban service level will also likely not meet your relaxing resort expectations.
So what is the Ghost around the Globe verdict? Should you visit Cuba? Yes, It is definitely worth visiting! The earlier you plan your visit the better, as the unique, communist identity is already slowly falling apart… With the most annoying result being the various tourist scams… If you are only planning to visit Cuba only for the sunshine, think twice! All other surrounding Caribbean islands will far better suit your needs… Anyway, Cuba is way too interesting to waste your time on a sunbed! Instead, visit the various beautiful colonial towns, its pristine beaches and nature!…