Why I’ve Subconsciously Refused To Write About My Travels To Cuba

Why I’ve Subconsciously Refused To Write About My Travels To Cuba

“Why haven’t you written about your travels to Cuba yet Janet?”When are you going to write about your trip to Cuba?” As 2017 nears an end, the guilt is racking up inside of me about a promised article about Cuba that I simply failed to write. An article about my travels in Cuba that I subconsciously refuse to write because, if I’m honest, I’m not sure I know what to say.

Most people who travel to Cuba seem to have nothing but positive things to say. “It was the trip of a lifetime! Cuba is SO amazing!” or the age-old “Oh you must go before it changes!“. For me, things were a little different. It’s not that I didn’t love Cuba. I did. it was one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever travelled to. All my senses were overwhelmed and it was the first time in many years that travel really challenged me, and this was something that excited me to no end.

Havana was everything I had ever dreamed about, and more. The vintage cars, the dilapidated buildings falling into disrepair, streets full of character (and characters!) painted pretty pastels, live music on every street corner and rum free-flowing out of hidden corner side Bodegas. So much so that I sat down in my first night there, and wrote about my first impressions of this eclectic city.

So, where did my Cuban dream go wrong?

This might sounds a little mad, but every time I sit down to write about my travels in Cuba I get a tension headache.

I start to remember the horrid fumes from the vintage cars, and a nightmare four hour journey which ended in me locking myself in the casa in Varadero. I vowed then and there to tell the world that the Hot Pink Chevrolet Bel Air they’re dreaming of might be fun for a tourist-centric spin around Havana but belong in the deepest pit of Dante’s Inferno if you’re planning to travel long distance.

I start to remember qqueuing for an hour outside a restaurant in Santa Clara, said to be the best pizza place in Cuba, only to be served the most disgusting and disappointing meal on my entire life. And I’ve lived in the some back ass of nowhere villages in Africa where cuisine most definitely isn’t something to write home about.

I start to remember how angry I felt when we discovered out casa owner had totally ripped us off, charging us double what fellow travellers had been charged for the same journey. Only to discover all out worst fears has materialised and we were to share a banged up “vintage car” with about 11 others instead of having it all to ourselves.

I start to remember being stranded on the beach outside Trinidad, in an insane rain shower, wondering how on earth we were going to get home. Hitchhiking in an ambulance was the last answer I thought i would ever be writing, but that is indeed how we managed to make our way back to Trinidad – in exchange for a small tip to the driver of course.

I start to remember my ATM card not working. Again and again and again. Have you ever travelled somewhere knowing that if you run out of money you are totally screwed. That’s how you’ll feel in Cuba if you run out of cash and you’re card refuses to work.

I start to remember how frustrating it was to try connect to the internet after 7 days offline. A detox is nice, and needed, but when the temptation (and offer) is there, you can’t help but want to connect. Turns out you need to queue for half an hour and produce your passport just to get a wifi card, so you can sit on a bench in the park or main square and pull your hair out as your attempt to connect for even just 5 minutes.

I start to remember that there is zero correlation between price and quality in Cuba, often times thinking if you pay a little more the food might actually arrive, only to find out they’re brought you the entirely wrong dish and it tastes like blank. Just black. Blander than bland BLANK.

I start to remember their supermarkets, or lack there of, and how difficult it was to buy something as simple as a bottle of water in places like Trinidad or Santa Clara. When it’s 30 degrees celsius, you’re sweating buckets and the last 4 corner stores are all sold out of water, you begin to get a bit light-headed and desperate.

I start to remember the ordeal of trying to book bus tickets 3 days in advance, but being told we’re already too late and they’re sold out for the next 5 days.

Despite this, I loved Cuba. Really.

I really didn’t want this to be a negative article and I MEAN IT when I say despite all the challenges I really did love Cuba. I think that’s why it’s so hard to write about it…because the challenges overshadow the good memories inside my head, and it makes it difficult to write about Cuba with a little balance.

I honestly think I need a little more time to get my thoughts together, to give Cuba the write-up it deserves. To explain the beauty of the landscapes, the fascinating history, the friendliness of the people, the sweet taste of your first mojito or daiquiri.

The Cuban people have, and still do, face so many hardships, and yet they were so open to us at all times, always happy to sit down and chat and talk about the pros and cons of life in Cuba.

Havana really is a time capsule. The beaches up north really are some of the most beautiful in the world. Vinales is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been seeing tobacco farmers in the fields, harvesting the much cherished ingredient for the world’s most famous (and expensive) cigars was a trip to remember.

Cuba is most definitely not an easy country to travel solo, or even independently with friend, but in reality this is the only way to truly see the real Cuba, the good with the bad. To stay with local families in casas, to eat local food, to be challenged by their eclectic transport and to sit down and talk or just listen to the problems of the past and the present.

I promise that part two of this series will be a lot more positive, and I’ll share some of my favourite photos and moments from the unforgettable weeks i spent in Cuba. Just give me time.

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24 Comments

  1. December 30, 2017 / 7:26 am

    My other half also found it difficult to travel in Cuba and that was besides no wifi.He is a vegetarian and the food was awful.

    • December 30, 2017 / 8:29 am

      I could write an entire post about just how awful the food was. Stories that would make you laugh and maybe cry haha. Not just the food, but the whole food and service experience. You couldn’t make some of it up.

  2. December 30, 2017 / 12:08 pm

    Now, that is so interesting, Janet. I seriously love to read your articles, one of the few blogs I read every single line!

    I am wondering…do you think Cuba was different/ better to visit a few years back? The other articles I read were so glowing and selling Cuba as an absolute dream destination.

    • January 2, 2018 / 6:33 am

      Thanks so much – love reading comments like this – and I love your blog too! :-) I’m not sure if it was better a few years ago as I imagine there may have been even more challenges back then. However, this increase in tourists mean that restaurants can’t deal with demand, buses can’t deal with demand and things can get a bit more difficult or maybe just less enjoyable. It’s still an incredible place and you should visit asap if you can.

  3. December 30, 2017 / 7:27 pm

    I totally understand what you feel. Few years ago i went to Havana solo and before that trip, I promised Emily Luxton to participate in her postcard from feature on her blog and i almost could not deliver it. If I knew what Cuba looks like, I would book my flight to somewhere else. It’s really not a country to travel to independently

    • January 2, 2018 / 6:36 am

      I think overall I still enjoyed it, and I’m glad I went, but I know what you mean and i imagine I felt the same way at times when I was there. It’s such a frustrating place – amazing and beautiful and frustrating!

  4. César Medel
    December 30, 2017 / 7:59 pm

    With all respect, you write from a very ambiguous point of view, being a good traveler means you melt in the culture of the country you are visiting until you get back on the road again, without judging. Your Credit Card didn’t work….OMG didn’t you know Cuba is a Cash Society??? A pizza in Cuba…..were you expecting a margarita pizza?
    Cuba is it’s people, their culture, food etc, the rest is just a pretty picture for tourists like you or any other american thinking they had a time of their life for having a mojito. If you did write from that perspective, I mean from a touristy point of view, then i apologize, but I think most people misunderstand the reality of an oppressed country, and the courage they have to survive.

    Best regards from Chile.

    César Medel

    • César Medel
      December 30, 2017 / 10:12 pm

      Or any tourist, not only Americans. Sorry about that!

      • Bjan
        January 1, 2018 / 2:23 pm

        Sorry, but I have to agree with you on this one. I started reading and automatically thought this must have been written by an American. Surely the writer could have researched the destination or she would not have encountered many of the issues she did. Millions of Canadians have been visiting Cuba for decades (and not all of us stay at the all-inclusive resorts- though yes the food is better there) without going through these kinds of issues. Why? Because we do our homework, because we don’t take anything for granted in a place which has suffered so greatly due to the US embargo or expect things will be just like home.

      • January 2, 2018 / 6:54 am

        I’m not American, I’m Irish. I didn’t do much research because my decision to visit Cuba for VERY last minute – it was the cheapest flight I could find out of Mexico. Maybe if I had done weeks of research my experiences might not have been so bad….or maybe they would have. It seems I’m not alone in finding Cuba and unexpectedly difficult place to travel and the purpose of this blog is to share my very subjective personal travel experiences with my followers – both the good and the bad.

    • January 2, 2018 / 6:50 am

      Hi Cesar! Thanks for taking the time to both read the article and leave a response. I always tell my readers that just because I experienced something in one way (positive or negative), it does not mean they will experience it in the same way. Travel is subjective and luck can also play a big part in our positive travel experiences. Vietnam is one of my favourite places on earth – but many of my readers have had very negative experiences there and would never go back. I know SO many people who have had positive experiences in Cuba. If you google any of the top travel search terms about Cuba, you’ll find nothing but positive stories about Cuba and its people. On my blog I try to share my own personal experiences, and let people make their own mind up about a place.

      In response to your comment, I was writing from a tourist point of view. We were there for such a short period of time, we did not have time to properly delve into Cuban traditions and culture. You say “OMG you’re credit card didn’t work” – like it or not, that IS a big problem. Not having your card work anywhere, in any country, would be a massive problem in my eyes.

      Of course Cuba is more than cigars and mojitos. I have not even touched on life in Cuba, traditions, the people I met, the stories we learned – that”s for my my next article – maybe you’ll enjoy it more.

  5. December 31, 2017 / 2:18 am

    I loved this post, as all your posts really but I appreciate the honesty. Cuba is definitely particular and I had many of your similar issues – from public transportation to the internet. The only part I did not experience was the bad food but you could say I was lucky :) I loved Cuba and I loved your post. So good to read some honest travel truth! I look forward to reading part II. Oh, and no rush ;) haha

    • January 2, 2018 / 6:37 am

      I think we messed up by not having dinner on our casa each night but going out to explore instead. I’ve heard from many others that the home cooked casa meals were delicious!

  6. Sharon Murdock
    December 31, 2017 / 2:34 am

    I too found Cuba difficult. Fascinating historically but difficult and relatively expensive except if you have local currency and seek out local markets. we had some really lucky breaks ie great tips from a random hotel concierge on night ie cheaper to have the buffet breakfast at the swish hotel than be catered for in the casa, where to hear good music. The best luck was finding a taxi driver who was incredibly knowledgeable and generous eg acting as our tour guide at Hemingway’s house ad then going above and beyond to take us to his favourite restaurant near his boats mooring, all for little extra. Needless to say we made good use of him for the rest of our stay. We planned to stay in Havana for the whole week with just a day excursion to Vinales – a mistake! 3 days would be plenty of time for Havana. And yep! The vintage cars were, on the whole, a little too uncared for and expensive. There are lots of scammers. There isn’t music and dancing on every corner and the food is bland but look for other joys like the art museum and Hemingways house

  7. Jennifer
    December 31, 2017 / 5:59 am

    Very very interesting Janet.
    I’d heard it was tricky to travel in alright. It sounds like the options are either do the cosseted honeymoon dual Centre Valletta/Old Town thing, or else rough it like locals. Is it possible to strike a balance between those I wonder?

    • January 2, 2018 / 6:38 am

      I definitely don’t recommend the cosseted honeymoon in Varadero and then Havana – you won’t see any of the real Cuba. I think there should be a way to balance it – would be cool if you can prepare way in advance and try rent a car – that would be a great way to get around!

  8. ispyprettyplaces
    December 31, 2017 / 1:23 pm

    I appreciate your honesty about this trendy destination. People don’t mention the tough travel moments enough I think. This post will help prepare people to visit. My father said the same about the food there too! I still want to go but feel like there’s more to consider now. Looking forward to the next post in this series.

    • January 2, 2018 / 6:41 am

      I’m going to write a list of everything I wish I had known before going, and some tips that will hopefully help others planning to go there to make sure they are better prepared for the challenges than I was.

  9. January 1, 2018 / 12:09 am

    I had a different experience in Cuba. I travelled there in 2008 – I was living in Dublin at the time and I travelled via France to Havana. First of all I knew I was going to a country that still had real socialism and that it had been under an a trade embargo for decades. Cuba is a socialist country and therefore to expect capitalist creature comforts is very unrealistic. I went there knowing that and I also read about the dual economy: A local currency, the Cuban Peso for locals and tourist currency, the CUC (“convertable Peso”) for tourists.

    I travelled to Cuba solo and I had no Spanish, so I knew this would be a problem, so what I did was to book a one week Spanish course in advance with the Esparanza Spanish school in Havana with STA Travel. There was an option to stay either with a Cuban family or at (in) the school itself. This was a very good decision, because my one week at the school opened up various other options once I was there. The school arranged a tour for us to Vinales Valley and Pinar Del Rio at a reasonable price with a private taxi and one of our teachers who could speak a little bit of English was our guide.

    My Spanish teacher at the school, an ex-University of Havana professor offered me accommodation in her house in an affluent part of Havana for the rest of my stay, which I gladly excepted. During the week at the school I went out several times with the other students (from Europe) to Old Havana for dinner and to listen to music at some bars and restaurants. I also got to have long discussions with employees at the school in very broken Spanish, with some translation help from my fellow students and I got to learn quite a lot about life in Cuba and also about the political feelings and sentiments of the locals, which was very interesting and one of the reasons why I travelled there – to learn about the real Cuba.

    During my second week I explored Havana daily on foot and by that time I had familiarised myself with some of the main landmarks as one of our teachers at the school used to drive us to class every other day through some of the main parts of Havana.

    The food wasn’t great, I concur, but under the conditions the Cubans do the best that they can. They have poor soil quality, so the fruit and veg are not perhaps as tasty as Westerners are used to and besides, if you live in Ireland or the UK or many other developed countries you are most likely eating the best quality fruits and veggies that are imported to your country from around the world. The meat was so-so. The fish dishes were rather good. Anyway, I didn’t expect High Cuisine in a fully blown socialist country…

    It was very expensive due to having to use the CUC, BUT… I learned that I could change some of my tourist Pesos to local Peso’s – and all of a sudden I could by things at local Cuban prices, which were multiple times cheaper. Of course there was a limited selection of what I could buy, but it was part of the reality of how it is for local Cubans and I got a taste of that. I remember that some of the products in Cuban stores had very Soviet looking branding and labels. Even though it is socialist and quite controlled, I managed to walk around freely and solo without any problems and I got completely lost a couple of times. I was there on a budget and everything as much as a local and it all worked out very well – I tend to go for gritty, authentic experiences, so Havana and Cuba in general turned out to be one of the best trips I have had and I would love to go back. If I do I would plan to do a course in permaculture or something like that.

    Cuba should be approached in a certain way – it is not comparable with most other destinations. Anyway, I hope my write-up helps others who plan to visit the country – it’s a very unique place, but just remember it is still semi-socialist and was isolated from the rest of the wold for decades. When I was there in 2007 the only way to get internet access was via e-mail – a special account which they set-up for us., but there was no web browsing available and certainly no Wi-Fi. So internet access is something new probably still limited and filtered. The Cuban people are a proud people and it’s worth making the effort to speak with them and learning about the history of Cuba in relation to the rest of the world, from their perspective. Happy Travel to everyone and Happy New Year!
    Jean-Jacques

    • January 2, 2018 / 6:44 am

      Thanks so much for your detailed response and advice! I always love hearing other peoples experiences and I always tell my readers that jus because i experienced something in one way (positive or negative) does not mean they will experience it in the same way. Travel is subjective and luck can also play a big part in our positive travel experiences. Thanks again for your comment!

  10. January 2, 2018 / 7:01 pm

    Having been there twice myself, I can appreciate your reality of Cuba. It’s a great insight for your readers who have yet to go to Cuba, but can learn from your trials and tribulations. Maybe write an article entitled “Cuba – Myth vs. Reality (Or What I Wish I Had Known Prior to Arriving).”

  11. January 3, 2018 / 6:59 pm

    I’ve been to Cuba twice for a total of 6 weeks. I will return for another three weeks in April 2018. I’ve seen a significant chunk of the island It is one of the most amazing places I’ve been and I’ve travelled to or lived in nearly 50 countries at this point. The food is amazing, the people are wonderful, the music, the language, the history….With all due respect, this post got under my skin. As “travellers” (self glorified tourists, really) arent we supposed to be visiting other countries in order to immerse ourselves and learn about those places and experience them as they are? Horror of all horrors that you couldnt use your credit card or couldnt get wifi whenever you snapped your fingers. You stood in line for bad pizza? Hell, that could happen anywhere. I do appreciate you being honest in your post about how you felt. More bloggers need to do that and thank you for doing so. That said, you come off like a spoiled child not a traveller. Yes Cuba is tough and that is what makes it so wonderful! What I love about Cuba is just what bothered you. It is SO different. And being there should give you an opportunity to experience to a certain extent just what real travel is like. AND the way the Cuban people live under both an oppressive government and the oppression of the American embargo. I’ve written about Cuba extensively both on my blog, at Vrai Magazine and at Matador. You might find another perspective interesting.

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