Anytime you get home from a trip, people ask:
"How was your trip?"
"What did you do?"
"What was your favourite part?"
"Would you go back?"
And I'll be answering all those question about Cuba in my posts to come, but the one I want to get to right now is the last question: Would you go back?
The short answer is no.
But here's the long answer:
If I were given the chance to go back to Cuba, I probably wouldn't take it. But don't get it twisted. I enjoyed every minute of my visit to Cuba and there's not a single thing I would change. Havana has been on my list since Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights came out in 2004 and after watching it 13 times, it was fate that Havana and I would eventually meet.
During my trip to Cuba, I visited Varadero and Havana, so I can't speak for what goes on in the entirety of the country, but from what I experienced, it was stunning, vibrant, breathtaking (both from the beautiful views and the loads of gas fumes), and one of a kind.
Varadero is famous for its beaches - the bright turquoise water, the pale sand, the gentle white waves. And Havana is known for its hustle and bustle and its lively colours. They're both incredible cities and I really do encourage visiting Cuba, and to experience the vast differences between a resort town and Havana. But you're over here like "GIRL. You just said you wouldn't go back, why should I go?" Yeah, I hear ya! I wouldn't go back because I've already 'been there, done that' and Havana was the only place in Cuba that interested me to begin with. After spending 4 days in Havana, I feel satisfied with having seen what I've seen and done what I've done. I didn't leave Cuba thinking "I wanna come back to see this and do that". This is the first time that I've ever visited a new place and not had the urge to go back, not because of a bad trip, but just because my cup was filled and there's nothing more I wanted.
However, here are some things that may turn you off Cuba:
It's not so bad in Varadero but as soon as you enter Havana, it's like you're hit with a wall of gas fumes. You'll instantly get a headache and you'll feel your lungs gasping for clean air.
It's hot and sweaty in Cuba, so you get all grimy as soon as you step outside, but then you clean yourself with grimy water, so it's a lose-lose. Just be prepared to feel grimy while you're there.
High cost of living:
It's not somewhere you'd think is expensive, but there are so many tourist traps. And as soon as a cab driver or restaurant sees that you're a tourist, they instantly increase the price. We went with $1000 CAD and still had to take out an additional $500. We weren't careful with our cash but we also weren't living lavishly. We only spent on meals, drinks, and transportation and that alone cost us over 1G.
In both Varadero and Havana, it's windy AF. They're both along the coast so it's no surprise but it's enough to worth noting.
People aren't nice:
You know how they say Canadians are so polite and kind? Apparently they say the same things about Cubans. I'm not speaking about every Cuban here (and we all know not every Canadian is nice), but most locals we dealt with were not all that pleasant. Here's an example:
Day 1 in Havana: In awe of our surroundings, we were bug eyed like kids in a candy store. There was not a chance we could hide the excitement on our faces and that showed when we wandered through town. The look on our face is one hundo P what made us targets to local scam artists.
While heading from Point A to Point B on foot, wandering down Paseo del Prado, the big promenade equivalent to Paris' Champs-Élysées or Barcelona's La Rambla, we noticed a quaint, busy side street and decided to take a detour. The cozy narrow street with cobblestone pathways, tall brick buildings and European-styled balconies seemed friendly and inviting at first. Especially with how crowded it was, it just looked like another tourist hot spot. But it turned out to be a local hot spot and we stuck out like sore thumbs. The unsubtle, aggressive staring made it feel like we were zoo animals. But at this point, we had walked about 6 km and were S T A R V I N G.
If you ever visit, you'll notice there are often men dressed in suits, standing in the narrow streets outside the brick buildings. They're normally holding restaurant menus and will try to stop you to make conversation, in hopes to lure you into their restaurants for a meal. It normally starts off like:
"Hello my friend, where are you from?"
"Oh, Canada! Toronto? Montreal?"
"Ottawa? Where is that?"
"When did you arrive? How long have you been here?"
NEVER answer with "We just arrived" or "Today is our first day". That was our first mistake.
When you tell them you just arrived, it means you haven't figured out what a fair price to pay for food is yet. You haven't figured out that they don't charge taxes there yet. You haven't figured out how to spot what's sketchy AF yet.
We turned down one offer after another until we couldn't bear our hunger anymore, realizing we didn't know where we were or how much longer it would be until we got to our destination. So we decided to take the next offer. A suave young Cuban man showed us his menu and it looked just fine, so in we went. Following behind him, we went into the old brick building, climbing two flights of stairs, passing locals, still staring, on the first and second floors. Once we reached the third floor, we let out a sigh of relief. A couple of old white men sat in the corner at the only occupied table, eating and chatting away. This is totally bad, I know, but we were like "THANK GOD, we're with our people" (disclaimer: by "our people", I mean fellow tourists). It was refreshing to know we were in a safe place because we certainly didn't feel that way wandering around this area.
A bottle of wine and 2 mojitos instantly came to our table as soon as we sat down, which was odd since we didn't order them but it didn't faze us enough to do anything about it. So we consumed them instead. While waiting for our fish and shrimp dishes to be served, our server asked Kevin to buy him a shot. WUT? Who does that? Is this a thing now? Since when do servers ask their customers to buy them drinks? Well the server wasn't shy - he poured himself a glass of 7 Year Havana Club Rum (that's top notch rum FYI) and stood at our table drinking it. Then our food came. But I wish it hadn't. My shrimp was brown and grainy and old and soggy and it tasted fishier than the fish. But "fishy" isn't an accurate word to describe how awful it was. Because seafood is fishy, but this was a whole other kind of fishy. It tasted like what I imagine an unhygienic homeless man's foot would taste like if he had been wearing the same unwashed socks for all of summer. Or what I imagine armpits and pennies would taste like. Either way, it was bad.
And the fish? It was like a piece of rubber. Like chewing on a tire. I think it's safe to say it was the worst meal I've ever had. Ever. When the bill came, it put an even more sour taste in our mouth - pun intended - because it ended up being $75 USD including tax. Yes with tax. Remember when I said they don't charge taxes? We piped up and told the guy we hadn't paid taxes on anything since we arrived, to which they replied by handing us the tourist menu and pointed to the fine print "10% tax surcharge". Did you also catch that they handed us a tourist menu? YAP. They have a tourist menu and a local menu.
We walked out of there feeling pretty defeated, but they were lessons learned and from that day on, we got the hang of it pretty quick. A fair price to pay for meals is $5 - $10 CUC per person (1 CUC = 1 USD), so if you know that beforehand, you'll be able to avoid the sleezeballs like this one.
When people say Cuban food is flavourless because of the trade agreement they have (or don't have) with the US, it's true. The meal I just talked about was awful, yes, but every other meal we had was semi-decent. They were typically flavourless and there isn't much variety. At first, you'll think it's not too bad because you expected worse but over the course of a week, you'll be craving spaghetti and fuzzy peaches and red velvet cupcakes and a big juicy burger.
On a more positive food-related note: they're big on pizzas there! Our North American dollar store frozen pizzas are probably still better than the ones in Cuba but as a comparison to the rest of their food, their pizzas were bomb.
Now that I've listed all the reasons you shouldn't go, I'm still sitting here pushing you to go see it at least once because there truly isn't any place like it. It's a country stuck in time. And it's beautiful.
If I had learned of all this before going to Cuba, I'd still have gone. The gas fumes and terrible food isn't enough to keep me from seeing Cuba, but it's enough to keep me from going again.
Tip: Just look with your eyes and forget about eating and breathing.