Cuba is a fascinating destination, particularly if you travel beyond the all-inclusive tourist hotels. It is the largest of the Caribbean islands, located just 145 km south of Florida. Most foreign tourists go there for the hot weather and spectacular beaches.
I went to Cuba to visit my daughter, Jessica, who was studying for a semester at the University of Havana. Jessica was there with 20 other students from Dalhousie University in Canada as part of their international development program. She stayed in the home of an extended Cuban family and ate her breakfast and dinner with them as part of her board. These homes are called casas particulares and operate under many government restrictions. My daughter showed me Havana and then we rented a car and drove around the island for a few days.
Cuba was a very popular tourist destination until the Revolution in 1959. By the mid-1960s the communist-led government had eliminated the tourist industry altogether. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1997, however, the country needed to get foreign revenue from other sources.
So Cuba started building beach resorts and offering relatively inexpensive holidays that certainly appealed to Canadians. They also started restoring some of the historic buildings and homes. They did this while trying to keep tourists and citizens from rubbing shoulders, a policy referred to as ‘tourism apartheid’.
Still today, propaganda is evident everywhere, with billboards carrying anti-American messages and the 1959 victory being proclaimed several decades after it was achieved. Access to international media is highly restricted and internet access tightly controlled. Cubans couldn’t stay at my hotel, although this rule has been somewhat relaxed. There are even two currencies, one for tourists and one for locals.
It’s easy to be critical of Cuba, to focus on the annoying hustlers who follow you around or to complain about the mundane food. It is a country where a waiter at a resort earns more than a doctor because of tips from tourists. Obviously, wages are very low. Everywhere, people are trying to earn some American dollars, even standing along the highway for hours trying to sell a pie to the few tourists that drive by.
The country has gone through considerable hardship because of the American trade embargo and there have been serious food shortages. Everyone, however, seems to have enough to eat. Cuba actually outperforms all similar countries in education and health outcomes. Its literacy rate is an astounding 99.8%. The country is also known for its music and art and my daughter swears Cubans are the best dancers in the world. The architecture in Havana is quite stunning although many of its colonial buildings are crumbling.
When we rented a car, the only instructions we were given was to always take the radio with us when we got out of the car. I was surprised that the Canadian government said driving in Cuba should be avoided but I recommend renting a new car and getting it from a reputable dealer. We couldn’t find a map and immediately got lost for there are hardly any road signs. We weren’t planning to go to Varadero, but that’s where the car was heading so we just kept going. From there we crossed the island to Trinidad, which is a very nice Spanish colonial town.
I plan to return and visit the whole island. It is a country in transition and certainly one to know better.
By: Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits: Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2011