Cuba: A dozen myths and truths

Of all the countries I’ve visited Cuba is the one which differed the greatest from descriptions in guidebooks and online resources. Some descriptions were over-generous and others greatly under-rated the country. So here’s to dispelling some myths.

Myth 1: Cubans are a repressed people who crave democracy.

Truth: Not as far as I could see and I will deal with this in more detail in a future post. Cuban pride and confidence was actually the first thing I noticed about the country and over the course of time it became obvious that few had an active interest in democracy. All Cubans have equal access to healthcare, education and housing and they are acutely aware that democracy doesn’t guarantee these basic rights.

Bay of Pigs - Axis of Evil or Sunshine Socialism

Bay of Pigs – Axis of Evil or Sunshine Socialism

Myth 2: Cubans dislike the US.

Truth: It depends what is meant by the US. Trying to get a Cuban to speak about their neighbouring country was akin to getting blood out of a stone but President Obama’s drive to restore diplomatic relations was well received and an increase in US tourists is eagerly anticipated by most, although passports with the words “USA” on them are still treated with suspicion by border control. The only current aspect of the US which is openly disliked is the trade embargo.

"Down with the blockade"

“Down with the blockade”

I saw many people wear stars and stripes designs on their clothes, and any night I watched television an American drama (with Spanish subtitles) filled the screen. US technology has been enthusiastically embraced by the Cubans and I wonder if Bill Gates realises that Cuban computers run Microsoft operating systems and software.

Hotel Saratoga, Havana, with US flag hoisted between Cuban and Russian counterparts

Hotel Saratoga, Havana, with US flag hoisted between Cuban and Russian counterparts

Myth 3: Cuban food is awful.

Truth: Don’t let this myth put you off travelling to Cuba as myth is all it is. I stayed in casa particulares and their breakfasts and evening dinners were as appetising as they were substantial. Occasionally I dined in restaurants and I only had one bad meal, a meal which was more like a polymer from an industrial research laboratory than the lasagne it was described as on the menu.

Work-of-art mango for breakfast

Work-of-art mango for breakfast

Myth 4: Cuba is inexpensive for tourists.

Truth: The dual currency and the lack of visible price tags meant this was one of the most expensive holidays I’ve ever taken. The locals use the National Peso whilst the Convertible Peso (CUC) is designed to bleed money from tourists who have no option but to use it. Cubans working independently in the tourism industry are benefiting greatly from this leading to a huge economic and social inequality. Sounds more like capitalism to me.

Myth 5: Spanish is not required for a visit.

Truth: Most people at the airport spoke English but you’re on your own outside airport grounds, unless accompanied by a translator/guide. At least have a Junior Cert/GCSE level of knowledge but ideally a Leaving Certificate/A-level/International Baccalaureate standard.

Myth 6: The island is plagued with shortages.

Truth: The basics are present in abundance whilst well-known international brands are substituted by local versions. Samsung Galaxy is the jintero device of choice whilst government taxis are mainly Kia vehicles. I read that toilet roll was in short supply only to discover that, in all the places I travelled, this problem existed only in Trinidad. The rest of the country had a plentiful supply although finding the good quality stuff was the holy grail of a casa owner.

Myth 7: Cuba is safe for independent female travellers.

Truth: Female travellers need to think twice before travelling through Cuba independently. The objectification of independent female tourists by Cuban men was disgusting and, at times, threatening. I’ll elaborate on this in a future post.

Myth 8: Cuba is an asthmatic’s nightmare.

Truth: For a country that is famed for its tobacco products the air inside buildings was, by and large, refreshingly smoke-free. My biggest health concern was the prevalence of ants on ground floor rooms and the inefficacy of my insect spray on these critters.

Myth 9: Cuba has an inadequate internet and mobile phone network.

Truth: It depends on your definition of inadequate. WIFI was available in most hotels and the state-owned Etecsa Telepuntos has an extensive network of offices delivering fast fixed broadband through a scratch-card login mechanism. The mobile phone network worked well for my Irish device and all other international travellers I met experienced hassle-free network access as well.

Myth 10: Bring gifts to Cuba.

Truth: Unless travelling on a cultural/educational tour which specifically advises this or visiting friends in need, do not randomly dish out gifts. Cubans have a great pride in their skills and, like anyone, expect their efforts to be rewarded in monetary or barter terms. Gift-giving which isn’t tied to effort/skill/favour is condescending and irresponsible.

Myth 11: Entering Cuba is a bureaucratic nightmare.

Truth: It depends on your passport. I breezed through after filling three short forms, answering two simple questions and having one (probably awful) photograph taken . However, international travellers with the word “USA” on their passports (e.g. birth place) underwent significantly more scrutiny than other international travellers.

Embassy of Switzerland in Havana which houses the US Special Interests Section

Embassy of Switzerland in Havana which houses the US Special Interests Section

Myth 12: Cubans know little of the world outside of Cuba.

Truth: The fact that most Cubans I met had a little knowledge (all accurate) about small, insignificant Ireland busts this myth. Whether this general knowledge on world affairs is as a result of the education system or media coverage is something I didn’t research but it led me to conclude that table quizzes in Cuba must be competitive given everyone’s depth of knowledge.

However, there were truths to Cuba where no myths existed particularly in relation to its rich history and culture, and the national queuing etiquette was a pleasure to experience. Cuba’s diversity and tolerance of multiculturalism was exemplary whilst the reported racial discord in the US left Cubans baffled.

My Cuba experiences were similar to other independent tourists but differed from those on a group tour or package holiday. I’m a long-time advocate of independent travel as it allows for a greater cultural immersion and for a more sustainable tourism industry. But Cuba is the only country I’ve travelled to so far where I recommend a guided/group/package tour over independent travel, particularly for female travellers. And I’ve yet to see a guidebook or independent online resource about Cuba mention that.

© Hazel Joy 2015

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