Maybe we are spoilt. Maybe we were just unlucky. Maybe we had first world problems. Maybe peak season is not the best time to visit. Cuba was interesting and incredibly beautiful, but horribly frustrating.
When we spent a few weeks there in July and August 2016, we loved the beaches (that Carribean water!), the colorful American cars as old as grandma, the horses and chickens everywhere, the music, the lush green landscape, the rum.
If you are interested in history and want to experience communism first hand, go visit! Cuba is not a relaxing destination though.
We were frustrated about the annoyingly slow bureaucracy everywhere (i.e. only 1 person at a time in the bank, where every number on every note has to be written down by hand and double checked while there are 50 people waiting in line in the sun). ATMs were hard to find, and the amount of money you could take out very limited.
We were angry about the Cuban beach culture. Since we were there in July and August, during the Cubana holidays, the beaches were very crowded with locals and unfortunately dirty. Plastic waste is a huge issue, there were literally thousands of plastic cups under water, everyone just dropped their rum cups straight into the sea. We were shocked.
Usually we have no problems getting in contact with locals, interacting, chatting, feeling welcome. Cuba was the first country we have ever been to, where we couldn’t get close, where we felt like absolute outsiders. Derek and the kids blended in optically, but still there was a huge distance, and there were a lot of scams to look out for.
What was the most difficult part for us though, was food. We love food, we love eating. That’s why we enjoy going to countries known for their cuisine (We love Thailand!). We knew Cuba might be a challenge because we don’t eat meat, but we expected delicious rice & beans, fresh fish, and tons of tropical fruit. Yes, we understand that in a communist country with a trade embargo food might be scarce, supermarket shelves empty (except for rum), but why can you only get canned veggies in a green and fertile country? Canned string beans, canned German sauerkraut, or green tomatoes? So we basically lived off rice&beans (too often undercooked), fish (usually overcooked = dry and hard (Derek even sent it back once because he thought it was pork)), eggs, white bread (hot dog buns with oil on top to make them shiny) and mangos. It was even hard to find mangos sometimes. I have never been so hungry on vacation (and therefore quite grumpy). The kids couldn’t believe that there was only one kind of ice cream which was usually sold out. We were pretty desperate. Since there was basically no internet, we text messaged to family and friends back home, asking them to check on tripadvisor for restaurant recommendations in certain locations, and they messaged back. However, even the top listed restaurants were usually very disappointing. Especially pizzerias because of some strange kind of cheese that made us gag. All the pizzerias used it. On top of the disappointing meals, prices were very high (European prices), which made it even more disappointing.
Also, if you want to go to Cuba with small kids, be aware that it is hard to find diapers, baby food or snacks. Pharmacies are empty. We unsuccessfully searched for a bar of soap in Havana for 2 days, so we ended up stealing one from a restaurant toilet. Make sure you bring anything you might need from home. Especially diapers, sunscreen, toothpaste, basic medication, mosquito repellent, and so on.
We had found cheap flights to Cuba (Vienna-Düsseldorf-Varadero on airberlin for under 500 eur), and had planned not to spend too much there. We backpacked and stayed in casa particulares (private homes) which were affordable. The trip ended up being extremely expensive though because of very high food and local transport costs.
These were our highlights and the parts of the trip we would recommend:
- Book casa particulares ahead because it is hard to find an internet connection there. We recommend the following site that offers accomodation in most Cuban towns: https://www.bbinnvinales.com
- When in Havana make sure to take a tour in an oldtimer convertible. Yes, that’s touristy but awesome.
- Best restaurant in Havana: Habana 61 https://www.tripadvisor.at/Restaurant_Review-g147271-d6168120-Reviews-Habana_61-Havana_Ciudad_de_la_Habana_Province_Cuba.html
- Go to Vinales and ride a horse through tobacco fields. Also touristy, yes, but the children and us loved it.
- In Vinales we stayed at Casa Nena, a lovely casa run by three charming black ladies. These were the only locals we felt we connected with: https://www.bbinnvinales.com/casa-particular/vinales-valley/casa-regla-paula-nena-chichi/
- Trinidad town is pretty but stay away from Playa Ancon, the nearby beach. Dirty and full of jellyfish. All of us got stung there.
- The place we enjoyed most was Caya Guillermo, an island off the northern coast of Cuba, unfortunately only open for tourists (checkpoints!), and quite expensive. The beaches are stunning and clean though. We stayed at the cheapest resort there, it was a bit rustic but food was plentiful. They have been taken over by a new hotel chain, so it might be better and more expensive now. https://www.tripadvisor.at/Hotel_Review-g666625-d6220008-Reviews-Sercotel_Club_Cayo_Guillermo-Cayo_Guillermo_Jardines_del_Rey_Archipelago_Ciego_de_Avil.html.
Will we go back? Probably not. We are glad we’ve seen it, but the world is too big to go back to a place that you didn’t enjoy so much the first time.