Traveling to Cuba: An Imperfect Paradise
For many years, Cuba has felt like Canada’s own little paradise. Officially off limits to Americans, the resorts are filled with Canadian tourists who take advantage of traveling to Cuba, and to a lesser extent, tourists from the U.K. and Europe.
So when the media trumpeted the news that President Obama was meeting with the Cuba’s President Raul Castro to lift the trade embargo and re-establish relations, my first thought was, “Now. I need to see Cuba now.”
Because the truth is, once the floodgates from America to Cuba open and the tourists start pouring in, the influence of the U.S. is bound to follow. Hopefully that will benefit the people of Cuba, but I wanted to see Cuba’s charm now, before those influences that are felt the world over begin to creep in. Currently, you will not see a Starbucks, a McDonald’s, or any other chain restaurant. Cuba is still relatively untouched by the pervasive American influence.
My trip to Cuba was conceived during a girl’s weekend in Vancouver with my friend Nima and very little political forethought. As we sat in her Richmond-based condo, she told me about a trip she and her friend had booked to Cuba.
“Dude, you should totally come,” she told me.
And I got to thinking, maybe I should. It seemed like the perfect time in light of the changing political relations that are coming down the pipe. Plus, it was November, and November quite frankly sucks, even on the west coast of Canada.
I wanted to see Cuba’s charm now, before those influences creep in. Cuba is still relatively untouched by the pervasive American influence.
We chose an all-inclusive resort destination, Memories Jibacoa, located about halfway between Varadero and Havana. I’ve done my share of backpacking and figure-it-out-as-I-go type of travel, so having everything taken care of ahead of time held some appeal. A major topic of discussion before we left, of course, is what we should take with us. I don’t mean clothes and shoes, though that did take some of our brain power, Rather, we volleyed ideas of items that would help the locals, whose access to some of the most basic of items is restricted or simply too expensive. On arriving, I wished I had brought more.
Our resort was perched on the edge of a white sand beach and every detail was beautiful, from the clean and spacious rooms with cool, tiled floors to the impeccably-tended gardens that lead up to the white sand beaches.
The smiling bartenders served frosty piña coladas, beer, and other rum-spiked cocktails just steps from our beach-front loungers. There was a coral reef not too far from shore, with a variety of colourful fish to see during my first snorkeling adventure. There was a tanned Cuban fellow named Nivaldo who was stationed on our beach, ready to take guests out sailing on the resort’s small catamaran at a moment’s notice. Each night there was entertainment: cabaret dancing and singing, or an evening with the Cuban National Opera. Take Canadian dollars with you, and the hotel will happily exchange them into convertible pesos (also known as CUCs). You can use your credit card, but ensure it’s not a U.S.-based credit card, or you won’t be able to use it in Cuba, compliments of that aforementioned embargo. I discovered this about my Mastercard just before I boarded my plane, and made a quick cash withdrawal at the airport. I took $200, which was a pretty good estimate of what I’d need. Next time, however, I think I might take a wee bit more. There are, after all, pretty good markets in Havana and Varadero, and who doesn’t love a little shopping?
We signed up for a day trip to Havana, with the evening finale at the famous Tropicana nightclub for a spectacular show of singing, dancing, and fabulous costumes. Havana is a wonderfully charming city full of amazing architecture, brightly coloured facades, and American classic cars from the 1950s. A good option might be to rent a casa particular for a night, where you stay with a Cuban family and really get some time to soak up the vibe of this wonderful city.
The employees are lovely and hardworking, so please don’t forget to tip them! Ask for smaller bills when you change your money to CUCs, and the front desk will happily comply. Most Cubans cannot afford a bicycle, let alone a car, so many of them take a 45-minute bus ride to arrive at the resorts. I met a retired music teacher, Andy, who brings a used bicycle down to Cuba with him to use while he is there, and on leaving he gifts it to a family in need. How amazing is that?
We also met a Canadian fellow named Ian, who has visited Cuba more than 20 times. He gave us some amazing insights into the situation for local Cubans and how valuable the simple gifts we bring are to them. Some of the useful items included:
- Medicine such as Pepto Bismol, Polysporin, and aspirin
- Vitamins and supplements
- New or gently used clothing
As you get to know the staff at your resort, you will naturally find opportunities to share your gifts with them. These are truly lovely people who have been toiling under a political embargo that leaves them struggling every day, and yet they are smiling, happy, and grateful.
I left Cuba feeling like I’d met so many new and special friends. I hold the Cuban peoples’ spirit close and hope I’ll return soon.