First came the packs of drunken jailbait to the Fábrica de Arte, snapping selfies while the Cuban band played their hearts out.
Then came the frat boys so blasted they lay unconscious in the street and had to be taken to their casa by the police. Only they couldn’t remember where they were staying.
They were followed by the wannabe musician from Ohio (passing himself off as Brazilian) who threw himself to the sidewalk, shrieking like a schoolgirl ‘SOY TURISTA!! SOY AMERICANO!!’ when the Cuban he cheated set upon him.
This is the new normal for tourism in Havana. It ain’t pretty. I figured I’d just wait until it blew over (and it will blow over – the college girls will discover the gorgeous mulatto bailarín is already married; the Yuma who bought a house with his Cuban ‘frens’ will return after a quick trip north to find the locks changed and no legal recourse; and word will get around that there are too frequent shortages here, of beer, water, electricity, English speakers, toilet paper, vegetarian food, whatever). Then something happened which obligates me to write this post.
“Where’s the closest Wifi? We have to connect!”
“There’s a park with Wifi six blocks from here. And they just activated Wifi along the Malecón.”
“What’s the Malecón?”
These were nice guys, don’t get me wrong. But this is akin to asking: what’s the Louvre? What’s the Coliseum? The Malecón is THE symbol of Havana. This instantly qualified as one of the top 3 most stupid questions I’ve been asked. Plus, it convinced me to try – once again – to do something about the pervasive ignorance about Cuba. I know I’m pissing in the wind here – if I’m lucky, this blog gets 400 views a day and those are mostly choir members: people anxious for on-the-ground information about Cuba, my followers, friends and family. So how do I reach the others? The cruise ship passengers in port for 36 hours and the spring breakers here for a mojito-fueled weekend? What about the 1% who land their private jets at José Martí International Airport and contract a paladar for their exclusive dining pleasure, paying $6000 for the privilege (the equivalent of 20 years salary for my neighbor Mercedes), and then jet off again? Or the family of four “daring” to visit Cuba, trying to keep up with the Joneses?
I’ve written tons about traveling more conscientiously to Cuba. I’m a founding member of RESPECT (Responsible and Ethical Cuba Travel) and tell everyone willing to listen about this new consortium. Anyone who asks to buy bottled water at Cuba Libro gets all the potable (boiled) water they can drink, free of charge, and an earful about why we don’t sell bottled water. Four million tourists in 2016, drinking small plastic bottles of water + island ecology = environmental disaster, no matter how you do the math. The same goes for anyone who asks for a straw. We stopped using straws after participating in the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup last year when we learned that drinking straws are the #1 plastic product polluting our planet’s oceans.
I’m one of those people who always wants to do more. Maybe it’s because I’m the youngest of four. But my time, money and reach are limited. I wish I could have an impact beyond sending these thoughts into the ether and bending everyone’s ear about the evils of (some) tourism. So, until I’m invited to do a TedTalk, here are some of the most egregious and under-reported ways that tourism is affecting us here on the ground:
No Spanish whatsoever: Get a phrase book, an app, an interpreter, whatever works for you, but learn at least a few words of wherever you’re traveling. One everyone needs at the ready here in Cuba is “permiso.” This means ‘excuse me.’ Learn it. Use it. I was at a popular club last week (part of my so-far-not-so-successful 2017 goal to re-establish some work-play balance in my life) and spotted my friends across the crowded dance floor.
“Permiso,” I said, the smile on my face audible.
“Permiso!” I repeated, louder.
The dude shifted his weight slightly to the right and I squeezed through. I get that not everyone speaks Spanish, wants to speak Spanish, or has the time, energy or brain cells to learn some local words before traveling to foreign climes. But when you start fucking with our mechanisms and flow, it gets annoying (and inefficient). It’s like the people in New York, my home town, who stand on the left side of escalators or who stop on street corners to look at maps or their smart phones. Permiso isn’t a hard word to learn or pronounce, nor is taking the último, which you should do in each and every line in which you find yourself. El último is the most important concept to learn before traveling here if you don’t want to screw with the local flow.
The classic car cliché – The fury for classic car tours has me irrationally incensed. I say irrational because there are upsides: cars rusting in back lots or abandoned in garages for decades are now up and rolling through the streets; restoring them is providing jobs for many; and the cars’ owners are making a killing taking tourists on hour-long loops around the city. Before I unleash my rant, let me repeat for lazy readers who missed it the first time: I recognize the benefits and I admit my attitude is irrational. Now for the complexities: convertible car tours have become such a trend that cars previously functioning as collective taxis for the local population are being taken out of circulation and their tops shaved off (to the tune of $3000 CUC) to satisfy tourist demand. Whereas these drivers used to hump their ass all day long (or hire someone to do so) collecting 10 peso fare after 10 peso fare (about 35 cents), they now get up to $50 CUC an hour (that’s double the average monthly state salary) taking Tea Party supporters on a Habana Vieja-Plaza de la Revolución-Parque Almendares-Miramar tour. I would love to do a Candid Camera-type maldad where fun- and sun-seeking tourists from Kansas jump into the convertible and instead of traveling around ‘Disneyland Havana,’ they’re taken into the dark, gritty depths of Jesús María, La Timba, Fanguito, Los Pocitos, and Coco Solo, ending up in Mantilla…and left there.
Sadly, whoever is currently chopping a classic car is screwed: word on the street is that the state auto regulatory authority won’t be approving any more post-factory convertible conversions. If true, I predict it’s going to play out like this: car owners unable to procure the proper authorization will operate anyway, illegally. The money is just too tempting and they have to recover their investment after all. When stopped by the cops, they’ll slip 20 CUC in with their license and registration and everyone will drive off happy. Instead of being just another cog in this cliché, I suggest taking a classic Harley-Davidson tour – you’ll get the same 360° views; be closer to the people and scenes you’re photographing; and helping a needier Cuban than the convertible car guys. It’s also much cooler. Two other factors about these cars chap my ass: the environmental damage of all these cars without catalytic converters is incalculable and when they line up on the Avenida del Puerto in the heart of Habana Vieja to await thousands of disembarking cruise ship passengers, it causes nasty traffic snarls, making it even more difficult for regular folk to get to and from home, work, or play.
Pro tip for those on one of these tours: someone, please sit up front! It is local custom for someone to share the front with the driver. Cubans are social like that, plus, you get to observe up close how a pro maneuvers 2 tons of steel , can feast on the dashboard details (I’ll bet you 10CUC the speedometer doesn’t work), and you get the same stellar views. Bonus, insider info will definitely be yours if you share a common language with your driver – whose ear you’ll have for an hour or more. So unless you’re on a honeymoon or something similarly romantic, ride shotgun – even, or especially if, you’re traveling solo.
Your lucha is our gain – There’s other tourism-related stuff annoying me lately: foreigners who refuse to stand in line and pay to jump it; visitors who scam subsidized cultural events here, insisting on paying the local price (almost all venues here have a Cuban and a foreigner price, just like in Hawai’i, the Seychelles and other tourist-dependent islands. Often these same visitors decry the low salaries here, precisely as they undermine them); and of course, sex tourism, prostitution, transactional sex or whatever you want to call it. I was very heartened to learn at the recent Gender Violence, Prostitution, and Sexual Tourism Symposium that Cuba is considering penalizing johns instead of the sex providers a la Sweden.
Because this is a very depressing post and we’re living in very depressing times, I want to end on a positive note. A couple, actually.
First, talking with my friend Ernesto today, he observed that one of the good things about all this tourism – especially from the USA – is that people are seeing Cuba for themselves and learning first-hand that much of what they’ve heard about Cuba – it’s dangerous, a repressive police state, that Cubans are miserable and hate their realities – is bullshit. People drawing their own conclusions from their own experiences is powerful.
Second is the story of Kevin, Bryant, Blake and Jeff (or something like that), four bros from the East Coast who came to Cuba on a quick 5-day whim of a trip. On Day 2, they went out to the Morro-Cabaña and while picking their way along the moss-slickened cliffs, Jeff (or Kevin or Bryant or Blake) slipped and went tumbling into the sea. He surfaced quickly, holding his iPhone above the water as his friends fished him out. They made their way back to their casa in Havana and began hunting for raw rice in which to submerge the iPhone overnight in an effort to salvage it. Night had fallen by this time; they didn’t know where to buy rice and no stores (let alone bodegas) were open regardless. They stopped in a restaurant and in their broken Spanish asked one of the waiters if he’d be willing to sell them some rice. A diner overheard their conversation, rose from the table where he was sharing dinner with his family, took the guys to his home, gave them some rice (refusing payment, of course), and invited them back the next day for some coffee and conversation.
They were thrilled and so was I: here were four dudes whose Cuba trip could have been filled with a classic car tour, mojitos, jineteras on the Malecón and getting nauseous on Cohibas. Instead, they embraced serendipity, solidarity and the spirit of experiential travel. I don’t know if they ever got the iPhone working, but I know they made travel memories that will last their lifetime.
77 responses to “Tourism: Killing the Cuban Encanto?”
Once again a powerful and informative post! So real.
I will be happy to stop by and say hi at Cuba Libro, on my next visit to Havana.
All the best!
renaldo de montreal
Just think your assumption that all yahoos are tea party yahoos is off base. People are curious, and many have only been as close to Cuba as a trip to Disney World, Union City, or Miami will take them. And what they may know, or know what to expect is equally Disney-like. Give ’em a break. I suggest that the more that visit and then visit again, the less ’57 Chevyism and Gotta Have Some Havana Club you will see, and that could be a good thing.
I’ve never visited, but look forward to whatever experience I have.
Hola Jonathan. Point taken. However my main points were that people can do more to educate themselves BEFORE they come to Cuba so as to enrich whatever experience they have and to embrace experiential rather than simply observational travel. Also, it is not at all clear how many people who come down here for 3-7 days (very common now) will return. Many do it for the novelty and when combined with the superficial itinerary, don’t absorb enough to be motivated for a second visit.
All that is true, and I guess time will tell how many folks will drill down and want to visit multiple times for reasons other than the ChevyCohibaHavanaClub experience.
Sadly, that was my worst nightmare about the USA tourist invasion of the island.
Perhaps the ONLY good thing about Trump winning will be the slowing down of this mess. (Sadly there are way more negatives than positives about this).
The worst part of the said “tourism” you described perfectly with their lack of knowledge of what type of “side dish” is “a Malecón” or so.
They are, as you said, the ones that have no idea what the Louvre is, and, IF they do, they pay the admission to run towards the Mona Lisa and take a selfie with it before hurrying out looking for the closest Parisian McD’s.
Thanks Conner from the botton of my CUBAN heart!!!!!… and, on behalf of the Royal Palm, thank you “americuban”!!!
Mi amiga: David Blacno and his band (including your amazingly talented daughter!!) gave the concert of a lifetime at the 6th Annual Harley Rally this past weekend in Varadero. Thank you from the bottom of my NYer/Yuma heart. besos
I suspect they have tall horses in Cuba as you need to get off your high horse. First, idiot tourists are everywhere. I saw a group of Chinese tourists acting a fool at the Grand Canyon. I have seen English teenagers act obnoxious on the Paris metro. I have experienced the drunken stag party in Prague. It’s everywhere. I am headed to Cuba on Saturday and I am far from a tea party member nor am I a drunken frat bro. I am a traveler who loves to soak up history and culture. I understand Cuba is somewhat of a time capsule and you may be resisting change (part of the reason I am going to Havana now is I want to see it before Starbucks and McDonalds come in) but change will happen. Living in Florida we have our fair share of tourists but I don’t let it bother me (except for the occasional slow Canadian driver).
Thanks for reading (though I suggest a more careful parse of the post – I recognize the good with the bad) and applaud those who come here to “soak up” – unfortunately, you’re fast becmong the minority. And I do resist change when it is unsustainable and disrespectful. If that means Im on a high horse, giddy up!!
Starbucks and Mcdonalds wont be coming here. First, Cuba has a strong coffee culture and it is a strategic domestic industry. Second, Mcdonalds would cripple the universal health system (overweight and obesity is one of the top 10 health problems here) and is too powerful a symbol of imperialist domination. Cubans won’t let them in. Always good to consider that Cuba has a devp strategy, goals and priorities – overpriced, over-roasted coffee and fast food from the north don’t fit the model. have a wonderful trip.
Thanks for the reply. I hope that more travelers than tourists make it to Cuba and participate in a cultural exchange. I think the worst thing is the cruise ships. They have ruined a few spots I have been too (Santorini especially). I promise not to be a jerk during my visit 😉
Another good one Conner. Thanks.
Convertibles are the “fleece the tourist” equipment. I find it hard to blame them though. Just another smart guy figuring out how to make a living. Noticed that nobody is slicing the roof off a Geely.
Now on the Harley issue, I stand behind you. Couple of years ago had the honour of riding around Havana with Sergio and Miriam, with 6ft-4 of me in the sidecar. Best ride ever, but hard on the spine. The one thing on my bucket list is to ride in the Varadero rally soon. Coming to Havana end of March. Will drop by to say Hi.
Just back from the 6th annual rally and it was better than ever. My hats really off to the organizers (plus, my driver and I won the weenie contest!). Ill post photos soon. Sergio and Miriam are dolls. Glad you got the chance to go for a spin with them.
Great piece. Coming in June with my two dons and I have sent them this link. Read!
I teared up with the last story. Here’s to blasting away ignorance…
One of the best posts you’ve done – gracias. (The first thing I did when I came home from cycling around Cuba was enrol at Instituto Cervantes here in the U.K.
Hey Conner! This is the first time I’m reading your blog. Nice muscle! How was the Harley rally? And your health? Ready to connect? Tonight there’s a happening at La Marks tattoo parlour on Obrapia, near my home. Short notice, but tough shit, hope you can reschedule your calendar and come play + remember that balance you referenced in the email below?
Beautiful article, thank you for posting it.
We’ve been to Cuba 7 times and have told many of my fellow Canadians of the beautiful country and wonderful, proud people. People who are proud of what they have, which is a “richness” that the average North American can only dream of. I love the people, so friendly and so willing to speak to tourists.
My favourite times have been in the Guardalavaca and Santa Lucia areas. I much prefer smaller villages to the big cities like Santiago and Havana. Not that there’s anything wrong with cities, but I was raised in a very small town in Canada and prefer that.
Again, thank you. To tou and your countrymen, stay beautiful and stay proud.
Hi there amiga! Long time no see…
Always a pleasure to read your blog. By the way, I’ve heard that the ol’ Bucaneros están perdidas?? Wtf??
Much love from Anna & me!
Cojone amigo!!!! tanto tiempo. como tu estas? I was talking about you just the other day and the very important lesson you taught me: one day, when the shit had hit the cuban fan you counseled me: no coges lucha mi amiga. Cubans say it all the time but it took an aplatan’o, tan equanime to convince me that si se puede no coger lucha! besos gigantes para ti y anna. CUANDO VENGAN PA’CA?! PD – si perdidas bucaneros pero ya poco a poco estan re-apareciendos.
Great read. Tourism always has it positive and negative aspects. Look at your hometown of NYC. Look what’s happening in Barcelona. People are protesting there because the natives can’t afford to live in the city. Airbnb is having a negative effect there.
I agree that Cuba has a strong coffee culture , but so does Paris. The French are big McDonalds fans.
Money is powerful and I tbink Cuba just might have to completely open up. Who knows? Look at the fall of the Soviet Union. How long did it take for Russia to be invaded by all sorts of businesses from the west?
Maybe Cuba will take some different approach but as more Cubans get online and see what’s available in the rest of the world they are going to want that too.
I know I am late but I feel like I have to correct you, Teresa.
Paris doesn’t have a strong coffee culture since coffee in Paris sucks. Italy has an extreme coffee culture and Starbucks have been trying to open in Italy but the only success is in Milan with the help of foreigners. Italians prefer their coffee small and quick for a few euros which Starbucks can’t afford to do so.
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Buen día Conner. Neil here, from Ottawa. I met you two years ago and extolled the virtues of a visit to the art deco gem, el Edificio Lopez Serrano in Vedado. (Wonderful documentary on Youtube, if ever you….) Your narrative is eloquent and so true to life.
Here was my experience from last week during dinner at La Calesa Real, just off Calle Obispo. After 22 visits to Cuba, I thought I had heard it all. A quartet of lardiforous first-timers from Joisey had just finished stuffing themselves for one fifth the price of a feast back home.
Lady Joisey: Now we don’t have to tip the waitress. They have free health care heah ya know.
I was so-o-o tempted to tell them about empty pharmacies, family doctors handing out herbs, families bringing their own food and bedding to filthy hospitals, and injured Cubans being brought to Emergency in wheelbarrows or on bikes, but I would not have been believed.
Lady Joisey: Besides, we only have a 100 CUC note left and Gawd knows they nevah got change heah.
Canadian leaning over: I couldn’t help but hear you mention your plight, Madam. Ironically, I visited the local bank this afternoon and have plenty of small bills. Here are nine 10 CUC notes and two 5’s to help you out.
Lady J: Oh… er… harumph… well, ah, thank you.
Canadian: My pleasure Madam.
You never saw anyone place five bucks on a restaurant table more slowly and reluctantly in your life. Although I had already paid my bill and added a flag pin and small lip gloss, I waited until Quartetto Gelato had departed to make sure one of them didn’t discreetly reclaim the 5 CUC. The whole scenario would have been funny if it hadn’t been so sad.
Despicable. I love the response of the conscientious Canadian, however. We call this here ‘una galleta sin mano’ – a handless bitch slap. And as sad as this is, it points up that there are people with solidarity and understanding traveling to Cuba, while setting a great example: if you see something, say something. Use every experience like this as an educational moment. we shouldn’t remain silent when we overhear or see something of this nature. Surprisingly, this post is generating some dissent. There are some comments on my Havana Good Time facebook page too
I thought Cuban’s don’t tip and that was only an American thing. I know they don’t tip in Europe or Canada.
Cubans tip. At the grocery store, for parking, at bathrooms, in restaurants and bars. At Cuba Libro most often its the tourists who are embarrassingly cheap. Just this week: a $2.50 coffee bill paid with a $50 CUC note and not a nickel for our tip jar. Then, another foreigner, receiving his change for his $3.25 bill (yes, our prices are THAT cheap) dropped the 25 cents IN FRONT OF OUR TIP JAR. Two team members pointed it out to him, I picked it up and handed it over and it went straight into his pocket. I have an Instagram photo ready to go live on this very issue.
And all my Canadian friends: tipping doesn’t happen up where you live?
Checked with Canadian friends: they do tip. Its important to know what you don’t know don’t you think?
Hi. Another Canuck here, from Vancouver Island. I’m 62 and my mother is 81, and next week, we are going to Cuba for the second time, this time for a month, renting a small house in Veradero. I have been using Duolingo for nearly three months now, and am 19% proficient in Spanish. Two years ago, the trip was my mother’s birthday gift to me (turned 60 … egads!), and we fell in love with the people and the country. We introduced ourselves as Canadian social democrats (which we are). We were one of the guilty parties taking a 1955 Chev into Havana for a day. Our tour guide was a walking encyclopedia of Cuban history, and I was in tears many times when he was telling us about the brutality of the American soldiers prior to the revolution. My mother and I, being politically aware and active here in Canada (I hold public office) asked him so many questions that at one point, he turned and looked at us and said “you are very different from most tourists,” and gave us a big smile. I took that as a compliment.
When I asked about the impending invasion of ignorant American tourists, he told us that the people of Cuba had spoken loudly to their government, and made it clear that they want to keep the rich history and beauty of their country, and not have it dotted with McD’s, Starbucks, and MalWarts (I am a die-hard boycotter of MalWart .. umm, WalMart …). Since the American election, and my utter dismay with the results, I have said a few times that the only good thing that could come out of a tRump administration is reinstatement of the embargo.
I am taking 13 lbs of guitar supplies with me, for a group which has close ties with Canada. It is the Canada/Cuba Luthier Society (they have a facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/Canada-Cuba-Luthier-Solidarity-265317803533559/?fref=ts ). Haven’t yet figured out how I’m going to get it to Havana, but I’ve never been shy about a new adventure, either. 🙂 I have the contact info for the recipients and will figure it out!
Thank you for your blog. One of my friends involved in the Luthier society sent me the link, and I will be following your blog. Can’t wait to head to Cuba in 12 days!
One of the greatest results of this post is folks like you writing in with their stories, sharing their love for Cuba and exemplifying international solidarity – soemthing for which, Im sure you know, Cuba is world famous! Ive had a bunch of contact with the Canada/Cuba Luthier society, a terrific example of meanignful cultural exhchange between here and there. Thanks for writing in and I love that you and mom are traveling together! Have a wonderful trip
Thank you for writing this blog post. Most people don’t believe me when I mention these changes, and it’s helpful to point them to an independent opinion. I have been going to Havana for four years, taking small groups of people interested in studying Cuban music and dance. We have stayed with local families in Havana Centro, walked to all our lessons and danced with our Cuban dance teachers at night, overall they have been great trips with lots of interaction between people and new friendships. Nowadays it has gotten extremely difficult to set this up, for loss of studio space, difficulty getting transportation for our day-trip to the outskirts, etc. So this January was my last trip…
Another negative effect of the tourism boom: folks running truly educational trips being edged out. Im sorry to hear this. I know first-hand how difficult it is to arrange these types of visits here. Another thing happened yesterday at Cuba Libro directly relevant to this post and excuse me for hijacking your comment: two separate foreign visitors, not understanding the double currency, each left 1 peso cubano in our tip jar (that’s 3 cents). The Cuba Libro crew had a big laugh about it and figured the tourists thought they were leaving 1CUC, but for the less easy going, this would be a tremendous insult.
What’s wrong with La Timba? I looked them up on youtube. It’s just a band. Or, did you mean some/thing/one/place else? I’m not big on salsa, myself, but why keep tourists away?
La Timba is a mixed neighborhood (but with pockets of great vulnerability) off the plaza de la revolucion. It’s also a genre of salsa, but that’s not of what I speak in this post. Cheers
I always love to correct people on this point, don’t judge me: the word is “nauseated” not “nauseous”. Nauseous means one _induces_ nausea on others. Nauseated means you’re sick.
Gracias! Connection is really slow, but I’ll try and make the correction.
I think one of the issues which isn’t said here is the time of year. I think you are probably talking largely about events that occurred in super high season (Mid December to Mid January) where tourists around the world are taking their one and done trips to check out Cuba before the so called American invasion. The real tourism number suggest tourism is far from a big issue on a pure numeric basis.
I was in the Oriente (Holguin) over New Years and hardly saw tourism in the City. I would’ve actually guessed it had declined rather than went up based on my last 5 new years there.
Theres a number of new Cubans who have figured out a way to part naive tourists with their money at record breaking speeds. But even the guys chopping off their covertible tops. How many of those trips could they possibly be getting daily at the tune of 50 CUC for an hour. Lets say they average 100 CUC a day and they work 20 days a month. Thats only 2000 CUC before expenses, taxes etc. It puts them in the realm of people with multi room casa particulars in Vedado and Miramar. They are by no means getting rich doing it. The money quickly dries up too once tourism drops off like it does every time I’m Cuba aside from November – March.
Right now I believe more Canadians visit Cuba per month than Americans per year. What is happening at the moment though is most Americans are weary in relation to the travel restrictions and choose to go to cities rather than the beaches. Once / if this is changed the vast vast majority of Americans are going to end up in beach hotels rather than wandering down 23 or Obispo I wouldn’t be overly worried about it. Long term Cuba will be Cuba.
Thanks for writing in with your experiences Ryan. You point out something that I failed to mention specifically in the post: Im talking about Havana; the Oriente (Santiago de Cuba, Holguin, Guantanamo, etc) is a different story. Nevertheless, I was just at the Annual Harley Rally in Varadero (a place I only go once a year, for the Rally) and I was talking to our casa owner there – a very entreprenuerial guy with 10 rooms for rent – and he was telling me that low and high season no longer exist. It’s ALL high season. Im headed to another rally in CAmaguey and to the Oriente for the new book Im writing and I’ll be interested to see how this is playing out in the provinces (I know Cienfuegos and Trinidad are experiencing much the same as Havana, as is Vinales).
As for your parsing of the math: I think you’re probably right in assuming the average car tour driver gets 2 fares a day (though Im going to start investigating this) but $100/day for two hours work aint bad. MUCH less stressful and work than a casa particular. And I hope you’re right about the long term, though the emphasis on cruise tourism (projections are 5 million cruise ship passengers in the next 10 years) has me worried because they do dock in cities….
Thank you for clarifying that your experience is in La Habana. Thankfully, we have not seen the situation you so eloquently describe yet here in the “sticks” (Gibara). While our pretty town in Holguin Province, Oriente, is now being marketed as a tourist destination (with the exquisitely restored 5-star Hotel Ordono, the smaller Hotel Arsenita, a soon to open – we’re told May- one story Hotel Plaza Colon – with a swimming pool-Imagine!, caving excursions, fixed-rope rock climbing, three small beaches, the larger nearby Playa Caletones with posa frios.Cine Pobre in April ,Casa de Tango, Museums, and a pier to accommodate 60+ person catamarans from Guardalavaca), we have yet to see an influx of drunken frat boys, valley girls, and sex tourists.
We are seeing loads of Europeans, budget travelers, families, aging hippies (who sometimes ask where they can score some dope!) and busloads of American tourists who are there on one of several visas (educational, historical, photography, person-to-person, whatever that means). They tend, as a rule, to be educated, interesting, sympatico, sometimes naive, but gentrified individuals.
That is not to say some of them are basically out to lunch as to the mechanics of Cuba: lack of reliable transportation, medication, feminine hygiene products, and slow internet connection, even in the Parque de Cultura wi-fi zone.
I find the European backpackers, expected to be the most laid-back, are the most surly, especially when it comes to two-tier costs for tourists and Cubanos. They try to haggle the price down on everything and become beligerent when told that the price of lodging is $25/night. That sends them out on a wild goose chase to find something less expensive without success, and they return, tail between their legs, but non apologetic.
The up-side: scores of new Casas and restaurants that provide badly needed employment, both in staffing and construction, upgrading of infrastructure and free paint for houses nearby tourist locals.
The downside: a growing shortage of fish, chicken, beer and produce. The farmers/ fishermen simply go directly to the casa/hotel doors and get a higher price for their product, leaving many foodstuffs unavailable or unaffordable for the average Cuban. (Plus all the tourists rob all the pretty girls from the Cuban boys)
Thanks so much for sharing perspectives from lovely, lovely Gibara. I was there once, over 10 years ago, writing the Lonely Planet – before Cine Pobre, before the beautification, before the influx. Im headed back in the coming months for a new book Im writing (NOT a guide, thank god!) and Im looking for interesting leads on lesser-known places. Care to share? Feel free to drop me a private message….
The fishermen going straight to casas – this is a warning sign. And the European backpackers haggling on every point: we get our share at Cuba Libro….pa’lante!!
Here in Ireland we have Cuba in the news as our President Michael D Higgins is there (saying that Cuba is an illuminating example in its provision of health and education, and that Cuba should be free to shape its own path to development.) I hope he was using his Spanish, after becoming president he took a three week intensive Spanish course before an official trip to South America in 2012. I like people who lead by example!
Yes!! We’re following this closely in the local news. Ireland and Cuba have always had a special relationship and it hits close to home for me since my grandparents came over from Ireland back in the day. I hope this leads to opening an embassy here! I too, appreciate people who lead by example. May we multiply! Cheers from havana
Wanted to say thanks for all your work on this blog. I’m an American taking my first trip to Cuba next week and have been trying to read as much as possible the last couple months. Actually next book on my list is Cuba: Neither Heaven Nor Hell which I got after reading you recommend it on some other post.
This site was a great find, there is nothing else I found on the web with this perspective so far. The goal is to not be the aloof idiotic tourist I despise that this post perfectly describes. However I think Aloof Idiot Tourist is a spectrum, and that a person is giving themselves too much credit if they’re a first-timer in a place like Cuba and don’t understand that they unavoidably fall at least somewhere on the low end of that spectrum their first trip. Despite any amount of reading and exploring and intentions of connecting, I’m still going to be comparatively naive going in, and I think part of a being a “good tourist” is humbling yourself to understand that and constantly being conscious of it and working to improve on it while there.
One question too- I remember one of your posts about how tampons were impossible to get in Cuba and visitors are often asked to bring them there. Would you suggest I bring some and if so what do you recommend is the best way to get them to people who could use them? I’m leery of “bringing gifts”/ick savior complex, and not trying to be white lady gleefully throwing Tampax for all off my casa particular balcony. But that post stuck with me cause I know how not having one can truly limit what a woman can do at times, and for me not much else says solidarity more than another gal helpin me out with one when I’m without. So if that’s something that would get used by sisters I am very down for bringing a couple extra boxes. Interested in your thoughts on it. Thanks again!
Right on Valerie! You get it, and Im so glad you wrote in so others might take a page from your book. Ive had a lot of feedback and donation offers re: the “period post” and I will take this opportunity to both answer your question and clarify: on the whole, Cuban women much prefer pads to tampons, so if you bring any feminie products, the former would be more relevant. Although pads are distributed via the ration card, they are so-so quality and there are never enough to go around. Have a fabulous trip!
Here’s one idea both for Valerie and Cuba Libro… why not have a bowl for pads donations, as you have a condon one?
Hi, long time reader/first time commenter. Thanks for this post. I always appreciate the stories I find here and the information you impart. I’ve been to Cuba a few times over the years and have a longing to visit Havana again, but from what you write it sorta confirms the ideas I’ve had sitting here in Canada.
I was in Havana for a week about 3 yrs ago, perhaps just before the “onslaught”. Havana seemed jampacked full of turistas like me a even then, so I can only imagine what it is like now with vomiting fratboys on the loose.
Also, it was interesting to hear from the commenter above about Gibara, and the changes taking place. I visited a couple of yrs ago. A great town that I’d love to see again.
On the same trip I met up with a Cdn friend in Santiago who wanted to do some camping. We took a guagua east along the semi-washed out coastal road to a campismo near Chivirico (La Mula?). It was great to be in a very isolated place for a few days! Late in the night some cowboys came thundering into the camp on horseback, a little juiced up, bottles in hand, because they heard that some gringas were there. They were a little disappointed it was only two gringos instead.
Sorry, I guess I’m reminding myself of all the places I’d like to see again as well as Havana, but also feeling a little guilty about the tourist tradeoffs. The more people like me that go to the less traveled places like Gibara, eat whatever we want, go wherever we want etc., the more a double edged tourist economy is created pulling needed resources away from Cubans. But tbh, it probably won’t stop me from visiting again, I’m just trying to be aware of the reality!
Thanks for your thoughtful comment Michael. Im coming to understand (and this post has shed a lot of light, given the comments received) that one strategy for moving forward responsibly, sanely, is to enourage more travelers like you to come here and dive in, get off the beaten track and approach this destination with curosity and respect. hope you cann return soon!
Conner insightful and interesting as usual however I cannot say I agree with you when you say that ‘Tourism is Killing the Cuban Encanto’ they killed it off themselves years ago.
You are full aware of this.
You wrote about your stay at the Villa Tropico in Jibacoa and remarked on the tacky grossness of it all, and that was long before the Americans arrived.
I have also stayed at that resort and seen the hands out for a tip culture, the if it moves tip is culture of the Canadians. I have witnessed, as I’m sure you have the crates of drinks being loaded into the boots of worker’s cars. The lifeguards and security guards disappear with obese drunken Canadian women at the weekend and leave the pool abandoned while they take off to nearby campismos with the yumas to spend the day boozing and dining on lobster at local restaurants.
So the ‘Encanto’ was killed off long before the Americans arrived.
Cuba has taken to using the slogan ‘Authentic’! but we all know it’s really about as ‘Authentic’ as Burger King or Subway. The nasty lukewarm buffet where the ‘management’ queue up and pig out like it was their last meal on earth.
The slipping of mobile by female pr ladies and managers to anyone’s husband who takes their fancy.
The hovering around you by waitresses, to tell you how much they like your shirt, dress, sandals in the hope you will leave it to them. These are overpaid overtipped greedy grasping women who seriously are the last people in Cuba in need of another dress, blouse, pair of shoes yet they continue to hustle drop hints and create the kind of ‘Encanto’ that makes you resolve to never set foot on the island again. Such is the cesspit of sleaze it has descended into.
‘Authentica’? My Ass!.
I visited Cuba when it was not quite as gross as it is today. You mentioned the ‘Mulatto Ballerina’ well mine was not married and he proposed to me, wrote me love poems sent me letters, in the days before email had arrived to Cuba but I did not want to marry him.
I am not Canadian and I guess it’s against my principles to purchase a man in the sense of forking out thousands of $ to transport him out of Cuba.
So Cuba’s ‘Encanto’ died a long time ago, long before the Americans arrived.
The whole Socialista scam is just that – a scam,
and the majority of Cubans realise that now, – Especially those who have managed to get hold of a copy of ‘The Secret Life of Fidel’, the author of which died in mysterious circumstances a day after it was published!.
They know they’ve been duped and I guess marriage fraud will be even more on the increase now that they realise the wet foot dry foot initiative has been scrapped Trump is in power.
So, ever more gullible Canadian women are likely to be conned into sham fraudulent marriages.
Hi Conner, love your blog, as always. And this time I noticed you mentioned the word CHOIR. You know of a choir here? Am living here now and desperate to stretch out my vocal chords! Really missing my old choir. Would be good to know. Many thanks….
Hi there Julie. “Preaching to the choir” is an axiom, and Im guilty! There are tons of choirs here – church, children, baroque. A google search should turn up some leads. Good luck!
Love reading your posts. I have been travelling (not as a tourist) to Havana frequently since 2013 and have noticed things changing due to increasing inflow of tourism. Particularly the increasing inflow of American tourism where one can wonder what will happen in a complex country as Cuba. This is a concern both for me and my European friends and we all have family or friends in Cuba. I would also argue that it affects not only the Cuban people but also tourists from other countries as well. You eloquently describe some of the “incidents” or “issues” that occur. One thing that I´ve noticed and have come across is that many Cubans (maybe just the ones that comes across extranjeros?) thinks that all foreigners visiting are millionaires. Like the Americans tourists(!). The chasing of CUC via cheating or trying to sell (whatever) etc to fantasy prices has increased. I´ve had numerous Cubans telling me (shamelessly) – “Yes, you can pay that, you are rich! All foreigners are rich!”. Well, not true and it becomes tiring having to be on guard and arguing about money all the time.
Lastly I would like to make a correction about something you wrote about my country. In Sweden buying sex is an offense, not selling…
Hola. Foreigners have always (or since Ive lived here), been known as “ATMs with legs” or “dollars with legs”. I think it’s just more widespread now. It IS tiresome, I know! And a correction to your correction: that’s what I said, that Sweden penalizes johns (those soliciting, not selling sex). But to make it more complicated, I jsut read an article in a recent Le Monde Diplomatique that the Sweden plan isn’t working out that well? Thanks for writing in
Very helpful post! I learned so many things essential for Cuba, such as permiso 😀
Hi there, I decided to leave a comment after I read an interview where you talk about your life in Cuba, why you decided to move there, etc.
I just came from Cuba. I did a short trip between La Habana and Viñales. I went during my spring break but I swear God I wasn’t one of those annoying tourists!
Actually, in Viñales I got an invitation to a Cuban party! It was the best experience of my whole trip.
I think I am going to come back to Cuba very soon because I met an amazing guy in Viñales. We are trying to keep in touch but it is a little bit hard!
I’ll continue reading your blog!
And the next time I’ll visit your cafe!
I’m currently planning my first solo trip to Havana, and I’m so glad I ran into your blog. The last thing I want to do is be a tourist in such a way that denigrates Cubans, so your tips and thoughts here are incredibly useful–thank you.
Hola! Im glad I could be of help. Haters have called my blog “useless”, “poorly written” and “out of date” – and that was just in the past two weeks! Have a wonderful trip.
Hi Conner I was shocked to read that have received such negative nasty comments from haters. Do not let such idiots with too much time on their hands effect you.
We love your blog, it is funny insightful, extremely well written and I agree with mostly all of what you write.
Some of your comments make me laugh so much but best of all you provide an insider’s insight to the real Cuba which is fast disappearing.
Long Live ‘Here Is Havana’! and can’t wait to read your book!
I just read your post “Here is Havana,” and found it quite interesting. I visited Cuba March 2017, fell in love with it and want to visit again this summer for a month, but alone this time. During my March visit, I met up and stayed with 5 other Americans…3 of us loved it and the others would never return until and unless it’s Americanized. Contrarily I pray that never happens. My desire to return is twofold…I’ve had a love for Hispanic culture and the language for a long time and I felt something profoundly special about Cuba..a belonging if you will… a yearning to spend more time there… I can read and write some and understand a little especially if spoken a little slower. I want to really see more of Cuba….the people!!!! I enjoyed my time most when I was interacting with Cubans in the neighborhoods. I want to immerse as much as one can….to learn as much as I can and of course to augment my Spanish language abilities. I agree with your perspective on tourists in Cuba. I would love to talk more with you!
Hi Conner, I just found your blog and I really love that you are highlighting the whole touristic mess which is happening right now. I just find that you may be a bit too harsh to the tourists. Last year I was three times in Havana and I have to say that I needed some time to feel accustomed to the attitude of the locals towards tourists (on my first trip most of my conversations with strangers ended up being about money). So I really wouldn’t necessary blame the visitants for not willing to understand and to integrate but just drink cocktails and have nice time. Now – it’s clear that there are people who just cannot behave – same as in every country living with the help of tourism (take Spain for example – it’s a total mess in summer).
Surely, after a while of living in a Cuban family, I found my way to communicate with locals but I’m afraid that I will always be called “yuma” on the street, no matter how long I’ll stay and how deep I’ll integrate. People there, unfortunately, still draw a big fat line between “me – Cuban” and “you – spoiled tourist” just by your physical appearance. I know, it has to change some day, but it will be a long process for sure. And I’m so looking to it as it’s the one and only thing that shrinks my love to Havana 🙂
Looking forward to your blog entries!
The gringa pretentiousness is so real. You emphasize that people learn proper spanish terms like “permiso” but fail to even teach it correctly. Permiso means permission. “Con permiso” is the exact translation for “excuse me,” which is most likely why you got no response. If someone had yelled “Perm-ee-so!”at me I wouldn’t know how to respond to that and would’ve most likely ignored you also. That’s just one (of many) example of false information you’re handing out confidently. Coming from an American Latino who is fluent in Spanish, and is strongly rooted in her Hispanic heritage. Get off your soapbox with all the inaccuracies you’re spewing. In my opinion, A Petite and Solo Wayfarer Blog is way more accurate and way less pretentious.
Hola American Latino. I appreciate your comment. Have you been to Havana? If so, you know that here, we say permiso – Cubans are notorious for dropping all kinds of words, syllables, etc and this is a perfect example. Whereas ‘con permiso” (literally ‘with permission’) is common elsewhere, here a simple permiso will do. Same with ‘el ultimo?’ Technically, the phrase is ‘quien es el ultimo’ but Cubans don’t fuss with all those extra words. After having written 20 guidebooks to Latin America for Lonely Planet, I know that different contexts have different phrasing, pronounciation, even vocabulary (hell: even WITHIN countries! for instance, it’s not adviseable to seek ‘papaya’ in Havana, but in Santiago de Cuba, no problem!), so maybe therein lies the rub?
Id be interested to know what other “false information” (the bastard cousin to ‘fake news?!’) you’ve found in these pages. Accuracy and first-hand experience are what drive my writing. Your dissent also falls squarely in the minority: last week Marty and Dick dropped in to Cuba Libro from Seattle and told me the posts related to language on Here is Havana is what compelled them to enroll in an intensive Spanish language class before coming to Cuba (bravo Marty and Dick!). They were throwing around “permiso” and taking “el ultimo” like old pros on their recent trip to Havana.
I don’t know A Petite and Solo Wayfarer blog, but I’ll check it out. Have they written about Havana?
“If someone had yelled “Perm-ee-so!”at me I wouldn’t know how to respond”
See? Now, thanks to the “pretentious gringa” you know how to respond in Cuba. Aint she great?
Ive had a look at A Petite & Solo Wayfarer. Granted, this is a general travel blog, not Cuba-specific, but “way more accurate?” And please note: Im not taking the blogger to task, but rather asking my readers to consider Lopez’ comment and take it with a grain of salt regarding what he considers accurate. From her recent visit to Havana:
“Havana is made up of four sections or neighborhoods, Havana Vieja, Centro Havana, Vedado and Miramar”
So no need for even a casual visitor to know about El Cerro (the neighborhood with the Indiustriales baseball stadium), Nuevo Vedado (from where cross country and provincial buses leave), Regla (for my money, best day trip out of the city), Plaza de la Revolucion (Jose Marti Memorial anyone?), Marianao (home to the mighty Tropicana nightclub),
“A taxi to Vedado from Central Havana should run you no more than CUC10.”
5CUC at most and in her decent list of transport options, makes no mention of fixed route collectivos known as almendrones. Cost? 35 cents.
“By day three, I was mistaken for a Cuban woman [by] wearing bright mismatched colors like the Cuban women …I blended in and I loved that! I was no longer a tourist.”
I include this just for shits and grins among foreigners who have long been coming to or live in Havana. There’s more, but Im busy….
I was born and raised in Mexico, and if someone said “Permiso” to me, I would not bat an eye. I’d say “propio,” and move over so they could go through.
***is that people are seeing Cuba for themselves and learning first-hand that much of what they’ve heard about Cuba – it’s dangerous, a repressive police state, that Cubans are miserable and hate their realities – is bullshit.***
My experience was that this is not bulshit. It is absolutely true. It might not be true in a sense how an average American imagines the situation (they had many illusions about Russians too) but I saw this was exactly the same old repressive Soviet society plus mobile phones. I had expected that Cuba would have made more progress by this time. Living under state’s control does not mean that people are not happy with their lives as long as they are able to enjoy their culture, their work and family relationships. People can adapt to all kinds of circumstances and make the best out of them. However, as far as I had a chance to talk to educated Cubans including my friend and some casa owners, they hated the system where they cannot achieve their full potential. I wasn’t even interested in their stories, I just wanted to enjoy my vacation and my Spanish is very poor anyway. But they clearly exuded the same frustrations about the system that were characteristic to the Soviet people.
“I wasn’t even interested in their stories, I just wanted to enjoy my vacation and my Spanish is very poor anyway” – depends on your perspective I guess (and one’s ability/willingness to engage). To say something is ABSOLUTELY TRUE when you talked to your “friend and some casa owners” is a bit extreme I think. Anyway, folks are coming here to draw their own conclusions – I encourage everyone to do so!!
Great Post – It should be distributed to every passenger on every flight landing at Martín.
I confess to not being your average American tourist. I struggled through basic phrases starting with, “Disculpe me”, “con permiso” and “perdón” before I bought my ticket for my first trip to Cuba in July 2017. I was so encantado that when my wife of 38 years filed for divorce (I wouldn’t let her hit me or stab me with her fingernails any more, the violence kept getting worse) I moved to Cuba permanently on November 3. I started in a small apartment on Calle San Miguel and just moved to a nicer place on San Martín at San Francisco. If you want to meet face to face, just ask where “el rubio” lives (alta de Melba).
In two months my Spanish is conversational plus, despite the grammar faults and conjugation errors. Fortunately, in Cuba nobody pronounces the final consonant so they’re not quite sure if I conjugated “tu” with the “el” form or if I’m just trying to sound Cuban.
At 60 it seems a little strange to my children and friends that I would give up the luxuries and conveniences of Trumplandia to wake up every day with that number 1 question, “Is there water this morning for a shower?”
To make it easier to understand why I will share with you that I was disabled in a car crash in 2002 and wife #1 spent every last penny of the millions I had made. I live on my disability pension of just over $2,000/month. Besides, wife #1 set the court date to conflict with rotator cuff surgery thinking it would give her free dibs on the community property.
The people we stayed with in July witnessed three attacks and told me, “When [think most common name for a Latin woman] can’t take care of you anymore, come back to Cuba and we’ll take care of you. I spent a couple of weeks with them in September and they hired a caregiver for physical therapy and massage. When the divorce is final she has agreed to be the new Señora. Imagine meeting someone kind, gentle, sincere, hermosa who dotes on you and not falling in love? With my huge pension it’s certain she isn’t marrying me for my money.
1) It has been protected from corporate violation.
2) Fresh fruta bomba in the morning.
3) Aguacates that don’t resemble baseballs.
4) Family loyalty.
5) The Malecón.
6) The Malecón (yes, I know I said it twice, and if you have had a romantic walk on the Malecón you know why).
7) You may here congas and timbales all night, but you won’t hear gun shots.
8) The music (I am not referrington).
9) Magdalena y su familia.
In the words of Richard Nixon, another idiot who became PUSA, “My fellow Americans, come to Cuba. Bring dollars. Be a##holes if you must, but you should pay more for the privilege. Spend your money, and if you can’t learn to respect a country that was sophisticated and developed when the Pilgrims thought they had landed in Plymouth, Virginia, go back home.
To the enlightened, see what Plaza de la Catedral is like at 3 am. Don’t order a mojito. Treat the people with respect, we’ve made their lives very difficult.
The United States has it’s repressive policies as well. Currently white heterosexual males seem to be the scapegoats. After going though divorce and child support hell I’m sure you know that just as well as I do.
Whatever you do, don’t get killed in Cuba. One of my friends did, and it took more than 4 months to get his remains repatriated to the USA.
That’s awful. Im sorry your friend met such a fate. Can you venture a guess as to why it took 4 months? Was there a criminal investigation into his death? Was it an issue with the lack of diplomatic relations? Was it before commercial flights? Ive had family members in the same situation asking me for advice on repatriating remains (WAY beyond my purview) and some details may help out someone else.
Ran across your post while google searching “whorehouses in Havana.” Not sure why this subpar blog appeared on the first page of the results…but I took the time to read, nonetheless.
I am the guy you hate. The one you stereotype and berate. I’m a red blooded, card carrying, middle class “bro” from Texas. I will be soon traveling with several likeminded “bros” to your city and plan to have a great time, spend a lot of money, and do shit that I can’t or won’t do at home.
You can bitch until you are blue in the face, but like many professional complainers before you it will fall on deaf ears. It is the classic tourist VS local conundrum. The fact of the matter is: tourism equals dollars. Dollars equal a better quality of life. Capitalism has found its way and overrided Communism.
For example: It’s so sad that cabs now cater to tourists! Boo hoo! Instead of bitching about it go out and start a peticab company and cater to locals! Or better yet write your comrades for more affordable transport! Neither case is very likely.
I’m going to enjoy the shit out of my time in Havana I will take your advice and hone my Spanish. Quit bitching and go out and do something.
The funniest part of this post (aside from the Gringa part) is the “Quit bitching and go out and do something”. You obviously haven’t heard of Cuba Libro “bro.” And don’t come to us for top quality free condoms while you’re going things you “won’t do at home”! The saddest part of this post (aside from you, natch) is that you’re my tacayo. Egads. Im confident that Cuba and sus jineteras will eat you alive.
I am to be one of those cruise ship passengers soon and am devouring this blog as fast I can now that I’ve found it. Thank you for being real!!!!!
Thanks DFY! Feel free to share and enjoy Cuba!
1.) Refusing to be ripped off with discriminatory pricing to events isn’t “scamming” anyone! On the contrary its the tourists that are being scammed by such a system.
You mention that such cultural events are financially subsidized buy Cuban citizens. As an American tourist the Cuban government automatically takes 10% of any money that I convert to CUC’s off the top in taxes. I guarantee that I pay more in taxes during one visit to Cuba than most Cubans pay in an entire year.
2.) Why should anyone be penalized for sex work?! Decriminalize it, regulate it, and tax it! What consenting adults choose to do with their genitals in the privacy of their living quarters is no one else’s business.
The Cuban government no longer cares if homosexuals sodomize each other. Also they’re fine with trans-sexuals mutilating their genitals and using the Cuban healthcare system to pay for it. I’m baffled why political leaders both in the United States and Cuba refuse to extend the same level of respect for an individuals right to personal sovereignty to heterosexuals.
Taxes? You pay taxes to the Cuban govt? Huh?
And frankly, your derogatory, illogical comments are not welcome here.
Yeah I do. Every time I visit and convert my money the Cuban government takes 10% off of the top for starters. Then I pay another 10% sale tax for any goods or services I buy.
As I said above when I visit Cuba I easily pay more in taxes to the Cuban government that year than the average Cuban citizen. So there’s no reason that I shouldn’t be able to access services subsidized by the Cuban government as well.
Calling my comments illogical isn’t an argument.
There is no sales tax in Cuba.
And respectfully: when your take home pay is $22 CUC a month, when you’ve had to wait on a two-hour line for eggs, when you’ve had to wait another hour for a bus to pass AND stop as you’re trying to get home to work, when you’ve had to march in innumerable May Day parades, when you’ve suffered through a 36 degree august heat with no electricity; when you’ve lived through several hurricanes, when you’ve been cut off from visiting your family in Miami due to capricious and cruel US policies, and wen you’ve lived under an economic, financial and commercial blockade for 60 years THEN you can access services subsidized by the Cuban govt (and by the way: if you’ve ever stayed in a casa particular, you are enjoying these subsidies since all utilities are heavily subsidized)