Tourism: Killing the Cuban Encanto?

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.
No response.
“Permiso!” I repeated, louder.
Nothing.
“PERMISO/Excuse me!!”

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.

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.

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38 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, environment, Expat life, Hawaii, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

38 responses to “Tourism: Killing the Cuban Encanto?

  1. renald laurin

    Hi Conner,
    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

  2. Mauricio Diaz

    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.

  3. Rita Mar'ia Ojeda

    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

  4. Tim

    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.

      • Tim

        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 😉

  5. Ben Bouwman

    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.

    Ben

    • 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.

  6. Great piece. Coming in June with my two dons and I have sent them this link. Read!

  7. Alexandra D'Italia

    I teared up with the last story. Here’s to blasting away ignorance…

  8. Caroline

    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.

  9. 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?

    >

  10. 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.

  11. 007

    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!
    Besitos!

    • 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.

  12. Teresa

    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.

  13. Pingback: Tourism: Killing the Cuban Encanto? | Cuba on Time

  14. 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

  15. Rosemarie Buchanan

    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

  16. 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.

  17. Maxim Wexler

    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

  18. Maxim Wexler

    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.

  19. 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….

  20. Candice Velichka

    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)

    • Hola Candice!
      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!!

  21. Fi

    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

  22. valerie

    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!

  23. Michael S.

    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!

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