As tensions ease between Cuba and the U.S., more and more Americans are booking trips to the island nation. But many Americans have preconceived notions about Cuba—and some of those may or may not be true. Contributing writer Alyssa London visited Cuba and discovered which myths are true, and which are not.
I went to Cuba because like many I was drawn by the allure of Havana, a city stuck in time, not to mention I wondered what it would be like to experience a communist country that is just starting to open its doors up to the rest of the world. I also wanted to see the cars from another era roaming the modern streets, and see for myself whether the night really does come alive with music and people dancing.
In mid-May I flew to Havana, Cuba to check it out. I used SkyScanner to purchase a ticket from Seattle to Cancun, and then took a connecting flight from Cancun to Havana. Throughout my week-long experience exploring Havana, Trinidad, Verdadero, and Vinales I came to understand which of my preconceived notions about the country were spot on, and which were far from the truth.
Myths About Traveling to Cuba
1. It is hard to get here if you are an American—FALSE
It is not necessarily straightforward to get to Cuba, but it is not difficult. I was able to buy a one-hour direct flight for $200 round trip from Cancun to Havana through Aeroméxico. When I arrived at 9:37 a.m. on a United Flight from Houston, Texas in Terminal 3, I breezed through customs. Then I asked a friendly employee curbside where the terminal for Aeroméxico was, and he kindly walked me and my large backpack, small pack, and camera bag across two large parking lots and a back alley to Terminal 2 where the international departures were. I then checked in my bag just in time for it to get on the flight and bought a Cuban visa for $200 Pesos.
2. Connecting flights from Cancun to Havana is easy— TRUE and FALSE
It depends—for me a lot of things fell into place. I would advise allocating two to three hours between your connecting flights. My connection cut it a bit tight. The Aeroméxico flight left at 11:08 a.m. and I got to the gate at 10:20 a.m. Even with cutting it close, there was nothing particularly challenging for me as an American to get to Cuba. I just was not as cautious as I should have been about how much time to leave between my arrival and connection.
3. FOMO—Fear of Missing Out. “Oh my gosh you have to go to Cuba before it changes!” FALSE
Waiting to go to Cuba would not be a bad thing. It may actually improve your experience because basic infrastructure will be upgraded, while the heritage and character that you crave and desire to see will be preserved. The charming aspects of Havana will also remain, which will include the shiny cars from the 1950s and the bars filled with Cuban music and people salsa dancing. What may be one of the most drastic changes is that currently there are few signs of globalization—no Starbucks, Hiltons, or Marriotts, and in the coming decade that may cease to be the case. As Cuba opens itself up to the world, what will remain most palpable about the culture is the pride many Cuban people have for simply being Cuban.
4. Havana is the premium destination in Cuba—FALSE
Although I enjoyed Havana, I preferred Trinidad because it was more quaint and walkable. There were also more rooftop terraces with beautiful views to appreciate while sipping on local drinks and listening to live Cuban music.
Myths about Money, Connectivity, and Transportation in Cuba
1. US Dollars go further in Cuba—FALSE
There is an extra tax against the dollar, so you receive a better exchange rate if you change from U.S. dollars to Euros or Canadian Dollars and THEN to CUCs (Cuban Convertible Peso, or the Cuban Tourist currency). There are TWO currencies in Cuba, CUC and CUP (Cuban Peso). CUC is the currency reserved for tourism and tourists. So everything that you as a traveler are told about prices is in this currency. I would recommend budgeting out your trip and trying to only take out as many CUCs as you possibly need. Converting the currency back automatically means losing money. Because the CUC is not a common currency, many currency exchange places will not even convert it for you, so you want to try to not have any CUCs leftover when you leave the country. I have 40 CUCs left, or approximately $50 that I am unable to change back now that I am outside of Cuba.
2. Change your currency back to dollars at the airport—TRUE
If you change your CUCs back to dollars in the airport you will lose a lot of money, but that is better than not converting your money at all. I had $240 CUCs left and I received $140 in return. Later I realized I had $40 CUCs and went to several banks in the Seattle area and Travel Exchange and they could not convert the CUCs to U.S. dollars.
3. Credit Cards do not work—TRUE
Take out all the cash you need for the trip, otherwise good luck paying for anything. Swiping your credit card is not a common practice in Cuba, and local merchants prefer cash anyways. Although Bank of America said that my travel plans to Cuba were approved and documented in their system so my card wouldn’t be shut down for “suspicious activity,” that did not mean much. I still could not use my credit cards. My friend and travel partner who banks with Charles Schwab and American Express also could not use his cards.
4. Internet works in Cuba—TRUE and FALSE
It kind of works. I learned that even if you are paying $650 a night for the nicest hotel in Havana the internet is still not guaranteed to work. I tried to pay for the internet at a nice hotel (and use it in the lobby), and the concierge told me it only works sometimes and otherwise it is spotty and the connectivity comes and goes. I was grateful she cautioned me against paying the 10 CUCs for the internet card because that day the internet was not even working. No matter what, you have to buy a one-hour internet card in order to be able to even have a chance at using the internet in Cuba.
5. Some Internet sites are blocked—TRUE
That 1099 Error you will get means the site is blocked. There is no access to Facebook or apps on your phone such as Snapchat. My friend was able to access his Gmail account but I was not.
6. There is a collective that regulates taxi prices in Havana—FALSE
Before you get into a taxi, always ask how much it will cost to get to your destination. If you get in a taxi without asking, you’ll be surprised by the amount they want to charge you at the end of the ride. You should be able to be driven to most places in Havana for about five to ten CUCs. The lesson here is always come to agreement on a price with your driver before the ride. As an even further precautionary measure on longer rides that this price includes gas and not just the driver’s time.
Myths About Cuban Society
1. Free Health Care Works—FALSE
I observed that many people of the gente del pueblo, everyday people of the town, had teeth that were not well cared for. To me this is representative of the health care quality in the country. A local shared with me that there were doctors and clinics throughout town that were responsible for a manageable subset of the population, and acted as their primary physician. It is that physician’s responsibility to refer their patients to other specialists if need be. This sounded like a system that could work well, but in reality, the average person I saw did not look very healthy in terms of exercise, nutrition, and overall personal upkeep, particularly in terms of dental hygiene, preventative medicine, and acting in a timely manner to combat their illnesses.
2. There are lots of homeless people—FALSE
I saw very few, if any. Perhaps the culture of the country makes it so that people make sure that no matter what, none of their family members are left without their basic needs being met. Or it could be that due to the very limited and capped wage earnings of every Cuban, it causes groups of people to cohabitate in order to be able to support themselves. Therefore, if one person cannot contribute to the collective group, that does not necessarily mean they are going to end up on the street. Another reason could be that in the socialist-communist society, there are government systems in place to prevent people from ending up on the streets.
3. Havana is not clean or safe—FALSE
The streets are actually really clean and feel safe. This could be as a result of the prevalent fear among locals to ever break the law and get put in jail because of the poor conditions. Even though I felt safe walking in Havana during the day and at night, I still would not walk around alone. Yet, I believe that to be the case anywhere you travel for that matter. Being in a group or pair is safer everywhere when you travel.
4. The only cars in Havana are from the 1950s—FALSE
Unfortunately, the colorful and eclectic assortment of cars from the 1950s is becoming an increasingly rare sight. When driving out to Verdadero Beach, I saw a truck carrying a load of black German-made cars that were presumably going to be used by the tourist industry. The old, colorful “Havana-esque” type cars are in high demand among taxi drivers and workers in the tourist industry because that is what the tourists want to experience, and they will pay more in order to ride in that car than in a newer European car. Therefore, Cubans pay a premium to own and maintain these older cars.
Myths About Sleeping and Eating in Cuba
1. The more you pay, the nicer the hotel—FALSE
Cuba is a hot destination at the moment, and in the laws of supply and demand, that means the prices of hotels are going through the roof. So even if the downtown Havana hotel is posted for $650 a night, and you believe that means you are going to experience the lap of luxury that is not necessarily going to be the case. Yes, it’ll be nice, but it is not going to be on the same level as what you’d experience for $650 a night in the United States or Europe, for example.
2. Look for alternative lodging solutions—TRUE
AirBnB is a great option for lodging in Havana. I stayed at one that was highly rated and I had a great stay. It was centrally located, and the hosts were very friendly and helpful. They pointed out where to go eat and how to get around the city by providing a map and an idea of how I should prioritize sightseeing. They welcomed me with Cuban coffee and fresh squeezed pineapple juice upon arrival, and each morning made me scrambled eggs and Cuban coffee. Staying with local hosts also provided the benefit of having a closer view into Cuban culture through the eyes of locals because I was able to talk with the hosts, ask questions, and observe their daily life in between being out and about.
In Trinidad I recommend staying in a bed and breakfast. Most people in the city open up rooms in their homes to tourists and are very welcoming. My host wanted to go above and beyond to ensure I had a nice stay and made every effort to have Cuban coffee ready upon the slightest inclination that I would like some. She also made delicious breakfasts that consisted of fresh scrambled eggs and fruit.
3. The “nicest” restaurants have the best food—FALSE
On the first night in Havana it seemed like a safe bet to go to a nice-looking nearby hotel, which had rooms for $108 CUCs ($100 USD) per night. This restaurant looked very luxurious except for the fact that no one was inside of it. But I wrote this off as a result of the time of day (it was late, around 11 p.m.). So I ordered a ‘safe bet’ of chicken and vegetables. Once it came I realized food in Cuba is rationed. This explained why when I tried to order pork with Oporto wine sauce and mushrooms they said they were out for the day.
4. The food is good—TRUE and FALSE
The rationed food system limits the restaurants’ access to fresh produce and meats. I found that when I ordered a meal that said it came with vegetables that meant previously frozen mixed vegetables, and mashed potatoes are actually potato puree from a box. Overall, the meat I was served tasted fine. I had some very nice meals in Cuba once I figured out where to go upon recommendations from locals I met, and some of my favorite meals were those prepared by my hosts in the AirBnB where I stayed.
Myths About Partying in Cuba
1. Nightlife is all the rage—TRUE
The nightlife is not going to be exactly as you may be envisioning from certain movies like Havana Nights (super sultry, everyone is amazing at salsa dancing) but it is still very fun. Of course, the night of the week that you choose to go out on will make a big difference in terms of the quality of your experience. But if you go out on a night between Thursday and Saturday, the clubs will be busy. If you are in Havana, everyone goes to La Fabrica. It’s a great place for dancing, and the art gallery lounges have beautiful and inspiring works to check out. You can hang out and chat in the art lounges, on the terraces, eat healthy food in the café areas, or get down on the dance floor. If you are in Trinidad, start your evening at La Plaza Mayor for some outdoor drinks and then head to La Cueva. I bet you’ve never had the opportunity to walk down into a cave to go to a nightclub and then party with bats flying overhead, while surrounded by stalagmites and stalactites. It is a memorable and one-of-a-kind experience.
2. Cuban Cigars are the best—FALSE
Some cigars are good, but you have to be careful and know which ones to buy. Walk down any street in Habana Vieja (such as Calle Obispo) for ten minutes and count the number of times a stranger asks you to buy cigars. Everyone in Cuba seems to have a brother with the “best price” and “highest quality” cigars. Those ones may or may not be good or authentic. It is hard to know. I ended up in a back alley room with boxes of Cohibas and really large security guard looking dudes. Try to avoid getting in a similar situation. You will avoid this by not accepting a stranger’s friendliness and subsequent offers to show you “the best cigars in Havana.”
Myths About Cuba’s Economy
1. Cuba has begun to open its economy to the world—FALSE
If they have, I did not see it. The only imports that I saw in the markets were from Vietnam, which is probably because they have a good relationship with Cuba since they both have communist-socialist governments.
2. Cuban people all make the same amount of money—TRUE and FALSE
The wages in Cuba are capped at $25 a month, no matter the profession. Each individual earns this amount whether they are a highly trained and skilled doctor who went to college for eight years to become licensed, or a janitor who never pursued higher education. The fallout of this is that there is a lot of under the table wheeling and dealing. For example, we paid a local Cuban taxi driver $40 a day plus gas to take us around Cuba in his car for five days. Clearly there are other ways in which Cubans supplement their income beyond what the government dictates it to be. Our taxi driver was not unique in that many Cubans recognize that the best way to make money is by working in the tourist industry, and getting paid by foreigners in their respective currency. It ends up being a win-win because as a tourist the prices for services can be half of what they would be in their own home country, and as a Cuban they are making much more than a typical day’s wage.
3. Locals are trying to leave the country—TRUE and FALSE
Some people are, some people are not. There is a hunger among the locals (la gente del pueblo) to have their economy opened up to the rest of the world. They welcome the changes that will come with catching up to modernity. The locals I spoke with were excited that changes will come in time as more money comes into their country. They anticipate that it will be great for their economy, and their quality of life will improve as they have greater access to opportunities.
4. Cuban business owners get to profit from their success and growth—FALSE
There is a limit on the amount business owner’s can profit from their venture. Most of their profits go right to the government in the form of a very high business tax. As a result, it is very hard to get ahead in Cuba, even as a business owner.
5. Hotels in Cuba are owned by the government—TRUE
The hotels are heavily regulated because the Cuban government owns them all. As a result, there has yet to be many renovations done to update the hotels, and without free-market pricing, the hotels’ rates are not competitive and tend to be quite high.
For more information about Cuba travel, check out:
- The Future of Travel to Cuba for Americans
- Returning to Havana 57 Years Later
- New Regulations for U.S. Travel to Cuba
Text and Images by Alyssa London for PeterGreenberg.com