Maybe it was the amazing month I spent in Mexico before coming to Cuba, the constant need of having to tip people here simply for breathing their air or my impression of most Cubans as being annoyed with me, but I’m leaving Cuba quite unimpressed.
Yes, the nature is beautiful and their colourful casas with two rocking chairs on the terrace look like they’re taken from a fairy-tale, but there were a lot of situations that left me wondering why many of my friends fell in love with this island so deeply.
People usually give you advice on where to go and what to see, but i wish i had read a list like this one before coming here. Five things you shouldn’t try, visit or expect in Cuba.
Don’t try cocktails in plastic cups
You would think a mojito and cuba libre taste divine in a place like Cuba. Well… no. At least not if they come in a plastic cup. And they come in a plastic cup often. To be fair: that mostly happens in beach bars – but beach is most of the time a place where I want to have my cocktail. Anyway, when you see the bartender reaching for a plastic cup after you ordered your cuba libre, say ‘no, thank you’ and walk away or you might get a very warm cup of Havana rum with an even warmer coke that lost all of its bubbles two days ago. And if you’re really lucky half of an ice cube!
Don’t visit the Palenque cave in Viñales
I’m probably being biased here as I’ve seen a nice number of breathtaking karst caves in my life, but Palenque de los Cimarrones cave a bit outside of Viñales is a complete waste of the 3 CUC (2 euros) entrance fee. You pay for a 140 meters long walk in a narrow cave with very unspectacular walls, to be scared at the end with a snake-like long leaf pointed at your feet repeatedly by two half naked men who then shove a burning rod in your hands and drag it all over their body and head and even stick it in their pants. Just… why?
And you have to tip them.
There is a bar before entering the cave. Ok, let’s say I kind of get that (but not really), but then there is also a restaurant for at least 150 people at the exit of the sad cave, which is even presented to you as one of the attractions. “Look, tourists! Let’s build an enormous restaurant in a tropical setting in middle of a prehistoric old valley, they will love it!”
Don’t expect good food
I found myself shaking my head ‘no’ to the people who stopped at the terrace of Restaurant El Jigüe in Trinidad to have a look at the menu. A completely burned bruschetta, a cold garlic sauce shrimps an 8-year-old could top, a bored waiter who doesn’t even look at you, let alone nod or say anything. Definitely a no.
Another no: dinner in Matanzas. The Lonely Planet of Cuba says in Matanzas “Cuban reality will hit you like a sharp slap to the face.” That’s about right. At night it’s a ghost town with one restaurant, where you can’t even have the most popular dish of the Caribbean (arroz blanco), you wait for an hour to be served (again without a word, nod or a slight interest from the waiter) and all you can actually have is a bland chicken. It is cheap however.
General advice: visibly lower your food standards before buying the plane ticket to Cuba already.
Don’t visit Hacienda Guachinango in Valle de los Ingenios
I give them the benefit of the doubt, as the actual hacienda was closed due to construction works at the time of my visit. But everything else was so symptomatic of Cuba. The owner still wanted to show us around his property: during a 10 minute walk he pointed at a mango, avocado and a coffee tree and then shamelessly asked for 5 CUC per person (4 euros). Definitely the least interesting hacienda in in Valle de los Ingenios, especially compared to San Isidro de los Destiladeros, where you can see the ruins of a huge sugar mill and Sitio Guáimaro with a really nice museum telling the life story of a sugar plantation king Don Mariano Borrell.
Don’t expect Cubans to be nice
In being nice, polite and welcoming Cubans don’t come close to Iranians, Americans, Canadians, Lebanese, Indonesians, or any European nation I have ever met. The ones working in shops, restaurants, bars, banks, bus stations, airports, post, internet and exchange offices are just not that nice. Actually, now that I think about it, I felt similarly (not) welcome only in Russia. You can take it out on the system maybe, but this coming from someone born in Yugoslavia and acquainted with the Balkan “what do you want from me” attitude…
Almost exclusively nice people were the ones working closely with tourists: casa owners, tour guides and some restaurant employees. Still not enough to erase the general feeling of Cubans being annoyed with me being in their country. Not cool.