Australian travel site debunks some myths about travel to Cuba

Posted: 09-Nov-16 11:14

Traveller Caroline Morse, recently wrote an article on Australian website news.com.au where she debunked some myths regarding travel to Cuba. Covering some of the most discussed topics involving a visit to the island, from food options to crime levels, how much money you need to get by and whether you're at risk of catching Zika; Morse gives a clear answer to all issues, drawing from her own personal experience in Cuba during a recent holiday.

Australian travel site debunks some myths about travel to Cuba

Discerning between truth and myth, writer Caroline Morse clears up the foggy mist surrounding many Cuba topics for foreign visitors. Giving an honest insight from her own perspective after visiting the island, Morse is keen to put to rest some untruthful cliches when it comes to Cuba, either because they're outdated views on the country or because some of the rumours simply don't hold water and lack the solid foundations some people mistakenly claim.

Here we brief you on the top myths that make many prospective travellers wary of visiting Cuba and which Morse was eager to debunk once and for all.

Caroline's take and our comments on some myths about travel to Cuba

On food, seasoning and the availability of vegetarian options

When it comes to food, one of the areas where Cuba has legendary gotten some serious battering and garnered a bad reputation for bland, basic, unimaginative and unseasoned fare, Morse is quick to point out not all is bad if you know where to look and that there's far more variety than people give it credit for. The trick is knowing where to go, avoid eating in hotel restaurants (this one is our own piece of advice, as state-run hotels tend to import the sort of canned, tasteless food you may want to skip) and make up your own dining itinerary after conducting a bit of research, either by asking locals or reading online travel sites, like regularly updated reviews on TripAdvisor.

On food, seasoning and the availability of vegetarian options

Vegetarians, Morse insists, not only will not go hungry in Cuba but they'll also enjoy a wide variety of fresh vegetable produce if they purchase from local street markets or eat at privately-owned restaurants, who typically get their supplies from local vendors. This means fresh, organic, farm-to-table veggies and fruits that are not only in season but also prepared with the freshest ingredients.

Our author makes emphasis on the fact she actually enjoyed some of her best ever meals in Cuba.

"I had some of the best meals of my life in Cuba - from creamy vegetable risotto that rivals Italy's best, to squash flan: an innovative dessert that used ingredients from a farm that was mere feet from where I ate."

However, she also draws attention to the fact that she had the advantage of going to Cuba with a pre-booked culinary-themed tour, where the focus was on the cuisine and they were taken to eat out at some of the island's top restaurants (where it's hard to get a reservation in some cases) and some places that aren't normally open to public access, like an organic farm. Having said that, she also said that on the nights they had free time, they tested the restaurants recommended by guidebooks and they either weren't as good as the others they had tried out as part of the tour, or they didn't have a free table when they visited (hence the need of booking ahead).

They were taken to eat out at some of the island's top restaurants

To sum it up, the ultimate recommendation is going for a food-themed tour or, checking out some of the most recommended eateries. Off the top of my head, you can't go wrong with La Guarida (where every celebrity in Cuba dines, from Madonna to Beyonce and Natalie Portman), El Cocinero, where Katy Perry enjoyed a private dinner party, La Fontana (hosting the likes of Rihanna and Zoe Saldana, who blew out her 39th birthday candles here) or San Cristobal, where U.S. President Barack Obama famously enjoyed a family dinner on his first evening in the island.

On the supposed lack of Americanisation

Nowadays, the number one tip when it comes to travelling to Cuba seems to be: Do it now, before the Americans forever change its untouched landscape and dot the island with McDonalds! Yes, it's true, there are no McDonalds to be found anywhere in Cuba, which indeed makes for a refreshing landscape free of mass commercialisation. But that's not to mean Cuba is completely free of Americanisation, nor that Cubans have remained isolated from American culture. Far from it, in fact.

On the supposed lack of Americanisation

As Morse explains, and we at Cuba holidays have cleared up on numerous occasions, Cuba shares many cultural aspects with its American neighbour, from the love of baseball to Americanised slang words in the Cuban vernacular. Despite being a Spanish-speaking country, Cubans call T-shirts "pullovers" and not "camisetas" as the literal Spanish translation would be. The same applies for other objects and garments, from calling female underpants "bloomers" and not "bragas" to referring to car clutches as "cloches", a word that phonetically resembles its English counterpart, and has nothing to do with the official Spanish translation of "embrague".

Cuba's ties to America go back in time a long way. These are ties that over half-a-century of U.S.-imposed trade embargo and economic blockade haven't managed to break, not completely. Cuba is not as isolated as many think. It is, in many ways untouched by time, and that's clear to see in the state of some of its crumbling colonial buildings and the classic cars that still roam the streets (and these are all American cars, let's not forget). Yes, Cuba is a vintage lover's dream. But, Cubans are not closed off from the influence of modern American culture.

Cuban and American flag in a crumbling colonial building

As Morse retells, during her tour of Cuba, her group was invited into Cuban homes, where they could see the locals watching American shows and series on TV. In fact, many of the Cuban people they interacted with, talked about watching the U.S. presidential debates, which are aired on Cuban TV.

Much in the same way, American songs are played on loud speakers in the street (mixed in with the tropical, more traditional salsa and reggaeton sounds), American tunes will provide ambience in some bars and restaurants, and Cubans are proud to have hosted American celebrities like Beyonce and Jay-Z, they're happy to tell you all about where they stayed, ate and visited. Still, Morse is quick to remind us that thankfully (and refreshingly) not all of modern American culture has reached Cuba (at least not yet) as she mentions her guide had absolutely no idea who the Kardashian family were.

So, yes, you can escape Americanisation and globalisation in Cuba, but only up to a certain point. Enjoy it while it lasts!

On Havana not being safe enough for tourists

Of all the points in Morse's list this one always strikes us as the most ridiculous of all. Not only is Havana (or Cuba, for that matter) not dangerous in the least, but tourists are the one group of people that experience the least crime. Yet, many experts continue issuing warnings about walking around on your own in downtown Havana.

Walking in Havana's streets felt always safe

To debunk this myth, Morse tells of her experience going out and about in the city, where she says she felt incredibly safe thanks to the large presence of police around, especially looking out for tourists as they want to fiercely protect the tourism industry, Cuba's number one source of income and one that has rapidly grown since Americans started visiting.

Caroline Morse says she jogged in the morning and walked around on her own at night, and not once did she feel unsafe or uneasy. She does say that Cubans (and we know this) are persistent sweet talkers, and she did experience cat calls, wolf whistles and some form of street harassment, but she explains this as more of a common annoyance than something that made her feel wary of fearful.

On Havana not being safe enough for tourists

If you're a solo female traveller, exercising some caution when visiting not just Cuba, but any place in the world is common sense. Our biggest piece of advice when on your own, would be to keep valuables out of site to avoid tempting thieves, and leave ostentatious jewellery at home, especially if walking around on your own at night in less trodden, off-the-beaten path neighbourhoods. In plain daylight you can pretty much wear what you want, whether it's a big flashy camera hanging around your neck or your favourite gold necklace. Just be careful not to leave it any of your precious items behind. Most forms of crime against tourists in Cuba is petty theft and most of this is opportunistic, meaning it's mostly due to the careless attitude of the owner rather than a violent predator.

On needing a lot of money to get around

Touching on whether Cuba is an expensive country she says this simply isn't the case, even when she warns travellers to bring plenty of cash and not rely on cards as their use is very limited. Even when there are ATMs they are few and far between and not all places are equipped to take electronic forms of payment. Our author says she didn't see anyone use plastic the whole time she was there.

Paying cash for food in Cuba

Because Morse was on a tour, she says the majority of her meals and transport were already taken care of, but she still says she spent a lot less than she had previously envisaged.

With a 15-minute taxi ride averaging 12 CUC, a meal at a nice restaurant coming at around 10 CUC per person (including appetisers and drinks), she says, that in her experience, getting around on four-wheeled vehicles, food and drinks are fairly cheap in Cuba. Where at more high-end spots, she recounts a mojito might go for as much as 4 CUC, the country's famed guava liquor purchased from a local vendor came at a cost of just 65 cents (and that's two glasses, not one!).

Going from A to B in Cuba can be cheap

From my own experience, Cuba can end up costing even cheaper if you're happy to share a collective cab and join in with the locals by hopping on an "almendron" or "maquina de diez pesos", where a journey will cost you less than $0.50 CUC, even when at times you have to combine it with other modes of transport to reach your destination. If while out and about, touring the city, hunger pangs strike, you can buy a sandwich or pizza from little private vendors (some sell food from their house's windows or patios) and it will cost you pennies. It's all about joining in the local flair, soaking up culture and experiencing a more adventurous side to Cuba.

When it comes to money in Cuba, Morse's final verdict is to bring cash, and bring more than you think you'll need just in case. Then you can exchange as you go and make plans on how to spend it.

On Cubans being completely unwired (a.k.a. no Wi-Fi)

Everyone knows internet access in Cuba is tricky, limited and slow but it doesn't mean you can't get online. You'll need a good deal of patience though, as most Wi-Fi spots in Cuba are crowded and connection is patchy at times.

Cubans on their mobile in Wi-Fi area around Malecon

As Morse explains, Cubans aren't wired to the net all-day-long like most of us in the developed world, but they do find ways to get online. If you want to access the internet while in Cuba you have to buy a card from local telecommunications company, ETECSA, which will give you an account with login details. The author says she paid $2.60 to $10.50 for an hour of access and the easiest places to find reliable Wi-Fi where at upscale hotels in Havana.

Cocotaxi driver checking her emails in Havana

She does issue a warning regarding internet access from mobile devices, and that is not to expect your mobile phone to work everywhere (or anywhere) in Cuba as she had no data for the duration of her trip. Her advice is to check with your provider ahead of travel and limit your expectations when it comes to getting online once there. We second this piece of advice as we know that even when government has been enabling more Wi-Fi spots throughout the country (the last of these set up along the Malecon), internet still has a long way to go in Cuba.

On avoiding drinking tap water

Whereas Caroline Morse asserts she did stick to drinking bottled water, she says she also ate loads of fresh salads (which she assumed to be washed in tap water) and drank cocktails with lots of ice, and didn't get any form of stomach-ache or sickness.

Tasty daiquiri in a bar in Havana

However, she does acknowledge that diseases from the drinking of contaminated water are a real health concern in Cuba, not least of all the break of cholera the island suffered a couple of years ago, so our advice would be to exercise caution and assume (or ask if in doubt) that the water you drink comes from bottled or properly boiled water, especially if buying juice or slushies from local vendors.

It is true, as Morse says, that getting a tummy bug depends on your body's own tolerance, but her opinion is that icy daiquiris are worth the risk. We simply can't argue with that.

On accommodation standards not being up to scratch

Much has been said about some of Cuba's hotels being either rudimentary or severely lacking in some areas. But this is not always the case, with quality standards having improved over the last few years. It largely depends on where you do choose to stay.

Casas particulares in Cuba cover a huge range of standards

Our advice is, if you want international standards (or the closes to it) you're best off staying at either of the five-star beachfront resorts in the likes of Varadero and the keys or, look out for Havana's classiest hotels, like Parque Central in Old Havana, sea-facing El Terral in El Malecon, the boutique Saratoga or the newly-refurbished Capri. These can be booked to full capacity quite often so booking ahead is essential.

Another alternative, the one our writer experienced, is booking a stay at a "casa particular", whether that is a private house renting our rooms, or a self-contained apartment with private entry and kitchenette. She was in a centrally located yet not touristy area of the Vedado neighbourhood, on Street H, between 17 and 19. Her "casa particular" was called FFF Apartment and her experience there was positive, describing it as very clean and private.

One of Cuba's pop hotels

She does warn however, of the fact of these private rentals being harder to book independently due to Cuba's lack of internet access. She does highly recommend it regardless, and we do too (in fact we make it easier for you, as we have special holiday packages in some of Cuba's most stunning "casas particulares", just ask us and you won't be disappointed!)

On catching Zika... or worse

With Zika taking Latin America by storm last year, you wouldn't be blamed for being concerned about catching this nasty virus on holiday, although you need not be concerned unless you're in a high-risk group (a.k.a. pregnant or thinking of conceiving soon).

Cuba is one of the safest countries in the Caribbean

Cuba, in fact, as Morse quickly points out, managed to remain Zika-free for much longer than its Latin American counterparts, and this was largely due to the country's strict preventative measures, frequent spraying against mosquitoes and highly-informed population. Our author actually provides a link in case you want to read up on how Cuba avoided a big Zika outbreak.

When it comes to mosquito bites, you best come prepared Zika or no Zika, as no one likes annoying itches on holiday. Caroline Morse reminds us that mosquito-borne viruses like that of Zike, Chikungunya and dengue are routinely included in Cuba travel warnings, but that should scare no one from travelling there, especially during the winter season, when mosquito population is at its lowest.

While she advises to bring mosquito repellent and apply liberally, she said she never saw or felt any mosquitoes during her time in the countryside and was actually surprised by the lack of them. Morse talks of her tour guide explaining how the government sprays weekly to keep the mosquito invasion at bay. She does, however, strongly recommend applying bug spray after showering and before going out in the evening, as it's better to be safe than sorry. We couldn't agree more, and unless you're in a high-risk group for contracting Zika, you're good to go and we mean that literally.

Why you should go to Cuba now

This brings to an end the author's myth-busting list on Cuba and to her insightful advice we can only add that travel to Cuba is not only better, safer and more enjoyable than ever, it's also more coveted than ever, so do prepare to get in line! With regular commercial flights from the U.S. now being a reality, and with more to come in the near future, the time to book and beat the queues is now, right now!


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