Before I went to Cuba I imagined I’d arrive in a land filled with colour. From the old cars to the different hues of houses to the local people – a mix of Asian, African and Spanish descent. I pictured my days filled with wandering the streets and taking photos of happy crazy locals and their ad hoc dancing. I thought I’d drink Mojitos, sup on daiquiris and substitute water for Cuba Libres.

I fantasised about walking down the Malecon before being intercepted by a laughing Cuban surrounded by friends playing trombones, tubas and trumpets to the beat of a drum. He would take my hand and show me a few salsa moves before spinning me out into the arms of my boyfriend. It’d be hot and I’d lay on the beaches, cooling off on the sand with yet another daiquiri. I’d been told repeatedly the food in Cuba was rubbish, to be careful in some neighbourhoods and that the locals were not allowed to fraternise unnecessarily with the tourists. That included restaurants, buses and on the streets.

My assumptions were approximately 80% correct.

I spent two weeks in Cuba in May – exploring Havana, Trinidad and Cienfeugos.

What a holiday to Cuba is really like

First impressions

On arrival at 10pm on a Friday, the roar of people from the Malecon was overwhelming. Our hotel was one block back in one of the poorer districts of Havana and when you opened the balcony doors it was as if they were in the room with us. The next day we wandered around our neighbourhood – we were invited to parties, pleaded with to buy milk for starving babies and asked where we were from a little over 15 times. All we wanted to do was explore in peace, but the locals wouldn’t leave us alone.

what is cuba like

We found solace in The Nacional isolated above the neighbourhood and sat back from the Malecon. It was obvious I was out of practice travelling. It felt like we were accosted at every turn and were unsure who was just friendly and who wanted something out of us.

It took a few days to settle in and get used to the harassment on the streets and the Cuban way. After meeting the group for the Havana Club Gap Year project I was working on I was assured that the people here were generally good. I should just relax and understand people just wanted to talk, or be our guides and show us around the city for a fews CUCs. I could just say a firm no and they’d leave us alone – I wasn’t so sure.

What it's really like in Cuba

Understanding the locals

The Havana Club Gap Year finalists were tasked to go out and capture the ‘spirit of Havana’ in three minutes with their iPad Minis. Most of the group came back with stories of smiling locals who more than happy to show them around their homes and their city. They were full of how these people who ‘had nothing, but were so happy’ had changed them – made them more determined and appreciative and inspired them to be better people.

I was swept up in the romanticism of this ‘colourful Cuba’ and easily believed all that they were saying.

It wasn’t until two days later when the excitement of the competition that I’d been wrapped up in had subsided that I began to see Cuba, Havana in particular, in a different light. Walking up Lamparilla Street camera in hand all I saw were grim staring faces. Spanish was hurled across the street, but my ignorance meant I had no idea what they were saying. I know I felt intimidated though. By day locals just sat staring from their doorsteps, kids stood by the pizza stands rubbing their bellies and asking for money and at night groups loitered on the streets with music blasting from their houses.

What is Cuba really like?

Shrivelled hands stretched out for money, they belonged to old women in ragged clothes. Their look was so childlike – pulled up socks, dolly shoes and sweet clips in their hair. Business-minded oldies had gotten hold of a huge fat cigar, colourful trinkets and made themselves up to charge tourists like me money for posing. At the other end of the scale I saw an old woman who’d tried to fashion a cigar out of some brown paper and had hit so far off the mark of these successful ‘posers’ it was painful to watch.

what is cuba really like

The happy photos you see of bands playing never relay the group following up with a sweep of the bar guilt-tripping tourists into buying their CDs or adding a CUC or three to their begging tray. Too often these bands would also have a vagrant or two hanging on and dancing around them to then demand money from tourists too.

What it's really like in Cuba

In one particular incident I was watching a Cuban woman dancing what appeared to be a mixture of line dancing and crunk. I’d seen her a few times doing the same around the squares of Havana. A tourist came along and she took his hand to dance with him for what could have been no more than 30 seconds. His friends laughed, took a photo on his super fancy DSLR and then he pulled away to carry on with his day, without giving her any money. She shouted after him in the middle of the square and he just shrugged back at her. It was obvious dancing with tourists was this woman’s job – she went and sat in the shade visibly upset and massaging her feet.

I saw a different Cuba to the tourist ideal. Like the cars that are buzzing around, on the surface Cuba looks beautiful, but the most beautiful things rarely are underneath. Actually get in one of the cars and you’ll see the ripped upholstery, the carpet missing from the floor and the dashboard cracked and broken. In my eyes Cuba was the same. After eight days in Havana I’d got closer to it. Travelling six hours through the country to Trinidad and then back through Cienfuegos really opened my eyes to what Cuba is really like.

What it's really like in Cuba

Life in Cuba is hard

From what I’ve read, heard and seen with my own eyes life in Cuba is hard. The people, the houses and the essence of Cuba seemed desperate. Redevelopment is focused on the tourist areas – when Old Havana is revamped it will be stunning, but to the detriment of those living in the poorer residential areas. There is so much to say about such a fascinating city, but that’s my point. Cuba is not just the simple, colourful, photographer’s dream you imagine and see at first look.

Turn a corner and you could be hit in the face by the stench from the bins, visit the parks and you’ll see prostitutes and drunks sprawled on the floor in their own sick, look in the windows of the houses and see nothing but a basic bed frames, and sometimes just a stash of blankets in the corner. When I found out at the finale party that many of the finalists had been charged for their ‘local experiences’ I understood the friendliness on the street.

Life in Cuba

Cuba has two currencies – one for the locals and one for the tourists. The locals earn the equivalent of $17 a month and operate on a rationing system. Getting their hands on the tourist money is key. It’s this desperation that triggers the ‘taxi’, ‘taxi’, as soon as you emerge from your hotel, it’s also the same reason you will be asked the time, or ‘where you’re from’ or whether you ‘want to go to a party’ on an hourly basis. They know you have the money and there are only a few ways they can get it.

I absolutely loved Cuba, please don’t misunderstand me. It’s beautiful and charming and I have post after post I want to write about how incredible the country is, but I want to give you the full picture of what Cuba is really like. The ‘twee’ idea of Havana, of smiling faces dancing in the streets and everyone having a gay old time is a myth. Just remember, the popular tourist streets are the Cuban’s office and you’re their client for a range of services from taxis, to tour guide to cheap cigars.

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For more practical Cuba travel information, check out this handy guide from Surfing the Planet. 

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