I traveled to Cuba in December 2016 for 18 days. The country was both surprising and frustrating to me. Read here about my impressions from Cuba!
Before heading to Cuba, I didn’t know what to expect from this Caribbean country at all. I’ve read about its culture, history and I knew about Cuba's three symbols - American old timers, rum and cigars.
Varadero was our first stop in Cuba, and it was a big positive surprise. We didn’t plan to stay here too long, as it’s a typical tourist town. But it turned out to have the most beautiful beach I have seen so far!
On the contrary to other spots in Cuba, Varadero is a quiet and relaxing town with few cars (and therefore exhaust). Perfect for holidays. We ended up spending here double the time we planned in the beginning.
Havana on the other hand was a bit disappointing. The district of Old Havana (Havana Vieja) is charming and buildings here are mostly renovated. It’s actually not more than a square and 2-3 side streets...
It felt like most tourists were hanging out right there.
Havana Central and much of the rest of the Cuban capital is generally very run down. From the inside however, Cuban homes are extremely well kept.
The Malecón is a seawall and sidewalk which stretches for 8 km. It’s a great place for an evening walk where Cubans come hang out at night.
But you may get fed up with inhaling the fumes of passing cars and people trying to sell different items pretty quickly.
Cubans are very laid back and friendly. You will need basic knowledge of Spanish, as the majority doesn’t speak any English. Casa owners are always very helpful, able to arrange a bicycle, transportation between cities and give you some helpful recommendations.
Watch out for jineteros, street hustlers, who will try to sell you cigars or help you find a casa particular (charging 5 CUC).
Internet access in Cuba is very limited, slow and censored. Since 2015, the government opened over 240 wi-fi hotspots and internet cafes. Internet used to cost about $6 per hour, it's now $2, which in a country with an average monthly salary of $25 is still far out of reach of many Cubans.
This are slowly getting better though, in December 2016 the Cuban government introduced a limited pilot program of home internet.
As a traveler in Cuba, you might find the lack of internet both relieving as well as annoying. Relieving in the sense that you can take a break from "being connected" all the time. Annoying as in not being able to check information, whether it's on Cuba or the outside world.
What I was most amazed by, was the fact that because of the lack of internet, there is far more face-to-face interaction. For example, since our driver couldn't check the address on Google Maps, he would get out of the car and ask someone for directions! Does this happen anymore in your country?
Food in Cuba is not overwhelming. While you can find good eateries in all cities, what was most striking is the lack of variety. All restaurants serve pretty much the same: chicken, shrimp/lobster, fish, hamburgers, omelettes and pizza.
Cuba has been slowly opening up in the last two decades. There is still a lot of poverty, but life is slowly getting better. Raul Castro has allowed over 150 types private businesses - restaurants, casa particulars, tour guides, taxi drivers etc.
On the other hand, some areas of trade are still monopolized, such as telecommunication, transportation, museums or travel agencies.
I need to add that I could only gain as little insight into the country as you could from a two and a half week trip.
I would love to go back to Cuba (with more advanced Spanish skills;) and explore other parts of the country. For now, personally, Cuba will remain as a perfect spot for beach holidays!