15th December 2015
With the promise of an influx of American tourism and fast developing private business, tour leader Max Wood returns to Cuba and assesses where the country is with the expected acceleration of change. Visit Cuba with Wild Frontiers on a group tour or a tailor made holiday of your own.
The last time I was in Cuba 8 years ago, I remember the clients would often say that they had wanted it see the country before things changed. Well it has certainly changed since then; quite obvious even in the limited perspective we managed to get as visitors on this short tour.
Renovations and rebuilding in Plaza Vieja, Havana
Of course there are lots more tourists now and more establishments to support them, many of which are privately owned. Almost every other house in Viñales seemed to be renting out rooms. There are a lot more paladares in the visitor hotspots; though the availability and range of food (in these private restaurants rather than large government resorts) is still as limited as when I was last here. You may get tasty pork and lobster but salad is likely to consist of only cabbage and green beans; at least at this time of the year. Higher end restaurants could have been able to purchase the best quality stock but are just as likely to try and lure the customer in with an eclectic atmosphere/be located in a unique building or have quality musicians. Actually the food has been very nice and the service of a generally high standard on this tour. The owner/waiter at the last restaurant we ate at said they were expecting many more tourists, especially Americans in the near future but wondered if they could get enough food to feed them. We didn’t meet any American tourists; there are now some direct flights but too many restrictions still for mass US tourism to have started yet. It will come though, all the Cubans I spoke to were expecting it.
Since July, internet has been pretty freely available and accessible to many. Wi-Fi hot spots are centred around public parks and attract quite a plethora of users. The equivalent of US$2 per hour (or more than double if buying access cards from hotels) is, of course, super expensive for the locals but much, much less in comparison to the previous costs of speaking to family abroad via fixed phone. It seemed that a large proportion were communicating via video calls rather than using the net for anything else. A couple of guides mentioned that many, including youngsters, aren’t particularly knowledgeable or productive yet with the service (or their smartphones) being so newly available.
Tourism and tradition: Living statue beside quinceañera (celebration of a girl's fifteenth birthday in parts of Latin America) celebrations.
We would also see many signs advertising houses for sale; in Spanish but sometimes in English as well. This stems from a lifting of the rules for private sales in 2011. Not yet for sale to foreigners but we were told that some had taken a punt at purchasing the relatively cheap property through a Cuban partner or ‘associate’. Jandro, our young and friendly guide in Pinar del Rio, mentioned how people there accepted and understood that things needed to change, but were really quite fearful of how they would be affected. This tended to be reflected more enthusiastically in other more touristy areas.
Of course the Cuban people were as open and lovely as I remember and the air was always filled with an easy and steady stream of music. Perhaps Cuban society hasn’t yet actually changed much, but it certainly felt on the cusp of a strong and substantial move.