Its beautiful beaches, dilapidated charm, and time warp feel aside, American visitors to Cuba may very well be disappointed with the experience once on the ground. After the novelty wears off, you’ll find it’s a somewhat inferior tourism product when compared to neighboring Caribbean islands, and even some remote locales like Central America.
1. No U.S. airline service: U.S. carriers are preparing to serve Havana once again in light of an agreement brokered between the two countries’ governments last December. Still, new service could take months to materialize (Delta had announced weekly service to commence in April but then retracted itself) and the number of weekly flights will be limited. For now, your best bet is flying under the radar via Central American hub cities like San Salvador (Avianca) or Panama City (Copa Airlines).
2. No U.S. hotel chains: Getting U.S. hotel chains to set up shop in Cuba will take even longer. You’ll have to do without the perks of loyalty programs from your favorite hotel chains, for the next few years at least. In the interim, you’re welcome to stay at any of several European chains. Meliá, a Spanish chain, has a notable presence in Cuba. Still, the Cuban government has a 50 percent share in all of these ventures. You’ll have to eat their terrible food (more on that later) and abide by some ridiculous rules like needing a reservation to eat at ANY of the resort’s sit-down restaurants, for example. And don’t even try to get an extension on your noon checkout, as your room card expires at exactly 12 p.m. on checkout day. There’s no way around this. With the 50 percent jump in American travelers to Cuba in 2015, hotels are now hard to come by, as demand far exceeds supply.
3. You may be harassed: Although travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens is technically legal for any of the 12 reasons President Obama established in December 2014, that doesn’t necessarily mean Cuban authorities will welcome you with open arms. This is still a Communist country, a fact that is readily apparent as soon as you set foot in Havana’s creepy, dungeon-like airport staffed with military personnel in green fatigues who control customs and immigration. (You can read more about my recent experience with airport customs in my previous post). Cuban people seem to genuinely like Americans but government officials are a different story. To them, quite frankly, you are still the enemy.
4. No service culture: The idea of service is still a new concept to most Cubans working in restaurants and hotels. Although Europeans have been flocking to Cuba for years, they are accustomed to not tipping (as in Europe). Therefore, there seems to be no incentive for prompt or even friendly service. It’s readily apparent there is no training in this regard. Leave a tip and you’re likely to be looked at like you’re from another planet, or just thanked profusely.
5. Money issues: You’ll need to bring cash – lots of it, as your U.S. bank cards won’t work in Cuba. The U.S. dollar is penalized an extra 10 percent when changing to the local currency, the totally bogus Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). Cuban nationals use a different form of pesos, as the CUC was created solely for the purpose of capitalizing on foreign exchange. It has also inadvertently created a new class of Cuban haves and have-nots, namely those who have access to them (and all that they can buy) and those who don’t.
6. Did I mention the food is AWFUL? You’ll find better Cuban food in Miami. Because of its form of government, food suppliers in Cuba inevitably face shortages. Where supply is even available, the quality of food is atrocious by U.S. standards. You’ll find mystery meats and bland-tasting fare most everywhere you go. Even the well-regarded (and privately-run) restaurants known as paladares wouldn’t merit a single star in a Michelin guide. There’s nothing quite like enjoying a well-presented, $22 shrimp risotto thinking you’ve finally found a decent meal only to realize the shrimp weren’t de-turded.
7. Communications issues: Wi-fi is virtually non-existent in Cuba and limited to a few hot spots (mainly hotels). You’ll need to purchase a scratch-off card with login information for about $2-3 per hour of online time. And it’s slooowww… *Additional note: My Instagram was hacked while in Cuba and it was very hard to get it reinstated.
8. Safety concerns: As most everything in Cuba is dilapidated, you’ll find it’s easier to get seriously injured. This is probably why the Cuban government requires visitors to purchase an insurance policy (about $5 per day), for the duration of their stay, upon arrival. Think crumbling sidewalks and open sewer drains (watch your step!). And watch where you sit. At the previously mentioned paladar, I took a seat at a table on their lovely patio only to find the cushion atop it was concealing a giant hole where the wicker chair covering used to be. I fell through the chair and had a sore back for my entire stay. It could have been much, much worse.
9. Air quality: Despite its seaside location and the accompanying ocean breezes, Havana’s air quality is surprisingly bad. Low-quality gasoline in cars, no emissions standards, and heavy industry all contribute to significant amounts of pollution. Many Cubans and European travelers smoke while out and about at restaurants and bars, making second-hand smoke pervasive.
10. Moral issues: Although travel to Cuba is now perfectly legal (as long as you're there for a valid reason), all things considered you’ll need to ask yourself if you want your tourism dollars supporting a regime that still actively and unabashedly represses its own citizens. Cuba is NOT a free country and there’s a reason Cubans flee their homeland in droves. This is partly the U.S.’s rationale behind the decades-old trade embargo. One major plus about traveling to Cuba in this regard, is the ability to talk to Cubans on the ground and realize how they really feel about their government. While most of Latin America enjoys an unprecedented amount of democratic freedom (Guatemalans peacefully ousted their corrupt president and vice-president from office last year via widespread protests, for example), Cuba does not look to be changing anytime soon. Its government recently said as much, telling the U.S. that President Obama is welcome to visit but shouldn't expect much in terms of a democratic opening.
Al Argueta is a freelance journalist who has traveled to Cuba three times in the past 12 years. He is the author of Moon Guatemala, 5th edition (and editions 2-4). He was happy to have skipped the tiny Customs interrogation room at José Martí International Airport during his last visit and will be getting a Guatemalan passport for future journeys.
*This story was previously approved for publication in the online edition of Conde Nast Traveler but was unfortunately shelved after President Obama announced his visit to the island. The magazine wanted to feature more favorable facets of Cuba.