Cuba is dryer than I had expected. It is only 90 miles from Florida, so I thought it should be more tropical. In fact, the countryside looks more like Southern California. There is a six month dry season, from January through June. Havana and its surrounds are a little less arid than the interior and the east. And along the north coast in at least some places there are mangroves. I don't know how wet it is in the summer and fall, but the flora is more desert than jungle. (As I revise this I have just been caught in a good sized thunderstorm - a downpour which flooded some streets - this during the "dry" season? Now, the next day, the wind has freshened and the temperature declined from 85º to 82º. This was a winter cold front.)
The farther east we went, the hotter it got. Santiago de Cuba was the worst. Even locals advised visiting downtown either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. I plan to do some climatological research to see if our experience was anomalous.
The Cuban people are a happy people. Most believe fervently in the rightness of their socialist government, much as I believe about our democracy. Everyone we asked was willing to speak about their life, their family, their job, and their expectations - apparently openly. They seem well educated, with universal literacy and plenty of college education. We asked, and learned, about health care and aging and personal economics.
We saw no evidence that Cuba is in any sense a "police state." Rather, it is a socialist state with a faltering economy - more like Northern Europe without the wealth than like the USSR. Castro nationalized all the businesses in the 60s, and collectivized most of the agriculture. In the last decade or two some small businesses have been allowed and even encouraged. Tourism has become a significant part of the economy. Incentive pay is offered to factory workers: e.g. in the cigar factory for rolling cigars in excess of the daily minimum. Paladares are privately owned and operated restaurants that provide more varied, and usually pricier, meals.
Instead of hotels, we stayed in "casas particulares" throughout Cuba. More like home-stays than Airbnbs, these are homes in which the owners will rent out rooms to visitors, with breakfast and sometimes other meals on request. Our accommodations ranged from very modest to penthouse, but our hosts were invariably glad to have us and willing to chat with us as much as we wanted. Our travel company chose the casas as much for their hosts (and/or hostesses) as for the quality and location of the rooms. We stayed with an architect, a pediatrician, a retired soldier, and a taxi driver's wife, among others. Some spoke English well, and some almost not at all. In every case we figured out how to communicate, and were soon able to turn the conversation to serious topics. We spoke about health care and how the aging are treated. We asked about the Cuban economy and how the system of incentive pay works. We learned about their attitudes and beliefs about the United States. We kept an open mind and were frequently surprised.
In the 1990s the Cubans suffered a decade of privation. When the Soviet Union fell, Cuba suddenly lost the benefit of their primary trading partner and source of supporting. Their economy collapsed, and many went hungry. They refer to this time as the "special period." It was worst in the cities, because in the countryside they were more able to forage, hunt, and plant. This is a subject about which they are generally more reluctant to speak.
The government guarantees each person enough food that she will not starve. This comes in the form of a ration card. Like our food stamps, but it can only be used for staples, not snacks and sodas. I am told that the government guarantees housing for all, as well. I am less clear on just how this works. Most people live with or very near their extended family. This arrangement is traditional, and governmental policy seems to be that houses can be inherited. Most people now live in a house once occupied by one of their ancestors, or of their wife's ancestors. This arrangement facilitates child care and elder care, of course.
Lots of cute little stucco houses were built in the countryside during the early years of the revolution. Also more than a few blockish apartment complexes. These were built by the Russians, in their own image. There are many other examples of Soviet era construction, all bearing the same distinctive sensibility.
Cuba boasts the largest collection of classic 1950s American cars in the world, I'll bet. There are also Ladas (Russian) and a smattering of more recent European cars. And Chinese clones of Toyotas and others. Trucks and busses are usually older, except for a sizable fleet of CubaTour busses. Many vehicles seem to be burning as much oil as fuel, judging from the opacity of their exhausts.
Whatever the vehicle, it is expected that drivers in Cuba pick up riders along the road. Roadside bus shelters serve as informal hitch-hiking stations. Vehicles keep on accepting passengers 'going their way' until they are stuffed way over capacity. This system both agrees with their socialist ethic, and helps make up for the inadequate public transit system.
Hire a car with a driver. Why? Narrow roads, pedestrians, bicycles, horse carts, no sidewalks, no safety enforcement, and little safety 'common sense'. Also no maps, inadequate and/or hard to obtain GPS, lots of closures and detours, and no source of current info on closures and detours. Inadequate signage, markings, and lighting. No traffic reports on radio or tv, no google maps with traffic display. Pavement conditions worse than can be imagined, more than occasionally. Did I forget to mention ox carts? At least they are not a speeding problem. But as there are no passing lanes, one frequently waits quite a while until a large or slow vehicle can get around a cart or a bicycle. You'll see.
We didn’t take any busses or trains. They do connect major cities. And there are busses and taxis and pedicabs and various other options within Havana. I saw lots of backpacker type tourists queuing up for intercity busses (Transtur), so that is an option. But away from the half dozen biggest cities the bus schedules are infrequent (sometimes once a day) and often busses will not leave without a minimum number of passengers. So riders might have to wait several days for a departure.
Don't count on access to the outside. State phone offices can make calls during business hours, and hotel business offices as well. Don’t expect to Skype or FaceTime. For in-country cell calls you can often ask a Cuban with a cell phone, but if you need to be reached or in regular touch you should find a way to get a local cell phone. There is cell coverage pretty much everywhere on the island (it shames Vermont), but they just don't have broadband. At least not yet, and maybe not particularly soon. Big hotels in some cities have business centers and limited (pay by the hour) wifi. There are public wifi hotspots in major cities, but you have to purchase access cards that let you login for 30 or 60 minutes. And you buy these cards at a State store that invariably has lines, inconvenient hours, and can ruin out of cards before closing time. They are just not trying to make it easy. You can also sometimes get cards from scalpers who will approach you on the street near the hotspots. 3x more expensive, but you don't need your passport.
Cuba has two currencies. CUCs for tourists and pesos for locals. (pronounced like kooks). The government wants to keep track of spending by foreigners. Exchange about 25 pesos for one CUC. But tourists are not supposed to possess or use pesos, and some vendors (e.g. farmer's market) take only pesos. But it all works somehow.
Everybody says drink only boiled or bottled water. The locals often drink from the tap, but horror stories abound and have basis in fact. By water in large (1.5 liter) bottles or bigger plastic jugs in the 'supermarket' to save $$. 1.5 liters is $0.70 in the market while small 0.5 liters is at least $1.00 in restaurants. Local beer and rum drinks are plentiful and cheap. The local cola drink is tuKola, and is as good as Coke or Pepsi. There is a 'dietetica' version in a few places. Try the darker Bucanero beer. It has more flavor than the Crystal.
Crime is not a major problem in Cuba. We felt generally safe on the streets and in the Casas in which we stayed. We were warned about scammers in the marketplace, but the worst that we encountered was a pedicab driver who quoted a price at the beginning of the trip and then explained that the quoted price was per person not per trip. [LINK]
Advice to the traveler:
Lower your expectations. Don't expect things to happen when you wanted or how you wanted and you will have a better trip. Be patient. Cubans seem not to share our compulsion for promptness. Things will unfold in their own uniquely Cuban way. If you do not have a fixed picture of how things should be, you will be a lot happier when they turn out as they do. (bring a stash of nut bars or other nutrient dense snack for emergencies?)
Speak to locals you encounter. We found that while they didn't generally initiate contact with us, they usually opened up when we asked them things. They appreciate the interest, or the request for help, even when the language divide is huge. Besides being a happy people, they are by large a friendly people. I wonder the extent to which their common experience as part of their great socialist experiment makes them more open -- or maybe it was their shared experience in the 'special’ period.