Cuba is a mind boggling, beautiful Caribbean island. You’ll inevitably fall in love with the vibrant music and art scenes, revel in the delights of the Hispanic colonial architecture and vintage American cars, and be struck by the healthy smiles and glow of the languid, pretty people. On the other hand, you’ll probably be left pondering by people’s complaints and desire to go abroad, by the crumbling state of some buildings, and by the half empty shop shelves.
This is all the product of a complex history and while some will blame Cuba’s hardships on the crippling US embargo, others will point the finger to the inefficiencies of the Socialist system. Disentangling and understanding the various forces that have made Cuba what it is today, is as enjoyable as its pristine beaches, beautiful coral reefs, charming towns and cities, vibrant culture and bucolic bliss. And how do we recommend you start this endeavour of enjoyment and understanding?... well, staying in a casa particular is definitely a good start and will help you connect with the real Cuba!
Population: 11.25 million (roughly the same as Belgium and Greece)
Size: 109,886 km2 (a bit smaller than England, about the same as Iceland)
GDP per capita: $9900 per year (roughly the same as Thailand and Colombia)
Ethnicities: 65% white, 24% mixed (mainly white-black), 10% black, 1% Chinese.
Literacy rate: 99.9% (2nd highest in the World!)
Life expectancy: 78.3 years (36th in the World; same as the US and Denmark)
Cuba is a healthy country and is subsequently a very safe place to visit for families, women travellers and any other category of traveller. Unlike many of its Latin American neighbours, Cuba has managed to escape brutal CIA-fuelled civil wars, provides its population with universal healthcare and education, and has no homelessness, hunger, drug pandemic or gang problems. This makes it a very carefree destination with no major safety concerns to worry about.
The main niggle in Cuba is the ‘jinetero’, who is basically a petty scam artist. They have an impressive repertoire of strategies and stories to get money from you. For example, they will tell you that your casa particular has shut down due to a fire, plumbing problem or illegal prostitution crackdown by the police; some of the stories are amazing! This way, the ‘jinetero’ or ‘jinetera’ brings you to another casa particular and gets a small commission. Another classic is to approach you in a friendly, hospitable manner in the street and tell you about a Buena Vista Social Club festival or Hemmingway bar that just happens to be around the corner. Other ‘jineteros’ go for more heart-wrenching stories, for example they’ll ask you if you’ll help them buy powdered milk for their newborn. Once you’ve done this commendable deed, they sell the powdered milk back to the shop and pocket the bounty!
Remember: no one in Cuba is in desperate need as the State provides, so don’t be fooled by crafty jineteros!