Having sailed our Lagoon 410, Guiding Light, to Cuba last year to spend three weeks exploring the southern coast and all it had to offer, we had an amazing adventure….and got frustrated at the same time. After retelling our story countless times, I came up with a list of our favorite and least favorite things about exploring one of the last communist countries still around.
10. BAD: Roads – If you want to do any travel to the interior or opposite side of the island, you will have to hire a local to drive you on the roads. At this point in the lifespan of Cuban roads I think the county is one giant pothole with some flattish stretches in between. Even on the main highway our driver was swerving left and right and we were hitting potholes often and hard enough that not only was it difficult to read my phone, it even flew out of my hands a couple of times.
9. GOOD: Natural beauty – Cuba is over 600 miles long and filled with beautiful places. This includes Viñales Valley, Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, Valley de los Ingenios, and Desembarco del Granma National Park, all of which are designated as World Heritage Sites. Plus, you have the mountains around Santiago, the beaches all over the island, tropical cays off the north and south coasts, and protected bays that seem to cut right through cliffs and open up in lake size bodies of water. Pretty much everywhere you look you can find nature in all its glory.
8. BAD: Internet – There are a lot of websites and apps that won’t work in Cuba, because they are American companies and are restricted from doing business in Cuba. This was true even for my girlfriend, who is Mexican, trying to use her Apple phone apps. Also, in order to get connected to the internet you have to buy cards for a set amount of time and then go to a location with a hotspot (make sure to log off when you are done to save the remaining time). Stores tend to have the best deals and if an individual is trying to sell you one when you first arrive, it is probably an inflated price.
7. GOOD: Historic sites – Cuba has no less than five cities that are World Heritage Sites (Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Camagüey, and Santiago) and each one takes 2-4 days to truly explore and see why UNESCO deemed them worthy of such an honor. On top of this you can see the coffee plantations in the mountains around Santiago, the tobacco farms of the Viñales Valley, the San Juan Hill battlefield, and the Old Havana rum factory to name a few more.
6. BAD: Money – There is nothing wrong with the Cuban Peso (CUP). It has more to do with getting them. Technically foreigners are required to use official exchange houses, but they only give 24 CUPs per US dollar. When we were there in April 2022, we could get 100 CUPs per dollar everywhere else. Another money related issue was the fact that US credit, debit, and ATM cards could not be used anywhere in the country and the marinas would not take US or Cuban cash, Euro cash only.
5. GOOD: Cars – If you love old American cars, then Cuba is your heaven. I estimate around 20% of the vehicles in Cuba are pre-1959 American steel. Some of these cars are in pristine condition and others are day to day beaters. Plus, lots of the work trucks are in this category and still chugging along. Everywhere you look there is another 1940s and ‘50s American car passing by. In Havana you can have an hour-long tour in your choice of old, beautiful cars.
4. BAD: Tourist only stuff – As a cruiser you can only go to official international marinas with your boat. You are not allowed to enjoy any of the islands, bays, or snorkeling for more than an overnight stop. Once ashore you are free to go anywhere, but certain buses and trains are forbidden and you cannot rent a car. Also, the official restaurants have horrible food. The good news here is that the locally owned restaurants located in private homes serve very good local food. They are called paladares.
3. GOOD: People – The Cuban people are delightful and very welcoming. In Havana Lily ordered a coffee from a little old lady’s window and as soon as she found out I was an American she threw open her door and invited us into her home. She had never talked with an American before and she talked so fast Lily had trouble finding time to translate what she said to me. When we walked out 30 minutes later, I told Lily I think she still has not ever talked with an American, because she was so busy talking TO an American.
2. BAD: Availability – The simple answer is nothing is available, so bring everything with you! We saw our tour guide, Eddy, talking to someone in the alley like they were doing a drug deal. Turns out it was for TUMS and that was the only way to get it. Hearing this we emptied out our medical chest and spare household stuff to donate to several of the churches to give out as needed. We did save a small bag of stuff just for Eddy and he pulled out a bar of soap and said his wife would love it so much he could do no wrong the rest of the month. Another example is when two of the port captains at the international marinas asked if we had any old wire.
1. GOOD: Untouched Culture – Traveling to Cuba is like stepping back in time. It is as if the world in Cuba stopped when the Cuban Revolution started in 1959. I mentioned some aspects of this above when talking about the roads and cars, but it is everywhere. A lot of the charm of Havana is walking among the decaying and dilapidated buildings. Other times you will be enthralled with the slower pace of life afforded with the lack of cellphones, video games, websites, and mind-numbing TV channels. Instead, you will find Cubans in the park playing dominoes, at the beach relaxing, working on their cars, or other activities we think of when we think about small towns in the 1950s.
Cuba is a very rewarding place to visit, even with the restrictions and communist bureaucracy put in place. The good definitely outweighs the bad by a large margin. Find out for yourself!
Captain Shane and Lily are now exploring the Bay Islands of Honduras and will be heading to Panama soon. If you would like to join the adventure check them out at svGuidingLight on the web or your favorite social media