To Know Cuba, Leave Havana

Most tourists who visit Cuba see either Havana or a nearby tourist beach, and nothing more. While Havana is an interesting, bustling, international city, it does not represent Cuba. And the beaches visited by most tourists are all-inclusive resorts off limits to most Cubans. They serve very mediocre Cuban food with culture delivered in contrived shows.

Back-roading in Cuba isn’t easy if you want to do it like a Cuban might. That is because the buses are crowded and uncomfortable, although very cheap. They accept the local currency, the peso, only. Most visitors to Cuba will never see a peso because Cuba has a second currency for tourists, the Cuban Convertible Currency or CUC.

Fortunately, you can get to almost anywhere you want by taxi, even distant places. And the prices aren’t sky high. A six-hour trip from the beach at Cayo Coco to Havana, for example, is less than $300. However you do it, I encourage you to get out of Havana and off the beaches to experience what Cuba is about.

Each of Cuba’s cites has its distinct character and flavor. Trinidad, for example, is one of the oldest cities in the hemisphere, settled 10 years after Columbus first sailed here. Cienfuegos is a port city with an active marina. Unlike other places where the marina is reserved for those who are members or dock boats there, in egalitarian Cuba, anyone is welcome to come and rent one of the Cuban-government owned boats with a Cuban captain for an hour or a week.

On a recent trip, a group of around 10 from France were doing just that, stocking up on food for a week’s sea journey at the marina store. You can visit the marina bar and have a mojito or Cuba Libre for the same price you’d pay anywhere for that drink as the prices are set by the state, which also pays the bartenders and servers the same average monthly salary as everyone else in Cuba, around $25 equivalency.

A server told me that she is a trained accountant and teacher of hospitality, but she works as a server because she earns the same $25 monthly salary either way, but as a server she stands to maybe make some tips. A few tippers a day will more than double her monthly government salary. Of course, tip-prone jobs are hard to get. You need to apply and have a recommendation from your local Communist party boss. You are not guaranteed a job.

An application highlighting your qualifications is required just as in the U.S., but it seems like anyone who wants to work can find a job. Entrepreneurs are flourishing, too. One self-employed taxi driver quit his job as an engineer because he can make more money driving.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t beggars. Even youngsters try to panhandle tourists on the streets, an aspect of Cuba that I found particularly disturbing.

As you travel the backroads of Cuba you’ll learn that it is primarily an agrarian economy with small factories scattered around. Only 50 of the original sugar mills still operate. Their smoke stacks dot the countryside. You see that horses are a prime means of transport. You also see scrawny looking cattle throughout the island, which explains the rather poor quality beef you get served.

The best meals in Cuba happen when you stick to what the Cubans eat, rather than trying to be fancy. Stick to simple fare … rice, chicken or pork, plantains, beans and other more humble foods. The best representations of the local dishes on the back roads are at the places where the Cubans go. There, you can eat a delicious lunch that you won’t be able to finish for less than $5.

Back-roading in Cuba is like getting off the beaten track anywhere — it gives you the opportunity to meet the locals. In Havana you’re more likely to meet another traveler than a Cuban, as it is such an international city. And on the beaches, you’ll also only find foreigners. Get out of the city and off the beach to experience the real Cuba.

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