I am planning a trip to Cuba with some friends in 2018 and I stumbled across a post that’s been making the rounds on social media. It’s entitled “Cuba is actually a terrible place to go“, and details the experiences of 24 year old travel agent Tahsir Ahsan and his frustration with Havana after planning a spontaneous trip there with two friends. Among his chief complaints were “mediocre food, a lack of internet, overpriced hotels and horrible currency exchange rates.” Yes, yes, I know, that should have been enough of a warning not to proceed further with the article but I continued as most reviews that I’ve read, and stories that I’ve heard from friends have been glowing – painting a picture of a lively country caught in a time-warp. A place with excellent food, cheap drinks, stunning beaches, lively culture and friendly locals.
Tahsir Ahsan’s article on the other hand offered little more than the pathetic moaning of a sheltered and overly-privileged Millennial traveller whose hubris, bad luck, and lack of planning came back and bit him in the ass. His article pissed me off a little, and as I’m currently on holiday with little better to do, I wrote a response.
Airport, Accommodation, and Currency Issues
The author talks about his shock of being ushered into a “literal clusterfuck of an arrivals hall” upon landing in Cuba. No shit, it’s a developing country. Next.
He then devotes paragraphs to describing his dismay at a bag not arriving at the airport. You know what? It happens all the time. I’ve had bags go missing in Australia, Auckland and China, and you know what I do? Sack up. Yeah it sucks, but you have to just roll with the punches rather than letting it ruin your holiday. He also moans at length about the airport staff being less than helpful with their instructions, like it’s on them to speak English. How about you give an inch and learn a few phrases in Spanish? Hell, let Google Translate do it for you.
One for consistency, Tahsir Ahsan then complains about the exchange rate fee at the airport (10% penalty and 3% fee), which he admitted that he knew about before travelling to Havana. It beggars belief that this guy works in the travel industry but failed to have the foresight to exchange money before leaving. Come on, that’s Travel 101. Maybe his problem wasn’t Cuba, but rather that he and his mates might be too stupid to travel outside their comfort zones?
The next part of his article deals with the unfortunate situation that their AirBNB didn’t pan out. Again, I empathise, but this is an issue, that while unfortunate, is not restricted to Cuba. Being in Cuba with no place to stay and a lost bag sucks, but a little pre-planning would have let him and his friends know that their accommodation options were limited to potentially expensive government-owned hotels (supply and demand people) or Casa Particulares, private homes that rent out rooms (although, these rooms can be designed to be self-contained apartments, with private entryways and kitchens).
After some frantic research, they ended up at a Casa Particular that cost $45 a night to house three people. Keeping in mind that Casas are comfortable but not luxury hotels – they’re someone’s homes – I can’t really see how the author can complain about accommodation. The room they stayed at had A/C, power outlets, a private bathroom and delightful hosts… I guess some people will find a way to complain about anything.
Food, Drinks, and Prices
Tahsir Ahsan’s article also paints Cuban cuisine as bland, often inedible, and over-priced. He discusses eating disappointing Hotel spaghetti, shitty brownies (really, you go to Cuba and eat a brownie?!), and expensive seafood. Sure, Cuba has issues importing many of the spices and ingredients that Western travellers are used to – this is a by-product of decades of aggressive sanctions by the United States – but this is more a reflection on the authors’ poor planning than it is on Cuban cuisine.
Trade restrictions forced Cubans to innovate and the result is that the country serves up fresh and organic, farm-to-table fare that is both healthy and delicious. There are countless stories of travellers sampling delicious meals that were sourced mere metres from where they ate. There are also plenty of top-notch restaurants serving a mix of traditional Caribbean food and more Western fare, though these often require a reservation.
What do these two examples have in common? You need to plan ahead. Want to go to a quality restaurant? Book ahead of time. Want to eat delicious farm-to-table food? It’s most likely found on an organic farm closed to the public so you’ll need to book a culinary-themed tour. Planning.
This is something that Tahsir and his ignorant friends did none of. They seemingly expected to just rock up to Cuba with 48 hours’ notice, a place they needed “to go [to] before everything becomes commercialized”, and then they complain when they can’t get in to the restaurant they want. Seriously, how stupid can you get? This is a developing country not the United States. Stick to eating out at McDonald’s.
The author then decides to double-down on his criticism and complain about the prices of everything, labelling Cuba a tourist trap. Again, this is more as a result of poor planning that it is anything else. Expensive Wi-Fi… No shit. No sympathy. Remember where you are mate.
He also argues that the food, drinks, and taxis are very expensive when you compare them to European destinations. The reality is they’re not. Not even close. A little research reveals that dinner at a nice restaurant costs around NZ$13 on average, including appetisers and drinks. This is a steal when you compare it to a night out in Auckland. At upscale spots, a mojito might cost around NZ$5.50. Again, I can’t see where the complaint is here? You’re lucky to get a Heineken for that price in my hometown.
If you’re looking for something a little more authentic and want to hit up a local spot to sample the country’s famed guava liquor, two glasses cost a whopping 65 cents in total. A 15 minute taxi ride also averages NZ$15 which is pretty fair for those not overly spoilt by Uber. So is Cuba expensive? It’s a cash-only country but the prices are very competitive as long as you’re not an overly privileged and ignorant traveller who doesn’t plan and fails to calibrate their expectations.
Nightlife and Sightseeing
The part of Tahsir’s ignorant beat up of Cuba that beggared most disbelief was his description of Havana’s “boring” nightlife and lack of things to do. In summarising his complaints to news.com.au, Tahsir said “I expected it to be lively, in that there’s a lot of culture. Throughout the day, most of it seemed more like just another city. Everyone was just going about their business.” Jesus, he can’t help but come off like an entitled asshole can he? It’s as if he expected every Cuban to stop what they’re doing and graciously put on a tourist show for him. Go to a beach, hit up a nightclub (Havana has many), drink a cocktail and stop fucking complaining. Havana is awash with bars, nightclubs and dance halls. How’s this for culture – every April, dancers from across Cuba and the globe take to Havana’s streets, plazas and colonial buildings in a celebration of dance.
Cuba is a country where all its citizens are encouraged to be artists. Havana has daily art premieres, film screenings, poetry, jazz, salsa and dance performances at its National Theatre, the Cases de la Músicia, Gran Teatro, Casa de la Amistad, or UNEAC (National Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba). It’s called the internet mate, you go on about it so much that one would assume that you’d have used it before your visit. Even if you didn’t, there are artists performing in little bars and cafes around every street corner.
If those suggestions didn’t tickle your fancy there’s also a Carnival in July, a renowned Jazz festival in December, a biennial cultural festival that takes over the city for the whole of March, and a Cigar festival every February. He then goes on to write that he decided to throw in the towel and retreat to every American teens favourite tourist trap – Cancún. How original. That should have come as little surprise I guess. Even if a good nightclub was all that the author was looking for he didn’t need to stray much further than Disco Ayala, an underground nightclub which includes three bars, five levels, accommodates between 3,000 and 4,000 people, and is open seven days a week with parties lasting until 3am. Oh yeah, it’s also set in a cave. Top that Cacún.
You know what, Tahsir should stick to Cancun and leave Cuba to be appreciated by the travellers who are looking for cultural immersion rather than a destination that compares favourably to their own privileged upbringings. My advice to him and his friends would have been to actually talk to the locals, and embrace and appreciate the country on its own merits rather than pine for a Big Mac.
Cuba is still very much an alternative destination and yes it lacks the infrastructure and amenities of a European destination. Yes the Wi-Fi is virtually non-existent, and the 70-year-old Chevrolets that line the roads will be noisy and smelly, but this is Cuba. Tahsir and his mates wanted to visit the island before it changes and you know what, they got their wish. But is it a terrible place to go as he contends? No of course not. Cuba offers wonderful hospitality, seductive live music on every street corner, and Caribbean beaches without the high rises. While it might not be picture perfect, and might require a degree of pre-planning, it offers fully immersive and thoroughly unique experiences – so go and have the time of your life, I will be.