Picture yourself relaxing in Cuba. Scrunch your toes into the powdery white sand. Take a sip of your mojito. Plunge into the warm, azure waters. Wait two hours in line at the bank. Sit in your wrought-iron rocking chair and light up a cigar. Chat with your neighbours. Pay twenty-five times too much for your coffee. Sit on a deserted beach to watch the stars. Make yourself a Cuba libre. Wait two hours in line to get wifi. Get a flat tire. Pay twenty cents for the best pizza you’ve had outside Italy. Go salsa dancing. Get a second flat tire. Watch the palm trees sway in the wind. Brace yourself for a tropical storm. Wait two hours to buy a bus ticket. Yell at a man who tried to charge you a dollar fifty for a pizza. Get a third flat tire. Pay fifty dollars for counterfeit cigars. Watch the sun set over the ocean. Are you relaxed yet?
Venture beyond the forced fun of Varadero’s resorts, and you’ll find an entirely different Cuba. Most locals prefer reggaeton to salsa. Beaches are a long and pricey taxi ride away. You’ll inevitably shell out fifteen dollars for a meal that cost less than fifty cents to make. It’s impossible to get a straight answer out of anyone.
In short, Cuba is not the ideal country for travellers. Prices for foreigners are as high as in much more developed countries, while locals have access to heavily subsidised rates. The food, while better than it was five years ago, is still frankly terrible. Public transportation is inconvenient, forcing all but the most determined to take taxis nearly everywhere. The locals are friendly, but it’s impossible to shake the feeling that your new friend is somehow making a commission.
Not to mention the bureaucracy that pervades every aspect of Cuban life. You’ll probably spend three or four hours cueing up before even leaving the airport. I spent two full days with a fellow backpacker before we realized that half our time together had been spent waiting in lines.
But if you commit yourself to taking Cuba as it comes, you will be rewarded.
This country is so different from everything you know that every mundane task sparks a philosophical conundrum. What happens to a society when cab drivers make more than doctors? Is it immoral to overcharge people because they’re relatively rich? Is free healthcare more important than free speech?
In the hours upon hours that you will inevitably spend waiting, you can do one of several things. You may use your time to criticize the Cuban government and its socialist penchant for bureaucracy. Many visitors choose this as their pastime, but I find others much more interesting. If you suspend your frustration, you may instead spend your time pondering Cuba’s complexities, chatting with your fellow line-mates, and enjoying the sunshine as you watch Cubans go about their business. After a time, you may even find waiting in line rather… pleasant.
This is the secret to relaxing in Cuba. Once you venture away from the resorts, there’s little relaxation to be had. Your bus will be delayed. Your car will break down. Your taxi driver will take you to the wrong address. Your bank card will not work. Your bed and breakfast will give away your reservation. Your souvenir will cost a hundred times what it’s worth. Your dinner will arrive cold and under seasoned and might even give you food poisoning.
You will be subjected to so much stress that you will simply not survive unless you rise above it. Tranquilo, you will tell yourself. Be calm. Be unconcerned. Let it go.
This is the secret to relaxing in Cuba. Lying on a beach with a coconut full of rum won’t rid you of your stress; it will only delay it. Beach vacations are called ‘escapes’ for a reason—they’ll let you escape your life, your job and your worries, but all your problems will be there when you return.
Exploring Cuba on your own is no such escape. You’ll encounter more problems than you could ever expect. You will get so frustrated it will be hard to believe you’re on vacation. But you will learn how to transform your stress into something positive, and that skill will stay with you long after your Caribbean tan has faded.