TRAVEL TIPS: 7 THINGS YOU MUST ABSOLUTELY KNOW ABOUT CUBA #20YSTRAVEL

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travel_tips_cubaTRAVEL TIPS: 7 THINGS YOU MUST ABSOLUTELY KNOW ABOUT CUBA

Let’s start our travel tips with numbers. 70% of tourists that come to Cuba, every year, is comprised of Canadians. This is definitely the one phrase that we’ve heard over and over again during our recent trip to Varadero. Sometimes, the stats varies from 80% to 90% but the fact remains, Canada, IS, absolutely the largest source of tourism for Cuba. Fun fact: A Record Breaking 3.1 Million Tourists Visited Cuba in 2015. 56% of that are Canadians.

While there are plenty of talks that this will soon change with the influx of Americans, the reality is, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. “In 2010, Americans account for an estimated 147,401 of those tourists according to Cuba’s Office of National Statistics. Canada—or those traveling through our neighbors to the North—maintains the lions-share of Cuba’s tourism. Germany, France, Britain, and Italy also were major sources of visitors followed by Japan, Haiti, Costa Rica, Ireland and Poland.” For now, there’s only been a few flights from the United States to Cuba. In fact, they just built the American Embassy in Havana several months ago. So, if you’re one of the many Canadians or Americans for that matter (and all tourists from all over the world) that are planning to go to Cuba to escape our harsh winters, we have important travel tips for you. Here’s 7 THINGS YOU MUST ABSOLUTELY KNOW ABOUT CUBA:

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  1. TRAVEL TIPS: THE WEATHER IN CUBA IS HOT BUT NOT TOO HOT

January gives you pleasant sunny days of about 20-25 degrees. It is HOT but definitely not south of the Equator hot like the Philippines. I find Mexico and other Caribbean islands hotter. Since Varadero is surrounded by coastlines, cool breeze offers some relief while the capital, Havana, has plenty of cafés, restaurants and patios to stop by and cool off.

cuba_travel_tipsShopping and Exploring Downtown Varadero, Cuba
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  1. TRAVEL TIPS: CUBA HAS MANY GREAT BEACHES ALL OVER

We’re talking powdery white sands and azure waters. If there’s anything that’s an absolute guarantee in Cuba is that you’ll be treated to one of the most pristine beaches you’ve ever seen in your life! And I should know, I was born in the Philippines. A world renowned archipelago famous for its paradise beaches that consistently ranks as one of the best in the whole world! One of our travel tips: don’t get overwhelmed in choosing the best location to have the most perfect beach in Cuba, they are everywhere!

  1. TRAVEL TIPS: TRAVEL STAR RATINGS MEANS DIFFERENT IN CUBA

There is no surprise that there are plenty of travel tips on this particular subject. 5-Stars in Mexico or in the Dominican Republic does not mean the same 5-Stars in Cuba, which means when you are doing your research, you really need to pay attention to details. For example, what most people will tell you, 5-Stars in Cuba is equivalent to about 3-Stars in Mexico at worst and 4-Stars at best. When we got to Varadero, this turned out to be true. Although our Hotel and Resort was ranked amongst the Top 10 Hotels in Varadero, it still was not a real world class 5-Star Hotel and Resort it purported to be.

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  1. TRAVEL TIPS: FOOD IN CUBA IS ON THE BLANDER SIDE OF THE TASTE SPECTRUM

It doesn’t matter if you go to the mass-prepared buffet or the high-end made-to-order a la carte restaurants, the food is generally blander in Cuba, especially if you’re coming from Europe, the United States or Canada. It’s good but it’s distinctively on the mild side. As a matter of fact, we’ve met several tourists (repeat visitors usually) that proudly displayed their home-brought condiments like ketchup and hot sauce. I’m not sure if there’s just generally more sodium in our diet here in North America therefore, anything that’s less than that is not as savoury and delicious but the way food is prepared in Cuba (we’ve eaten in different places aside from the 7 restaurants in our Hotel and Resort) is a tad less tasty. It’s like something is missing that I cannot out my finger on. A spice or two or perhaps, they’re just not as well-versed in preparing all these non-Cuban cuisines yet. The good news?

There’s a new kind of revolution that’s happening in Cuba that’s about to change its culinary landscape. The Food Revolution. I suppose we’ll have to revisit to give you guys an update on things to come, food-wise.

travel_tips_cuba_tourismCuban flag flying with pride in Varadero, Cuba (January 2017)
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  1. TRAVEL TIPS: THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF CURRENCIES IN CUBA AND ONE IS THE SAME AS US DOLLARS BUT BOTH ARE WORTH MORE THAN CANADIAN DOLLARS

As you may already be aware, Cuba’s national currency is Cuban Peso, you may not know that there’s another form of currency being used in the country and that is CUC – the Cuban Convertible Currency. Not sure how it got the acronym CUC but what I do know is that this is the preferred way wait staff, hotel and resort workers, vendors and cab drivers want to get paid. I also know for certain that while Foreign Exchange fluctuates, 1 CUC is roughly equals to 1 American Dollar and if you’ve exchange money lately, you know it’s been a painful rate for us, Canadians.

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  1. TRAVEL TIPS: PEOPLE WHO WORKS ON TOURISM LIVES ON TIPS AND ARE NOT SHY TO REMIND YOU OF IT – ALL. THE. TIME!

I get it. Tourism lives on tips. However, tips are also implied to be tokens of appreciation for jobs done beyond what’s typically expected. Not a common ordinary occurrence, not mandatory and not obligatory.

During our entire stay, tips seem to be the incentive of choice to encourage staff to do their jobs. It seems that in order to get good service or continued service, you have to tip. You have to remember that most of the time, tips are included for what you pay for in an all-inclusive resort. Whatever you give beyond that is bonus and as mentioned, typically given when someone went above and beyond what they normally do. Not just when they actually clean your room, give you water or pour you drinks. It didn’t seem right that every time we ask for a drink (served in a very flimsy and tiny plastic cup), we drop 1 CUC. How’s that for all inclusive? Sure, you’re not technically obligated to do so but they do have certain ways to encourage you for shelling out the extra dough by either: ringing a loud bell for all to hear when someone tips, you get served last or routinely ignored when someone don’t tip or they straight up just ask you for a tip.

7-things-you-must-know-about-cuba Calesas are everywhere in Downtown Varadero!
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Case in point: aside from servers and staff at the hotels and resorts, tour guides are notorious for blatantly asking for tips and are not shy to remind you over and over about it. In addition to the run of the mill line of: “We hope you had a fabulous trip with us… please don’t forget me and the driver who worked very, very hard for you. The driver had to sleep in between in order to get us safe to and from destination and I have to work harder to keep you educated and entertained. Please also don’t forget the people at the office who worked diligently to organize this tour. Please make sure to leave enough tip for us all.” Ahmn… excuse me?

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  1. TRAVEL TIPS: SPEAKING OF TIPS… MONEY IS STILL THE BEST TYPE OF CURRENCY. NOT SHAMPOO, CONDITIONER OR LOTION

Lastly, brace yourselves for this last tip as this is the one topic – TIPPING – I have so much to say. This is the one thing that we researched extensively on as I insisted that we go to the Dollarama and buy hundreds of gifts to give-away in Cuba and then we decided we need to be informed more. So here goes.

Let’s put this in perspective right from the start: Do you, personally, prefer to be tipped with shampoo, lotion, toys or with real cold cash? Well, what is good for the goose is also good for the gander. What if you work in an office and at the end of the day, your boss gives you pen, paper and and stapler to reward you for your hard work? That’s exactly the silly feeling I had when I thought of handing out shampoo and conditioner from Canada to our hotel cleaning lady when she just finished cleaning our bathroom and refilling our.. you guess it… shampoo and conditioner.

Edited to add another metaphor from an expert (Thank you Ms. Chantsy of MODEXclusive!) : Exactly similar to bloggers, we do not like to get paid in make-up and shoes. I mean, we love make-up and shoes and purses but those are necessary tools of the trade. Think about it, how can we review your product if you do not provide us with your products? How can we feature your bags or your shoes if you do not send it to us? Unlike cash, they are not payments, rather they are a must for us to do our jobs.

The fact is, there is no other better currency in the world than CASH. As they say, CASH IS KING Baby! Okay, maybe they don’t say baby but cash is definitely royalty.

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Are there staff who loves to receive gifts of toiletries, baseball caps, toys for kids, clothing, etc.? Absolutely. In fact, there are still tons of tourists who does this and feels incredibly pleased with themselves to do some charitable work while they’re on vacation at (mostly) luxurious all-inclusive hotels and resorts and who wouldn’t. BUT… and I have to put a disclaimer here that while I’m not saying DO NOT DO IT, ABSOLUTELY NOT… perhaps think about it a little deeper. Evidently, the intentions are purely out of goodwill, to help out and to give Cubans what we think they are lacking but the first question is… Are they really lacking?

There is no argument that Cuba is not a rich, thriving Western country. But Cuba isn’t a poor country by any means and unlike of other ‘real’ poor countries, it has a government that provides for its people. Did you know that Cubans get free education? And not just kindergarten and primary and secondary schools but all the way up to university. Did you know that Cubans get universal health care? Just like Canadians and other European Citizens do. And did you know that Cubans also get food and milk rations from the government? These and relatively higher wage (than other countries geared to the tourism industry) does not make Cubans, especially Cubans who work in hotels and resorts, poor. It’s a bit presumptuous of us to go there and think we are helping by giving them Dollar Store gifts.

And I’m not saying this to be mean but there’s a bigger implications to this. In fact, the Cuban Government, at one point, has issued an advisory to tourists to discourage this practice (there were reports from other tourists that some policemen are now stationed at school entrances to dissuade visitors to not give gifts to school children) as it has a larger social, economic, cultural and psychological effect to its people. It trains the staff, the people you meet on the streets and the kids to look for hand-outs. It has trained some people and children to beg and this is not the kind of undesirable impact you want to have by what seems to be a simple act of charity.

I personally had an experience with this. Walking on the streets of Old Havana, I have been chased and followed by 3 adult women asking if I have anything for them. I didn’t clue in at first but I quickly realized they meant gifts. I showed them my empty hands so they proceeded to ask if I would give my shorts, my top or my sunglasses as they love it. They continued asking as they closely followed me and the other members of our walking tour group as we explored all these historical landmarks in Havana. Needless to say, it was an unpleasant experience and one of the consequences of which,  I can’t tell you much about any of the infrastructure and architecture of Cuba’s capital city.

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Bearing all that in mind, Cuba is a tremendous country that is rich in history, stunning architecture, beautiful beaches, magnificent sunsets and of course, warm and friendly people. It’s a small but mighty country that has changed the course of history not just for its people but for the world and if you are making your #travelgoals in 2017, make #Cuba one of your top must-visit destinations!

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So, let us know when you’ve booked your holidays in Cuba! It will definitely be something you won’t forget, in many ways than one. Entonces, hasta pronto en Cuba?

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1 comment

  1. 1

    Great post, Marilou! I really want to get to Cuba one of these days, so I read this with great fascination. Super tips…especially about the dollar store items. I had always heard to bring these types of goodies but, your advice makes total sense. Who wouldn’t rather have MONEY! Glad you had a great trip! Enjoyed your photos!

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