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Cuba Trip Report – Jan. 2015 (US Citizen)

Cuba Trip Report – Jan. 2015 (US Citizen)

Old Feb 15, 15, 6:08 pm
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Cuba Trip Report – Jan. 2015 (US Citizen)

Overall impressions:

- I really enjoyed and was fascinated by exactly two things about Cuba: (1) seeing the old 1950s cars (and riding around in them for very cheap); and (2) seeing the Cuban brand of communism first-hand. By the latter, I mean walking into one grocery store with entire aisles filled with the exact same product, and then walking into a different store where every shelf is empty (as if the store had been looted) and 10 employees are standing around staring at their phones. I’ve been to a number of current or former communist countries (e.g., China, the DPRK, Russia, the former SSRs), and I’ve simply never seen anything quite like the Cuban brand of communism.

- Besides those two things, I just didn’t think Cuba was great. I’d rank Cuba’s reward-to-hassle ratio among the lowest of the 60+ countries to which I’ve traveled. In other words, I felt Cuba has relatively little redeeming quality to make up for all its negatives. If you don’t have the time and money to see the entire world, there are much more interesting places to visit than Cuba.

- Lots of people seem to love Cuba, but I just don’t get the appeal. My only guess is that Cuba is exotic and seems like a different world for Westerners who haven’t traveled much around the third world. But I didn’t find Cuba to be the least bit exotic. For example, walking around Havana and seeing the locals living life (women on the balconies doing laundry shouting out to each other, kids playing baseball in the street, etc.) isn’t much different than walking around a Latino-immigrant neighborhood in a major US city. Nor did I find it particularly fascinating. There are some beautiful buildings, but similar architecture can be found elsewhere in Latin America – and in much less dilapidated shape. Vinales has pretty scenery, but there are tobacco farms in Virginia. So many things that people rave about just turned out to be disappointing (more below). In my opinion, there just isn’t a lot of there there.

The bad and the ugly:

- The People: The vast majority of my interactions with the locals were unpleasant. 5-10% of the people I encountered were nice, friendly people who didn’t want anything from me and just wanted to practice their English, say hello to a tourist, or help me find something. The other 90-95% are up to no good in some fashion – either blatantly aggressive touts or friendly-appearing scammers who seem harmless at first but are “taking the long game” to rope you in. I couldn’t go two minutes without someone trying to hassle me, no matter where I was. The touts and scammers are not the least bit shy, and they don’t give up even if you pretend like they don’t exist. Overall, the touts and scammers in Cuba are as bad as I’ve seen anywhere in the world (up there with the likes of SE Asia, India and Egypt). One of my worst experiences was when my shared taxi driver from Trinidad to Havana tried to blackmail all of us by raising the price CUC$5/person once we got on the highway; the other suckers gave him the money, but it took several lengthy arguments and threatening to call the police for me to get him to back down. Most regular Cubans seemed to be good people, but the ones you’re most likely to encounter as a tourist are totally bankrupt in the moral and ethical departments.

- Overtourism: Cuba is often portrayed as some new frontier (and Americans like to think of it as such), but it’s already heavily touristed and somewhat corporatized. Havana, Vinales and Trinidad are all teeming with tourists – both independent travelers and massive tour groups on big buses (tons of Canadians, and a lot of Europeans). There are also plenty of Americans roaming around in large groups on expensive “licensed” tours. Cuba isn’t, by any means, one of those destinations where you could go several days without running into another tourist.
- Nightlife: I was extremely disappointed with the much-hyped bar/music scene. I’m not a club person, but I like to grab a couple drinks and listen to live music at a bar. There were plenty of places for this, but what seems to happen is that these bars have a band come in to play 2-3 songs and then leave. So, you’re walking around and hear live music, go inside, find a seat, and order a drink; by the time you get your drink, the band is basically done and aggressively passing around the hat for money. The band leaves, and the bar will then put recorded music on for the duration. This was my experience at a number of bars that were written up for having great live music. I truly don’t understand why it was so difficult to just walk into a bar and listen to some live music.

- The Food: Restaurants are overpriced and mediocre, which I was prepared for. Cuban food in the US is great, but it’s tasteless (and drenched in salt and oil) in Cuba. There aren’t a whole lot of options for budget food (assuming you want real food, rather than a loaf of bread). Casas will sell you dinner for $10-12 (a rip off for what you get) and fancy tourist restaurants all have the same generic, boring menu for similar prices. If you do your homework, you can find the identical food at a cheaper restaurant for $4-6. (“Hanoi” in Havana, mentioned in LP, is as good as you’ll get in terms of the value-to-cost ratio.) Even the famous ice cream place (Coppelia), which the Cubans spend hours waiting in line for, tasted like store-bought packaged ice cream at best.

- Water: Buying bottled water was, surprisingly, a major hassle. You can’t just walk into a corner store and buy a bottle of water; sometimes it would be 20+ minutes before I’d see a store that looked like it might sell water, only to walk and find that they’re sold out of water. (At one such store, the clerk had a package of water on the floor, and told me that it was his personal stash and that it wasn’t for sale.) Stores that had water often tried to gouge me on the price. I would stock up on water and hoard it whenever I found a store that actually sold it.

- Activity/Museum Prices: I found the admissions prices, by and large, vastly overpriced by third-world standards. Almost every little attraction was $6-8. And charging $10 to tour a cigar factory is beyond ridiculous; this sort of thing would be free in most places in the world. There is clearly an effort to milk tourists for all they can, figuring they’d pay it at any cost. And in Vinales, both the Museum (which arranges the hiking guides) and my casa both told me that I am required to hire a guide to hike around the tobacco farms and mogotes; this clearly wasn’t true, and nobody stopped me from just going out into the bush myself. There are enough things to do for free to occupy your time without having to drop tons of money on overpriced activities and museums.

- Hospitality: I didn’t experience any sort of special hospitality that many others have raved about. The owners of my casas were nice enough and responsive to basic requests, but it absolutely felt like a bargained-for exchange. The reality is that these families are running a business; a tourist staying with them is a commercial transaction, not an honored guest being welcomed into the family. And they are very interested in “upselling” (i.e., getting you to buy breakfast and dinner from them, or having them arrange activities for you so that they get a kickback), and seem very disappointed if you decline these services.

Some logistical notes/tips:

- Flights: I arrived on Cubana from Mexico City, and departed on BahamasAir through Nassau. I had no problems purchasing either ticket directly from these airlines’ websites with my US credit card. Both airlines were fine, and the flights were uneventful.

- Immigration in Havana: An immigration officer approached me and pulled me aside for secondary screening when I was in the immigration line. (I have no idea why I was flagged, but perhaps the flight crew noticed that I had my large dSLR camera and suspected I was a journalist.) The officer flipped through my passport and noticed lots of stamps, and asked me about all my travels, what I did for a living, why I was in Cuba, where I was planning to stay, etc. After a few minutes, he seemed satisfied that I was an ordinary tourist rather than a journalist. He then had someone quickly search my luggage, and they seemed mainly interested in seeing what books I was carrying. (I just had tour books.) The whole delay took about 10 minutes and they were very polite.

- Re-entering the US: At the Nassau US Immigration Pre-clearance, I declared that I had been to Cuba rather than commit the crime of lying to the government. I was brought into a separate room for secondary screening, and my checked suitcase was pulled off the plane and brought into the room. The agents asked me a few questions, and made it very clear that they didn’t care about travel to Cuba so long as I wasn’t importing contraband goods like cigars and rum. (I was not.) They then conducted a VERY thorough and intense search of my carry-on and suitcase, inspecting each item one-by-one and opening every single bottle, container and bag. (Likely they were looking not just for cigars, but also for illegal drugs and hidden currency.) After they finished searching my luggage, I was free to go – with no consequences for having visited Cuba. The agents were very professional, but the process took about 45 minutes and I almost missed my flight.

- Health Insurance: Nobody made me purchase the mandatory health insurance, asked for proof of insurance, or anything of that sort. I had read in various sources that the Cuban authorities at the airport would make me buy insurance for CUC$3/day, but this was a total non-issue.

- Money: I used EUR to buy CUC. For Americans, it’s much smarter to get EUR rather than pay the 10% penalty for using USD. I changed CUC into CUP as needed from either my casa or a random vendor; I’d usually only change 1 CUC at a time because 24 CUP goes a long way.

- Lodging: I stayed at casas, which I booked with a travel agent / guide named Jorge (http://www.jorge-cubaholidays.com/about-jorge.html ), who had tons of great reviews on Trip Advisor. I was somewhat disappointed with him, and didn’t think he lived up to his great reviews. I had contacted him 10 days before my arrival (last minute trip), and he said that on short notice and in high season, it would take too much time to contact the best places and see if they were available and that I should just be happy with any decent place. The casas he booked for me were exactly that: mediocre. For example, the two casas in Havana were both more like small mini-hotels with 8-12 rooms and felt totally impersonal; it seemed like Jorge called these places because he knew they’d likely have a room open. If you’re the type of traveler who likes to have your hotels lined up before you arrive, there aren’t very many good options for this in Cuba.

- Viazul buses: A complete headache, and don’t count on getting on one if you didn’t buy your ticket online. Viazul’s website wouldn’t let me book tickets online before my arrival. I posted on LP about this; nobody was sure why, but several LP posters said that they’d never not been able to get on a Viazul bus by just showing up an hour early. My experience was the complete opposite. All 3 bus rides I attempted to take (Havana-Vinales-Trinidad-Havana) were completely sold out. For example, when I was at the Havana station trying to go to Vinales, there were about 20 tourists waiting without tickets for over an hour, and not a single one of us got on the bus. And when I went to the Trinidad station the day before to try to buy a ticket back to Havana, and the clerk gave me the waiting list on which I could write my name; I would have been #32.

I’m happy to answer any questions anyone has about Cuba.
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Old Feb 15, 15, 8:24 pm
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Ooh, I'm headed there in March. Not exactly what I wanted to read, but thank you for the heads-up on possible problems to expect.
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Old Feb 15, 15, 10:09 pm
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Thank you for the super-interesting and informative report. I'd like to ask regarding forex: what kind of rate did you get on EUR? Did you change in the street, banks, bureaus?
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Old Feb 15, 15, 10:31 pm
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Originally Posted by fischi View Post
Thank you for the super-interesting and informative report. I'd like to ask regarding forex: what kind of rate did you get on EUR? Did you change in the street, banks, bureaus?
You mean, EUR to CUC? I exchanged at the airport upon arrival. I don't remember the exact rate and the numbers won't do us any good today, but my ballpark estimate was that I got about 3% below the prevailing interbank rate.

I changed my leftover CUC back into USD at the airport on departure. There was no additional 10% USD penalty, but the USD-CUC rate was about 3% below parity.

From what I understand, the rates are fixed by the government, so the rates in town will be the same as at the airport. I don't know for sure, though. I estimated my overall spend pretty well, and didn't need to exchange additional money in town. I'm glad I didn't have to; other tourists said that lines at the banks in town were long, and took 30-60 minutes.

As for changing on the "street," I'm not aware of any black/grey market for exchanging foreign currency to CUC. I know it's common in other countries, but I didn't see it and I didn't read about it anywhere. If a black/grey market exists at all, it's probably very sketchy and unsafe to use. But exchanging CUC to CUP on the street seemed very commonplace.
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Old Feb 16, 15, 6:37 am
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Here is a link to know the exchange rates. It helps to see them before you leave. These are the same as the airport and banks.

Bank of Cuba Exchange rates
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Old Feb 17, 15, 1:27 am
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Originally Posted by el_che View Post
Here is a link to know the exchange rates. It helps to see them before you leave. These are the same as the airport and banks.

Bank of Cuba Exchange rates
Thanks for posting; I never saw this. It looks like these rates are just a bit more than 3% off of the current interbank rate. This is consistent with my experience / estimate, both for USD and EUR.

Just to make clear for anyone reading this thread: bringing USD is really a horrible move -- you're hit with both the 10% penalty and an additionally unfavorable ~3% loss on the exchange.
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Old Feb 17, 15, 8:39 pm
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I am suprised by this review as I just returned from Cuba and completely disagree with almost everything (especially about the people and the food). With the exception of a few panhandlers outside our hotel and on the street in Trinidad, I had such positive experiences with Cuban people. I would consider them among the kindest I have met in any country. The food was very good. There are so many amazing paladares with decent prices. Fresh fish and lobster were plentiful.
Accomodations are very basic in a lot of areas so be prepared for that. One of our hotels, Parque Central, is one of the better hotels. I would say it would be 3.5 stars in US hotel ratings.
I dont know if OP speaks Spanish or not, but getting to talk with locals even in my broken spanish was great fun.
I would recommend Cuba to anyone.
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Old Feb 18, 15, 12:56 am
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Originally Posted by smitty06 View Post
I am suprised by this review as I just returned from Cuba and completely disagree with almost everything (especially about the people and the food). ......snip ............
I dont know if OP speaks Spanish or not, but getting to talk with locals even in my broken spanish was great fun.
I would recommend Cuba to anyone.
Thanks for posting your experiences - without all the details. Suffice it to say that your contribution shows that there are two sides to everything and to all places. I will spend a week in the Havana area at the end of April with my 2 adult sons. We all look forward to the experience, knowing full well that it won't be perfect every day. Such is life
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Old Feb 18, 15, 6:57 am
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Thank you, Smitty. I appreciate hearing your experience. I expect some frustrations in that it won't be as easy to get things done. Overall, I'm looking forward to going to Cuba.
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Old Feb 21, 15, 6:42 pm
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Originally Posted by LAX_Esq View Post

Overall impressions:


- Besides those two things, I just didn’t think Cuba was great.

First of all thank you very much to share your impressions and I have to admit that I agree totally with many of your impressions.

Travelling to and in Cuba can be a pain. Especially unexperienced travellers should travel on a organized package tour.



- The People: The vast majority of my interactions with the locals were unpleasant.

You are right. The daily fight for surviving made the people unpleasant. But you should consider in what a misery the normal people live. A doctor makes 25 to 30 $, not in a minute like in US, in the month. The prices in the chopin, this are the shops were you can buy products for dollars (CUC), I call them dollarito shops, are higher then in the US or Europe. A doctors income is good for three bottles of shampoo.


- Overtourism: Cuba is often portrayed as some new frontier (and Americans like to think of it as such), but it’s already heavily touristed and somewhat corporatized.
For US tourists it might be surprising but you are right: Cuba is a mass tourist destination for cheap packages from Europe or Canada. And there is one major attraction in Cuba: Cheap prostitutes.


I truly don’t understand why it was so difficult to just walk into a bar and listen to some live music.
Like everywhere in the world you have to find the places where the music plays. If you do not find it by the book just ask locals and they will be happy to show you around. But they expect a small tip like 1 CUC. In the USA you are used to tip always and everywhere so why not in Cuba?

- The Food: Restaurants are overpriced and mediocre,


You are 100 % right. I never, ever eat in a state run restaurant. I gave here on FT some advices about private restaurants (paladares) in HAV. I experienced dinner which were on the same level as in SFO, MIA, LON, PAR or BER - but much cheaper. As well on tripadvisor are many good recommendations.



Even the famous ice cream place (Coppelia), which the Cubans spend hours waiting in line for, tasted like store-bought packaged ice cream at best.



You are right again. The ice they sell for Peso Cubano to Cubans at Coppelia is crap. But there is a seperated area for people with CUC and there they sell real ice cream made out of milk, cream and real fruits and I assure you this ice cream is much better then all the ice cream you have tasted from Hägen & Dazz.





- Water: Buying bottled water was, surprisingly, a major hassle.

Every chopin or dollarito shop is selling bottled water for a cheap price. Remember the shops where you can buy with Peso Cubano sell exactly: nothing.



- Activity/Museum Prices: I found the admissions prices, by and large, vastly overpriced by third-world standards.
Everywhere in Cuba you will find two prices: One price in Peso Cubano for the locals and one price for the tourists and you are right it is overpriced. But the same you find in Thailand and nobody is complaining. Only at the Museo de la Revolucion you may pay as a tourist in Peso Cubano.


- Hospitality: I didn’t experience any sort of special hospitality that many others have raved about. The owners of my casas were nice enough and responsive to basic requests, but it absolutely felt like a bargained-for exchange. The reality is that these families are running a business; a tourist staying with them is a commercial transaction, not an honored guest being welcomed into the family.

You are right. They run a business. The family of one of the US celebrities, her name is Paris Hilton, runs a hotel business as well and they rent rooms in hotels and you have no problem to pay.

In this forum and on tripadvisor are many recommendations how to find nice casa particulares for a reasonable price but they are not for free. And of course the people who run such a place they want to sell you a breakfast or a meal on top. It is called capitalism and as an US citizen you should have heared this word.

I mentioned already one of my favorite casa particulares in HAV (I do not get any commission, kick back etc. from this place). Look on the pictures and compare what you get for 30 or 35 US $ in HAV with the standard you get in Miami Beach for the same amount.


http://www.cubaguesthouse.com/canave...e.html?lang=en

I can understand that you were disappointed. Cuba is not easy to travel.

Last edited by carpetbagger; Feb 21, 15 at 7:00 pm
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Old Feb 22, 15, 6:47 am
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I have been going to Cube since 2001. It is my favourite travel destination. The OP had high expectations and unfortunately did not have his epectations met.

But I have to say, it is a great country with a lot of potential. I have never had any problems each time I have gone there. Never had a Viazul problem either, I booked online.
Never had a food problem, I have had meals for $1 and for $15. Lots of paladar's with good food, lobster for $5.

So unfortunately the OP did not have a good experience but then again it all depends on you as to what you want to make of your vacation.

Go with an open mind and try to understand the people, they have been deprived of many luxuries, but they still have a smile on their faces.
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Old Feb 22, 15, 11:09 am
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Originally Posted by djjaguar64 View Post
I have been going to Cube since 2001. It is my favourite travel destination. The OP had high expectations and unfortunately did not have his epectations met.
Saying that someone "had high expectations" is generally has a negative connotation, and it's generally a way to discredit them so as to dismiss the substance of their observations. I'm not sure if this is what was meant here, but I don't think it's in any way accurate to say that I came to Cuba with unreasonable expectations.

I did lots of research and read many trip reports on Cuba prior to my trip, and saw common complaints among former travelers who generally enjoyed Cuba. These common complaints were about things like about poor infrastructure/efficiency, mediocre food, scammers and touts, overpriced admissions and accommodations, etc. Plus, I'm an experienced traveler, and I know to expect all sorts of hassles and inconveniences when I visit third-world countries.

So, I think I came to Cuba with very reasonable expectations. (Obviously I had generally good expectations; I wouldn't have gone had I expected to have a bad trip!) I don't think it's fair to make light on my trip report as that of someone who "had high expectations."
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Old Feb 22, 15, 12:52 pm
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Originally Posted by carpetbagger View Post
First of all thank you very much to share your impressions and I have to admit that I agree totally with many of your impressions.
I appreciate your comments and perspective. Thanks for sharing, too.

Travelling to and in Cuba can be a pain. Especially unexperienced travellers should travel on a organized package tour.
Many, including myself, are in the camp that believe there is no worse way to see a country than on an organized tour. But that's a different debate!

- The People: The vast majority of my interactions with the locals were unpleasant.
You are right. The daily fight for surviving made the people unpleasant. But you should consider in what a misery the normal people live. A doctor makes 25 to 30 $, not in a minute like in US, in the month. The prices in the chopin, this are the shops were you can buy products for dollars (CUC), I call them dollarito shops, are higher then in the US or Europe. A doctors income is good for three bottles of shampoo.
Yes, I definitely saw the misery with my own eyes. Without getting into politics, I could definitely sense the hopeless and futility that pervades the entire country. It's quite sad, really.

That being said, I don't think poverty excuses the unethical/immoral behavior of any of the touts/scammers. I don't think poverty makes people inherently act like this: I've been to plenty of very poor places where the locals don't want any money from tourists -- and it wouldn't even cross their mind. The scammers aren't a result of the poverty; they're a result of mass tourism -- and gullible tourists who fall for all the scams and encourage their behavior.

For US tourists it might be surprising but you are right: Cuba is a mass tourist destination for cheap packages from Europe or Canada. And there is one major attraction in Cuba: Cheap prostitutes.
Yep, this is definitely on display. It's also not hard to overhear a conversation among Euros/Canadians "who regularly travel to Cuba" about this as well.

- The Food: Restaurants are overpriced and mediocre,
You are 100 % right. I never, ever eat in a state run restaurant. I gave here on FT some advices about private restaurants (paladares) in HAV. I experienced dinner which were on the same level as in SFO, MIA, LON, PAR or BER - but much cheaper. As well on tripadvisor are many good recommendations.
I did eat in mostly private restaurants (including ones that were recommended), but felt the food was still mediocre. Even if there are a few good restaurants out there, a 1st time tourist to Cuba should be prepared for overpriced and mediocre food.

Even the famous ice cream place (Coppelia), which the Cubans spend hours waiting in line for, tasted like store-bought packaged ice cream at best.

You are right again. The ice they sell for Peso Cubano to Cubans at Coppelia is crap. But there is a seperated area for people with CUC and there they sell real ice cream made out of milk, cream and real fruits and I assure you this ice cream is much better then all the ice cream you have tasted from Hägen & Dazz.
I was brought to a private tourist room where I could sit with other tourists and eat expensive ice cream. But I didn't come to Cuba to do that, so I went downstairs and got a seat at the real place with the locals. I wanted an authentic experience and to see people enjoying the supposedly delicious ice cream for which they had been waiting in line for hours. The people did seem to like it, and one woman ordered about 15 extra scoops which she dumped into a container that she brought with her. Maybe it's just cheap.

- Activity/Museum Prices: I found the admissions prices, by and large, vastly overpriced by third-world standards.
Everywhere in Cuba you will find two prices: One price in Peso Cubano for the locals and one price for the tourists and you are right it is overpriced. But the same you find in Thailand and nobody is complaining. Only at the Museo de la Revolucion you may pay as a tourist in Peso Cubano.
To be fair, tourists do often complain about countries where the admissions fees are outrageous (and magnitudes more than the prices that locals pay), especially when it's clear that the money is just going to a corrupt government rather than to improve the site/museum. Cuba isn't unique in this respect, but it's important to note that a budget traveler will likely want to skip most of these mediocre attractions.

- Hospitality: I didn’t experience any sort of special hospitality that many others have raved about. The owners of my casas were nice enough and responsive to basic requests, but it absolutely felt like a bargained-for exchange. The reality is that these families are running a business; a tourist staying with them is a commercial transaction, not an honored guest being welcomed into the family.
You are right. They run a business. The family of one of the US celebrities, her name is Paris Hilton, runs a hotel business as well and they rent rooms in hotels and you have no problem to pay.

In this forum and on tripadvisor are many recommendations how to find nice casa particulares for a reasonable price but they are not for free. And of course the people who run such a place they want to sell you a breakfast or a meal on top. It is called capitalism and as an US citizen you should have heared this word.
Yes, the casas are absolutely a business, and nothing else. I welcome any sort of honest capitalism in Cuba.

It's just important for future travelers to recognize that their casa stay in Cuba is simply a bargained-for exchange, and not genuine hospitality. Idealist tourists are often unable to recognize the difference. Indeed, I read a lot of trip reports where people felt that the experience of staying in casas was wonderful and one of the things that made Cuba special; they talked about the wonderful Cuban hospitality at the casas and how they were made to feel like family. That's just not the reality.
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Old Feb 22, 15, 3:46 pm
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I appreciate reading everybody's perspectives here. As I mentioned, I'm going next month, on my own, and am looking forward to the trip with excitement and a bit of nervousness too. I know everything won't go perfectly.

To the OP, I'm curious, do you speak Spanish? I'm talking about speaking it well. (I do.) Was a language barrier a source of any of your frustration?
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Old Feb 22, 15, 5:41 pm
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Originally Posted by SJOGuy View Post
To the OP, I'm curious, do you speak Spanish? I'm talking about speaking it well. (I do.) Was a language barrier a source of any of your frustration?
Nope, I don't speak Spanish. I know some basics, but I can't have a real, genuine conversation in Spanish. I didn't have any language barrier issues whatsoever; none of my complaints have anything to do with language/communications issues. (I've been plenty of places where hardly anyone speaks any English and I don't know a single word of the local language, and I've always figured out how to make the best of it.)

However, I do think that someone who speaks fluent (or very good) Spanish would have the opportunity to have some meaningful conversations with real locals when they get off the beaten tourist path, and these interactions could enhance one's visit.
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