Although my trip to Cuba was my main holiday for the year, so I wanted to relax by the beach, I was also keen to find out more about what life in Cuba is really like for its citizens. In order to get more of an insight into this, during our week-long stay in Varadero I booked a dayÂ tour with a local guide. This gave me an eye-opening insight into what life is like for the locals living away from the tourist-friendly main streets of Varadero.
At times it was very tough to see how locals were living just a short distance from the strip of five star hotels, but I think it’s important to learn more about the areas you’re visiting. Our guide was very open in discussing the trials and tribulations of Cubans and gave us an honest account of his way of life and his strong opinions on the Cuban government.
As we got settled in our 4×4 Jeep and drove away from the peninsula and onto the mainland our driver told us how more and more locals were being forced away from tourist area to make way for more holiday homes and hotels as the resort area grows ever popular. Prices become too much for the locals and sadly many are having to move out of family homes and are being displaced to the outskirts of the area. This was so sad to hear, but he also explained that everyone knows how important tourism is to Cuba and so the situation is accepted, even if not liked.
Our tour included a drive through ‘real Cuba’, which for me was the most interesting part of the day. Once off the main tourist roads you start to understand the need for the 4×4, as the roads are simply dirt tracks and you often drive onto the fields to dodge the holes and rocks strewn everywhere. Its heartbreaking to see how poor these people are, and our guide explained that the issue was mainly down to the closure of the area’s sugar farms. These are now lush overgrown areas or have been turned into bare land housing oil wells. We were able to drive through one of these areas and it was such a strange, alien landscape. Â Driving cross country from Varadero to the region’s main city of Matanzas, we were able to see that the locals have taken over the remains of many of the farms’ warehouses, turning them into spaces for ramshackle homes or shops. You could hear the anger in our guides voice as he told us that he feels the government has let his people down. He also apologised for the sad tone of this part of the tour, but explained he wanted to show visitors what life was really like for many Cubans.
However hard these experiences are I think it’s important not to be blind to the problems a region faces and sharing them with others. In my opinion, sharing such knowledge can lead to positive change. But even with such challenges ahead of them, many people we met during our drive were friendly, would come out and wave or say hello, such as the lovely lady with her baby (in the picture above) that we stopped and met for a short time.
Our day-long tour did include some lighter moments, when we were taken to some of the local tourist attractions and shown the beautiful side of the region. Although I wasn’t brave enough to enter the cool waters of Saturno Cave, Justin was eager to jump in and loved his bracing swim! I also loved take a speedboat down the Canimar River and seeing some of the wildlife and we also stopped off at this amazing little restaurant hidden away in the countryside. Here I had the best rice and beans ever and I adored the fact that we had the place to ourselves. Away from the main tourist restaurants this place was an adventure to get to as we headed into the forest, took a hand-pulled river crossing and then climbed a rickety staircase to find this peaceful little foodie hideaway.
After our relaxing countryside break we then were given a glimpse into city life away from Havana. Matanzas is the region’s biggest city and it was really interesting to hear how people in the area live. Driving us through the maze of bustling streets we saw street vendors selling their wares and kids heading home from school. We discovered that each level of school in Cuba (lower, middle, upper for example) has its own colour uniform, so you can tell what stage of school the children were heading home from.
Our guide also talked about the WiFi issues in Cuba and that there are only two main squares across the whole of the city with public WiFi access. He explained that service was poor but the areas get packed with locals doing their monthly checks of social media etc, as they can only afford a little WiFi every month.
He also talked about the black market and explained that the busiest streets of the city were those selling black market goods. Many items can be tough to get anywhere in Cuba, so when people need things he told us this is where they come.
All in all, our day of exploring Cuban life was a rollercoaster of emotions. We may only have had a tiny glimpse into what life can be like for those living in Cuba, but it was insightful and interesting none the less. I do hope the changes currently happening to the country will give these happy, friendly people much more to smile about…
Have you had a chance to visit the ‘real Cuba’? Did you find similar situations or was your experience very different from ours? I’d love to hear your thoughts on life in Cuba – please do share your comments below!