There aren't many places on earth with such a sense of romance and nostalgia as Cuba; a land lost in time, untouched by the ravages of commercialism and capitalism, a ticking time bomb to be visited now before the wider western world explodes into its crumbling streets.
Easy to idealise, but Cuba is not easy to understand. Its isolation is at the same time both its appeal and its problem, and if you come here with preconceived, idealistic ideas on politics and preservation of its communist culture you'll leave more confused than ever. However, beyond its all-inclusive Caribbean beach bubbles, Cuba has opportunities a-plenty for those who want a holiday destination which will inspire, challenge and move; and one which will be digested and discussed, months and years after your return home.
Six decades of communism has stripped the country of its material wealth; local people survive off meagre state wages, ration books limit food supplies, shops throughout the country are conspicuous by their emptiness and a complicated dual currency can leave local people out of touch with tourist wealth. However, its cultural treasures have been meticulously conserved and concerts, galleries and shows from salsa to jazz, art and ballet to afro-Caribbean beats are freely available to all. By getting travel right we can immerse ourselves in this heady mix, while also making sure our tourist currency reaches the local people keeping this culture alive.
Dual currency complications
Communism does not reward entrepreneurship, and meagre state salaries have encouraged many well-educated, qualified individuals to seek unskilled work which will bring them into contact with Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs), the tourist currency pegged equivalent in value to the US dollar. A valuable currency when state salaries are paid in the local currency, Cuban Pesos (CUPs), worth just 4 cents each. Don't be surprised then if your taxi driver is actually an anaesthetist or your casa particular host a qualified architect. State regulated, but run by local people, these homestay accommodations are one of the only ways for Cubans to own their own business, and directly access valuable tourist dollars. Perhaps the original Airbnb, the network of casas particulares across Cuba has since 1997 allowed local people to open their homes and hearts to guests, providing a unique insight into real life in this complicated country. The trend for authentic homestay experiences currently sweeping the western travel world has existed then in this cut-off corner of the Caribbean for almost 20 years. And not only do your CUCs end up in the hands of the local people who need them most, but the casas are the best places for insider tips on where to go, with owners often able to arrange transport and guides across Cuba.
Touching the authentic and bringing benefits
As tourists in such an isolated society it becomes our responsibility to ensure that we make a positive difference, that the culture we enjoy is well supported, and that local people feel the benefit of our presence. And there are so many ways to do this in Cuba. Firstly, eschew all-inclusive Varadero; Cuba's beauty is in its people and culture and you'll see neither of these here. Stay in a casa and follow your host's advice for a wander around Old Havana. You'll find local people happy to talk to you about their lives, and keen to find out what you make of their country. Pop into local pop-up art galleries, watch jazz performances and take salsa lessons with local dancers. Savour the opportunity to watch artists and musicians so good that anywhere else in the world it would cost you a fortune to enjoy them. So don't resent the few pesos tip you'll need to part with for these experiences - remember, this is likely to be a significant boost to spectacularly talented people struggling on a state wage.
While Cuba may be full to the brim of culture, material goods are conspicuous in their absence. Making sure our tourist currency reaches local people is not enough - often necessities are simply not there for local people to buy. We need to take the time before travelling to research what else we can bring that is lacking yet needed. Responsibletravel.com's supplier Marcel, from Latin America Journeys is a Cuba expert. He advises that "Cuba is not just a beautiful paradise holiday, there are many aspects to it and if people are prepared they will enjoy it more and can also give back to Cuban society". He recommends speaking to your tour operator before you leave home to find out what can be brought into the country that will be useful. Medicines for a particular child, supplies for a local school or kitchen-ware for host families, the list is endless.
A holiday to Cuba then requires more consideration, more research and more understanding than most. It's not just somewhere to be visited before Fidel & Raul Castro's loosening grip is finally released; its communist quirks are easily idealised but belie a society struggling with poverty and isolation, and one where the creeping tide of capitalism may well be welcomed, proud as Cubans are of their history and independence. But if we are prepared for this and for Cuba's challenges, and if we do it right, the country's culture, natural beauty and turquoise waters have the potential to offer enormous rewards, for us as travellers, but even more so for local people.
Find out more about how to travel right in Cuba at http://www.responsibletravel.com/holidays/cuba
Photo credit: Vicki Brown