Cuba today is fascinating. Thanks to a change in political climate, the low-quality state-run tourist industry is being replaced by private businesses owned by proud Cubans. They love showing you their country.


It’s early morning in Havana and I’m sitting on a sturdy wooden bench at a sleek metal table. Large designer light bulbs hang from a polished concrete ceiling and smartly dressed staff whizz about the tables. The smashed avocado and poached egg is now nothing but crumbs on my handcrafted plate. The milk in my flat white has been textured to a perfect heart shape.

I could be in so many cities in the world.

But peering through the polished glass window, an old Spanish colonial building sits hunched across the road. The central walls and floors have gone altogether, leaving only a shell. Scarred by massive cracks, it’s brickwork is faded and crumbling. Two floors up a woman is precariously hanging washing across a massive hole where her kitchen used to be. Downstairs two children sit in the entranceway under the remnants of a door swinging on its hinges. This once magnificent building is on its knees.

Everywhere we go in Cuba, we are struck by these remarkable contrasts. Between capitalism and communism. Between privately run businesses competing for tourist dollars, and the rest of the country, where the state monopolises the levers of wealth and power.

THE SOVIET SWEETENER

A week earlier in the fertile foothills of the Escambray mountains, our taxi bumps along the roads through the Valle de Ios Ingenios. This was once home to the largest export industry in Cuba; sugar. We hop out at San Isidiro de los Destiladeros, a grand sugar mill built in the 1830s.

Standing in the centre of the grounds is a hacienda. It’s been renovated over the years, proudly standing 3 floors high, overlooking what was once a prosperous sugar enterprise. But it’s all that remains of this once great factory. Grass sits where sugar cane grew. Weeds push through piles of bricks. Trees rise out of what were once bustling factory floors. A sewage channel is all that’s left of the workers quarters.

When Fidel Castro swept to power in 1959, he brought with him a communist regime and a centrally planned economy. Sugar was to be his main export, and for most of the next 30 years, the economy grew in line with sugar sales. But his model was precarious: 90% of Cuban sugar was purchased well above market prices by the Soviet Union. When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union went with it, Cuba’s economy collapsed. The effects were devastating.

At one time, over 50 sugar mills operated in the Valle de Ios Ingenios, sustaining a workforce of around 300,000 Cubans. But in 2003, the last of the big mills closed and the Valley of Sugar Mills became a valley of ruins. This renovated hacienda stands as a memorial to the failed sugar industry.

Always the entrepreneur, Castro had another plan.

CUBA TODAY: FIGHTING TOURISM FROM THE TRENCHES

An 8-hour bus ride north of the sugar plantations takes us to Varadero, the largest beach resort in Cuba today. After a long day on the road we wanted to relax on the 20 km sweep of gorgeous white powdery sands and laze in shimmering turquoise waters. Some stretches of the beach are backed by swaying palms but mostly it’s ugly concrete blocks. Massive rectangles of grey stone, one after the other disappearing into the distance. There is no spark of creativity or personal taste. No design principles or hotel-like flair. They look more like army barracks than high-end Caribbean resorts.

And there’s a good reason for that.

After the sugar industry collapsed, Castro pivoted the country towards tourism. He created the Ministry of Tourism and invested a whopping $3.5 billion in this new industry over the next 10 years. With a large army burning a hole in his pocket, Castro put them to work in the tourism sector, and modern Varadero was born.

In Cuba today – although foreign companies are allowed minority shares – all hotels, car hire companies and large tour operators are run by the state and staffed by government-paid employees.

It’s mid-afternoon when we arrive in Varadero and luckily, we find a beautiful spot on the beach. We hire a couple of beach chairs from the local hotel beach bar. Perched under palm trees with a gentle breeze blowing, we stare over the sunlit sands and azure Caribbean. It’s perfect.

When 5pm comes around and a golden glow starts to descend over the beach, the desire for a some Cuban rum is growing strong. But it’s the end of the day for the staff, so instead of sundowner cocktails, we’re unceremoniously turfed from our seats and sent on our way.

Undeterred, we walk along the beach and find another bar. Perched one floor up, it’s a good one. From the deck of the bar, we have an uninterrupted view of sunset over the sea. We’re also the only people here. We make eye contact with the three staff standing behind us, but this universal gesture seems to have no impact. After 20 minutes we go to the bar to order, but the staff scatter in all directions. Half an hour later, with the sun down and drinks unachievable, we leave.

Elsewhere, a bar in a prime position overlooking the sea at sunset would be packed. Its staff would be rushing around extracting money from tourists. But in the state-run bars in the state run hotels of Varadero, this is not the case.

Later, when we explain our beach experience to our host, he laughs, “In Cuba, the government pretends to pay us, and we pretend to work”.

VIÑALES: THE FERTILE CRESCENT OF CAPITALISM

But many Cubans love the tourists. Maribel lives in Viñales, where craggy limestone mogotes (flat-topped hills) float above a patchwork of carefully tendered fields, creating the finest scenery in Cuba.

As our bus pulls up, she is holding up a sign and with an excited smile on her face waves at us energetically. Although she’s only half our size and twice our age, she grabs our bags, drags them to her car and hurls them into the trunk. We are off, tearing down the dusty streets of Viñales, towards her home. A home she will share with us for a few days.

She serves us a welcome tea in her beautiful garden and the pitch begins.

“I can get you whatever you want.”

Breakfast in the early morning. Done. Walking tour through the tobacco fields. Done. Sunset horse riding? Excursion to the beaches? Bike hire for the day? Whatever we want, Maribel can sort it.

And she does. She is a one woman whirlwind of action. In less time than it takes to not get served a drink in Varadero, our entire stay is organised. And none of it is expensive, none of it is rubbish. “I am going to be in the next Rough Guide,” Maribel proudly proclaims.

The birth of the internet and the loosening of tourism regulations by Castro has allowed homeowners to offer rooms, tours and food to travellers. But Maribel has gone a step further and built basic cottages on the small plot of land backing on to the tobacco fields. The views from the cottage are amazing and she has made the most of it. Two rocking chairs sit on the stoop and two beers (briefly) sit in a tiny fridge. The result is a thriving competitive tourist industry.

HANDMADE IN VIÑALES

Next morning Maribel serves us the best breakfast we have had in Cuba. It’s not hipster and it’s not extravagant. Fresh banana, pineapple and orange juice; omelette with peppers and onions, toast with an array of condiments; and a choice of tea, coffee or hot chocolate.

Satiated we sit on the stoop and strap on our hiking boots. But staring up from my laces I see Maribel waiting out the corner of my eye. She has a can of paint in her hand and shakes her head while pointing towards some flaking woodwork just beneath the window. As soon as we stand to leave, she is brushing the problem away.

We head off along the rusty red paths that criss-cross this beautiful valley. They lead, not just through dramatic natural scenery but into the heart of the tobacco industry. An industry where 90% of the produce is bought by the government at a fixed price, leaving little to invest back in. We pass farm after farm, each one occupying only a tiny plot of land. We do not see any sign of machinery.

Every now and then there is a rustle and a farmer’s head pops up through the leaves. Each seed or sapling is hand planted, each plant hand nurtured, and each leaf hand-picked. At the end of the season the farmer loads the harvest onto a home-made wooden cart which is dragged by oxen and hung to dry in traditional wooden huts.

The system may have preserved an idyllic environment, but the farmers do not have it as good as the casa owners.

THE DREAM OF A PRIVATE JOB

Maribel waves goodbye to us as she rushes to welcome new guests. For us it’s a long bus ride east to the colonial town of Trinidad, another favourite tourist destination. Our first impressions are good.

It’s a picturesque town where locals play dominoes perched on tables outside their colourful houses radiating in the early evening light. We have dinner at Botija, an old slaving house whose history is recalled by the manacles and handcuffs hanging on the walls. The food is good, but it is the music that steals the show. A young girl sings soulfully with a lone guitarist.

We rise next morning for a tour of the mountains that lie to the north of Trinidad. At 9 am on the dot there’s a rap on our door and Lenya from Trinidad Travels stands before us. Self-proclaimed Queen of the Mountains, she is our guide for the day.

Originally from St. Kitts, Lenya’s parents came to Cuba and settled in Guantánamo. She learnt English from TV, picking up contraband stations from the nearby US naval base. She used her skills to join the tourist training program before being offered a licence to conduct state-run tour groups.

When Castro loosened restrictions on private ownership in tourism, Trinidad Travels (a private company) was established and with her sturdy government training, Lenya was headhunted. She now works in the private sector, an achievement she is clearly proud of.

“I made it” she proclaims. “It fulfils every dream I have ever had.” And it soon becomes clear why.


After an hour of driving along potholed roads, Lenya leads us on a hike through an arabica coffee plantation. Coffee picking is the bread and butter of the 3,000 that live in these hills. But like most industries in Cuba, it is heavily influenced by the government.

Lenya explains that private coffee farms must obtain a license to operate from the local cooperative that monitors their production. The cooperative is supposed to help farmers, but with 1 tractor often shared between a hundred small farms, its impact can be minimal. Up to 80% of coffee grown on private farms is sold to the government at well under market rates.

However, not all Cuban coffee is grown on private farms. Here in the hills the coffee plantation is government-owned. Pickers are paid a salary based on how much coffee they collect. A day’s work picking will earn them about 110 CUP (US$4.25). It’s not a lot but it’s not bad for a government employee. Lenya, on the other hand, collects 10 times that in tips.

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CUBA TODAY: A MISH MASH OF PRIVATE AND PUBLIC

For all its challenges Cuba today is fascinating. It is a country where you can witness the impact of capitalist and communist systems; where the people are adapting to a complex mix of ideologies and changing freedoms.

The creation of private businesses is dramatically improving the quality and choice available for tourists and bringing wealth to those Cubans who can take advantage of it. But it also comes at a cost. This once egalitarian society is now split between those that have access to tourist dollars and those that do not.

But challenges are not new to the Cuban people and they continue to go about their lives with a clear sense of pride in their country. For while vast swathes of Cuba are tumbling into ruin, the well-educated, healthy and well-dressed people we met throughout our journey had a cheery smile on their faces as they looked towards the future.

Many of the buildings in Havana might be on their knees, but the people are certainly not.

WHERE NEXT?

If you enjoyed this article, we’d love it if you could follow us on Instagram to stay up to date with our travels.

If you thinking about visit Cuba we have some travel tips to help you get the most out of your trip. We also recommend you read our guide on getting around Cuba.

Here’s some more Cuba reading your might enjoy.

VISITING PARQUE GUANAYARA

OUR QUICK GUIDE TO TRINIDAD

HIKING IN THE VIÑALES VALLEY

Suitcases and Sandcastles

If you have any questions please leave them in the comments below – we always reply. To stay up to date with our travels, follow us on social and signup to our NEWSLETTER.

Our travels in Cuba took us across a country where industries controlled by the state are struggling to keep up with private enterprise. Here’s our experience travelling around Cuba. / #cuba

Our travels in Cuba took us across a country where industries controlled by the state are struggling to keep up with private enterprise. Here’s our experience travelling around Cuba. / #cuba

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