Five stars or no stars, life is a beach
By Desmond Boylan
The variety of options and price range for vacationing in Cuba, for either Cubans or foreigners, is vast. Let’s take the average Cuban family, with an income of roughly $20 (500 pesos) per month from the husband and around $10 from the wife. Summer comes and they need a break with their two children.
For the equivalent of $5 (120 pesos), this family can have a short, three-day break in a popular campismo, or rural cabin for four people in a natural park or near the sea, with round trip transportation included. Conditions are spartan and unsophisticated, but clean and agreeable. Obviously the Cuban state is not making a profit on this and subsidizes the cost to make it possible for average people to enjoy a holiday. Average still means the vast majority of Cubans, as in this communist economy there are still few incomes above or below the mean.
At one campismo I asked if foreigners were allowed to pay the same $5 for a stay, and the person in charge, Arelis, answered, “Of course everyone now is welcome. Before, only Cubans were allowed, but now anyone can enjoy these facilities.”
Five dollars is the cost of two coffees in any five-star hotel in Havana or in many hotels around the world. In Cuba it is also enough to pay for a three-day vacation for a family of four people in a tropical destination. At the same time, it is also possible to pay several hundred dollars for one night in some 5-star all inclusive beach resorts in Cuba’s premier resort, Varadero.
There are other mid-priced options, but the majority of Cubans opt to spend the day on the beach, traveling back and forth from home each day during their vacation. That’s the easiest and cheapest solution for them. Campismos are overbooked and other lodging is not affordable.
Tourism is the main source of income for the country. Tourists are heavily protected and respected. They are treated well and police are constantly making sure they are not harassed, disturbed or mugged. Prison sentences for harassment or harm caused by Cubans to tourists are high, very high.
Although I live and work here, speak and understand the language with all its variations, I come across as a tourist to the police and to the population. I usually carry cameras and don’t look very Cuban. So here in Cuba I am a “yuma,” the popular world for foreigners replacing the better known “gringo” label now less in use.
One day I was walking down a street in Havana carrying my cameras near an area renowned for black market activities and slightly dodgy people. A policeman in uniform approached me gently and said, “Please don’t walk down this street, it is an unsafe area and cameras have been stolen from tourists in the past.”
“Don’t worry I will be careful and hold them tight,” I answered, and kept walking down the street. I noticed the cop followed me in the distance for a couple of blocks and then stopped and used his radio.
Suddenly I heard him loud and clear, “Keep an eye on the Yuma approaching you. He is carrying two tremendous cameras.” When I reached a market area, also renowned for black market activities, I noticed the policeman was too far in the distance to intervene if I had been attacked, but there was a plainclothes unit of at least four men from the CI, or military counterintelligence. By then I had hidden my cameras in a big shopping bag, and I felt relatively safe.
Cuba is a safe place with little violent crime, but petty theft does exist. Tourists can roam freely by day or night with little chance of an incident.
Cubans love to eat and drink while in the water. It is normal to be swimming in the sea and suddenly come across groups of Cubans sharing a bottle of rum while submerged.
They are particularly imaginative at finding or creating good shade to make their day on the beach as pleasurable as possible.
Cubans and visitors all love the beach. While it is around the corner for most locals, foreigners the world over pay thousands of dollars to come and sit on Cuba’s beaches. Whether they arrive in an air conditioned bus to a luxury five-star resort or camp beside their 1950’s pickup truck on a tight budget, everyone enjoys a day on the beach.