Travelling to Cuba

Resorts have opened up Cuba's economy in a post-Soviet world - and awakened a hunger for more freedom among its citizens.

Travelling to Cuba: As Cuba begins to reform, tourism beyond the resort gains popularity. Back: The BCBusiness Guide to World Travel

Resorts have opened up Cuba’s economy in a post-Soviet world – and awakened a hunger for more freedom among its citizens.

Our white Peugeot station wagon passes a baseball field where a billboard above home plate reads, in Spanish, Socialism or Death. “Cuba, it’s a funny place,” Jourdain says into the rear-view mirror. He looks a bit like a young Cary Grant. “It’s not easy to do what you like. Everything is always in a circle.” To buy his black-market taxi, he had to arrange a paper marriage to a Russian woman, get her to sign the title and pay her the equivalent of 18 months’ official wages – about $400. He is still waiting out the two-year minimum before applying for a divorce so he can get the Peugeot in his name and marry his real wife, pregnant with their first child. We are newlyweds in a not-quite-new Cuba: it is August 2008, six months after Fidel’s 77-year-old brother Raúl Castro assumed the presidency. My wife and I are honey­mooning at an all-inclusive resort an hour from Havana. After three days in a mojito-induced fog of buffet seafood and lounge odes to Che Guevara, we are greedy – indecently so – for details of life behind the Sugar Cane Curtain. Jourdain is our first contact with the Cuba beyond the resort archipelago. As we breeze along the coastline toward an overnight stay in Havana, he assuages our curiosity and our rich-tourist guilt. A little.

Weather  Late summer and fall is hot, humid and fraught with ill-mannered hurricanes – visit in winter and spring.

Can’t Miss  Ride a moped to the high jungle bridge at Bacunayagua.

Cool Eats  Go for the drinks, not the food. Outside the resorts, you’re in a wasteland of ham sandwiches and tuna surprise.

Best Bed  Any one of dozens of casas particulares, private rooms rented out in select apartments in Havana and elsewhere, usually with free breakfast.

“Good money,” says Jourdain, explaining that resort jobs, like used cars, are a precious commodity. “But other things are not so good.” Since the 1959 revolution, Cuba has operated on an orthodox communist system of equal pay for all, now about $20 a month. When Soviet subsidies were cut off after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, a decade of privation followed known as the Período Especial – according to our guidebook, a time when people would marinate grapefruit skins, barbecue them and serve them as steaks. Desperate Cuban officials began building tourist resorts to bring in capital, and it worked: resorts like ours are fountains of hard cash floating the economy. “Equal pay” is theoretical, with buffet waiters earning tips now making three to 10 times as much as neurosurgeons. It turns out Jourdain was once a buffet waiter at our resort but was fired for refusing to inform on fellow employees who were stuffing plastic-wrapped steaks and cold cuts into their pants before clocking out. He later worked at a facility down the beach strictly for government jefes on holiday with their families. “There is no extras there, you know – no gifts, no tips,” he says, explaining how he earned three times his monthly salary in tips at the resort. As he talks, we pass his home city of Santa Cruz, a collection of decrepit highrise apartment buildings, rum distilleries and bobbing petroleum pumpjacks. “But this way they don’t say I have to watch my friends.” One of Presidente Raúl’s first reforms was to repeal the policy prohibiting Cuban citizens from vacationing in their own resorts. In a country still subsisting on shredded cabbage, tuna salad and microwave pizza, the move was less than galvanizing. Jourdain, for one, wants looser regulations on private enterprise. “I am not waiting. We have to have food, we have to have money, now.” When he drops us off in Old Havana, we open our bags to pull out some token gifts: a wooden puzzle of Canada, a baseball and some French milled soap. They are absurd, and we are embarrassed. But Jourdain picks up the plastic-wrapped baseball, tosses it in the air and catches it. “For my son,” he says, and smiles.

My Secret Place
Who: Lloyd Bernhardt, president, Ethical Bean Coffee Co. Ltd.

Where: Café de la Fuente, Antigua, Guatemala

Why: I have fond memories of my wife, Kim, and newly adopted daughter, Amelia, spending hours in this beautiful café. We would sit in the courtyard eating huevos rancheros and drinking the most amazing limonada con gas (fresh lemonade with carbonated water) I have ever tasted. The coffee was pretty good too. On weekends groups of Mayan women would show off their traditional weavings while we ate breakfast. The colour of the textiles against the rustic backdrop of our surroundings was such a fantastic contrast. 4 Calle Oriente, No. 14; 502-78-32-45-20