Cuba’s Lack of Travel Infrastructure

An Almendrone in Cuba

I could not be happier about Obama’s visit to Cuba. While I realize there are political hot buttons on both sides of the issues surrounding his visit I would like to quote Richard Feinberg of the Brookings Institute: “By befriending the president of the United States, the president of Cuba and first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) has exploded his regime’s long-standing national security paradigm organized around the imminent danger posed by a hostile empire. The rationale for the state-of-siege mentality, the explanation for the poor economic performance, no longer resonates. The ruling political bureau of the PCC stands exposed before the Cuban people.”

I look forward to the further opening of the country for many reasons. First, for the ability to finally buy quality household goods in Cuba. Secondly for the influx of tourism and what it will mean for the Cuban economy and the advancement of the Cuban people, not only in monetary terms, but also in exposure to other cultures, and further education about the modern world.

A large stumbling block to a growing tourism industry is Cuba’s transportation infrastructure. There are few roads, and those that exist are in very bad condition.

Tourism has been happening in Cuba for many years, just not American tourism. Most tourism that has occurred in Cuba has been in all-inclusive resorts on the coast, but as tourism in Cuba grows outside of these controlled environments, the gaping holes of the Cuban transportation system will become a problem.

The biggest areas of concern are in the places where tourists are at the whim of the employee and the system, and that begins and ends with Cuban customs.

My last visit to Cuba was in February of this year (2016), after standing in line for over an hour to get through Cuban customs, and then hearing that large industrial thunk that signals the lights are being shut off, I was the lone soul standing in front of the last remaining (of 8) Customs official. After having gone through frustration, panic, frustration and resignment, my passport was handed back with an apology. That was the first I had ever received in the numerous times this process has bogged down, I was actually given an explanation, another first, the computer had simply stopped working, and he had to re-boot, and since the computers in these situations resemble old Commodore PET’s that process took quite a long time.

I traveled to Cuba five times in 2015. At that time there were only 2 flights a week out of Santiago de Cuba.

In February there were two flights on one day, leaving one hour apart, on my departure date, I was on the second flight. Customs took well over the one hour between the flights. This might not seem long, but these planes usually hold only around 70 people. The plane was held until all people were on board, and the people on the plane were seasoned Cuban travelers, so there was no complaining, but the comment most uttered throughout the plane was, this will never hold when the Americans come.

Obama has relaxed the travel rules to Cuba, and while one still must be going for a sanctioned reason, an American no longer is required to travel with a group. This means a lone traveler is left to arrange their own transportation if planning to see much of the island.

Traveling in Cuba is difficult. Rental cars are very expensive, and driving the large carreteras, (highways) are not for the faint of heart. Most tourists rent Almendrones (called because of their resemblance to the Cuban Almond) with a driver. The cost of this pretty much equals the cost of a rental car.

This paved road in Cuba is actually in pretty good shape. There are 20,000 miles of unpaved roads in Cuba.

The down side to the Almendrones is the lack of shocks and air conditioning, both rather necessary to many, due to the bad roads and very hot climate, year round.

There is a bus system for long hauls in Cuba, but this is real roughing it. Within the cities there is no bus system at all, citizens are filling this gap by hauling people around town in trucks. This system has no schedules, and you need to speak Spanish very well to negotiate this system.

So, while the news is filled with beautiful pictures of white sand beaches, and people in colorful costume, do not be lured in by these photos. There is a lot of difference between the glossy e-zine photos and the reality of the country.

By all means, I think traveling to Cuba should be on everyone’s list. Yes, I agree it would be really great to get there before Starbucks and McDonald’s does, but if you are going on your own, don’t expect creature comforts, this is an emerging economy from 50 years of tyranny and deprivation, there is a lot that needs to be done.