Affordable Vacations in Cuba / Iván García

Photo: Lorenzo Crespo Silveira, Havana Times.

Ivan Garcia, 4 July 2016 — Mayara finished ninth grade with excellent grades and the next school term she will start high school. She is thinking about going to university and getting a degree in civil engineering or architecture.

Until then, she is spending her holidays scrubbing dishes, cleaning house and helping her mother wash fifteen pounds of dirty clothes twice a week.

“I feel very bad for my daughter but I don’t have money for her to go a discotheque or a party with her friends. I cannot even afford to send her on a trip to the beach with some neighbors who have rented a bus. She’ll have to settle once again for watching television and reading books. I make 380 pesos a month (about 17 dollars) as a receptionist and that isn’t even enough to feed ourselves adequately. And I can’t rely on her father. He’s always drunk and months will pass before he gives his daughter so much as a peso,” says Mayara’s mother.

The 2016 summer vacation season in Cuba is revealing new and growing disparities. Daniel, a father of three, recalls that twenty years ago “money went further. You could rent a house on the beach or occasionally eat at a nice restaurant. There were other options that were affordable for the average worker. But not now. An all-inclusive deal at a Varadero hotel costs 300 convertible pesos for just one weekend,” notes.

“Even renting a spot at a campground has become a luxury,” he adds. “And then there are the bad streets. I’m not saying there’s violence, but young guys get bored and hang out on the corners, drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. If you go to a nightclub, you have to shell out twenty or thirty convertible pesos. And with salaries so low, you can’t win. At least the Copa America and the Euros are being broadcast on television. And the Rio Olympics begin in August,” he adds.

Marilyn and her husband do have plans for the summer vacation season. “At the end of the month we’re going with our daughter to a sushi restaurant. We’ll also go two or three times to the pool at a tourist resort. And we’ve already reserved six nights at a hotel in Cayo Coco,” says Marilyn.

“Do you get remittances from overseas or own a small business,” I ask.

“Sort of,” Marilyn’s husband replies. “Four or five times a year I travel to Ecuador, Mexico or Panama to buy cheap merchandise and spare parts for cars and motorcycles. I spend part of the money I save on school vacations for my daughter.”

Although almost a million Cubans a year take advantage of all-inclusive package deals offered by the country’s four and five star hotels, most Havana residents take their children to the beach, the zoo or the national aquarium.

Those who do not live in the capital often have fewer options, though some provinces go to great lengths to organize special events during the months of July and August.

“I live in Hoyos, in Santiago de Cuba province. People start drinking there as soon as the sun comes up,” says Fermin, a Santeria follower visiting the capital. “Everything is more complicated in the eastern regions. There’s no money, potatoes and oranges are luxuries and drinking water is delivered every eight or nine days. All there is to do is watch television, drink, gossip with the neighbors and pray that an earthquake or a powerful hurricane doesn’t come and wipe us off the map.”

Now that the school year has ended, Havana’s landscape includes children and teenagers running through the streets late at night and groups of youths talking loudly about football or sitting on neighborhood street corners, making plans to emigrate.

Others prefer to set up a table of dominoes, take up a collection to buy some cheap rum and stay up all night arguing over the game and listening to reggaeton at full blast.

Far fewer can pay a cover charge of five to ten convertible pesos (CUC) to get into a discotheque or 1.5 CUC for an imported beer and some cheese balls at a privately owned air-conditioned bar.

There will always be cheaper options such as going to the theater, a museum, the movies or the Malecon, where you can spend time sitting and enjoying the nocturnal sea breezes with friends and an acoustic guitar.

But poor public transportation and unattractive cultural offerings discourage many young people from pursuing safe and economical forms of recreation.

For a wide segment of the Cuban population, distractions are to be found in insipid Brazilian soap operas, playing dominoes or drinking cheap liquor. It is not what they want to be doing; it is that they have to count their pennies.