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A case study of how learning Spanish helped me on my latest trip to Cuba.
Updated February 2020
One of the themes of this site is “expand your world” by learning Latin American Spanish. This has many interpretations and for me, the opportunity to expand my career options was one, but another is the change in how I travel, be it for work or pleasure. This post is to point out the difference in the way I travel to Spanish speaking countries.
The ability to communicate effectively in Spanish has opened up so much for me. In the past, whenever I visited Latin America I, like so many do, stayed either at an all-inclusive resort or at a hotel in a popular tourist zone. While I really enjoyed my trips, I always wanted to see “the real Mexico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, etc.”, and while on occasion, I did venture out on my own, I often felt at a disadvantage because, at some point I had to rely on someone else to translate something if my dictionary or pocket translator didn’t relay what I wanted to say.
Beware The Gadgets – Embarrassment Awaits
With today’s smartphones using the wonderful Google Translate app, it is a little easier but you never feel as if you are a true participant in a conversation. Some words can have different meanings in different countries and the translation is always subject to the program’s interpretation and your own pronunciation.
This can lead to saying some rather stupid or embarrassing things – I once tried to say to a couple who had struggled with their restaurant because of damage from two major storms “you obviously had a very hard year” but I actually ended up saying “you obviously had a very hard a—hole”. So beware! Unfortunately for me, I have many more examples of these, but I will put them in a later post.
Getting back to the subject, now that I can speak the language I approach my travels very differently. Unfortunately in Latin America, as in the whole world, if you don’t speak the local language there are a few people that will try and take advantage of you. Also, if you cannot speak the language, it can be intimidating for many of us and our enjoyment can be tempered slightly although looking back of course everything was great!
Now, I never give that a second thought.
When I stayed at the big resorts, we were always told to beware leaving the resort unless you were with a guided tour. That guided tour would be overpriced, you would only stop at stores or restaurants that gave the guides or tour company a “cut” of the sales and in several cases, the “real people” were organized also.
Let’s look at a “real case study”
I will now give you an example of what I mentioned above:
I just looked up a reasonably priced 4 day, 3 night tour of Havana, Cuba – cost $650 USD (minimum) per person, double occupancy. This includes:
- 3 nights hotel (NOT a 5 Star) or private house (Casa Particular) accommodation with breakfast, which is generally a continental breakfast. I recommend the Casa Particular over the hotel.
- 2 lunches at restaurants selected by the tour company.
- 3 dinners at restaurants selected by the tour company.
- Transfer on arrival, a partial evening tour in a “classic car”, guided walking tours and a “Hemingway Tour”.
Assuming there are two of you, maybe throw in about $50 – $60 for tips, it comes to about $700 each, $1,400 USD per couple – so not too bad.
Now, Here Is My Vacation
This article was updated as of February 2020 to update prices (it was originally written in March 2016). Due to the influx of mainly American tourists since travel restrictions were lifted and then re-imposed, prices have increased, especially in Havana.
With the stricter enforcement by the USA and allies due to Cuba’s continued support of the Maduro regime in Venezuela, these prices may start to drop again.
Shortages have become more of a problem in Cuba
I was last there in February 2020, and when in Cuba I usually spend at least a week in Havana because it’s one of my favourite cities.
There have been shortages off and on in Cuba, seemingly for ever, but the aforementioned embargo, or blockade as the Cubans call it, has only made the lack of many goods worse. On this latest trip for example, I had to buy Coca-Cola, or even the local equivalent, from a bar or restaurant if I could find one to sell me some. I even had to visit three or four stores/supermarkets to find water, while trying to get my favourite beer, Cristal, proved impossible. To try and find snacks for the late night munchies, such as chips (crisps), or cookies was also very difficult.
A cafe near my apartment that I always frequented, didn’t even have coffee on the last morning that I tried to get breakfast there, the day after having no bread while their main breakfast item on the menu is baguettes. I did find another place fairly close by that came to my rescue.
There is a new set of bars and restaurants opening on the waterfront, Primera Avenida near the Melia Hotel for those of you that know the Miramar district of Havana, where finally you can sit and look out over the ocean there. I think there are five establishments open and they seem to be building more, but the first two I tried didn’t have any beer at all, and didn’t expect any for a couple of days when the “black market” could come to their rescue.
In nearly all the longer established bars and restaurants that I went to, I had little or no problem getting whatever I wanted, in fact it was better than before. Maybe they are hoarding all the good stuff!
Cost breakdown from my February 2020 trip
Here is my breakdown, again this is for two of us:
Accommodation: I stay at a “Casa Particular”, which in my case is an apartment in a private house in the beautiful Miramar district.
It has air conditioning, hot water (something you should always check for in many Caribbean countries), in-room fridge, private entrance, maid service – $45 USD per night, PER ROOM. Breakfast if required, is $5 USD per person.
In my experience, the biggest plus about staying in a Casa Particular is the warmth of the people who own the place. As the caption on the photo says, they did treat us like family, except they don’t nag at you to wake up in the morning!
They invite us to dine with them, they are your parents, your siblings and your private hotel concierge all rolled into one. They also respect your privacy and will leave you in peace.
Transportation: I always rent a taxi (I use the same guy every trip) – he charges $40 USD per day, plus gasoline which is negligible, available 24/7 – 4 or 5 in the morning, never complains, always polite, courteous, and most importantly, knows Havana intimately and like most Cubans, he doesn’t speak much English, but that doesn’t matter to me. Granted, the car is an early 90s Lada, no air conditioning. but I don’t care about that. It also adds to the charm if not the comfort! If you want to see any of the attractions, I always find this is the best way to go, in Cuba or any other country.
This way, you truly will get to see the “real country and the real people”. This driver has also become a very good friend and is someone I can trust – no price on that!
Lunches – as in any major city, there are so many places to choose from and you can eat well “North American style” for between $10 – $12 per head, or “Cuban style” (still excellent) for no more than $5 each.
Let’s do the Maths here:
Accommodation: 3 nights @ $45 $135
Breakfasts: 2 @ $5 each X 2 people $ 20
Lunches: use “International” style – 2 @ $15 X 2 people $ 60
Dinners: again International style – 3 @ $ 25 X 2 people $150
Taxi: 4 days @$40 plus fuel $40 (max) + tip $40 $230
Entrance fees museums, etc. – maybe included on official tours $ 40
TOTAL $635 per couple
I know there is no “classic car” ride here but you can take a ride in one along the Malecon for about $15 if you wish. If you do that once, it will be enough. I did it once on one of my trips and that was fine for me. It’s such a historic and, in many parts, beautiful city that it’s much better to walk anyway.
So let’s round it up to $650 – $700 for the 4 days, 3 nights as opposed to almost $1,400 for the guided tour.
Do I think we had the most fun? Yes.
I guarantee you that we would have had more fun, been able to see what we wanted to see when we wanted to see it, eat wherever, whenever and whatever we wanted. We also saw places that the guides won’t show you.
Wouldn’t you like to do the same?
You can do much of what I did without speaking Spanish, but again, with the language, I felt much more in control of our situation and it is so much easier. Maybe you should check it out….