Is Cuba an LGBT friendly destination? – I inevitably wondered while booking my trip to Cuba. I was traveling there with my partner, and although we have visited and even lived in countries where homosexuality is punishable by law, Cuba has a record for limited civil liberties. We didn’t know what to expect. Although the booking of this trip required a bit of extra effort, I must say that it is all worth it! There is still a ton of stuff to do in Cuba, and is filled with different kinds of people. In this post I highlight some things you might not know about Cuba, like it’s rich history, tropical paradises, virgin beaches, picturesque countrysides, vintage cars, kind locals and of course, some gay friendly spots.
Booking and preparing the trip was a bit complicated because you can’t just book a hotel room online using the typical booking sites we are all so used to nowadays. Finding accommodation in Cuba is challenging; later on I would learn this lack of online presence is due to both, the way things work in Cuba, where most businesses are fully or partially owned by the government, and because of the lack of internet access in the country. So the best way to go about it is to find a travel agency that works with Cuba. There are many specialized agencies that can help you organize your trip to Cuba and this does not necessarily mean buying full package – which many do – but making an itinerary tailored to your needs, which is what we did. These type of agencies can also help you get the tourism card, a sort of visa that everyone going to Cuba must apply and pay for, many accommodations required this document at the moment of booking.
With the help of our Parisian agency the entire trip was all sorted. They provided excellent tips for accommodation that did not disappoint. We made sure to let them know we are a couple of gays traveling for the first time to Cuba, and they were reassuring that we will not encounter any problems at all. “We have a lot of gay customers,” they told us. To be sure, your nerdy traveler certainly did some research before departure. Having lived and grown up in conservative South America for many years during late 80s and 90s; I have a pretty clear notion of the regional reality in Latin America where machismo is prevalent and the Catholic Church has a big influence over the society. It is true that some countries in South America like Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil have opened up a lot to LGBT issues, allowing civil unions and some even marriage equality. But the situation in less developed Central America and the Caribbean is different, as so many of my Latino friends had told me.
The information I found regarding the issue was very interesting. Immediately after the Cuban revolution, in the early 60s and even until the 70s, Fidel Castro’s regime jailed and prosecuted all dissidents, many of whom ended up in labor camps. Homosexuals advocates suffered the same faith. Gay men in particular were taken by force and sent to these camps to live in terrible conditions. Some survived this nightmare and are able to tell their stories today.
Cuban society started to liberalize in the 90s. Although prosecution and antipathy towards gays continued to some extent. According to reports from Human Rights Watch, even in 1997 harassment of homosexuals continued, as the government regularly raided nightclubs known to have gay clientele and allegedly beating and detaining dozens of patrons. Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar was reported to be among several hundred people detained in a raid on Havana’s most popular gay disco in this period.
But things finally started to change in the last decade. While Fidel Castro put gay men in labor camps, today his niece Mariela Castro, daughter of current president and Raul Castro; is leading the LGBT movement in Cuba. Mariela Castro is the director of the National Center for Sexual Education, and under her watch many campaigns to educate the population about LGBT issues have been successfully launched. In 2005, she proposed a project to allow transgender people to receive sex reassignment surgery and change their legal gender. The measure became law in June 2008 which allows sex change surgery for Cubans without charge.
With our trip all booked and a decent amount of research done, we were ready to go! First impression of Cuba was the airport. From then onwards it all felt like being transported to the past. The reality of a country with no WiFi hit me immediately like a time-warp at the airport “VIP louge” – it was more like a waiting room in a very ran down public office somewhere in the 70s. Where we waited for the suitcases for over one hour. Prepare yourself to be patient in Cuba.
Once out of the airport it all becomes worth it. You forget you need internet, and you just marvel yourself with the particular beauty of everything, the people, the climate, the nature, the cars… oh yeah, the old classic American cars that have become a symbol of Cuba since the revolution and the trade embargo. Our 1930s car and chatty driver were waiting for us ready to take us to our accommodation in Havana. Well advised by our agency, we decided to stay in the old residential area of Havana where the rich traders used to live.
El Vedado area is more quiet and laid back – also more clean – than Havana Centro or the touristy Old Havana. Also they recommended us to stay in what they call Casa Particular, which are old family houses transformed into small hotels. Big hotels in Havana are extremely ran down and their standards may disappoint you. We were definitely not disappointed by our Casa Particular in El Vedado. An old colonial style villa, well maintained with a beautiful garden, excellent breakfast and vintage furniture. El Vedado is full of them, most of which were abandoned by their owners escaping the revolution and now they are transformed into communal living complexes, schools, hospitals, or government agencies. Unfortunately, most of the properties are in very bad condition, as most of Havana is, except for the most touristy spots in Old Havana. So the feeling in the neighborhood is sometimes a bit eerie, nevertheless, after visiting other more central areas of the city, we were happy to have this incredible villa in a quiet neighborhood.
Havana Centro and Old Havana are areas you definitely need to see. Something you must do is get a ride or five along the Malecon in a classic convertible. There are plenty of colors to choose; from pink to shinny green, to vibrant purple. So be as gay as you want. But also be prepared, because Havana at times feels a bit chaotic. To be fair, lots of efforts are being done in certain parts of the city, mainly for tourism purposes. Havana is beautiful and colorful; but as your @hunky traveler always does anywhere he goes, I escaped from the crowds of tourists. As soon as you trail off a couple of blocks or streets, you start seeing the real Havana and how people in the Cuban capital really live.
Walking in Old Havana, on our first day it was hot, busy and many people try to sell things to you, most are fake and illegal, especially cigars. I could notice more than a couple of transgender people and some gays too. We were curious, so back at the hotel we ask for access to internet to check out gay apps, of course. Actually WiFi and mobile internet is just starting to develop in Cuba, people have smart phones and computers, but they have to log into a national server to access the web. It is a terrible system and it doesn’t always work. But, if you want to try, you must buy cards that give you a pincode and access to a very slow and frustrating internet in certain hotspots for one hour only. You can buy many cards if you want… which I did.
First sign of openness towards gays was the fact that our gay apps were not blocked as I personally experienced in some Middle Eastern and Gulf countries. They worked slowly indeed, but they worked. It was great to be able to talk with some locals, some of whom were extremely friendly. It was Saturday and we were immediately invited to a party. As we learned later, the gay scene in Havana is vibrant and well organized. Perhaps more discreet and less advertised than in other more open countries, but surprisingly developed. There are many gay parties going on regularly. Location varies, as many use established clubs, for instance, to have a gay night once a month or so. Cafe El Cantante was the venue that evening, a well known “disco” not far from our area. The place was packed and the ambience was friendly and festive. Cubans are really friendly and festive people. It was a great chance to taste a bit the scene in this special country, but after a couple of drinks the jetlag was more powerful than our party spirit. We had some busy days coming ahead of us.
Cuba has a lot to offer and to me the best part of this trip wasn’t actually the city, but the countryside and the beach. Cuban countryside is gorgeous, and clean, much cleaner than Havana. With your hotel in Havana you can easily organize day trips outside the city in vintage classic cars, an experience indeed, highly recommended. But the Island of Cuba is quite big and if you want to see more than Havana I suggest to take your time to explore. To the very east side you have the famous city of Santiago de Cuba, historically significant for its colonial past and stronghold of the Cuban revolution.
To the west of the island you have the amazing region of Pinar del Rio, my personal favorite. Most famous in this area is the Vinales valley, with its amazing rock formations, caves and gorgeously exuberant landscapes. There are different things you can do in this region. We were fortunate enough to be put in touch, by our Casa Particular in Havana, with an amazing tour guide in Vinales. They took us to all the interesting places but also got us off the tourist trail. We ended up spending a whole afternoon in an organic farm drinking rum, eating pineapples and smoking “Puros” – handmade artisanal Cuban cigars – with a family of local farmers. Probably one the highlights of the whole trip for me.
Of course, the beach must be in your itinerary if you visit Cuba. The island has its pristine Caribbean sea coast to the south and the clear warm waters of the Florida Strait to the north. There is plenty of incredible virgin beaches all around Cuba, however the access to many of them is difficult.
The tourism industry in Cuba is highly regulated and controlled by the government, as pretty much everything else in Cuba. This means a very poor infrastructure in these regards. Only a few spots in the island have been chosen for development of tourism, and others with great potential are inaccessible or with no infrastructure for tourism, like hotels. The most developed and well known resort town with an incredible beach is Varadero. With its special status as economic zone specialized in tourism, the long beach of Varadero is full with options for accommodation, and the town is vibrant with shops, bars and restaurants.
Bear in mind though, that the standards in Cuba are not at the same level than elsewhere. Choose carefully your accommodation, as many places can be very ran down. We were well advised by our Parisian agency and we were very pleased with Paradisus Hotel in Varadero. Your hunky traveler normally tries to avoid big-resort-styled hotels, which are normally full of families and kids. In this case there were no other options and because it wasn’t high season in Varadero. Winter is when Canadians and Russians invade Varadero which has its own international airport. The whole experience turned out to be very unique and relaxing!
Of course we made friends with one of the gay staffers working at the hotel at the beach and got interesting insights about being gay in Cuba. I have to rank Varadero within my top #5 best beaches in the world, and I have been to really amazing beaches. And I actually really enjoyed the whole resort all-included experience. Big breakfast, then a bit of beach, then gym, then lunch, then beach again, then dinner with amazing sunset and repeat the next day. Of course, after three days I was done, I needed to get back to civilization. Also the whole lack of internet was killing meeeee.
Food for Thought
It was the last day in paradise, next day we were flying back home to Paris. As I reflected… To me, knowing the reality of a racist and classist Latin America, to have found out that something good that came out of the Communist Revolution in Cuba is a society with no distinction of class or race. Cubans are white, black, aboriginal, Asian, and all sort of mixes that make their population uniquely beautiful. Also, being able to speak Spanish makes things so much easier!
But the truth is Cuban people likely have very hard lives, and most of whom I talked to are very frustrated and tired with their government and system. They have no freedoms, the country is in bad state and they can’t have access to what we all consider modern day life amenities. It is true they can have good education and healthcare for free, but they can’t travel, they make little money and they can’t open or start their own business, not to mention zero freedom of speech. Certainly the country has so much potential and it’s people deserve so much better.
As Cuba was able to overcome other social issues like class or race, so prevalent in Latin America, I am hopeful that they will also move forwards in issues concerning LGBT people. At the moment, and after what I learned during my visit, there are no legal sanctions against LGBT people in Cuba, and although many prefer to keep a discreet profile, there is indeed a change in the way people view homosexuality, and the population appears to be more tolerant. This does not mean the end of discrimination and homophobia which is very strong in Latin American macho culture. Interestingly, lesbians or gays do not consider fighting for the right to marriage a priority. This has to do with the fact that the institution of marriage in Cuba does not have the same value that it has elsewhere. As a communist regime, both married or unmarried people enjoy equal rights. So it’s safe to say Cuba has become more LGBT friendly, and it has made great strides in terms of giving visibility.
Cuba was an amazing experience that I’ll never forget. I was struck by the beauty of the people there. Cubans are a wonderful mix of friendly and happy people that all contribute to the rich culture this country offers. Even if half your heart isn’t in Havana, it’s still very easy to fall in love with Cuba. There’s a lot do, a ton of history and all types of places to check out, including some gay friendly ones. Exploring the countryside and beaches make an adventure in themselves. If you’re able to visit this restricted paradise, book a trip with your local travel agent and let me know how it goes.
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