... the following letter was sent by us to LP after using the (then) fresh off the press LP Cuba in July 2004. We still did not hear from them.
We have been avid travelers for the most part of our lives and cumulatively have entry stamps from over 140 countries to boast. For the past 10 years, we have primarily used Lonely Planet to aid travels around the world (see attached picture of subset of LP library).
Imagine our surprise and disappointment when we toured Cuba in June with the LP Cuba (2004 edition). We have never been let down more by a travel guide in our entire lives. Of course, things change ... prices go up ... schedules evolve; but never have we seen a guide so off the mark. Here are a few reasons why LP Cuba is simply the worst guide we have ever used:
1/ Biased Politics -
Authors love for Cuba makes them overlook many negative aspects of both Cuban society and travel in Cuba. Neither of us are Americans and we do not support the American government sanction on Cuba or Americans traveling there. However, we fail to see the need to vilify each U.S. government action while simultaneously painting a picture of the perfect socialist State. True, Cuba has some of the best social indicators in the Americas - but please also point out the "Dollar is King" economy, the sad "apartheid" regime, which allows clubs/bars/cafés/restaurants and even whole islands with some of the country's best beaches to be exclusive domain of just tourists. How could the authors marvel at social indicators when you could sit at Hotel Inglaterra's patio, sip a mojito and gaze at the Cubans who cannot enter?
2/ Biased Interpretations of Dangers -
The section on Warnings, Scams, and Travel Advisory is the skimpiest we have ever seen. Why? Cuba still might be the safest destination to be in the Americas, but that's not saying much is it? Both my friend and I (and an informal survey pointed to over 70% of the tourists) were subject to daring robberies by some very skilled "jintero's" (our advice: please do NOT give rides to anyone - other than old people or women with small children - especially if crossing the circumference of metro Havana going from A1 to A4 highway). We never thought it would happen to two skilled travelers - but it did. As our informal survey indicates, our later conversation with many travelers indicated many who had been robbed, mugged, conned, etc. during their travels and almost all agreed to have let their guards down due to the lax coverage of security by the authors. In future editions of LP Cuba, PLEASE do not call "jintero's" as charming Cubans who need to be told off and do not write that the best solution is to become friends with one! Perhaps the author's personal experience(s) with a "jintero" clouded their ability to make rational judgements? "Jintero's" are EXTREMELY dangerous!
Furthermore, the authors fails to point out the many tourist traps in most of the tourist towns - especially in Trinidad.
3/ Biased Interpretation of Bureaucracy -
Why is their no comprehensive section which deals with the level of bureaucracy and corruption that each tourist must face while vacationing in Cuba? In our experience, we were stunned at the need to pay bribes at the airport, at the car rental place (our advice: please plan from before and avoid the Transtur car rental agency in Copacabana Hotel near Miramar or going through Canadian agent A. Nash Travel Inc. in Ontario). After our robbery, we spent many hours in a police station trying to get a report done but it seemed that no one was willing to help. After having spoken to more than 10 officers over the period of 2 days, our report miraculously appeared when a $10 bill was slipped between our passports. I mean, don't get us wrong - from extensive traveling and by the virtue of one of the letter writers being from India, we KNOW bureaucracy and corruption - but Cuba took the game to a whole new level. Again for some reason, the authors were completely off the mark.
4/ General Info, Maps, Prices, Numbers, Layouts -
Prices go up; inflation is a part of daily lives. But how do you explain almost 200% price hikes between what's printed and the reality? These numbers are especially depressing given a/ this edition was hot off the press b/ the official inflation was running below 5-10% band c/ we traveled in low season and the prices listed were for high season. Our hunch that the authors never actually checked the prices and conduct the required background work was confirmed as we asked all the places we stayed at and NONE had the authors visit them in over 4 years!
Worse than prices are phone numbers and access codes. I challenge the authors to call the numbers in the book - I am willing to buy them a plane ticket if calling the numbers gives the right destination more than 50% of the time. I know that's a low expectation rate to give someone a plane ticket, but that is exactly how inaccurate this guide is. E.g. try calling the numbers in Cayo Santa Maria. We asked the Department of Telecommunication if there had been any recent systematic changes in the telephone numbers and they answered in the negative.
Outside these 2 main sub thematic issues, the maps in LP Cuba were highly inaccurate. One of our favourite reminders of Cuba was coming across many tourists at major junctions looking at the maps from LP Cuba trying to make some sense. Another was when we were driving through Santa Clara for one hour in search for a recommended wellness/massage place that does not exist anywhere close to where it is marked on the map (actually, none of the Cubans we have been asking has ever heard of the place). Furthermore, the new layout made it VERY hard to find things. Please go back to the old layout - it made more sense. I don't know if other readers had gripes but it was very complex going back and forth as opposed to the ease of the last format.
Our hope from this letter is to encourage Lonely Planet to conduct a systematic review of their guide to Cuba. Moreover, it is to remind to LP that irrespective of their disclaimers, tourists do depend on them and basic expectations warrant the authors to conduct thorough investigations before sending a book to print. If there are any other questions, both of us are available via the internet to answer them. We sincerely hope LP takes our feedback into consideration and incorporates them into the next edition of its travel guide to Cuba.