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Tobi in Viñales, Cuba with the taxidriver and friend Leonardo

In November 2013, we “wheelchairtravelled” Cuba for one month. It was interesting, that even though we did not meet other wheelchair travellers, we noted that disabled people are – like in Germany – a common site. In Cuba, an organisation called AKLIFIM works for the inclusion and integration of people with mobility disabilities. Due to the country’s socialistic philosophy, social engagement with the issue is very high. However, as you will read below, this does not generally translate to wheelchair accessible sights in Cuba.

How wheelchair accessible is Cuba?

Below, we provide a rating and explanation of what we deem as the most important categories- from 1 (Very Bad) to 10 (Excellent):

Transport – 5 points

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Not the best choice for all wheelchair users: the yellow coco taxis in Habana de Cuba.

Thanks to a very generous present from the Canadian government, Cuba has a pretty advanced airport, with walkways or fingers that directly reach the airplanes. Cabin wheelchairs and assistants are also available. However, these facilities might not be on offer for all inland flight destinations and should be verified beforehand. Buses in Havana are accessible but usually so full that it is often difficult impossible to get in. Other public transport options, such as Bicitaxis (tricycles) or motorised, three-wheel Coco-taxis, are only an option if you can transfer yourself easily or stand for a short period of time. We travelled in private taxis which were organised by our accommodation. Some private taxis are vehicle old-timers, which are beautiful to watch, but which have a rather high entry point, very soft sitting and, most of the time, no safety belts. Modern cars are available. Prices for private taxis are usually high but negotiable.

Infrastructure- 5 points

The streets of Cuba are much better than their reputation would have you believe. The tarred roads are in good shape and most potholes are filled up with gravel quickly. All cities have sidewalks, even though the width varies greatly. Also in Havana, some crossings have ramps. However, where ramps are missing, Cubans are always willing to help. Most museums are located in historic buildings and therefore have very limited access for wheelchair users. We only found the old town centre of Trinidad a real challenge. The streets are steep and the old cobblestones are a nightmare for wheelchair users and assistants. The sidewalks were narrow, tilted and with steps.

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A must for all historians – a nogo for all wheelchair users: Trinidads historical center.

Hotels – 7 points

In Cuba, accommodation options can be divided into two categories – five star hotels or resorts and the so-called Casa Particulares: The five star hotels and resorts, which are exclusively accessible for international tourists, always have fully standardised accessible rooms. However, if we stayed only in this type of accommodation, we would have ended our journey much earlier due to financial constraints. A much better alternative are the Casa Particulares private rooms which only cost around 25 Cook Convertibles (18 Euro). Many also provide very reasonable and delicious breakfasts and dinners for a minimal extra charge. But the biggest advantage of this type of accommodation is that it enables you to meet Cubans. The owners are always willing to provide tourist information, arrange transport and, most often, also the next place to stay. Most bathrooms are rather small and might have a step to get into. However, as each accommodation is different, you can find something that suits you. To facilitate the search, we listed some accessible ‘Casa Particulares’ on www.wheelchairtraveller.org.

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In many casa particulares (like at Yaime y Manolito, Playa Larga) you feel like part of the family.

Food and Drinks – 6 points

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Tasty cinnemon pankaces enrich the breakfast at Yaime y Manolito, Playa Larga.

Due to recent reforms of the Cuban legislation for the tourist industry, some restrictions for private restaurants have been lifted. This has led to an improvement in the quality of food on offer. Even though the choice of options might still be small, due to limited supply of ingredients, you can enjoy some exceptional meals. For example. in Viñales we enjoyed an excellent Italian dinner in ‘La Oliva’.
The Casa Particulares serve simple but very tasty dishes: Chicken, shrimps or fish with rice and beans, fruits and some kind of a salad are standards. The portions are huge. The meals are similar in all Casa Particulares, but some provide a speciality such as mussel soup or pancakes for breakfast. We need to admit that after a four week stay in Cuba we felt like we were in a ‘Michelin’ restaurant the first night dining out in Mexico city.

Security – 10 points

The first impression of Havana at night might seem unsafe. Due to electricity saving measures, streets are very sparsely lit. Pedestrians and wheelchair users need to be careful on the roads, as most bicitaxis and old-time taxis drive without lights. However, this is all that you need to be afraid of. The criminality in Cuba is almost nil – unbelievable if you consider that what tourists easily spend in a day, an ordinary Cuban will earn in a month. We only heard of some pick-pocketing at very touristy sights. Most prices are fixed (an exception is, for example, private taxis). However, especially in the beginning, you can get the Cuban pesos and the Cuban convertibles mixed up. At one stage, I paid 30 convertibles for an item when it was supposed to be Cuban pesos (1/25th of the price). The vendor did not make me aware of my mistake and probably took it as a gift for the day.

Sight seeing – 7 points

Even though the lobby group AKLIFIM is very active in Cuba, it has not yet succeeded in achieving full accessibility for all places of interest. As many museums are in historic buildings, access for wheelchair users is only partial or, in some cases, not at all possible. But the Cuban people try to make up for it by being extremely helpful. For example, they pushed me through half of the old town of Trinidad, which considering the ancient cobblestones, is really hard labour. The entrance fees are most of the time so low that it does not matter that wheelchair users and their assistants are always fully charged. Most of the natural wonders in Cuba can be accessed via car or with the help of Cubans.

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The Cubans help where they can – over steps, stairs and pumpy sidewalks.

Health services – 8 points

Farmacias Internacionales, which can only be used by international tourists, are available in most of the big cities. However, these are not comparable to fully stocked European pharmacies. It is therefore advisable to stock up on the medicines that you need before coming to Cuba. For example, for me it was impossible to get distilled water, which I need for my breathing machine. Other health services (doctors, hospitals) are very good and mostly free of charge. Doctors are well educated and speak English. If you have diarrhoea, the hospital might keep you for 12 hours to ensure that you are not suffering from cholera. However, most hotels can help you to access a doctor, who will come directly to your room.

Handling of wheelchair users – 10 points

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Tobi exploring the caves of Viñales with the Cuban taxidriver Leonardo

Cubans are exceptionally helpful. For example, the taxi driver Leonardo, who declared upon our first meeting: ‘In Vinales you will be able to do anything that people not bound to a wheelchair are doing’. And he kept his promise. Six people lifted me into a boat for an excursion of the caves and, another time, the wheelchair, with me seated on it, was lifted into a horse carriage so that I could join my sister for a horse ride. At other times during our journey when we needed assistance, there were always helpful Cubans at our side who didn’t expect compensation for their services. At one stage, an 80 year-old, 1.4 metre high señora even stepped out of her house at night to “guard” me, while I was waiting for my sister.

Our verdict:

Cuba is wheelchair accessible – not necessarily due to its infrastructure but especially due to the helpful and hospitable Cubans, who made our stay unforgettable.