Cuban Holiday By Wheelchair
by Mary MacDonald 1997

Mary MacDonald majored in international development studies with an emphasis on Latin America. She plans to pursue a graduate program in Latin American studies. Recently, she  traveled from Canada to Cuba with a companion to explore this famous island.

Despite the pessimistic warnings given in mainstream travel guides about inaccessibility, etc., I was determined to visit Cuba while using a manual wheelchair. Accessible hotels do exist in Cuba, and with good planning a very positive travel experience can be enjoyed. What is required is a positive attitude and an open mind about the realities. Cuba is a developing country with limited resources. However, this is compensated for by its natural beauty and by the exceptional attitude of its people. An able-bodied traveling companion is recommended for a wheelchair user who plans to visit the island. I visited Varadero and Havana last year and am currently planning a return visit in the near future. I am pleased to share my travel insights with Global Access readers.

The vast majority of visitors to Cuba arrive on charter "package tours" from Canada and Europe. I arrived in Varadero, Cuba on a charter flight from Canada. A wheelchair user should expect to be carried on and off the plane by airport personnel who do this task on a regular basis. The Varadero airport is accessible, except for the lack of  outdoor curb cuts. Because of U.S. embargo restrictions, U.S. citizens who wish to visit Cuba for a holiday must travel there via a second country, usually Canada, the Bahamas, or Mexico.

While in Varadero, I stayed at the Melia Varadero, which is situated directly on the beach. Varadero is a tourist-oriented beach resort situated 120 kilometers east of Havana. Tel: 53-5) 667013, Fax: (53-5) 667162. Rates: 175-200 USD per night..

The Melia is a large hotel with fully accessible facilities and property. The only exception to this is the narrow width of their bathroom doors. A short flight of stairs leads from the hotel property down onto the beach. About 500 yards from the hotel is a modern shopping plaza where my companion and I walked regularly. There were no curb cuts at the entrance to the plaza, however, this was easily overcome because there were always Cubans around who were quite willing to help. On occasion we took a taxi to the centre of town where a small outdoor plaza was situated. Again, the only obstacles were lack of curbs, and this posed no significant problem. Escorted day tours by bus were available from our hotel to various locations around Cuba.

I experienced no accessibility problems in Varadero. Havana is not a wheelchair accessible city, however, I would note that Cubans are very friendly and helpful in assisting to overcome barriers.

It should be noted that Cuban tourist buses are not wheelchair accessible. A wheelchair user may wish to explore other options, such as renting a car or traveling by taxi. Car rentals are very expensive in Cuba. My companion and I took a taxi from Varadero to Havana at a cost of $95.00 USD one-way.

Old Havana is an historical treasure and a designated U.N. World Heritage site. The Spanish colonial architecture results in an inaccessible environment; however, with careful planning this should not be an insurmountable obstacle.

Several hotels in Havana offer varying grades of accessibility. The hotel Palco and Melia Cohiba are recommended for accessibility. Others include the hotel Havana Libre and hotel Chateau. The charges for hotels are in the range of 100 to 200USD per night, depending on the rating of the facility. The Melia Cohiba is the most modern and costly of these.

The Cuban organization for the physically disabled, ACLIFIM, is located on Ermita St. in Havana. Cubans are making every effort within their means to improve accessibility. These efforts are limited by lack of funding and resources. The U.S. embargo does not improve the situation. Due to financial constraints, which impact all levels of daily life, Cubans have a well-developed philosophy of solidarity. Simply stated, this solidarity is an ethic and practice of lending assistance when needed. These attributes were instrumental in overcoming barriers with my wheelchair.

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