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Often when traveling people seem to check safety awareness at the same time as departing from home. It is natural to want to relax, and experience new things, enjoy foreign culture, and see things people would never see at home. Sometimes travelers take for granted that the standards for safety they enjoy in their native countries are also enforced in Cuba. Sometimes strong drink, peer pressure, or other things influence the traveler to do things they would not at home attempt. Whatever the reason it is so, the fact remains a traveler should be more aware than ever of unsafe conditions and situations while abroad.
Cuba is a very safe place in many ways. Crime is nearly unheard of, they don't have a concept of crime as it exists in other countries. Most resorts are built in partnership with foreign investors and with tourism in mind, so fire alarms, fire extinguishers and other safety devices and procedures are in place on the resorts. The people are so friendly and helpful a traveler can count on being offered assistance in most places, even at the side of roads if you should take a break from scootering or biking. Cuba is well policed, with road safety enforced as well or better than many of the home countries of visitors. Because ownership of a vehicle is not a common thing, those that do own them take very good care, and drive carefully to avoid accidents and problems. All these things help to make Cuba a very safe place to visit.
Where safety is most apparently lacking or lax is on "adventures", or excursions. In many of the travelers home countries "adventures" and theme park rides are strictly regulated, inspected, and governed. The spirit of adventure and danger are simulated, but the traveler in the back of the mind knows that the danger is not real. In Cuba, one does not know the level of inspection, the safety laws, or the training involved in those offering adventure tours. It is therefore important for the traveler to use good judgement. Even if it means perhaps forfeiting the fee paid, the life saved, or the injury avoided cannot be measured in pesos.
In general the scooters seen were very well maintained. The Cuban government has introduced a mandatory helmet law for scooters, though not for passengers. Request a helmet for the passenger, and if it is not provided, don't go! Many people who have never driven a motorized two wheel vehicle (motorcycle or scooter or dirt bike) suddenly decide it would be "fun" to pay a small amount of money and take off on a scooter for several hours. Frankly the Cubans running the scooter concessions at the entrance to resorts are more interested in revenue than in the competence of the riders. The only requirement appears to be the driver must have a valid drivers licence from his home country and a passport. Training for novice riders consists of a few turns around the parking lot, then off down the roads you go. What a perfect recipe for an accident. Is it any wonder the Canadian Consulate has requested tour operators to discourage tourists from riding scooters in Cuba? The number of incidents (of all kinds) involving scooters has made it one of the most frequent problems that the consulate deals with or hears about.
Just because the roads of Cuba are not as heavily traveled as in more progressive countries, it does not mean it is the best place to learn how to handle a two wheel motorized device! The roads are in poor shape in many cases, with huge potholes, and washed out sections of pavement. Tour buses often only barely have room to pass each other on the road, meaning the roads are in some areas narrow, and a scooter is no more visible in Cuba than a motorcycle or scooter in other countries, meaning they are apt to be missed by a driver's vision, just as they are in other countries. Add to that the possible inexperience of the driver of the scooter and again you are begging for trouble.
By all means; if you are a comfortable motor bike driver in your own right, then feel free to use the scooters, you will be as safe as in your own home town, but if you are not, then give them a pass. Taxis are dirt cheap to hire, and while not as "adventurous" they will get you from point A to B in one piece. If it is the open air feeling you crave, and going down byways, and into towns and villages, then perhaps a horse drawn carriage is another alternative, again quite reasonable prices, and it comes with a driver who can give you some pointers of the significance of landmarks etc...
The roadways are not illuminated at night outside most of the resorts. They are dark, tree lined (in many cases the trees completely form a canopy over much of the road) and therefore have very limited visibility. If you do ride a scooter, for your own safety assure you are back well before dark. At all times of the day, and night, the sides of roads are traveled by horse and mule drawn wagons and carts, as well as bikes, and even clusters of pedestrians. Many of those have no illumination or reflective gear as would expected in at home. If you do find yourself caught in the dark, drive much slower than you normally would and be prepared for sudden stops.
In most countries it is mandatory to ride a bike with a helmet to mitigate head injury in the event of falling or being run into. In Cuba such does not seem to be the case. Numerous bikes were ridden around the resort and off resort, with no helmet in place. It is therefore safe to assume that either they do not offer helmets to riders, or riders do not choose to use them. If you plan to ride a bike (a great way to get around the larger resorts, and travel between some of the resorts that abut each other) then perhaps taking a helmet for each person who will be using the bike with you in your luggage is a good thing. Head injury is not restricted to your home country.
Unlike Canada for instance where many drivers ignore the presence of bikes, or view them as 'pests', most bus drivers, and taxis gave a wide berth to bikes which was refreshing to see. So the riding of a bike is not perhaps as dangerous as in you downtown city core at home. As with the scooter safety, riding after dark is not a good idea, especially off the resort. Not only is it hard to be seen, but you may find it hard to see pot holes, and other problems on the roadway.
Most beaches you will be swimming at will have lifeguards. That said there are going to be hundreds and hundreds of people on the beach, in the water, and frankly a lifeguard cannot be watching every person every minute. A child (or an adult) can drown in as little as a few inches of water. Drinking and swimming are not a good mix, especially if you over-imbibe, and then decide to go for a dip. The more alcohol is consumed the less safety awareness seems to be involved. Know your own limits! For children going about the beach and pool, remember to bring a well fitted life jacket from home. Do not expect one to be available (some resorts may have them, but they may not be well fitted or "approved" to home standards). Plastic water wings are fine for closely supervised children, but are not adequate if you plan to be involved in reading, sunbathing, or conversations while your child plays in the sand! Another good idea is to have a whistle affixed to the life jacket so if the child is in trouble they can draw attention to themselves by blowing on it.
If you go on a peddle boat, kayak, or hobi-cat, ensure you and all your party have life vests. Should a strong wind, or tide carry you off or overturn you, having a life vest may save your life. They may available upon request (maybe even mandatory) when you sign out those water craft, but if they are not mandatory make it so by asking.
Some of the most enjoyable parts of your vacation in Cuba may involve a trip on a boat. Excursions to "Swim with the Dolphins" or "Paradise Island" or the "Sunset Cruise" as well as deep sea fishing and other trips involve taking a boat, often well off shore. Before they cast off, ensure there are enough life jackets for all in your party, and keep them near you at all times. Sure getting a tan is one of the great reasons for being out on the water, and many people are therefore reluctant to wear the vests. However that is no excuse for not having one very close at all times, even to rest your head on! (Don't sit on them as it compromises the effectiveness of the vest). It has been seen by several people that there are inadequate supplied of life jackets on some excursions, or if there are enough they are stowed inside the hull, where they will do no good at all in the event the boat capsizes or people are swept off the side (or fall off). Regulations may require the operators to have life jackets for all, but in practice, this may not be the case, so it is up to you to ensure your own safety. If you take children on those type of excursion, again bring your own life jacket for the child, because the ones on the boat may not fit at all well enough. Any child should be made to wear the jacket while on the boat.
Be aware as well, that lifeboats, that are required by maritime law in most countries are not on the Catamarans. Even though they go well out to sea (more than 1 KM offshore), with as many as 50 passengers, they do not have the self inflating life rafts one sees on nearly every vessel of any size in most other countries. Perhaps if people mention this as a safety concern to the tour operators at the resorts pressure may be put on the operators of the Cats and other boats to ensure they do have this safety feature.
At resorts, they use a system of "flags" to indicate the safety for swimming. This is not always the case off the resort. A mix of strong drink, and lack of attention for a second can have dangerous consequences. A person made the mistake of wading into a surf that appeared to be a couple of feet in height. It was hot, he had been drinking, and the cool water was inviting. Within a minute, a larger wave than the others broke not about his thighs as they had been doing, but completely over his head. Good swimmer as he may have been, he was tossed and thrown hither and yawn, by the tumultuous water. It was several minutes before he was able to drag himself out of the surf to the beach. He could have drown and it would have been his own stupidity, and lack of awareness (and safety knowledge) that caused it. The Cuban tour operators were not to blame, it was solely his own fault. BE AWARE the water is a very powerful element, Children, young adults, older persons, those under the influence, all can misjudge the playful waves, and be one minute playing in the water and in the next floundering. Use common sense.
The sun in Cuba can be an almost lethal weapon. The combination of brilliant sunshine, high humidity, and lack of hydration and in an incredibly short time can lead to dizziness, and sunstroke, or heat exhaustion. Wear a hat, or other head covering even when the sun seems obscured by clouds. Use sunscreen, even if you tan quickly, it is best to start out with some sunscreen. Failure to do so can lead to a few days indoors in considerable pain. People have had blistering burns in as little as an hour. Don't forget to put sunscreen in areas that maybe covered while you are ashore but might be exposed while snorkeling (a shirt is a good idea to wear while snorkeling but still put sunscreen on as it may 'ride up' or expose the neck etc... Take plenty of water with you to the beach or pool. Drink frequently, even if you do not feel all that thirsty, the body requires the water. Fruit juice, and even beer help to restore some electrolytes to the system (lost to sweat), so have some of that if offered at the beach or pool. Ensure children are drinking frequently, and are protected from the sun. Your vacation may be interrupted and miserable if your child has a severe burn.
Many excursions involve jeep safaris. They are wonderful ways to see parts of Cuba you don't see from roadways. Four wheel drive adventure is safe when done in a safe manner. Ensure your jeep has safety belts for all your party. Use them. Off road conditions are often very bumpy, and steep side inclines can cause people to lean far out of the vehicle. Bouncing about like a marble in a tin can is not the best way to enjoy yourself. If you feel the driver is going too fast, demand that he slow down. You may feel like you are being a wimp, may be reluctant to say anything especially if you are sharing the jeep with others. The thing is, only you can judge what YOU feel is safe. It is better to say something, and endure the scorn or wrath of others, than be hurt and wish you had said something. Other people in the jeep may not have the bad back condition you have, or other reason for wanting a slower less bouncy ride.
The tour operators have done these trips hundreds, maybe even a thousand times. They can get complacent about problems that can occur without even knowing it. Coming around a corner at high speed on a jungle trail and finding a sink hole that was not there on the last trip could cause a sudden halt, even an accident. Yes the driver knows what his vehicle is capable of, but you are paying him, and can and should request safe operation if you feel in real danger.
It boils down to common sense. Unfortunately as was pointed out at the beginning of this page, common sense often seems to be left at the front door to your home when you go on vacation. It really is required more when out and about than when you are at home. Accidents nearly always occur when least expected, because a lull comes over the traveler.
There is nothing in Cuba that is intrinsically more dangerous than in any other country in the world. There is not reason to be a hermit and stay on your resort in fear for your life. Enjoy one of the nicest, most friendly countries in the world, but do so with safety in mind. Going off the resort is a prerequisite in really finding the true Cuba. The Cuban people are a wonderful, happy, sharing people, and very educated compared to many Central American countries. Getting to know them off the resort is one of the true wonders of the trip.
Come home safe, sound and full of good memories. Don't come home in pain, wishing you had spoken up, or refused to take part in something you felt was unsafe.
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