I used to take refreshing cold tap water, hot deep baths, and high-pressure water for granted. That was before I caught parasites, learned that most hotels in Cuba have no bathtubs, and was introduced to bathing with a bucket.
Most common sense short-term travelers to Cuba successfully avoid Montezuma’s Revenge while on holiday by following a few simple rules. Stick to bottled water, avoid ice, and steer clear of and fruits and vegetables that may have been washed in unfiltered/untreated water. Back in my first full winter working in Cuba, I once took a solo bike ride to a mountain waterfall and neglected to bring sufficient drinking water to last for the return. To quench my thirst I resorted to drinking from the river that was fed by the waterfall, and learned (the hard way) within days that that was a great way to introduce my Canadian digestive tract to previously unknown parasites. In Cuba it’s rare that you’ll find any restaurant serving free water, and the very few restaurants that do offer it serve mostly a Cuban clientele. Expect to shell out $1 or so for bottled water at Cuban restaurants if that’s your beverage of choice. I think the national policy for visitors is “better safe than sorry”. My second experience with parasites here was quite a few years later, and came from my penchant for raw vegetables, Chinese green beans to be exact. By this time I’d been drinking San Miguel del Padron municipal tap water for years so thought I’d built up the same immunities that most Cubans have to any local bacteria. But with rectal bleeding and weakness unlike anything I’d ever experienced before, I thought I was dying (I have a tendency to overreact to minor health scares). When the hospital did an analysis of my stool sample, they told me I had abundant parasites. After a few days of eating plain yogurt, mineral water and roasted chicken with no fat, plus taking my daily doses of the medications they prescribed I was back to normal. Most hotels and tourist restaurants in Cuba have commercial water filtration systems in their kitchens and bars. But I wouldn’t necessarily count on their ice makers also using filtered water. If you’re particularly sensitive, to avoid any uncertainty over the source of the water used to wash fruits and vegetables, the safest choices are those that you can peel.
Most Cubans can’t afford to buy bottled water for daily consumption. In Guanabo where we live now, the municipal water has a low salt content. We have a cistern at our house that has a capacity for a month’s worth of fresh water, delivered by truck. Once a week we pump the water up to two tanks that we have on our roof, and the water is then fed to our house by gravity. For our weekly fresh drinking water supply we visit a local house that has a well, licensed and regularly inspected by Public Health officials. We usually add a few drops of chlorine for drinking water as an additional safety measure. Many Cubans go to the effort of boiling and then refrigerating their tap water before ingesting it.
Over the years I’ve listened to various complaints from tourists about intermittent hot water at their hotels. Most Cubans don’t have running hot water in their homes. Before I married my Cuban husband my brother & I shared an apartment in a state-run aparthotel. It had an electric on-demand hot water heating system in the shower that we regularly had the hotel maintenance staff in to adjust. You could be in the middle of a shower and the water would suddenly come out cold. Once my brother was getting a shower and I heard a sudden thud and then nothing but the water running. Alarmed, I knocked on the door and asked him if everything was OK. No answer. I was not especially keen on barging into the bathroom and seeing my adult brother naked, but after what seemed like a couple of minutes of me calling with no response, I tried the door and it was locked. About a minute later he made his appearance and I learned that he had reached up to fiddle with one of the knobs on the electric shower device and received a shock so strong that he couldn’t speak for several minutes. Few if any hotels nowadays use these systems, but quite a few Cuban homes have varying versions of the hot water on demand electric showers. Those that aren’t that lucky do what I did when I first married my husband. You fill up a bucket about 2/3 of the way with water from the tap (which is only truly cold here, by the way, during a December/January cold front). Then you heat up a pot of hot water and fill up the bucket the rest of the way. To get clean, you pour some of the warm water over yourself to get wet, then soap up/shampoo, and pour what’s left over you to rinse off. That “nipply” period between soaping up and rinsing off can be pure torture if it’s during a winter cold snap. You just can’t appreciate the luxury of continuous hot running water until you’ve experienced one of these bucket showers.
When my husband built his home in San Miguel del Padron he only plumbed it with cold water pipes. Back then the state was not selling hot water heaters to the population and noone dreamed that would change anytime soon. When we had a problem with a leaking pipe in our bathroom at one point we had to rip up the floor to fix it. Deprived of a bathtub for years and desperate for a soak every once in awhile, I had the bricklayer install a short tub that would fit into our relatively small bathroom. My husband thought I was crazy because most homes in Cuba were ripping out their old tubs and replacing them with modern showers. Maybe I was a little off my rocker because I only ended up using the tub a handful of times. A short tub that you have to manually fill with water heated on a stove is just a pain in the neck. Moreover, when I tried to lie down and envelop my body in the warm water with which I’d worked so hard to fill the tub, there was nowhere to put my legs. Not quite the relaxing spa experience I’d wanted to create.
When our family began to expand and the seams of our house started to burst, we built a new home outside of the city. This time we plumbed it with pipes for hot & cold water. And the state now sells hot water tanks, so that’s a big bonus. It takes at least 20 minutes to fill the tub because the taps we have were designed for a pressure water system, not gravity-fed plumbing. And the hot water capacity of our tank isn’t quite enough to cover my boobs in our narrow tub, but I can lie down in it and stretch out my legs. My husband can even squeeze in and when he does, the water level rises enough to submerge all my parts. Ahhhhhhh, after all these years, finally a satisfying bathtub experience. Or as close as I’m going to get to one in Cuba.
Cuba’s water conservation campaign slogan is “Gota a gota, el agua se agota” = “Drop by drop, the water is drained”. I probably only use my tub once a month tops. If I used it on a more regular basis I’d feel guilty for wasting water. So the next time you turn on your tub and fill it in three minutes with gushing hot water, and drink cold water right out of the tap, remember that for a lot of people in the world those are luxuries. Going without has really made me appreciate them.