Between our pre-trip research about Cuba and roaming around the island nation itself, we experienced lots of surprises, a little confusion, and loads of amazement. We discovered there was a bit of misinformation about certain aspects of Cuba and we, personally, had our own misconceptions about the country.
This post will dispel some of those misunderstandings and highlight some of our fascinations through a mixture of hard facts, first-hand accounts, and our two-cents. If you’re considering a trip to Cuba, this is what we thought were some of the most interesting facets of life to understand before your visit.
1. Cuba Is Still NOT Open to American Tourism
You may have heard the news on December 17, 2014, President Obama announced an ease in restrictions traveling to Cuba. More recently on July 1, 2015, the US publicized diplomatic ties have been restored and by mid-August the US Embassy had reopened for the first time since the 1950’s. Many people understand this all of this to mean that Americans can now freely travel to the once forbidden country.
At the time of writing (Jan 9, 2016), the embargo is still firmly in place, Americans are not allowed to travel to Cuba for tourism, and there are no commercial flights to or from the United States.
You can travel from the US to Cuba using a charter flight if you qualify for one of the twelve approved categories (e.g., family visits, journalistic activity, religious missions, etc.). Unfortunately, tourism is not one of those categories, which makes independent travel from the US a cumbersome and technically illegal process.
The ease in restrictions did open the door for “self-licensing” for one of the twelve approved categories. However, when we inquired about taking a charter flight from the US by self-licensing as journalists, we were stunned to discover that these charter flights were expensive, needed to be booked far in advance, and still required a fair amount cumbersome bureaucratic procedures (although it has lessened).
Thankfully, an agreement between Cuba and the US was announced on December 17, 2015, revealing that commercial flights between the two countries could resume. Several airlines are now scrambling to submit proposals to the US Department of Transportation in hopes of beginning commercial flights as soon as this year. So this provides a great outlook for Americans wanting to travel to Cuba, but as of today, commercial flights to Cuba still do not exist.
While you’re waiting for these direct commercial flights to Cuba to open up, there are still some workarounds for Americans to get into the country. This is how we may have slipped into Cuba. This method simply involves going into another country, such as Mexico, with separate onward flight plans into Cuba. We’ll spill on that in full detail during an upcoming post divulging our favorite Cuba Travel Tips.
2. Cuba is Building for Something Big
Arriving in Cuba, we were surprised to see so much construction throughout the country right now. In Havana nearly every major museum and hotel was under renovation. Many streets, thoroughfares and town squares were being revitalized. Fresh coats of paint were being slapped onto city walls where paint had once been peeling. The capital building was full of scaffolding.
Cuba is clearly getting ready for something and they want their country to look good. Perhaps they are getting ready for an influx of Americans when those aforementioned commercial flights finally begin running. Or maybe they’re even getting ready for the embargo to be lifted, in which even more Americans would likely flock back over to this tropical paradise. We’ll see if this prophecy comes to fruition, but with all of the construction going on in Cuba, it sure seemed that way to us.
3. Cuba Also Has Not-So-Classic Cars
Every photo of vehicles in Cuba that we’ve ever seen shows those beautifully restored classic American cars in all their glory against a beautifully crumbling building. Like many people, we’ve always been under the impression that Cuba is completely stuck in a time warp with absolutely no modern cars on its roadways.
With all of the fantastic photo opportunities to take pictures of shiny American classics, it’s easy to believe those are the only vehicles gracing Cuba. Spoiler alert: modern cars do exist in Cuba.
The reality is that those classic Fords and Chevy’s aren’t the only cars rolling through Cuba. I’d estimate that over half the cars in Havana are not classic American cars, which was a bit of a surprise to us. There was actually a very large mix of makes in models spanning across decades and from many different countries. These cars are driven by a mix of tourists (rental cars), government officials, tourism workers, and other fortunate Cuban residents.
The truth of the situation is that a 2009 Kia Optima just doesn’t make for a great photo op.
4. Dude, Where’s the Cars?
Speaking of cars, it was the lack of vehicles throughout Cuba that was a pleasant surprise. The absence of cars is a pretty stark contrast to what you’re likely accustomed to back home.
According to a 2008 WorldBank.org report, only 3.8% of the population have a car in Cuba (compared to about 81% in the US). For perspective, the chart below compares Cuba to a selection of nearby countries and visiting countries.
This absence of vehicles leads to many empty streets to amble down. Often locals and tourists alike walk right in the middle of most streets, although they were actually open to traffic. Many alleyways seem more like a pedestrian thoroughfare but people strolling through them soon realize that the alleyway is actually a road once they notice a car barreling through from behind them.
This lack of vehicles is refreshing throughout Cuba. And the clopping of horse hooves sounds a lot more pleasant than a loud exhaust pipe.
Of course, cars are thicker in Havana compared to other places in Cuba. But even in Havana, it was the least amount of traffic we’ve ever experienced in a capital city.
5. Discovering Casas Particulares
We almost always plan our accommodation in advance but when we got busy with things prior to our Cuba trip this was something we neglected until the day before our departure. We looked at the outrageous hotel prices in Havana ($300-$500 per night – yikes!) and quickly discovered that it would be in our best interest to instead stay at a “casa particular.” What a great decision!
So what exactly is a “casa particular?” Cuban residents can rent out an extra room in their home. They pay a monthly government tax and allow for regular government inspections to ensure the accommodation is up to par. We highly recommend staying at these “casas” not only because it’s economical but also to meet locals, put money directly in their hands, and simply to have a much fuller experience in Cuba.
For our upcoming stay in Havana, we simply called a woman whose number we found online. Using Skype and in my broken Spanish, we made a reservation by providing my first name along with some good faith. Upon arriving near the apartment in Havana, I heard “John” being hollered from a 3-floor balcony welcoming us and letting us know she’d be downstairs to let us in.
This casa particular (and all of them) was a perfect way to experience Cuban life. The hosts take care of you and look after you with a level of warmness that is atypical from anywhere else we’ve stayed in the world.
The rooms themselves can be pretty sparse and some casas were definitely better than others, yet they were always clean & tidy. But it’s the people and the experience staying there (not the amenities) that really sets them apart. Although all of the casas we stayed at did have hot water showers, air-conditioner, a private bathroom, and even personal refrigerators with minibar were standard! What else could you ask for? At only $25 per night, we found casa particulares to be of incredible value! It was fairly standard to have a huge breakfast for an additional $5 per person.
In our upcoming Cuba Tips post, we’ll be dishing out all our advice on where to find casa particulares and the best ways to book them.
6. What About the People in Cuba?
We really weren’t sure what to expect from the Cuban people. We had heard that Cubans are a friendly bunch. Yet just before we left we stumbled across a blog post or two that was contrary to this sentiment. We also read about pesky jinteneros (hustlers who prey on tourists), which we have an ongoing annoyance having dealt with way too many touts all over the world. Then there’s that awkwardness of the fact that we come from the “evil” USA, so we weren’t sure exactly how we’d be received by Cubans.
So how were the Cuban people? Everyone has a different experience, but here’s our opinion: Cubans are some of the warmest people we’ve encountered during our travels. We reflect back so fondly on the countless kisses, the laughter, and smiles we received during our two weeks in their country. Staying in some of their homes really made it a more personal affair too. We often felt like we were simply crashing at a friend’s house rather than customers of their casa particular.
Sure, there are still some bad apples in Cuba, just as there are everywhere in the world. But those apples seemed to be very few and far between. You always need to be careful of scammers.
We found the jinteneros to be at a minimum and most were unusually polite! When approached with a menu or taxi offer, they could usually be shaken off with a single “no gracias” instead of the persistent three or four stern “No’s!” we often have to use elsewhere. Upon declining their offer in Cuba, we were often told, “Ok, happy holiday!” with a smile. How great is that!
Ok, happy holiday!”
7. Awkward! US-Cuban Relations
We were a little uncertain about how Cubans feel about Americans. You know, there’s that whole embargo thing, all the turmoil from the 60’s, Elián, Guantanamo, and decades worth of bad blood.
But Cubans welcomed us with open arms. Some locals actually seemed super excited to find out we were American. With the many travel restrictions that have been in place for Americans, there are not many of us traveling there, particularly so outside of Havana. So we’re somewhat of a rare breed.
While some Cuban folks understandably may not think too fondly about the US policy, many do seem to be smitten by US culture. From MLB baseball to those classic American cars and even Apple iPhones, American culture seemed to be a foreign fascination to many Cubans.
But we found that the US wasn’t entirely foreign to them. Most Cubans we spoke to actually have some relatives living in the US. With us being from South Florida this often gave us common ground to speak about since many Cubans could even cite street names and neighborhoods around Miami where their family members are living.
We did witness some anti-American propaganda in museums and even with some of the rhetoric of tour guides from day excursions. Yet overall it was nice to realize that most Cubans recognize the beef between our two countries is with our respective governments and is not on a people-to-people basis.
8. Who Let the Dogs Out?
One peculiarity we found in Cuba was the dogs. We’ve encountered dogs, both as pets and street dogs, all over the world but never such funny canines as in Cuba.
First of all, the street dogs are just as friendly as the people are in Cuba. So it was puzzling to see many Cubans often annoyed by our four-legged-friends. Instead of people greeting dog with a gentle pet, it was fairly common to see dogs greeted with a stomp in an attempt to scare them away.
Another oddity was the number of Siberian Huskies as pets throughout this extremely hot country. Thankfully they are given haircuts but it still seems like a strange breed of choice for the country. We later learned that Huskies are a strange new symbol of status for the more well-off in Cuba.
But perhaps the most peculiar thing we noticed about dogs in Cuba was the dogs’ propensity to hang out on rooftops. Particularly in the more southern towns we visited, it was very commonplace to see dogs running around on roofs, sometimes on the roofs of 3-4 story buildings. It will remain a complete mystery to us of how they got on there and why it’s their hangout of choice.
9. Resourcefulness and Cuban Ingenuity
When supplies are limited, you have got to be resourceful. We stayed at a casa where scrap metal had built a BBQ grill. Elsewhere, an old fan cage and some clothes hangers had built an awesome chandelier! Practical and inventive means were used whenever possible. Nothing ever seemed to be wasted. Sure, it may be out of necessity but you really have to applaud these creative efforts.
Even when buying bus tickets, we noticed the attendant using the backside of used tickets to print out our receipt. We loved this notion of reusing and recycling.
10. Cuban Cuisine May Surprise & Delight
Coming into Cuba we knew very little about the food. Living in Florida, we’ve had our fair share of Cuban sandwiches but that is the extent of our culinary journey into the country’s cuisine. Prior to our visit, most of what we had read about Cuban food reflected bland tastes and uninspired dishes.
With expectations low, our taste buds were delighted to find delicious meals throughout the country. The country’s national dish of ropa vieja (spicy shredded beef) does not disappoint.
Yet we were surprised to find it was Cuban seafood that stole the show. I’d never really considered seafood to be a big part of Cuban cuisine, but this is an island nation after all!
You haven’t been to Cuba unless you’ve had a succulent grilled lobster (or ten). Other must-try seafood include the camarónes (shrimp) and the robalo (snook), a delicious white fish unavailable on US menus. It’s all decently priced too, with complete lobster dinners averaging around $10! Yes, please!
Bring your appetite! The portion sizes tend to be absolutely humongous. We regularly found it difficult to finish our meals. For example, that twin lobster tail meal pictured above is for one person. That was preceded by bread, soup, and salad and came with a post-meal dessert. Stuffed!
As for the Cuban sandwiches, they are actually fairly few and far between within Cuba. And to be frank, the Florida rendition of this classic sandwich is better than those we ate in Cuba. We’d recommend sticking to the delicious and abundant seafood instead!
11. The Interesting Twists on Cuba’s National Drinks
It’s no surprise that Cuba is a rum country, with Havana Club rum leading the pack. We arrived ready for our fill of mojitos, cuba libres, piña coladas, and daiquiris. So we were delighted to find that they were just as ubiquitous and tasty as we had imagined.
But some of these drinks were a little bit different than what we were accustomed to back Stateside. In fact, they were better! Here’s what was different.
Mojitos started off exactly as you know them: muddled mint, lime juice, sugar, white rum, ice, topped with soda water. Here’s the twist: top it off with 3-4 dashes of bitters. Try it. Several bartenders we spoke to in Havana insisted it was the traditional way to make a mojito. Whether traditional or not, we can attest it was the tastiest version of the classic cocktail we’ve ever had.
Piña coladas also started off fairly standard. Pineapple juice, coconut cream, rum, and ice are all blended into the cool and frothy drink you know and love. The fresh pineapple juice used in a Cuban piña colada certainly contributes to its easy drinkability. But there were additional twists here to enhance the drink even further. Cinnamon is sprinkled liberally atop the frozen cocktail that unintuitively enriches the drink. And in many establishments, piña coladas are delivered to your table with a bottle of rum for you to self-pour as much or as little as you want into the drink. Bottoms up!
12. Cuba’s Thriving Tourism
We didn’t expect to see so much tourism in Cuba as we did. Our preconceived notions were that Cuba was uncharted territory on the road less traveled. Instead, we found a flourishing tourism scene throughout the country.
Not to worry though. Cuba still has lots of gritty charm and it’ll be a long time coming before Havana becomes Disneyesque. There are plenty of paradises to be found and off-the-beaten destinations to explore with the country.
Yet we were surprised at the level of tourism infrastructure that was in place and also the many tourists flocking here. In Havana you could find double-decker hop-on-hop-off busses and world-class hotels. The coastline around Varadero has a plethora of all-inclusive resorts that seems to rival Cancun. And while the highways were mostly empty, tour buses were an increasingly common sight.
Although the US prohibits Americans to vacation here, that certainly hasn’t stopped the rest of the world. In fact, Cuba receives over 2.5 million visitors annually and tourism is now one of the country’s biggest economic drivers. According to these stats released by the Cuban government, Canadians apparently come to Cuba in droves.
Yet we would have guessed it would be Germany or Netherlands that topped the list, as it was travelers from those two countries that seemed most common during our two-week circuit around the island in December 2015. So perhaps those numbers are all on the rise, as there seems to now be a rush to get to Cuba. A common sentiment from them and nearly all travelers to Cuba was “to get to Cuba before the Americans come and everything changes.” Oddly enough, that was part of our ammo too!
Get to Cuba before the Americans come and everything changes.”
13. Eco-Tourism in Cuba? It’s a Thing!
We had always considered Cuba as a cultural destination. It is a place to see its history and unique way of life. Cuba is certainly not the type of place for outdoor pursuits and nature. We were quite happy to realize these perceptions were dead wrong.
While Cuban culture is undoubtedly a star attraction, there are also some great eco-tourism attractions. You can choose your own adventure when viewing the infamous “magotes” (limestone outcroppings) surrounding Viñales: hike, bike, or horseback. Be sure to do a little spelunking in the caves while you’re there too!
The beaches offer an entirely different array of recreation with scuba diving and snorkeling. Or visit the nearby swamps to view crocodiles, flamingos, and other unique wildlife. These creatures abound in the Zapata Swamp, which is one of six Unesco Biosphere Reserves in Cuba.
Definitely don’t miss the mountains, either. Cuba is actually a fairly mountainous country. The highest peak, Pico Turquino, is nearly 2 kilometers in height! Yet we enjoyed roaming around the well-marked trails throughout the Topes de Collantes range. Here you’ll find many natural swimming holes alongside impressive waterfalls.
14. Swallow that Trailing “S”
It took a while to pick up on but we realized that Cubans tend to not pronounce the “s” when it’s at the end of a word. So “gracias” is “gracia.” “Dos” becomes “do.”
You’ll catch on after a while. The only trouble is that once you get accustomed to this linguistic quirk, you may find it becomes difficult to switch back to normal!
15. Get in Line or Get Out of Cuba
Granted we were in Cuba during high season, but we were regularly astonished at the length of queues, even for seemingly simple things. We once waited for twenty minutes to buy a bottle of water at a convenience store.
Another time we waited nearly an hour to buy a bus ticket. The attendant then told us to come back in 45-minutes, so we simply got right back in line. Nearly two hours later, we finally had our tickets.
There seemed to be an extreme lack of urgency with both customers and cashiers alike. I suppose that what they call “island time.”
Pack your patience!
16. Paperwork is a Lot of Work
There seemed to be an overabundance of paperwork for everything in Cuba. Part of this is because computers aren’t widely used but also it just seems to be a way of life to record all sorts of seemingly useless information.
Upon checking into a casa particular, your host will take about 15 minutes to fill out a huge form to record all of your information, appeasing government policy. When booking a day tour, every line item is filled out for their records too. Then during the tour, there will always be a pit stop at a station somewhere along the way for a guide to complete additional paperwork.
One Cuban joked with us and said,
If you want to bring Cuba down, you don’t need to embargo, just stop our paper supply.”
17. Internet in Cuba?
Is there Internet in Cuba? Could you find wifi in Cuba? We wondered if it would be possible and had read conflicting accounts online.
We can report that there is indeed wifi throughout big public parks/squares and nearly all big hotels. Just buy a wifi card for $2 for an hour and surf away. The speed was surprisingly tolerable and even sometimes allowed streaming with speeds clocking in near 5 mbps.
In some more remote places, the wifi was completely non-existent. Yet it was actually quite nice to disconnect in Cuba. It was very evident that people on buses, bus stations, in bars, and restaurants were all more talkative to one another. No one was zombified and unapproachable staring blankly into their screens.
Yet sometimes work commitments, onward travel planning, and other responsibilities may dictate the necessity to connect. So it is nice to know that wifi is at least available on a limited basis.
18. Funny Money
We had read about Cuba’s dual currency prior to our arrival but the concept was still quite a novelty. You must understand that there are two currencies in Cuba: CUC and CUP. Know the difference.
Cubans mainly use the National Peso (CUP), which is the currency of choice at local markets, street food stands, and other locally-oriented services. There’s not much you’ll need to buy in CUPs. But, if so, many places will accept the other currency, CUCs, and will gladly convert them for you. When this happens the conversion is often to their favor, of course. But we’re usually talking about nickels and dimes, so no need to fret that you’re getting ripped off.
Then there is the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), which is used for most things considered “luxury” in Cuba such as restaurant meals, accommodation, booze, groceries in a store, or any sort of consumer product good that may have made its way to the isolated nation. CUCs are the currency you will primarily use when traveling to Cuba.
One added oddity we found about the CUC was the common presence of a 3-peso bill. In all of the countries we’ve traveled to I can’t recall any country that had a note with a multiple of three. You wouldn’t think it makes that big of a difference but it can really test your math skills when paying or receiving change after a few strong mojitos!
19. Shockingly Safe!
During our travels around the world, we’ve noticed a fairly consistent correlation between a population’s wages and our perception of safety. We weren’t sure what to expect in Cuba though.
The entire time we were there, we felt extremely safe. Actually, it felt among the safest countries we’ve visited. In some locations around the world, we feel a bit uneasy about walking around with our $800 camera dangling from our neck. It can also be unnerving to leave our electronics unlocked in our room. Yet in Cuba we felt completely comfortable being photographers, walking around the streets at night while our MacBook remained left out in plain sight back at our casa.
When we had rented bikes in Viñales, we didn’t receive a bike lock. When asked about it, the rental man simply explained that no one would steal our bikes here. After looking around town, we realized that no one locked up their bikes. Wow!
After examining the most recently published homicide data (2011) from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, we discovered that Cuba actually has one of the lowest homicide rates of any country in the Americas. I suppose being a police state does have some benefits.
With tourism now being a leading industry for Cuba, it is really in the government’s best interests to ensure that visitors are safe. It definitely felt so to us.
20. Balcony Life
In Old Havana the streets are lined with relatively tall buildings sporting ornate balconies. They are lovely but it’s not only their fine looks that make them interesting. Balconies in Havana seemed to have a unique culture onto themselves.
Neighbors have conversations by shouting across the streets. Similarly, doorbells have been replaced by a good old fashion holler. Occasionally while walking in the roadways below, we saw people seemingly talking to themselves only to realize they were actually carrying on a conversation with someone on the fourth floor.
Many balconies are even higher. With no elevators in place, even the simplest of errands become a tedious chore, particularly for the elderly. But when the fruit guy or the newspaper man comes by, there is an alternative solution. Baskets are carefully lowered down to deliver money and to pick up the coveted goods. No need to go downstairs. Life continues from Havana’s wonderful balconies.
21. Intricacies of a Socialistic Economy
Being the only socialistic state we’ve visited, we knew that we were in for something different. Yet it was actually experiencing this way of life that was truly an eye-opener.
What was first clearly evident was the lack of stores and advertising. Having arrived in Cuba from the US in December, it was a stark contrast to the rabid commercialism consuming the States during this pre-holiday time period. Billboards and even sign advertisements were completely absent in Cuba aside from occasional Havana Club or Bucanero (beer) branding on restaurant facades. Well, there were occasional billboards promoting the country’s heroes such as Che.
When conversing with Cubans, they would sometimes ask about my occupation back home. The first time I tried to explain in my bad broken Spanish what “marketing” was, I slowly realized that there isn’t much need for any such careers in Cuba. Marketing seemed to be a foreign concept.
Meanwhile it was a novel concept for us to see the gratis food deliveries each day. In the mornings the bread guy would come by delivering loaves of bread to each household, compliments of the Cuban government.
Stores to buy simple supplies such as bottled water or snacks were very few & far between. Often the shelves were less than half stocked. Yet there would always be a line at the checkout.
It was also evident and interesting to witness Cuba’s more recent shift towards a mixed economy. Private restaurants (paladares) are now permitted under Raul’s reign, helping to fuel a food revolution in Cuba. Owners of “casa particulares” are now allowed to host multiple rooms instead of the former limit of two. Such businesses are still highly regulated by the government and taxed accordingly. Yet some of the Cubans embarking on these freeer enterprises are widening a wealth gap that previously didn’t really exist much.
Despite these recent changes, don’t think that a second economy is flourishing here. It is not. We learned this firsthand when conversing with one of the casa particular owners we stayed with. We were surprised to learn that his day job was actually a medical doctor by trade. He rents out his extra room to supplement his income. We later learned that doctors make about $40 per month. That comes out to about $0.25 per hour! (This is not a typo.)
We learned that his wife is also a doctor, currently doing operations in Angola in an effort to try to bank money. Her goal is to earn enough cash and then return to Cuba so that her doctor husband can maybe purchase a car and begin running a taxi business on the side because that tends to be much more lucrative than being a doctor. This is truly mind-boggling! Yet that is how the economy works in Cuba.
So there you have it. Those were the top items of interest for us during our recent trip to Cuba.
Have you been to Cuba before? What did you find to be interesting or surprised you?
If Cuba is on your upcoming travel list, what questions do you have about travel in Cuba? Let us know your questions so we can try to include them in our forthcoming post about Tips for Traveling in Cuba.
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