The fact that Cuba is unique in the world you probably knew about long before you came across this article. Much has been written in the press and in numerous travel guides about the island’s unique historical riches, its multi-layered culture, its time-warped appeal, its controversial Revolution and Cuban’s compelling idiosyncrasy and sheer will to sing and dance in the face of adversity. The many ways in which Cuba can be a surprising, eye-opening country are far more than ten, but here I provide you with a few interesting facts that make it stand out from the rest.
It’s got the best tobacco in the world
There’s no question about it. No other place in the world produces cigars as fine as the ones that have been manufactured in Cuba since the time of King Phillip II of Spain (from 1527 onwards) which means nowhere else in the world has such a longstanding tradition for tobacco-growing and cigar-making. Cuban cigars are world-famous for a reason, or for many reasons, in fact, one of them being the painstaking care taken every single step of the process – from the growing and harvesting of the tobacco leaves in a part of Cuba with its own microclimate (Vinales) to the handcrafted end result. Many have tried to replicate an “habano” with the planting of a Cuban seed elsewhere in the world but no one has succeeded, that´s just how special the soil, the weather and the growers´ expertise is in this part of the world.
But there’s also an art to it. Cuban cigars are expertly rolled by hand by a group of highly trained women (mostly) with the highest levels of quality control to ensure every single cigar that leaves the factory does so in perfect condition, with no visible flaw or imperfection. Around 100 steps go into the making of one single Cuban cigar! An artisanal task preserved by years and years of tradition. You can witness the entire process by visiting the tobacco fields and Vinales (Alejandro Robaina plantation) or by popping into one of Havana´s two cigar factories for a guided tour. Then just lit up and enjoy.
The whole island is like an instrument in a never-ending concert
Music, music, music, blaring out…dying out, starting out…and the dancing, the perennial swaying of Cubans to whatever melody is on. In Cuba it’s all about the music, giving a soundtrack to everyday life tasks or situations, animating the most mundane tasks or serving as an excuse to drop everything and dance, because when your favourite song comes on you just have to dance, there´s no other way around it. You can´t say no, no one in Cuba expects you to resist a melody too infectious to sit out.
Everywhere in Cuba is like an open-air dancehall, inviting you to give into the urge of swaying along and moving to the beat. Music is an omnipresence in Cuba, it traps you, it wraps around you and, as it happens, Cuba is the one country in Latin America with the largest number of rhythms and music genres, to the point of its music being included in UNESCO´s list of intangible heritage. From salsa (or timba), son, mambo, cha cha cha, danzon, rumba, guaganco, bolero, trova, filin, punto guajiro to changui and Latin jazz, Cuba´s musical riches are many and varied. You´ll find melodies for every taste and every mood.
It looks like a sleeping crocodile
When looked at from above, the island’s silhouette resembles that of a lying croc (the sleeping part is up for debate) so that many refer in Cuba to it as “caiman dormido” (snoozing cayman), funnily enough the Cayman Islands don´t resemble a crocodile shape in the least! But getting back to Cuba, there´s even a song about how the island looks like a croc, peacefully resting in the midst of the Caribbean Sea.
If you look at the map and imagine that the island´s western tip is the tail and the eastern ending the head, you might see the resemblance…if not Google up the terms “Cuba caiman dormido”, click on Images and you´ll see many different artists´ take on the crocodile-shaped island. It helps to know that in fact, Cuba is indeed a land of crocodiles, with an endemic variety that´s fiercely protected and found thriving at the Cienaga de Zapata swamp, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. You can get upclose and personal to a few specimens (from babies to full-grown adults) at the crocodile farm in Guama, where you can also taste them at the onsite restaurant).
A rolling museum takes over its roads every day of the year
Oh yes, the yank tanks, the classic American cars from the 40s and 50s that still roam along Cuba´s streets. Who hasn´t heard about them? Who hasn´t seen the postcard-perfect images of some beautifully preserved four-wheeled marvels in full working order? In Cuba, they´re everywhere, offering precious photo ops by the minute as they noisily clank along in their cumbersomely majestic way.
There´s hundreds of the so-called “almendrones” circulating in the Cuban capital and beyond, most of which operate as high-end taxis touring the city in style, while the less aesthetically pleasing, more rundown ones operate as “taxis colectivos” or “carros de 20 pesos” running specific routes much in the way of an unofficial minibus. Given that Cuban public transport is so scarce and haphazard, the "almendrones" fulfil a vital role in helping commuters get around. The best kept, polished to perfection and brightly painted classic cars are found in Havana, although other cities have.
A Cuban rock appears in the World Guinness Record Book
In Cuba´s second largest, and second most important city of Santiago de Cuba there´s a natural marvel that stands out in quite a dramatically huge way. It´s a massive rock, the world´s largest, standing tall at 51-metres-high, 25-metres-wide and 30-metre-deep. It weighs over 63,000 tonnes and is found right at the end of the Sierra Maestra Mountain Range, at an altitude of 1,225 metres above sea level. Its name is, quite aptly, La Gran Piedra (The Great Stone) and it also serves as a natural lookout because of its privileged position. It’s a 452 step climb to the top, surrounded by lush vegetation with 222 different varieties of ferns, orchids and rich endemic wildlife with 926 different animal species to spot, including Cuba’s national bird, the Tocororo.
It’s the one place where you can really (forcibly at times) switch off
Internet access has gotten better and more widespread in Cuba but that still doesn´t mean that upon landing in the country you can simply switch on you roaming and get instant access to the world wide web from your phone. It´s not as easy as that. At least not yet, and not quite for some time it seems, not at the sluggishly slow pace in which things develop in Cuba, especially when it comes to the internet.
That’s not to mean there’s no possibility of getting online during your entire stay in the island, you can, but first you need to head to one of the public Wi-Fi areas and purchase a prepaid one-hour card. The service isn’t super-fast, especially if the Wi-Fi area is filled with locals (and they most likely will be) using up all the data. The good news is that an internet card only costs 1.50 CUC and that nowadays many hotels have Wi-Fi zones so you might not need to head to the street or a particular spot, like the Malecon (all of it is now a Wi-Fi area).
The bad? Most likely you won’t be able to access the net from your hotel room and will need to head to the lobby instead. Also, not all hotels in Cuba have Wi-Fi enabled zones, many do now, but not all. Which means you can be blissfully unaware of your friends’ latest Snapchat post. It’s your one chance to forgo the trouble of faffing about with internet cards and simply switching off from it all. You can see this as an advantage or a hindrance, an annoyance or the perfect excuse to forget about it all, disengage (from all kinds of live feeds) and just live the moment.
It’s an eternal summer
OK, so this one quality Cuba shares with other tropical regions around the world, particularly the Caribbean, although no two places in the Caribbean have quite the same weather as different islands are affected differently by some meteorological elements and microclimates play a part. For example, Aruba is the driest of Caribbean islands while Dominica is the wettest. Cuba lies somewhere in the middle but sticky heat is prevalent throughout the year as this is indeed a humid island.
What I mean by eternal summer is that in most places in Cuba (with the exception of mountainous areas and some inland regions) temperatures rarely drop below the 22 to 25-degree Celsius mark and that’s at the harshest of winter. The only exception to this rule is the arrival of cold fronts, which can see temperatures dip as low as 10 to 15 degrees in some cases, but these fronts rarely last longer than four to five days and often the sun shines through. As to the beaches, the waters are warm all-year-round, hardly ever dipping below 25-degree Celsius and sometime peaking in the lower 30s between July and August.
It has the world’s only radio station that updates you on worldwide news to the tick tock of the clock
It gives you the time, minute by minute and in between Radio Reloj updates you on all worldly goings on against the backdrop sound of a ticking clock. It’s technically a non-stop news station that claims to be the oldest in the world and delivers to-the-minute information on internal and global affairs. Since 1st July 1947 it has been updating Cubans and helping them manually wind the clocks in their homes to the right time. When in doubt if their watches are running late, Cubans just tune into Radio Reloj for the best accuracy.
With the era of the internet Radio Reloj has started streaming its broadcasting services online and its peculiar ticking clock beat as well as the familiar voice of one of its two hosts (always intercalating between a female and a male voice) has made it feature on a popular song by Manu Chao, one that topped Latin charts in 2001.
A river weaves a long chain of coral
With one of the most surprising courses of Cuba´s entire hydrography, the Cuyaguateje river, with a name that technically translates as “whose water weaves” is one outstanding natural wonder. It´s a mighty rive, Pinar del Rio´s largest and along its 112.4 km curvature it has some subterraneous stretches with karstic geographical features, hence its name.
It goes through several municipalities, including Vinales, Minas de Matahambre, Guane y Sandino until finally meeting the Caribbean Sea on Cuba´s southern coast. A reforestation programme is currently underway to reverse human damage to the river and the riverbanks so that it can once again be a healthy habitat for several species. The river is of great national interest, given its outstanding contribution to the environment in this part of Cuba.
There’s no McDonalds, Burger King or Starbucks
Or any big chain stores for that matter, so authenticity and ingenuity is king here, wherever you go you know that whatever you´ll be eating won´t be manufactured by a large multinational. Instead you´ll embark on a flavoursome adventure as you discover the island´s true taste, which come alive especially well at private restaurants (locally referred to as “paladares”).
Forget about the bland food that´s given the country a bad reputation, that kind is mostly confined to some all-inclusive resorts. And don´t expect to be presented with black beans and rice at every meal, not when every new private restaurant popping up specialises in a wide array of world cuisine from Russian to Swedish and Chinese…yes, Cuba´s dining scene can be that varied and surprising!
Actually, come to think of it, there is one McDonalds in the island, but it´s in Guantanamo Bay, inside the U.S. naval base there, so strictly off limits. Come on, you cannot miss it all that much surely, not when there´s a world of new flavours to try and some good restaurants specialising in quality international fair with Cuban flair. And seriously, who wants Starbucks when Cuba grows the best coffee!
Just 10 unique traits?
As you can see Cuba is as eclectic as it is unique and surprising, and I guarantee most of the things in this list (possibly including the internet) still is won´t change in the next decade or so. You might think that´s a long time, but this is Cuba where very little has changed in over 50 years. The majority of the things here, I dare say, will stand the test of time, as part of the island´s culture, natural assets and heritage.
Plus, I´m sure many more ways in which Cuba is unique in the world can be added to the list, and perhaps in time I will, this is just the opening act.