Anyone who has been to Cuba will no doubt agree that this is one of the most puzzling, contradictory and magnetic places in the world, sure to captivate your heart as much as your imagination with its endless juxtapositions of old and new, avant-garde and vintage, where sombre cityscapes stand in stark contrast to unexpected colour explosions here and there. Doubtless, it leaves no one indifferent, love it or hate, there is only one Cuba, inimitable in every possible way.
Its uniqueness can be enumerated in virtually countless ways, from the brightly-coloured old classic cars that refuse to retire and still noisily clank along the streets to the still-standing architectural marvels (and the crumbling ones), the immaculately preserved colonial gems (and the neglected, decaying ones), the unique blend of religions and cultural beliefs (the curious amalgamation of santeria rituals and Christianity), the mixed Spanish-African heritage and the local people’s unique flair and joy of life against all odds in the face of all sorts of challenges. Ultimately, it is Cubans’ eternal optimism and humorous take on their daily problems that makes them stand out as true survivors, full of ingenuity and making do with very, very little at times.
In this mix of wide-ranging Cuban characteristics, aspects and facts, some are positive and some are negative. I do love Cuba with all my heart, and everyone at Cuba holidays does too - else we wouldn’t invest so much time and resources on creating the perfect Cuban adventure and keeping the most up-to-date travel blogs with tips, stories and advice - but the truth takes precedence. And, we truly want you to feel informed before you go, even when it comes to the not-so-great bits.
10 things you probably didn´t know about Cuba
So, to show you we’re not too biased, we give it all, the good and the bad - these are some of the things you probably didn’t know about Cuba but will feel all the richer for having learnt, or at least all the more knowledgeable.
Cheapest transport in the world (that’s also the worst)
Before you got too excited over this true fact I probably brought you down instantly with the clarifying statement in brackets. Yes, Cuba has the cheapest public transport in the world, with a ride on an urban bus (or “guagua”) costing as little as 0.01 CUC ($ 0.40 CUP) the journey. But, this price does come with major caveats. For starters, unless you’re a local or get help from one, you won’t know of all the bus stops in the cities (especially in Havana) as many are not signed or marked as such. You might be able to tell by the long queues that appear disorganised to the naked eye, but which are actually very orderly, you just need to ask for the last person, or “pedir el ultimo” as a Cuban would. Routes on these buses are fixed but they run with no discernible itinerary and you might have to wait anywhere from 30 minutes up to an hour to catch one. Also, once it arrives there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to hop on, depending on how full the bus comes. If you manage to get on, then be prepared for a cramped and steamy ride! Still, if you’d like the taste of an unforgettable experience in a very authentic Cuban way, go for it, but mind your valuables and keep them well out of sight of opportunist pickpockets!
The safest place in the Americas
After reading my last words above about minding your personal objects to avoid opportunistic theft in a crowded bus, you might be surprised to read the claim of Cuba being Latin America’s safest country. But actually, the odd pickpocketing is the extent of criminal activity you’re ever likely to experience (if at all) in Cuba. Violent crime is virtually unheard of anywhere in Cuba, even less so against tourists, who are extremely valuable to the local economy and thus fiercely protected by local authorities. In the bigger cities, you will notice police around every corner, even more so in tourist hotspots. Havana is the most crime-inflicted part of the island, and even then that’s only if you venture to off-the-beaten-path neighbourhood and slums. Still, an attack at gun-point is unthinkable and practically impossible. An armed robbery? Extremely improbable. Even wandering around at night is safe, although it should be done with a degree of caution if carrying valuable objects or flashy jewellery, as poorly lit areas can entice opportunist pickpockets. Also, beware of scam artists short-changing you when offering to exchange currency or selling you fake cigars. Beyond that you should breathe easy, Cuba ranks higher on the Global Peace Index than neighbouring countries like Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. Its crime rate is also far lower than the U.S. where easy gun access makes for an uneasy feeling in certain areas.
No bright city lights
Cuba is not known for being a well-lit (or well-signed) country. Street lamp posts are old, scarce, stand far apart from each other and are mostly limited to central cities and urban areas. The light they emit is not the brightest either. Quite romantic you might think, but also quite dangerous if you’re driving at night (and unlike most Cubans, aren’t used to it). My husband was flabbergasted at the poor night vision when he first drove around Havana at night and didn’t blink for a second the whole journey, scared he would bump into something he couldn’t see - the massive potholes don’t help either. So, drive carefully and watch out for holes, if you´re going to drive at all. Otherwise, leave it to the Cuban experts.
Omnipresent Revolution propaganda lives on
OK, so you probably already knew about this one (or read it somewhere). It’s actually a big draw for many professional and amateur photographers (and Instagrammers) alike, who all try and seek out these living remnants of the Revolution’s heyday. It’s no secret that the island is plagued with Revolution-inspired propaganda and that the large billboards that used to feature commercial products and services prior to 1959 now show images of political leaders next to inspiring quotes and encouraging phrases reminding everyone to uphold the Revolution’s ideals and defend them above all else. There are also caricaturist posters denouncing the embargo or poking fun of the U.S.’s imperialist stance. And, the political propaganda isn’t limited to large billboards either, you can find murals covering the walls of an entire avenue or street with Revolutionary icons like Che, Fidel or Camilo being the most commonly portrayed.
A wealth of Olympic medals
In case you didn’t know, Cuba is the country to have earned the most medals in Latin America’s Olympic history. Yes, it beats Brazil and every other Latin American country in the amount of Olympic medals won, despite large nations like Argentina, Chile and Peru being more than twice or thrice its size. With a whopping total of 225 medals (78 of which are gold) Cuba’s golden era for Olympic medal snatching was the 80s, 90s and the first decade of the new millennium. Although it hasn’t shone as brightly in the last couple of Olympic games (London 2012 and Rio de Janeiro 2016), it remains in third position of American countries with the most Olympic gold medals (only trailing behind Canada and the U.S., and meaning it is Latin America’s all-time big medal scorer).
It can get really cold
Despite the prevalence of a warm, tropical climate throughout most of the year and mostly balmy temperatures that rarely drop below the 18-degrees Celsius mark even in the peak of winter; some areas of Cuba can get really cold, especially as the sun sets and rises in the early morning hours. Main cities and urban areas tend to have the most stable temperatures throughout the seasons (though be warned that if a cold front were to hit the island temperatures could dip as low as 10-degrees Celsius) but in the countryside, it can get really cool, with night lows sometimes nearing (or brushing below) the 0-degree Celsius mark. Rural areas experience the coldest spells of all, so do pack accordingly if venturing outside urban areas, especially in mountainous regions.
No drinking water
Seriously, however thirsty you might be at any one point, don’t be tempted to drink tap water in Cuba. It might not just make you sick with a tummy bug, but you could also catch more serious illnesses like cholera. Cubans boil their water to make it drinkable and get rid of microbes, so unless you’re certain you’re accepting a beverage from someone who has boiled their water, stick to bottled water throughout your trip, and be cautious of drinks sold in street stalls, ask to make sure it’s been boiled.
Unreliable restaurant menus
Of course, this depends on where you eat but in many places (especially in state-run restaurants but applicable also to some private restaurants) items on the menu are frequently unavailable. Either because they’ve run out on the day (or for weeks) the probability of a dish being available is often down to luck. The fact of the matter is that Cuba has very limited food imports and the nation’s agricultural industry is still developing and struggles to keep up with local demand. That, plus the fact that many types of meats are also imported affects the availability of ingredients at any one time. So, be prepared to have a second or third option, just in case your first or second choices aren’t available on the day.
Cuban music also means reggaeton
If you thought all you would encounter throughout your time in Cuba was the ubiquitous sound of son (made internationally famous by the Buena Vista Social Club), timba (Cuba’s version of salsa music), Grammy-winning Latin Jazz and Afro-Cuban beats you’d be right, but only half right. The urban Latin sounds of reggaeton have reached the island, to the despair of some and the delight of others. Love it or hate it, you can always escape it, especially in most tourist hotspots where all you’ll hear are traditional Cuban classics, sometimes mixed with faster-paced timba rhythms.
Greener than it looks at first glance
When you look at the dark smoke coming out of Cuba’s many old classic cars or the giant black wafts emanating from oil refineries (like the one across the bay from Avenida del Puerto), you might think that Cuba certainly doesn’t look that green. With old, high-consuming technology that hasn’t been replaced for newer, more efficient models and an outdated electricity system, you would indeed wonder why it has been ranked among the 10 greenest countries in the world in recent years or why the United Nation’s 2016 Human Development Report considered it be one of just a handful of countries that have managed to develop sustainably while improving citizens’ health and well-being, ranking 45 out of 180 countries in the Environmental Performance Index by Yale and Harvard. To understand why Cuba is one of the greenest nations in the world you have to take into account the fact that Havana (being the most polluted of all cities) is not representative of all of Cuba, and even the most contaminating cars there aren’t that many, certainly not enough to account for worrisome pollution levels. Furthermore, in Cuba, most people walk, cycle, use collective transport or even hop in a horse carriage!
Is that all?
No, this is just a warm-up starter blog. Cuba is so full of so many peculiarities the list could go on and on. There are many more little-known facts about Cuba than I have time to list here, why, I haven’t even covered the fact that Cuba didn’t celebrate Christmas for nearly forty years or the high probability of stumbling upon santeria offerings at the base of a tree even in the most urban settings. But this is a good start for now. Take the good and the bad with a pinch of salt. This is Cuba after all. Wondrous, frustratingly puzzling and often stuck Cuba, but enchanting nevertheless.