Cuba: An introduction. Quick Country Guide
"Cuba is such a beautiful country, and everywhere you go, there's music and people dancing - especially in Havana" - Julia Sawalha
Cuba is a country on the rise. Since opening up to the wider world for tourism, the country has been flooded with eager photographers and explorers alike, all keen to experience the country’s unique culture. So, while this isn’t a city guide (that will come soon, I promise!), with tourism to the beautiful island increasing year on year I thought a bit of an introduction was needed, if anything to highlight some of the difficulties that you can face on a trip there.
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Viva la Revolucion
Despite Fidel Castro’s death, most locals haven’t seen life change much with private enterprise still restricted and absolutely no foreign chains on the island (sorry Starbucks lovers!). Essentially, stepping into the country is akin to jumping back in time to the Cuban revolution as the streets remain littered with throwback murals to the ‘glory days’ of Che Guevara and propaganda-style messages.
Money, money, money, not exactly funny in a Cuban world (props to people getting the Abba reference 😉)
Being an almost-exclusively cash economy with two currencies working simultaneously, the Peso Nacional (for Cubans mainly) and the Peso Convertible (more commonly used for tourists) the money situation in Cuba can be quite confusing for tourists. While both are pesos, their value differs hugely, with the peso convertible being valued at basically 1:1 with the US Dollar while the nacional is 25:1 with the convertible (we hate maths too but stick with us!). Prices in the tourist areas will generally be in the CUC (convertible) currency and so will seem crazy expensive for the area, but, head out to where the locals stay and it changes dramatically. This change is easily seen in taxi costs as a taxi journey will set you back 5 CUC OR, grab one with a local and it is 10 nacional. Honestly, the money situation is not terrible, it is just a little confusing and if you don’t know the rules/ values, it is quite easy to get ripped off. Plus side, we definitely got back from Cuba with a math degree 😉
So, this one may be a little obvious to many of y’all, but let’s just say that the infrastructure for tourists isn’t exactly amazing. In terms of travelling around, cross-country buses aren’t the most regular and often struggle to live with the need for them while travelling around Havana itself can also be a bit of a struggle with buses suffering from huge overcrowding and the cheap colectivo taxi’s not the most active in terms of picking up passengers, often leaving you having to get a more expensive alternative. There are also no hostels in the traditional sense of the words. Instead, Casa Particulares are your best shot! (Hostel Iraida was fantastic!) These are basically Airbnb properties set up as mini hotels with a host who is your best shout for local advice. Then there is the Wi-Fi. Honestly, I’d say treat Cuba as an internet detox with internet only available at a couple of public locations around the city and even then, it is quite expensive and one of the slowest connections I’ve ever used. That being said, these ‘negatives’ are fantastic. Cuba is a completely different place and Havana, in particular, swings to its own rhythm so just go for it and explore.
Learn the lingo
Learn Spanish. Unlike so many other tourist hubs around the world, Cuba isn’t really a place you can go to without knowing any Spanish. With the country’s involvement in foreign affairs still fairly recent, English isn’t generally spoken by a large majority of Cuba, with only the tourist information centres and hotels in Havana guaranteeing a semi-decent level of English proficiency so you may want to download that Duolingo course before you head out there!
Alternatively, check out our guide to learning a language here!
Thanks for reading! This wasn’t much of a travel guide to Cuba or Havana but rather just a heads-up to some of the issues people face when they land in Cuba. Despite all of this though, the country is stunning, the people are wonderful and, for walking around a capital alone with barely a clue of where I was going while carrying expensive camera gear, I at no point felt in any kind of risk!
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