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Life in Cuba is relaxed. 1950s cars purr along the cobbled streets, passing terraced homes of pastel colours. Locals lounge on balconies, sipping on cool rum and basking in the heat.
The country can appear timeworn and dilapidated, but it is charming all the same. Many comment that Cuba is a prince in a peasant’s coat; behind the crumbling paint and deteriorating buildings, magic remains from times gone by. Cuba echoes the past and is a true classic that has abandoned Western influences as much as the modern world will allow.
The climate of Cuba is very much shaped by its geographical location. Most of the island is south of the Tropic of Cancer, meaning the climate is tropical but moderated by north-easterly trade winds that blow all year round. The temperature of Cuba is further shaped by the Caribbean current, which brings in warm water from the equator.
In general, depending on location, the dry season runs from November to April, and the rainy season from May to October. Temperatures throughout the year do not drop below 24°C, with the hottest (but also wettest months) being July, August and September. Most people visiting the country for a holiday will tend to visit between December and April, when Cuba is at its driest.
The official hurricane season in Cuba runs from July to mid-November, and this is the same throughout the whole of the Caribbean. September and October seem to be the worst months for tropical storms and hurricanes.
Cuba was dominated under Spanish rule for centuries and had a stint as a playground for rich and famous Westerners. However, the impact of the revolution in 1959 has helped create a Cuba that has flourished. After finding its own independent identity, the country has cemented itself as a melting pot of African, European and Amerindian cultures. Inevitably the country benefits from having a Latin backbone and music, hospitality, cuisine, and religion are all fundamental parts of a unique puzzle.
Cuba is primarily a Christian country, with about 60% of the population practicing Catholics. In 1959, religious Cubans were persecuted for their faith, being denied jobs and education by the government. It was only in 1992 that the constitution was amended to allow total religious freedom for citizens.
Another large religion in Cuba is Santeria, a blend of Catholicism and Yoruba religions. When African slaves first arrived in Cuba in the 16th century, they were taught prayers and baptised in Spanish. The slaves merged their African religious traditions with their new Catholic learnings to create Santeria. Back in colonial times, those who practiced Santeria suffered intense ethnocentrism, as many confused the Afro-Cuban religion with black magic and witchcraft.
Although the main ethnic groups in Cuba tend to be European, African and native American, the country is influenced by, and home to, people from all different corners of the globe. Understandably, there are many Spanish, along with Jamaicans, Haitians, Chinese, Filipinos, French, Portuguese and Italians.
The culture of Cuba is world renowned, especially for its music. Music is an important part of Cuban society, and the traditional musical styles are still popular and influential to this day. The country is vibrant and full of music, dancing and singing. Mambo, salsa, and merengue fill the streets and many locals dance the nights away at parties.
The Cuban people are very welcoming. You will notice that there are no gates on properties and front doors are always left open. Having your home open to guests in Cuba is the norm, and entertaining in large groups is commonplace. It is not unusual to let yourself in to somebody’s home and men and women always greet with handshakes or kisses on the cheek.
The official language of Cuba is Spanish and the vast majority of Cubans speak it. It is known as Cuban Spanish and is form of Caribbean Spanish. The Spanish spoken in Cuba is very similar to the Spanish spoken in the Canary Islands.
The second most widely spoken language in Cuba is Haitian Creole. This is spoken by Haitian immigrants and their descendants and is a unique blend based largely on 18th century French, but adopting nuances from Portuguese, Spanish, Taino and West African languages.
Lastly, Lucumi is a Yoruba dialect and is used as a liturgical language of those practicing Santeria in Cuba.
Taxis are government-run in Cuba and mainly used by tourists. They are metered and cost CUC$1 to start and CUC$1 per kilometre thereafter. Taxi drivers are often happy to offer foreigners a flat, off-meter rate. Drivers that use the meter will have their money divided by the state; without the meter the money can go straight into the driver’s pocket.
Bici-taxis are also popular in Cuba. They are most often seen in Havana, Camaguey, Holguin and other big cities. They are pedal-powered tricycles with a double seat behind the driver and drivers insist on a CUC$1 minimum fare. Be aware, some bici-taxi owners ask fairly high fares so it is best to make sure both parties are 100% clear on what will be paid at the end of the journey. However, by law, bici-taxis aren’t even allowed to take tourists. In the provinces, however, the rules are laxer and fares much more reasonable, usually around five pesos.
The last type of taxi in Cuba is a colectivo. These are taxis that run on fixed long-distance routes, leaving when full. Three people are often squashed across the front seat of the mostly pre-1959 American diesel cars. These are state-owned and are cheaper and faster than the bus. They can be found at most bus stations; drivers touting for business.
Local buses, known as guaguas, are challenging infernos packed with people. They are useful in bigger cities and stop at bus stops that have visible lines. It may not be obvious that there is a queue at a bus stop. Cubans tend to hang around in no particular order, somewhere near their desired bus stop. It is just an unspoken rule that you keep an eye on the people around you when you arrive and you naturally fit in. Buses cost a flat five centavos. When getting on the bus, you walk as far back as possible and always exit through the rear.
Ferry services are popular in some towns and the most used include the catamaran from Surgidero de Batanbano to Nueva Gerona, and the passenger ferry from Havana to Regla and Casablanca.
Another popular but slightly unconventional form of transport is horse and carriage. Not regularly used in many countries, the coaches de cabollo in Cuba trot on fixed routes like buses. They often cover ground between bus stations and train stations in city centres.
Lastly, trucks are a cheap and fast way to travel when outside of the major cities. Every area will have a truck departure and they run on a loose time table and you pay as you board. Like any public transport, it can be hot, sticky and uncomfortable. However, it is a fantastic way to interact with locals, but make sure you are up on your Spanish.
In the 1980s, the Cuban healthcare system underwent huge reforms and development. There is now an extensive public healthcare system in place and all citizens enjoy equal access. Many believe that Cuba’s high life expectancy (in the top five in the world) is down to this.
In Cuba, there is no private healthcare. The public healthcare system covers all citizens and every medical facility is run by the government. By implementing this system, it ensures everybody is receiving the treatment they need. In Cuba now, diseases like polio, rubella and tuberculosis have almost been eradicated due to free vaccinations and care.
Granted, Cuba has a small budget when it comes to healthcare, but they have a genius way of working with limited money. Citizens of Cuba must attend compulsory health checks. By investing time into regular health checks for everybody, diseases are diagnosed earlier and preventative measures can be put in place; this saves Cuba money. Every Cuban has at least one annual health check which is done in their home by a local nurse or doctor.
Due to this, many foreigners turn up on Cuban soil seeking medical attention, both vital and cosmetic. Instead of taking this as a negative, hospitals have trained staff to look after foreign patients. Also, the government has created Servimed, which is in charge of promoting Cuban medical services to foreigners.
Since 2010, tourists and expats are obligated to secure health insurance or travel insurance which is valid for their entire stay in Cuba. Regardless as to whether you are covered, medical facilities do not accept checks or credit cards. Therefore, it is best to carry cash when you visit a hospital or clinic.
To visitors, the two currency system in place in Cuba can be a little daunting. Cuba is like most foreign countries in that you bring a major foreign currency and exchange it into the local currency so that you can make purchases while there. However, Cuban currency is not traded internationally and, therefore, you can only exchange when you arrive in the country.
The main legal currency of Cuba is the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). It is what visitors and expats will trade their foreign currency into whilst in the country. The majority of foreigners will only ever deal with CUC.
The second currency in Cuba is the simple and lowly Cuban Peso (CUP). This is rarely used, but tourists and expats should be aware of it and it is perfectly legal for anyone to use. It is often handy to have a few Cuban Pesos on hand, and CUC can be exchanged for CUP in hotels, banks and exchange facilities.
Visitors to the country should be vigilant when paying for goods in the widely used Cuban Convertible Peso. Some scam artists will charge in CUC and give back change in CUP, resulting in foreigners being robbed of money. It is best to familiarise yourself with how each currency looks.
Furthermore, unlike some other countries that accept US dollars as legal tender, this is not the case in Cuba. Those paying in US dollars will be charged a 10% commission.
Despite being one of the least developed countries in Latin America, UNESCO rates Cuba as having the best education system. Ever since the Cuban revolution in the 1950s, the schooling of children has dramatically improved.
As with the healthcare system, education lies at the centre of the government ethos. Cuba invests 13% of its GDP into the education system. Education is public and free for all citizens and literacy is at 99.8%. Even in the remotest parts of Cuba, there is a strong school network.
However, this isn’t good news for expats. Because most schools are government run, international and private education is virtually non-existent. There are two international schools in Cuba; the International School of Havana and the Ecole Francais de La Havana. These schools are incredibly expensive and many expat parents, who are unable to send their children to international schools, equip them with Spanish lessons in order to prepare them for local schools.
University education in Cuba is receiving a makeover. Undergraduate studies are being improved on feedback that courses were taking too long. They will be shortened to four years and students will face English tests before graduating. A lot of Cuban professionals cannot hold a conversation in English and this is something the government deems as important for personal development.
Like the culture of the country itself, Cuban cuisine has nods to Spanish, African and Caribbean cooking. Most dishes comprise of rice, beans and meat and many say the flavours compare to that of the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico.
Arroz con pollo is one of the most widely eaten meals in Cuba and is closely related to paella. It is simply rice with chicken, humble but delicious. Another favourite is boliche. This Cuban dish consists of beef stuffed with chorizo sausage and browned in olive oil. It is then simmered with water and onions until the meat is soft and served with rice and fried sweet plantains; a Caribbean element.
Frijoles negros is made with Spanish favourite – black beans. Popular not only in Cuba, but Venezuela, Mexico and Puerto Rico, the beans are seasoned with salt, ham hocks, onions, garlic and tomatoes. It is often served with a traditional Cuban dish such as ropa vieja. This dish is shredded flank steak in a tomato sauce, served with yellow rice and plantains.
The Cubans are also not shy of a tasty pudding. Referred to in the country as flan, but known by many across the world as crème caramel, the custard desert is topped with a caramel sauce. Cuban deserts are famed for being milky and creamy, perfect for after the richness and spiciness of main courses. Tres leches is Spanish for ‘three milks’; and the tres leches cake is made just how it translates. A light and airy sponge cake is pierced with a fork and a mix of condensed milk and evaporate milk is poured on top and left to soak in. The cake is then topped with heavy whipped cream.
An influence from the Caribbean, rum is a real hit in Cuba. It is often mixed with Coca-Cola, sprite, or ginger ale, and mojitos are also very popular. For those not fancying alcohol, guarapo is juice made from pressed sugar cane and is enjoyed across the whole of Latin America. Cubans are also really proud of their coffee industry and it is served strong and with sugar.
Cuba has a low threat of terrorism, but visitors and expats should always be aware of the global threat of indiscriminate terrorist attacks which could be in public areas. Crime levels are also low in the country, with the majority of crime against expats and foreigners often opportunistic theft. There have been cases where suitcases have been tampered with on arrival and departure, so bags should not contain any valuables. Having luggage shrink-wrapped before check in is a great deterrent.
There are a small number of bogus tour operators and taxi drivers operating around Old Havana. If a visitor, do not travel with anyone other than your designated tour agent. If you require a taxi, make sure it is a government registered vehicle and not a private car.
Car-related crime and muggings can occur from time to time, but mostly in the capital of Havana and busy Santiago de Cuba. This said, levels of crime are really low and the only real threat on expats and holiday makers is pick pockets and bag snatchers.
Much of Cuba is exactly how you would have imagined it, 1950s cars and pretty pastel buildings. However, there is more than meets the eye with Cuba. If you want to indulge in the history of the country, or want to escape civilisation altogether and roam with the crocodiles, there are a number of places to visit.
Not to be confused with the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago, the small town of only 60,000 people sits on Cuba’s southern coast. For visitors, Trinidad is exactly what you would expect to find on a postcard. The streets are all cobblestones, enveloped in pastel-painted old Spanish architecture. Music and dance fill the streets and it is the best place for salsa lessons in the whole of Cuba.
There are fascinating museums and bell towers in Trinidad, as well as illegal hole-in-the-wall pizza shops that pop up every lunchtime and disappear once their stock is sold. Ancon beach is also a highlight of Trinidad, it is a quintessential Caribbean beach, with turquoise water and white sand.
Much like Trinidad, Havana’s old town is still very much pastel colours and European flavours. However, considering Havana is the capital city, modernisation is slowly trying to encroach. Nevertheless, UNESCO has pumped money into the Old Town, restoring its cafes, cigar and chocolate shops. Veering down cobbled alleyways will lead to the seafront, fantastic for a walk in the evening as it spans for miles.
Markets are a hit in the old town, with an outdoor book market in the north and artisan market stalls by the canal. When the markets become too hot, many relax on one of the many rooftop bars and wait for the midday sun to lower a little.
Boasting one of the largest wetlands in the Caribbean, the Peninsula de Zapata is a remote and sparsely populated area of Cuba. It is an area loved by bird watchers and nature lovers, and the Zapata Swamp is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. There are over 150 species of birds in Zapata including parrots and herons. One part of the peninsula is a designated nature reserves; Gran Parque Natural De Monetmar. Here, visitors can see crocodiles in their natural habitat.
Gracing eastern Cuba is beautiful Baracoa. It is the oldest city in the country and was founded in 1511 in the province of Guantanamo (yes, the Guantanamo). The city was cut off from much of the outside world until the 1960s, blessing the area with a remote and detached feel. Visitors enjoy Baracoa for its colonial architecture and lush forests, where waterfalls and pretty beaches provide a relief from the steamy jungle.
Hikers also enjoy guided ascents of the 589-meter summit of El Yunque. The hillside of the flat-topped mountain is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve where rare birds and plants thrive.
Of course, the beaches and towns of Cuba are beautiful, but a trip to Santa Clara can add depth to a Cuban itinerary. Santa Clara is a vibrant university town steeped in rich cultural attractions. It is also the famous site of the last guerrilla battle led by Che Guevara in 1958. His body was laid to rest in Santa Clara and his mausoleum and monument, the Memorial Comandente Ernest ‘Che’ Guevara, are the town’s big attractions.
Santa Clara is also home to one of Cuba’s last remaining theatres. Despite several renovations, the Teatro de la Caridad remains mostly in its original condition from 1885.
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