Beyond the vintage cars: what to expect in Cuba

Whether you’re a US citizen chomping at the bit for the potential chance to visit this “forbidden” country, or merely interested in what makes this Caribbean island so different; here’s the lowdown on what to expect in Cuba.

what to expect in Cuba

“El Che” is depicted on murals throughout the country

You only get one chance at life. Whatever you choose to do, don’t be afraid,”

the former Cuban revolutionary said to me, as we chatted over a cup of coffee.

From revolution to evolution with the recent thawing of relations with the US, Cuba is a land where reminders of that revolution, its heroes and its ethos are everywhere.

What to expect in Cuba: be prepared for paradoxes

Where pro-revolution street art enhances the colours on the streets of Havana, and anti-US murals and rhetoric adorn the displays in the state-run Museum of the Revolution.

Where the healthcare system and quality of education for its healthcare professionals is world class. But the shelves of pharmacies are devoid of medicines.

Where deserted three lane highways – very few can afford a car here – are used more by horse-drawn carts and the local cycling club than they are by motorised vehicles.

what to expect in Cuba: horse and cart

Horse and cart: a standard mode of transport for Cubans

Where band members are as eclectic as their music. A four-piece ranging in age from 18-80 isn’t untypical. Whether it’s ballet, salsa or jazz, Cuba’s vibrant music scene is top class.

Where crumbling facades can hide beautiful homes, depending on how far government funding for renovations has reached. I stayed on this street in downtown Havana … it was light, bright and full of beautiful tiles inside.

what to expect in Cuba: Havana street

check out the trainers!

Where the reality of the ration system the local people live under is partially offset by a government policy that encourages grow-your-own. Result: fresh and organic (seasonal) fruits and vegetables. Energy consumption and pollution levels are also very low.

Where Cuba’s previous economic ties to the former USSR and Eastern Bloc countries have left their mark. German is a second language amongst many of the older generation, who worked in the former East Germany in the 1970s.

The queue in Cuba is king

The Cuban’s know how to queue. Sadly this efficiency is down to the ration system and slowness of services we take for-granted, but they’re still good at it. Be warned though, there may not appear to be a queue at all, but trust me, there is!

When arriving at a throng of people, shout out “quién es el último?” (who’s last?), clock the face of that person, wait until the next person arrives and clocks your face. Then go and do something more productive whilst the queue goes down. A beer is a good option.

Casas particulares

AirBnB as a solo traveller

casa particular in Cienfuegos, Cuba

I’d highly recommend staying in casas particulares (Cuba’s equivalent to AirBnB). Stay in one casa, and they’ll have a friend with one in the next town, so there’s no need to book everything in advance. They’ll call ahead for you, and if other tourists have turned up in the meantime to fill the room (hard currency is king here, it’s a case of first come, first served), another friend with a room or two to let will be sent instead to meet you from your bus. You won’t be left stranded.

As a result, don’t be perturbed to be picked up at the bus station by someone you weren’t expecting who has a sign with your name on. Go with the flow. Incidentally, this is how I met my Cuban revolutionary quoted at the start of this article.

What to expect in Cuban from the cuisine

what to expect in Cuba - machete

I hope this guy was using his machete on the sugar cane …

You don’t go to Cuba for the food. In my opinion, the most flavoursome food is to be found in the casas particulares, who offer in-house dining of the set-menu variety – you may be asked at breakfast whether you want meat A or meat B for dinner, otherwise you get what you’re given. They’re great value and you won’t go hungry. Cuban bean soup is a staple of the casas, and dear God it’s good!

Other options are state-run restaurants, or dining in a parador – the equivalent of someone’s front room. The former was – in my view – ok, but a lot more expensive and a bit bland. Some foods are restricted by the Government and should in theory only be available in the state-run restaurants. You could however be offered these foods elsewhere – in a whisper 😉 I can say from experience that the $10 unofficial lobster is goooooooood.

You can convert a little of your hard currency to local currency at the Cuban banks if you want a taste of Cuban street food. Gear yourself up for ice-cream, cups of tea, and “peso pizza” from the hole-in-the-wall vendors – you can have any flavour you want so long as it’s ham and (pungent) cheese.

Cuban transport

Buy inter-city bus tickets a day in advance. You’ll find your money deposited in a cash register that makes the one in 70 & 80s British sitcom “Open All Hours” look modern. For a bus/taxi alternative, pay a man with a car (your casa will know someone) – if there’s more than two of you this is a pretty cost-effective option.

what to expect in Cuba: vintage car

it wouldn’t be an article on Cuba without a picture of a car

If the car you’re in breaks down / stops for dodgy fuel at a mate’s house – don’t panic; this is all completely normal (here!).

For a touristy trip, the steam train from Trinidad to the Valle de los Ingenios is good fun.

what to expect in Cuba: steam train

take a day trip from Trinidad on this steam train. The stop is the sugar plantation

Horse and cart or pedal-power are the norm in Cienfuegos 🙂

Rum

Rum measures here are a myth. After a few mojitos – or honey-induced canchanchara in Trinidad – you’ll think you’re the world’s best salsa dancer (ok, maybe that was just me). Be prepared for the world’s worst hangover.

Know that blending in is futile

You will stand out as a tourist, even if you’re in regular jeans, speak perfect Spanish and have no visible rucksack or camera with you. Your clothes will betray you. Clothes in Cuba are rationed and you will see rails of second-hand clothes everywhere with fervently-browsing locals. Fashion capital it is most definitely not.

Even if you are the least-fashion conscious person in your home country, you’re going to stand out in Cuba. This isn’t a scary kinda stand out though. Although people will come and talk to you – and maybe ask for some hard currency – this isn’t a threatening place.

And least but definitely not least: Don’t be afraid

what to expect in Cuba

A crumbling church. An ancient car. Cuba in stereotype.

Cuba is like nowhere else I’ve ever been.

As the Cuban revolutionary said: “You only get one chance at life. Whatever you choose to do, don’t be afraid.”

There’s something we can all take from this quote, no matter what you think of Cuban politics and the men behind it.

Don’t be afraid to experience and make your own mind up about this Caribbean island.

Have you been to Cuba? What did you expect, and did it match up to those expectations? Share your experiences below.

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4 Responses to Beyond the vintage cars: what to expect in Cuba

  1. Jacqueline Wallace 26 December 2014 at 10:04 am #

    Went to Cuba in 2004 and found it was like no other. Wonderful to see life without KFC, Burger King etc. People, although impoverished, were so friendly and the musicans just jammin’ everywhere wered fantastic! I WILL definitely return.

    • Julie 31 December 2014 at 3:56 pm #

      Definitely, the music is enough to get feet-a-tapping amongst even the most dance-phobic 🙂

  2. Andy Holt 24 December 2014 at 5:33 am #

    Went to Cuba in 1997 (although that was on an organised trip), really should get back at some point soon and do it as an independent traveller.

    • Julie 24 December 2014 at 4:31 pm #

      Hi Andy. Definitely, you should do it:)

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