I’m stumbling over the scattered rocks and pebbles of the cobbled streets of Old Havana (Habana Vieja) with my mouth wide open. Apartment blocks stacked on top of each other like old cardboard boxes are bathed in the last of the evening’s lilac light.
Paint from the crumbling casas flakes from the walls like dry skin. Shirtless teenagers are kicking a battered football around the street as the heat slowly loosens its chokehold on the city.
Everything is worth watching, each moment, a scene from a telenovela. I am travelling Cuba solo.
So you haven’t yet got your Cuba itinerary and you’re not really sure what’s waiting for you on the Caribbean island. So allow me to set the scene…
Retro cars racing through a melting, orange, Havana sunset.
Sultry teenagers tapping their toes to an infectious salsa-beat.
The distant clip-clop of a horse-drawn carriage on cobbled streets.
Thick, sweet cigar smoke billowing from the mouths of elderly locals…
Life in Cuba is a complicated, beautiful…mess. Don’t expect things to work logically, because a lot of the time they won’t. But do expect a vibrant way of living unparalleled to any other place, with some of the friendliest people in the world.
After spending almost a month in Cuba from December 2016-January 2017, experiencing all the highs and lows it has to offer, and talking to plenty of Cubans, I’ve compiled a list of essential need-to-knows.
Because although Cuba hasn’t really been shrouded in mystery (at least not for travellers outside the US), there’s a lot of misinformation out there about what life in Cuba is really like for both locals and tourists.
Here are 12 crazy things you should know about Cuba before you go.
Hitch-hiking is a way of life
I read in someone’s Cuba Lonely Planet that the country has less traffic on the road than 1940s’ Britain. And driving around is definitely a bit eerie – a bit 28 Days Later if you will. Like it’s normal to pass groups of people at the side of the motorway, surrounded by bags, thumbing lifts and running desperately towards the nearest moving vehicle because car ownership is so rare in Cuba that all cars and trucks are potential taxis. I’ve also read online that it’s mandatory for government vehicles to pick up locals and that it’s illegal for Cubans to take foreigners in their cars without a taxi license. (I can attest to the latter part because once, my entire taxi was taken to the police station – with all of us in it – when a street cop realised I was a tourist and not a Cuban).
There are queues for everything
Being British I thought I could handle a line or two, but Cuba takes it to a whole other level; there are queues for buying water, street food, getting into museums, waiting for taxis and of course, the coveted Wi-fi cards.
Cuban queues are different to ALL other queues in the world so don’t try and queue like you do back home
Cubans have their own distinctive style of queuing that basically works like this; imagine you’re the last person to join ANY queue in Cuba. You have to say: “ultima persona?” meaning “who’s the last person?” to find out where the line ends. The person who was last will make themselves known until someone else comes along and asks if you’re the “ultima”, to which you will say yes, and so it continues so everyone knows who is in front and behind them. Why? Well it’s really normal for Cubans to dip out of line and return back again one, two, or three hours later – so remembering who is around you is supposed to stop things getting confusing (it doesn’t).
Wi-Fi is rationed with cards
Ok, so although not rationed in the WW2-sense, accessing the internet is a mission. You’ll need to purchase a one or five -hour Wi-Fi card ($1.50 and $5.50 respectively) from either the national internet provider, ETEC (expect queues of at least 90 minutes), or from street hustlers and other shops who will charge you more than double (up to $7 for one hour, sometimes). Another normal part of life in Cuba!
Wi-Fi is only accessible from certain parks and hotels
This would never work in the UK because it rains all the time, but life in Cuba is characterised by public Wi-Fi spots, outside. Once you have your card, you need to head to a designated spot (recognisable because everyone’s sitting in the street with their phones/laptops) and login. Touristy hotels also have Wi-Fi but sometimes Cubans aren’t allowed in.
There are two currencies
CUC (peso convertible) is used for most tourist activities, hotel prices, club entry and taxi fares and is pinned to the dollar. CUP (peso Cubano or moneda nacional) is known as the ‘local’ currency and is accepted almost everywhere, but is mainly used for street food, buses and other ‘local’ activities.
1 CUC = $~1 USD = 25 CUP
Both currencies are called ‘pesos’ amoung locals
Just to confuse things even more.
The average monthly Cuban wage is $25
Doctors, receptionists, politicians… life in Cuba means everyone makes $25 a month thanks to a Communist regime that’s been enforced since 1959 which, as a consequence, means the hustle in Cuba is also very real (scams are everywhere). However, looking at the average Cuban you’d never guess the extent of their poverty; they’re fiercely proud and it’s common to see guys dressed in head to toe labels.
The local price and the tourist price. And that applies, no matter what currency you’re paying in. Museums, clubs and buses will advertise both prices openly but sometimes in local shops and markets, it’s just kind of just unsaid which can be frustrating. For example, people often assumed I was Cubana when I hid my camera (and spoke very little) and one time when my accent must have been particularly good, I paid 0.50c/CUC for a portion of churros in the street. The following week I returned and was fed some BS about the price changing to $1 because of the packet size, when I’d just watched Cubans pay the price I’d been charged the week before. My Cuban friend told me it’s because I looked like a tourist that day.
Three generations of families often live in one space
Staying in a couple of Havana home-stays, I witnessed how life in Cuba really is for the average family. Often times in one tiny space, you’ll have; a mother and/or father, a grand-parent, a baby, plus various cousins and brothers and sisters. The largest, nicest rooms are rented out to the tourists (and came with air-con, fridges, a double beds) whereas the Cubans often piled into one or two rooms, with shared beds.
Christmas isn’t really a thing
I travelled through Cuba during Christmas and it’s like any other day. A few restaurants may have some decorations up and you might spot a waiter in a Santa hat, but that’s about it. This was probably because Christmas was actually banned in Cuba until 1997.
Experiencing life in Cuba as a tourist, is an unforgettable, eye-opening, slightly maddening experience. Could I live there? Probably, yeah – but not for too long because the restrictiveness of daily life might break me. (One time I cried after queuing for 2 hours only to learn that they were out of Wi-Fi cards). I’m still itching to get back though…
Are you going to Cuba or have you experienced any of the above? Tell me!