Cuba is a stunning country with a rich culture, tumultuous history and a fascinating present. Having spent two weeks travelling around Cuba over the new year I am desperate to go back and walk the roads of Old Havana again, meander in the valleys of Vinales and sip Pina Coladas in Trinidad.
Here are just some of the strange and wonderful things about Cuba…
1. Coca Cola is officially not allowed in the country
Due to the Cuban economic embargo, Cuba is only one of two countries in the world where the sale of Coca Cola is prohibited – North Korea being the other.
However, Cuba is nothing but adaptable. Who needs standard Coca-Cola when you have the amazing Ciego Montero, the Government owned soft drink that will leave you asking –coca-cola who?!
2. Christmas is new to Cuba
After the revolution Christmas was not officially acknowledged and was a working day like any other. Since 1997 however Christmas was welcomed back and marked with a public holiday through some cajoling by the Pope. Spending Christmas in Cuba it did not seem like a particularly note worthy day (new years is more of a big deal) however kitsch and brash Christmas trees can be seen adorning living rooms through street windows.
3. Cubans love art
Cubans loves all type of art from depicting political satire on canvas to painting the history of mankind on mountains. Yes – mountains.
The heritage mountains in Vinales – depicting the history of the world
A painting spotted in Trinidad titled ‘The Last Supper for Uncle Sam’
One thing that was surprisingly missing however was an abundance of cool revolutionary murals and street art propaganda. Images of Che Guevera and Castro would dominate the streets, we thought, turns out you’re better off in gentrified capitalist yuppie towns for that.
Finally! One of the few Che Guevara murals we spotted – in Santa Clara, the spiritual home of the revolution
4. Cuba is home to the best Cigars in the world
Cuban cigars are so famous that only hours before signing the embargo on Cuba JFK sent his personal assistant to buy 1200 of Cuba’s finest. Nothing but the best for the American President! It is also said that the CIA tried to assassinate Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar. The CIA- always adapting for their their audience, eh
A tobacco farm we visited. The leaves here are then dried for 3 years before being rolled into cigars.
5. Cubans make the best drinks in the world
Cuba’s beverages are well known around the world. From Ernest Hemmingway’s favoured Mojitos and daiquiris (he once drank 16 daiquiris in one sitting – a record still not broken) to the famed Cuban Pina Colada, Cuba definitely has the best mocktails and they don’t even bat an eyelid when ordering sans alcohol (London establishments, take note). This Pina Colada pictured below was positively the best drink I’ve ever had (many sampled in Cuba but this was the best – people come from far and wide for a Pina Colada at the Heritage Mountain at Vinales).
Magic in a glass
So tempting are the drinks that the CIA even tried to assassinate Castro with a poisonous drink in 1963. The attempt went awry when the poison pill stuck to the freezer where the waiter-assassin at the Havana Hilton was supposed to retrieve it. When he tried to unstick it, the capsule ripped open. Seriously US, give the guy a break.
6. Cuba will make you a Vintage Car lover
The most prevalent image in many peoples mind of Cuba is of course the beautiful vintage Cars – walking around Havana feels like being transported to the 1950’s with cool Cadillac’s swishing past with effortless cool.
Even the school buses emit vintage cool
Slightly less glamorous than the American Cadillac’s are the vintage Soviet Ladas – both make for some great photos however.
The less glamorous, but functional, Soviet Ladas
7. You need to get your head round Cuba’s two currencies!
Cuba is one of a handful of countries that has more than one currency. The two official currencies – the Cuban Peso and Cuban Convertible Peso – have been in effect since 1994 and can cause a lot of confusion for foreigners. The stronger CUC is pegged to the dollar, whilst the peso is a fraction of the CUC’s value and mostly unavailable for foreigners. Both currencies cannot be traded outside of the country and the whole process can make it a challenge to know how much to pay or what currencies prices refer to – especially in more remote areas. A cause of much frustration for Cubans, there are plans to disband of this system and only have one currency in 2015. Though it’s pretty cool we were unable to even get our hands on the peso – it’s closely guarded against foreign hands!
8. Cuba has some of the most beautiful Architecture in the world
Stunning architecture abounds in Cuba – In Havana weathered buildings are infused with Colonial Spanish and Moorish influences.
The well preserved colonial town of Trinidad is distinctive with its colourful buildings and cobbled streets.
The beautiful cobbled roads of Trinidad
Sippin’ a Pina Colada in Trinidad
The city of Cienfuegos has a distinctly different feel due to its French and Italian influences.
From the withered, shabby buildings that allude to a former period of wealth and glory to the newly restored and painted, the architecture is one of Cuba’s most beautiful and enduring legacies.
9.Cuba has one of the best (FREE) healthcare systems in the world
Some people may know that Cuba has a world class free healthcare system which according to the WHO is a model to be emulated by the world. It should be no surprise then that Cuba is possibly home to the largest medical school in the world by enrollment as the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) has over 19,000 students from over 100 countries. All those enrolled are international students from Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Cuba is a hub for medical study and research and whilst staying in Cienfuegos we randomly met two Pakistani female medical students in their final year of Medical school in Cuba. Following the 2005 Earthquake in Pakistan the Cuban Government offered 1000 scholarships for Pakistani’s to study medicine in Cuba, with everything paid for including accommodation and food.
10. Who needs Hollywood? Bollywood reigns supreme here
Photo Credit: www.hercampus.com
Indian shows and films are on every TV in Cuba. It was most strange having Cubans question me on how an Indian family allowed their son to marry a non-Indian (me) and then proceed to share their insights and words of warning about the case of the Indian Mother in Law (the unrelenting baddy in every Indian drama).
11. The Towel Origami game in Cuba is another level
It’s no secret that hotels in Cuba are quite basic – as they are all mostly Government owned frivolous luxury is not really an option, but who needs lavish toiletries and swanky showers when you have staff so gifted in the skill of towel origami? Nearly every hotel we stayed in (and we stayed in a fair few) had some interesting towel origami waiting for us on our bed – all with hand written, endearing notes.
Elephant towel was of course our favorite.
12. You’ll Never Walk Alone in Cuba
Premier league football is popular all around the world – and Cuba is no exception. With no internet access, keeping up with football scores proved to be no issue as all premiership games are televised live – a better set up than in England! One thing was glaringly obvious; no Premiership team is as popular in Cuba as Liverpool FC. From tour guides to farmer’s kids, and salsa singers – Liverpool shirts were spotted everywhere.
Liverpool fans everywhere, much to Ali’s annoyance
13. A Taxi ride will make you feel like you’re in a music video
I challenge anyone to find a country anywhere in the world that offers a more thrilling taxi ride experience than in Cuba. From vintage cool to mini micro taxis, the cab experience in Cuba is unsurpassed by any other destination I’ve visited.
Bouncing up and down in the back of a bright magenta vintage Cadillac taxi through the old town of Havana with blaring Cuban music is the closest we’ve felt to being in a rap video, and I admit, it felt pretty damn cool.
14. You will learn about a religion you’re probably unfamiliar with
Cuba is home to a significant number of adherents of the Yoruba religion. Yoruba is a religion from Nigeria, Africa which was brought over to Cuba from Nigeria via the Spanish slave trade.
Visiting a Yoruba Temple
Though the religion was technically banned by the Roman Catholic Spanish colonialists, Yoruba believers held on to their faith and practiced in secret, often incorporating key religious beliefs into Christian narratives and parables. Yoruba adherents and symbolism can be observed across Cuba and it was very interesting to learn about a religion and practices we knew almost nothing about previously. We visited a Yoruba temple and learnt about the Iroko tree’s significance to in the religion.
The Iroko tree – religiously significant for the Yoruba
15. Bodegas – the one Shop not for tourists
Cuba has been subjected to a stringent embargo for over 50 years, severely limiting exports out of and imports into the country. As such, stores have a very different feel to what most foreign visitors are accustomed to and empty shelves are a normal and frequent sight. To address food shortages Cuba operates a ration system where citizens are provided basic foods and items – these are located in the ration store known as the bodega. These exist in most neighborhoods and are a hallmark of the Socialist state.
And there you have it, just some of the strange and wonderful things about Cuba though of course these can not be confined to just 15. I would recommend anyone who has the opportunity to visit as soon as possible as Cuba is set to change hugely in the next couple of years – experience it as it is whilst you still can!