10 Surprising Facts About Cuba
Cuba is a country unlike any other. After President Obama announced the US would take steps towards normalizing relations with the island nation in late 2014 the country became significantly more open to American travelers. Tourism has increased significantly, by as much as 17% in 2015 by some accounts. But what makes the country so special? For anyone considering a trip, here are ten things to know about Cuba:
Note: I was in Cuba the summer of 2015. Things may have changed since then, but expect them to largely be the same.
1. Cuba has been a hotspot for tourists for decades. While American tourism is just beginning in Cuba and many seemed to think of it as an off-limits mystery left to its own devices, tourism has sustained the country as a main source of revenue for years. Canadians in particular flock to Cuba on direct flights because of its affordability. While there, I ran into countless Canadian tourists, especially in the resort town of Varadero.
2. Cuba is still a communist country. Relations between the US and Cuba went south shortly after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 when Fidel Castro took control. Prior to this, the US had been an influential presence in the country. As Castro began implementing his communist agenda, the US grew wary and began to pass sanctions. The Cuban government turned to the USSR for support, which ultimately paved the way for the Cuban Missile Crisis during the Cold War. History aside, Fidel Castro passed control of the country over to his younger brother, Raúl Castro, in 2008. The country has recently allowed very limited private industry such as "paladares," or family-run restaurants in people's homes. The country is also known for its "casa paticulares," which are similar to bed and breakfasts. Otherwise businesses are state-run and government control is significant in all facets of life.
3. Expect locals to ask you for money. While the government provides basics like food (Cubans are given ration cards), expect locals to stop you on the street and ask for money. It can get frustrating after a while--it's as if everything is a trap meant to get money from you. If someone offers to show you around, for example, they'll typically expect a tip afterwards and are not afraid to tell you exactly how much they want. But the longer you're there, the more comfortable you'll become. After the first few days I knew how to spot what was happening in advance. You have to understand that jobs are typically low paying and Cubans know they can make a significant income from tourists. After all, this is a country where doctors earn less than taxi drivers. Because most wages are set by the state and private businesses are mostly prohibited, this is the only way to increase one's standard of living. So while it may feel like you're being hustled....so what? Be generous.
4. Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. 99.7% of all Cubans can read. It's also not uncommon to meet someone who can speak English fairly well. This is because Cuba has one of the best education systems in Latin America, according to the World Bank, and allocates 13% of its annual budget to education making it the highest in the world. In general social services in Cuba are robust. All education is free even through university level and there are so many doctors within the health system that many are sent abroad to aid other countries.
5. There are two currencies: one for locals and one for tourists. The Cuban peso (CUP) is used by Cubans, while the Cuban convertible peso (CUC--pronounced C.U.C. or "kook") is for tourists. The CUC is pegged to the US dollar at a 1:1 ratio, which is about 25 times the value of the CUP. This has the effect of making the luxuries tourists can afford mostly out of reach for the Cuban people. WiFi, for example, might cost you 2 CUC for an hour, which is 2 USD. The official average salary per month in Cuba is 25 USD. Do keep in mind, however, that many Cubans have jobs on the side to earn additional money, so this doesn't completely reflect more accurate estimates. There is also talk of plans to merge the currencies at some point in the future, so this confusion may eventually prove irrelevant.
Pro tip: If you're traveling to Cuba, try converting some of your money to CUP. This will allow you to live off far less. Of course, you'll also have to live like a local to save anything, and many of the things tourists buy are only sold in CUC.
6. It's mostly a cash economy. It's safest to go with the assumption that your debit and credit cards will not work there at all, especially if they are American. Foreign credit cards are more acceptable and there are plans for American cards to start being accepted as well, but cash withdraws don't work. When I went we brought everything we would spend for the month in cash and converted it at our hotel as needed. Bills have to be in good condition and free of rips or they won't be accepted. Seriously. Don't find yourself stranded without cash. As a last resort, Western Union functions in the country and you can have money wired to you, but it's a massive hassle. It's best to just take cash and stick to a budget.
7. Internet connectivity is extremely limited. Most Cubans don't have regular access at all, and neither do hotels. In fact, the state-run telecommunications company, ETECSA, does not provide internet to private homes. Fortunately we stayed at a hotel that offered WiFi, sort of. You could purchase hour-long WiFi cards for 2 CUC each that could be used for spotty reception in the lobby. These cards went by the basic rule of Cuba: sometimes they had them, sometimes they didn't. They were out of cards and we couldn't get online the entire last week of the trip. Expect to send an email to your friends and family at most once a day, and say goodbye to most social networking. That said, it was actually pretty liberating to just live my life while there with no one to deal with who wasn't in my immediate presence. Try to just live in the moment and avoid it altogether. The locals do.
8. Expect to pay for everything, including bathrooms. There are attendants in most bathrooms, including bars and sport venues. They're responsible for keeping it clean and providing things like hand towels. While I'm not sure if they earn a wage from the business, you are expected to pay for their service. This isn't optional. It's not like tipping the attendant at a nice restaurant in the States. It's a small fee--around 1 CUP--but I never carried Cuban pesos and always ended up grossly overpaying by giving the attendant 1 CUC. While it adds up if you're out drinking and need to use the restroom often, it's just a dollar and you probably won't miss it much.
Pro tip: Carry your own toilet paper as it isn't always available in restrooms.
9. Locals drive 1950s era American cars for a reason. It's not just because they look cool and draw in tourists. Before 2011, the government only allowed the sale of cars built before 1959. It then loosened the regulations to allow modern cars, but only for those holding permits which were typically reserved for senior officials and other well-regarded people of privilege like athletes and artists. In 2014 this was opened to the public, although cars are only sold through state-run dealers with markups around 400%, making them unaffordable for most.
10. Cuba is incredibly safe for travelers. Tourism is a major source of revenue, so the government takes the safety of visitors seriously. In fact, this leads to a major downside. While it's not something that seems to be publicly acknowledged, the country has a "tourist harassment" policy in place that essentially means Cubans are prohibited from interacting with locals. This is intended to prevent prostitutes and hustlers from approaching visitors. In reality it leads to discrimination. I was harassed by police officers on several occasions for walking down the street with my mostly-white friends. We were all Americans, but I have darker skin. The officers would ask me to show them "my papers" and didn't seem to take my words or American accent as sufficient proof until a friend vouched for me. It left a bad taste in my mouth and I hope it's something the country will work to fix, but be prepared. Otherwise the country is completely safe and you should take the normal travel precautions and remain aware.
So has this convinced you to check it out for yourself? Cuba is an overwhelming sensory experience you have to see for yourself to believe. As always, shoot us a message if you have any questions. We're happy to help!