This is one of the stereotypical things that you will hear about Cuba, and it’s true. The US-imposed trade embargo against Cuba (which is slowly being relaxed) sort of froze the island in time. To wander around Cuba can really feel like you’ve gone back to a more simple time. Sometimes it can feel a little bit jarring to actually see a modern convenience, such as someone using a smartphone, or one of the rare internet cafes. The island offers a relaxed way of life, which is one of its key attractions. Yeah, the island has been somewhat isolated in many ways, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.
You kind of forget how consumer-crazy much of the world is, filled with shopping malls full of chain stores. It’s not as though Cuba is totally lacking in these things, but it seems to place less of an emphasis on it. There aren’t gigantic billboards advertising fast food or the latest iPhone. But still, there are plenty of entertainment options in Cuba, and you can certainly get a bit of shopping done. It’s just not the place where the population is encouraged to spend their money on stuff that they generally don’t need. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of shopping therapy, but it’s refreshing to go somewhere different.
It’s another Cuban stereotype, but one of the best indulgences in Cuba is also one of the best-known. The quality of rum is astounding, and there are many more different varieties than the Cuban rum that can be found in other countries. Having a drink (or two, or three) in the evening is such a social activity, and while people consume a lot of alcohol, there’s not the drunk-culture that exists in many parts of the world. It’s rare to encounter aggressively drunk people on a Saturday night, which is something you generally expect in many cities.
Regardless of your views on smoking, it can also be strangely nice to be in a place where people aren’t so afraid of smoking. Yes, it’s unhealthy and can lead to all kinds of illnesses (which is hardly a secret), but the sweet, rich scent of cigar smoke is such a fundamental part of a night out in Cuba. These hand-rolled beauties smell so much different than the harsh scent of cigarettes, and you might smell someone smoking a cigar many years later, which will instantly remind you of your time in Cuba.
You might not agree with the dominant political system in Cuba, and much of the world did not (which is one of the reasons why Cuba spent decades in the political wilderness). Having said that, it’s so darn interesting to visit a country where the political system is so different to the rest of the world. A word of warning: It’s never polite to be overly critical of a country you’re visiting, and this is particularly true in Cuba. You might loathe the ideals of socialism and communism, but this is not something you should make a big deal of while in Cuba. Political discussions with Cubans can be fine, and yet it should be a discussion; not a list of all the things you think is wrong with Cuba. This is simply impolite. Just enjoy the different points of view.
The nightlife of Cuba is something that many people are keen to experience. It’s not all rum and cigars, and let’s not forget that its music is one of Cuba’s most famous exports. When the salsa music begins to play (and it’s often performed by a wonderfully-talented live band), it can be astonishing to watch the locals dance.
Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, and it seems that in addition to reading and writing, everyone was taught to dance. Or maybe it’s just in their blood! Don’t be afraid to join in, even if your own salsa dancing skills are somewhat lacking.
The Warmth of the People
Group tours in Cuba are a great way to make new friends, but you can also make a lot of Cuban friends. People are warm and curious, and just so darn friendly. If you happen to stay at a Casa Particular (a Cuban bed and breakfast), you will feel like you’re staying with some long-lost family members.
English isn’t so widely spoken, but people will do their best to communicate with you and to make you feel so very welcome.