Cuba was always a mystery to me. The Cuban Missile Crisis happened just before I turned one. Growing up we were taught to fear Cuba and the thought of visiting Cuba in my life would never have occurred to me. So imagine my surprise and excitement when I found out that the cruise I was going to be on was turning into a Havana, Cuba cruise. I found our trip so educational that I decided to share the 10 Surprising things I learned about Cuba.
1. Americans cannot be tourists in Cuba. I shared this information last week in my post, How Not To Be A Tourist In Cuba. As an American, we had to fill out a travel affidavit that included the reason why we wanted to be there. These included Cultural and Educational reasons along with People to People exchanges and even an option for not getting off the ship in Cuba. (Since 2017, this has changed and we again cannot travel to Cuba from the US.)
2. The official currency of Cuba is the Cuban Peso aka the CUP. The 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, which they heavily relied on, caused economic hardships for Cuba. Cuban Convertible Pesos or CUC is the currency that Cuba created in 1994 to compete in the world market. CUCs are the official money of visitors to Cuba, this is what you change your money into. CUCs are now used so much in Cuba, that Cubans prefer to use them over the CUPs or Pesos, and in the next year or two will probably be the only currency of Cuba. Interestingly, for Americans, while a CUC is equal to a dollar, the exchange rate has a 10% penalty and a 3% processing fee so 100 US dollars gets you 87 CUCs. Better to exchange your money in the US for Canadian money as they didn’t have to pay a penalty. (And also better to exchange any extra CUCs back before you leave Cuba. You cannot use or exchange CUCs anywhere else but in Cuba.
3. It’s illegal to own an American car that was built after 1959. This one makes sense because after that the embargo started. There are plenty of old American cars still on the road though and everyone who finds out I went to Cuba asks me about them first. The cars are kept running by ingenuity and improvisation. Don’t have access to a part anymore? Modify something else to do the job.
Speaking of cars, it’s more expensive to buy a used car than to buy a new car. Sounds crazy, but there’s a reason for that. It takes about two years to receive your new car, so a readily available used car will be more expensive. Supply and demand.
4. There are none of the fast food restaurants that we know in Cuba. Because of the embargo, the only McDonald’s on Cuba is on the US military base at Guantamano Bay. The only type of “fast” food that can be had is in restuarants that people created out of their house. This is a recent development of private businesses being allowed and paladares, home restaurants were born. Actually, they were in place before, but Raul Castro made them legal in 2008.
5. Education is free for all. This includes going to the Universities and it’s something that Cubans are very proud of. This led to a funny situation in which a guy, calling himself Dennis, was trying to sell me an Afro-Cuban CD for 12 CUC and claimed it was to help him pay for his kid’s education. We didn’t buy the CD, but we did give him a couple of our last coins for making a valiant effort.
6. English is taught in all schools, starting in third grade. Unlike in the US where taking a language is a voluntary thing, English is required in Cuba. I was also really impressed with the number of people who spoke English very clearly. Not just tour guides either, but regular people in the streets.
7. Cuba is still officially in mourning for Fidel (this was in 2017)and will be until the one-year anniversary of his death. Everywhere you go there are murals, mosaics, photos, or art of some type depicting Castro. During an elaborate funeral, his funeral procession followed the same route out of Havana that he followed into Havana during his victory march. He is buried in Santiago, near where he grew up.
I appreciated the above photo because I love the look on the little boy’s face. A look of “Is he going to eat all my food?”
8. Hitchhiking is legal in Cuba. With few cars in comparison to the size of the population, it’s difficult for Cubans to get around. Hitchhiking is not only legal but people with vehicles are encouraged to pick up those who are hitchhiking. We were told by our tour guide that government officials, driving government cars are required to pick up hitchhikers. Many private taxis operate on the “going in the same direction” method. Instead of taking a person to a specific location, a group of people, all pay a lower fee to go to the same general vicinity of where they want to be.
9. The rum flows freely in Cuba and wow, it’s the best rum I’ve ever had. I was drinking rum at 9:30 in the morning and it wasn’t just the tourists who were doing it. The drinking age is officially 18, but not really observed. And while the tour guides tell you this takes away all the problems of drinking, I read in other places that there is a teen drinking problem. I will tell you that I was surprised at how smooth Cuban rum is. We actually brought back two bottles of rum both were aged for 7 years. The Legendario Elixir de Cuba is one that I consider a sipping rum. No mixer, no ice. Just rum, please.
10. The average salary in Cuba is 35 CUP or CUC per month. Yes, per month. If you refer back to item number 3, Dennis was trying to sell me a CD for 12 CUC, which was approximately half of what is normally earned in one month. To give some perspective on how little you get with that…one hour of wifi in Cuba costs 10 CUC.
One last thing I learned is that Cubans don’t pronounce it Cu-ba (as in cue like a cue stick) instead they pronounce it Coo-ba (like in a baby coo.) I hope you enjoyed learning some new things about Cuba as I did.