1) Learn a little Spanish
English skills amongst Cuban people are increasing pretty rapidly, and quite significantly so in the main traveller hot-spots. The Cuban people are realising that English is the world language and is therefore a primary factor in a successful tourism industry.
Having said that, we wouldn’t recommend coming to Cuba without learning a little of the basics. Your Spanish attempts will go a long way, show politeness, a willing to engage, and may even open you up to new experiences that you wouldn’t have found otherwise. So, order yourself a beginners phrase-book and make sure to pack it in your hand luggage!
We believe that one of the purposes of travelling is to see and experience things different from our own. In which case, why not use this trip as an excuse to extend your repertoire and start a new hobby? Spanish is a simple language to learn, is spoken in many countries around the world, and is invaluable in furthering your travelling experiences!
Download the offline version of a Spanish translation app (SpanishDict is a personal favourite) and you’ll have all the words and phrases at your fingertips. You’re welcome.
Cubans are born communicators. Don’t expect to sit in a bar on your own for long – buy yourself a beer, enjoy the atmosphere, and you’ll soon have ten new friends at your table!
Even if you don’t speak Spanish, try! Take Spanish classes, ask to practice with the locals, make an effort! No one likes lazy, and after all – you’re in their country. Don’t expect them to speak English!
2) Stay in a casa particular
Staying in a casa particular is an unforgettable experience. Cubans are one of the most hospitable people in the world, so missing out on staying in their homes would stop you enjoying the ‘real’ Cuba. Not only will you eat proper Cuban food (not the overpriced, under portioned food you get in government run hotels), but you will be treated as part of the family whilst having a sneak-peak of life in a country very different to yours.
The casa particular families will welcome you with open arms, and they will help you with pretty much everything you need in life. Organising cars, giving local tips, making packed lunches, teaching you how to cook, smoking cigars with you, hiring bicycles, organising salsa lessons, you name it! Don’t be afraid to sit and chat with them, they love meeting new people and will be equally as curious about your life as you are theirs.
We have a network of casa particular owners around the island, so get in touch for our recommendations or if you’d like us to organise your stays!
3) Travel like a local
Cuba has all sorts of weird and wonderful travel methods and we challenge you to try them all!
Obviously, let’s start with the Classic American cars. Go on… be a tourist, hire a convertible and ride along the Malecon in Havana with a bottle of rum in hand. This is luxury.
But later, do what the locals do and jump in a bicitaxi (bicycle taxi) home! Perfect for shorter journeys, and a real fun experience – but do the guy a favour and don’t pick any steep hills! Tip them well – these men work HARD for very little money, especially in less touristy places.
Jump in a taxi colectivo! These are fun and economical, especially if you’re travelling longer distances between towns. You’ll experience a free-spirited drive with the windows down, latino music pumping out the stereo, and the Cuban wind flowing manically through your hair (a tip for the ladies… tie your hair up or you’ll forever be brushing the knots out!).
Here’s for the real local experience: jump on a ‘guagua’ (pronounced ‘wahwah’). This is a bus with a set route and usually has a lot of passengers and a chicken or two! They stop often, and can be confusing, but any friendly Cuban will help you navigate the system. It’s well worth the hassle – a guagua from Havana to Viñales, for example, costs just 2CUC!
Hitchhiking in Cuba is just like sharing a ride. It’s normal, safe, and fun! You can often travel miles on just a few local Cuban pesos (CUP) and have a great experience doing so. Stand at the side of the road, stick out your arm, and await your ride!
Taxi colectivos can be organised by your casa particular host if you’re looking to travel between the towns. They’ll charge in CUC and you should ask a few people first to gauge the right budget so you don’t get ripped off.
The Viazul buses are known as the ‘tourist bus’. You will rarely see Cubans using this mode of transport. If you do use it, take a warm jumper! They’re air conditioned and can get incredibly cold. We’d also recommend to book in advance online.
4) Get off the beaten track
There was a time that simply being in Cuba meant you were already off the beaten track. But recently, tourism has grown immensely and a clear tourist trail has emerged. By no means is this bad, in fact, it’s a great thing for the Cuban economy and for their cultural awareness, but it also means you’ll end up talking to more visitors than you will Cubans.
Whilst we don’t want to leak all the secrets of Cuba just yet, in fear of outing all the secret gems, we will urge you to jump on a guagua bus and see where you end up! Cuba is remarkably safe, and you will find hospitality in all areas of the island, so find your inner adventurer and see where the wind takes you!
We will soon be putting together a blog of some hidden spots in Viñales and Piñar del Rio, so keep your eyes peeled for our next blog post.
5) Eat like a cuban
We have read so many blogs on how poor the food is in Cuba and we just cannot understand it. Are we on a different island?
Granted, the Cubans don’t offer an array of Indian, Chinese or Vietnamese restaurants nor will you see a KFC on every corner. But what they do offer is a sustainable, fresh, organic and healthy diet.
The standard dinner table in the casa particulares consists of rice, black bean stew (it’s seriously incredible), pork/chicken/fish, salad (cucumbers, pepper, avocados, mangos), yuka (a type of yummy potato), fried plantain chips, beans, banana, papaya, guava, fresh fruit juice…. you will truly never go hungry when a Cuban is in charge of feeding you. Don’t even get us started on the breakfasts…
Eating in the casa particulares or in paladares (local private restaurants, not government owned) will truly ignite your senses. If you eat in the touristy restaurants every day, not only will you pay double the price for half the portion, but you’ll get bland and tasteless food.
You’re in Cuba – trust the locals, do as they do, support their private businesses, and you’ll soon thank us!