At last it’s happening: you’re on the final descent into La Habana, preparing for landing at José Martí International Airport. Suddenly the cabin begins to fill with smoke, followed by gasps of alarm. Palms sweating, heart thumping, you wonder if your Cuba adventure is doomed to end before it actually begins. Fear not, this is normal for the Yak-42 planes that Cubana Airlines flies on popular routes like Cancun-Havana and your first introduction to 'only in Cuba' (the second is immigration officials in micro mini-skirts and fishnet stockings).
Waiting in a line 30-minutes long for ice-cream priced at 4 cents a scoop; getting serenaded by a hot drag queen in a transvestite supper club; enlisting the help of a babalawo to lift an evil spell - as a resident for the past 9 years, I know first-hand the unique mystique of this island. Little by little, visitors to the tune of 2.5 million a year are also discovering the inspiring but confusing, intriguing yet frustrating Cuban way of life.
Whether your travels are armchair or actual, here are some of the 'only in Cuba' reasons people fall in (or out of) love with this place.
Cuba is a phenomenal family destination for its safety, natural and cultural wonders, and the love Cubans have for children; it also may be the only vacation where your kids won’t be glued to Facebook or YouTube. Internet access is expensive ($6/hour for dial-up, a few dollars more for Wi-Fi in the handful of hotels offering it), and places to connect limited. Though not by choice, going offline can be an illuminating experience for those accustomed to constant connectivity.
The two currency tango
Rumours are rife that Cuba’s dual currency system – where pesos cubanos and pesos convertibles circulate concurrently – is going by the wayside. We’ll see, but in the meantime, visitors should take advantage of the amazing, Adam Smith-defying deals available in pesos cubanos (aka moneda nacional and CUP) including a complete lunch for $1 and spiffy theatres showing Hollywood blockbusters for pennies a pop. The myth that foreigners cannot use CUP is just that; learn to manoeuvre in this local currency and you’ll be traveling like a local and getting great bargains to boot.
40-cent rides in cars older than you (or your parents!)
They may be powered by kerosene and held together with duct tape, but the classic US cars plying Cuba’s streets work as fixed-route taxis and are a wonderful way to get around town. Dating from the 1930s to 1959 (when US President Dwight D Eisenhower began severing ties with the island), these Buicks and Dodges, Cadillacs and Chevys can be hailed on major thoroughfares for just 10 CUP (or 40 cents peso convertibles – either currency is accepted). Just stick out your hand, wait for one going your way, and squeeze in next to half a dozen other passengers.
Fast food chains dot the island from Pinar del Río in the west to Guantánamo in the east, but there’s not a McD’s among them (except for one on the US naval base, but that’s off limits to civvies like you and me, plus 11 million Cubans). Instead, Cuba has sprouted homegrown fast food joints like El Rápido. The island’s dominant chain, El Rápido serves pallid pizzas and overcooked spaghetti but is most popular as an all-night drinking haunt. You’ll recognize El Rápido by their red and yellow color scheme (à la McDonald’s not coincidentally).
100% advertising free
One of the most revolutionary sights in Cuba is the country-wide absence of ads. No soap or cars, cell phones or soda are peddled on TV or the roadways, in the newspaper or on public transportation. It’s refreshing, with many visitors telling me they never realised how ubiquitous and insidious advertising can be until they’ve experienced the flip side. What are heavily promoted are the triumphs of the Revolution and the deleterious effects of the US embargo – you’ll see messages plastered on billboards and painted on walls everywhere.
For these reasons and so many more, Cuba is like no place on Earth. Whether it turns out to be your dream destination or worst travel nightmare depends on as many factors as there are explanations for its singularity. My advice? Keep your eyes and mind open, pack lots of snacks, and lean into it.
An update on US travel to Cuba: For five decades now, the United States has prohibited its citizens and residents from visiting the island 90 miles from Florida. Whereas certain people, like Cuban-Americans and students can secure permission to go to Cuba, arranging a trip requires cumbersome and sometimes confusing paperwork, coupled with strict regulations on how much money can be spent and what activities can be pursued while there. President Obama has tried to ease this ban to allow 'people-to-people' exchanges through authorised tour operators, but is facing a battle in the US Congress - for now, US visitors still have to leap through bureaucratic hoops to visit the island legally. This ban means beaches are free of drunken spring breakers and pink-skinned snowbirds - a welcome relief for visitors from other latitudes perhaps, but a real and serious barrier for the average US traveller.
Since her first assignment to Ecuador in 1998, Conner Gorry has written over a dozen guidebooks for Lonely Planet, including the Cuba guide, 3rd edition. Since 2002, she has lived in Havana where she works as a travel journalist, blogs at www.hereishavana.wordpress.com, and tries to maintain balance despite the shifting sands.