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Cuba Unpacked

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This is a Student Travel Writer 2018 competition entry


At first glance, Havana appears to be a dystopian pastel city that evokes the nostalgia of the past with its eclectic fusion of colonial Spanish, American art deco and Soviet architecture. Yet, behind the crumbling facades of the Malecón, the strong mojitos, and 1950s’ cars that pulse through the cities, Cuba is waking up to the twenty-first century with great change expected following the election of President Miguel Diaz-Canel.

Picture by Eve Willis
Source: Eve Willis

Cuba is a socialist state governed by the Communist Party of Cuba and has been ever since the revolution of 1959 which overthrew the dictatorship of Batista. On arriving in Cuba, it is clear that its not the same as its Caribbean neighbours; it’s historic retreat from the globalised world has resulted in a country that has an outdated infrastructure and a scarcity of consumer culture making it feel as if it is an island stuck in the past.

However, to many that visit Cuba the subtle undercurrent of change is already underway. If you take a walk in Vedado, a leafy residential district of Havana, Wi-Fi parks can be found in abundance – Cubans of all ages on video calls to relatives abroad, posting on Instagram, or checking global news sites. These Wi-Fi hotspots exist throughout the country and highlight how Cuba, a country that in many ways has been cut off from the outside world for decades, is starting to feel the magnetic pull of the 21st century.

What should you know before visiting Cuba?

Cuba may be only 90km from Miami but get ready to expect the unexpected as Cuba is still a developing country and does not have all the luxuries that neighbouring countries might – but what it lacks in comfort it compensates for in charm.

Picture by Eve Willis
Source: Eve Willis

Dual Currency System

Cuba has a dual currency system. Upon arriving in Cuba, you will need to exchange currency as it cannot be purchased in advance in your country of origin. This currency can only be obtained from Cadecas which all have the same exchange rates within Cuba. Don’t change money anywhere other than at Cadeca exchange houses, large hotels or banks, due to the prevalence of forged currency.

You will be given CUC Pesos Convertibles, which is the currency that you will use for most things in Cuba as it is used predominately in the tourist industry. The other currency is CUP Pesos Cubanos or Moneda Nacional – it is the currency that the state pays Cubans in and it is used for staple goods. The exchange rate differs greatly between these two currencies (1 CUC = 25 CUP) so it is important to check your change when paying for things.

Wi-Fi

Yes! Cuba does have Wi-Fi. However, it is not as readily accessible as most other countries with coverage at only 5% across the entire country. Only in hotels and Wi-Fi hotspots can it be accessed. Spot these Wi-Fi zones by clusters of people glued to smartphones. A card with an access code must be bought from an ETESCA shop, costing around 1 CUC for an hour, and you may need to take your passport as proof of ID.

It may be useful to bring a paper map and guidebook on the area that you are visiting. Without immediate or guaranteed access to the internet to download map guides or look up locations, a physical map will be essential.

However, if you are looking to escape the real world, Cuba is a great place to do this as a half an hour queue in the midday sun for Wi-Fi cards is much less appealing than people-watching and sipping Mojitos in a cool café.

Picture by Eve Willis
Source: Eve Willis

Transport

In Havana there is a hop-on-hop-off tourist bus that has two routes: T1 which is a city tour, and T3 which goes to Las Playas del Este. For travel outside of Havana, the Víazul bus company is recommended for safe and comfortable tourist travel throughout Cuba. When taking short journeys there are plenty of taxis, the yellow ones being the official state-run metered taxis and the 1950s’ cars are privately owned taxis. The older cars are often not as safe or comfortable as the official taxis but if you want authentic Cuban charm this is the way to do it.

It is important to remember that things don’t always go to plan! Whether it’s waiting for a bus or booking a domestic flight, schedules run on “Cuba time” so have some patience and make sure you have back up plans if you have an important journey to make.


Source: Eve Willis

Food

Cuban style can be very varied; in restaurants and cafés there is a range of cuisines to suit most tastes, even catering to vegetarian needs. Typical dishes like Ropa Vieja (shredded beef or chicken stew accompanied with vegetables and rice) can be found everywhere. Fresh produce – particularly fruit – is grown in Cuba and is completely organic, harvested without the use of pesticides or fertilisers so it is a real treat to enjoy the tropical local flavours.

However, you will notice if you go walking around the city there are very few obvious mini markets or supermarkets to grab essentials, and when you do see them there will often be queues of people. For example, it is very likely that you could walk into a supermarket selling only pineapple juice and ketchup! Therefore, make sure you have a few places or locations where you know you can buy food and water before you set off, especially if on a road trip.

 

Culture

Cuba in some ways seems like any other Caribbean island, but it is important to keep in mind that Cuba is a socialist state, governed by the Communist Party of Cuba. This means that some things are different to western countries and it is wise to avoid controversial political topics and respect the local laws and customs of Cuba. 


Source: Eve Willis

If you are looking for a chilled break in the sun with a difference, in a country with a rich and complex history, Cuba could be for you. Pack an open mind, your sense of humour, check the FCO travel advice before you go, and Cuba will not disappoint!


Source: Eve Willis


In order to provide no entrant with an unfair advantage, Student Travel Writer 2018 competition entries are edited for grammar only - stylistic choices and headlines are solely the work of the writer in question and not of The National Student's editorial staff. 

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