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Cuban culture shocks: 10 things that will surprise you about the island

Cuban culture shocks: 10 things that will surprise you about the island

Cuba is one of the most interesting countries I've ever visited thanks to the fact it really feels like nowhere else in the world. It has a truly fascinating history - from the conquest of the Spaniards in the 15th century to the 1959 Communist revolution - and is a modern-day melting pot of cultures and politics. Unsurprisingly in a country so different from our own, visitors are in for plenty of thrilling culture shocks along the way.

Here are 10 of the most surprising culture shocks I found in Cuba:

From the way Cuban currency operates and the lack of time I spent online, to the abundance of singing and dancing and the sheer diversity of cultures on show, there was a thrilling culture shock around every corner during my trip to Cuba.

Cuban culture shocks

  1. Cultural Diversity

    "We have the most beautiful people in the world."

    Said our guide, apologetically glancing at the group of Brits gathered around her in the backstreets of Havana.

    "Dark skin and light eyes."

    Cuban culture shocks

    This aesthetic is a result of hundreds of years of immigration and colonisation, with ancestry deriving from various parts of Africa, as well as Spain, France, England and China. During England's 11-month occupation, Cuba saw Irish settlers too, as is reflected in Old Havana's surprisingly-named O'Reilly Street.

    As a result, the diversity of people and cultures in Cuba is huge. You can go from an African-style street carnival with drumming and exuberant dancing to a dramatic flamenco performance in the space of an hour. Or tuck into a meal at Havana's Chinatown before riding in a classic Americana car to a Buena Vista Social Club performance for some after-dinner drinks. For a Communist country that takes little influence from contemporary nations, this is incredibly unique, and feels very special; like a time capsule of many global traditions.

  2. The refreshing lack of adverts

    Cuban culture shocks - lack of adverts on Cuban streets

    When visiting Communist nations, one of the biggest shocks for our marketing-saturated brains are the lack of adverts.

    Not only are you not constantly exposed to online marketing - due primarily to the fact you're spending less time on the internet - but real-life adverts like billboards or flyers are lacking too. As we drove along the streets, it took me a while to work out what was missing, and once it clicked I couldn't stop noticing it.

    But why is this the case? Many of the products and services that would typically be advertised to us back in the UK are provided by the state here, and therefore there are no competitors and no need to advertise. It is estimated that consumers in the UK are exposed to over 10,000 brand messages per day on average. The lack of this in Cuba felt extremely refreshing.

  3. 60,000 classic cars

    Cuban culture shocks - Cuba's classic cars

    Cuba is famed for its classic cars, so tourists landing on the island wouldn't be surprised to see the odd old Americana vehicle on the streets. However, the sheer number of these cars on the roads is absolutely stunning. This is even more impressive when you consider that all the cars were imported before the Cuban revolution in the 1950s. Miami lies just 90 miles from Cuba, and in the first half of the 20th century, the island was hugely popular among American tourists.

    Cuban culture shocks - Classic car in Old Havana

    This saw around 125,000 luxury American cars imported to Cuba, only to be abandoned when the revolution happened. Shortly after coming to power in 1959, Fidel Castro banned the import of foreign cars and car parts, freezing the country's motoring scene, and meaning Cubans had to get creative when it came to repairing their vehicles. It is estimated that there are still around 60,000 of these cars running on Cuba's roads.

    Cuban culture shocks - A line of classic convertibles in Havana

    Owning a classic car in Cuba allows locals to work in the more lucrative tourism business, so Cubans in possession of these vehicles go to extraordinary lengths to care for them. Most of the cars are painted bright pinks, greens, purples and reds, and polished to perfection. As such, Havana's roads offer rainbow-hued glimpse into a bygone era. However, with increasingly relaxed import laws, Cuba's roads won't look like this forever, so tourists are flocking to the island to experience this sight while it lasts.

  4. Havana used to be a giant forest

    Cuban culture shocks - Havana's green forest

    One of the charms of Havana is its vibrant urbanness. Classic cars zoom up and down the Malecon, the old town is a labyrinth brimming with life and the nightlife options leave you spoilt for choice. With this in mind, I was shocked to find out that before the Spanish invaded, Havana was Cuba's primary forest. In fact, so thick was the island's greenery that it used to be said you could get from one side of the country to the other without ever glimpsing sunlight. During this time, Cuba was constantly at risk of attack from pirates and other nations, and the dense forest of Havana was considered a natural barrier against such invasions.

    However, when the Spanish colonised Cuba at the end of the 15th century, they chopped down the trees and used the wood to build great many ships, marking the end of this natural defence mechanism. Some of the vessels created from Havana's trees would go on to become world-famous. The Nuestra Senora de la Santisima Trinidad, for instance, was the Spanish fleet's flagship during Spain's 18th century war with Great Britain in support of the American colonists fighting the War of Independence. The great warship was eventually captured by the British during the Battle of Trafalgar.

  5. Revolutionary street art

    Cuban culture shocks - Che Guevara street art in Old Havana

    In the place of adverts you'll find vibrant street art, much of which professes the nation's enduring love for Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara. This remains true throughout the country: even after we left Havana for Santa Clara, we saw many walls and buildings sprayed with Guevara's iconic profile.

    This admiration for the revolutionary heroes of the 1950s is not just apparent in the graffiti, however; it makes up the backbone of the country. When visiting the Che Guevara Mausoleum, where the world-famous revolutionary and his men were laid to rest, our guide explained that it remains a very powerful and emotional place for many Cubans.

  6. The dancing never stops

    Cuban culture shocks - One of many musical performances

    One of the biggest culture shocks I experienced during my trip to Cuba was the sheer prevalence of musical performances. The musical styles are undeniably diverse, but wherever you go you're hit with noise, colour and dancing.

    Cuban culture shocks - A flamenco performance in Havana

    In Cayo Santa Maria I saw jazz dancing and acrobatic performances in luxury hotels and salsa on the beach. In Santa Clara there was an African parade at one of the plazas, and in Havana I watched Flamenco dancers twirl and stamp in hot pink dresses. Even wandering around the old town, you'd catch the sound of trumpets and guitars from inside bars, and from the radios in Cuban homes. When in Cuba, you're left in no doubt that this truly is a country with music and flamboyance at its heart.

  7. There's a park dedicated to John Lennon

    Cuban culture shocks - A Park in Havana dedicated to John Lennon

    A park dedicated to The Beatles' John Lennon was not an attraction I expected to find in Havana, given Cuba's one-time ban of the "Fab Four" and other western artists. However, close to Revolutionary Square, there's an idyllic leafy area containing a statue of John Lennon, reclining peacefully on a bench. So how did this unlikely installation come to be?

    Cuban culture shocks - A Park in Havana dedicated to John Lennon

    After Fidel Castro took power in 1959 following the revolution, he banned the people of Cuba from listening to western artists such as The Beatles, considering them to be puppets of capitalism. After some consideration, however, Castro changed his mind, realising that John Lennon was a dreamer like himself.

    He unveiled the statue at the turn of the Millennium, saying:

    "What makes him great in my eyes is his thinking, his ideas. I share his dreams completely. I too am a dreamer who has seen his dreams turn into reality."

    Cuban culture shocks - The statue of John Lennon with the woman who looks after his glasses

    When we first approached the statue, John was missing his iconic glasses. After a couple of seconds, a Cuban woman wandered over and placed a pair of circular spectacles on Lennon's face. Our guide informed us that after the glasses were stolen a number of times, the state hired a "keeper of the glasses", whose job it is to look after the specs, and put them on the statue when people come to look at it.

  8. Havana's contemporary edge

    Cuban culture shocks - Havana has a burgeoning craft ale scene

    When you think Havana, you think of rum, classic cars and the pastel-hued Old Town, so it was quite a surprise to find that the city has a modern edge to it too. Alongside the more traditional watering holes like Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita, you'll find bars with a hipster edge that wouldn't seem out of place in London or Manchester.

    Cuban culture shocks - Factoria la plaza vieja in Havana

    Of course, being in Cuba you'll likely want to make the most of its cultural heritage, but it's also worth exploring the burgeoning craft ale scene. There are a handful of breweries and microbreweries, like Factoria Plaza Vieja in Old Havana, that serve frothy craft ale in striking industrial surrondings.

  9. CUCs vs CUPs: Cuba's dual-currency system

    Cuban culture shocks - Cuba's dual-currency

    Unlike travel destinations closer to home, you won't be able to exchange your pounds for Cuban currency ahead of your trip - instead, you'll need to do it upon arrival at the airport or in a hotel.

    Cuba works on a dual-currency system, which means there's one currency for tourists - the convertible peso or "CUC" - and a separate type for locals - who use Cuban Pesos, or "CUP". CUCs are worth 24 times more than CUPs, so it's important to check that you've been given the right change.

    There's also very few ATMs around, so it's best to bring all the cash you need, change it at once, and only take out with you a little more than what you estimate you'll need for the day.

  10. The opportunity for a serious digital detox

    Cuban culture shocks - people gather at Wi-Fi hotspots which are random locations on the street in Havana

    You don't realise how reliant you are on - or addicted to - the internet until you visit somewhere where it's just not really a part of daily life. Cuba offers visitors the opportunity for a true digital detox, where you can put your phone down and really be present in your surroundings.

    If you do want to get online you need to purchase scratch cards from hotels to access the state Wi-Fi at 1 CUC (around £0.75) per hour. This Wi-Fi is available at various hotspots, which tend to include hotel lobbies, and random locations on the street in Havana. On my first night in the capital I noticed a big crowd of young people hanging out in an empty parking lot. It turned out these Internet hotspots have fostered a social culture, where people will meet up with their friends to hang out and get online.

These culture shocks are what makes Cuba so special

My favourite thing about travelling is not sample exotic foods or gazing at the stunning scenery you see along the way - it's getting under the skin of cultures different from my own. Cuba was an undeniable pleasure. In addition to the idyllic beaches, my highlights were undeniably learning about the island's history and seeing how the events of the past had contributed to making Cuba the colourful, friendly and beautiful nation we see today.

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Caroline Howley

Caroline Howley

Travel Enthusiast and Writer

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