Cuba is a wondrous country full of breathtaking landscapes and colorful people. Of course, you knew that or you wouldn’t have bothered visiting, but it bears repeating. You can expect to see gorgeous sunsets and stretches of beautiful beaches every single day – provided you’re hanging around the coast, as you should!
As for the locals, you will certainly bump into withered, old ladies rolling cigars on their doorsteps (and lighting one up!), unsupervised children wreaking havoc on the streets and laughing vibrantly in the process, and fixers trying to hook you up with every imaginable thing under the sun.
Everything in Cuba is a singular experience…except when it’s not. Cubans are charmers and can play tourists like a fiddle so you need to be on the lookout at all times. They can sweet talk you into buying or visiting almost anything they set their mind to, but hold fast and resist the temptation! Some things are nothing more than well-designed tourists traps, while others…well, others aren’t even designed that well, frankly.
It’s pretty much the same as every place you go in the world. Some places are designed for the sole purpose of parting you with your money. Cuba is not immune to it. And that’s just fine. By all means, visit each and every of those places if you have time to spare. But if you don’t, give them a pass and make Cuba as memorable as you can.
Here is a short rundown of places, things, and activities you really shouldn’t pass up on. Some of them are quite unorthodox, but eye-opening, especially if you come from a culture that is wildly different from Cuban.
Baseball is Cuba’s national sport, and the one they are most passionate about. If you’re an American or a Canadian, you will be able to appreciate the nuances of the game, although, we promise you, you’ve never seen a crowd cheer their team on with such vigor. If you’re not familiar with baseball, go anyway. It is a chance to get up close and personal with the locals and share their passion.
While you’re at it, ditch the guided tour. You will pay ten times more for a far inferior experience. Tourists are separated from the locals and get to sit in home plate seating with wealthier locals. Some call it a perk, we call it a downside. Half the fun is in roughing it out on the stands with some popcorn and drinks you’ve managed to smuggle inside in your bag!
We’ve all been there; taking the day off while you’re somewhere to visit local churches, cathedrals, mosques, and shrines of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. At the end of the day, all you have to show for it is a hundred or so photos of weird architecture. Beautiful, but still weird.
Reward yourself with a slightly different religious experience while you’re in Cuba and discover Santeria. Santeria is commonly defined as the worship of the saints. It is a fairly new religion, established in the 18th century by slaves on the local sugar plantations, that is now gaining steam and popularity. Practicing religion was a big no-no in Cuba until recently: Santeria was practiced illegally and preserved orally so it still has a dash of mysticism to it. It is a blend of Christianity and the beliefs of African natives that worked on those plantations. Central to it is the belief in spirits and deities through which people can communicate with God.
Inquire on whether you can attend one of the many ceremonies that are held throughout the year on the island – and there are many since every deity – which has a clear correlation to one of the Catholic saints – has a day in a year dedicated to worshiping it. Squeamish beware; ceremonies sometimes include ritual animal sacrifices so don’t attend if you can’t stomach it. And be respectful, what you view as animal cruelty is a central part of the belief system for these people, so don’t try to rescue that poor goat and make a run for it with it.
Learn to Roll Your Own Cigars
Visiting the Partagas Cigar Factory is probably already on your to-do list, and rightfully so. You will be taken on a fascinating journey through cigar history and get to see master cigar rollers at work.
But venture deep enough into the winding city streets, and you’re bound to come across locals rolling cigars on their doorsteps. These are usually sold illegally on the street corners, but if you want to add a new experience to your trip, this is a golden opportunity. Ask whether they can teach you the craft – you will probably suck at it but after a few tries you might end up with something that is not a fire hazard! Make sure to compensate the nice person for their effort and leave a generous tip.
Explore Cuba on Horseback
Tourists usually fawn over those 1950’s Cadillac vintage cars that can be seen on every turn in Havana. Granted, they are a sight but you have cars back home as well. If you get a chance, hop into one just to check out how it feels. Let us tell you; it pretty much feels as being driven in a Ford or a Subaru, enriched by jolts, clanking parts, and an occasional engine failure.
However, horseback riding is probably not something you do on an everyday basis unless you’re an avid equestrian. If you have the time, explore Cuba from a totally different perspective, perched on a horse’s back, gallivanting across the island and discovering hidden little gems you wouldn’t otherwise discover. If you’re a pro, you can even challenge your guide to race.
Keep in mind that most of those guys are/were jockeys, so don’t take it too hard when they wipe the floor with you. And yeah, if you’re not good at horseback riding, don’t push your luck with racing.
Grab a Bite at the Local Paladares
Paladares are family restaurants, or self-run restaurants, that are operated by a family inside the building that they live in. Part of the house is refurbished for guests and fitted with chairs, tables and tablecloths… and not much else. They are usually Spartan when it comes to decoration, but are lively and run by colorful, daring Cuba-style entrepreneurs.
Avoid the ones in Havana Vieja, however. They are becoming commercialized and in a bad way. Venture a bit deeper into the towns and you will find authentic ones that serve excellent dishes that are simply to die for! And remember, what you lose on décor, you get on authenticity, flavor, and soul, so give them a try.
Visit a local hospital
Now we’re getting to the unorthodox, weird part. Did you watch that Moor’s movie about health insurance, ‘Sicko’? He explored healthcare systems around the world in it, including the one in Cuba.
If you’re an American visiting Cuba, fake a light sickness and go visit a local hospital. Seriously. The hospital will be unimpressive from the outside, believe us, but the level of care you’ll be provided with is astonishing. It is an eye-opening experience to learn that a country, which is perceived to be poor and in shambles, is laser-focused on providing excellent health to locals and visitors alike.
Your travel insurance will cover way more than your full-blown insurance policy back in The States ever would, so take advantage of that and do some of those check-ups that cost an arm and a leg back home.
These are only a couple of things you can try while in Cuba if you want to avoid rubbing elbows with everyone else on the island. Sure, popular tourist attractions like Havana Vieja and Varadero beaches should definitely find a place on your itinerary, but it is these small, hidden gems that make for a memorable Cuba experience!