Columbus left Spain in 1492 and, after first landing in the Bahamas, continued on to visit Cuba’s shores. There he found thick vegetation and peaceful Taino Indians, who had inhabited the island for at least 3,000 years. Within the next two decades, the Spanish Empire would wipe out most of the indigenous population and, in turn, transport upwards of 30,000 slaves from Africa to work vast plantations of cash crops, most notably sugar cane.
Between the late-1700s and late-1800s, Cuba dominated the world’s sugar market; until the 1960 embargo, a third of the United States’ sugar imports came from there. Numerous slave rebellions arose during the early 19th century; in 1868, Cuban landowners joined in, launching the first war for independence. The second, in 1898, subsequently sparked the Spanish American War and US influence on the island. For the next half-century, Cuba would be America’s tropical playground; yet a series of dictators, culminating in the reign of Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s, led to one more revolution—and a 50-year halt in friendly relations.
While the Castro era was fraught with tensions between the US and Cuba, by 2013 those tensions began to thaw. The US embassy reopened in Havana, and trade and travel restrictions were loosened. Today the island once again welcomes Americans to her shores, revealing a fascinating culture, landscape, and infrastructure that have stood unchanged for a generation. Upcoming commercial flights and major cruise lines promise an influx of new tourists, making it all the more imperative for expedition travellers to visit now and experience Cuba’s diverse and distinctive character, before the inevitable changes that tourism brings.
Cuba has a rich culture which is largely an amalgamation of African and Spanish influences. The most prominent aspects are by far its music and art.
Cuban music is known the world over for its lively and exciting pulsating rhythms driving many to their feet. It encompasses a great deal of percussion – which is a direct reference to the country’s African heritage – and several types of string instruments including the guitar. Cuban music has also been the basis for other genres including salsa, jazz, and the tango.
Cuban art displays a clear blend of African and European styles, evolving through many phases from Vanguardian to more modernist and contemporary pallets. Art was heavily involved in the political situation from the 1960s onwards with many used as propaganda pieces advocating for the revolution.
The official language of the Republic of Cuba is Spanish, and – given the high level of literacy of Cubans – use is correct and ample with “cubanismos” or idiosyncratic words. Many people speak English, and those working in tourism tend to also speak German, French, Italian, and Russian.
In Cuba, Spanish was enriched by the language of Taíno indians, who lived in the archipelago before the arrival of the Spanish. They left words like “batea, bohío, canoa, carey, hamaca, or tabaco.” There is also a clear presence of English through the neo-colonial relations established during the 20th century that left many words and structures in the languages of Central and South America.
You should be aware that there are plenty of words that have a different meaning than the one they have in other Spanish countries, some are worth entirely avoiding. For example, the word “papaya” refers to a fruit in Spain and other countries, whereas it is used to name the genitalia of women in Cuba. The fruit is referred as “Fruta bomba” in Cuba. On the other hand, the expression “vale” that is widely used as “ok” in many countries, could be understood as extremely harsh by Cubans, since it is normally understood as “stop” or “shut up.”
Annual precipitation is generally between 1,000 and 1,500 millimeters (40 and 60 inches). In the south, where the only mountainous areas are found, there is a greater difference between the north-facing slopes, which are very wet, and those exposed to the south, where precipitation drops below 700 mm (27.5 in) per year (see Guantanamo Bay).
Winter in Cuba is pleasantly warm in the north and even quite hot in the south, with daytime temperatures around 26 degrees Celsius (79 °F) from December to February in Havana, and around 28 °C (82 °F) in the southernmost areas. The rains are not frequent but they are still possible, and they are more likely on the northern slopes, which are also exposed to cold air masses coming from the United States. These short cold outbreaks, from December to March, may bring some days characterized by cool weather, and a bit of cold at night, especially in the north-western part (see Havana, Varadero). Sometimes in Havana, the minimum temperature drops to around 10 °C (50 °F) or even below.
During the rainy season, there’s muggy heat everywhere, which is sometimes hard to bear, even though it is tempered by the breeze. The hottest months are July and August. The daytime temperature rarely exceeds 33/34 °C (91/93 °F), but moisture makes the heat sweltering. The rains are often intense, but they occur mostly in the form of showers or thunderstorms in the late afternoon. In July, there’s often a relative break in the rains, especially in the south, when rain showers become less frequent (even though the heat is still intense).
The Cuban peso is informally referred to as the “national currency” to distinguish it from the Cuban convertible peso. Convertible pesos are 25 times more valuable than the peso, but the peso is more widely used. The use of pesos dates back to 1857 during Spanish rule. The currency was only available in banknotes and its value pegged to the dollar at a ratio of 1:1. Coins were later introduced in 1915. The pegging of the peso to the US dollar was replaced by the Soviet ruble in 1960. Today, the peso is found in both coins and notes.