Cuba – Destination Unknown
One of the things travellers love most about Cuba is the fact it’s anything but predictable. This nation full of surprises will have you learning as soon as you touch the ground.
Despite its size, location and economic status, Cuba is known the world over. From its Revolutionary leaders and famous cigars to its musical exports, the Caribbean island is often in the spotlight, however, it’s surprising how little outsiders really know about the country.
Cuba’s international image can be a series of clichés – salsa, rum, cigars – but there is so much more to this fascinating country than that. As well as being one of the only remaining planned economies in the world, Cuba was one of the last countries to abolish slavery in 1886 and the first Latin American country to have its own railroad.
Cuba continues to endure a 60 year old US trade Embargo, is home to US fugitives, its one party political system has a questionable human rights record, its population is poor but the country exceeds global educational levels and has a higher birth rate than all of its neighbours including the USA. Its Public Health system is admired world over and Cuban doctors travel the world giving medical assistance in times of crisis.
Cuba has also offered military assistance to freedom fighters all over the developing world. It is home to 9 world heritage sites and 6 biosphere reserves. Cuba is a small word for what is a hugely complex and captivating country, one that rewards the curious.
12 Things You Didn’t Know About Cuba
We’ve put together a list of just 12 things the average person doesn’t know about Cuba. Hopefully these intriguing nuggets will have you desperate to learn more.
Cuba has been found the most sustainable country on the planet
In a 2019 global sustainable development report Cuba was found to be number one. Based on figures from 2015, the Sustainable Development Index took into account elements such as a country’s CO2 emissions, educational levels and life expectancy in calculating their overall sustainability. Cuba, with its free education and healthcare, as well as it low volumes of traffic and abundant nature reserves, was at the top of the list.
Classic American cars are more than just a tourist attraction
They may be amazing to look at, but classic Fords, Chevrolets, and Buicks are an essential form of transport in Cuba. Since 1959 very few cars have been imported to the island and so families have been forced to keep their cars going for as long as possible. Many of the vintage cars you see in Cuba are working as collective taxis, picking up commuters along a set route and charging 50 cents a ride.
Cuba’s tropical reefs are unspoilt
Due to Cuba’s relative economic isolation over the last 60 years, the waters that surround it have retained very low levels of pollution. Limited fishing also means that essential predators have kept the reefs performing at their optimum capacity. The result is that Cuba’s coral reefs are some of the best preserved in the world. One of the best places to sample Cuba’s stunning underwater world is at Maria la Gorda at the western-most point of the island, or on Cayo Levisa, a tiny island just off the west coast.
Cuba has the most doctors per capita in the world
With 8 doctors per 1,000 residents, Cuba has the highest doctor-citizen ratio in the world, over double that of the UK and France. Castro’s revolutionary government decided to prioritise the training of doctors back in the 1960s and since then they have trained so many doctors that they can afford to send them abroad on foreign, government-agreed, contracts and relief efforts. Most recently, Cuban doctors have been sent to Lombardy in northern Italy to help with the region’s COVID-19 outbreak.
Cuba has an important indigenous heritage
When we think about Cuba and other Caribbean islands we think about their post Columbian history: from the time they were invaded by European powers to the present. But Cuba, like many other islands, was already home to thriving communities of Ciboney and Taino people long before Europeans and Africans stepped foot on its shores. Though sadly few indigenous peoples survived colonisation, many Cubans carry their DNA and words from their language, as well as their traditional medicine, are still being widely used today. In fact, Cuba comes from the Taino name for their homeland.
Cubans love Americans
Contrary to popular belief the Cuban people bear no ill will towards their American neighbours. Cubans know that politics is behind the ongoing feud between the two nations, not people. In fact, besides much-loved Canadians, Americans are probably Cuba’s favourite tourists. When the Obama administration loosened limitations on American travel to Cuba, the Cuban people welcomed their visitors from across the Florida Straits with open arms.
Cuba’s national flower is from the Himalayas
Cuba’s sweet-smelling national flower is the Hedychium coronarium, white ginger lily, or "Mariposa" (butterfly) as its known on the island. The flower grows extensively in Cuba’s mountains and during the country’s independence movement its intricate folds were used by women to hide secret messages, making the flower synonymous with Cuban independence. Cuba’s female revolutionaries even wore white mariposas in their hair during their time hiding out in the Sierra Maestra in the 1950s. Symbolic as it may be, this flower isn’t an endemic species: it’s actually native to the Eastern Himalayas and was imported to Cuba hundreds of years ago.
Cuba was voted the safest tourist destination in the world
At the International Tourism Fair in Madrid in 2018 Cuba was voted the safest place for travellers in the world. Strict gun and drug laws mean that unlike many of its Latin American neighbours, violent crime is all but unheard of on the island.
Cuba is bigger than Ireland
Cuba is the biggest and longest island in the Caribbean, and with a total area of over 42,000 square miles it’s larger than Ireland. Travelling the 1,429 kilometres from Punta de Maisí at the island’s eastern most corner to Cabo San Antonio in the west will take you just under 20 hours by car. Cuba’s long and bending shape has led to the island being nicknamed "the caiman", an animal that can be found in Cuba’s swamp areas.
Cuba’s literacy rate is amongst the world’s highest
Cuba has a 100% literacy rate, at least 1% higher than the UK and many other European countries. Cuba’s exemplary literacy rate probably has something to do with the fact education is free for all from nursery right through university.
Due to a major chasm between supply and demand, Cuban supermarkets constantly ration popular goods. When you reach the checkout you often find you are only allowed to buy a certain amount of each item; be it biscuits, bog roll or beef mince. Beyond supermarkets, each Cuban family is issued a ration book, the "Libreta", which they use to make government subsidised purchases in their local "Bodega" (food store). Subsidised items include coffee, rice and sugar.
Cuba is home to the smallest bird in the world
The smallest bird in the world is the "Zunzuncito" or bee hummingbird, which can only be found in Cuba. This tiny, brightly coloured bird only weighs a couple of grams and has a maximum length of about 6cm. You’re best chance of seeing one of these amazingly tiny hummingbirds is on a trek or bike ride through Cuba’s western province of Pinar del Rio.
Getting to know Cuba
Has your curiosity been piqued?
Wondering how rationing looks in real life or why you had never heard of Tainos before? Baffled at the fact this small but mighty nation has been voted both the most sustainable and safest place in the world? This list is just a glimpse into an intensely complex country, one that has beguiled many visitors and kept them coming back for more. Like any nation, Cuba is more than just an accumulation of facts, but we hope these small insights help you to understand a little more about the Caribbean’s most infamous island.
Want to see Cuba for yourself? Contact us.
Get some useful info and insights we've picked up over the 15+ years of running tours on the island. The tips you will find in this guide:
- Local language
- Cycling & Trekking
- Money & Costs
- Hotel & Facilities