Travelling to Cuba is true sensory overload (to say the least); the tastes, the smells but especially the uniquely Cuban sights.
In just two weeks in Cuba I was able to see and learn so much about this special island.
While a few of these things are shared cultural experiences that define life in the Caribbean, they still represent all that is quintessentially Cuba.
Political Revolution Signs & Artwork
I think the most fascinating sights I saw in Cuba were the many political revolution signs and artwork.
Simply because it speaks so much about how proud the Cubans are of their island despite all the political troubles & alienation they experienced in the past. I’ve long admired Cuba’s resilience through their economical struggles and believe that it’s an admirable quality.
Much like many larger nations, the Cubans proudly celebrate their heroes and their victories and express this pride through these billboards, signage and graffiti. You’ll often see artwork of Fidel Castro, Che Guevera and Jose Marti paired with popular revolutionary statements made by these leaders.
Another stand out revolutionary organization portrayed a lot through these signs and graffiti is the 26 de Julio Movement. This was a movement headed by Fidel Castro that named itself after their first failed attempt at an attack in Santiago de Cuba. Eventually the movement overthrew the Fulgencia Batista dictatorship in 1959 which lead to a new political rule on the island. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Cubans are VERY proud of this accomplishment. The flags that symbolize the movement are black and red with the words “26 de Julio” written on it.
Even though some of these (possibly controversial?) political signs may offend some visitors it’s important for us as tourists to respect their beliefs and history.
No, the horse carriages in Cuba are not gimmicks meant to lure fascinated tourists in to the vintage lifestyle in Cuba.
Not all of them anyway.
While you may spot a few meant specially to attract the awe of tourists, horse carriages still represent a necessary form of transport and means of living for Cubans.
Travelling through the Cuban countryside I was always amazed by how many I could spot trotting along the roads. Jerry and I even had a good laugh (after a moment of shock) that there were even road signs alerting drivers of horse carriages along the road. Farmers still use horses to transport their goods to and from their farmlands. In some instances, they even represent a form of transport for an entire family.
While in Playa Giron, Jerry and I set off by foot to find a highly recommended beach by TripAdvisor & our Casa owner, Cuenta Bueno. Along the way we were spotted by a local who asked us where we were headed. As we described our destination, he happily told us that his relative, who owned a horse carriage who would gladly take us. We hopped aboard and began asking him a few questions and soon discovered that his horse carriage meant a lot more to his family than just transporting tourists around. They used it to get around their small town and also for transporting any of their goods or random everyday life materials around.
As much as I’d love to say that vintage cars in Cuba are only tourist ploys, I can’t. Much like horse carriages, vintage cars are a common sight in Cuba and a popular mode of transport for Cubans. I’d still highlight, however, that despite the many Cuban myths out there, vintage cars aren’t the only cars you’ll spot when you travel to Cuba (though they are admittedly quite common to see).
Depending on which cities you visit in Cuba, the number of vintage cars you’ll see on the streets may vary. In very touristy cities such as Havana, the density of vintage cars probably rivals that of tourists themselves! However, in lesser tourist-visited towns like Moron, you’ll spot less of these antique vehicles and more bicycles and scooters.
People Waiting by Bus Stops
Another common sight I observed in Cuba were the many Cubans who stood by bus stations along the streets.
You may not actively recognize it (as a tourist) since it’s a common sight in many urban cities. However, it was fascinating to me to see how the locals went about their average everyday lives. Often these stations were located along long stretches of highways as the harsh sunrays shone on the waiting passengers.
Sugar Cane Fields
Compared to my home island of Jamaica, Cuba is quite large! Although Cuba was colonized by the Spanish and Jamaica by the British, the common history that the islands share is the production of sugar cane. For those not familiar with the history of the Caribbean, to sum it up, the islands were mainly used to grow sugar cane from which processed products (like sugar and rum) would be produced.
Fun Fact: Jamaica was actually first colonized by the Spanish when Christopher Columbus “discovered” Jamaica in 1494
This tidbit of history is still very much evident in Cuba. On our journeys between Cuban towns, I could spot vast expanses of sugar cane fields. Although, I’m not sure how dominant a role the sugar cane industry actually plays in Cuban society, I’d guess it is essential for their lifestyles. Especially since they are dependent on their own Cuban made products. I’d also guess that sugar cane is important for some of their internationally exported goods. By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the popular Cuban rum, Havana Club, at least once in your lifetime. I’ll take a wild guess and say that these sugar cane fields play a role in providing you that delicious sip of rum!
Mobile Bread & Market Vendors
Seeing mobile bread vendors was another funny and common sight I observed in Cuba. These vendors walked along residential and public streets with their rolling carts singing merrily “Pan! Pan!” (Spanish for bread) for all residents and passersby to hear. Residents would scuttle out of their homes to make their daily bread purchases from the animated seller.
It was definitely a unique cultural experience to witness. I’m pretty sure the entire community already knows and are friends with the vendor; quite unlike modern culture. In most contemporary societies we shop exclusively in supermarkets so the idea of buying bread from a vendor on the street may seem quite strange. However, this sense of community was quite pleasant to see and often reminded me of my life in Jamaica.
In Jamaica you can often hear Rastafarians riding through residential neighborhoods singing out “Broomie, Broomie!” (a broom they make from natural materials) expecting interested customers to alight from their homes to make a purchase.
Another example of this way of life manifested in the many mobile ground produce vendors. Like a market on wheels, many vendors walked around town with their mobile display of goods. Often, they’ll have an array of onions, ground provisions (like potatoes) and other forms of local food seasonings.
A Variety of Specialized Food Shops
In keeping with what I observed about the way of life in Cuba, there were many local shops that catered to a variety of food products. In the town of Moron (where I truly felt gave me the most authentic Cuban experience) and in the more local side of Trinidad de Cuba, I spotted a dizzying amount of these shops. There were butcher shops, cafeterias, dairy shops, bread shops; you name it they had it.