Sixty years of socialism has made Cuba one of the most fascinating places on the planet. Property couldn’t be brought or sold in the country until this year, people still get around in 1950s convertibles, the sale of Monopoly and Coca Cola is banned (scourges of capitalism) and Christmas wasn’t recognised as a holiday until 1997.
So for travellers, a trip to Cuba presents the unique chance to experience a country utterly removed from the globalised world, one where time has seemingly stopped. You need to go, and you need to go now — here’s why.
No internet, no problems
First, the bad news: you can pretty much forget about covering your holiday on socials. While Cuba does have the internet, it’s scarce, slow and hard to access. Wi-fi as you know it does not exist.
No internet means no Google Maps, no texts threads with friends back home and no looking up the ten best places to eat in Havana before you go out. If you want to get around, you’ll need to ask someone for directions (or, shock horror, use a paper map).
It might sound difficult, but Cuba’s internet situation forces you to be present. Without Instagram to be distracted by, you’ll have no choice but to look up at what’s around you and with no online cheat sheets telling you what to do and where to go, you’ll need to rely on word of mouth and local expertise. It’s a shock at first, but it means you get so much more out of the country.
There’s no tourist bubble to hide in
If you’re in the mood to kick back and relax at a resort with Netflix and 24-hour room service, don’t come to Cuba.
The country’s socialist system means that until recently, the only hotels allowed to operate were grim, state-run hovels no right-minded traveller would touch with a ten-foot pole. But the government did allow Cuban families to make extra money on top of their government allowance by renting out rooms in their homes to travellers, in a set-up they call casa particulares.
Still today, these casas are the main form of accommodation for travellers to Cuba and an unavoidable form of cultural immersion. Stay at a casa and you’ll end up walking in through the living room, ducking under the TV while the kids watch cartoons and Mum cooks dinner — you are really, truly in people’s houses. In the best possible way, this is not a destination where you can hide out in the hotel.
Your mod cons don’t live here
Want some comfort food from McDonalds? A coffee from Starbucks? A bottle of water from the 7/11? Sorry, but no.
All the conveniences of capitalism that life in Australia has accustomed you to do not exist in Cuba. There aren’t any supermarkets with endless rows of ice cream varieties, just plain-packaged staple foods like rice, beans and meat distributed to locals in monthly rations. To eat, you’ll either need to sit down at a restaurant or have your casa prepare you a meal; takeaway food and ready-made snacks just don’t exist here. The mojitos are plentiful, though.
You best habla Español
If you’re used to coasting by just a few words of the local language, you’ll want to up your game in Cuba. English is not widely spoken, especially among older Cubans — until the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian was the only second language taught in schools.
So if you want to be able to communicate with people — and remember, there’s no Google Translate to help out — you’ll want to have the basics down pat. At least know how to order your huevos in the morning.
It won’t stay this way forever
In 2008 the Cuban government introduced free market reforms that allowed its people to set up small businesses for the first time. As a result, the last fourteen years has seen a wave of restaurants and bars open, especially in Havana, bringing some much needed variety to the nation’s infamously drab dining scene.
Right now, Cuba’s in a sweet spot. There’s enough small enterprise to give travellers fun food and drink options, without anything resembling an artificial tourist industry. But the country is changing rapidly, so it won’t stay this way forever – a few years from now it’s likely to have a different feel.
This also might be the last era where Cuba is without American tourists. Thanks to trade embargo implemented during the Cold War and still upheld today, US citizens still can’t travel to Cuba without receiving prior approval from their government. When that changes – you can expect the cruise ships to start arriving in droves.
So beat the crowds and go now, before the most unique country on earth becomes just like everywhere else.
This post was originally published on November 22nd, 2018 and has since been updated.
Katie Cunningham is the former Features Editor at Junkee. She's currently travelling around the US and Central America.