Having the amazing ability to steal travelers’ imaginations (and itineraries) for decades, Cuba is a fantastic destination. You may not know as much of it as you thought.
Thanks to its location in the Caribbean, the country which forms part of Latin America brims with a vibrant display of culture, lively music, and kind-hearted locals.
Many have heard of events like the Cuban Revolution or the Spanish American War. Even more have indulged in Cuban cuisine and drinks, but some interesting facts about Cuba remain shrouded in mystery for the most well-traveled.
So, along with these essential bits to know before traveling to Cuba, include these intriguing facts about Cuba to take your trip from good to great. After all, the perfect pairing for drinks in Havana is a conversation packed with Cuban history.
When you think of Cuba, its size doesn’t usually spark much interest, but this Caribbean country is impressively larger than you think. First up, it’s the largest of the Caribbean islands in terms of landmass and population.
Along with the main, largest island, Cuba comprises many smaller islands numbering around 1,600. When considering its actual surface area, Cuba totals roughly 110,860 square kilometers (40,852 square miles).
Thanks to its shape, its main island, when viewed from above, resembles a crocodile, which is why Cuba has earned the nickname “el cocodrilo.” And if my elementary geography education was correct, it also looks like a vacuum cleaner!
As for population, the island nation boasts more than 11,900,000 citizens. Many of these locals come from varying cultural backgrounds, and historically, Cuba is home to a colorful blend of nations.
2. Cuba Used Two Currencies
Considering travels to Cuba? Well, it’s good to know that the Latin American country, for quite some time, was one of the few in the world that operated using two official currencies.
Technically both the CUP (Cuban Peso) and CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) are still in use today, but it’s the CUC that travelers to the country use.
Why? It all comes back down to the extensive ties the country has with the United States. The CUC is pegged to the US dollar, while regular Cuban pesos are not.
This caused quite some currency confusion, and in 2021, the Cuban government unified both into the CUC, making the Cuban Convertible Peso the official Cuban currency.
If you’re traveling to Cuba soon, this post is filled with tons of tips to plan a trip to Cuba, especially if you’re an American.
Looking back on history, pre-1959, roughly 60% of Cubans were considered to be either illiterate or semi-illiterate.
This was thanks to schools not being accessible to every citizen, but it all changed after the Cuban Revolution. Lasting from 1959 until 1961, the government launched the Cuban Literacy Campaign under Fidel Castro.
The aim was to abolish illiteracy by making schools more accessible, especially to people from marginalized backgrounds.
The number of literate Cubans exploded by making education mandatory for every citizen between the ages of 6 and 15 and nationalizing private schools and universities.
Today the country boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the world, sitting at an estimated 99.8%.
As much progressive action as was taken by Castro’s government, when his communist party came to power after the revolution in 1959, Cuba was declared an atheist state. Along with this came the famous Christmas ban, which lasted for 29 years.
Beyond prohibiting the celebration of any religious holiday, Fidel Castro also used the Cuban economy and its reliance on sugar production to push through the ban. This effectively meant that Cubans could not celebrate the day, as it no longer was an official paid holiday.
Thankfully, the ban lasted only until the historic visit of Pope John Paul II in 1997, but the period is still known as Las Navidades Silenciadas (The Silent Christmas). Unfortunately, till today Christmas is still a normal working day for most in the country.
Alongside North Korea, Cuba is the only other country in the world where the sale of Coca-Cola is legally prohibited. The buying and selling of the world-famous drink being illegal is largely thanks to the ongoing United States trade embargo, which began in 1962.
What makes this one of the most interesting facts about Cuba, is that, before 1962, the country was one of the few places outside the US that bottled Coca-Cola.
While many Cubans now drink the local alternative, Tukola, you can still find the fizzy drink in some hotels and stores around the country.
Tukola is quite good if you like sweet carbonated drinks, and if you look around, you can still find a few establishments selling Coca-Cola, though those are far and few.
Continuing the trend of banned items and Cuba facts, until 2008, the ownership of mobile telephones was also forbidden.
Before then, only employees of foreign firms inside the country were legally allowed to own and use them. The ban was lifted when Raúl Castro (Fidel’s brother) came into power.
Christmas, Coke, and telephones aside, until 2000, the famous band, The Beatles, was also banned in Cuba.
It was illegal to listen to or play any of the songs by the band because Fidel Castro believed they represented consumerism and that Cuba should rather celebrate their own musical culture.
However, in 2000 he lifted the ban and even went as far as commissioning a statue of John Lennon to be erected in Havana Park.
Now for something a bit more cheerful — an interesting fact about Cuba to make plotting your trip itinerary easier is that there are nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country. Of these nine, two are natural, and seven are cultural.
The first to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list was Old Havana and its Fortification System in 1982, followed by these additions:
- Trinidad and the Valley de los Ingenios
- Viñales Valley
- The Historic Center of Cienfuegos
- The Historic Center of Camagüey
- Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca in Santiago de Cuba
- Southeastern Cuba’s historic coffee plantations
- Desembarco del Granma National Park
- Alejandro de Humboldt National Park
While many Cuban facts surprise, one of the few that spark genuine curiosity is that the famous author, Ernest Hemingway, lived in the country for 20 years.
Specifically, he lived on the outskirts of Havana alongside his cats. In fact, the descendants of his many cats still live at Finca Vigía. It is one of the most popular places to visit in Havana.
While living in Cuba, Hemingway wrote novels, including The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Islands in the Stream.
One of the most stunning beaches in the country, Playa Pilar, was named after his boat, and his home today is a museum dedicated to his life and legacy.
When you think of the natural world, Cuba is home to the world’s smallest bird, the Bee Hummingbird. These tiny little birds grow to only be between 5 and 6 cm (2.5 inches) long and weigh roughly 1.7 grams.
Endemic to the island, you can find these cute critters in most places, but for the best chances at spotting them, head for the Ciénaga de Zapata swampland. Its eggs are about the size of peas, adding that extra cuteness to the bird.
Taking diverse wildlife to the next level, Cuba is also home to the world’s third smallest frog, the Monte Iberia Eleuth frog.
While it’s easy to fill pages with information about the most famous Cuban dictators, Fulgenio Batista and Fidel Castro, some must-mention facts are worth highlighting. The first one is that both come from the same area of Cuba, two small towns in the eastern province of Holguin.
Another is that Fidel Castro survived an estimated 600 assassination attempts, most of which were proven to be perpetrated by the CIA. The most famous happened in 1960, when the CIA spiked a box of his favorite cigars with a deadly toxin.
Finally, you can still visit the campsite Castro and his band of revolutionaries used in the Sierra Maestra mountain range. Here, you can explore Che Guevara’s field hospital, Castro’s makeshift cabin, and the radio station operated by the group to transmit their messages.
Music and dancing have had a massive impact on Cuban culture, and the country is the home ground of the world’s biggest ballet school. Located in Havana, the Cuban National Ballet School opened in 1931 and annually teaches roughly 3,000 students.
As fancy as ballet is, the entire country boasts a variety of dance styles that originated throughout and then went on to global fame. These include the rumba, mambo, and cha-cha-cha.
When you’re in Cuba, it’s not hard to spot the love for dancing and music, especially if you head to Havana, where, every Sunday, musicians and dancers take to the streets.
On the more musical side, one of the most interesting Cuba facts is the influence of the Buena Vista Social Club and Celia Cruz during the 1990s.
Of course, being one of the most renowned global tourist destinations, local cuisine is often the highlight of many trips. But, contrary to its name, the Cuban sandwich originated in Cuba, it actually didn’t.
In fact, if you’re traveling through Cuba, you’ll find that not many locals have ever heard of the famous dish. It was first created in the US, although the exact location is still under debate.
However, you will find some version of the sandwich sold in Cuban restaurants, as locals keep up with tourist expectations.
If you’ve ever visited Cuba or plan to head out after reading these facts, you’ll find a lot of pro-communist memorabilia and military history throughout.
One of the more intriguing aspects of communism in Cuba is that Cuban soldiers supported the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola during the Angolan Civil War.
The reasoning behind this came from Castro’s vision of having a strong Marxist ally in Africa, and he deemed Angola the perfect candidate.
But it soon became apparent that, without his help, this dream could end before it began and, in November 1975, he sent 35,000 soldiers to fight in Angola.
Ready for an almost unbelievable addition to interesting facts about Cuba? While most know about the tragic nuclear accident that happened in Chernobyl in 1986, few know that many Cuban hospitals opened their doors to victims of the disaster.
Most of these patients were children who were affected by radiation poisoning. Due to local healthcare services in and around Chernobyl being overwhelmed after the accident, they were transported to Cuba.
This noteworthy event in Cuban medical history became such a massive cultural moment that it inspired the Cuban movie El Traductor.
You can also read my experience visiting Chernobyl in this post.
There’s no denying that from way back when Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of Cuba until now, few figures have been as synonymous with the country as Che Guevara. But, the legendary man was not actually from Cuba.
In reality, Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna was born in Argentina to an affluent family and trained to become a doctor.
As a Marxist revolutionary and guerrilla leader during the Cuban Revolution, his ideologies were fueled by his travels through Latin America. During these, he witnessed immense poverty and injustices.
His views that oppressive regimes could only be overthrown with armed conflict and his execution in 1967 in Bolivia led to his infamous status.
This one is a bit shocking to learn, but, as with many countries in Central America, Cuba still sees chronic and severe food shortages, resulting in food rationing still being in place.
Dating back to the establishment of the US trade embargo in 1962, food scarcities are a common aspect of life for many Cubans.
While the Cuban government has made significant gains to lessen this blow, monthly groceries for locals come as rations. The system provides families with produce, meat, cooking fuels, and other home essentials at roughly 12% of their market value.
Items like milk are provided for free to specific subgroups. For example, children under seven receive one liter per day. Ironically enough, a monthly cigar package is included in the ration system.
Home to one of the highest doctor-to-patient ratios in the world, Cubans enjoy exceptional local healthcare, and Cuban doctors can be found in nearly every country of the world. The medical impact of this colorful country began shortly after the revolution ended in 1959.
The island country today has an estimated 65,000 qualified doctors working within its borders, while an estimated 50,000 Cuban doctors operate worldwide.
This means that, on average, the ratio is nine doctors for every 1000 patients. Comparatively, the entire African continent only has roughly 50,000 active doctors.
Add this one to your next Cuba facts quiz because, as hard to believe as it is, four United States presidents have tried to buy Cuba. Starting in 1808 up until 1898, these presidents considered the Spanish colony up for sale:
- Thomas Jefferson in 1808 (for an undisclosed amount)
- James Polk offered $100 million in 1848
- Franklin Pierce considered $130 million a fair sum in 1854
- William McKinley opted for a bid of $300 million in 1898
Unsurprisingly, all offers to the Spanish were rejected.
It’s no secret that when you visit Cuba, the popularity of Cuban cigars is one of the first things you’ll notice. The local cigar culture is not baseless, as some of the world’s finest tobacco comes from Cuba’s Viñales Valley.
It is understandable why John F. Kennedy bought 1,200 cigars a few hours before he instituted the trade embargo.
Becoming a cigar roller in Cuba is also considered a respectable occupation and involves months of education, as every cigar is hand-rolled.
Now wrap your head around the fact that Che Guevara loved smoking cigars dipped in honey, and the Cuban cigar culture becomes even more intriguing.
As Cuban musicians serenade local street festivities on New Year’s Eve, the annual tradition where locals create life-sized rag dolls and set them alight at the stroke of midnight might surprise travelers.
The popular tradition was almost completely wiped out after the revolution but recently became relevant again.
This is one of those fun facts about Cuba that holds cultural significance, as the burning of the dolls represents saying farewell to the previous year and putting bad things behind you.
If the name Guantanamo Bay rings a bell, it might be for various reasons. Some are more positive than others but, after its establishment in 1903, the detention center is still the longest-standing overseas US naval base globally.
As a site where well-documented atrocities and illegal detainments occur, many Cubans consider the US’s continuous use of the land as an illegal occupation. The US does pay the Cuban government for land use each year.
Not a big payment, though, at only $4,085, the Cuban government has never actually cashed one of the checks. Although many would have the site demolished, the initial lease states it can only be done if both governments agree.
Comparable to other famous final resting sites around the world, such as Recoleta in Buenos Aires and Père Lachaise in Paris, Cuba is home to Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón.
This cemetery in Havana, Cuba, often attracts visitors who come to admire the many visually striking tombstones and gardens.
Aside from its almost somber beauty, many prominent Cuban figures were laid to rest here, including the ballerina, Alicia Alonso, and Buena Vista musician, Ibrahim Ferrer Planas.
Especially the legendary chess champion Jose Raul Capablanca’s tomb, in the shape of a white marble chess piece, attracts thousands.
As a country that sits on the Caribbean Sea, it’s not surprising that one of the most well-known facts about Cuba is its claim to having some of the best beaches in the world.
Considering that, when visiting Cuba, you can spend time discovering more than 200 bays and 250 beaches, the country is the perfect summer destination. Some of the most famous include:
- Varadero Beach
- Playa Pilar
- Playa Paraiso
- Playa Los Flamencos
- Cayo Santa Maria
There are numerous Cuba facts that revolve around the many cultures you’ll find throughout the country, and this connects to various religious influences. The two most prominent religions in Cuba are Catholicism and Santeria.
While many are familiar with the former, the latter is a bit less known, as it arrived in Cuba when African slaves were shipped to the country by the Spanish. While there are many African influences in Cuban culture, the main one is the combination of Afro-Cuban heritage in Santeria.
This religion melds aspects of religious elements of the Yoruba people from Africa with Roman Catholicism.
25. The Mojito was invented in Havana
It is common knowledge that the Mojito is a Cuban drink, but did you know that it was invented in Havana?
Yes, while it is certain that it was invented in Havana, the restaurant-bar La Bodeguita del Medio claims it was the birthplace of the Mojito cocktail, prepared in the bar since its opening in 1942. While this claim is disputed, it is at the moment the most widely accepted.
The Mojito is a traditional Cuban punch consisting of five ingredients: white rum, sugar, lime juice, soda water, and mint.
26. The U.S. Embargo created the Vintage Car Culture in Cuba
When you think of Cuba, one of the first things that come to mind is the beautiful vintage cars rolling down the historic streets of Havana. But, did you know that this is an after-effect of the U.S. Embargo?
Cars in Cuba mainly consist of vintage, American-made automobiles like Chevrolet, Ford, and Buick models, that date back to as early as the 1940s.
When the U.S. embargo was established in 1962, it prohibited any exportation and importation or commerce between the U.S. and Cuba, including cars.
After the embargo was legislated, Cubans also lost access to car parts to repair their existing vehicles, but they quickly became resourceful with what they had inland and successfully conserved the quality of their antiquated cars.
In addition, due to Cuba being under a communist regime, private ownership of materials such as cars was illegal between 1959 and 2011 in Cuba. As a result, the majority of locals never owned a car, or if they did, it was mostly owned prior to 1959.
Today, vintage American cars still live at the heart of Havana and most cities in Cuba, where they are mainly used as taxis.
Wrapping up Facts About Cuba
So, there you have it — 26 of the most intriguing facts about Cuba guaranteed to educate and entertain.
From more well-known tidbits about Fidel Castro, Havana, Cuba, and its relationship with the US, to some revelations on Cuban culture, hopefully, these facts and tips have inspired you to visit the culturally rich and mostly unspoiled island of Cuba!
If you found these interesting facts about Cuba exciting, why not dive into some fun facts about Argentina next?
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