What to Expect When Traveling in Cuba

Because Cuba has so much poverty combined with such a unique culture – a culture rooted in Latin American traits and sculpted by nearly a century of strong-armed rulers – tourists often experience a bit of shock when traveling in the country. It's a culture shock that goes well beyond the language barrier.

While most tourists love the Cuban experience, some are occasionally caught off guard by the life in the Caribbean republic. Most tourists come from countries overflowing with first-world amenities and services, making the poorer, less materialistic lives of Cubans hard to take in. First of all, not everything is readily available like it is, for example, in the United States or Canada.

It is possible to find most everyday items in Cuba but, if you take a name-brand heart medication or specific contact lens solution, don't leave home without it. Everything is harder to find in Cuba unless you really know where to shop. While capitalistic influences are getting more common in the country, it is not a world of free enterprise and the strict embargoes do filter out a lot of merchandise, medications and basic necessities.

The way of life in Cuba is very different than most of the developing world. Fidel Castro did take many steps to improve the rights of women in Cuba, for example, but many men still catcall, honk and whistle at every pretty lady they see.

Other issues include surveillance practices unlike anything most tourists are used to as Cuban authorities are believed to be discretely monitoring everybody constantly. However, nobody seems to be watching the dog population. There are stray dogs everywhere. No matter how cute the canine is, tourists should use caution as even the laziest, sunbathing dogs can bite. Rabies, however, is really not a problem in Cuba. Authorities are vigilant in preventing the disease.

One big shocker for tourists is the army of Cuban touts and hustlers who, mostly located in Havana, are constantly trying to sell whatever it is they have to offer: Banana-leaf-laced cigars, dried up pens, illegitimate taxi services, bottles of tap water, canned "coffee," drugs, prostitutes, bogus guide services or the "best" currency exchange rates.

Along with con artists trying to talk people out of their money, there are pickpockets who bypasses conversation and just goes straight for the whole wallet. This type of environment can be anxiety producing for some and exciting for others. Because Cuba is virtually free of violent crimes, most tourists simply enjoy the adventure.

The one problem many tourists run into is a similar issue throughout much of Latin America, but especially in African-influenced Caribbean cultures: "Yes" can actually mean "no." For example, a hotel room might be described as available on the phone and then, upon arrival, it is suddenly not. "No problem" is a classic answer that seems to have "no meaning." Or there can be a lot of waiting for something that never comes, like an espresso, dinner order or even a bill. Sometimes getting what you want requires a bit of assertiveness.

These types of scenarios are much less common with legit taxi services, government-controlled businesses, decent restaurants and higher-end hotels, but the issue is inherit in the culture. Even Cubans can get annoyed with each other's slow service or false positives. Tourists who aren't able to roll with the punches will get frustrated fast.

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