Cuba — the jewel of the Caribbean. With crystalline waters bathe its marble white beaches, enjoyable year-round thanks to a stubbornly warm weather, a dense, jungle-like wilderness decorates its beautiful hills, plains filled with bright tobacco and sugar cane fields, it sounds like paradise.
Time seems to have stopped in Cuba, but Cubans rush and enjoy life like no other people on earth.
Although Cuban Spanish tends to be more rapid and a little more difficult to learn than Spanish spoken in other areas of Latin America, the island is still a Spanish learning destination worth considering if you already have a good foundation. Not to mention, Cuban Spanish has incorporated words from French, West African languages, and Taino, the language spoken by the Taino, Cuba’s indigenous inhabitants.
Cuban people are extremely friendly. They'll be willing to help you improve your Spanish and become your friends. There is no better way to become proficient in Spanish than to practice all day long with a fun and welcoming group of friends!
If your Spanish level isn’t advanced and you wish to improve your grammar and syntax with the help of a teacher, your best course of action will probably be to look for programs that will place you in a language school with other students with your same language level.
The drawback to this option is that if the other students share your same native language you won’t be able to practice as much Spanish as you would in a program where you have to interact with Cubans.
These programs offer the possibility to make a meaningful contribution to Cuba and to practice your Spanish skills in a “real world” environment, the best way to take your language skills a step further if you are already confident in your Spanish level. This is also a great option for U.S. citizens who need to take part in some kind of activity to get legal authorization to visit Cuba. (Discussed in more detail under 'planning your trip')
Where to Go
La Habana, Cuba’s capital, is the primary destination for those visiting and studying in Cuba. Colorful, with more than two million citizens, it has an amazing architecture -- most of it falling apart, which adds a unique melancholy to this lively metropolis.
Located inland from a huge harbor, El Malecón, the promenade that follows the coastline, is a historical place and a must visit for those who want to see with their on eyes the most mythical Cuba.
Are you afraid of suffering from Cuba’s legendary heat? Then Trinidad is your perfect destination. The city is located on top of a beautiful hill and enjoys the cooling breeze of the ocean. But that isn’t Trinidad’s only attraction. Founded in 1514, the town’s glorious age was during the 17th and 18th century.
The city was a slave-trading center and a hub of sugar production. Its richest citizens used their fortunes to build impressive houses and mansions, colored with pastel and bright colors. Visit Trinidad and walk through streets where time seems to have stopped!
If you're attracted by the enchanting 17th and 18th centuries’ architecture, then Camaguey might also be a good option for you. Located in a province of cattle ranchers, the streets of the city’s historic center twist and turn in what seems to be terrible city planning.
On the contrary, they were designed to be a convoluted labyrinth to thwart pirates from attacking the city. This maze is full of well-preserved churches and convents, colonial plazas and colorful houses with red roofs and wooden window grills.
You'll also notice that the town is full of oversized jars, known as “tinajones”, which give the city its nickname of the “city of Tinajones.”
If, on the other hand, you wish to spend your time in Cuba in a big city, avoiding touristy Habana, then Santiago is your place. Santiago de Cuba is the island’s second largest city. It has a feeling of its own, due to being the most African city in Cuba. The inheritance of the slaves’ fight for freedom has deeply shaped the city. Santiago is known all over Cuba for being a revolutionary hotbed.
Santiago is also one of the musical centers of Cuba, and the city with the most amazing Carnival festivity. You’ll for sure hear the drums and experience the partying frenzy that fills the city if you are there in July!
Planning Your Trip
To fully experience the Cuban way of life you need to stop for a second, take a deep breath, and relax. This is an island, a Caribbean Island. Life is slow and meant to be enjoyed without unnecessary rushes or stress. When wondering around the island notice how the natives’ concept of time is completely different from the one people usually have in the most industrialized countries. In Cuba, people work to live, they don’t live to work.
If you are open minded and willing to socialize, don’t worry about making friends: Cubans are known through the entire Spanish-speaking world as the warmest people and the more welcoming hosts. Cuban hospitality is legendary, and for very good reasons. If you go to Cuba, its citizens will take it as a personal duty to make your experience unforgettable and to make sure that you discover all the wonders of their land.
The cost of living in Cuba is extremely cheap. The official prices set by the government are exaggeratedly low. Though the prices of these same products in the “parallel” market (huge in the island) are higher, they are still cheaper than they would be in Europe or the US.
Currently there are two types of currencies in Cuba. Cubans get their salaries and buy basic products and services with Pesos Cubanos (CUP), Cuban Pesos. Imported products and services related to tourism are payed for in Pesos Convertibles (CUC), convertible pesos.
Each Convertible Peso is exchanged for a Dollar and equals 25 Cuban Pesos. With this system, getting the basics your need will be extremely cheap and you will only have to pay “dollar” prices when getting specific services or products.
The Cuban government has announced, though, that it plans on unifying their currency system. The prices will still remain low, but do your research before traveling to Cuba so you don’t end up with the wrong kind of currency!
If your country is a member of the European Union or has economic relations with Cuba, there shouldn’t be any legal restrictions for you to go to Cuba, either as a tourist or as a participant of any particular language program. A tourist visa will allow you to stay in the country for 30 days, extendable for a further 30. If you are a Canadian citizen, your tourist visa will be valid for 90 days, and extendable for 90 more.
If you are a U.S. citizen, things are a bit more complicated (less complicated now thanks to new regulations, but still not as straightforward as it is for other nationalities). Typically, U.S. citizens are permitted in Cuba if they are part of an organized trip. So, for once, we'd recommend traveling to Cuba as part of a study abroad or volunteer abroad trip.
But don’t despair! Your dream to visit Cuba is not impossible. You have several options to get a license to travel to Cuba legally. Actually, the United States offers both what they call general licenses and specific licenses to travel to Cuba.
For a general overview of your possibilities, you can visit the WikiTravel site on Americans in Cuba, but for more specific information on the licenses, the possibilities to get one and how to apply you should read the OFAC’s Comprehensive Guidelines for License Applications to Engage in Travel-Related Transactions Involving Cuba.