Spanish is Cuba's official language. Those connected with the tourist industry in places that see a lot of foreign visitors will speak English, thanks to all the Canadians who come here. The person on the street will know very little. Learning even a few words of Spanish helps. The basic niceties such as por favor (please) and gracias (thank you) should be a minimum along with a friendly Buenos días (Good morning), Buenas tardes (Good afternoon), or Buenas noches (Good evening), and will always be appreciated. For more words and phrases, see the Spanish glossary in the back of this book. Phrase book and language-tape sets can augment that list. We recommend Fodor’s Travel Phrases, an app for smartphone or tablet, which includes Spanish among its 22 languages, and Living Language Spanish courses.
Español cubano (Cuban Spanish or, nicknamed, “cubañol") fascinates and frustrates travelers. Cubans' rapid speech will test the careful textbook Spanish you studied in school. Compound that with the tendency of people here to "swallow" consonants, especially the S at the end of words, and to pronounce L like R and vice versa. Listen closely and make ample, good-hearted use of this request: "Más despacio, por favor" (slower, please).
Cubans embrace each other and often kiss friends and family of the opposite sex. We visitors will never cross that barrier, but shaking hands with someone you meet is the norm here. The formal pronoun usted (you) is almost always used; the familiar tú (you) is reserved only for close friends and relatives. After decades of socialism, you’ll hear Cubans address each other as Compañero or Compañera, for males and females respectively and loosely meaning “comrade.” Some Cubans we speak to suggest it sounds awkward coming from a foreigner. You’ll never go wrong with Señor or Señora.
Even in officially atheist Cuba, a church is a place of reverence, and respectful dress and decorum are expected. Men and women should not wear shorts, sleeveless shirts, or sandals inside a church; women should wear pants or skirts below the knee. Bathing suits and other assorted skimpy attire work inside the confines of your beach resort but never in cities or towns. Cuban adults do not wear shorts except at the beach; they regard them as children’s wear. It does get hot here. You’ll have to make that call.
Despite a half-century of poor government-to-government relations and an economic embargo, most Cubans warmly welcome American visitors. Life here is far more nuanced and complex than many assume; you may be surprised at the frankness with which Cubans across the political spectrum speak. As a visitor, you should be positive. Complaining to local people about things that go wrong serves little purpose. There may be a hitch or two in your travel plans—voice your concerns to your tour representative.