Cuban Español – Spanish Immersion

Cuban Español – Spanish Immersion


Learning Spanish in Cuba

We did not expect to learn Spanish so rapidly from just a few days in La Habana. Very few people spoke even a little Inglés (English) so we found ourselves learning a language through immersion rather than through any app or book. We fumbled our way at sprinting pace inspite of no wifi.

When we arrived it was clear that none of the workers at the airport spoke English and this set the precedent for the rest of our Cuban holiday. 14yo told me to take photos of signs which were bilingual at the airport. That was great advise! Later on I was able to ask for toilets, currency exchange, a bag and shops.

To make conversation on the drive from the airport, I asked our driver how to say a few things and recorded it. His English was as bad as my Spanish so we used hand motion and my 14yo’s year 10 español to communicate. We managed to record on my phone “hows the weather?”, “it’s cold”, “it’s sunny”, “what’s your name?” And “my name is…”

The Cuban accent seems very different to what 14yo was using and his teacher had said he had great pronunciation. I’m assuming we’ll have to change our accent in Mexico too.

The first thing we needed was food so the owner of our casa particular had walked hubby to a local restaurant that was “poquito, poquito”. This was the word I’d learnt from her when I’d been asking her to reduce the price. I assumed it meant “cheap” I still don’t know what it means because google translate says it refers to “a little man” lol. And I still keep using it!

Everywhere we went we learnt the Spanish name for items we needed huevo (eggs), pampid (nappies), sin carne (without meat), etc. We also learnt that a tortilla is not a flat bread but flat food so you can order “una huevo tortilla sin sal” which is scrambled eggs flattened like a pancake without salt.

If people were friendly we asked “Commo es dis” which is “how do you say..” and then point to the item. If they spoke a little English we would ask for sentence structures like “cuanto es…” “how much…”. We played with the housekeeper’s two year old granddaughter. She loved soccer and together with our two little ones they kicked about the mini basketball. We learnt words as her dad told Isabela what we were telling our 2yo. “Pass the ball”, “Their turn”, “Well done”. We also learnt “choko” which was a way of saying hi-five that only her kindy used. If you want to learn a language immersion is definitely the fastest way. Having said that, we could’ve toured Cuba not learning any Spanish but surviving on other people’s broken English. We put ourselves out there and asked a lot and practiced pronunciations over and over. It helped to have a translation app for times when we couldn’t communicate plus we had our 14yo and 12yo’s little spanish for proper pronunciation. Probably the most important words to learn are: por favor- please, perdon- sorry, gracias- thank you, permiso- excuse me. In any language those words will take you a long way. When we reach Mexico I’ll be practicing counting, colours, directions, greetings and farewells and shopping. I found these to be the topics I functionally needed most. I would’ve loved to ask more political and religious questions but that’s probably when I’m at an advanced level.

Our Glimpse of Havana

Friendly bystanders who jumped right in to help us contact the landlord

Our accommodation dilemma in Cuba

Our accommodation dilemma in Cuba


The Planning

Arriving in Havana I thought we were super organised and had taken all our learnings from the last three destinations and applied it here. Turns out our arrival in Havana was going to make all those learnings redundant. If you want a quick summary of our learnings, skip to the end of this article.

I had googled the airport arrival tips so I knew the process would be simple to get through customs and it was. When we came out I knew there was a currency conversion upstairs on level two that had no queues compared to the one downstairs that had long lines. That was true also. And I knew that the yellow taxis were out the door and to the left and the taxi fare was about 25-30CUC (cooks) to get to the area of Havana we were going to.

Plus we had our accomodation all fully booked for the five night stay. I had taken a photo of the address and where it was in google maps according to Airbnb because I’d read that there was no internet at the airport.

What Actually Happened

Apart from some extra forms to fill in, customs was simple to get through. I sent hubby upstairs for the currency conversion only to find that they only accepted Euros. Having just come from America we had USD and that was only exchangeable downstairs. Time to join the long queue.

We needed to go to the toilet. The first set had men and women using them and had no toilet seat and the plumbing wasn’t working. The second set was the same but the plumbing was working so I used these. I told hubby there was a set upstairs. This third set was men only or women only but the plumbing was not working and was clogged up. Eeeekk!!

We went to catch a taxi and the driver insisted it was 35CUC so I relented. He was a lovely guy and was willing to teach us some español which came in handy later like “frios” for cold.

Internet is limited in Cuba, so getting around works like it did in the old days: people ask each other for directions. It’s super common to pull up to someone on the street and ask where is a bank or a wifi spot is or a place to rent or this street name or number. Everyone is very obliging and willing to help.

Our driver reached the suburb we were staying in and then began asking directions. We arrived in our neighbourhood-to-be where we had booked ourselves in with a local family in one of their bedrooms. The address was not for a home at all, but for an automobile repair shop! I had taken a photo of her phone number so the taxi driver called her, then the neighbours called her. Many of the neighbourhood residents came out to find out what the commotion was and were using their five or six words of English plus hand motions to convey to us that it was going to be ok and they would find her. However, the host was uncontactable.

We were realising how desperately we needed to learn some basic español because hardly anyone understood inglés and if they did it was very limited.

We’d Booked a Dud

After some time of waiting around and everyone looking for her, the taxi driver told us we had to find another place to stay. We asked him if we could jump online so we could book another place. It went like this “Wifi. Internet. Book another casa particular?” He seemed to say there was no internet. I thought, well, this is what we need to learn to do in spanish at some point, might as well try now.

He taught me the phrase “puerdo in autra casa para rente”. That’s from memory so that could be completely wrong! Anyway I thought I’d have to get out of the car and start asking people. Fortunately he made some calls and found una Casa Particular. We parked outside a house in a much nicer neighbourhood. The place had a sign outside of it saying “se vente un casa”.

We went inside. It was lovely. It was a private room in a shared space, which is what a casa particular is. But then we had to negotiate the price. We had only been prepared to pay 30CUC per night for the six of us, this was going to be 60CUC per night. I was stressed and it was probably showing. A New Jersey tourist from another room tried to translate for us so that the owner would drop the price. Unfortunately he could hardly speak English despite having lived in Jersey for 22 years.

Eventually we settled on a price of 45CUC for two three-person rooms each with their own bathroom.

Internet Issues

Saved!! Now we just had to find wifi and cancel the original Airbnb. This proved a difficult task. Internet is not so freely accessible on Cuba. There are government hot spots throughout the country that are in public squares where you can connect. The lady of the house (I’ll call her lady but she was probably the maid) took me late at night to one of these spots but we were not able to connect. BTW, Mari (the lady of the house) spoke as much English as I spoke Spanish – please, thank-you, and lady. She asked some people who told her that we need to purchase a card. The card only cost CUC2 and gives you one hour of access. This was more than I needed. The problem was the actual connection. I struggled to connect and even when I did, it was super slow. There were about fifty other people trying to use the same spot at the same time.

Mari asked around again and found someone who helped me to connect. I jumped on, canceled our booking on Airbnb with only a partial refund but decided that I could sort the rest out later.

Cancelling with Airbnb

Turns out Airbnb are super awesome in dealing with these types of situations. I contacted them as soon as I had internet in Cancun. They apologised for our inconvenience and the stress it put us under and they explained the process. They would give our host two days to respond to the issue and action a full refund based on that. I knew the host was not going to get in touch. I hadn’t received any communications from her since booking the place.

Once the two days were up and the host had not responded, Airbnb gave me a full refund. They said they would’ve have reimbursed me the difference but because we didn’t have a receipt for our accomodation (everything was paid in cash), they couldn’t pay more than the refund. Another learning 🙂 I was happy with Airbnb’s service and the way they resolved the issue, and for me the refund was sufficient.


Biggest learning is how friendly and super helpful Cubans are – one of the reasons we love Cuba!

If you’re great at negotiating, you can bargain your taxi fare down to CUC25. I’m not one of those (should’ve got hubby to do the negotiating!)

It’s is easy to find accommodation there. There are so many options but they are not online. This is definitely one place you could book one nights accomodation and then ask around, walk around, check out some of the options and then book a place for the rest of your stay. 

There is no internet but Havana works like Auckland did thirty years ago: everyone asks for help! I remember we’d pull up to a petrol station or someone walking on the side of the street and everyone was keen to help you out. It makes for a lot more communication, a lot more smiling faces, and a lot more opportunities to practice Spanish. 

Our Glimpse of Havana

The Vintage Cars of Cuba



Having known nothing about this place before landing, we quickly learnt the beauty this city has to offer any intrepid visitor.

Our Glimpse of Havana

Vehicles in Cuba

This bull dozer was parked outside our place every night. Nearly every day we had to stop and take photos because these two little ones

Read More »

Why We Love Cuba

We spent six days staying in a Casa Particular on the Caribbean island of Cuba where we fell in love with Havana. Here’s why we

Read More »
Our super awesome host Mari

The People of Havana

The People of Havana


My experience of the people in Havana

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata!

He aha te mea nui o te ao

What is the most important thing in the world?

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata

It is the people, it is the people, it is the people – Maori proverb

I’m reminded of this Maori proverb whenever I think of our stay in Havana because of the heart-warming interactions we had with so many people. The most important thing in Havana is the people, and it was the people that truely made our stay beautiful even though we were in such a culturally differing environment.

Helpful Neighbours

We landed in Havana, haggled with the taxi driver, and then found him such a pleasure to interact with as he helped us learn Spanish. He must’ve known about a handful of English words but we were still able to have a fun ride to our “booked” accomodation. More about that drama here. We found the neighbours so helpful and concerned for us, and the driver took it upon himself to find us a new place. But this was a typical neighbourhood, where they knew each other and had a strong community feel.

We were introduced to our hosts, Lidia who is the housekeeper and Mari who only stayed at night so I”m not sure what her role was. With our language barrier, they didn’t speak any English, I didn’t think I’d grow to cherish these ladies like I did. 


We started our stay quite lost without the internet to guide us to locations and to translate for us. The owner understood our budget and introduced us to a local restaurant. This restaurant was not where the tourists eat, but served good food. We still don’t know what this place is called but it is if you’re ever in Havana, it is on San Lazaro between Hospital and Espada. On a side note, the common way to give directions is to give the intersection location. Here we met a young guy who spoke English and who we had the pleasure of building a relationship with. Julio had a natural style about him, he could get along with anyone. He also gave hubby a different Cuban dish every day which hubby loved.

We found out that Julio had a four year old daughter living with her mum in a town ten hours away from Havana. He worked every day for two months and then would get one week off to go see them. His partner had to stay with her mum because of illness so he would WhatsApp his daughter daily. This was typical of the hardship stories we heard here. 

The day before his dad was going to drive him, most people don’t own a car, Julio arranged for us to visit his favourite beach in Havana. More about that here.


On our first night I needed to access the internet to get a refund from Airbnb for our failed booking. Mari walked me to one of the government sites, which is usually a park or square. She linked arms with me the whole time which felt like it was for my safety. She stayed away from other people even though I thought we’d get better reception where most people were hovering around. I still couldn’t connect so she cautiously asked around for help and hesitantly approached a person so I could buy a one hour card for 2 CUC. Then she argued with him when I couldn’t connect and in his broken English he said he would make sure it works. I could see she took responsibility of me and perhaps this was her job at our casa particular. 

Once I had connected and sent my Airbnb message we strolled back and made conversation with hand motions throwing in one word here and there that we believed the person understood. She showed me photos of her granddaughter who lives in New York. She explained that she hadn’t seen her son since he was six when he escaped to America. She was not allowed a passport so couldn’t travel to see them and her son was not allowed to come back into Cuba or he would have to stay. I cried with her as I felt the sorrow in her loss.


On Sunday we decided it was too hot to bother with sight seeing and preferred to enjoy the air-conditioned room. That day, I saw Lidia preparing a big lunch which turned out to be because her son and granddaughter were visiting. I wasn’t sure if it was an every Sunday thing or just one-off. Isabela was a spark of joy who made her grandmother’s eyes shine. More about her in our Cuban Espanol post.

Lidia’s son spoke quite a bit of English and shared that his wife was at home with their four week old girl. They lived about forty minutes away. I didn’t want to pry but I wondered how much Lidia would get to visit her son, because what I saw was her working seven days a week, all day. That’s probably why he was visiting here instead of Lidia going to see her newborn granddaughter. 

Lidia had a pet turtle which she kept in a bowl in the courtyard. My kids loved checking the turtle every morning. One day little 2yo was unsettled and crying so she talked to him the whole time about the turtle then picked up the turtles bowl, emptied into the sink and showed him how she washed the turtle’s shell with a toothbrush. He loved this and was a happy chappy after that. 

There were a few things that accentuated her role in the house. One day the New Jersey couple who I’d been conversing with were having a coffee in the kitchen with Lidia. I decided to join them and told hubby to come too. Lidia immediately got out of her seat and said she would stand because there were not enough chairs. Hubby refused to let her stand and he sat on the stairs insisting she sit down until she finally sat down at the table. Whenever my kids made a mess I would ask her for a cloth to clean it up and she would do the cleaning, refusing to let me do it. But she was always friendly and seemed pleased to be able to help us in any way. I suppose the most obvious was that they both slept on fold out beds in the kitchen.

Lidia helped me with all the little tasks at home that I needed for my family. She would continually talk to me in Spanish knowing I didn’t understand the words but by the way she spoke I did understand the jist of what she was saying.

Savouring the Local Vibe

When we were out and about eating where the locals eat, the people serving us were really accomodating. Not many tourists ate where the locals ate so the exploration of these places was exciting. We became familiar with the style of interaction the locals had for us as opposed to each other. We didn’t spend much time where there were a lot of tourists and perhaps that’s what created tantalised our senses more. 

Interestingly when we found a very cheap “American” style restaurant to regularly eat at, we felt disconnected from the charm of the local people. We were now officially tourists. A separate entity to the locals. No longer living with them. Instead now watching them. In hindsight, hubby and I felt that we enjoyed the vibe when we were eating as locals, able to connect with those that served us, far more than the  short term pleasure of eating familiar food at a tourist joint, where our wait staff were aloof, treating us as “just another customer”. 

Overall, the real treat was being able to sit in our casa particular, on the beautiful antique furniture, in the front room with it’s high ornate ceilings, keeping the front door wide open so that I could look out at the happenings on the street as the neighbourhood carried on with their daily life.

Our Glimpse of Havana

Playing in the rain

Why We Love Cuba

Why We Love Cuba


We spent six days staying in a Casa Particular on the Caribbean island of Cuba where we fell in love with Havana. Here’s why we would come back to Cuba again.

Te Tangata! It is the People!

Whenever I think of our stay in Havana, I’m reminded of a Maori proverb that states the most important thing in the world is people, and that’s because of the heart-warming interactions we had with so many people. The most important thing in Havana is the people, and it was the people that truely made our stay beautiful even though we were in such a culturally differing environment.

We became familiar with our neighbourhood including the “too cool” teenage school kids, the fed-up business mama, the aimless old guy, the provocative old lady in the doorway, the fruit stand guy, the parents rushing their kids to school in the morning. On the whole we found the way friends interacted with each other was very playful with a lot of laughter. The few we had the pleasure of building relationships with had poignant stories that was simply part of their every day life. In so many we saw joy in spite of their poverty.

You can read more about our experience here.


We experienced a couple of amazing thunderstorms. The rain poured down in bucketfuls and the streets completely emptied. The thunder was so deafening it scared the little ones initially, but after half an hour they settled into the noise and were comfortable to go outside and dance in the rain.

Playa Santa María del Mar

We asked Julio if there was a nearby beach where we could go for a swim. He said his absolute favourite near Havana is Santa Maria and that he would arrange for a taxi to take us there and bring us back after an hour for CUC40.

After lunch we quickly packed some snacks and headed right back to the restaurant. We weren’t really sure if we’d be swimming so none of us packed togs. What a mistake!!

This beach is absolutely stunning. We couldn’t resist jumping in with our clothes on. Hubby took a hit for the team and sat out because 2yo was sleeping and 4yo found the waves a little too rough to run in.

You might laugh at me in my comparisons but I couldn’t help thinking of our favourite beach in Auckland at Tawharanui Regional Park. For a few of reasons. Although no-one was boogie boarding this would be a perfect boogie boarding beach. And it was a safe beach where I would happily let my older two swim without needing to supervise them because the current was not so strong and the depth was shallow enough at low tide that they could walk out a fare way. It was clear waters and the beach felt so untouched by humans.

But you’re right, in many ways it was nothing like Tawharanui! It was a white sandy beach in the Caribbean Sea with tropical warm waters that had a crystal blue hue as you gazed upon it. It had no shady spots so we sat under an umbrella. Interestingly, this was our first experience of having sunseats on the beach with an umbrella where you paid someone to use it for an hour. Although it’s not common in NZ and Australia, I’ve heard it’s quite common in other countries. It was very convenient instead of having to take your own seat and umbrella to a beach and it wasn’t much of a fee given the scorching heat.

Apparently there are many beautiful beaches around Cuba and we are so grateful we had the chance to experience one of them.


 Some of the beautiful buildings in Havana were made as early as the 1600’s and have been modelled on the buildings from whoever was the biggest influence in Cuba at the time: first the Spanish, then the French, and lastly the Americans before they were kicked out by Fidel’s revolution. The Catedral de San Cristobal was built in the 1700’s along with much of Old Havana. 

Many of the central residential buildings have ornate designs on pillars or French balconies but have not been well maintained since the Castro family took over Cuba. Some of the them are colourful while others look decrepit. Regardless of how well maintained, people dwell here. 

The place across the road from us had two stories that looked uninhabitable. Yet every morning I would see the family leave through the front door which I could only assume meant they were living on the third level. Over the weekend awesome music came pumping from up there which confirmed it. 

Ground level windows generally have grills on them to prevent theft which I assume must be pretty high since people lock their scooter inside their home. Many of the residential homes are three to five stories high but only one family would live on a level. The level above us had four families occupying the space of our one casa particular. We were the mezzanine level of a four story building which apparently would be where slaves would live while their owners occupied the levels above.


In many photos of Cuba you will see cars from the 1950’s. That’s because after Fidel Castro became the leader Cuba in 1959,  America and Cuba began imposing trade restrictions with each other. Cuba outlawed importing any American cars or parts. It was only in 2015 when Raul Castro changed a law so new cars could be imported. Having said that we saw very few brand new vehicles and they were taxis. These beautiful Classic American cars are still hugely common and are somehow still functioning inspite of the spare parts import limitation.

Our Glimpse of Havana

The Vintage Cars of Cuba

Vehicles in Cuba

Vehicles in Cuba


This bull dozer was parked outside our place every night. Nearly every day we had to stop and take photos because these two little ones wanted to pose in front of it.

Vintage Cars

Cuba is famous for it’s beautifully painted cars from the 1950’s and they are impressive. It was hard not to take photos of these cars. Some are super well maintained and some are run down. Whatever the condition we did not get tired of looking at them.

Buses for locals

These were the typical buses that locals used. Some were in good condition. Most were no. This one up above was crammed full just seconds before I took this photo. These buses are not supposed to be used by tourists, and personally I wouldn’t want to use them. They get jammed fuller than sardines in a tin!

The bus below is for tourists. We didn’t catch any buses. Everything was close enough to walk or cheap enough to catch a taxi.


Three Wheelers

Some taxis are three-wheelers. Some are new and some are simply bicycles

Some other vehicles: a yellow school bus, a white dump truck and a red dump truck. I only saw one fire truck at night. The fire truck had many fire officers squeezed in. 

Our Glimpse of Vehicles Around The World