Eternal Arrival
Cuba

10 Quirks You Won’t Understand Until You Travel To Cuba

It’s hard not to romanticize Cuba. The photographs sell a dream: 1950s cars against brightly painted buildings, character-filled faces smoking fat cigars. This is the country Hemingway lost himself in, the land of mojitos, balmy evenings dancing salsa outside, and vintage charm.

The photos don’t lie — Cuba is an insanely photogenic country with an almost magical beauty. But photos often don’t tell the whole story. You can’t smell the noxious fumes of the nearly 70-year-old cars, or hear the stories of the people who quit their jobs teaching to flee to the burgeoning private tourism sector for 30 times the pay. You can’t truly understand the realities of life on the ground of this fascinating country until you’ve been there – and even once you have and you leave, you still have only the faintest understanding of life in on this unique island, both so close and so far to the USA.

Drinking in Hemingway’s footsteps


1. You can get alcohol without an ID, but you can’t get wifi without your passport.

There’s no such thing as a free log-on in Cuba. To get wifi, you’ll have to queue up with the locals and confused tourists to be admitted into local ETECSA. The lines are usually atrocious because most cities, besides Havana, will only have one. When you finally get allowed into the building, you can buy a wifi card at $1.50 per hour, but you must show your passport. Then you can go to one of the designated ETECSA access zones. There is usually one in every major plaza, or pretty much any place where you see tons of locals sitting and staring intently at their phones.

Cuba’s version of an internet café

2. The Cuban government essentially invented Airbnb

There are no hostels outside of Havana, and the hotels in Cuba will cost you approximately the equivalent of your body weight in mojitos. The solution? Stay at casa particulares, which are homestays regulated by the Cuban government. Cuban families will rent out a spare room or two and pay the Cuban government a monthly tax of $150 to do so. For a modest price of about $25-35 per room (this is the price for a group of 3 or 4 – couples can probably pay less), you can stay in a local’s home.There’s no need to book your casas ahead of time, except for perhaps your first one. Each casa owner has connections all over Cuba and is happy to hook you up with a friend in the next city you’re going to. While the décor will undoubtedly be a bit dated, the casa owner — usually a lovely matriarchal type — will do anything to make sure your stay is comfortable. Even if it means sawing a roll of paper towels in half after the stores have run out of toilet paper.

A row of casa particulares in Viñales

3. Price seems to have an inverse relationship to quality.

As in, a 5 dollar sandwich was roughly 10 times worse than a 50 cent one, and we found this time and again in Cuba. It was always incredibly frustrating to pay prices on par with Europe for a terrible, bland, or just plain confusing meal. I will never forget the time that I ordered fajitas from a restaurant and got a bowl of chicken nuggets with a side of mayo-ketchup dip and paid $15 USD for the pleasure (to be fair, I washed it down with quite a few Cuba Libres). Sadly, that meal didn’t even make the bottom 3. Privately owned restaurants are a relatively new phenomenon in Cuba, having only been legalized in 2013. Similarly, food shortages due to the US embargo don’t do much to help — about half of what’s on the menu is not actually on the menu.

Cordero con chilindron – lamb stew with tomato and chile, easily my favorite dish in Cuba. All this (and more rice and plantain chips than any human would ever want to eat) was 4 CUC at a little hole in the wall in Trinidad.

The best meals we had were often in hole-in-the-wall places where the prices were either unmarked or in the local currency (CUPs — look for prices starting at 25, which is 1 CUC, and up to about 100) rather than CUCs. They’d never be amazing, but they were reliable and filling. We did have a few nice meals in Varadero that were the exception to the rule, but other than that, save your cash for mojitos.

4. For the love of God, don’t order the pizza.

Let’s just say that pizza dough should not be the consistency of sponge cake and that imitation Velveeta is not an acceptable substitute for mozzarella. Don’t trust lines, either — we queued for an hour at what Lonely Planet billed as the best pizza in Santa Clara and the only edible thing was the plate of twenty French fries we waited another 40 minutes for.

At least rum is always a safe choice

5. You’ll start to become irrationally obsessed with Nestlé ice cream

After many excessively expensive and disappointing meals, you’ll start to fantasize about having something predictable. You’ll salivate each time you pass by a Nestlé sign with drawings of various ice cream bars…. only to find that inside virtually every freezer is the same bland tub of national brand ice cream.

6. Buying black market wifi feels like buying drugs

For those who don’t want to wait in the ETECSA line to get their internet hit, there’s always the good old black market. Enterprising Cubans will try to sell you wifi cards at twice the price ($3 for a 1 hour card) as you pass each local park, which as you remember is essentially also an open air internet café. They’ll whisper “wifi card, wifi card” out of the corner of their mouth as if they’re selling pot to college kids. When you finally cave and need your fix, your dealer will lead you away from the main street, produce a wifi card clandestinely from a pack of cigarettes, and relieve you of your 3 CUC.

Bicycle taxis in a square in Trinidad

7. A pickup truck, a vintage convertible, and an ambulance will all cost you the same amount of money to go to the beach.

Like I said, price seemingly has no correlation with quality. Many times we paid just as much for a crappy experience as we did for a much nicer one. As Cubans working government jobs make the equivalent of 30 dollars per month, many are happy to earn a few extra bucks here and there. This is why basically every house is a casa and anything with wheels is a taxi… including ambulances. One day, as it started to rain buckets on us at the beach, some EMTs were very happy to give us a lift back to town for a few CUC and the promise not to take any pictures.

Not as expensive as you’d think!

8. You can get rum at virtually any store, but good luck with everything else.

A socialized government, a food rationing system, plus the US embargo has done serious damage to Cuba’s grocery stores. On one occasion, we decided we wanted to stop the game of Russian roulette that is dining out in Cuba and cook for ourselves. We quickly found that unless we wanted to eat spaghetti with frozen hot dogs, cooking our own food was pretty much not an option. We couldn’t even have cereal for breakfast unless we wanted it with powdered milk.

The markets often ran out of basic necessities, including bottled water and bread. One notable exception? You’ll never a find a store that isn’t fully stocked with rum. Even things like ATMs can be hard to find, as Cuba is pretty much a cash-only economy. We went to a massive shopping center with a restaurant, internet cafe, bowling alley, and I shit you not, a literal freaking roller coaster — yet not an ATM in sight.

A Cuban bodega, where rations are distributed

9. Cubans are some of the warmest people, and they have no beef with Americans

We got to know many of our casa owners well during our two weeks in Cuba, and some were so sweet I almost felt as if I was staying with a long-lost Cuban auntie. One supplied us with fruit cocktails (which, in true Cuban fashion, was more rum than fruit) and fresh muffins. Another accompanied my friend to the hospital when a slip on the beach led to a torn ligament in her leg. The casa owners would often see us off with hugs and kisses — yes, even the one time one hustled us on our way out the door. Locals were also responsive to our questions and happy to help shed some of the mystery of Cuban life.

I’m normally horribly shy about asking to take people’s photos, but luckily Cubans are so friendly it was great practice!

Side note: for my fellow Americans, you really have nothing to worry about in Cuba, despite the decades-long animosity between our two countries’ governments. I’d be halfway through a cringe after telling locals I was American only to have them joyously say “I love America!” or start telling me about their family in Miami or New York. I’d often see Cubans totally bedecked in American flag or camouflage clothing, even on the beach. It’s definitely not the image our country would depict of Cuba — but it’s what I saw.

RELATED POST: Why I Won’t Pretend I’m Canadian

10. Cuba is frustrating, fascinating, and endlessly changing.

I wrote this article will the full awareness that this post, to some, may just sound like a laundry list of gripes from a spoiled first world tourist. And in a way, it is. I’ve gotten so used to my privilege and creature comforts, and globalization has ensured that even in the least developed nations, something familiar is never far from reach. I’ve solo traveled in many developing countries far from home, from Albania to Ecuador, from Myanmar to Nicaragua. Yet I’ve never felt more lost at sea as I did in Cuba, a country whose language I speak nearly fluently and whose capital lies a mere 90 miles from my country of birth. That’s just Cuba for you.

But as confusing as Cuba can be, somehow I’m still enchanted by this paradoxical country. The beauty of the vintage cars and the ingenuity that keeps them going, the pride and dignity of the people, the faded glory of the colonial buildings being renewed with vibrant coats of paint… There’s something unique about Cuba, something that can never be replicated in any other country.

 

A vintage car tour of Havana – a must do!

 

Brilliant colors everywhere

As tired as I was when I left Cuba, I’m already thinking about how I’d love to return time and again. I’m curious to watch as this country changes, to witness the inevitable transition from the Castro years to who knows what comes next.

I’ll just remember not to get the pizza next time.

Cuba's more than Havana, vintage cars, and colorful walls - learn more about the reality of what it's like to travel to this difficult yet rewarding country.

16 Comments

  • Reply
    LC
    March 15, 2017 at 11:27 pm

    I’m so glad you enjoyed your time there and your photos are lovely! I think about going back sometimes too, but then there’s so many other places in the world to visit… I’m definitely glad I didn’t attempt to eat any pizza there, haha ew.

    • Reply
      Allison Green
      March 15, 2017 at 11:30 pm

      Thanks LC! Yeah, I’m always torn between wanting to revisit places and seeing something totally new – and because I’m a shameless country counter, I usually opt for something new. And yes, you definitely made out for the better by not having the pizza!

  • Reply
    Rod McDonough
    March 16, 2017 at 2:58 am

    I’m Canadian and had my first visit to Cuba last year. You are so right about Pizza.. actually anything Italian is down right strange in Cuba. Our resort had 3 “Ala Cart” restaurants and two buffets. The three ala carts where… Asian (different but okay), North American (which beleave it or not had one of the best Filet Mignon I’ve ever had!) And an Italian place… booo on Pizza and just about everything else Italian they had! I’ll gladly re-visit Cuba in the future. Why…? Just like you say. The people the colours of the buildings, the history. I can only fault the Pizza like you. Good review!

    • Reply
      Allison Green
      March 16, 2017 at 9:58 pm

      I’m glad you had such a memorable time in Cuba — even if the food was passable 🙂

  • Reply
    Rika | Cubicle Throwdown
    March 17, 2017 at 7:04 am

    This is a really spot-on summary! I enjoyed my trips to Cuba, and the people were wonderful. I could do without the pizza for sure though. The first time I went I was 19 years old on my first vacation with a friend (this was way before the days of wifi, so we were off the grid for the whole week! Our parents hated it…) and we started tipping well on the first day – we are Canadian so we’re just used to it. The Europeans at our resort (who weren’t tipping) were having a horrible time, but we were treated like royalty! At the time, I didn’t think about all the socioeconomic things that were going on behind the scenes to create this kind of special treatment for tipping a few bucks, but I do think about it now. It will be interesting to see how Cuba changes over the next few years.

    • Reply
      Allison Green
      March 18, 2017 at 11:37 pm

      Yes, the tipping culture is definitely big in Cuba. I think I got warmer treatment as an American because we’re well known to be good tippers, at least compared with Europeans. Knowing the socioeconomic stuff is really helpful for understanding Cuba. A dollar tip may not seem like a lot to us, but it’s more than they made from their entire day at work, which is just crazy! I met a waiter in Cuba who quit his job as a teacher (he had to fake these papers and pretend he didn’t have a degree– crazy!) to become an entertainer in a resort in Varadero and then as a waiter in Trinidad. He said he made more in one day from tips than he did in an entire month as a teacher. I feel this two-tiered public/private discrepancy can’t last long, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens to Cuba when the last Castro dies. I’m hopeful for its future!

  • Reply
    Ole
    March 18, 2017 at 4:01 am

    Next time go to Marina Hemingway, take an immediate left inside the gate and look for the Italian resaurant on the left across from the canal behind Club Nautica. Pizza as good as you ever had! A true anomaly in Cuba, de verdad. I have been there about 70 times starting in 1989, and your article was one of the most correct I have read about that unique and often frustrating time warp of a place. Thanks for the tale- you really got the place. For interesting insights from an American gal who has gone native read Here is Havana by Conner Gorry on word press

    • Reply
      Allison Green
      March 18, 2017 at 11:33 pm

      This is such a good tip!! I will definitely remember to check this when I finally revisit Cuba. Wow, 70 times — that’s amazing! I’m so glad that you think I was able to capture the spirit of Cuba, a high compliment to hear from you! And yes, totally agree on “unique and often frustrating time warp of a place” — I can’t think of a better way to describe Cuba! I’ll definitely check out that blog, it sounds super fascinating! Thanks for dropping by to comment!

  • Reply
    Laura
    March 26, 2017 at 7:11 am

    Interesting post. I haven’t been to Cuba but I agree that all the photos make it look so dreamy so it’s interesting to hear the other side to it. Still can’t wait to go one day!

    • Reply
      Allison Green
      March 27, 2017 at 12:59 am

      It’s a magical place and I do recommend it to everyone – just with caveats so people know what to expect 🙂 I hope you go soon!

  • Reply
    Alina
    March 26, 2017 at 8:41 am

    I visited Cuba two years ago and can relate. Actually, the best meals we had were in a private restaurant (or basically – home) of a friend of a friend, where we got invited by our divemaster. The food was delicious and we paid a fraction of the regular price in other places. Since I visited on an arranged trip, I did not get a chance to stay in a casa, but a mammoth of a hotel in Varadero. Still, my husband was very happy, I think he ate shrimp non-stop for the whole week there 🙂
    In my experience, those really involved in tourism, did not want to share any “true feelings” and “real stories” on how it is to live in Cuba. One of the guides openly said – if I talk too much, I will lose my job and will never again get such a lucrative deal. When we gave her a tip at the end of the tour, she almost started crying, how thankful she was.

    • Reply
      Allison Green
      March 27, 2017 at 12:59 am

      That sounds like a great meal to remember — one of our best meals was in what seemed like someone’s living room that they had turned into a mini restaurant. There wasn’t much on the menu but what they did make was amazing! I wish I had gotten a chance to dive in Cuba but we were traveling quite quickly through the country. Isn’t Varadero beautiful? Loved it!

      I think people are a little more open now to discussing ‘real life’ now that Fidel Castro has died and Raul doesn’t have too many years left. A few people we spoke to would talk frankly about how much you make doing government jobs, why they left for the tourism sector, how it’s hard for them to leave Cuba, etc. But yes, tipping well (not even exorbitantly, just tipping 10-15% ) is so appreciated by Cubans, and it makes all the more sense when you think about their economy there.

  • Reply
    Suzana
    March 26, 2017 at 9:21 am

    I have never been to Cuba, and these are very useful information for me 🙂 . For sure I will rather eat fajitas and Cuban’s food instead pizza 🙂

    • Reply
      Allison Green
      March 27, 2017 at 12:55 am

      Cuban food can be hit or miss as well but definitely wasn’t as bad as the pizza! I’m glad you found the post useful 🙂

  • Reply
    Megan Johnson
    March 26, 2017 at 1:15 pm

    I really enjoyed this! I haven’t been, but would love to. It definitely sounds like these things could be annoying, but with anywhere you’ll find this kind of stuff. I basically have this, but the Philippines. They’re still (usually) enjoyable places though. Awesome post and I love the pictures!

    • Reply
      Allison Green
      March 27, 2017 at 12:55 am

      Yeah, it can be annoying, but it’s part of the intrigue of visiting Cuba in these transitional years. Will be so interesting to watch the country change! Every place has their quirks but Cuba more than any I’ve been. Thanks for the compliment – glad you liked the pictures! 😀

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