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.
You can see all the photos and read all the Cuba travel tips you want, but at the end of the day, you’re just going to have to see it for yourself.
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, hotel, or pretty much any place where you see tons of locals sitting and staring intently at their phones.
I gave up on the hassle after my second wifi card, so my two weeks in Cuba ended up being an internet detox. Considering that I went just weeks after Trump was inaugurated, it was a welcome break from the 24/7 news cycle.
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.
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). Costs in Cuba sometimes seem completely random, and it was often that I’d think I was ‘splurging’ and treating myself only to end up disappointed.
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.
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.
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.
Locals will 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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, while crumbling on the inside… There’s something unique about Cuba, something that can never be replicated in any other country. For better or for worse.
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.
Allison Green is a former educator turned travel blogger. She holds a Masters in Teaching and a B.A. in English and Creative Writing. Her blog posts merge her educational background and her experience traveling to 60+ countries to encourage thoughtful travel experiences that both educate and entertain. She has been a speaker at the World Travel Writers Conference and her writing, photography, and podcasting work has appeared in National Geographic, CNN Arabic, CBC Canada, and Forbes, amongst others. Now based in the San Francisco Bay Area where she grew up, she has also lived in Prague, Sofia, and New York City.
30 thoughts on “10 Quirks You Won’t Understand Until You Travel To Cuba”
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.
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!
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!
I’m glad you had such a memorable time in Cuba — even if the food was passable 🙂
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.
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!
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
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
People, people, people. it’s CUBA, a 3rd world country. Maybe even a 4th. You can’t even begin to compare it to any country. It is a very poor country, because it is GOVERNMENT RUN… They receive trade from a lot of country, just not the Good ole USA. Food isn’t going to taste like you get here. I loved my travel expenses to Cuba. But I thank GOD I live in the USA.
While I wouldn’t like to live in Cuba I’m not sure I’d characterize it the way you have. While in many ways life in Cuba is harder than in the U.S., at least I didn’t see sick people out in the streets without proper healthcare the way I do in the US on the regular. Also, all Cubans I met had other life necessities covered – electricity even for air conditioning, a place to live, education – we can’t really say that in the US. That said, I appreciate the freedom of choice that capitalism brings but I don’t think we should act as if Cubans are poor and starving. They just don’t have access to the same choices that countries that are more globalized have. I don’t think the quality of life is that high in the US so I’ve since left and have no plans of moving back. But to each their own 🙂
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 🙂
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 🙂
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!
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! 😀
This is so fascinating! Cuba has always been a bit of a mystery to me (and nearly all of my travel has been in the developed world, at that) but I definitely feel a bit better prepared for a visit to Cuba in the next few years. I can only imagine how shell-shocked many Cubans will be by the inevitable changes coming down the pipe.
I’m glad you feel more prepared – it’s hard to know what to expect from Cuba, and I’m sure by the time you go in a few years, a lot of this will be irrelevant! We found our guidebooks really useless a lot of the time because Cuba is changing so rapidly. And yes, I’m sure it’ll be quite a change, but the Cubans I met were quite industrious (and natural born capitalists — no one can make a buck out of nothing quite like a Cuban can!) and I think they’ll weather the transition well. Here’s hoping, at least!
People should leave Cuba to do what it does best, put you up in overpriced, all inclusive, run-down resorts with mediocre to really bad food. Otherwise self touring is near impossible, especially if you are used to it elsewhere in Latin America. Anywhere in Cuba, the public transport driver will get fired if he picks up a non-Cuban and all the taxis I was forced to take were an average of $1 per mile or per minute, which ever occurred first. And I found no neighborhood of people wanting to trade rides for money – they all told me they would get in trouble with the government for providing public transportation. Yes the home stays were economical but any edible food was way too hard to find and as expensive as other Caribbean isles when and if you can ever find it. In fact I often ate a loaf of bread for a meal rather than the stuff they sold on the street. Once I ran into a woman selling cookies on the street and ate an entire bag for a meal.
In Trinidad all the taxis want $10 US to take you to the beach or you can wait for the $2 tourist bus which will pass the bus stop nearly every day because is is overflowing with people almost hanging out the windows. Plus at the “resort” where they take you, you’ll have to rent a beach chair for around $3US and the tap beer they sell is pumped with an oily Chinese common tire air compressor. The pizza they sell on the beach is like wet bread covered in Chitos whipped with water in a blender. Yuck and double yuck!
I got stuck here for 14 days with no ATM access and only $1500 US and I got stiffed at every turn. At the end there were no more bar drinks or sodas in my budget, just what my home stay family was able to provide for my daily breakfast. I tried to book an early flight back to Mexico and couldn’t come up with the extra $400 they wanted to get back. Plus the ladies of the evening everywhere were a little too much for me in the process. My one solo trip was all I’ll ever need. Yea, the cars are cute but it’s all sort of a false facade to entertain the tourists …. the real poverty and desperation hides behind the polished streets of the main tourist area of old Havana and Trinidad. Glad I saw it but that was more than enough for me.
Had the place been like Mexico where you actually mingle with the people by getting out and about from the main city centers and can easily do so by hopping public transport, I am sure I would have come away with a much brighter view but at $20 a pop to go from one side of town to the other, hey anyone who wants it can just keep that part of Cuba all to yourself.
P.S. Most of the people being nice to me had something to sell either above or below the counter. Drugs didn’t seem to exist here and theft didn’t seem to be an issue, so I guess they are doing something right. But god, if they’d only find something descent to eat then it could be another world. I’m also not going 100% for that business of US Sanctions. What does the US sell but warheads and McDonalds? All the crap we buy in the US comes from China anyway and what kind of sanctions does China have on Cuba? Not too many, I’d say. And if Mexico or other Latin American countries can’t provide them basic food staples, it’s gotta be a local problem, can’t you cop a think?
Interesting to hear your perspective! I don’t think self-touring is “near impossible” – just a bit frustrating and more expensive than you think at every turn. I think my experience would have been different had I been traveling solo (which I usually do), so having other travelers with me helped defray the cost of the taxis we had to hire to take us from one city to the other when the only Viazul bus would be sold out for days at a time. I totally agree with you on the food though — breathtakingly bad the majority of the time. Wasn’t until I saw what they were working with in the supermarkets that I understood why the food was such crap — the one night we thought we might cook for ourselves we quickly realized that unless we wanted to eat noodles with margarine and frozen hot dogs there was nothing we could put together to even resemble a meal. My mistake was not eating in the casas for lunch/dinner, but I wasn’t such a fan of their breakfasts so I wasn’t super excited to have dinner there too. Still, I want to go back in a few years and explore the East side. I found Cubans to be super friendly and warm, and the country to be exciting even as it was frustrating. I’d even brave more bad food for that.
My largest mistake was the lure of it being a forbidden land and with that, being dumb enough to think it was “freshly opened” when the US prohibitions for traveling there were lightened. Cuba has been open to and refined to tourism for some time before the US has had access and the prices reflect this, so if you want to explore it you’ll need to take just as much money with you as visiting any other islands while realizing that the main drive of the island is to extract tourist dollars. And as is the case as with other Caribbean islands, if you want to go from point A to B, a rental car is what is needed. And here it is just as pricy if not more so. I will never forget being in a large tourist oriented building in Old Havana where a man’s wife had walked out of the rental car office just as I was approaching when I heard her husband shouting and threatening the agent who had doubled the price of the car when he had returned the vehicle. The guy wasn’t taking it lying down and apparently wanted everyone else to know the story. Still Cuba was warm to me and more so than other islands, relatively speaking. With this I recall several years ago while attempting to experience the local culture, attending a local concert in Nassau, Bahamas where we had to leave because pebbles were being forcefully tossed at me and my girlfriend. Bahamas was therefore a one-shot – a really, really depressing place. However, I would return to Cuba if I had a lot of money to unload for a rental car assuming I took along several coolers of food but until then, I’ll just read what others have discovered there while spending my own days touring mainland Latin America – to me a much richer experience. Historically speaking, I have visited all but two Caribbean islands and doing so today is like always, for someone who is gainfully employed, not retired as I am. And so also now qualifying from my recent experience, Cuba.
I also preferred mainland Latin America, particularly Nicaragua, Belize, and Mexico. I’ve only explored Puerto Rico (love it, and so sad how little the US has done to help it. Still without power months later… SMH) and Cuba in the Caribbean, and hopefully more to come. I hope that next year will bring me to the countries in Central America I’ve neglected… namely El Salvador, Honduras & Panama.
I had a different experience with food. We ate at a lot of private owned restaurants and the food was good. The best pizza we had was on Concordia near our Airbnb casa particular. To get to the beach from Havana weeven took a bus near El Capitolio for $5cuc round trip and it had air conditioning. My husband is Cuban so I got a first hand view of the real Cuba not the tourist version. We also did 3 days at an all inclusive and that was the worst food and alcohol ever. We went in 2017 and are heading back next month.
Glad to hear you had a better experience with the food! I also ate pretty much exclusively privately owned restaurants but still wasn’t a huge fan of the food. I think it definitely helps to have a Cuban friend (or husband in your case!) guiding you around as the tourist track in Cuba is pretty well worn and people tend to get sent to the same places over and over again. I have heard that the food at the all inclusives are horrific! I will say the best food I had in Cuba was at privately owned restaurants in Varadero and Trinidad. Next time I think I would try the food from my casa particular owners… I bet that is better than what I was getting in restaurants.
Hi Allison, my name is Alpi, I’m a Cuban tour guide/graphic designer/licensed art critic.
I never write comments for blogs like this one but I cannot help it this time because I disagree with all you wrote (except for number 9 maybe).
Because of experiences like yours I always say “tourists need guides”. Cuba is a very interesting place, full of hidden gems and adventure. The photographs are not trying to sell you an image of fake colorful reality, that’s how it is.
Always remember that we are a poor country, our food is not easy to get, if you wanted $15 fajitas you should have known the place to go, I can hook you up the next time you come and you can see it for yourself.
Since 1994 our island bets on tourism to rise our heavily battered economy, opinions like this one, not very accurate and negative are a big issue for us.
Please look for a cross reference at least and you will find better experiences or feel free to reach me if you need information or better places to visit here.
big hug from the hot island.
Hi Rosbel, thanks for your comment. This is clearly an opinion piece about my experience in Cuba, so while you’re welcome to disagree, you can’t really say it’s inaccurate (unless I’ve misstated a fact, in which case I’m happy to hear and correct it) – it’s true to my personal experience. I don’t think I said that there is a “fake colorful reality” – just that the truth is more complicated than colorful cars and people smiling with cigars on the streets, which is how people make it look on Instagram. However, you and I seem to agree on one main point, that Cuba is hard to travel independently, which is how I (and many other people) prefer to travel.
I try to come to Cuba with a lot of understanding for the historical context of why the situation is what it is (and I do address it in the context of this article when I can). I don’t want to portray Cuba in a negative light, because I didn’t have a negative experience overall, but I did have some misses, like having trouble with the food, the catcalling (which I didn’t address in this article because it wasn’t relevant), etc. If I return to Cuba in the future though, I’ll be sure to reach out for some local tips :). Thanks again from your comment and I hope I was able to clarify that I’m not trying to discourage people to go to Cuba, but just sharing my experience. Take care!
You definitely need to visit Cuba again. I had some pretty bad food there but I also had some pretty good Pizza, ok not the best but after copious amounts of rum it was very welcoming. The same with rum, I have had a p*** weak cuba libre in an over rated empty bar yet I have had a great night (or 3) by buying a $3 bottle of rum in a bar like the locals.
Everything is welcoming after a lot of rum 😉 But yes, I definitely do need to go back!