Cuba is equal parts frustrating and fascinating. The colors of the houses are so vibrant, especially contrasted with the shiny and meticulously kept up cars.
There’s a charming old-fashioned vibe to the country. Many say visiting Cuba is a bit like traveling back in time. But underneath the vintage veneer, you can sneak a peek at the hard realities of life in Cuba at this pivotal juncture between the Castro era and whatever comes next.
If you haven’t yet read my article called “
10 Quirks You Won’t Understand Until You Travel to Cuba” – that’s a great place to start understanding the realities of life in Cuba, just 50 miles yet somehow 70 years away from mainland, mainstream America. Or if you just wanna peruse some pretty pictures sprinkled with some random Cuba facts, I’ve got you covered here, too!
Curious about how to legally travel to
Cuba as an American? Check out this post. Classic cars in Cuba are everywhere, which is actually not a result of the trade embargo but rather the ban on importing foreign cars, which started in 1959.
Note: This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission if you purchase something through one of these links. Thank you for supporting the free content on this site! For more information on affiliate links and cookies, see my disclosure page for more details.
Cubans may very well be some of the best mechanics in the world, as nothing more than sweat and ingenuity has kept these classic cars running for the past 70+ years.
Having a car in Cuba is a lifeline to money outside the socialist government, which pays an average of $30 USD per month.
For this reason, virtually every privately owned car in Cuba is also a taxi – it’s never hard to find a ride.
Though the government wage for Cubans is drastically low, Cubans are given food rations, housing (with water and electricity included), and are guaranteed the right to a government job.
Bodegas are where Cubans receive their rations, and their sparseness shows the shortcomings of the Cuban government’s ability to provide adequately for its people.
Rations include rice, beans, eggs, oil, and chicken (also, cigars and cigarettes – go figure). But they most certainly don’t include fresh fruit – which Cubans have to buy from their meager government salary.
As a result of their abysmally low wages, Cubans have become enterprising: natural born capitalists, dare I say. Many Cubans rig up things like old bicycles into pedi-taxis to wheel around tourists and locals alike and make some cash to spend in the quasi-black market.
There is technically freedom of the press in Cuba’s constitution… with the small caveat that no press can advocate “against the decision of the Cuban people to build socialism and communism”. Granma is the official newspaper of the Communist Party in Cuba.
Street art is heavily censored and clearly commissioned to exist in support of the government’s ideals.
Despite the heavy propaganda, Cubans are exceptionally friendly to Americans. The grudge seems to be a bit one-sided on our part.
Many Cubans love to be the subject of photos – just ask and you’ll often be rewarded with a warm smile.
The people of Havana ooze with character and charisma – prime for people watching and street photography.
And not just in Havana – people everywhere look as if they have the most fascinating stories to tell… if only we had the time to listen to them all.
Some Cubans were understandably guarded when answering questions, but the majority were open and excited to shed some of the mystery of life in Cuba.
We learned from tobacco farmers that the Cuban government’s hands are everywhere. They take 90% of the tobacco from the farmers who farm it, leaving them just 10% to smoke themselves or sell to tourists who visit the farms in Viñales Valley.
Likewise, the Cuban government charges the owners of casa particulares – small B&Bs newly allowed in Cuba – a $150 tax monthly to rent out their rooms to tourists. Virtually every house in Cuban cities is also a casa, showing how Cubans are relentlessly trying to supplement their incomes.
Color is a way of life in Cuba – whether it’s the vibrantly painted houses or the meticulously kept-up cars, there’s rarely a dull moment.
Open windows seem to be a way of life in Cuba, too. People often sit in rocking chairs inside their homes, staring out into the world passing by. It doesn’t seem to be considered bad form to stare back in, either.
Cubans who live outside of the touristy areas show extra resourcefulness when it comes to making an extra living: this man rigged up his goat to a little cart and gave small kids a ride around the park in Santa Clara for a few CUP per kid.
But even Cuba’s most touristy cities have a distinctly rural feel to them – tractor traffic in Trinidad was constant.
Cuba is still a very equine society outside the main cities. In particular, Viñales is rife with horse owners who rely on horses for their livings, keeping an old way of Cuban life in modern times.
Horses in Cuba are often well cared for – just like the classic cars, horses are Cubans’ lifelines to the outside economy.
The Viñales Valley offers a small glimpse of Cuba’s rural past and touristic present — all at once. A perfect metaphor for Cuba at this pivotal moment.
Oddly, the landscape of Viñales almost reminded me of Thailand – karst mountains spring up everywhere, making this one of the most beautiful places in Cuba — after its beaches, of course.
Varadero lives up the postcards, but despite the tourism boom, there’s peace and quiet to be found — if you look for it.
While I had heard that Cubans weren’t allowed on Varadero’s beaches – that they were tourist only – that seems to be only true for the resorts. Plenty of local Cubans – and this one fly cat – were free to enjoy this beautiful beach alongside the tourists staying in the local casas particulares in town.
Whatever I tell you about Cuba – it won’t last long. Depending on when you read this, everything I write may already be out of date. Life in Cuba is on the verge of massive change. The question is not if but when — and how fast.
Cuba’s youth doesn’t seem to realize what a precipitous moment this is for their country – after all, they are just kids. But they’re the ones who will have to pick up the pieces once the Castro era finally ends.
The reality is that as much as you try to understand Cuba, you’ll probably leave even more confused than you came in.
Whether or not that frustrates you or fascinates you will determine how you experience Cuba.
Planning a trip to Cuba? Check out these
Cuba travel tips before you go.
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 San Francisco Bay Area where she grew up, she has also lived in Prague, Sofia, and New York City.