This sponsored post is written in collaboration with Fathom Cruises. All opinions from the trip and my experience with Cuban locals are my own.
Life in Cuba
When I boarded Fathom’s small ship to head off to Cuba for a week, I had no idea what to expect. I thought perhaps the people might have an aversion to Americans suddenly flooding the country. Perhaps the American – Cuba political thaw might also extend to the people.
It just so happened that the week I spent in Cuba (November 27th – December 4th) was just days after Fidel Castro passed away and the entire country plunged into official mourning for 9 days. This meant no music, no alcohol, no dancing, no nightlife and instead the Cuban people paid their solemn respects and farewells to one of their country’s longest leaders.
What attracted me most about seeing Cuba with Fathom Travel was the opportunity for an immersive, People to People experience where we as tourists would have chance to visit, speak and spend time with local Cubans to understand their daily life and history.
Here’s a compilation of what I learned and experienced about life in Cuba.
Living under a Communist Society
1 | Let me preface that politics is not black and white and I’m no journalist. I’m well aware that Cubans in America staunchly opposed Fidel Castro for many reasons – all the media coverage throughout the week showed Cubans in Miami celebrating in the street.
As a tourist visiting Cuba, the island atmosphere was a stark contrast. Cubans in Cuba were in an official state of mourning and stood for hours in the main squares to await the motorcade bearing Fidel’s body. Students lined the streets waiting to sign a memorial commemoration book. From my understanding, it was a requirement to do so.
One thing that we found interesting was the universal freedoms granted to every Cuban – among the most publicized: universal healthcare, free education (including post graduate education) and the guarantee of a lifelong job.
We had a group discussion on board our cruise ship about the differences in communist vs democratic societies, which turned into a lively debate.
2 | During the 9 day mourning period, an official ban was placed on alcohol, music and dancing. This meant the once harmonious streets were silent and beer, mojitos and wine were conspicuously absent from meal times. That being said… if you wanted to find a drink, you could. Here’s my food & drink recommendations for Havana.
3 | When Fidel transferred power over to his brother Raoul in 2008, Raoul opened up the economy slightly by allowing people to hold 2 jobs and permitting the privatization of homes for hotel rooms and restaurants. Private homes for rent are called casa particulares in Cuba and typically are slightly better kept than the government run hotels. For $30-40 a night (you can book on AirBnB in advance or show up and ask around) you’ll get a small, clean room and Cuban breakfast (fresh fruit, coffee, ham) in the mornings. Private restaurants are called paladars and typically offer better service than their government counterparts. If you prefer a hotel, here are my best Havana hotel recommendations.
4 | During the 9 day mourning period, Fidel Castro’s ashes went on a country wide procession from Havana to his final resting place in Santiago. When we stopped in Cienfuegos, we noticed a long square wrapping line of students waiting for the procession and in Santiago, many students went to the town square to sign the memorial book.
5 | Raoul Castro is 85 years old. Transfer of power is not expected to pass on to his son or relative and locals thought there might be a vacuum while the country waited for a new dynamic leader. Cuba of course, is a one party state.
The Economy in Cuba
6 | Despite the country’s socialist bent, there are still “rich” people in Cuba. These are generally those with family members abroad who remit money back home. Our tour guide in Havana drove us around to the richer neighborhoods with more elaborate houses. Richer Cubans typically use the extra funds to open a casa particular or paladar.
7 | There is a shortage of things to buy in Cuba. Basic goods, materials to fix homes, clothes etc are all scarce and hard to come by. That’s partly why the once grand architectural buildings are in such a state of disrepair – there’s simply limited or no materials to patch them up. If you’ve ever seen Cubans in Miami on their way to Cuba, now you know why they carried overflowing bags of clothes in Ikea bags.
8 | As a result of the shortage, people on the streets frequently ask tourists for basic necessities like soap, chewing gum, pens, hats, etc. We were recommended not to give, as this encourages a donation or beggar like society where people don’t work and await cruise ships or tour buses for a handout. Some people in our group were kind-hearted and gave anyway, and a group of 3 women then proceeded to follow us for the remainder of our tour in Santiago and tell their friends to ask as well. I guess I don’t know the real “right” thing to do in this case.
9 | Cubans receive a blue ration book once a month for basic items which they can then buy in government shops. In the beginning of Castro’s rule this provided a month’s worth of free food but in today is reduced for about half that.
10 | It’s not uncommon for the black market to circumvent daily shopping. For example – a friend or relative of a store owner might use his relationship to buy all of one item the day before market day, say plastic shopping bags. Then he’ll stand outside the store and resell the shopping bags (or internet cards, whatever) for double or triple the price.
Currency and Money
11 | I’m sure many people know that Cuba has two currencies (I briefly explained the two in this earlier post, How to Travel to Cuba as an American). I thought the CUC would be pronounced “see-you-see” as in the letters, but it’s actually pronounced “kooks” with a hard c, sounded out. It’s roughly 25 pesos nacional (local currency) to 1 CUC (tourist currency).
12 | The average Cuban makes 12 CUCs a month (roughly 12 euros, or 12 American dollars due to the 10% tax on American currency). While this is extremely low for our standard of living, you have to keep in mind that Cubans receive a guaranteed job, free education including post secondary education, free rent and free healthcare – so their expenses are quite minimal.
(Because Cuba offers universal healthcare, its required of travelers to have their own health insurance before arrival. They used to check at the airport and port entry points although they did not seem to check for me when I went. If you want to get travel insurance with trip cancellation / gear protection/ medial coverage, I recommend Allianz Insurance)Get a Quote for your trip to Cuba here.
13 | Still, everyone could use more money right? We were encouraged to tip generously as most Cuban families share one apartment and prices for things on the black market, such as internet, can be high. Tour guides in Cuba typically pool their tips and share with not only the bus driver but other employees in the tourism office.
14 | You can bring American dollars to change in Cuba when you enter the ports or airports, but expect to pay a 10% tax. If you bring Euros in advance, you won’t pay any tax. That being said, you can totally get by with just American dollars or Euros – locals will accept all currencies for things like souvenirs and tips. I’m not sure about restaurants though.
15 | Try to spend as much of your CUCs locally as you can. For one, it helps out local businesses and there are some fun souvenirs that your friends and family back home will like. For example: cigars – Cohiba is the most popular, Romeo + Juliet is nice too; old stamps, newspapers and propaganda posters; fresh coffee beans (although slightly harder to find); leather goods and crochet / linen clothes. You also might find it hard to exchange money back! I had a couple small bills left and the government run money exchange counter ran out of American small bills.
Jobs & Education in Cuba
16 | Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world (99.8% on par with developed countries) as a result of Castro’s drive for education. It’s not uncommon for your tour guide to have once been a teacher or for people to hold multiple jobs moonlighting as a security guard and a restaurant waiter.
17 | Cuba exported doctors to many of its neighbors in Central and South America, including Venezuela where it sent doctors in exchange for receiving oil.
18 | I anticipated that Cubans would likely not speak English at all. The average Cuban local doesn’t… but tour guides spoke it quite well. I was very surprised, given the political history and complete lack of American tourists. Of course there are Brits and Canadians, I guess. Most tour guides studied English for 5 years in University and are required to pass a series of government exams in order to be a guide.
English historically was not a mandatory part of the curriculum. However, due to the thaw in American – Cuban political relations, it will soon be a more formal addition to school classes.
19 | All tour companies in Cuba are government run, with the largest being Havana Tours. The tour buses were imported from China and quite plush / modern – not at all what I was expecting! Our tour guide in Santiago also spoke French fluently.
20 | Every Cuban has the right to a job, if they wish (of course salaries are low). When you see beggars in the streets, it’s that they choose to beg as they receive more from tourists than at their government jobs. Tour guides also make more than the average Cuban and the profession is becoming an in-demand job. One of our tour guides mentioned that he has first been an English teacher but switched to become a guide as it was a better paying job.
Daily Life in Cuba: Wifi, Entertainment, Shopping
21 | Once a week, a USB drive with internet is sold on the black market in Cuba containing the latest international news, TV shows, music and movies. I’m not quite sure how a USB can contain all this but locals in Cuba were definitely current on American music and shows. It’s sold for 2 CUCs and internet is only available in certain spots in public areas (not in the home).
22 | Although Cuban cigars are a famous export (our travel group went crazy when we finally found a cigar shop open during the mourning period), local Cubans rarely smoke them – they’re simply too expensive. Vinales is the tobacco producing region in Cuba and the government establishes a quota for each farm. Whatever production is leftover, the farmer can sell to tourists.
23 | Cuba is energy efficient! In 2005, Castro decreed an Energy Revolution and required all Cubans to turn in their old incandescent bulbs in exchange for energy efficient, less luminescent replacements.
24 | Another thing Castro implemented? Pressure cooking. In March of 2005, Castro’s government handed out 100,000 pressure cookers a month until millions were given out and also offered subsidized pressure cookers for purchase. Perhaps the pressure cooker campaign is one of the reasons why shredded beef is a delicious, must try dish in the country? I thought it was fantastic when we had it at a Casa Particular in Havana.
25 | As a result of the American embargo, Cuban cars primarily date prior to 1959. They of course don’t look anything ancient! Most were shiny, snazzy and looked like they rolled off the car lot that morning. Inside, most parts have been entirely replaced with ingenuity, given the lack of replacement parts due to the embargo. All of the cars now run on diesel, as it’s more economical.
I learned so much and had a great interactive experience seeing Cuba with Fathom. I highly recommend choosing a People to People experience if you’re interested in interacting with locals and having free reign to discuss politics, life, what have you during your visit.
I know that Cuba holds a certain mystery for those in our parents generation, as they remember what Havana was like pre embargo. It’s no surprise that the Fathom cruise was predominantly filled with retirees! But for anyone interested in deeper travel, it was an incredibly rewarding experience.
Have you been to Cuba? Let me know about your experience in the comments.
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Thank you to Fathom for bringing me as a guest on their Cuba route.