25 Things I Learned About Life in Cuba (after 53 Years of Fidel Castro rule)

beautiful-pictures-of-havana-cuba

 

Life in Cuba

 

When I boarded Fathom’s small ship cruise 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-Cuban 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 an official mourning period for 9 days. This meant no music, no alcohol, no dancing, no nightlife. 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 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.

 

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Living under a Communist Society

 

1. Politics

Let me preface that politics is not black and white and I’m not a 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 visual contrast.

 

2. The Fidel Castro Mourning Period

The Cuban government declared a 9 day official state mourning, where Fidel’s ashes were driven 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 when we arrived in Santiago, many students were in the town square to sign the memorial book.

Local tour guides will tell you it is because the people want to pay their respects, but others will tell you it is because they are required to do so.

Additionally, an official ban was placed on alcohol, music and dancing during the state mourning period. 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. Communist.. with Adjustments

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. Political Power

As of 2019, Raoul Castro is 87 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.

 


 

 

5. Universal Freedoms

Back on board the cruise ship, we had a lively discussion about what freedoms should be universal. In Cuba, they hold healthcare, education (up to but not including post graduate) and a lifelong job to be universal freedoms. These are all guaranteed by the State.

In America, some of the freedoms granted by our Constitution include freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the right to assemble. During our discussion, we thought it was interesting to see the differences.

Most Americans would dream of universal healthcare. It’s something many other countries around the world offer, but in Cuba, what is the actual day to day experience?

There is often not enough money for supplies, few doctors and so what a tour guide might parrot as a universal right may differ in reality. We heard horror stories of shared needles, multi year waits for treatments, etc.

I’m not saying one system is better than the other, simply that the day to day realities are often much different than what a founding government may have anticipated.

Cuba was one of those trips that makes you think a lot beyond just the pretty sights or local cuisine.

 


 

 

The Economy in Cuba

 

6. There are Rich People

Despite the country’s socialist bent, one tour guide mentioned that there are still “rich” people in Cuba. These are generally those with family members abroad who remit money back home. We drove around one of Havana’s richer neighborhoods with more elaborate houses (these were still a bit run down).

Richer Cubans typically use the extra funds to open a casa particular or paladar.

 

7. Shortages All around

There is a shortage of nearly everything 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.

While as a tourist the city looks charming with its grand infrastructure, the fact that everything is crumbling is sad to see and more than just a pretty photo backdrop.

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. Donations Are Asked For

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 don’t really know the real “right” thing to do in this case..

 

9. Monthly Rations

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, making life even more difficult.

It is because resources are so scarce that locals are desperate.

 

10. The Black Market

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, so that almost everything a local needs costs more than it should.

 


 

 

Currency and Money

 

11. Two Currency System

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 Government Taxes the Dollar, but the People Will Happily Accept

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.

I did find that you could get by with American dollars or Euros if you needed to – locals will accept all currencies for small things like souvenirs and tips.

 

13. Currency Shortages

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 (which I bought); 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.

 


 

 

14. Standard of Living

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, our tour guides mentioned that Cubans receive a guaranteed job, free education including post secondary education, free rent and free healthcare – so their expenses are lower than perhaps other countries.

 

Note: Because Cuba offers universal healthcare, travelers are required to have their own health insurance before arrival.

They occasionally check for this at the airport and port entry points. We recommend travel insurance that includes trip cancellation, gear protection and medial coverage. 

Get a Quote for your trip to Cuba here.

 

15. Daily Expenses

Still, daily expenses are high for the average Cuban and everyone appreciates more money. We were encouraged to tip generously as most Cuban families will share one apartment. With shortages of almost everything, locals frequently turn to the black market, where prices can be exorbitant.

We were told that tour guides in Cuba typically pool their tips, so they share with not only the bus driver but even the employees in the tourism office.

 


 

 

Jobs & Education in Cuba

 

16. Literacy

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. Doctors

Cuba has some of the best doctors in the world. In fact, it routinely exports its doctors to its neighbors in Central and South America. Notably, it sent a team of doctors to Venezuela in exchange for oil.

This foreign medical program is highly lucrative for the cash strapped Cuban government. So in reality, while healthcare is a universal right, the hospitals are in various states of decay, there are shortages of medical practitioners in Cuba and only the regime’s elite get proper care.

 

18. English

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 visitors. 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. The Government Hand in Tourism

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. Right to Work

Every Cuban has the right to a job, if they wish (of course salaries are very low). We were told that the beggars in the streets, choose to beg as they receive more from tourists than at their government jobs.

Tour guides make more than the average Cuban so 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

 

21. Internet

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. Cigars

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. Energy

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.

In reality, blackouts can be common.

 

24. Cooking

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. Stuck in the ’50s

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.

These cars are a tourist attraction. It is far too expensive for locals to use these as personal cars, due to their maintenance and upkeep.

While the cars can be fixed up to act to attract tourist dollars, most of the magnificent buildings are crumbling. Unfortunately building materials are in short supply so you’ll see chipped paint, well worn surfaces and broken tiles.

 


 

 

People to People

I highly recommend choosing a People to People experience if you’re interested in a deeper cultural experience when visiting Cuba. One of the aspects I looked forward to the most were the discussions about politics, economy and life.

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.

Unfortunately Fathom no longer offers the Cuba cruise itinerary that I took, but you can check here for all cruises to Cuba.

If you don’t want to cruise, but still want an immersive, People to People experience that supports local businesses, check out Intrepid‘s 1 week Cuba tour. They organize everything, including visits to Havana, Vinales, Cienfuegos and Trinidad, and keep the tour sizes small.

Check out Intrepid’s Cuba itinerary here.

 


 

 

Have you been to Cuba? Let me know about your experience in the comments.

 

Visiting Cuba – Travel Checklist

Flights | Traveling to Cuba is unpredictable, given the political relations between the U.S. and Cuba. When I visited in the end of 2016, President Obama had relaxed restrictions and as a result, airlines and cruises actively promoted travel to Cuba so long as your journey fell under the approved visitation categories. Today’s climate is slightly more dicey, but you can check here for flight deals.

Insurance | Be sure to visit Cuba with travel insurance. Whether your flight is cancelled, your camera & electronics get stolen or you get and need to be hospitalized, travel insurance will help when you need it most. Get a quote online for your trip here.

Tours | If you want the same quality of accommodation and food you’re used to at home, I would suggest visiting with a cruise company. Cruises offer gourmet, all you can eat meals, western style accommodation with hot showers and air conditioning, plus often there is the option to get wifi on board. Browse cruises to Cuba here.

If you’re up for an adventure and more easy-going, give casa particulars a go. You can book a tour with Intrepid on a People to People visa. They organize everything, explore Havana, Vinales, Cienfuegos and Trinidad while supporting local businesses – check out the itinerary and more info here.

 

 You Might Also Enjoy: 

 

Cuba Vacation Planning Articles

How Americans Can Travel to Cuba FAQ + Everything You Need to Know

20 Fun Things to Do in Cuba Cigars, Cars & More!

What to Pack for Cuba to Beat the Heat

 

Havana, Cuba

40 Breathtaking Photos of Cuba for Trip Inspiration

25 Things I Learned About Life in Cuba

Where to Stay in Havana: A Guide to Accommodation Types

Where to Eat in Havana: Some Restaurant Suggestions!

 

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Thank you to Fathom for bringing me as a guest on their Cuba route.

JoyceDecember 8, 2016 - 10:01 am

Love, love, love this post! I’m super fascinated by Cuba and read every single word, loved hearing your thoughts on Cuba politics, economy, life, etc. Based on your first hard experience there! Can’t wait to visit for myself

SherDecember 8, 2016 - 5:46 pm

Ah thank you!! I thought it was so fascinating i literally got home and typed it all the next day because i didnt want to forget anything! So glad you enjoyed

KaylaDecember 13, 2016 - 9:39 am

Great post! Loved reading this as I was also in Cuba during the mourning! I arrived in Cuba the day Fidel passed and was staying there until the end of the mourning. We stayed at a casa particular and our casa host was the one who told us about Fidel’s passing. Cuba was so interesting! Glad you had a great experience like we did.

SherDecember 13, 2016 - 9:48 am

Oh that’s so funny we were there at the same time! Such a cool point in time to be there right?!

EmilyDecember 16, 2016 - 6:29 pm

This was such an informative post about Cuba! Thanks for sharing your personal insights and facts you’ve learned along the way. Not to mention the photos — I certainly would love to visit!

Angie BriggsDecember 17, 2016 - 10:38 am

This is a brilliant post and most fascinating. You have filled it with useful facts and I love the story you have told as well. Thank you for taking the time to write such an information account of your trip to Cuba, I many more people read and take note of your tips. Pinned for the future when I visit.

SherDecember 19, 2016 - 9:42 pm

Thanks Emily! I’m so glad you learned some new tidbits :)

SherDecember 19, 2016 - 9:42 pm

Thanks for the kind words Angie – I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

[…] 25 Things I Learned About Life in Cuba […]

[…] visited 3 cities in Cuba: Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba in a one week trip but took the majority of these photos in Havana. The other […]

[…] for homemade breakfast in the morning. Curious about Cuban wages and the dual currency system? Read this post for more info about daily life in […]

JoelJanuary 4, 2017 - 6:16 am

This place is magical and it is a must see

Sue RayburnJanuary 7, 2017 - 2:55 pm

I love your post and I am thrilled that you had such a positive experience during such a difficult time in Cuba. I have recently read several negative articles from travelers who decided to just jump on a plane and go. Cuba is amazing country, I visit frequently and feel that I will never tire of it. Thank you for a beautifully written encounter.

[…] Read more: Money, Politics & Religion: Everything I Learned About Life in Cuba […]

[…] Read more: Money, Politics & Religion: Everything I Learned About Life in Cuba […]

KarmenJune 18, 2017 - 7:51 pm

Nice post, but very inaccurate For one, the rich or supporters of Batista were not the only ones who left Cuba. If you really want to know the true facts, get the other side of the story as to why many Cubans left the country under Fidel’s regime.

SherJune 19, 2017 - 2:08 pm

Hi Karmen, thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

I understand that others fled Cuba but from the sources I spoke to & read, it’s my understanding that a large portion of those who fled to Miami were better of socioeconomically and tended to be supporters of Batista.

Of course, I understand that the situation is complicated! I know that depending on who you talk to, there can be different sides to the same story and perhaps the picture I understood from Cubans in Miami on my people to people experience was one sided. I would love to get a better picture of the island’s history – are there any books you recommend in particular? Thanks!

[…] 25 Interesting Facts About Daily Life in Cuba […]

HoweyrollAugust 11, 2017 - 3:42 pm

If I had only read this article, I might be tempted to believe Cuba is a magical place. The people here are dirty poor and live in crumbling rotting infrastructure. It might be nice to visit, but certainly not to live!

Bill CourtJanuary 28, 2018 - 11:30 pm

Please stay longer next time you visit Cuba so that you can discover the real picture. Your article contains mistruths about Cuba. Most Cubans tell you a mild version of reality as they cannot tell you the horrible truth about their country. The Revolution has destroyed their lives which are nowhere near as positive as you have mentioned!

SherJanuary 28, 2018 - 11:36 pm

I didn’t think the article was a positive picture of life by any means!

If there are any factual inaccuracies, please do let me know.

[…]  Read more:  Here’s What I Learned About Daily Life in Cuba […]

Peggy HansonMay 19, 2018 - 10:56 am

Just arrived home from a cruise to Cuba and wish I had read your blog before I left home. So many interesting facts! Do you mind if I quote you on some of your information on our blog, of course giving you credit. I’ll be sure to tell people planning a trip to Cuba to be sure to find you first! We loved our evening at the Tropicana and will have lots of pictures. Thanks again for the great info!

SherMay 19, 2018 - 11:06 am

Hi Peggy – yes of course, that’s fine!

GeorgieAugust 28, 2018 - 10:12 am

Interesting article about an interesting and complex country. I think you covered it as best as a visitor, such as yourself, could. But always be open minded and relay that what we are experiencing as a brief visitor, is very different from the reality. Being a visitor is just that, visiting. Many locals in Cuba feel quite differently about Cuba than what you wrote, but that is your perspective. You are not an expert, but a traveler whom is sharing her opinion. And hopefully everyone will keep that in mind when reading your article. That being said, nicely written piece. It’s challenging to understand the complexities of another culture as a visitor.

SherAugust 28, 2018 - 5:00 pm

Hi Georgie – thanks for taking the time to comment. Did you get a chance to speak to locals on your trip to Cuba? I would love any insight you can share about your conversations with them!

LisiJanuary 5, 2019 - 12:47 am

Hi Sher,

Unfortunately, you experienced Cuba as a tourist and just that. The horrible things you hear come from those who cannot benefit from tourism. The “mourning” in Cuba was mandatory and schools forced kids to do those things but I can tell you it was out of fear and not sincere mourning. The country provides “free” food, but there is such a shortage that they need to resort to the black market to MAYBE find what they need at a MUCH higher price. Off of $12 a month, you would never be able to survive in Cuba, not even as a tourist staying there for free at somebody’s house.

My grandmother got back from Santa Clara yesterday and there was not only power outages but water outages as well. The roads are not fit to travel by. They are so bad people off road instead. No water means no showers, no cleaning, no flushing. There is no food, or toilet paper or soap or any basic necessity available for purchase. Even with the American dollar it is extremely difficult to find these things. I have an aunt that contracted an infection because the “free healthcare” facilities used an old IV on her since they had no more new ones.

I understand you visited a tourist area where they may fluff things a bit but I would hate for somebody to read this article and think”it’s not that bad” when I’m fact it is inhumane.

I hope you do not take my comment as offensive. I am here for any questions you may have.

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