Cuba is a country that is unique in so many ways. Yes the food, the climate and it’s bizarre relationship with the USA are a few of the things that make it so different to home, but there are also quite a few practical tips that are really useful to be aware of. Here are just a few, lots of which I didn’t appreciate until I was there!
Internet. Buying a SIM card with data is not possible in Cuba. I’d correctly been told that internet was unreliable so I’d expected to be offline for the entire time I was there. However, what Cuba has – and it’s actually quite a good system as a traveller – is ‘wifi cards’. For a few dollars, a scratch card can be purchased which entitles the user to a certain number of minutes of wifi. Wifi spots are dotted about the country: usually recognisable by the concentrated number of people on their cellphones. The connections seemed okay and once I was done, I would just log off and my leftover minutes would remain until next time I logged on.
Supermarkets. Visiting a supermarket in Cuba is not about getting what you want, or even buying what you need. Rather, it is all about what you can find. This usually consists of crackers, mayonnaise, oil and more crackers. Sometimes water too. I am so relieved that I insisted on bringing some of our own snacks from Mexico, because the choice here is pretty grim – and it’s also expensive for anything that would be considered a “western snack”. Potato chips and chocolate were scarce, and fruit and vegetables could only be purchased from road side stalls.
Currency. This is a confusing one. Andy and I spent most of our first day wandering around, very confused by why some seafood restaurants had food for $10-$12, yet some streetfood stalls were selling pizza slices upwards of $25. This is because there are two currencies in Cuba: the CUC for tourists (the convertible peso) and the regular peso for locals. The conversion is 25:1. Suddenly the price of the streetfood made much more sense, as the seafood restaurants were in CUC, and the slice of the pizza was equal to about 1 CUC (once divided by 25). It’s important to check that you’re given CUCs at money exchanges.
Queues. Oh my god. I have never experienced what felt like such inefficiency anywhere, ever. It’s most likely because the Cubans get paid by the government (communism and all that), so no one gives a damn about what they are doing. As a result, everything takes forever. The queues outside banks, grocery stalls, bus stops etc are just ridiculous. Even ATMs (which are automated right?!) have queues about ten people long. On one occasion buying water, we couldn’t even work out where to pay because there were just lines everywhere but none of the staff seemed to be doing anything except conversing with each other. Eventually we handed over money to someone, who proceeded to go back to their current conversation without even acknowledging us. We waited a minute or two for our change but it immediately became obvious that even on our tight budgets it wasn’t going to be worth waiting around for our change.
Food stamps. Okay. As mentioned above, Cuba is a communist country. What this means is that the government is responsible for paying the majority of its citizens. Each month, citizens are entitled to take their food stamps down to the local markets and pick up a certain amount of discounted staple foods (such as bread, rice, beans and eggs) rationed per person. This explained some of the early morning queues at the markets. Our guide, Jorje, showed us his coupon book and I thought it looked like a possible artefact from WW2. We also learnt that his entire income was dependent on what we tipped him. We supposed that it was because although Jorje was employed by G Adventures, his income went directly to the government and only the tips were his to keep. It seemed awful but Jorje did ensure us that jobs in tourism and driving taxis were some of the more lucrative industries in Cuba.
The food. I had been told the food was average and yeah, it was bad. However, I do think it could have been a lot worse. I need to qualify that I was on a tour and so other food options could exist… maybe. We bought most lunches and most dinners, averaging about $10 CUC a meal (almost $20 NZD – ouch).
A typical Cuban meal consists of meat, rice and a very basic salad. Sometimes (the best times) there would also be soup. The meat was never delicious, but it would usually be edible. The rice was Cuban style: so cooked with black beans. I liked the rice, except for the frequent occasions it was served luke warm. The salad was a few slices of green tomato, cucumber, and cabbage. I was always skeptical about eating the salad in case it hadn’t been cleaned properly. It didn’t feel like a huge loss. As an aspiring vegetarian, Cuba was a struggle. As for the vegan in my group: she went without food on multiple occasions.
Being in Cuba was a refreshing experience. It was interesting to see communism at work, but the locals didn’t seem worse off for it. They were happy. They don’t need luxuries like internet, Netflix and an aisle full of chocolate varieties to be content – a game of dominoes and a glass of rum do ‘em just fine.