As entitled Americans traveling to Cuba for the first time, we set our expectations pretty low. We were most worried about my Cuban born father getting in and out of the country, knew how to convert our already converted American dollars from Euros to Cuban pesos, brought toilet paper and had zero hope of internet connections. What we did not expect was how hard it would be to find coffee, cigars and churros (a traditional Cuban donut-like treat) in the country that invented caffeine, tobacco and sugar.
There are certain “must know” things for every American traveling to Cuba but also quite a few surprises.
Americans still cannot travel to Cuba as tourists and need a reason like a sporting event (which was supposed to be my reason), writing a story (another one of my reasons) or people to people to get there. People to people involves doing good will and charitable acts for the Cuban people while you are there, which is what my brother and sister-in-law did.
Once you have a good reason (or not, they really couldn’t care less as long as you’re spending money) contact a reputable travel agency like Miramar Travel in California. They took care of our visas, airline tickets, house rental (they also book hotels) and our driver. The total cost was around $2000.00 per person and was worth every penny. Having a great house (private houses are called casa particular), with a great host and breakfast served everyday was key as well as our beloved driver Jesus without whom we would not have been able to do even half of what we did.
Do yourself a favor and learn Spanish. Not very many Cubans speak English plus, it’s embarrassing, especially if you look like me. #RingtheShameBell
The Cuban currency is a CUC or Cuban peso. The easiest thing to do is to get Euros in the U.S. (some Cubans also accept Euros) and convert them to CUCs once in Cuba. However, expect the bank experience to take at least an hour as the employees bring new meaning to the word “slow” and do not, under any circumstances go to the bank on Monday! Monday is payday and the lines snake around the corner. Not joking. Cubans do not have direct deposit.
As for credit cards, no card we had with an American based bank (MasterCard, VISA, etc.) allowed transactions from Cuba. My dad has a Santander card which is a Spanish banking group but that was also not accepted, primarily because they don’t have the technology to run the transaction.
Take cash/euros/pesos and bring more than you think you will need. We tipped everyone and you will want to also. They are so grateful for the smallest tip and just the gesture itself.
They don’t have it. AT&T actually told us they have a “passport package” that included Cuba but, once there, we quickly found out they don’t. It’s absurdly expensive to try and use your phone for anything but phone calls. Also, as you can imagine, the internet service they do have is slower than the bank tellers.
Although food was easy enough to come by, there was a surprising lack of fish. You would think being on an island in the middle of the ocean you would be bombarded with fish choices. Not even close. We also had trouble finding out why. To the best of my dad’s knowledge the issue is that fishing is highly regulated and they don’t want fishing boats going out too far…like to Florida.
The below restaurant is called “La Taberna del Pescador” or “Tavern of the Fisherman” and there was no fish.
The cost of the food is wildly inexpensive. The dinner we had with 20 people (yes, 20!) with appetizers, drinks (I personally had three mojitos) and dinner with meat, rice and beans and salad, cost a total of 250 pesos. Most of our meals for the 10 of us cost less than 50 pesos total.
After traveling to Spain, Italy and Kona, Hawaii in the last three years we were prepared to get our socks knocked off by Cuban coffee. It was fantastic, full, rich, bold and peppy but was rationed out at breakfast in a coffee pot from 1987 and cups to match a doll’s house.
After we realized there were almost zero cafes serving coffee past 10am, we downed as many of these tiny cups as we could before leaving our house.
When I saw Starbucks at the Newark airport when we landed back in the U.S., I got teary-eyed.
Is this the first thing you think of when you hear “Cuba?” Right. Apparently the Cubans did not get the memo because it was pretty hard to find cigars. Our driver, Jesus, got a few for my dad the first night we were there from his “guy.” Yes, like a drug dealer. Then, in Havana, Jesus took us to a smoke shop but they wanted 500 pesos for 12 cigars and, you weren’t allowed to smoke them first.
Finally, my dad’s cousin’s son came though with a few boxes full, at no cost, just before we were leaving. My dad was not overly impressed with the quality or taste of the cigars so it was pretty disappointing. He has been smoking cigars since he was like 8 so, he knows what he’s talking about.
If you’re going to Cuba and want to get cigars you either need to know someone or you better get a lot more pesos!
My dad raised my brother and I with a healthy obsession for churros, when the only place I remember we could get them was the Magic Kingdom at Disney. My kids pretty much lived on churros when we were in Spain so, it’s kind of a family tradition to eat them and we were excited to have authentic Cuban churros.
There is exactly one dude (above) who makes them and, you guessed it, the line is ridiculously long. As democratic Americans we wondered aloud why some other guy didn’t set up shop right down the road and sell them for a little cheaper. I guess the wait is part of the build up and, I can say it was definitely worth it!
OTHER INTERESTING TIDBITS
Prostitues are called “social workers” so if this happens to be your line of work, come up with something else.
There are stray dogs everywhere so if you can’t handle it, don’t go. I’m working on getting information on how to donate to their humane society so hold tight.
They love Obama because, of course and they think Trump is “your problem.” Indeed.
I will leave you with this picture of me, in a Cuban restaurant, holding my sleeping son. Miles was battling his own ear infection (luckily I had antibiotics for him before we left) so he fell asleep at lunch and, like any good mom, I had him sleep in my lap. And, like any good husband, mine helped me to hydrate properly.
Stay thirsty my friends!
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Are you surprised by the lack of cigars, coffee and churros? Fish?
Are you a “social worker?”
This was such an informative post and honestly, it wasn’t what I was expecting at all! Thanks for sharing your experience.
I’m so glad you got something out of it and yes, it was so unexpected!
Kind of like the difficulties in finding an afternoon pub or bar in Europe–they all close for the day, or at least a few hours, and meanwhile, us Americans are so used to having everything at our beck and call when we want it!
That is the exact problem – we are so used to excess and 24 hours of everything that it feels insane to not have it. The struggle is real.
I thought it was funny when we where in Hawaii that the majority of pineapples on the island are imported. Dole plantation is right there yet they export most of it. Weird. That last pic kills me. This is mom life.
Maybe that’s it! Maybe they export a lot of the fish and there’s just not an abundance of ANYTHING there so that would make sense. Glad you like my hydration pic 🙂 #teamwork
I am kinda shocked by the lack of fish! I think its so funny that you were on the search for churros when then are sold in subway stations here, I mean literally inches from the track. LOL I might be going to Cuba in a few months so this is SUPER timely and appreciated!
I’m not sure I would ever eat anything that is sold in the subway – LOL!!
And WHAT??? You’re going to Cuba?? Oh we will need to talk!!
wooowzers this is absolutely fascinating!!! i definitely expected coffee to be on every corner and served 24/7, next to the 24/7 cigar lady who handrolls them with love all day long… wearing a hat. hmmmm not so much i see. that is so interesting though. it reminds me of when we went into the mountains of chile and were near the beach, we expected the seafood to be the best EVER. and yes, they featured fish on all the menus and it was very popular. VERY. but we discovered they like all of their beautiful seafood overcooked. like really reallly well done… it was enough to bring a tear. poor fishy.
i’m also fascinated by the sex industry around the world. my mother was born overseas and raised all over europe where prostitution is a job, she used to tell me in europe it is a legitimate job. they are protected,etc. it was interesting, not enough to get me to want to change my goals but still, interesting! i see that having the title of ‘social worker’ also sounds more legit… hahaha. very interesting. i’m forever fascinated by other cultures and countries, and this is why i love learning and meeting new people and seeing new places.
and why i love toilet paper in great, mass abundance. EFF yeah i do! because i can, so suck it. LOL jk
It truly is so fascinating to learn about the culture and food. I also love how sex/prostitution always seems to come up – no matter the country!!
My husband and I went to Puerto Rico once and were surprised that there was NO fish there. All the food was deep fried and gross. Apparently, they ship all the fish to the US. Sigh.
What surprises me about your trip is how nice the restaurants look and how beautiful your accommodations were. Apparently, they cater to tourists!
There was PLENTY of poverty, garbage and not so great looking places to eat. The neighborhood our house was in (Siboney, which is considered one of the nicest) was surrounded by some not so nice looking houses. In fact, ours had a gate and an overnight guard but the “guard” was really more just like a friend of Anna’s who I don’t think could defend us from anything…
This is fascinating! We’re hoping to go to Cuba this year so that’s great information. I’ll need to mentally prepare AJ for the limited coffee starting now.
Oh good!!! That is awesome and we’ll have to swap stories afterward!
As for the coffee – my neighbor, who reads my blog and who traveled to Cuba last year, said she had no problem getting coffee so who knows? She was in Miramar and we were in Siboney/Havana so I guess it depends on where you go. Don’t tell AJ just yet… 🙂
Every time I leave the US, what I miss the most is a GINORMOUS cup of coffee….. It’s the first thing I want when I get back!
OMG I know!! That and I just wanted to sit inside Target and appreciate the surplus of it all!
I would probably have lost it with all the stray dogs and attempted to bring some home. The coffee part fascinates me. I miss giant cups of drip coffee when abroad. In London we couldn’t find drip coffee anywhere – they kept giving us Americanos. Let’s just say British espresso is not as good as Italian… Although it makes a bit of sense why it’s rationed in Cuba, with how coffee trade is mostly to the US and Europe.
The dog thing was definitely tough. I told my other SIL, who is a huge dog lover/rescuer, that there is no way she could handle being there! I am working to get info on their humane society so I will be sure to spread the word.
This post is so cool! I love the inside scoop on what it’s like there. So interesting about the coffee! I love how you got teary-eyed when you saw Starbucks. I was like that when I got my first real coffee when we came back from Mexico.
Coffee really is a true love of my life and I’m proud of it 🙂 Thanks Suzy!
I would LOVE to do more traveling. I am in the process of getting my passport so when the occasion arises I can jump on it.
YES!! Seize every opportunity because it’s so great to experience a new place!
Thanks for reading and commenting.
I’m really surprised by the cigars! It sounds like it’s easier to get them here! Boo! I had a fried that went Cuba and she said all of the alcohol was watered down. They’d drink like a whole bottle of rum and barely have a buzz. I’m not about empty calories with no reward! HAHA!
That was definitely not the case with us! And if it had to be cigars or watered down drinks, I’m glad it was lack of cigars for sure!!!
What interesting tidbits! I can’t wait to tell my friends who are social workers what their profession would be in Cuba. I’m shocked about the lack of fish, churros and cigars. If we have such incorrect assumptions about Cuba, what assumptions to they have about us that are ridiculous? I shudder to think.
The social worker thing was hilarious and yes! They mostly were just eager to talk to us but Lord knows what assumptions they have!!! This is exactly why you need to experience places first hand and actually talk to people!