There is more to Cuba than rum, cigars, music and big old American cars. For the last 10 years I have heard that Cuba is amazing – mainly from people that hadn’t been themselves, but had heard about it from someone else.
I have been listening to Buena Vista Social Club since I was 14 years old and I still can’t get enough of it. Tanya loves the movie Dirty Dancing Havana Nights and I have to admit I saw it too. I also heard about the high level of education and healthcare in this communist regime in the beautiful Caribbean waters. People said: you have to go soon, before Cuba has changed too much.
So we decided to make a two week trip to Cuba, from our ‘home’ Mexico where we were spending 3 months. We were slightly ill prepared, and found ourselves very surprised with things we didn’t know about Cuba. Check out our 5 biggest shocks below:
1. Local cuisine
No Salsa in CUBA?!
With salsa I mean sauce. There’s not a lot of it in Cuba! Be prepared to bring your own. Or go dance some salsa instead.
The food is not spicy!
For some reason I thought Caribbean food would be pretty spicy and have a lot of flavour… Also ‘habanero’ means ‘something from Havana’ so I just assumed this super spicy hot pepper was originally from Cuba. Unfortunately this is not true! I asked some Cubans but they haven’t even heard of habanero. That was a bit of a shock since we are both addicted to eating really spicy food after living in Sri Lanka and Mexico.
There are not a lot of street vendors or little roadside restaurants. It can be cheap though if you find a good spot: a lunchbox with rice and chicken (less than 1 CUC/EURO), or sandwiches with butter or cheese, or pizzas with cheese (less than 0,5 EURO/CUC).
Is mainly for tourists and you can find them in the touristy areas. We also didn’t see many Cubans eating at the restaurants we found. There are quite a few options, and the quality is ok, prices starting from around 10 EURO/CUC per person.
Since we are on a year off, we can’t afford nor want to eat in restaurants every day, but opt for cooking ourselves or eating street food. Since street food wasn’t really an option all the time (see point 1) we walked to the nearest supermarket and vegetable market, so that we could cook in our b&b.
Here we had a real shock. There was very little produce available. This explained the very high prices as well. Partly the hurricane Irma that hit Havana is to blame for it, and partly -as we heard from locals- this is just the way it is at the moment in Cuba. There are shortages of almost everything. Some people even blame tourists as they are willing to pay a higher price, taking away the precious produce from the local market. There is also a black market (a la izquierda – on the left) where people can get all kinds of stuff that is not available in the ‘normal’ markets – but you have to be lucky and have good connections (or 关系 guanxi for our chinese friends 😉 )
The supermarkets that we saw have maybe 20 to 30 different products. Some products like imported cans of tuna are displayed behind glass as if they were an expensive phone.
3. Concrete Cuba
I thought there would be music literally everywhere on the street, and in bars. I expected a great liveliness maybe similar to what I remember from Ghana and Burkina Faso in West Africa. Although you will find some people listening to music (mainly reggaeton) in the street, there are not that many bars, and most bars we found were empty at night even in the weekend. We did see a great concert in the ‘Teatro de Variedades América’. (very cheap at 5 CUC/ EURO pp for foreigners). The poster for the show is made by hand! Also there was some really great live music at a few bars and restaurants we visited, where the customers were mostly tourists. So do visit the tourist areas, tourist bars and the local cultural centers for the live music experience.
Then.. to end with one thing you DID know about Cuba:
You can find interiors that literally haven’t changed in 50 years; with all objects intact, from teapot to curtains. You can find massive hand painted posters for theater shows. There is hardly any advertising in the street. You can get on a vintage (AKA falling apart) taxi anywhere in Havana for less than 50 eurocents per person. And last but not least: the pay phone is a totally normal thing in Cuba anno 2018.
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