Open Door Travelers
[Skip to Content]

The Travel Blog

Confounding Cuba

Image Title: Street Art in Havana says it all. [Photo Credit: Open Door Travelers]
Street Art in Havana says it all. [Photo Credit: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: A delightful Paladere called Restaurante Ivan Chefs Justo in the third floor of an apartment building in central Havana. [Photo Credit: Open Door Travelers]
A delightful Paladere called Restaurante Ivan Chefs Justo in the third floor of an apartment building in central Havana. [Photo Credit: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: No visit to Cuba is complete without sampling cigars in a tobacco field. [Photo Credit: Open Door Travelers]
No visit to Cuba is complete without sampling cigars in a tobacco field. [Photo Credit: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Make sure to take in a show at the (original) Tropicana. [Photo Credit: Open Door Travelers]
Make sure to take in a show at the (original) Tropicana. [Photo Credit: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: The cars. [Photo Credit: Open Door Travelers]
The cars. [Photo Credit: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: And finally, the Cuban Flag proudly flying over central Havana. [Photo Credit: Open Door Travelers]
And finally, the Cuban Flag proudly flying over central Havana. [Photo Credit: Open Door Travelers]


Cuba: Fascinating, Frustrating, Beautiful, Friendly, Amazing, Backwards, Resilient, Communist, Socialist. Where do you even begin trying to describe this small island nation that has defied the world for more than 70 years?


I suppose you start with resilient people who live fulfilling lives despite missing-out on the trappings and rewards of capitalism like their US neighbors just 90 miles north. How can you possibly know you’re happy if you don’t have 24/7 internet to tell your friends about it on Instagram?


The people of Cuba still use Ration Cards or Libreta de Abastecimiento (literally Supplies Booklet), to get their monthly allocation of things like milk, eggs, bread, and sugar. Gasoline and diesel are metered at 20 liters (about 5 gallons) per day but it only costs around US$2.00/gal. Essentially, every industry is owned by the government: every grocery store, every gas station, every shoe store, (almost) every hotel, (almost) every restaurant. What this means is 80% of the people work in some form for the government. It also means 80% of the people have some sort of side hustle. For example, the guy who runs a government gas station may collect a few shekels on the side for letting his friends know he has gas for them today so they don’t have to drive around finding out which station got a delivery this week. The accountant is also a bell boy collecting tips at the hotel, and the mechanical engineer who keeps the sugar refining plant operating also drives tourists in the 1955 Chevy that his grandfather bought off a Havana showroom nearly 70 years ago.


Speaking of 1955 Chevy’s, the whole car thing in Cuba is real. There are about 5,000 cars on the island of nearly 11 million people. That’s a little less than 5% car ownership. Of those 5,000 cars, our anecdotal sampling found roughly 1/3 of them are 1940’s and 1950’s Detroit Steel but these cars have been rebuilt multiple times. A 70 year-old car from 1953 with a modest 10,000 miles per year has on the order of 700,000 miles on the frame and body. Today most of them are running with Hyundai diesel motors and rebuilt Japanese automatic transmissions. The next 1/3 of Cuban cars are 1960’s and 1970’s Russian utilitarian sedans like Ladas. The final 1/3 is a total grab bag of more-or-less modern Japanese, French, and German cars that have found their way to the island for the Communist Party elites and worked their way onto the roads.


The infrastructure of the whole island is in complete shambles. Every other building in the vibrant city of Havana with a population of 2 million people is falling down - not metaphorically - literally falling down. Families are still living in downtown Havana in buildings without roofs and with weeds growing through the walls. The national highway (Autopista Nacionale) was constructed in the 1970’s and has never been property maintained. There are potholed sections that can take a wheel clean off a 1948 Desoto. Driving at night on the Autopista Nacionale is taking your life in your hands careening down the road at 70 mph alongside un-lit horse and ox carts, pedestrians, and other 1948 Desotos with bad electrical harnesses. The country is currently running a trade deficit and national debt that would make Karl Marx proud. They aren’t even making all of their own sugar to sustain their own needs today much less their own food and basic commodities.


To be fair, there are some things Cuba seems to have gotten right. For the most part the Cuban people are healthy with good teeth, no obvious drug crisis, and little homelessness. We saw very little obesity and no obvious malnutrition like you might see on the neighboring island of Haiti or in starving children UNICEF commercials. Education is free to all who can demonstrate an aptitude, but there are a few catches. The government decides how many doctors and lawyers and engineers and teachers and accountants to educate every year. High school seniors take an exam and pick their top five career choices. The government then slots the highest scores that applied for particular degrees into that year’s allocation. So, if you scored poorly on your senior exams and applied to medical school, you probably won’t get it.


We found the food to be surprisingly and remarkably bland. It was all good and fresh but not spicey like we have found in other Caribbean countries like the Dominican Republic or Belize. We also played a nightly game of trying to identify what is on the menu but not available. It was even hard to find a very good Cuban Sandwich, but maybe the US has created a better version of this simple sandwich with ham and pickles than the authentic version. As discussed above, (almost) all restaurants are owned by the government. There are some Paladares which are essentially underground restaurants in people’s homes. It’s kind of a poorly kept speakeasy restaurant kind of thing. They’re not exactly illegal but not exactly advertised on Trip Advisor either.


There are so many more stories and anecdotes to share (Tobbaco Field Tour, Hemingway Bar Trail, the Malacon, Bay of Pigs Beaches, Museum of the Revolution) but we'll stop here for now. After a week in this small island nation, we found ourselves back where we started, still not understanding very much of what makes Cuba tick other than the amazing, resilient Cuban people. Our advice is simple - Don’t miss an opportunity to explore Cuba before it turns into just another Cruise Ship carnival.




Bring Cash: Cuba operates on a cash and barter economy. The official currency is the Cuban Peso (CUP) but US Dollars and Euros are universally accepted, and for us were trading at par with each other despite a 10% difference between Euros and Dollars. In an interesting paradox, while we were in Cuba, the street money changers and venders were giving about a 30% better exchange than (government owned) banks and (government owned) hotels. US Credit Cards don’t work in Cuba but many hotels only take credit cards. This means US travelers need to make arrangements through a third-party in the US who will charge a handling fee or find a hotel that will take cash and bring enough to cover the bill. Cuba Outings was a big help to us in making our arrangements. There are no ATMs to just get cash so bring plenty of it. For our five-day visit, we brought US$2,000 and EU€2,000 tucked in various corners of our carry-on bags, backpacks, neck wallets, and pockets.


Lock Your Bags: Every time you leave the hotel, it’s prudent to lock your suitcase shut and then lock your suitcase to the furniture with a cable. It’s kind of a keep-honest-people-honest thing and not tempting the hotel staff or anyone who wanders through your room to rummage through your luggage that they know has an unusual amount of cash. (Travel Lock and Travel Lock Cable)


Plan Ahead and Use a Guide: Planning once in Cuba is harder than you may be used too. US Cellular Data will cost you a whopping US$3.00 per MB – not GB, each MB, which means it might cost your US$10 to read some TripAdvisor reviews or look up directions to a Paladare. While our hotel did have internet, it was maddening trying to stay connected and even when we could use it, EVERY time our phone’s went to sleep, we had to re-log into the hotel router. A guide will be able to help you book restaurant and show reservations as well as help you with directions. We were also very pleased with Cuba Outings to help us with guide and hotel services.


Bring Gifts: Simple gifts like toothpaste and toiletries are very much appreciated by everyone from drivers to housekeepers. Even better, buy a new pair of trendy shoes or a swimsuit or sunglasses and give them to someone when you leave. So many things that are taken for granted simply aren’t available to the average Cuban citizen. Even taking clothing that you might otherwise send to Goodwill would be much appreciated and leaves room in your suitcase to take home a souvenir (see Pro-Tip regarding souvenirs below).


Know the Law for US Customs regarding Souvenirs: This is an everchanging issue and smart travelers will research it thoroughly before they travel (US Customs Regarding Cuba). Simply hoping a customs officer doesn’t catch you with a bottle of Havana Club Rum or a box of Cohiba Cigars is at your own risk.


Don’t Bling: While there are a lot of petty scams and hustles, they are much more prevalent than outright muggings. However, like most places in the world, tourists tend to stick out and the bigger the bling the bigger the target. Having said this, we found the streets of Havana to be safe and friendly even at night.


Negotiate Prices BEFORE purchase: Since the whole economy is a cash basis with a black market exchange rate, it’s best to negotiate prices before you purchase something, especially a taxi ride. Once you have eaten your dinner or taken the ride, it’s much easier for a nefarious waiter or driver to overcharge and feign that it’s your fault for not knowing the price.


Don’t Drink the Water: Like many Caribbean, Central American, and South American countries, if you drink the water (or eat fresh washed produce or have ice in your cocktail), you may find yourself on the Cuban Rapid Weight Loss Program and miss a day or two of touring. Generally speaking, bottled water is safe but you may want to bring iodine water purification tablets or an infrared purification stick.


Phil & Diane


[Disclosure: No discounts or complimentary services were provided by any organizations mentioned in this article.]