16 survival tips for first-time visitors to Cuba

There's one currency for tourists and another for locals. You can't dis the Castros. Be sure to pack a pair of tight, white pants ... and other crucial tips from Chris Moss

27 January 2019 - 00:00 By Chris Moss
The Statue of Che Guevara Holding a Child in Santa Clara, Cuba. In the background is an image of Fidel Castro.
The Statue of Che Guevara Holding a Child in Santa Clara, Cuba. In the background is an image of Fidel Castro.
Image: 123rf.com/adamico

Cuba celebrated the start of 2019 along with the rest of the world. But January 1 also marked the 60th anniversary of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution.

Over the 25 years I've been visiting the island, it's perhaps the least changed of all Latin American nations. My first visits, in the '90s, took place during the so-called "special period", a characteristically Cuban euphemism for the disastrous economic fallout that ensued when the Soviet experiment collapsed.

A return trip just before Christmas allowed me to see Cuba again, post-Fidel, post-Raúl (though he's in the shadows, rather like O'Brien in Orwell's 1984). There were perhaps more tourists, though not the rush of Americans some in the media predicted when Obama tried to ease relations. The US of Donald Trump is once again Cuba-baiting and, while liberal-minded American tourists are spottable here and there, and flights continue to operate, numbers are down.

The Old Town - La Habana Vieja - where renovation is ongoing, continues to look part film set, part bomb site. The old Chevys and Dodges are still running, mixed with knackered Moskvitches, new Ladas and lots of Chinese vehicles. Hotels, eateries and museums continue to look and feel old and amateurish, and are run with varying degrees of inefficiency.

Genuinely anglophone Cubans are few and far between. There are more Fidel hoardings than ever, exhorting the masses to keep on struggling and producing - posters of white old men glaring down earnestly over cool young black and mestizo people sum up the ambivalence of this six decades-old political experiment.

It's intense, intriguing, occasionally infuriating - and made bearable by the kindness of many Cubans, despite their individual circumstances. Cuba is not North Korea with sunshine and salsa, but it remains a single-party state with a centralised economy, and strictly limited freedom of expression and movement.

And just as it uses two currencies (the CUC, used by tourists, and the CUP, the main legal tender for Cubans), operates shops for dual markets and even runs buses for rich and poorer travellers, it asks of visitors to do what Orwell called "doublethink": to accept two contradictory realities.

It's a bit like thinking in code and, for visitors who might be going for the first time in 2019 - perhaps to see what Havana does for its own 500th birthday - here's my list of lifestyle-cum-survival tips for making at least some sense of the land. 

1. Cubans will tell you they like to dress "smart but casual". This can mean (for him) a semitranslucent white shirt and tight white trousers; (for her) a wafty, bright-orange top covering the upper body and a minuscule pink miniskirt.

2. The customer is always wrong - or, at least, almost always irrelevant. Cuban service providers do not believe in treating consumers as gods. This is natural, since they work for the state, and for a pittance.

3. Tipping is tops - Cuba has embraced the most capitalistic practice of all - expecting the punter to pay what the employer (the government) will not.

4. Museums and memorials are not necessarily different things. Havana's Museum of the Revolution is guarded like a shrine and even has an eternal flame outside. In Santiago de Cuba, Castro's tomb features a changing of the guard every half-hour.

5. Locals use CUPs - national pesos. Tourists are expected to spend CUCs - convertible pesos. The former is valued at around 1/25 of the latter.

6. Forget the internet - the government-issue internet scratch cards are a racket: they cost 1 CUC (R15) per hour, but it's almost impossible to disconnect, so when you log on again you'll have lost all the time you had left.

The Great Theatre in Old Town, Havana, Cuba.
The Great Theatre in Old Town, Havana, Cuba.
Image: iSTOCK

7. Forget wine - it's overpriced and the red is usually chilled. Rum's the "when in Rome" thing to drink here.

8. Forget potatoes and beef - there are neither. Food in Cuba is generally poor, at best. Stop by the road and stock up on mangos, soursop, even country cheeses and take them down with you in the morning. You can eat grilled fresh pargo (red snapper) and rice for as little as 3 CUC (about R45).

9. Forget rock and pop; if it's not salsa, or son, it's reggaeton.

10. Remember, Cubans have been living like this for 60 years. Most can't remember anything else.

11. Cubans are educated and engaging; language permitting, they will speak openly about human rights issues in Cuba. Don't disrespect the Castros to anyone over 60 - or who is wearing khaki.

12. There's no advertising, no consumerism, and you don't see the usual US global brands like Coke, Fanta and McDonald's.

13. In the absence of luxuries, Cubans value their social spaces, notably music venues, ice-cream parlours, coffee shops and, above all, the streets and coastal promenades.

14. The highways are almost empty and traffic is still generally slow; car hire is recommended.

15. Urban smoke pollution, despite low traffic volumes, is nasty.

16. Noise pollution is a problem too, especially in cities. Take headphones. - The Daily Telegraph