If you just want to be a tourist, you’ll spend a fortune eating in Havana.
If your budget is more austere, however, you should eat like a Cuban, in places where Cubans usually go. You’ll spend no more than $20 a week, though that can often equal many Cubans’ monthly salaries. Food is a serious subject for Habaneros—Havana residents—the vast majority of whom start their day without knowing what they will eat.
But Cuba is also a case study in survival. If you’ve got rum, coffee, and cigarettes, you can make do with little else.
Note: Eating like a Cuban requires great patience, and mastery of two currencies. One Cuban convertible peso (CUC) equals 26 Cuban pesos (CUP), or one US dollar.
I arrive in Havana in the afternoon and go to the famous Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor, opposite the iconic Habana Libre Hotel and Yara Cinema, in the El Vedado neighborhood.
The ice cream parlor is housed in a Modernist 50s building that looks like a spaceship in the center, surround by different spaces to eat within. Shop employees control the teeming lines of Habaneros and let in groups of five or six, depending on what’s available inside.
“Foreigners there,” one of them tells me, pointing to a small booth. I say that I want to eat my ice cream in the regular zone, with the Cubans. “What? You want to wait through with the whole line?” he asks, astonished. “Up to you my brother—it’s over there.”
After 45 minutes, I’m finally in. I sit at the bar, with its antique American diner-style chairs. The lady who comes over to serve me has a bad vibe. “We don’t have chocolate. Just vanilla,” she says. When I tell her vanilla is my favorite flavor, she notices my accent tells me to go to the foreign currency area. I ignore her and ask for two scoops of vanilla ice cream, which she sprinkles with a synthetic something called “cookie.” The flavor is not great.
Cubans don’t expect you to eat at the same places that they do. When you walk in, they get this expression on their face, as if they’re thinking, “What the fuck are these yumas doing here?” But after a while, they get used to you.
Next to me, a young woman is eating five scoops of vanilla ice cream. “You’re brave for eating here,” she tells me. “This ice cream taste like shit.”
I try to pay with a five-peso CUC bill. At the sight of it, the attendant gets upset. She vigorously shakes her arms and scolds me, “Honey, I don’t have enough money to give you your change in Cuban pesos (CUC), it’s too much. I told you to go to the foreign currencies area.” The girl next to me kindly offers to pay and the attendant reluctantly agrees.
Many Cubans assume that all foreigners visiting the island have a lot of money—and compared to the average Cuban, they do. The minimum wage of a Cuban is US$10 per month. Those who earn more can reach up to US$60. If I have US$40 in my pocket, I’m carrying the equivalent of three salaries: that of a sweeper, a bus driver, and a sugar cane harvester.
At lunchtime, I head to Varieties Bishop on Bishop Street, one of the busiest places in Old Havana. When I sit down at the bar, a waitress with a really short miniskirt comes up to me. Her name is Yoinet.
“Daddy, tell me, what can I get you?” she asks naughtily.
I tell Yoinet that I want a plate with everything: fried chicken, salad, and sweet potatoes. When she delivers my food a few minutes later, I notice her long nails touching the rice, but I don’t say anything. “Here, Daddy—your chicken,” she says sensually. It’s a leg, because breast meat is very hard to find in a place that usually serves only Cubans.
I call Yoinet and ask her for the check: 40 Cuban pesos, or US$1.30. I have a 3 CUC bill, so I tell her to keep the change. Her eyes shine full of happiness.
Before I leave, I notice a man across the shop serving pork sandwiches for 10 CUP (50 cents). When I ask him for one, he takes the bread, opens it, pours in some salt, and adds a very small portion of meat, along with some vinegar.
When I hand him a 5 CUC bill, he grows very upset. “No, you can’t have one! Here, we do not accept such large bills,” he says and throws the sandwich into the trash. The manager of the place comes over and scolds the man, telling him to serve me another sandwich free of charge. I politely tell them that it is not necessary.
Cuban food is similar to that of the countries in the Caribbean zone, like Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and Dominican Republic. The most emblematic dishes include roast pork, yuca con mojo, and congrí rice.
In Havana, many restaurants offer cajitas. They’re the same plain cardboard boxes that you’ll find at any Cuban celebration, where people use them to take home a piece of cake or leftovers. Whenever you leave one of these parties, you’ll hear, “¿Cojiste cajita?” (“Did you get your box?”)
If you order takeout in most restaurants, you’ll get a cajita; some places serve their food in nothing else. Nowadays, you get a spoon or a plastic fork with your box, but in the past you had to tear a small corner off the box and use it as cutlery. For meat, you had to use your hands. You always get rice, yuca, or sweet potato with whatever meat they have—which will always be pork. They’re relatively cheap at US$1.50 per box.
I decide to buy my own food to prepare in the kitchen of the small apartment I’ve rented. For that, I go to the street market on 17th Street and K Street in El Vedado.
It’s Friday, and the market packed. There’s a huge variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains—but no beef. The only proteins offered in the meat area are whole chickens that cost 80 CUP per kilo (about $3.20); and pork, which costs between 75 and 90 CUP kilo, (about $3 to $3.60) depending on the cut.
A clerk notices my interest and asks me what I’m looking for. When I ask what he’s got, he tells me that on the “left”—a way of saying “black market”—I can have anything I want. He can get beef for 20 CUC per kilo ($20), he says, and lobster for 30 CUC ($30) per kilo.
This conversation could land this man in jail. The illegal sale of these products leads to fines and prison terms of two to three years. Cuban law even prohibits killing cows without government permission. They can give you ten years in prison for doing so. For killing a person, the sentence is seven years.
There is a separate area within the market for products that the government subsidizes through the libreta de racionamiento (Ration Book), which was instituted 52 years ago to help the household economy. Every Cuban is entitled to: five eggs (0.75 CUP/0.03 cents); 0.25 kilos of oil (0.40 CUP/0.01 cents); 2 1/2 kilos of rice (1 CUP/0.04 cents); 1 1/2 kilo of white sugar (0.45 CUP/0.018 cents); one package of coffee (4 CUP/0.16 cents); one kilo of salt for six months (0.35 CUP/0.014 cents); and 125 grams of beans (0.28 CUP/0.0112 cents).
Two years ago some of these products were “liberated” and Cubans must buy them that way—that is, at a slightly higher price. A full carton of liberated eggs costs 35 CUP (US$1.50).
The prices are cheap for me, but for a Cuban on a standard salary who doesn’t have relatives abroad, it’s too expensive. Cubans who do have family outside the country, however, can breathe a little easier nowadays. One change enacted during the recent Cuba-US reconciliation was an increase in the amount that US-based relatives can send to Cuba, from US$500 to US$2,000 per month.
I couldn’t find drinking water in the market, but they recommended that I boil tap water instead. I bought a pineapple, a kilo of tomatoes, half of a papaya, a kilo of beans, a kilo of pork chops, half a carton of eggs, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and lettuce for a grand total of US$8.
Coffee is a religion here. There is always hot coffee in every house, and it’s the first thing offered to you. On the street, coffee and cigarettes are always available.
I walk in front of a bakery near Galiano Street, in Downtown Havana. Two women who attend it call me to come in. “Here, taste this bread and tell us what you think,” says the younger one. It tastes like any other bread, but nicely baked. They kindly offer me coffee, and there’s my breakfast: bread and black coffee.
Do not expect to get milk for your coffee in Havana. If you can’t live without it, you have to go to the convertible currency supermarket, where a liter of milk will cost 3 CUC. And it’s not even fresh.
At the bakery, customers stream in, some paying with their Ration Books. “Ration Book bread costs 0.15 cents CUP,” explains the woman behind the counter. “Every Cuban can buy one, like the one we gave you, per day. And you can also buy the same piece ‘liberated’—it costs 1 CUP,” she adds.
“There are Cubans who only eat bread. Honey, believe me: The idea is to keep your stomach full, even with just flour.”
Cuba is an island, so there should be no problem finding fish, right? Not exactly.
It’s quite common to see people on the pier fishing for their own consumption, although there are signs that prohibit it. They don’t use modern fishing rods, either. A good nylon string with rocks at the tip, and homemade hooks work for this purpose.
On the boardwalk near the Hotel Riviera, a middle-aged man named Omar is teaching his grandson how to throw the line. I ask him what type of fish he catches there. “Not much,” he says. “Sometimes a snapper or barracuda. You need a lot of patience, but that’s the way it is.”
I ask him if there’s anywhere I can buy fresh fish in town. “Oh, no,” he says. “It is very difficult, you see. The fishing industry in this country is in ruins since the Russians left us. Everything goes on the black market and is accessible only to a few.”
Just then, the kid starts yelling at his grandfather; he apparently caught something. Omar approaches him, and indeed the nylon is tense—but soon, it stops. “We lost it,” he says.
On the corner of Paseo Street, near the Plaza de la Revolución, I see a shabby, dirty diner full of elderly people. When I go inside, they all look at me with the usual “What the fuck is he doing here?” face. By now, I’m used to it.
The restaurant serves burgers. They tell me it’s meat and cheese, but won’t tell me what kind. “It’s 5 pesos [about 20 cents],” a waitress tells me. This time, I had the good sense to carry enough local currency. As I pull out my bills, all eyes are on my pocket, but when everyone notices that my money isn’t convertible pesos, they quietly go back to their meals.
The burger doesn’t taste like meat at all. It’s a compact dough, mixed with some meat-flavored soy, I think. I eat politely, not trying to indicate that it tastes awful. I leave by saying goodbye to everyone, but nobody answers back.
Before I leave, I meet a man named Alfredo who makes a living driving an almendrón, those old taxis you see in photographs of Cuba. I ask him why Cubans give everyone such a hard time—foreigners and compatriots alike. A little rage takes over his face, and I realize I’ve upset him.
“Fuck,” he says. “It’s just that we are fed up, boy. We are tired of being seen as comemierda, so we treat everybody badly, especially our own countrymen.”
“We don’t want to look poor,” he says. “I think our pride makes us rude and disrespectful.”
At the end of my week in Havana, I only spent US$18—the salary of a Cuban journalist. If I had to live like a Cuban, I would have less than US$5 per week, not only for food but for everything else. It might make me a little bit angry, too.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in April, 2015.