How to Travel Like a Local in Cuba (It’s NOT What You Think)

“I wanna go where the Cubans eat,” my cousin asked as we scoured for a good restaurant on the streets of Camaguey. I couldn’t contain the immediate frown that took a hold of my face. “Um,” I uttered, unsure of where to even begin.

You probably will notice on your trip through Cuba that almost every time you sit down at a restaurant, nobody around you is a Cuban national (unless they’re with a tourist). This is because the “average” Cuban making ~$25 a month (the monthly average salary in Cuba) usually cannot afford a $5-10 plate at a restaurant. Since tourist prices are incredibly inflated relative to local wages, the everyday Cuban cannot take part in about 90% of the luxuries you (as a foreigner) can enjoy in Cuba.

Traveling like a local in Cuba is either an oxymoron, legally impossible, or will require a lot of time, patience, and humility. So while you may not be able to travel like a “local Cuban” 100%, there are a few ways to get a little closer to the local way of traveling.

Eating like a Local in Cuba + Local Cuban Spots to Eat

These are the “local” ways of eating in Cuba:

1. Eating what the government provides via monthly food rations/shopping at agromercados and cooking at home.
2. Eating $1 lunch at a small no-name stand that usually has a small menu of about 5 things.
3. Many Cubans of more privilege or Cubans going out for a special occasion do go out to sit-down restaurants.  Here is a list of where you can see more local Cubans eating out in Havana:

  • Razones y Motivos – More reasonably priced and you can spot local Cuban families here.
  • Cafe Galeria Maimanes – One of my favorite cafes in Havana. Perfect for grabbing an affordable bite and getting work done. I saw lots of Cubans here studying or getting together to do work. It’s a hip and more local alternative to the hotels while supporting small business.
  • Cuba Libro – I found tons of Cubans hanging out, reading, chatting. This is a bookstore/cafe owned by the American blogger Conner Gorry. She created it with the idea of bringing the Cuban community and foreigners together to share ideas and books over coffee.
  • Espacios – This is where the more hip Cubans come for a drink after partying since it’s open until 6 AM. You can eat food and mingle with both foreigners and locals.
  • Calle J (between Calle 23 and the University of Havana) is lined with $1 meal eateries. It’s also a great place to meet and talk to local Cuban workers, medical students, doctors, and other University of Havana students.

Transportation/Getting Around Havana like a Local Cuban

1) When you’re an everyday Habanero, transportation likely means skipping the “private” taxis and getting, almost violently, sandwiched by the closing doors into a 1980’s bus. But for 2 cents a ride, I can’t complain.

2) If a Cuban has more disposable income, he/she can take the shared taxis along certain routes (“machinas”) for 25-45 cents.

3) Or, if you can catch one, the elusive yellow private bus for 25 cents.

4) Bikes – if they can afford to invest in one. Or some related invention (see the photo above).

5) But the most local way of getting around in Cuba? Walking it.

How to Get Around Long Distance Transportation in Cuba

To travel long-distance, Cuban locals have several options:

Camiones/Hitchhiking in Cuba (“Pidiendo Botella”)

This is my favorite way to get around because you don’t have to plan it ahead of time and it’s one of the most affordable ways. You usually go to a long distance bus station and wait around for the trucks or big buses to drive by. They will yell which way there are going, and you yell or wave frantically for them to notice and stop for you. This is how I got from Las Tunas to Havana for $10. And it’s how I got into a bus from Bay of Pigs to Havana for $1. You cannot book this ahead of time. The other option is straight hitchhiking (which is very similar), you wait by the main highways (autopistas) where you’ll see lots of Cubans waiting around for a bus, truck, or anything that will pick them up.

Taking Omnibus in Cuba

Only available if you have a Cuban resident ID card. For this, you need to make long lines at the omnibus station. The real cost here isn’t money, but rather time and patience.

Cubana Airlines

For a Cuban local to afford this, they are given a resident price. They are put on standby to make sure no other tourist will get on the plane, and then (if there is space) they are allowed in for about $4 each way.

Of course, Cubans can legally take Viazul buses or rent a private taxi, but the odds of an “average” Cuban being able to afford that are low. So if you take this route you will likely only see other tourists.

Finding Local Cuban Accommodation

If you want to travel around Cuba like a local Cuban, it likely means staying with family or camping on the beach because Airbnb homestays (“casa particular“) are expensive for most local Cubans. There are a few homestays only rented to local Cubans (red anchor sign), but these are scarcer to find.

Many casa owners do not want Cubans staying with them since they think most Cubans are only traveling to scam or hook up with foreigners. This happened to me, a casa particular owner thought my cousin and I were Cuban prostitutes. She didn’t believe me until I showed her my American passport.

Couchsurfing or staying with Cuban friends is illegal for foreigners. A foreigner’s accommodation must be properly registered with the government. So only licensed for-profit homestays are allowed to host you. To stay with a Cuban friend, you must go to immigration with the property owner and climb the bureaucratic ladder for days to legally stay in their home.

The closest thing to local accommodation in Cuba for a foreigner is to stay at a casa particular (a Cuban homestay/Airbnb). Just know that most local Cubans can’t afford this.

Where to Meet Cubans & How to Make Cuban Friends

First, befriend Cubans “without interest” and not jineterosJineteros are hustlers, scammers, scrubs (like the TLC song). They have long cons (marriage for visa) and tons of short cons (asking for you to pay for their drinks, selling you fake cigars, trying to take you to a restaurant/bar for a commission, asking you for money, etc).

If you’re going out to La Fabrica de Arte or 1830, you will likely see a row of Cubans lined up against a wall, observing the room. These are most likely jineteros looking for their next catch. They’ve become so obvious to me, that I can spot them before they spot me. When I tell them I’m half Cuban upon their introduction, they groan and walk away because they know that I know.

Where to meet local Cubans

  • Malecon – It’s free and where many Cubans hang out with their Cuban friends and have fun.
  • Chess & Dominos Take out a chess board/pack of dominos on the Malecon or a park and invite a Cuban to play with you.
  • Sports – Bring your soccer ball to a park or a volleyball to Playa Santa Maria (beach) and invite local Cubans.
  • Free local event – Ask around and you’ll see there are tons of free or very low-cost events in Cuba. From fashion shows to famous musicians playing on the streets or government venues, you’ll be in the midst of tons of local Cubans to meet.
  • Playa Santa Maria – A local favorite beach, here you will see a mix of tourists and Cubans hanging out with each other.
  • Nightlife in Miramar – It’s where all the more financially privileged Cubans now go to party. Check out this list I made for some ideas on the best nightlife in Cuba.
  • Hair Salon – In Cuba, this is a full day affair where 5+ women congregate in a living room over cafecitos and talk about life while the hair stylist takes turns simultaneously doing everyone’s hair at the same time. But for a $10 balayage, cut, and a blowout, you can’t complain. Click here to visit a Cuban hair salon in Havana.

Dating in Cuba: Dating a Cuban Man/ Woman

This one is tricky. As a foreigner in Cuba, you have to take the same precautions a very wealthy person takes when trying to find a genuine relationship with another person of “less means”. You may wonder, does your Cuban lover like you for you or do they like you solely for your wallet/passport privilege as a ticket out of Cuba?

Like dating anywhere else in the world, sometimes your prospective mate is only attracted to your status and money. But in Cuba, as my University of Havana professor put it, a tourist to many Cuban jineteros is like “seeing a pot of gold”. Don’t be fooled when your Cuban jinetero lover takes you to meet his/her entire family on the second date. The family is probably in on the long con and cheering on the arrangement. They benefit from this just as much as your Cuban jinetero!

Statistically speaking, the odds are against you. As with any developing country, or any relationship where you are far more financially endowed than your mate, approach with both eyes open.

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If you liked this, check out my other posts on Cuba: