What is Cuba Really Like? Busting the Tourist Myth

Before I went to Cuba I imagined I’d arrive in a land filled with colour. From the old cars to the different hues of houses to the local people – a mix of Asian, African and Spanish descent. I pictured my days filled with wandering the streets and taking photos of happy crazy locals and their ad hoc dancing. I thought I’d drink Mojitos, sup on daiquiris and substitute water for Cuba Libres.

I fantasised about walking down the Malecon before being intercepted by a laughing Cuban surrounded by friends playing trombones, tubas and trumpets to the beat of a drum. He would take my hand and show me a few salsa moves before spinning me out into the arms of my boyfriend. It’d be hot and I’d lay on the beaches, cooling off on the sand with yet another daiquiri. I’d been told repeatedly the food in Cuba was rubbish, to be careful in some neighbourhoods and that the locals were not allowed to fraternise unnecessarily with the tourists. That included restaurants, buses and on the streets.

My assumptions were approximately 80% correct.

I spent two weeks in Cuba in May – exploring Havana, Trinidad and Cienfeugos.

What a holiday to Cuba is really like

First impressions

On arrival at 10pm on a Friday, the roar of people from the Malecon was overwhelming. Our hotel was one block back in one of the poorer districts of Havana and when you opened the balcony doors it was as if they were in the room with us. The next day we wandered around our neighbourhood – we were invited to parties, pleaded with to buy milk for starving babies and asked where we were from a little over 15 times. All we wanted to do was explore in peace, but the locals wouldn’t leave us alone.

what is cuba like

We found solace in The Nacional isolated above the neighbourhood and sat back from the Malecon. It was obvious I was out of practice travelling. It felt like we were accosted at every turn and were unsure who was just friendly and who wanted something out of us.

It took a few days to settle in and get used to the harassment on the streets and the Cuban way. After meeting the group for the Havana Club Gap Year project I was working on I was assured that the people here were generally good. I should just relax and understand people just wanted to talk, or be our guides and show us around the city for a fews CUCs. I could just say a firm no and they’d leave us alone – I wasn’t so sure.

What it's really like in Cuba

Understanding the locals

The Havana Club Gap Year finalists were tasked to go out and capture the ‘spirit of Havana’ in three minutes with their iPad Minis. Most of the group came back with stories of smiling locals who more than happy to show them around their homes and their city. They were full of how these people who ‘had nothing, but were so happy’ had changed them – made them more determined and appreciative and inspired them to be better people.

I was swept up in the romanticism of this ‘colourful Cuba’ and easily believed all that they were saying.

It wasn’t until two days later when the excitement of the competition that I’d been wrapped up in had subsided that I began to see Cuba, Havana in particular, in a different light. Walking up Lamparilla Street camera in hand all I saw were grim staring faces. Spanish was hurled across the street, but my ignorance meant I had no idea what they were saying. I know I felt intimidated though. By day locals just sat staring from their doorsteps, kids stood by the pizza stands rubbing their bellies and asking for money and at night groups loitered on the streets with music blasting from their houses.

What is Cuba really like?

Shrivelled hands stretched out for money, they belonged to old women in ragged clothes. Their look was so childlike – pulled up socks, dolly shoes and sweet clips in their hair. Business-minded oldies had gotten hold of a huge fat cigar, colourful trinkets and made themselves up to charge tourists like me money for posing. At the other end of the scale I saw an old woman who’d tried to fashion a cigar out of some brown paper and had hit so far off the mark of these successful ‘posers’ it was painful to watch.


what is cuba really like


The happy photos you see of bands playing never relay the group following up with a sweep of the bar guilt-tripping tourists into buying their CDs or adding a CUC or three to their begging tray. Too often these bands would also have a vagrant or two hanging on and dancing around them to then demand money from tourists too.

What it's really like in Cuba

In one particular incident I was watching a Cuban woman dancing what appeared to be a mixture of line dancing and crunk. I’d seen her a few times doing the same around the squares of Havana. A tourist came along and she took his hand to dance with him for what could have been no more than 30 seconds. His friends laughed, took a photo on his super fancy DSLR and then he pulled away to carry on with his day, without giving her any money. She shouted after him in the middle of the square and he just shrugged back at her. It was obvious dancing with tourists was this woman’s job – she went and sat in the shade visibly upset and massaging her feet.

I saw a different Cuba to the tourist ideal. Like the cars that are buzzing around, on the surface Cuba looks beautiful, but the most beautiful things rarely are underneath. Actually get in one of the cars and you’ll see the ripped upholstery, the carpet missing from the floor and the dashboard cracked and broken. In my eyes Cuba was the same. After eight days in Havana I’d got closer to it. Travelling six hours through the country to Trinidad and then back through Cienfuegos really opened my eyes to what Cuba is really like.

What it's really like in Cuba

Life in Cuba is hard

From what I’ve read, heard and seen with my own eyes life in Cuba is hard. The people, the houses and the essence of Cuba seemed desperate. Redevelopment is focused on the tourist areas – when Old Havana is revamped it will be stunning, but to the detriment of those living in the poorer residential areas. There is so much to say about such a fascinating city, but that’s my point. Cuba is not just the simple, colourful, photographer’s dream you imagine and see at first look.

Turn a corner and you could be hit in the face by the stench from the bins, visit the parks and you’ll see prostitutes and drunks sprawled on the floor in their own sick, look in the windows of the houses and see nothing but a basic bed frames, and sometimes just a stash of blankets in the corner. When I found out at the finale party that many of the finalists had been charged for their ‘local experiences’ I understood the friendliness on the street.

Life in Cuba

Cuba has two currencies – one for the locals and one for the tourists. The locals earn the equivalent of $17 a month and operate on a rationing system. Getting their hands on the tourist money is key. It’s this desperation that triggers the ‘taxi’, ‘taxi’, as soon as you emerge from your hotel, it’s also the same reason you will be asked the time, or ‘where you’re from’ or whether you ‘want to go to a party’ on an hourly basis. They know you have the money and there are only a few ways they can get it.

I absolutely loved Cuba, please don’t misunderstand me. It’s beautiful and charming and I have post after post I want to write about how incredible the country is, but I want to give you the full picture of what Cuba is really like. The ‘twee’ idea of Havana, of smiling faces dancing in the streets and everyone having a gay old time is a myth. Just remember, the popular tourist streets are the Cuban’s office and you’re their client for a range of services from taxis, to tour guide to cheap cigars.


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For more practical Cuba travel information, check out this handy guide from Surfing the Planet. 

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30 Comments

  1. by Victoria @ My Daily Cuppa on May 19, 2013  11:21 pm Reply

    This is a great summary of your experience in Cuba. I would like to get there before the end of this year so it is good to know what to expect.

    Do you know if it is easy to find out about volunteer opportunities there? A holiday is great but being able to give a little something back to the community would make it extra special.

    • by Vicky on May 20, 2013  7:59 pm Reply

      Hmmm, I'm not sure actually. You could try workaway.info? I didn't hear of any while I was out there – but I'm sure there will be opportunities out there. Sorry I can't be more help :)

  2. by Arya on May 23, 2013  10:43 pm Reply

    My goodness, what a great article. I have mixed feelings, since I'm Cuban myself, and it's really sad to read such things about your country, but it was great to see a tourist that was able to see beyond the beauty facade the country shows, and see the reality below of it. It's impressive how much you understood about the country in just two weeks. I'm passing the article to my Cubans friends, I know they'll love it as well.

    I really hope that, at the end, you'd remember your trip as a good experience.

  3. by Vicky on May 24, 2013  10:37 am Reply

    Hello Arya,

    Thanks very much for your comment. I'm really happy to hear from a Cuban that you agree with my interpretation of what I saw. That means a lot. I'll always remember my two weeks in Cuba as an incredible experience. Thanks for sharing it :)

  4. by Arianwen on June 1, 2013  1:26 pm Reply

    Really interesting to hear about Cuba. It's a place I've always wanted to go, and definitely one of those countries you can learn a lot from if you take the time to read about its history.

    • by Vicky on June 2, 2013  10:38 am Reply

      Yeah, definitely. I've got a post coming up on books about Cuba actually. Reading them before I went taught me a lot about the country and enabled me to put what I saw into perspective a bit more.

  5. by Steph | DiscoveringIce.com on June 17, 2013  6:41 pm Reply

    This is a great article. I have always been fascinated by Cuba and, being passionate about photography, I have always dreamed of going there to take the amazing pictures you always see around the net. At the same time, I have always suspected that what you said here would be the case, just like many other places I've been. If you travel to popular travel destinations, especially in developing countries, you will always be seen as easy money and fair enough I suppose...they don't have a lot of money. I tend to get annoyed lately when I'm in places like this, sick of being hounded and seen as a walking dollar sign but you have to step back and realize the story behind it. Everyone's gotta make money and I suppose if we were in their situation, we'd see tourists as an easy way to earn an extra dollar or two, too.

  6. by Debbie on July 1, 2013  9:19 pm Reply

    Great article. I love how you painted such a clear picture of what Cuba is really like... It's great how an experience can change and become that much more meaningful from digging just a little deeper. Hoping to get to Cuba one day!

  7. by Zoe on April 2, 2014  1:08 pm Reply

    Hello, im looking at going to cuba! Im a painter and I think photographing some areas like Trinidad and Camaguey would really influence and help me work!

    Althought I have found cheap (ish) deals for a 2 week trip, flight and all inclusive hotel I cant seem to find any cheap ways of traveling around the island?!

    Just an hours flight from Havana to camaguey is coming up at hundreds, and I cant seem to find much on buses etc!

    I was just wandering if you could help me, do people often offer lifts? is transport easier when out there?

    Any help would be great
    :)

    • by Non Mosey on December 5, 2015  8:32 pm Reply

      I seem to remember that even the Cubans struggle to travel around Cuba. Everything is in short supply in Cuba and that includes public transport. If you struggle to find information on public transport, that is because there is very little to be had.

      • by Vicky on December 6, 2015  10:39 pm Reply

        Oh really? I remember we found it quite easy – we just booked a coach with the front desk at our hotel and went from Havana to Trinidad, for around £20. And then we also travelled independently to Cienfuegos, and again to Playa Ancon. We used the Viazul buses.

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  9. by wendy on November 5, 2014  6:18 am Reply

    I have to say that I can relate to everything you have said. Compared to other third world countries I have traveled in, I found Cuba to be the most annoying because someone always wanted something from you... mainly $$. When you interact with them and they are being nice you sense that they have an ulterior motive. One just has to watch a bartender and see how he treats the various patrons .... i did tip but I also despised the fact that they were treating me well because I left a tip ... the behaviour to me is pretentious, it is not real it is phoney ... it sucks.

    • by Vicky on November 6, 2014  8:03 pm Reply

      Hmm, I wasn't really saying it in a negative way about Cubans. It's more that tourists are following this Cuban dream that doesn't actually exist. A lot of countries (think USA) will treat you better if you tip more – that's why I hate tipping!

  10. by Ron, that's right, Ron! on December 10, 2014  1:31 pm Reply

    This is Ron. We traveled to Cuba as a family of 5, from the U.K. in October 2014. Vicky's comments are far more negative than mine would be. We got the impression that the Cuban people were kind, helpful & happy, in the main. We did get ripped off by one couple to the tune of about $20, put it down to experience, don't fall for the same thing twice. Go to any Caribbean country & you will find people who try to take advantage of tourists. Also in Europe, Africa, Asia & no doubt even in parts of the U.S. Please don't forget that a lot of Cuba's problems are down to the U.S. embargo. It's my understanding that, home of the brave, land of the free, U.S. citizens are banned from spending their hard-earned dollars in Cuba. How do you get round that?

  11. by Jess on January 2, 2015  1:18 pm Reply

    Great article! I just got back from a 2 week trip in Cuba and I agree with you that life is hard. It was also hard for my boyfriend and I who were very short on cash due to being at the end of a 6 month trip around Central America. Out of necessity, we used the local moneda national currency wherever we could and found that living on very little money gave us a real insight into real Cuban life. We ate at the pizza stands and actually found the pizza to be delicious!! It was only 10 pesos which equals 40 cents. We went to the local bakery and bought biscuits and rolls for very little as well. Sometimes when I was lining up at the pizza stand, locals and children ordering as well would look at me as if they were surprised that I was there. I felt out of place. They must have thought I was a rich tourist, but really I was only just scraping by just like them.

    I really respect the Cuban people - the casa particulare hosts we stayed with were so nice, happy and accommodating. By staying in local homes we saw a glimpse of real Cuban life. Money is definitely tight. But this in turn encourages them to be creative, incentive and not waste anything. I saw the most sturdy coathanger hand made out of metal that was built to last.

    After my time in Cuba, I really appreciate things I previously would have taken for granted. Cubans don't have a lot of things we do, but what they do have they look after, they appreciate. Cubans know what it is like to go without, to almost starve due to lack of food, but they value the important things like family, they are proud of their country and the revolution, and they are happy and vibrant.

    • by Vicky on January 3, 2015  5:29 pm Reply

      I tried that pizza too, it was incredible! I only tried it for my last meal so was pretty gutted not to be able to have it again. I was amazed at how creative the people could be, in using whatever there was available rather than just buying a replacement. Thanks for your comment, it's really interesting to hear someone else's view of life over there too. I'm hoping to go back this year!

  12. by Jacqueline on January 24, 2015  4:18 am Reply

    wow it has been great reading this post and comments. I live in Australia and am looking at going to Cuba next Christmas and doing a tour around the whole island. not cheap but Cuba sounds fascinating to me. I would travel independently but would like compaby, hence the tour. Do you think a tour is an ok option? What I am looking at is a 3 week Tucan (company) tour? Thanks, would appreciate your feedback? Jacqueline

    • by Vicky on January 25, 2015  10:22 am Reply

      Hey Jacqueline, I'm afraid I haven't done a tour so don't really know. In my experience of travelling independently with my ex boyfriend I'd say that if you're travelling solo a tour could be a good idea. There aren't any hostels so I don't know where you'd meet people. You'd also have to pay for a double room in most places so actually, yeah, a tour might be a good idea!

  13. by Hope on December 11, 2015  3:44 am Reply

    Wow, I just watched a program on Cuba and it was very much as I expected. They have finally opened their doors to tourism from the US as well as other countries. Instead of being content with the government programs that kept everyone poor but moderately provided for, they see there can be more. Did we just spoil on of the last countries that had some innocence of the 50's and 60's left? Sad, life was easier then. Family means nothing now. I wonder how long it will take for the Cubans to decide Grandparents are useless?

  14. by L on May 6, 2016  9:31 am Reply

    Amazing article. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    I'm signing up to your blog so look forward to your updates!

    Best wishes

  15. by Christine on April 22, 2017  5:48 pm Reply

    $17 a month??? That's crazy! I live in South East Asia known for low salary but our minimum pay is way way higher than that.

  16. by Maria on July 31, 2017  9:33 am Reply

    Super interesting read! I'm visiting a friend in Yucatan, Mexico next year and want to visit Cuba when I'm over there. All I knew about Cuba before this post was that they had all those old cars and colourful houses. It's very nice to know a little background before I get there..!

    • by Vicky on August 4, 2017  8:06 am Reply

      Oh I'm glad I've given you a little extra information – it's definitely a cool place to visit but there's definitely more going on than just colourful cars, dancing and mojitos, although they're all fun too!

  17. by Casas Particulares in Vinales on February 15, 2018  3:48 pm Reply

    This post is a great way to see Cuba in the eyes of a visitor. Definitly to know what this country really is you have to experience it, live it and share with Cubans. We are proud that you loved your trip!

    • by VickyFlipFlop on February 21, 2018  10:10 am Reply

      Oh I loved that trip to Cuba! It was great to have a good look around and really use the two weeks to explore. I'd definitely recommend Cuba to anyone looking for a cool place to go on holiday.

  18. by Jason Rodgers on September 5, 2018  7:34 pm Reply

    Love Cuba, I've been twice now and still not done Havana, next time for sure. Hoping to photograph another wedding in Cuba soon.

    • by VickyFlipFlop on September 17, 2018  10:29 am Reply

      Ah Cuba is amazing isn't it? I've been twice now and loved my time there. Hope you do too!

  19. by Peter on March 15, 2019  12:30 pm Reply

    I live in Canada but grew up in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, so I’m not really surprised about Cubans locals hustling tourists for tips. I saw the same thing back home all the time. So when my wife and I visited Verodero in 2017, we pretty much knew from our own experience of growing up in a third-world tourist town of what to expect from day one…as well as what to avoid.

    I was totally impressed with how Cuban mechanics were able to keep these old, vintage cars still running on the road well past their life expectancy. I was also impressed how Cubans take the mantra of “reuse and recycle” to the next level. That’s something ever other country on the planet can learn from.

    The facade of happiness didn’t fool us one bit though. It was obvious from the grim faces that life was hard. We could actually feel the unhappiness of the locals and the resentment they had towards visitors for being able to live in a far more prosperous “bourgeois” economy. It seemed to me that the Cuban government treated their own people as if they were children. Even the average Jamaican is way better off than the average Cuban.

    At the risk of sounding like I’m schilling for my homeland, while life can be challenging in Jamaica for the locals too, you’re not going to feel the same sense of unhappiness and despair that we could feel in Cuba. And, of course, you won’t have to travel with your own condiments to put on the local food when you visit Jamaica ;-)

    There is one thing I have to give the Cubans though: Anti tourist-harassment enforcement. The Cubans are absolutely anal about tourists not being harassed while in Jamaica, the issue is treated like a joke.

    I noticed too that the locals were beginning to get access to the internet. The Cuban firewall filters out pornography (and seriously, who needs to see that?) but pretty much lets most other websites through, including Social Media. I said to myself: ‘I hope the Cuban government realizes that access to the internet is a genie that will not go willingly back into its bottle after Cuban young people see what life is like outside of Cuba.’

    A poster mentioned that life in Cuba was hard because of The Embargo. I respectfully beg to disagree. That may have been true in the 60’s and 70’s when America was the world’s manufacture. Today, that’s China’s job; and the China is only too happy to do business with Cuba …as long as the Cubans can come up with the cash. The reason Cubans are so poor is their own dysfunctional, centrally planned, Marxist economy. Heck, even Karl Marx himself died in poverty.

    • by VickyFlipFlop on March 22, 2019  12:31 pm Reply

      Thank you SO much for this comment Peter. Very interesting to read your perspective, which obviously comes from a different place than mine. I find it very annoying how the media likes to publicise Cuba as a happy colourful place, when in fact that's just the few people who work in tourism in the centre. The limitations their government puts on the civilians means it's hard to earn a good wage and work your way up. It's a fascinating place and I'd recommend for everyone to visit, but I think it's very different at it's heart, than it is to visit as a tourist, obviously.

      Thanks for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment.

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