In Cuba, It’s Cash-Only
The decades-long economic embargo isn’t always evident in day-to-day life in Cuba. While the prices of your favorite foods may be a bit higher, it’s possible to find things like Quaker oatmeal, peanut M&Ms, and Nutella. As the semester goes by, you’ll find yourself developing a taste to the Cuban substitutes, too: I love the Duetto sandwich cookies that look like Oreos, and some of the students with me here this semester swear Ciego Montero’s TuKola is better than American Coca-Cola.
As an American living in Havana, I exist in a cash-only economy. While some specialty foods might be available, the United States prevents economic flow into the country by simply not allowing access to American dollars through any in-country routes. At the beginning of the semester, each student must bring all the money, in cash, that they will need for the semester. Once here, there isn’t any way to access your money in the States—the only way to get more is if someone visits from home and brings you, of course, more cash. IFSA-Butler recommends bringing $2,000USD. This is a lot of money for any student, so it’s important to make sure you budget your day-to-day and bigger expenses, like travel, carefully.
Managing On a Budget
On a daily basis, I’m responsible for buying my own lunch during the course of the day. I initially turned to the Lonely Planet guidebook I brought with me, but I quickly realized that the recommended restaurants, mostly private paladares, were not a sustainable option for a student working on a budget and trying to minimize costs. Instead, I saw around me a plethora of affordable options offering food priced in the local currency (as opposed to the tourist currency) called moneda nacional. These lunch spots were not only more reasonable for my budget, but provided an opportunity to eat like a local instead of like a tourist.
Below are a few of some of these places that have become my go-to over the past three months. They are close to the university, affordable, and delicious—and way better than the other cheap Cuban street vendors who sell plastic wrapped bread with soggy ham. Lonely Planet is clearly missing out, because their options have nothing on these local cafeterías!
5 Cheap Places to Eat
Type of food: Pasta
Cost: 35-95MN ($1-4USD)
Why it’s great: Espaguetis, as pasta is called in Cuban Spanish, is a common lunch food—however, it’s usually overcooked and covered in a marinara that tastes more like ketchup. This is not the case at Toscana! With options like carbonara and berenjena, and the option to add meat and veggies to different dishes, you won’t touch espaguetis from anywhere else the rest of your semester.
Type of food: Bakery
Cost: 20-60MN ($0.75-$2.25USD)
Location: Centro Habana
Why it’s great: I never would have guessed I’d be able to find chocolate croissants in Havana, but El Biky proved me wrong. There’s a wide variety of sweet and savory baked goods, as well as loaves of bread, making it a great places to stop for a snack between classes
Type of food: Sandwiches, traditional Cuban food
Cost: 5-35MN ($0.25-$1.50USD)
Why it’s great: Don Marco is the first cafetería you encounter when you walk out of La Universidad de La Habana’s campus. Not only is it incredibly convenient, but the sandwiches—ham, omelet, and croqueta, to name a few—are quick and tasty. This is a great option if you need a fast lunch.
Type of food: traditional Cuban food
Cost: 25-45MN ($1-$1.75USD)
Why it’s great: This is the best traditional Cuban food I’ve encountered outside of my host mom’s kitchen, and the line out the door makes me think that the rest of Havana agrees. Nevertheless, the wait is always shorter than expected as dish after dish of rice, beans, and meat magically appear one after the other out of the kitchen. My favorite is the Cuban classic ropa vieja—and don’t forget to grab some free pickles from the jar by the register!
Type of food: Mexican
Cost: 15-100MN ($0.50-$4USD)
Why it’s great: As delicious as Cuban food is, there is a national aversion to anything considered spicy—and, often, this includes black pepper. This is what makes El Burrito special: while its authenticity to actual Mexican cuisine leaves something to be wanted, the two different spicy salsas offered at each table make the simple burritos worth a trip.
So eat well in Havana, and stretch your dollar by trying out these five recommended food joints!
Kellie Chin is an International Relations-Global Health major at Tufts University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at La Universidad de La Habana in Cuba in spring 2017. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-To-Study Program.