Shopping & Stores in Cuba
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Supply situation & Shopping in Cuba
In Cuba, all supermarkets, gas stations, kiosks and other professional businesses are run by a state-owned retail chain. This retail chain is an expression of the official mismanagement. Often what is imported is not what people need or want, but what the bureaucrats in Havana decide. This article provides information for travelers.
The most important points:
- When traveling through Cuba, shopping can be done in an extensive network of larger supermarkets and smaller stores, that are known as kiosks.
- The supply of goods is extremely limited throughout Cuba. For details, see the article on the supply situation.
- Prices in Cuba are quite high. Most products cost double of the typically international prices. Detailed information on prices can be found in the article on price levels and costs in Cuba.
Shops & Supermarkets: What to expect
In Cuba, all supermarkets, gas stations, kiosks and other professional businesses are run by a state-owned retail chain. This trade chain (CIMEX) is an expression of official mismanagement: Often it is not what people need or want, but what the bureaucrats in Havana decide.
As a result, in the supermarkets it's hard to purchase the most important groceries. Despite a well-developed network of smaller outlets and larger supermarkets across the country, the range of goods in these shops is often extremely limited.
It is a daily scenario that important goods are missing. The shelves of the stores are often empty. Anyone who asks about something often hears »no hay« - there is not.
If there are products in stock that are actually in short supply, long queues form in front of the markets. The lucky Cubans that can get something, buy the important products in bigger amounts to store them, at least when they can afford it. As a consequence, the goods run out even faster. It is a common situation that if someone is on the street with a product in short supply is often asked where they got it.
Offer & prices
The offer in supermarkets does not cover much more than the basic items. With basic, we mean products such as rice, pasta, cooking oil and canned food. The goods are mostly of a simple quality. It is very rare to find better foods such as unsweetened fruit juices.
Demanding travelers can hardly find any suitable products. Mainly, vacationers purchase soft drinks, bottled water or a few crackers and candy. What is usually sufficient - and quite inexpensive - are beer, rum and cigarettes, so that you can at least pursue the small vices.
Due to the state control, supply and prices are almost identical in most shops (gas stations, kiosks, bars or supermarkets). For instance, the popular Cuban cola »TuKola« costs around 50 cents (USD) across the country. The price is the same nationwide, whether in Havana or in the most remote mountain village, whether during the day in the supermarket or late at night at the gas station.
In principle, uniform prices apply throughout Cuba. Only in a few state pubs, nightclubs, hotels and at the airport, the prices can be a little higher. To learn more about the price level check the article about current prices in Cuba.
Self-catering during your travel
The limited supply makes difficult or even impossible to provide for yourself in Cuba. In the best case, you can purchase drinks, but it is also often complicated. In addition, there is usually not much more to buy in stores than simple cookies and crackers.
Therefore, it is recommended to have breakfast in the accommodation first. You can also delight the good tropical fruits. Depending on the season, there are delicious bananas, guayabas, mangos and fruta bomba (papaya).
When traveling with a rental car, it is also advisable to bring from your country long-life food. This is not very ecological, but especially recommended if you are traveling with children. Mainly, products such as nuts, muesli bars or generally everything durable (heat-resistant) and packaged in small portions are suitable.
However, most travelers will have no choice but to eat in the accommodations or in snack bars and restaurants.
Self-catering is even more difficult for vegetarians, vegans or people with special diets. Cubans prefer to eat fat and, above all, a lot of meat. Meals without these two products are rarely available, and fats in particular are almost always of bad quality. In tourists destinations it is easier to find restaurants that offer better quality dishes.
If you value a healthy diet (or depend on), you can at least buy vegetables at the farmers' markets and prepare them. For that you would need to stay in accommodations with a kitchen. In addition, it is best to take some olive oil and spices with you, because these products are often not easy to buy either. Alternatively, you can ask about getting a meal in the Casa Particular. The hosts are usually happy to satisfy the wishes and preferences of their guests.