According to the global communist tradition, mismanagement and shortages are an intrinsic part of Cuba's economy. In addition, the over six decades lasting US-American sanctions harms the country constantly. As a result, the stores in Cuba have very few goods on offer. Even if you are lucky enough to find something, it's usually quite expensive. In this article, we explain what this situation means for vacationers and how individual travelers can arrange their needs during their visit on that beautiful island.
As in the rest of the world, package tourists do not have to worry about food supplies. It only takes a short walk to the buffet in your all-inclusive resort, and hunger and thirst are satisfied.
If you travel individually in Cuba, you will quickly realize that at least sometimes the supply of food is not an easy undertaking. Fortunately, at least in tourist destinations such as Varadero, Havana, Viñales or Trinidad there are enough restaurants adapted to the travelers needs.
While restaurants offer an acceptable quality, they are not very cheap. A typical meal is often around 10 – 20 USD per person. One can say that these restaurants are well suited for the average traveler, but can be quite expensive for backpackers traveling on a tight budget.
At least in larger cities, you can also find affordable snack bars, the so-called cafeterias. These locals mainly serve locals, but are also great for budget travels. Get the main details about restaurants in Cuba in our article Eating and Drinking in Cuba.
The further you get away from the hotel complexes, large cities and the main tourist routes, the more difficult it becomes to find a suitable restaurant.
You may ll think, that if you won't be able to find adequate restaurants, it could be an option to buy food in supermarkets and stores, but beware: The offers are also there quite limited.
A paradoxical economic system with significant regional differences
The result of the outlined state economy is a generally poor supply situation. However, there are quite large regional differences within Cuba: While in some region the supermarkets are out of stock, there may be oversupply in other regions at the same moment. In general, the situation in smaller cities and tourist resorts is usually better, and Havana often faces the greatest shortage. Finding the simplest goods can be a real adventure in the Cuban capital.
For example, often you even can't find mineral water in the supermarkets of the Cuban capital. But don't worry: You won't die of thirst, because mineral water is almost always available in all hotels and restaurants. And as an alternative to supermarkets, the indispensable bottled water - never drink tap water - can then be at least purchased in small private outlets, for sure at even higher prices than in the already expensive state-run shops.
This example illustrates that also in Cuba, the market regulates what the state is not able to do. On the basis of such confusions, vacationers can get an insight into the often paradoxical economic system where shortages and mismanagement often produce grotesque results, that are also reflected in the booming black market.
How to prepare best: Take some snacks with you!
Fortunately, as described, vacation destinations like Varadero and the smaller provincial capitals (such as Pinar del Rio, Cienfuegos& Santa Clara) are better managed. In these places, the most important products such as drinking water, snacks and basic hygiene articles can usually be obtained without bigger searches.
Even if you don't have to be afraid of hunger, it is generally true that the range of goods in Cuba is extremely limited. Especially, travelers with sensitive stomachs, in need of special diets or with children should take these special circumstances into account.
Not even for those travelers, it can be advisable to bring preserved foods for your travel. You should only beware of the customs regulation. It is forbidden to import of fresh foods. Also, one should take the high temperatures in account. Ideal supplies are long-lasting and packed snacks like cereal bars. In our article on the packing list, you will find further examples.