Havana, Cuba Report of what it's like to live there - 05/04/14

Personal Experiences from Havana, Cuba

Havana, Cuba 05/04/14


1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Have also lived in London, Guatemala City, Warsaw, and Bogota.

View All Answers

2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Washington, D.C. Theoretically, only a few hours. However, it can take as long as two days to reach any U.S. destination other than Florida because charter flights between Havana and Florida cities (first leg) are infrequent and unpredictable. For example, you may arrive at the aiport in Havana to learn that your 11am flight has been changed to 5 or 8 pm. Since the charter companies are not affiliated with the major airlines in the U.S., some travelers have missed their connecting flights and simply had to buy new tickets. Because the risk is high that you will miss your connecting flight, many simply schedule an overnight in Miami/Tampa and connect the following day.

View All Answers

3. How long have you lived here?

Since July 2012.

View All Answers

4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

U.S. Department of State. Working at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

View All Answers

Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Americans live in houses (and a few apartments) leased from the Cuban government. Most are great houses, full of character but they all older and need ongoing maintenance. Getting supplies and replacement parts is a constant problem. Some have damp or pest problems. However, the Section does a pretty good job keeping them livable. Commute times are increasing (although there is still relatively little traffic in Havana) all the time. They range from 10 to 25 minutes on a regular day, depending on the location of the house. U.S. families are located in Miramar, Flores, Cubanacan and Siboney. You can look up those neighborhoods on a map pretty easily.

View All Answers

2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Fresh fruits and vegetables are available in agro markets (separate from the supermarkets). Cost and quality are pretty good but availability is very seasonal. Since Cuba imports very little fresh food, you will rarely find fresh foods that don't grow in Cuba. Don't count on finding apples, blueberries, peaches and so on. Mangoes, avacadoes, broccoli, and lettuce are availble for only a few weeks or months every year. Potatoes can be difficult to find. The cost of dry goods ranges from the same to significantly higher than in the U.S.

You can never count on finding any given item when you go shopping. We've experienced shortages in butter, milk, flour, dish washing liquid, ketchup, eggs, and even beer since we've been here. It's rare to find whole grain products of any kind. Spanish foods, such as olives, canned tuna, olive oil, capers, canned red peppers, are the most reliable. Sometimes there is a good range of cheese, sometimes almost nothing. We used to buy bread at the bakery, but after a couple of suspicious loaves, we've been baking our own. Since living in Cuba we've learned to pasteurize fresh milk, make cheese, raise chickens, and bake bread. That said, if you are very flexible and patient, you will eventually find everything you NEED to get by. We've seen it as a good opportunity to learn to live more simply, and still we're ridiculous consumers by local standards.

View All Answers

3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

HEPA air filters for all the bedrooms.

View All Answers

4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

There are now quite a few good private restaurants but they are not cheap. Many cheap cafeterias have popped up, too, where you can buy inexpensive pizzas, etc. but the quality is not good. You won't find any foreign fast food chains. The Cuban government continues to run many of the restaurants. In those, the food will almost always be so-so and the service bad, but there are exceptions to that rule and they seem to be improving (or my standards are changing...).

View All Answers

5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

There are not huge insect problems here. Heavy insecticide spraying keeps the levels down. However, some mosquitos do carry dengue fever. I've had several friends hospitalized with dengue. Some cockroaches.

View All Answers

Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

U.S. Interests section employees are dependent on their colleagues to hand-carry mail out of Cuba that they want delivered within the U.S. Small items (non-liquid, no electronics) can be sent by pouch, but not everything arrives. There is no APO/DPO. Most people return from the U.S. with large bags filled with supplies.

View All Answers

2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Good and very inexpensive. There will be issues with hiring the right person or people, but in general you can find employees who are smart, educated, hardworking and reliable.

View All Answers

3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Yes they are available but I don't know the cost. I've seen fliers for spinning and pilates. Many people hire private instructors/trainers as well.

View All Answers

4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

If you are from the U.S. you cannot use credit cards or ATMs. Europeans and Canadians use them, but have to be vigilant for unexplained charges on credit cards.

View All Answers

5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

I'm not aware of any, but there may be. In general, there are few religious services.

View All Answers

6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

It helps a lot to speak Spanish but only a few words are absolutely necessary.

View All Answers

7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Probably. The city infrastructure is old and crumbling.

View All Answers


1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Not really. You can't count on public transportation at all. Taxis are available and range from very cheap (the Almendrones, old American cars from the 40s and 50s that run set routes and pick up multiple fares) to pretty expensive (any taxi contracted from a tourist spot). The U.S. interests section runs shuttles to and from work for employees that don't want to drive. For nearly everything else, you need to drive, unless you live in Miramar.

View All Answers

2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

I've never heard of a carjacking. Check the rules, but I think the car has to be less than three years old in order to import. Parts are often not available so bring extra and get a supplier set up before you come. Some ground clearance is a good idea, since roads often have big holes and sometimes flood.

View All Answers

Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

You can get a satellite connection at a high cost, which is not particularly good. I think we pay around US$80 per month. You lose service frequently, and always during heavy rain. There is a daily download limit of 475 mb, unless you have an even more expensive package. It's better than dialup though. Technically, none of these connections is legal and could be taken down at any time.

View All Answers

2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

There is a single state-run provider. No choices. All the U.S. mission officers and spouses are assigned a cell phone and pay for non-work calls.

View All Answers


1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

No quarantine. In-home vet care is available. There are no kennels that I know of. People have had a lot of trouble finding pet food.

View All Answers

Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

None. There may be occasional opportunities with diplomatic missions.

View All Answers

2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Not many that I know of, since few NGOs operate in Cuba. The International School of Havana has some opportunities for volunteering.

View All Answers

3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Pretty informal.

View All Answers

Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

No. There is no privacy, of course.That has to be considered by anyone who comes here. Petty theft/pickpocketing happens but is not a huge problem. There is violent crime in Havana but it doesn't usually touch expats unless they seek out the other side of life here. If you walk in certain parts of Havana, you will be approached constantly by people selling the various vices. In terms of that, it's better for women than men. Women are approached by male prostitutes but they are much more subtle; women are less likely to be approached by people selling drugs, etc.

View All Answers

2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Dengue fever and cholera. Athsma. Medical care is OK, but not great. There is a special hospital for foreigners with good doctors, but medicines and other supplies are not always available. U.S. interests section employees can use the medical unit, which has a doctor, nurse, and is well-stocked with medicines.

View All Answers

3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

I think that it's not healthy. There's no smog but there are several other factors that have caused respiratory problems for many people, including very old cars burning dirty fuel, garbage burning, and broad spraying of insecticide in residential areas. Also, damp, mold, and pollens cause problems for some. All together, it's a heavy load on the system. Wind and rain do help keep the air clearer but I know several people (including myself) who've had athsma come back while serving here.

View All Answers

4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Very hot for six months, sunny and warm the rest of the year. Some heavy rains during hurricane season (very similar to southern Florida but possibly not as hot in summer).

View All Answers

Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

Foreign children have three choices: the Spanish school, the French school, and the International School of Havana (ISH). We've had a good experience with the ISH lower grades. Every classroom has one Cuban teacher and one foreign native English-speaking teacher. The student-teacher ratio varies by class but in most classes there is one teacher for every 10-12 students. The campus is pleasant and has a good feeling. The school employs specialists in music, art, computer, language, sport, etc. There are many extracurricular choices every day, too. Most classes are held in English but starting in 2nd grade, students also receive Spanish language instruction. Many of the extra-curricular classes are held in Spanish as well. The school has a decent library and nurses on-site at both campuses (pre-K/early years classrooms are located in a different building about 4 blocks away).

View All Answers

2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

View All Answers

3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

Yes, good preschool options are available and cost varies widely. Most people do not use daycare but hire nannies. Most Americans pay between US$10 and US$12 per day for nannies.

View All Answers

4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes, through the schools and also, sometimes, in Cuban-government run organizations. Recently, USINT children have joined Cuban swim teams and attended the national ballet school with permission.

View All Answers

Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Expat community is large and morale is pretty high. Things are most difficult for U.S. officials because we have more restrictions on travel, what we can bring in, etc. Diplomats and businesspeople from other countries are pretty happy here.

View All Answers

2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Most people get together with other expats, meeting in houses or private restaurants (paladars). Many people join the Havana Club, which has a restaurant, pools, tennis, mini-golf, and a private beach, but is strange in that Cubans are not allowed to join.

View All Answers

3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

At the U.S. Mission singles are pretty unhappy. They can't date Cubans and there are few of the social activities for young, single people that you would find elsewhere. Couples have been pretty happy. Families are the happiest, I think, because they can hire great nannies, the schools are pretty good, and our kids are generally happy here.

View All Answers

4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

I think it's OK. In any case, it's not bad.

View All Answers

5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Some of every kind of prejudice but I don't know that it's worse than you would find in most cities in the U.S. Many women will be annoyed by the attention from men but will not feel unsafe in most places and at most times. There are definitely skin color issues here but I don't get to experience how that plays out (since I am light skinned). I can say that I've heard more mildly racist comments from "white" Cubans than I have heard anywhere else that I've lived. Cubans claim to have achieved some kind of race equality, but that is far from the case.

View All Answers

6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Old Havana is beautiful. I have enjoyed visiting artists and art galleries. There are lovely, clean beaches 30 minutes from the city. It's a great place to learn something new - language, painting, music, tennis, scuba diving, etc. because it's easy and inexpensive to hire a teacher/guide.

View All Answers

7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Many opportunities to attend music/dance/etc performances. The beaches just outside the city are fantastic. The new paladars (private restaurants) are fun to try and some are very good.

View All Answers

8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Art, cigars (but you can't take the cigars to the U.S.).

View All Answers

9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

You can absolutely save money, unless you travel frequently. The pace of life is very relaxed. Most Americans work about 40 hours per week, which is more by far than every other expat group. The weather is lovely if you like warm, tropical climates. Although decaying, Havana is a very beautiful city.

View All Answers

10. Can you save money?

Yes, unless you travel a lot and eat out every night at paladars.

View All Answers

Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes, I think so.

View All Answers

2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Warm clothing, impatient attitude, need for convenience or privacy.

View All Answers

3. But don't forget your:

OTC medicines, vitamins, etc., clothing and shoes for a tropical climate, whole-grain or gluten free products, soft toilet paper if you prefer that -- OK, anything you can't live without. Plus some creative problem solving skills.

View All Answers

4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

I don't watch a lot of movies, but here are some that I know:

Juan of the Dead (English Subtitled),
"Memorias del Subdesarollo," and "Conducta."

View All Answers

5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Be careful with anything written about Cuba because the authors are often hardliners from one side or the other. Here are a couple that I think carve out space in the middle:

Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey into the Heart of Cuban Sports,

Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana (almost 20 years later, the experience of an expat in Havana has not changed much -- read this to know how foreigners live in Cuba), and a selection of Cuban bloggers (many are translated to English), especially Yoani Sanchez

View All Answers

6. Do you have any other comments?

Life in Cuba is full of daily frustrations. Getting anything done requires multiple tries and failures. It can also be difficult to witness how difficult life can be for regular Cubans. It's not a place to come if you value privacy or convenience. But, aside from the many frustrations, is not so bad for expats.

View All Answers

Subscribe to our newsletter

New book from Talesmag! Honest and courageous stories of life abroad with special needs.

Read More