My Cuba Diaries: Shopping in Cuba

Sunscreen, toothpaste, wet wipes, Advil, female products, insect repellant: forgetting these basic items is not an option when packing for Cuba. The buzz surrounding the island’s open-door policy toward Americans is heartening. But don’t forget, the embargo is still on—which means the most common necessities remain scarce in Cuba’s state-run shops.

Leave your Pepto-Bismol or favorite ballpoint pen at home, and I’m afraid you’ll be out of luck replacing it on the island. Chances are you’ll be looking for a very long time. Cuba abounds in world-class rum and cigars (which you can now bring home in regulated quantities), but lacks everyday supplies. 

Three words you’ll probably hear again and again: “no es fácil.” No; it isn’t easy, I learned after two weeks of combing the island from Havana to its easternmost province. In one Baracoa hotel, travelers were shocked to discover that the toilet seat was nowhere to be found! Toilet paper? Make sure to pack some. (Better safe than sorry). Most public spaces don’t provide it. While you’re at it, hand sanitizer can also prove a lifesaver. 

First things first: Make sure to pack enough cash. Without it, you’ll have a hard time getting by. Although many US banks plan to open for business in Cuba, reliable ATM service is still chancy. Similarly, credit card use remains limited. You’ll be able to change your US dollars into convertible pesos, known as CUCs, at the airport or your hotel (sometimes for as high as an eight percent commission), or into Cuban pesos, the moneda nacional.

Most visitors to Cuba find themselves humbled at Cubans’ creativity and knack for handicrafts, a skillset developed through need as well as passion. This can mean lovely souvenirs: colorful art, carved masks and figurines, quirky dolls, leather wallets, seashell jewelry and other trinkets. Don’t be surprised to find ingenious caps made from metal soda cans. Anything is possible.

Most likely, any of these tokens will put a smile on your face—which is why, as a gesture of reciprocation, many Americans bring a bag of goodies to donate to new friends, communities in need, schoolchildren, and the man on the street. I don’t remember everything I brought to Cuba—but do recall the joy I brought by offering small nothings, such as colorful pens, travel-size shampoos and hotel toiletries. Everyone asked for them! 

Another aspect to shopping in Cuba is the farmer’s market (mercado agropecuario, or “agro,” as Cubans call it), where you can buy fruits and vegetables, as well as meat. You might not do a lot of cooking in Cuba, but shopping the Cuban way is an experience not to be missed. Here, locals spend their few pesos on weekly essentials, following a rationing system (complete with a notebook recording each purchase). The offerings are less varied than your local farmers market—broccoli is hard to come by, for instance—but perusing the agro stands is an adventure in itself. Refrigeration is scarce. Slabs of meat laid directly on the table (and in the heat) might have you second guessing.

But don’t worry. While this also explains why you’ll find tiny amounts of ice in most mojitos on the island (is that one cube?), it’s all part of the Cuban adventure. Embrace it—but come prepared!


Text by Monica Suma. You can follow her on Twitter at @MonicaSuma.
Photos by Robin Thom.