All the hidden gems in Havana Cuba

Food and shopping in Cuba Find out everything you need to know about shopping during your Cuba trip here

shop

First of all, one needs to understand the differences between the two currencies in the country: the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Convertible Currency (CUC). In some places you will even be able to use both. So make sure you know the exchange rates and don't pay too much.

The next thing to prepare for is that you will probably have to go through a few stations before you get everything you are looking for. The supply bottleneck in Cuba is very noticeable due to the economic embargo. This makes shopping in Cuba a very special experience. And then there are the long lines.

You will rarely find a shop (for a product or service) in Cuba that does not have an endless line in front of it. Consider it part of the charm. Fortunately, we have a few tricks up our sleeve that you can use to find almost anything.

If your budget is tight or if you are one of those people who prefer to cook for yourself, you should stock up on supplies. In Cuba, ingredients are scarce due to their inadequacies, but most of them are guaranteed to be fresh and organic.

Shopping centers

For meat and canned food, it is best to go to large shopping centers, such as the one in central Havana. In “La época”, “Carlos Tercero” or “Galerías Paseo” you will find chilled products.

The advantage of large shopping malls is that, unlike the neighborhood markets, they house stores where you can find not only groceries, but also sporting goods, perfumes, toiletries, gourmet products, etc. This will help you save time. However, you should be prepared that the prices are usually similar (or even higher) than in Europe.

In the so-called “tiendas recaudadoras de divisas”, or MLC markets, where you can pay for the products with different currencies, especially the US dollar, you will find meat and other chilled products such as cheese and yogurt. There you can even pay with cards like VISA or Mastercard.

Markets

For fruit and vegetables, however, it is best to go to the local markets, also known as “agromercados” in Cuba. There you can buy a variety of fresh products such as tropical fruits, seasonal vegetables and grains, which can make a delicious menu and are also very inexpensive because you can buy them in Cuban pesos! You can also buy these items from the street vendors on the sidewalks.

You can also find pork or lamb at some of these markets. It's usually of low quality, but this is where the locals buy it. It can be an excellent alternative if you're looking to save money.

However, some products will be very difficult to come by. Eggs, fish or beef are not found in the markets or in the shopping centers and are never sold in the supermarkets. As a non-Cuban you have to be a real expert to get hold of these foods because they are only available on the black market. Be sure to ask the sellers at the Agromercados, because even if they don't offer these products themselves, they will be able to help you get them.

loaf

Bread is not very diverse in Cuba, but it is delicious and you should try it! It's super cheap and you can buy it from street vendors on almost every corner. These usually have other products too, such as cookies or cakes. All for a minimum price of less than one euro.

You can also go to any state bakery and buy these products there. The only important thing is to give it a chance - you will certainly not regret it. If you have a discerning palate, you can visit some specialized bakeries such as the one at Hotel Inglaterra, where you will find a more complete range.

Toiletries

Toilet products are usually not very diverse in Cuba. They are almost always from national, mostly unknown brands. You can buy them in neighborhood markets, in large shopping malls, or in MLC stores. However, they are rarely available in a Cuban currency. You will likely have to visit several stores before you get what you're looking for, so be patient.

Medication

The Cubans have a very well-functioning health system. It also means that they have access to medicines at very low prices. The bad news is that this is a nationals exclusive and you will likely have to spend a little more money in case you need medication.

To get to them, you have to use the network of international pharmacies, which are usually located in hotels and residential areas. There you can only pay in CUC or another non-Cuban currency. However, you should know that medicines are usually a little scarce in Cuba, so it is best to bring what you think you need from home.

Books

Books are very valued by Cubans. That's why they have developed an impressive market for used copies.

One of these markets is located behind the “Lonja del Comercio”, at the “Plaza San Francisco de Asís”, in the old town of Havana. There you can not only buy copies of books in a wide variety of languages, but also various types of ancient objects. These almost always have to do with Cuban history. There you will find coins, photographs and engravings, posters and many other surprises.

Of course, you can also go to real bookstores where you can find books in Spanish. The advantage of buying used books is not only that you can get them in different languages, but you can also negotiate a fair price with the sellers.

Souvenirs

As in any other country or tourist city, you will find many shops in Cuba that offer souvenirs to remember your stay in the country. Artex stores are the government initiative promoting this type of product. Musical instruments, ceramic objects depicting national plastic artists, umbrellas, beach towels, books and Cuban music records are just some of the products on offer here.

In Havana you can go to the San José docks, where you will find a warehouse full of beautiful things for your loved ones at home. Handmade and local clothing, leather shoes, soaps, jewelry, paintings and sculptures - you can find everything there and also have a beautiful view of the Bay of Havana.

In the neighborhood of La Habana Vieja on “Calle Obispo” you will find a smaller version of this place. The same goes for the Vedado district on the other side of the bay, in the lively “Calle 23” or “La Cabaña”. In addition, many artisans and real artists who offer products made of leather, coral, ceramics or wood gather in the tourist centers.

Many locals in the main tourist cities fill the entrance halls of their houses with souvenirs and offer them to foreigners. It is an interesting feeling to go to a Cuban's private house to take a little piece of his land with you.

In addition, you will find handmade products in almost all hotels and on all beaches in the country. It is advisable to try to get these directly from the craftsman himself and not from his intermediaries. Avoid buying the products directly in the hotel, you could possibly pay too much.

Rum and tobacco

Both have made Cuba an internationally recognized place. You will find that rum is incredibly cheap and can be found almost anywhere. For incredibly low prices you can get Havana Club or Ron Santiago, the two most popular brands of Cubans. For a little more money, you can get special editions of these drinks - a real treat for a trained palate.

Tobacco, on the other hand, is usually less common and is therefore a little more expensive. It is best to buy it in Pinar del Río, provided you visit some of the tobacco farms there.

If you don't have the opportunity to visit one of these places, you can go to one of the specialized shops. There you even get a guarantee of authenticity and have fewer problems with customs if you decide to take a few cigars home with you.

baker

Let's be honest: Cuba is not a travel destination in our world where wonderful, delicious bread is expected and easy to find. Nevertheless, the Cubans are big consumers of bread, as you can see in their daily consumption. And maybe you've heard of the so-called “Tampa-style”. Because in traditional Cuban dishes, such as the internationally famous Cuban sandwich, the Cubans use bread, which paradoxically is easier to find in other Latin American countries than in Cuba.

In the 50s and 60s there were many different bakeries and pastry shops in Cuba. After the nationalization of the small businesses in 1968, the production of bread and pastries was placed entirely in the hands of the “Cuban Bread Company”. This company is dedicated to the manufacture and national distribution of this product. The massification and concentration of production resulted in the loss of many types of bread.

Until not so long ago, a maximum of 5 types of bread could be bought in Cuba. The most popular of all was and is a round white bread of around 300 grams, which is allocated to each person daily through the grocery menu. This is known as the Tampa-style "el pan de la bodega". Its price is 20 cents of the Cuban peso, or about 0.01 cents in euros.

In 2008, Cuba approved the opening of small private businesses, which resulted in some bakeries. First, they started making an improved version of the famous bodega bread. It is still very common to see Cuban street vendors selling sacks of 8 for a CUC.

With the growing demand for better products, as well as the growing know-how of the Cubans, small bakeries with a greater variety of products and much better quality emerged. This know-how is a secret in Cuba that is only passed on to the best of friends in order to guarantee the availability of the product. In addition, because of the supply shortages, it is difficult for the Cubans to set up a larger production.

At Cuba Buddy we will help you to find the hidden gems of the Cuban art of baking ...

El cafe

Amargura # 358 between Avocado and Villegas, Old Havana, Havana Cuba

Okay, this place isn't a bakery. It's a Cuban café that specializes in breakfast and brunch. But they produce their own bread and we believe it is one of the best in Cuba. Their breakfasts are also undoubtedly one of the best on the island. Its owner returned from Spain to create this gastronomic oasis. He came to use all the love and good taste for coffee and pastries that he had learned in Europe.

Here you will also find many options for vegans and people with celiac disease.

Salchi pizza

Infanta # 562, between Zapata and Valle

Another Cuban who has returned, this time from Italy. He came back after having worked in the Italian gastronomy for many years, where he worked in Michelin-starred restaurants and won several awards. Here you will find eggplant, pumpkin, coffee, cheese, basil, rye and other types of bread. Made in the traditional way, without yeast, with a different batter for each type of baking.

Baldini: Ayestaran 26 (home delivery only)

According to many people, this is the best bread in Havana. Exactly how it is is a mystery even to us. They only deliver home. If you are in Havana for a few days and want to try it, you should write them a message on their Facebook page, ask them for their order number and then they will send you their offers and prices, after which you can then place your order .

Bodega

The Cuban bodegas (German warehouses) are the home of goods. They have always played the main role of commerce in Cuban cities, even in the smallest. The tradition that started from colonial Cuba under Spain was mainly carried out by Spaniards or their descendants.

The bodegas were nationalized after the victory of the revolution. Those who remember how they used to be say it was when the bodegas began to “lose their shine”. For this they became an important instrument in communist Cuba: the “Canastas Básicas de Alimentos” (English: basket for basic food).

The bodegas are at the heart of the subsidies the country grants to all of its resident citizens. This is done through a kind of general “menu” which was introduced in the 1960s under the name “Libreta de abastecimiento” and which regulates the products in the “Canasta Básica”.

The Libreta was supposed to guarantee the basic supply through the regulated goods for the entire population, regardless of their income. From birth to death, every Cuban resident is registered in a libreta. This depends on his marital status and his place of residence.

At first only food and other basic products were rationed here and then distributed to the population, and later clothes and shoes as well.

Since Canasta Básica was founded, the variety of products and foods offered there has decreased significantly. This is due to the decline in national production, the effects of the collapse of the socialist camp and the country's economic crisis. But even though only the most basic products are still part of the libreta, it covers the essentials.

Some of these products are:

  • rice
  • Cooking oil
  • Eggs
  • loaf
  • chicken
  • fish
  • Mortadella (sausage)
  • White and brown sugar
  • salt
  • Beans
  • coffee
  • spaghetti

Milk powder (whole milk or skimmed milk), soy yogurt and baby food are only intended for children under 7 years of age and sick elderly people.

The Libreta is also intended to ration other types of high-demand products such as potatoes, sanitary napkins for women and cooking gas.

Due to the current supply crisis, the rations may vary depending on availability. In addition, not all products have the same delivery frequency. However, every resident has the right to demand the rations allocated to him. If not all of the products to which he is entitled are available, he can request the missing ones at a later point in time.

Although the libreta once covered a large part of the basic needs of the Cubans, today it is only sufficient for most families for the first 10 to 15 days of the month. As you would expect, the canasta basica also has its friends and enemies. Citizens are divided between those who fear its disappearance would horribly affect low-income families in Cuba and those who believe it would be cheaper and more effective to support individuals in need rather than subsidizing selected products for the general public.

kiosk

During your trip to Cuba you will surely hear the Cubans speak of “kiosco” or “kiosquito”. These are small shops where you can find a wide variety of things. Often mostly groceries, detergents, and phone accessories.

In the 1990s, the kiosks became very popular in Cuba, as they were considered a good solution to the lack of material and the great distribution problems of the island. The containers that arrived in the Cuban ports were used for the kiosks. The containers were therefore the main material for the kiosks. This made fast, light and mobile constructions possible.

Nowadays you can find Cuban kiosks mostly in rural areas or in the suburbs of Cuban cities. The operators of the kiosks differ in Cuba. The most common of them are:

TRD Caribbean

TRD Caribbean is one of the premier basic consumer goods companies in Cuba. Here you can find groceries and hygiene products, for example. TRD Caribbean consists of a chain of stores, the largest of which are similar to a shopping mall. The smaller TRD Karibik shops, on the other hand, consist of the renovated containers. You will find these especially in areas with less well-developed infrastructure.

Ditu

In Cuba you will also find kiosks that specialize in fast food. In the past you could also eat Chinese and Italian seafood and chicken specialties here. Nowadays you will only find the latter. Ditu's kiosks are very inexpensive.

Etecsa

Etecsa is Cuba's only telecommunications company. You can often find Etecsa in buildings in the middle of Cuban city centers. In some cases, however, the company has also set up shop in the small container kiosks. There you can buy top-up cards for mobile or internet services. If you have a problem with your tourist phone card, you will also find help there.

Private kiosks

You will also find many private kiosks in Cuba. Most of them offer fast food: sandwiches, hamburgers, juices or even complete meals. The private fast food kiosks are an inexpensive alternative and very popular with the locals.

Good to know

Tap water, which is not boiled, is usually used for the water in the fruit juices and soft drinks in Cuban kiosks. This can quickly become uncomfortable in European stomachs. It is therefore best to only consume drinks that are still sealed.

In the kiosks, payments are usually made in the local currency, CUP. Remember that there are significant differences between the two currencies, CUP and CUC. At the kiosks you can eat a good sandwich for around 20 Cuban pesos CUP. Or a full lunch for 3 CUC or 75 CUP. A great way to experience the island like a local!

It is also worth buying a Cuban newspaper. Newspapers are very cheap in Cuba. You can buy one for just 5 CUC. Magazines usually cost no more than 5 CUP. Remember that there is still no freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Cuba!

Markets in Cuba

If you stroll through the narrow streets of Havana or Santiago de Cuba, you will find for example posters, Hemingway novels, publications from old magazines, Cuban musical instruments and handicrafts.

There are also numerous food markets, mostly frequented by locals. Here you can try Cuban specialties and talk to the Cubans directly. Because of the delicious fruit stands alone, we advise you to visit them, it's really worth it!

This way you can not only learn a little more about Cuban culture, but also practice your Spanish. Don't forget to ask if they can accept the CUC and return the change in CUC as Cuba has a dual currency and it is best to do some research before paying (to find out more about the Cuban dual currency, click here) .

Stroll through the different cities of Cuba and you will surely discover different local markets!

Here is a small selection of the different markets you can visit in Cuba:

Havana

  • The Galerías de Paseo in Havana is a covered market that sells high quality food and clothing.
  • You will also find the Mercado de Artesania in Havana, where you can buy many different souvenirs.
  • Visit the Agropecuario 19 Y B market, where farmers sell their surplus production when they meet government quotas. You can find this market at 19 y B street in Vedado.
  • Also visit the Agromercado on 17 y K, 17 y G and the Mercado Tulipan.

Santiago de Cuba

  • The Orisha Market in Santiago de Cuba is a street market where you can find offerings to the gods of the Santeria. This market is on Avenida Marti y Moncada.

Trinidad

  • Trinidad Market is a souvenir and handicraft market that you can find on the streets of Santeria.

Varadero

  • A lot of small items are sold in the Varadero market. You will find many souvenirs here such as leather goods, paintings, crocheted clothes or jewelry - things that definitely still fit in your suitcase if you want to bring gifts for your loved ones. You can find him on the Avenida Primera on the beach side.
  • There are also plenty of food markets on Saturday mornings where locals buy and sell their fruit, vegetables, and meat.

Guardalavaca

There are two reasons to visit Guardalavaca: its beautiful white beaches and its flea market. You won't find the flea market in a residential area like in other Cuban cities, but on the beach. Don't forget to pay a visit to this market and then enjoy the Cuban sun and beautiful white beaches.

Street sales

Selling products on the street is a phenomenon that can be seen across Latin America. Cuba is no exception. Although under different conditions than in other capitals of the continent, in the big Cuban cities, such as Havana or Santiago de Cuba, you will find all kinds of street vendors with offers for tourists and locals as well as a variety of products and innovative sales methods. These sellers have become an integral part of the Cuban urban landscape and will certainly come across you more often during your trip through Cuba.

Handicrafts

In Cuba there are a lot of vendors where you can buy handicrafts and souvenirs. There is probably no shortage of this type of seller in any tourist destination in the world. Even if you hear something different, the offers and prices are the same for tourists as for locals.

They usually have a whole network of suppliers and all permits are up to date. However, the products on offer are rarely manufactured by the seller. The sellers are very well organized among each other and can always be found in the same places in the city.

Fruits and beverages for tourists

These stalls are common in Cuba in areas with high levels of tourist traffic. Unlike handicrafts sellers, these sellers are mobile and move from one place to another. You can buy tropical fruits from them or have delicious juices and cocktails prepared for you.

Food

“Carretillero” is the name given to the street vendor who sells groceries. Its usual range includes groceries, fruits and vegetables. With him you will find roughly the same products as in the “agricultural markets” - but at a higher price. But the quality is right here. As a rule, the carretilleros choose a corner and wait there for customers. They only move around if the sale does not work out at the chosen location.

There are different types of grocery vendors who move from neighborhood to neighborhood depending on the clientele. Depending on the type of product, it is sold on foot, from the trailer of a bicycle, from a shopping cart or via mobile displays. Bread, biscuits, sweets, candies, ice cream, the special “Durofríos” (popsicles) and slushies are on offer.

El Manisero (German: the peanut seller)

This grocery vendor deserves a special mention. He is probably the only one who has remained true to the tradition of street sales and whose offer is still the traditional “cucurucho de maní” (peanut cone). His presence in the urban scene of every Cuban city is so unmistakable that songs and artistic works of all kinds have been dedicated to him.

While he wasn't the inventor of what is known as “pregón” (a type of song or special intonation of the voice to help sell a product), he's probably the one who uses it the most. The Manisero was already present on the streets when it was still full of street vendors and you could hear Pregones on every corner. And even today, when there are significantly fewer salespeople around, it is still an integral part of the cityscape.

At the peanut sellers you can buy the nuts, usually with salt, for 1 MN (CUP). Some also sell them with spices or sugar (“garapiñado”). They can often be found at bus stops and traffic lights. In cities like Santiago de Cuba you can still find maníseros who still cling to the old traditions: as in the past, they sell the product from a metal can that is heated with coal in the ground. This means that the product always stays hot and fresh.

Reseller

Traditional street sales created another source of income: the resale of various products. Resellers can be found near large stores or in lively neighborhoods.

Often times you can see them walking around with products in hand. Usually they are limited to selling small items or everyday items. The sellers are almost always women or older people.

Those who specialize in accessories, clothing and various imported products present them in specially designed rooms.

The street vendor

You don't know what he's selling with him. However, if you are looking for something specific, it is worth asking him. He may have everything you need - or he can take you to the person who can buy it from.

This type of seller sells products that he has bought in national stores or from private importers - always at prices that are well above their real value. Since he tends to “hoard” necessary supplies elsewhere and also does not have the necessary permits, this type of seller is deliberately pursued by the authorities in Cuba.

Supermarkets in Cuba

If there is one thing that almost all Cuban stores have in common, it is the lack of products and the high prices of certain items. A high level of dependence on imports and problems with paying suppliers make supply on the Cuban markets more difficult.

Cubans have learned to work through their shopping lists in a number of stores. So if you want to buy groceries or toiletries during your trip through Cuba, we recommend that you contact a local.

The so-called “supermarkets” as we know them do not exist on the island. What can be found are large squares or halls that offer different types of business and services in one room.

A few of them are “Plaza Carlos III” and the “Mercado de Cuatro Caminos” in the center of Havana; “Mercado de 26 y 51” and “Galerías Paseo” in Vedado; “3ra and 70” in Playa and “Boyeros y Camagüey”, in the municipality of Boyeros; all are in the Cuban capital Havana.

Some Cuban provinces have similar facilities, such as the “Plaza Américas” in Varadero or the “Zona +” in Sancti Spíritus.

In general, the shops in Cuba are small and specialized, although in some cases several different products are offered.

In recent years, with the entry of international companies, the range of products on offer has grown. Chains like the Dutch retail company Spar or the Italian company Italsav are the main suppliers of these new products.

Some of these products are sold under the names Minimax or Agua y Jabón in the national chains “Tiendas Caribe” or “Panamericana”. In these shops you can buy with a bank card (in connection with Cuban banks), as well as the national currencies CUC and CUP.

Since the crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Cuban government has taken new economic measures that favor the circulation of international currencies in the country. A measure that was first adopted for a specific group of electronic products has been extended to basic hygiene and food products. This allows foreign visitors to the island to use their bank card and foreign currency to access these products in certain shops across the country.

Agricultural markets

The food grown by the local farmers can be found in the agricultural markets. The variety, prices and quality vary depending on the type of market and the area in which it is located.

The selection and the available quantity is not always particularly large, so it is advisable to go shopping first thing in the morning. In the afternoon, after 5 p.m., the markets gradually begin to close.

Agriculture in Cuba is limited to a minimal use of artificial means. This is immediately noticeable in the color and taste of the food. This also tends to have an impact on the supply, so that food, fruit and vegetables are only available depending on the season.

Meat, especially pork, can also be bought there. Local chains like “Tiendas Caribe” and “Panamericana” offer chicken, fish, minced meat and other sausages. Due to their high demand, the sale of eggs is regulated by the “Canasta Básica” (English basic basket), although they are also offered for free sale on the national currency markets.

It is advisable to go to large markets such as the weekly market for such food purchases. It is important that you can pay with the national currencies there. In general, advice from a local is always recommended.

Electronics store

The state retail chain “TRD Caribe” was the pioneer in online trading in Cuba and found its origin in the government stores. With the advance of the Covid-19 pandemic in Cuba, this service was expanded in all provinces of the country. To shop online, a Cuban bank card and the use of special mobile applications for national e-commerce such as “Transfermóvil” and “EnZona” are required.

The offer to shop in national shops from abroad and to pay in other currencies and on international platforms without any problems is primarily aimed at family members of Cubans.

Some basic rules for shopping in Cuba

  • Be careful if you pay with national currency, because with the double currency it could happen that you are overcharged.
  • There may be problems communicating in shops - the workers usually don't speak English. There are, however, exceptions.
  • Be prepared to wait in long lines when shopping, especially if certain items are lacking. The people in these rooms can be a bit rude. Someone will always come and ask you if you are the last person to find out who is in front of them and who to line up behind.
  • You will never find all products in one store.
  • Bring your own shopping bag, as there are often no bags available.
  • Always have money with you in both currencies (CUP and CUC). Although both currencies are accepted, we recommend that you also use this currency to pay for products that are specified in the CUP currency. The same applies to products that are specified in CUC.
  • Always ask if you can pay with the currency of your country or with another international currency (in Cuba the circulation of dollars, euros etc. is allowed).