Living in Cuba

Exploring and Living in Cuba

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Daily life in Cuba

Anyone considering retiring in Cuba should test the waters first. The lifestyle in Cuba is very different from that in Europe or the United States. Since Cuba has been cut off from the mainsteam and in a time warp for so long adjusting, may be more of a challenge and more difficult than in other Latin American countries.

Cuban attitudes to punctuality and time keeping are very hit and miss, and tipping and even bribery to ensure smooth service and getting things done is the norm and can be maddening to those from North America and Europe. 

According to an article: Any foreigner who wants to live or retire retire on the island will need an adaption period to the local life, which is very different from the situation in the tourist resorts or abroad. 

Significant differences are:

 1) Most of the people only speak Spanish, except in the hotels or tourist resorts where the staff is trained to speak English and sometimes a bit German or Russian. To have a social life, you must have at least a basic knowledge of Spanish and some Cuban dialect can be an advantage (see the last chapter). There is a wide range of cultural activities, but do not expect the latest DVD releases or 50 TV channels, and Satelite TV dishes are prohibited in Cuba but a lot of Cubans have them to pirate programming from the U.S. (see the section on television).

2) There are no abundant food supplies, and not many of modern shopping malls. In general fruit and vegetables are of excellent quality, but meat and dairy products are a luxury, expensive and of poor quality. The basic meals consist off beans, rice and chicken or pork. Some luxury products like French cheese, branded products etc. can be bought in the shopping malls in the residential Havana Miramar district. The majority of the Cubans cannot afford to shop in these venues. 

3) The dual currency system. The Peso Convertible (CUC) for the foreigners and the Peso National currency (CUP) for the Cubans and internal use in the country.

4) Do not underestimate the financial issues when you retire. The island is very beautiful, but not a cheap place for a long stay. A common Cuban citizen has a complete different life style than a foreigner, he or she will drink tap water, while a foreigner is used to drink a beer, a soft drink, a Cuban will eat black beans and rice, but a foreigner may wish to eat a steak, fish or lobster. However, you can always “go native” if you can handle the downgrade in your lifestyle.

To own a car you need a permit and license from the Cuban government and have to be married to a Cuban.

In sum, to live a life based on Western standards of living, besides the cost of renting a house a minimum of 1,000 - 1500 USD per month has to be provided. Do not expect to open a small business, a bar, a shop, a restaurant etc. all are prohibited unless you have Cuban residency through marriage. Work or a job in Cuba is not easy to get and paid only 20 USD per month unless you work for a foreign firm. So you must rely on financial resources from abroad, a pension, rental income, savings etc.

Additonal Advice

Before moving to Cuba, it is advisable to spend time there on a trial basis to see if it is the place for you. You should stay a couple months or longer so you can experience Cuban life as it is. Remember, visiting Cuba as a tourist is quite different from living there. The success rate of adjustment among Americans and other foreigners is not nearly as high as might be expected, so it is a good idea to "test the waters" before moving to Cuba or any foreign country permanently.

 It is good to visit for extended periods during both the wet and dry seasons. This way you will have an idea of what the country is like at all times of the year. During your visits, talk to as many foreign residents as you can and gather as much information as possible before making your final decision.

 The last step in making your decision is to try living there for at least a year. That is sufficient time to get an idea of what living in Cuba is really like and what problems may confront you while trying to adapt to living in a new culture. Some people may have to spend a couple of years in Cuba to discover whether they can live in a culture with different customs. Either way, a prolonged stay may also help you adjust to the climate and new foods.

 You may decide you are more suited for seasonal living or, as they say, “wintering or snowbirding” in Cuba for a few months a year. A number of people spend the summer in Canada or the U.S. and the winter in the tropics—where it is actually summer—so they can enjoy the best of both worlds or the endless summer. By living in two places, they won’t have to sever ties with their home country.

 Whether you will choose to reside in Cuba full or part-time, keep in mind the cultural differences and new customs you will encounter. Life in Cuba will be very different to what you are probably used to (see the beginning of this chapter). If you expect all things to be the same as they are in the U.S., you are deceiving yourself. The concepts of time and punctuality are not important in Latin America. It is not unusual and not considered in bad taste for a person to arrive late for a business appointment or dinner engagement. This custom can be incomprehensible and infuriating to North Americans but will not change since it is a deep-rooted tradition.

 There are numerous other examples of cultural differences you should be aware of if you are seriously considering living in Cuba. Driving habits and traffic rules are not always the same as in other countries. Bureaucracy tends to move at a snail’s pace, which can also be maddening to foreigners. Since most Americans are always in a hurry they tend to feel frustrated by the dilatory nature of many things in Latin America. In addition, the Latin mentality, machismo, Latin logic, traditions, different laws and ways of doing business, seem incomprehensible at times. You will notice countless examples of cultural idiosyncrasies after you have spent some time in Cuba.

 Cultural shock is the term used to describe the reaction most people experience when they move for a long period of time to a new culture, which is very different from their own. Being cut off from familiar things causes the phenomenon. Anyone entering a new environment will experience cultural shock to some degree. No matter how psychologically secure you are, some cultural shock in your new situation will confront you. Small discomforts and adversities can easily grow in importance. Many people experience homesickness, boredom, frustration and even illness. How you will like Cuba really depends on your attitude and your willingness to adapt to living in a foreign country.

 Americans and Canadians are apt to view their way of doing things as better than they are done in other parts of the world. Since every culture is different, there is no "right way" of doing things. The more "cultural baggage" and preconceptions you leave behind the easier it will be for you to adjust. The best thing you can do is respect the different cultural values, be understanding, have patience and go with the flow. Also, do your homework before moving to the country, know your new country and follow all of the advice we offer in this book. Learning Spanish will ease your way.

 Whatever you do don't play the role of the "Ugly American" (see the section in this chapter titled, “Tips for Being a Better Gringo”) by displaying embarrassing behavior and trying to impose your way of doing thing on the locals. Don't stereotype them and refrain from making disparaging remarks.

 Making a change in your life can be refreshing, rewarding and stimulating. However, most people tend to resist change.  Our advice is to try experiencing all that Cuba has to offer.

 You will meet new people while residing in a foreign country. For some strange reason expatriates seem to gravitate towards each other. People who you would not normally associate with at home become instant friends when living abroad. So, making friends shouldn’t be a problem.  Try developing a whole network of friends for support. Being around other foreigners with a common cultural bond will make your new home seem less foreign.

 For those of you who are lucky enough to be living with your family, nostalgia will be less of a factor. If you are the type of person who doesn’t make the effort to meet people or who waits for things to happen, you will probably find it disappointing to live abroad. You will have to take a positive approach to create a constructive lifestyle for yourself in Cuba.

 If you are retired or just taking a hiatus and have a lot of spare time on your hands, you must make an effort to stay active. In the section titled “Places to go and things to do,” there are activities to keep you busy. If you feel bored or at lose ends now, you might feel more so when living abroad. So, use your idle time wisely by getting involved. Learning Spanish is a good way to spend your spare time. This is a lifetime project, will keep you occupied and open the door to many exciting new adventures.

 Above all, Spanish will help you understand your new culture and make living abroad easier.  For an adult starting from scratch, learning a new language is difficult, but can be done if you make an effort. You will certainly have enough time. Just a few minutes a day makes a difference. If you never learn Spanish you may be able to get by since some Cubans living in cities speak English. In the countryside almost no one speaks English. However, you will be missing out on a lot by not spaking the country’s language. Words, phrases, sentences and songs pave the way for many new and rewarding experiences. You will be surprised how much you can learn about your host country and improve your lifestyle in the process.

 Be aware that you may miss many of the conveniences and activities of home — hobbies, friends, luxuries, lack of mobility, stores, your favorite T.V. programs and other familiar items. What you have to do is substitute new activities and find new hobbies. If you stay active you will adjust easily. For example, if you are an avid reader you can form a book club. Those people who like to walk can organize a walking or hiking club.

 Get out and explore your neighborhood and city. You will discover restaurants, Cafes, stores and other places where people gather. Try all forms of public transportation to become more mobile and discover new areas. Studying the history, politics, poetry, music and dance will help keep you busy and enable you to better understand your new culture. Remember living abroad is a trade-off: you won't have everything you had from where you came.

 Food may pose a major adjustment. So, again, learn to substitute.  It is also exciting to discover new foods and dishes. As we state in the next section, Cuba has many exotic dishes and native foods from which to choose. Since the U.S. is so close, you will eventually be able to pick up non-perishable items on shopping trips abroad. Also as the country engages in more trade with the U.S. more products are bound to become available.

 Under the stress of living in a strange land some people turn to drinking as a coping mechanism. Don't fall into this trap.

 You should also be aware that it is our comparative wealth that separates us from people in the third world. No matter what your present station in life, most Cubans will view you as a millionaire.

 As was mentioned at the beginning of this section, don't count on finding work in Cuba. It is difficult for the locals to make ends meet let alone for a foreigner finding work. In time there will probably be investments for those people lucky enough to have sufficient capital to invest. But people thinking they can find work to support themselves are dreaming. It is best to have an external income like a pension, annuity or savings interests.  This is not meant to discourage you, but to paint a realistic picture of the work situation.

 Living in a foreign country is exciting but poses many obstacles for newcomers. Don’t expect everything to go smoothly at first or be perfect. By taking the advice throughout this book and adjusting to the many new challenges, you will be able to enjoy all of Cuba’s wonders and have a successful lifestyle.


Social Networks to help you adjust

Moving to a new country like Cuba is not easy but new technologies like Social Media, Online Communities and Social Networks will make this transition much smoother once the country improves its Internet, the country opens up more and censorship is eased. It is impressive to be able to break distances and time. It is great to be able to do your homework from your home before you travel. It is outstanding to make friends and contact people that already live where you want to move.

Online social communities have begun popping up all over the Internet. As an expatriate, these types of Social Networks can be a very helpful resource as you transition to your new country. Whether you are looking for Information, education, alternatives, to meet new friends, locate old ones, or gain professional contacts, you are bound to find the people you are looking for online. If you haven’t yet relocated to your new country yet, now is a great time to join these types of online communities. Create a profile and begin adding friends. As your network expands, you may find that your current friends already have contacts in your new country. They could introduce you, and then you would already have acquaintances there when you arrive. Already living in your new country? These types of social communities also have groups you can join to meet others with a similar interest.

There are social networks for baby boomers looking forward to traveling abroad, living abroad, retiring abroad, and of course also for those already living abroad. A social network can be the connector between those who want to live abroad and those that already live abroad. So the members of a social network who are looking forward to living abroad can ask questions to those that journeyed ahead of them. In this interactive and fun manner Baby Boomers and others can find information about potential countries. You can compare countries and cities within a country and neighborhoods within a city.

Members can create their own profiles, join groups of those who share their same particular interests, create their own groups, make friends, upload photos and videos, post blogs, present questions, answer questions, etc.  There is no substitute for first- hand experience, and there is power in collaboration. Common wisdom is the result. We also love transparency and because every brain is a different world, in the online community you can make your own conclusions after communicating with many persons.

Education is the Key. The education process is individual. Nobody will wake one morning and say “I’m going to Cuba today to live or retire”. The truth is that deciding to do this is a gradual process that takes, normally, a lot of time. It is a process that typically includes: seminars, relocation/retirement tours, trips to different destinations, hundreds of information requests about many different issues, hundreds of conversations with friends, experts and ideally with expatriates also.


Official Guide to
Cuban Spanish

Official Guide to Cuban Spanish

For those who want to communicate with the locals and to develop basic Spanish survival skills, purchase our one-of-a-kind eBook which includes Cuban slang in English


"I always keep this book on my tablet so that I can maneuver through Cuba’s linguistic maze."

Max Gómez, Cuba Scout, Travel Expert

Medal Award

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Living and Investing in Cuba - Live in Cuba - Retire in Cuba - Retirement Tours in Cuba 

Information herein is authorized through the courtesy of Christopher Howard, author of the best selling Cuba information source, Living and Investing in the New Cuba. Please be aware that all information herein is protected by COPYRIGHT © and misuse of it will carry a penalty by law.