Written by Kieran Proctor

Lines In Cuba

Cubans have lining up, refined down to an art form. And Cuba has lines for just about everything, particularly if ...

Cubans have lining up, refined down to an art form. And Cuba has lines for just about everything, particularly if there’s a government service involved. You will at some point in any stay on the island, find yourself lining up in Cuba.

Personally, I found lining up in Cuba to be both an annoyance, and the same time, more than a little entertaining. Here’s what you should and should not do, while lining up in Cuba!

Lines In Cuba

In Cuba, when and where you’ll encounter a line depends both on your locality and the type of travel you’ve chosen. If you’ve flown to Cuba from Canada to stay in an all-inclusive hotel in Varadero, it’s possible you’ll never see a queue.

If you’re staying in a hotel in Havana, it’s far more likely you’ll encounter lines in Cuba. And if you’re a long-term traveler staying in a casa particular (private rental – or Airbnb’s), you’ll almost certainly encounter lines for basic necessities.

You are most likely to encounter lines in Cuba for common household items and longer-life food stuffs. Good coffee, toilet paper, ice cream, chocolate and so forth will have lines depending on whether or not there is a shortage of a particular item on the island.

Almost never will you be able to find all of the items on your shopping list in a single location. With the exception of the ‘Diplomat Store’ that is out past Miramar, most shopping is done at a combination of local markets and kiosks.

The ‘Diplomat Store’ is a supermarket that is only for diplomats and their friends. Which helps the diplomatic community stay one step further removed from the realities present in Cuba.

If on any given day one of the kiosks or markets from which you get your goods has an in demand item, you can expect a queue to form. When there’s word of an impending shortage or fear of a shortage, then you can expect a queue to form. If for any reason demand outstrips supply, or a local is buying up and hoarding an item to resell, you can expect a queue to form.

Lining Up For Goods And Services In Cuba

You’re probably thinking right now, who needs to learn how to line up? How hard could it be, you only need to locate the back of the line and stand behind that person. Well, locating the back of the line is where the fun starts. But first, you have to identify the type of line that it is.

If the line is split into multiple groups or crowds, some with ID’s in hand and others without ID’s in their hands, it’s the type of line where there is a conductor or controller. That line ‘controller’ collects ID’s in the order that they were present in the line and calls out names for entry.

In this instance you need to be in the group still holding their ID’s and you need to locate and remember the last person who arrived before you. You will hand your ID to the conductor when that person does and then wait for your name to be called.

The Most Frustrating Style Of Cuban Line

The second and more frustrating version of a line in Cuba, is the type of line that doesn’t have an organizer or conductor taking ID’s. In this variant, you again need to locate the last person to arrive and memorize what they look like, so you can mark your place in the line after them.

Now, in this form of Cuban line everyone will be scattered everywhere. There will be no easily identifiable start or finish to the queue. You will need to find the end of the line by playing a game of Marco Polo.

You loudly ask in Spanish where the end of the line is. Or who is at the end of the line. If the person you’re trying to locate has headphones in, is out of earshot or simply hard of hearing, everyone in the line usually joins in the game.

You’ll be asking where the end of the line is and everyone else will be doing the same and pointing you in different directions. When you finally do find the right person to memorize and be behind, be sure to listen for the next person to join the line because they will be looking for you!

What Not To Do While Lining Up In Cuba

Lines in Cuba are often a game of chicken. It’s the people in the line versus the people who have caused the line or the people who are running the establishment for which there is a line. The people controlling access and selling the good or service are receptive to bribes.

They want you to pay them and they will automagically push you into the store. Friends, family and anyone willing to part with a bribe go first. The rest of us line up.

Don’t be the person who jumps the queue. Everyone hates those people. And when I say everyone, I don’t just mean the locals. The tourists doing the right thing also hate queue jumpers.

As an example, during the great toilet paper shortage of 2021, nobody knew where to get bog roll. The Cuban host I had at that time couldn’t find any and neither could my local neighbors. So the hunt was on.

I scored an early victory when I managed to locate a restaurant that had been converted into a makeshift toilet paper distribution centre with pallets of toilet paper under armed guard. But there was a huge fr*cking crowd, that I was about to learn was the first of the two line types.

After watching for a moment I realized that there were essentially two crowds, one with ID’s in hand and one closer to the building without ID’s in hand, but with a lady holding a large wad of ID’s. Okay, so I’ve worked out that I needed to get my ID out and approach the group still with their ID’s.

Note: The great detergent shortage of 2022 and 2023 was far more challenging.

Making Friends In The Cuban Line For Toilet Paper

Donde está el final de la cola? I asked in my best attempt at Spanish. The crowd laughed. Apparently with my broken Spanish and my accent, I’d instead said something rude.

An older gentleman, impressed that a tourist was actually joining the line, stepped up to help me and in his best attempt at english told me who to follow in the line.

Apparently, most tourists according to the people in the line just walk up, bribe the security people and skip the line, they explained with much consternation. And like clockwork, about 30 minutes into the line a tourist walks up, skips the queue and walks off with the goods. Everyone booed and I joined in.

An hour into the line from my first arrival I got to the lady collecting ID’s. When I handed her mine and it was different to the rest, she looked up. She saw a tourist and almost sh*t herself right there and then. It’s a good thing she was in charge of the toilet paper.

After repeatedly trying to tell me to go to the front of the line, she took my ID and inserted it into the second queue. Some in the crowd cheered. It was then another 45 minutes later, we finally got to the front of the line and to the counter.

After spending 2hrs in a line just to get toilet paper, I began walking away in a hurry to find the next item on my list. And the old gentleman who’d helped me at the start shouted, ‘welcome to Cuba‘ and the whole crowd cheered.

I’d never thought I’d make new friends and become a local spectacle while buying toilet paper, but there we were. 2021 was a strange year.

Successful toilet paper hunt in Havana Cuba after lining up in Cuba
My own trophy, from the 2021 ‘Great Cuban Toilet Paper Hunt’

My Own Final Thoughts On Lines In Cuba

Cuban lines may look like an unorganised rabble. But they’re actually a highly organized and often common part of daily life in Cuba.

In Cuban lines you will find all sorts of people to converse with. Housekeepers, bus drivers, doctors and staffers for diplomats too lazy or incapable of getting their own goods all frequent the lines. Irrespective of ones profession and social standing, everyone finds themselves in a line at some point in Cuba.

While the lines in Cuba are more than a little frustrating, it’s also a great place to meet new friends and grow your social contacts who can then help you with other hard to find items. Some people earn their incomes from lining up in Cuba. And these people can tip you off to where you’ll find hard to come by items.

The one thing you definitely shouldn’t do in a Cuban line, is bribe your way to the front. You never know when you might end up in a taxi, on a bus or be standing on the other side of a counter from somebody you pushed in front of. And karma will come back at some point, if you do bribe your way to the front.

Where Can I Get More Information About Cuba?

I’ve made my Complete Guide To Traveling Cuba available on this website. And I recommend you read it, before traveling to Cuba. It will help you navigate Cuba and Cuban society.

My Cuba travel guide will save you a lot of time and money on your next trip to Cuba. Cuba is not the sort of destination in which you can arrive unprepared. Read the most complete Guide To Traveling Cuba.