Whilst Cuba is currently on tenterhooks to receive tourism once more, I’ve been reflecting on the last several years I spent living in this enchanting yet mystifying island. I’ve seen countless travellers come and go, and it’s from this first-hand experience that I put together this list of Cuba travel tips and plead with any future visitors: travel responsibly in Cuba.
Many think of Cuba as nothing but classic cars and beautiful beaches. They come here exclusively to get their cute pic to post on Instagram or to lie on the beach sipping mojitos. Alas, the island needs and deserves so much more attention and care than that.
I’ve outlined the basics of responsible tourism in Cuba below, but frankly, it applies to any country you’re traveling to.
1. Support the Locals and the Private Sector
If you’re coming to Cuba from the USA, you’ll most likely be coming on a ‘Support the Cuban people’ visa, so most of the below are mandatory anyway. That said, you should aim to travel responsibly in Cuba regardless of what your visa demands.
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Stay in ‘Casa Particulares’ (AKA Airbnbs) – Long before the Airbnb notion was thought upon, Cuba was way ahead of us and the locals were already opening their private homes for tourism. Staying in these accommodations is the best way to support the locals directly and to get a taste for reality beyond the tourist attractions. Traditionally, these are rooms within Cuban homes (most often with private entrances), but more recently, there are many stand-alone options too. The latter will give you less of an ‘immersive experience’ but you can find other ways to make up for it, as below.
Eat in ‘Paladares’ (AKA private restaurants not run by the state) – Better food, better service, better customer experience, better for the private sector economy. The gastronomy in Cuba is really up-and-coming, and you won’t struggle to find food for your requirements. Vegans, carnivores and anything in between can easily be catered for nowadays, though you may want to do some homework on where to go before you travel.
Tip Well in USD – Don’t be stingy. A tip in USD will make a whole family’s day. Tip the cleaning staff. The kitchen staff. The waiters and waitresses. Tip the people on the street you see recycling cans for a peso. (Don’t forget to bring all your cash with you if you’re coming from the USA, as you won’t be able to take any out of the ATMs.)
Don’t Barter – Even if you’re a budget traveller, you earn more and work less than the Cubans. Support them. Don’t be ‘that’ tourist negotiating a few dollars off an already cheap taxi journey.
Bring Basic Gifts – Medication and veterinary supplies are top of my list. Basic over-the-counter items like paracetamol and ibuprofen will be warmly received. Worming tablets for canines. Sanitary products for women (the menstrual cup is a great sustainable option but will need to be explained). Toothpaste/deodorant. Don’t bring big and heavy toiletry bottles, but instead bring more ethical and long lasting alternatives like shampoo bars. Toys, sweets, clothes and crafty bits for children are always a big hit – don’t underestimate how one child’s gently used belongings are another child’s treasure.
Organize Tours/Excursions That Directly Support the Locals – Do your research into ethical, responsible and sustainable tour operators. More on this below.
2. Recycle & Reduce Waste
Plastic – Cuba is the master of the ‘recycle and reuse’ concept. This is mainly because they are so limited in resources that they have to make do with what they’ve got. But you, the tourist, might not share this necessity because you’ve got the extra cash to buy a new bottle of water as you please.
But before you do, consider this: Cuba is an island which doesn’t have enough landfill for every person’s holidays’ worth of bottled water. It’s an unnecessary purchase and you mustn’t think that you can’t drink tap water anywhere but your home country. Not even the Cubans drink direct tap water here (it’s always filtered).
As a travel tip for anywhere, instead of buying and throwing away half-litre bottles each time, try and find a big 5 litre bottle in the stores. It’s more economical and you can keep it at your accommodation and refill a smaller bottle for when you go out.
Bring a reusable water bottle not only to combat the plastic war, but also to keep your drinks cold in the hot weather. Leave it behind to someone as a gift when you leave, especially taxi drivers who drive long distances and relish the cold water.
Think about bringing your own straws and any other reusable items to give away. In Viñales, they were onto bamboo straws before it became a trend. However, it’s quite a lot of work for them to find the bamboo and make it usable, so if you can bring some to donate, it’ll be most welcome.
Water Waste – At home, if you’re like me, you like to indulge in a luxuriously long shower to start your day. Your water pressure is on point and you like to leave in your conditioner for the full 3 minutes whilst you deep exfoliate your face.
But we really shouldn’t. Especially when we’re in a country like Cuba, where frankly there just isn’t a stable enough water supply to warrant this luxury.
It’s not uncommon for Cubans to go days without water. They are savvy to it now, of course, and store back-up tanks of water or tip-off the water man to deliver an extra load. But it’s not an easy way to get through life. (See more about Cuba’s water realities here).
Whilst you’re paying to stay in your lovely ‘casa particular’, you might not necessarily realise that there’s a lack of water. The host likely won’t tell you because of their pride and because they want a good review from you. Just be aware that bathing as you might at home comes at a great personal cost and stress to them, so try to keep your showers short and sweet.
3. Respect & Learn
Responsible tourism in Cuba doesn’t just stop at physical environmental issues. It also involves being culturally sensitive, creating respect between visitor and host.
When travelling to a unique country such as Cuba, don’t expect it to be like what you’re used to at home. It’s very different and I recommend you to embrace it rather than reject it.
Learn Some of the Language Before You Go – Take a phrase book. Download apps. You don’t need to be fluent, but a ‘por favor’ and ‘gracias’ go a long way. You’re in their country; they shouldn’t be expected to speak your language. It shows respect and you’ll gain a lot from it, too. Not to mention Cubans also love to practice their English. You making the first move by having a few Spanish phrases at your fingertips will help spur those serendipitous moments of connection that make travel so worthwhile.
Do Your Research Before You Arrive – Read about Cuba. Read about the history, the culture, the politics. Try De Palma’s ‘The Cubans’; Cleeton’s ‘Next Year in Havana’; Kushner’s ‘Telex from Cuba’; and Eire’s ‘Waiting for Snow in Havana.’
Listen To Cuban Music – Support the street musicians by requesting them to play something beyond ‘Guantanamera’. Cuba has an incredible music scene, from traditional music to more modern Afro-Cuban beats. It’s a country brimming with artistic talent, so encouraging the tourism performers to expand their repertoire will serve both them and you.
Don’t Flash Your Cash Around to the Locals – Not because you’ll be in danger (Cuba is incredibly safe), but because you have a lot of foreign money that they don’t have access to. Be respectful and sensitive to the difficulty Cubans have in both securing foreign currency and being able to travel easily outside of Cuba.
Don’t Expect the Same Hospitality Attention That You Might Get In Your Home Country – Especially if you’re eating in a state-owned restaurant. The staff are paid on average 3USD a day at most, so be considerate of the larger issues at hand. Politely request what you need so that they are exposed to reasonable service standards but don’t make it personal if the service falls short.
Be Mindful Of Your Opinions – And your ego. Travelers to Cuba often like to believe that they know everything about the island and should be giving their unsolicited “knowledge” on how to “fix” Cuba. Remember that your two week holiday here doesn’t make you an expert. You will never know as much as the Cubans who live in their own reality.
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4. Be Careful Where You Travel & How
Avoid Animal Exploitation – Applicable everywhere and particularly pertinent for Cuba. Until very recently Cuba had no animal protection laws in place. You can imagine the sorry state of affairs of the animals here. Thankfully, laws have now been implemented after a long struggle, but now the work needs to start to change the thinking of the Cuban people themselves.
If you involve animals in your tours, please do homework on the tour operator/guide. I have nothing against using horses in tourism. Horses are to be ridden and enjoyed, providing it is managed ethically.
I can tell you from personal knowledge that there is a huge amount of horse mistreatment in Viñales alone. Viñales is a big hot-spot for visitors coming to ride horses through the tobacco fields, so do it… but be mindful. My tip is not to book your excursion through the owner of your accommodation without speaking to the guide and seeing the state of the horses first. Ask: “Puedo ver el caballo antes de confirmar el viaje?” Also AirBnB Experiences is great to see reviews and book directly with the guide.
5. The Best Cuba Travel Tip: Go Beyond the Guidebook
Cuba has developed a distinct ‘tourist trail’. Havana – Viñales – Trinidad – Varadero. I support this tourist trail to an extent: it gives you, the traveller, a little bit of everything. Beach, mountains, colonial towns, history and countryside. You’ve been saving up for your trip for a long time, so naturally you want to do it well.
However, it’s so easy to get ‘stuck’ in this textbook tour. So many of the blogs on Pinterest and package tours don’t stray from this very beaten track. This means the same people are benefitting on repeat, and the hard currency isn’t distributed fairly. Not only that, you’ll be spending all your time with other tourists rather than the locals.
For a more authentic experience, when you’re planning your travels make sure you go beyond the guidebook. There is so much magic to be found in Cuba and by exploring a little away from the tourist trail, you’ll have an incredible experience and you’ll be supporting the locals: both culturally and economically.