Cuba is hot right now. Some critics believe that travel media ignores the country’s poverty, painting an incomplete picture of what you can expect as a visitor. Here are seven tips on how to visit Cuba and guarantee yourself an authentic experience while supporting the local community.
1. Go without a travel agency.
This allows you the freedom to plan your own itinerary and let the island vibes take over. You’re guaranteed more personal interactions with locals and opportunities to choose where you spend money. Think about it — do you really want to be a part of that tourist group paying too much and shuffling into government-run restaurants and museums in their matching khakis and white sneakers?
2. Stay in casa particulars.
Would You Rather… Dish out $200 for a standard hotel room, or $25 for the same basic amenities in a local family’s home? By staying in a Casa Particular (“private home”) you save money while supporting and interacting with a local family. Hosts will give you tips on their own city, help you set up lodging and transportation for your next city, and if you’re lucky, show you how to make a bangin’ Cuba Libre. Cough up another $4 and you’ll wake up to eggs, coffee, juice, bread, ham and delish Cuban honey on your Casa’s porch; another $7-10 and you’re making your way through a five-course homemade dinner.
3. Hire local drivers between cities.
How does door-to-door service sound, with bathroom and photo stops anywhere you want along the way? For about what you’d pay for a bus ticket, you can hire a local to drive you between cities. The best way to find a driver is to ask your Casa host, whose reputation is built on referrals and can generally be trusted. Be aware that while unregistered taxi drivers rely on such trips to make a living, they aren’t legally allowed to get paid to drive tourists and if you’re stopped you may need to say your driver is an “unpaid friend.” Reasonably, this isn’t for everyone but I did it between almost every city I visited and had only excellent experiences.
4. Eat at paladars.
Generally tucked away in unassuming buildings, paladars (privately-owned restaurants) are always a better bet than government-run spots for authentic, affordable meals. Opting for paladars not only puts money into small businesses, but often gives you the chance to interact with the local staff and patrons. In my case, many paladar owners went above and beyond for us, even making special meals to meet my vegetarian requests and bringing us boxed rum “on the casa.”
5. Befriend locals.
It’s not rare in Cuba for a local to be selling you cigars one minute and guiding you to a local bar the next. While some tourists find this invasive and feel taken advantage of, my experience was quite the opposite. Take Victor in Santiago de Cuba, who spent a whole day showing us around in hopes of practicing English and making new friends. He got us a deal on “the best” black-market cigars, took us to a delicious (and cheap) paladar, and even showed us a true night out on the town. Out of respect for his help, we did cover his food and drinks, but his continual (but unnecessary) offers to pay were appreciated and ensured we didn’t feel used.
6. Be generous.
The average Cuban makes $20/month. Education might be free, but cell phones and computers aren’t, and two hours of internet costs $14. So when you’re second-guessing your decision to tip or thank a child whose photo you just took, remember that not all costs are relative to income in Cuba. Every dollar can help.
7. Spread the love.
Making Havana your home base and hitting cities like Viñales and Trinidad on day trips is a common way to see Cuba, but it keeps most of the tourism dollars in these already touristy cities. Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean and offers a vast array of landscapes and urban vibes that you don’t want to miss. Baracoa’s epic beaches, Santiago de Cuba’s vibrant city life, and Camagüey’s warm community can greatly benefit from some tourism love and are well worth the trip out east.