Want to Help Cuba? Travel Responsibly

I’ve got my knickers in a twist and if you know me, you know how ugly I can get when my ass is chapped.

Today’s topic? Ethical, responsible, and sustainable travel to Cuba.

For those who don’t know me (let alone my knickers), a bit of background: I’ve written some 20 or so guidebooks – almost entirely to Latin America and Hawai’i. That is, contexts where vulnerable communities and environments depend on critical tourist dollars. And it’s not always pretty. Importantly, I’ve also borne witness to the continuum of change in Cuba, from my first month-long volunteer stint in 1993 to right now, after nearly 14 years in residence. So I know intimately the ‘bueno, malo y regular’ that tourism can heap upon a place. I also know painfully well the challenges facing Cuba as it navigates a tumultuous domestic reform process, while facing the oncoming tourist ‘tsunami’.

When I launched Cuba Libro in 2013, I designed it as an ethically- and socially-responsible business – relevant and responsive to local communities’ needs, which would also serve as a cool, cultural space for visitors to dig below the surface of this increasingly complex society. I also wanted it to shine as an example of how the private sector can (and must if there’s any hope for the Cuba we know and love) support and strengthen the public sector.

I recently participated in a Temas panel and debate dedicated to sustainable and responsible tourism. If you’re unfamiliar with Temas, it is the intellectual publication of reference here and its Director, Rafael Hernández – regularly published and quoted in the western press – can often be found on speaking tours abroad. In short, Temas is a heavyweight when it comes to critical debate in Cuba.

So despite feeling like shit with what turned out to be the onset of dengue, I made my way with some 50 colleagues to the lovely Parque La Güira in Pinar del Río to learn about what’s happening around sustainable tourism in Cuba.

I should have stayed home. While the panelists were informed, experienced, eloquent, and educated, there was a general pall over the proceedings. Despite a formal invitation, no one from the Ministry of Tourism showed up. Nor were there any representatives from the Ministries of Health or the Environment. So much for intersectoriality. What’s more, various presentations and exchanges revealed there is no national strategy, no community voice or participation, not even a consensus on what constitutes sustainable and responsible tourism and therefore no evidence base upon which to measure progress. I wasn’t sure if it was the dengue or lack of policy/political will making me shudder, but I (and others I spoke with) came away from that panel depressed.

Why? Because responsible and ethical tourism is a two-way street. Recipient countries have rights and obligations and it’s unclear what Cuba is doing about it. The emphasis on golf course and resort development (did you know Cuba is in a crippling drought? We certainly do: it’s on the news and in the papers all the time) and cruise ship tourism (I was hoping someone on the panel would provide cost-benefit analysis on this issue. File under: Wishful Thinking), are troubling. Even more troubling is this trip report from a frequent traveler to the Oriente, and this report from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which while long, lacks substance.

But individual travelers also have rights and obligations and since I can’t do much in the short term about the government’s role, I wanted to write about what you can do to help Cuba while you explore this fascinating country.

#1: Respect the laws of Cuba – If you are a reporter, blogger or freelance writer or filmmaker and enter Cuba on a tourist visa with the intention of writing about or filming here, you’re breaking the law. If you participate in sex tourism, you’re breaking the law (and if you have to pay for sex, you’re a loser). If you couch surf, you’re breaking the law. If you drive drunk or with an open container in your car, you’re breaking the law. If you put up the money for a business or house with a Cuban on the paperwork, you’re breaking the law. Do people do these things all the time? Yes, every day. But people OD on heroin every day, too – that doesn’t mean you’re going to go out and do it, right? I know, I sound like someone’s curmudgeonly mother.

#2: Reduce water usage
– The drought is so dramatic it’s affecting our fresh food supply (although upwards of 70% of food is imported, none of it is of the fresh fruit or veggie variety). Plus, there are millions of Cubans, even right here in Havana, who do not have running water every day. Can you let a faucet drip or run knowing that? Would you do it at home given the same circumstances? Californians know full well what I’m talking about.

#3: Reduce plastic waste – During our team meeting at Cuba Libro yesterday, one member opined that we should sell bottled water (even though we give out gallons of purified water for free every day), because ‘tourists don’t trust boiled water.’ And he’s right – some folks don’t believe boiled water is safe for drinking. But they’re wrong: check the scientific evidence. And the plastic waste 3 million (and counting) tourists create when they drink countless plastic bottles of water during their stay is doing damage. This is an island ecology, where use is outstripping recycling and we don’t have landfill enough for all the plastic waste you leave behind once you return home. So what can you do? If you’re in a casa particular, boil or otherwise treat (drops, chlorine, iodine, filters) water and use a refillable bottle. At the very least, buy the 5 liter jugs of water and refill with that. When all else fails, switch to beer – anything to avoid the half liter bottles overfilling our landfill.

#4: Adapt – My Cuban friends make fun of me I’m so anti-pingüino. ‘The penguin’ is local slang for air conditioning. But it has been unbearably, record-breaking hot this summer, and I’ve had to resort to sleeping some nights with my Russian tank of an AC on ϹИᴧЬНО (that’s ‘high’ in Cyrillic, I think!). So, it’s hot, I get it. But the all-too-common tourist practice of leaving the AC on all day long while at the beach or out sightseeing so the hotel or casa particular room is ‘a lo pingüino’ upon return is totally irresponsible – not only does it sap the local electrical grid and damage the environment, but it contributes to global climate change as well. Besides, in AC-challenged Cuba, adapting is a much more practical survival strategy (just yesterday a US tourist said to me: ‘quite frankly, I’m used to my US comforts, like AC’). In short: suck it up and use your AC judiciously.

#5: Do not, ever, request Guantanamera, Lagrimas Negras, or Chan Chan
– Already Cuban musicians and artists are dumbing down their magnificent repertoire to cater to perceived tourist tastes. Respecting the patrimony of Cuba includes letting these musicians rip on compositions they haven’t played a thousand times for a thousand tourists. Your travel memories will be richer for this expanded listening experience. And don’t forget to tip.

#6: Learn some Spanish (or even better: Cuban) phrases
– No matter where you travel, having a couple of local phrases and vernacular up your sleeve opens doors, minds, and hearts. Get a phrasebook or app. Use it. Trying to communicate, even in the simplest way, in the language of your host country is a sign of respect. It’s not easy, I know this in the marrow of my bones. But it’s also not terribly hard once you start and is immeasurably rewarding. Do it!

#7: R-E-S-P-E-C-T
– Speaking of which: visitors, especially from the USA (who Cubans love for cultural-historical reasons, but also for being big tippers), have to tame their egos. This doesn’t apply to everyone, obviously, but there’s a tendency for some US folks to push the “America [sic] is the greatest/most democratic country in the world” point of view, combined with a cringe-inducing perspective about “how to fix Cuba.” This happened just yesterday at Cuba Libro and got Douglas’ Irish up in a major way – and he has not a drop of the Emerald Isle in his blood. Travelers, from everywhere, frankly, should be conscious that they are visiting a highly-educated, cultured, and professional context, which is no way intellectually ‘frozen in time’ and that Cubans have spent a long time analyzing and living with their problems. No matter how erudite you are in your own life and field – and I include myself here – you don’t know as much as people living here day-to-day, who have spent a lifetime in this complex country. Can you enrich the dialog and provide perspective? Definitely. Can you solve Cuba’s problems after a ten-day or two-month trip? Definitely not. Show respect for your hosts’ intelligence, triumphs, and challenges by listening and learning. No one likes a dogmatic pontificator.

Lest I am accused of being a hypocrite, I will sign off here. If you have something to add about responsible/ethical/sustainable tourism, please write in; I’m starting to put together evidence, documents, and experiences related to what works and what doesn’t regarding this issue with an eye towards action.

Happy travels!



Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, dream destinations, environment, Expat life, Hawaii, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

61 responses to “Want to Help Cuba? Travel Responsibly

  1. Nimrod Johnson

    Almost all your suggestions are “no brainers” but the “no couch surfing” I do not quite understand. While it may bring less money into the county it is the closest way to get to know people. So I guess I am missing something.

    • There are only a few ways in which foreigners can stay in a Cuban house legally and couch surfing isn’t one of them. If a Cuban is caught with a foreigner in their unlicensed house (family members excepted) , they can have their home confiscated.

      • Nimrod Johnson

        Thank you I had not realized that. Why do you think that is so and why still so?

      • There are a few reasons. In no particular order: conditions in Cuban houses can be downright dangerous (exposed wires, dengue vectors, crumbling roofs, etc) and the govt has enough problems on its hands without having a tourist get fried by an exposed wire or something so there’s the simple safety issue; they collect taxes from people with registered casa particulares, but not from couch surfing hosts; paranoia.

      • Kara Freedman

        I was confused about that point also, thanks for clarifying Conner.

  2. Arturo

    There are so many great tips in this article that it should compulsory to read it on the plane ride over. The advent of American tourism is on the horizon wether either side is ready for it. -Or not. The Cuban people will soon find out that their neighbors to the north have mostly digressed to a plastic life on Facebook, would rather text than talk with minimal face to face conversations. Much less, actual visits (Gasp) to someone’s home. Most Americans will be deemed to be socially and conversationally inept upon arrival with no internet and no iPhone service, it’s “as real as it gets” in Cuba. 99% of Americans could never make it on the island and tough out an “ordinary” life. These same people also want to try and “fix” it, not realizing that Cuba’s problems are so complex that they have no idea what they are talking about. The truth is, Cuba is too real. Too raw. Too unfiltered. Too truthful. Too in-your-face. And also Not politically correct, thankfully. The 50+ year American intermission is coming to and end and with that, a very different kind of American will visit a very different kind of Cuba and undoubtly redefine the mostly warm relationship that once was. They say in this life to be careful what you wish for; I would say that this applies more to the people on the island than the Yankees to the north when the turnstile become operational again. Time will tell if the romance will rekindled or realized to have been lost long ago. Hoping for the best and for Americans to respect Cuba and all that she is. -As is.

    • Ole

      A very astute comment on a supremely intelligent offering from Conner. I fear for both sides in this coming rapprochement between Cuba and the US. The Cubanos may expect too much and the Yumas may offer way too little. And I do not mean that in an entirely economic sense. And the expectations of the returning sons and daughters of the diaspora is yet another thing entirely. Cubans in America have become very spoiled with a great sense of entitlement which will not translate well in the face of the aspirations of the average native Cuban. The Chulos and Hustlers will make out well. As usual. Of that I have no fear. Just disgust.

  3. Mauricio

    SUPPORT CUENTAPROPISTAS: eat in Paladares vs Government-run restaurants. Buy books from Cuba Libro vs Government-run bookstores. Buy souvenirs from small shops vs resort stores. The ease on the restrictions, and the expansion and development of free-enterprise in Cuba can cure many-a evils and open up legal income streams for many.

  4. Amanda

    How about don’t be an ugly haggling tourist? My friend who works as a tour guide around the old city would ask for 12CUC for riding two people around in a bicitaxi for three hours and people would try and pay less! Would you work for even $3 per hour.

  5. Isobel

    I agree with Nimrod Johnson, regarding your tips being no brainers, but also staying in a Cubans home is the best way to have conversation and get to know Cubans. Also, regarding the plastic bottles, I think this education also has to start with the Cuban citizen themselves, as it has been my experience that Cubans are quick to not only buy bottled water, but quickly toss it to the ground when finished. I have discussed with Cubans at length the importance of recycling and not littering, some of them did not have a clue, So, again education must start with them. I have never seen any evidence of Cuba having any recycling programs. This would be a great employment generator, but decreasing the dependence on plastic bottles etc is key. Most tourists come form cities that have recycling programs and are environmentally educated.

    • Hi there. Thanks for your thoughts and yes, education must begin at home. I recently spoke with a tour guide for one of the biggest agencies here and he said he learned from foreign tourists not to litter (apparently they were aghast when he tossed a can out the window).

      There are all kinds of recycling programs here: recycling stations, neighborhood recycling days and informal can/bottle collectors (who then take them to the recycling station). But a lot more can be done.

  6. This morning, after having my morning (Serrano) coffee, I sat down to read your latest post. Even though I don’t live on the island, I have never been a typical package tourist and during the past 20+ years of frequently traveling to Cuba, I have done quite a bit of research and read pretty much everything I could get my hands on. I particularly liked this post, I guess because I agree with you on so many levels and to prove it, here’s a link for 2 posts I recently wrote. Let me know what you think. Cheers:)

  7. It definitely needed to be said, but anyone comprehending is a long way off in my opinion.
    Most tourists to Cuba especially Canadians feel that Cuba is their personal playground to do with as they please, it’s the primary reason I dislike Varadero and all inclusive resorts.
    The amount of waste seen on their plates at the buffet or the giant insulated cups they bring from home to fill with booze and then pour out when it gets hot are pretty disgusting to witness.
    What has always surprised me is the disconnect in these peoples minds between what most do at home i.e. reduce, reuse and recycle seems to abandon them on holiday.
    Comprehension and respect appears to be a long way off.

    • Laura

      This kind of experience is not unique to Cuba. I am from the UK and some
      of my fellow citizens treat countries such as Spain and Greece this way. The resolve to this is down to the types of development you encourage and the way tourism is promoted. In an environment such as Cuba this kind of “low rent” tourism is going to happen. Recognising that and managing it in such a way as to not distract from the country’s value is key and ultimately down to (particularly acutely in this specific case) government policy.

  8. Speaking the truth Conner, that’s why I always love to read your words.

  9. The interesting thing that I’ve experienced with respect to the AC being left on in a tourist’s room when they are not there, is that more often than not it’s the staff that are doing it. Every day, at every stay I find myself walking in to a freezing cold room, turn the AC way down (if not off), only to have housekeeping crank it right back up the next day.

    You can count me as one of those who doesn’t trust non-bottled water in Cuba though. I try to mitigate that by using the largest water bottles I can find so it lasts, and by using a refillable travel mug for all other drinks so that I’m not using any other bottles, cans, and plastic cups.

    • This is a great point and something specific that has to change here, in THIS culture (like littering). Every hotel has a complaints and suggestions (quejas y sugerencias) book at the front desk. If you’re feeling pro-active, it would be good if you left this comment next time you swing through town. Although these comments dont always make it up to the powers that be, you might couple this with a nice, cajoling note to cleaning staff. They’ll get the picture that if they turn off the AC, it may mean a better tip. Which brings up another responsible travel issue: is everyone remembering to tip cleaning staff? Thanks for your comment

  10. Angelo

    Conner, You are fierce with the editing pen.

    Why do you only post the complimentary comment all praising you? So much for impartiality.

    Let’s face it most tourists are respectful of their environment. It’s just a sleazy few who fly there to engage in prostitution which are the minority.

    Most folks who chose Cuba as a vacation destination just want a peaceful chilled holiday with no hassle.

    However it’s the Cubans who do the hassling and the hustling. Walk along the Malecon or through Havana Vieja and you will know what I mean, as you who has lived there for many years can confirm.

    I believe you have in fact written about being accosted in Havana Vieja one day.

    You seem to be on the attack with foreigners who are in fact helping the tourism economy.

    Impose more rules and restrictions and you will only succeed in driving them away.

    Most tourist will tell you how nasty the atmosphere become when the Cubans check in at weekends and all hell breaks loose.

    Empty glass as thrown to the floor, they stand in the pool all day drinking to excess. They piss in the pool and leave it with a yellow film on top.

    They make repeated trips to the buffet piling their plates high like pigs and what they cannot eat they stuff in their bags to take home.

    Stop blaming the tourists!!. If you control freak them any more or the Cuban state does then they will choose a more chilled out hassle free destination and Cuba will loose out.

  11. Stephanie

    Conner why are you being so harsh on tourists who are in the main very responsible, and who, by the way have been propping up the Cuban economy for the past five decades through tourism.

    Cuba is a already a police state, not an easy country to be a tourist in, Cubans as well as foreigners are constantly being watched, each street has it’s own ‘guardian’ /spy.

    Domestic violence is not seen as a crime and little or no help is offered to victims of domestic abuse.

    If you or the Cuban state start to impose more ‘Rules’ you will only succedd in driving them away to a more relaxed and chilled country where no such ‘Rules’ are imposed.

    Let’s face it. Most tourists are respectful of their environment. We are conscious or preserving the planet, we grew to be recyclers, freecyclers. We do not littler.

    On the contrary we are respectful of the environment.

    We do not litter. However it is the Cubans who do the littering, who waste food, who drink all day when at the resorts, who make repeated trips to the buffet piling their plates high and wasting food. It’s the Cubans who leave food to waste when they are unable to gorge any more.

    It’s the Cubans who drink non stop and throw bottles and cans to the floor, including food .

    So please Conner get off your soap box and stop lecturing and chastising the responsible tourists in a country which needs tourism. If you continue to impose ever more ‘rules’ you might succeed in just driving them away to a more relaxed chilled destination which does not have as many ‘Rules’.

    • Hi Stephanie
      I urge you to re read the post (and the comments/responses) where I recognize that this is a two-way street, that Cubans have A LOT of education to do in their own backyard about these issues, and that no one is either solely to blame, nor is addressing the problem going to be achieved by either one side or the other taking action and changing behavior. So I reiterate: it’s a two-way street, it’s a process and if we wait for the Cubans to take action, we’re doomed. Hence this post.

      Also: a correction. Tourists have not been “propping up the Cuban economy for the past 5 decades”. Cuba has only permitted international tourism (outside of solidarity groups) since the 90s. And Im not sure of the connection between “police state” and this not being an easy country to be a tourist in.

      If a more “relaxed, chill” place to travel means damaging the environment in which you’re traveling, disobeying laws (I mean: who is FOR driving while drinking?!), and disrespecting the receiving culture, I say: go to that place.

      Anyone else find it interesting that Canadians are not liking this post much?!

      PS – this is my blog, ie: my soap box! You have all the right and freedom in the world to not read it.

    • bsenka

      Stephanie does make some good points. One of the things that surprises most tourists to Cuba is the litter. We would never dream of leaving such messes in someone else’s country, and we certainly wouldn’t do it in our own.

  12. Rosina van der Aa

    Good article, but Cubans also need to make an effort and look after their country. The lack of respect for the environment we saw on our last trip (of 8) was sickening.

  13. Stephanie

    Conner I do not know why you are equating ‘drink driving’ and ‘disrespecting the receiving culture’ with being on vacation in Cuba or any other country for that matter.

    It’s a very small minority who would engage in that kind of irresponsible tourism be it Cuba or anywhere in the world.

    I personally have never driven in Cuba, most tourists do not, so why are you singling out the rare few who would in the context of discussing ‘Responsible Tourism’ in Cuba.

    As I have said before most tourists who travel to Cuba ARE very responsible. They respect the local culture, many even speak Spanish, they stay at casa particulars and get to know the local people.

    From what I have seen during my trips to Cuba it is indeed the Cuban people who need to engage in a ‘life lesson’ as you put it. The Cubans need to act ‘Responsibly’ They need to stop the binge drinking when in resorts. They need to stop littering and pissing in the hotel pools.

    They need to stop wasting food. It is criminal the amount of food that Cubans waste after making multiple trips to the buffet they pile the food high and leave what they cannot gorge on for the birds to defecate on or in the case of a certain hotel for the in house rat to feast on.

    It is Cubans who need a life lesson in how to behave, believe me. And you who have lived there for 14 years are well aware of this.

  14. Stephanie

    While Cubans are learning how to be ‘Responsible’ they also need to develop some hygiene etiquette.

    As you wrote about in your ‘Six Highly Annoying Habits’ their reluctance tio flush the toilet for example..

    The ‘Farmer’s Hanky’ is another. There is nothing so disgusting as standing next to a Cuba who is emptying the contents of his nose without the use of a handkerchief.

    You referred it it in a previous blog…..

    ‘For those unfamiliar with the practice, a farmer hanky is when you close off one nostril with a strategically placed finger, cock your head to the side and let the snot fly. With the wind, hopefully. I understand the Special Period and its aftermath made toilet paper a luxury item, but in public, at a wedding, you need to do this? How about a cloth handkerchief, which are all the rage down here? I do know one thing: that guy and I were both lucky he didn’t peg me with his snot rocket’.

    They also need to refrain from spitting, especially when suffering from an attack of catarrh.

    I recall a visit to a resort this year when in the swimming pool, a Cuban man dives in and proceeds to relieve himself of his catarrh condition, an enormous green slimy phlem landed beside me. It was so vile so disgusting.Yeuch!.

    Did their Mamas never teach them not to spit or empty the content of their nose in public?

    I hope none of you guys are having dinner while reading this.

    • Super asqueroso! One of the things that bugs me about Cubans is that there is no social compact/public reprimanding about what is acceptable public behavior (eg: no one tells the person smoking in the maternity hospital not to; no one tells someone tossing a can into the street not to litter; no one asks the neighbor to turn down the reggueton and temper the noise pollution)

      Im curious: did you say anything to this guy about pool etiquette/public health and hygiene? Would you have had this occurred in a pool at home?

      • Stephanie

        Conner I’m sad to say I did not wish to engage in an altercation, so I jumped out of the pool and showered as fast as I could.

        Call me a wimp or what.?

        I feel they have a long way to go in terms of being ‘Responsible’ to their own country.

  15. Stephanie

    Hey Conner, another important aspect of responsible tourism in Cuba is refraining from overindulging parasitic Cubans who are not as hard up as they would like us to think they are.

    I think most readers on her will know what I am referring to.

    The (usually obese) lady from small town Canada who has no love life to speak of in small town Canada who flies to her favourite Cuban resort laden with expensive regalos, usually hi tech, smartphones, laptops. The gigolo who is usually the hotel handyman, not always on the receiving end of tips, or the hotel gardener, thinks that Christmas has arrived early as she waddles in with his laptop, ipad and smart phone.

    Meanwhile she is deluded, telling guests he is ‘her fiance’ while the guy is happily married to his Cuban wife, and has three teenage kids and absolutely no plans to relocate with Ms Tubby but deluded.

    Then you have the ‘if it moves tip it’ benevolent tourist and the ones who arrive with heavy suitcases full of clothes shoes which they distribute to staff.

    Don;t they realise that resort staff are the best paid in Cuba and that they are being played. That bar man pockets a CUC each time he creates a cuban coffee or cocktail. How many drinks has he made that day and how many $’s has he pocketed?

    How many house extensions have been paid for for by naive Canadians who think they now ‘own’ that apartment or building, when legally they never can purchase land in Cuba but they are played along by cunning resort staff.

    I think that all this giving and benevolence to cunning Cubans is not being responsible.

    What Cubans need is genuine respect and friendship, not expensive technology and ever more regalos which they sell on while paying the generous tourist.

    Even more sad is the deluded wife who has spent her marriage years pumping many $thousands of Canadian Dollars into her Cuban man’s many business interests back home in Cuba. The Paladar which is a never ending hole into which $thousands are swallowed up. The casa the finca, etc etc. Gives the guy a great excuse to escape the artic winters in Canada with his Canadian wife and child and live the single life back hom in Cuba.

    As you mentioned many times in your blog Conner, the Cuban will always have a novia on the side.

    Are these Canadian women naive or what.

    Or just plain deluded. Kidding themselves.

    • I think there are several factors here: first, the Cuban resort (any resort) is not Cuba. Many travelers never explore beyond the grounds and so aren’t exposed to what realities on the ground are like. I know many Canadian snowbirds/repeat visitors to whom this applies and it always kind of puzzles me because I personally cannot think of anything more tedious and false (except maybe a cruise). Second, some people view vacation as an invitation to take a vacation from critical thinking and when combined with little experience in Cuba beyond the resort, it takes the kind of turn you’re describing. Last, real solidarity is sharing, without condition, with those in greater need. The showering of gifts, I think, is more to make the GIVER feel better than the receiver – and the Cubans know it and play it. And so it goes…

  16. Stephanie

    Wow, sooo well said, I love that sentence:…

    ‘Real solidarity is sharing, without condition, with those in greater need’

    I so agree and this is what I am on about, and why I return to Cuba . I do not want to proffer the funds of some offshore Italian or Canadian company.

    So i like to stay in casas where the local family can benefit. I go to local markets. I have also participated in fundraisers for Aclifin the charity for disabled Cubans. A group of use set up a salsa challenge and raised $50,000 for the truly needy and disabled of Santiago.

    I have also participated in Micro Brigades over the years – self build projects (introduced by former President Jimmy Carter) following severe hurricanes which left many people of the Oriente homeless.

    To me that is the real Cuba and that is all about being ‘Responsible’ in Cuba. I want to help the truly needy, not the greedy. So I will be avoiding resorts in the future. Frankly I find them soul destroying.

  17. Just wanted to say thanks for this excellent and insightful blog – stumbled across it researching an upcoming first-time trip to the island, and have somehow lost a few hours (but gained, I feel, a lot of insight.) My husband and I have lived through and aged out of the backpacker scene while taking in most of Latin America. Really looking forward to Cuba as a distinct, complex, quixotic destination for two American thirty somethings. Homestays are a newer pleasure of ours, having been some of our richest experiences in Colombia and Vietnam – delighted for the availability / practice of casas particulares. Besides the aforementioned responsible travel tips, any suggestions for interacting with host families? We’re not know it alls and don’t want to bring patronizing gifts, but if you’ve got suggestions on that front I’m all ears.

    • Welcome! You are going to love this place. For interacting with host families (which is becoming kind of a misnomer in certain casas where there are lots of guests or hands off hosts) I suggest speaking Spanish, using a phrase book if necessary; you might bring an atlas or map of your home country to share insight about life where you live and to tease out what life is like where they/we live (or magazines or papers); and a new set of sheets is always welcome by anyone here! Have a wonderful trip.

  18. Hi Connor! Absolutely loved your blog! I am going to Cuba in a month and would love to stop by your Cuba Libro and meet you in person for a quick hello!!

  19. Mauricio

    Are you ok, Conner. We haven’t heard from you in ages. I truly miss your posts and sincerely hope you’re in good health and nothing serious is going on that is interfering with your blogging. Stay safe and come back soon.

    • Hola Mauricio. Thanks for checking in. combination of computer/internet problems and working long and hard to grow cuba libro. Still writing, but setting my sites on books; the blog suffers as a result. But as they say in Program: keep coming back. I promise to post soon! PS – health is good gracias a dios!

  20. Ben

    Hi Conner
    Love the advice you hand out. I find it so true. Yes Cubans can learn a lot about do’s and don’ts as can we. When in Rome do as ……….as teh Romans do. Never been to a resort and likely never will. Staying in Vedado at a casa is great. Here is where I fix the leaking sink for the land lady, then invite the neighbours over for a beer. It is amazing how we can communicate in two languages. A lot of arm and hand waving works, along with the dictionary.
    Mi “Amigo” Roberto asked me a question about peek, which I didn’t understand of course. He resorted to making animal noises to get through. This went on for 30 minutes, agreed that cerdo was the word. Checked the dictionary and concluded it was pig.
    Did I gusta peek? Si. With Roberto’s wife and kids in stitches off we went to Palanque’s for dinner. We are still at it today, with Roberto emailing in Spanish, and me deciphering his spelling mistakes, and then responding
    with Google translate. “Es no facil” but it works. We are still in contact every week.


  21. Alicia

    haha Ben so funny your story about the serdo. I recall a trip to Santiago di Cuba some years ago where I and a group of buddies participated in a salsa challenge to raise money for disabled Cuban musicians. The challenge was to train with a local choreographer and Cutumba – Cuba’s leading folkloric dance groups.

    The training was pretty gruelling and we limped back to our casas each evening feeling the strain. But it was worth it on our final night when we performed a show with the group to an an adoring Cuban audience who gave us a standing ovation. We also raised lots of much needed CUC for Cuba’s disabled artists and Aclifin.

    We also bonded with the dancers who would show us their beautiful city each evening, checking out the hot spots and local dance halls and bars. One of the dancers invited me to his humble abode in a Stallinist block for lunch Throughout the lunch in the tiny apartment I could hear the constant oink oink sound coming from the miniscule balcony. I was too polite to ask what it was.

    The oinking my got mucxh louder and my friend’s mom got up to feed some leftovers to what turned out to be be most enormous serdo I have ever seen, squashed into this tiny balcony. They had bought it as a piglet and fed it daily to fatten it up in readiness for Christmas lunch.

  22. MarryPat

    I’ve just booked a a tour to Cuba and am very excited. I’ve read a lot about Cuba, but haven’t treated this country that seriously. Thanks for the post! Hope it will help me to avoid troubles!

  23. Maureen Gorski

    Keep blogging! Love to hear your point of view. We visited your bookstore with Road Scholar. I enjoyed the dialogue with the youth. Cuba left me with many questions.
    In Miami,
    By coincidence , ha ha, I met a woman , 74 years old, that had escaped from Cuba . She was 20 years old at the time. It was intriguing hearing her views. She was involved with the Peter Pan Airlift. I met a friend in grade school that was part of that movement. It is on my bucket list to find her. Her parents got her out of Cuba in the 60’s. They were supposed to follow her. She lived with professors from the Claremont Colleges. I used to walk her home. One September, she did not return to school. My hope she found her parents.
    Thank you for the work you do! You are amazing!
    Maureen Gorski

  24. Michelle Greene

    I recently returned from Cuba where I was routinely embarrassed by bad Americans on the street! The first were a couple who I had invited to ride with me from the airport into Habana Centro. They didn’t know WHICH melia hotel they were staying at, nor did they know the address……. Just “The Melia” —– Next up was the guy who tipped a cigar photo lady one US Dollar — she handed it back to him. Another was the couple at the table next to me in Los Nardos who actually asked their waiter what kind of tip they were expected to leave him…. Some other guests at my Casa Particular spent one entire evening wrapped around the axle about the lack of running water, which the owner could do nothing about.

  25. Vivian

    Hi, do you know which spots os ELAM are allowed to tourists visit? Kindly reply us a simple 2h tour inside the Escuela Latino Americana de Medicina? Gracias. Brazilll.

  26. Jena Belanger

    Hello Connor,
    I’ve spent the last 1/2 hour reading your article on responsible tourists, and reading the many comments. I am a Canadian who has been to Cuba 8 times. It’s our annual vacation, we hope to continue as long as we can. I must say that the hostility in the comments is a little surprising! I learned from the article, I will never leave the AC on while out of our room again. All the other suggestions I’m gratefully already practicing. We have spent time at a resort in our early years. We have stayed at particulars, loved it! We have been out of veredaro and seen so much. We have also made what I will defend as real friends. The assumption that all Cubans only befriend visitors to take advantage is not my experience. Of course there are those who will “work” a tourist for gifts, money ect… I have found Cubans to be giving and authentic in their continued friendships! If I’m naive then it’s the longest con I can imagine! Friends do for one another. Small gifts are exchanged. Emphasis on the word exchange! We have enjoyed hospitality in Cuban homes so often I can’t count. Often we share expenses and have a wonderful mixed bunch to socialize with. We tip well and receive excellent relaxed no pressure service. I enjoy learning every year more and more in a country that is changing and that is interesting. I would never try to tell a Cuban how things should be, insulting and embarrassing as Cubans on the whole are far more educated about world politics than most visitors. I love reading your stuff. It’s a little peek into the Cuba I want to learn about. Thank you for your unique I site.
    Jena from Alberta

  27. Reblogged this on Teaching lions to fly and commented:
    Wise words from a foreigner living in Cuba. Something for all us travellers to think about!

  28. Jennifer Belanger

    Good morning,
    I am a Canadian woman who has, along with my Canadian relatives and my friends ( some polish others British) visited Cuba every year for 3 weeks for the last 10 years. I for one am an avid fan of your blog and share it whenever I can. I certainly don’t think of the country as my own personal playground. At least not in the negative sense put forward in your article. I love Cuba and the people I’ve met and consider friends. I’m always exited to meet new people every year. Maybe I’m the most oblivious woman alive because I don’t find the Cubans to be in need of manners or common sense. However it is always a mistake to make sweeping generalizations about an entire country’s citizens, when discussing a few people. We have tried always to listen to what our Cuban friends have to say in the countless conversations we have with the people who live everyday in the country we spend our holiday time. Cubans are not some “out of time ” people with no clue as to what is going on in the world. Conversely, they are by and large a well educated and informed people. Cubans know a lot about many countries all over the world. It would be nice if tourists took the time to educate themselves on the country they are visiting. I agree that the small effort of learning some of the Cuban language and being brave enough to use it while speaking to a Cuban goes a long way to foster mutual respect! I know everything is not perfect in this gutsy country however, I’d never venture to try to tell anyone from any country not my own how to “fix” their issues. By the way what country is perfect? Certainly not mine and certainly not the United States! I read your tips and comments and then make sure to utilize the good advice. If a staff member turns in my ac during the time I’m out of the room, I simply talk to her/him and ask them not to. Having conversations is a crazy effective way to problem solve. I will say that rudeness from a tourist is not tolerated well by many Cubans who work hard everyday to keep the guests happy. And you can be sure if you’ve been a jerk, the word will spread! I’ve seen it! And think too bad for you! I’m committed to continuing our yearly trips. I want for the Cubans the best and hope that the changes are beneficial and not negative. We who enjoy our time there try hard not to be a negative influence. Sorry for the length of my comments. I too get my knickers in a knot when I hear people complain and insult a country that has always been good to us! Please keep the excellent content on your blog coming. Thank you, Jen from Canada

  29. Bradley

    I do not know what Cuban resort both ‘Jens’ stayed at but it sure as hell was not the ones we have stayed at.

    I will start by saying that Canadians need to be more responsible. Some of them make me ashamed to say that I am from Canada, watching them swilling back the booze when now chowing down on huge plates of (mostly) junk food, like it was their last meal on the planet, they could almost be mistaken for Cubans in that respect.

    They way they chase the pool boys and lifeguards, and bed them, then spend the rest of the year asking ‘Does Anyone Know J From Sol Caya Coco’ on Cuban blogs. Puleeze do me a favour, you shagged him for a a week, purchased him time with expensive technology and no he is not into you, he knows the script spewed out by all resort workers, who are to coin that well used phrae ‘Putas With Permits’ and the only attention a 200 lb plain Jayne from Manitoba will ever get is from a Cuban male whore posing as an animator or lifeguard.

    Cubans have an excuse for stuffing their faces with plate after plate of buffet junk, they are on ‘raciones’ what is Ms Manitoba’s excuse, you need to be on a crash diet not feeding for Ontario.

    Five or more decades of mass tourism from Canada to Cuba has turned the island into one big whorehouse, the resort workers will ‘perform’ for a price and it is sad and pretty disgusting the games played out week after week in Cuban resorts.

    I have stayed at the same resort you referred to Conner, and I can honestly say it has very low standards. It is a Cuban chain so management is very hands off, staff do as they please. Each night we saw crates of booze being offloaded into the boots of various worker’s cars. We were scowled at if we did not tip for every drink, ignored even.

    We watched the overweight PR woman (married and in her 50’s) take a shine to the partner of a guest and hit on him, slip him her cellphone no at the buffet queue. The wife complained to the hotel manager who just grinned at her, as though this was perfectly normal behaviour.

    I have seen two obese Canadian women in their 40’s who had left their kids behind in Ottawa, hit on the pool boy and lifeguard and take them off to a party at a campismo nearby followed by a lobster lunch, meanwhile the pool had been left unsupervised and abandoned in their absense, and on one of the busiest Saturdays of the season.

    I have seen all hell break loose when the Cuban families arrive, the reggaethon is pumped up, they stand in the pool all day, not even bothering to get out to us the toilet, they piss in the pool and leave it with a slimey green film for days so it is unusable, as lazy staff do not get round to cleaning or disinfecting it. Disgusting.

    This type of nonsense is a daily recurrence at Cuban resorts. management do not give a hoot, they resort workers pay them well to work there, in the hope they might hit the jackpot and find a mug to marry and secure them with a visa and a meal ticket for them and their extended family for life.

    For all of the above reasons I will chose to vacation in another country next year.

    Cuba is about as ‘Authentic’ these days as a trip to McDonalds or Disneyworld.

    • Hey Bradley
      I hear you and have seen some of what you describe (although in 15 years living here, I’ve only been to all inclusives a handful of times). Rather than vacation in another country, why don’t you try Cuba off the resort track? If there’s one thing that resorts are not (anywhere) are authentic reflections of the country.

  30. Hi. You provide a lot of great information, insight and commentary here. Can you tell me, what is the current state of affairs with licensed casas particulares and paladares these days? There used to be maximums they were allowed to charge – don’t know if the maximums have gone up, been eliminated, or what? I love to put money into the hands of regular Cubans when I’m there, but I don’t like to be a palooka, and so it’s good to be informed.

    • I have never heard of maximums that paladares/casas can charge. as far as I know, they can charge whatever the market will bear (hence the $500/night penthouses in Havana). There were other restrictions though – only 12 seats in a paladar, no independent apartments could be rented (ie owner had to be on site) but those have been lifted. it’s a free for all here. “putting money into the hands of regular cubans” is getting harder and harder. Small cafeterias still run out of living rooms, casas NOT on Air B n B, and pretty much anything in the privinces (except Vinales) are some good bets though. have a great trip.

  31. Pingback: 6 ways to help local people in Cuba – The News Galaxy

  32. Pingback: Tourism: Killing the Cuban Encanto? | Here is Havana

  33. I love this post. This is a guideline for moral travel pretty much anywhere, and none of it is unreasonable.

    I find it difficult to understand people’s urge to argue any of this, and impossible to accept arguments that place the emphasis on Cuban (ir)responsibility — this post isn’t about Cubans, it’s about travelers. Shifting focus rather than allowing the original – quite valid – points to come across is disingenuous and reeks of a guilty conscience.

    Well done Connor, travel wisdom for all time and all places.

    • Thanks Jon, so nice to hear from people who get it! Im juat back from a 2500km round the island trip and the stories from locals viz effects of tourism are pretty horrifying. Im writing about some of it in my new book. Travel on (responsibly)!

  34. Pingback: How to help Cubans? Educate Yourself – An Enlightened Excursion

  35. Pingback: Cuba Travel from US – Legal and with RESPECT | Here is Havana

  36. Pingback: Cuba Travel from US – Legal and with RESPECT | Cuba on Time

  37. Bev

    We are Canadian and have a clown company and love to entertain the kids in Cuba in the villages.
    Could anyone help a Cuban and Canadians ? Please sign my petition. As a Canadian employer I was horrified at how the Cuban temporary foreign worker was treated at the Canadian Embassy in Havana and myself as a Canadian citizen of 64 years. Please share with your friends. Much appreciated.


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