Everyone from Madonna to fulanito wants to travel to Cuba these days, to get a glimpse of the island “before it changes.”
With commercial flights for as little as $76 one way, it’s pretty enticing. But Cuba is a complicated place to be a tourist. You need to spend your money carefully if you’re trying not to provide financial support for the Castro regime.
While media chatter implies everything on the island are rapidly changing, much remains the same: Internet access is still very minimal, average wages are still abysmal (about $25 a month), and human rights violations happen every single day. When the world was celebrating the first commercial Jet Blue flight to Santa Clara on Wednesday, Dama de Blanco Berta Soler was detained upon arriving in Havana from the United States. In the same city, human rights activist Coco Fariñas finished his 42nd day on hunger strike to demand Castro vow to end violence against political dissidents. That’s just as much Cuba’s reality today as the waves of new investment coming in.
But for the children of exiles and those truly interested in learning about Cuban culture, there is a way to travel without being a complete pendejo.
So we talked to a couple folks who know what’s up, including Cubans we’ve met on our own trips there and Discover Cuba, a Miami-based Cuban travel company focused on empowering local Cuban business, to break down how to do socially conscious travel to Cuba — how to travel there in a way that will instead support the everyday people and those working to bring change to their patria.
- Stop to take pictures of all the foreign cars, crumbling buildings or revolutionary imagery. Khloe Kardashian may have thought she was “appreciating someone else’s culture” but to many Cubans, this just feels like poverty porn.
- Hand out candy to youth, or dance on tables, or be Madonna in Cuba. Cuba offers no shortage of dancing or joy, but this is not your typical spring break destination. While you’re blowing money at Tropicana or King Bar, you’re funneling money to a government that abuses protesters every Sunday.
- Visit the museum for the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. It’s important to learn about the revolution and the system, but what you’re going to get here is communist propaganda. The CDR has helped the Castro regime maintain a sense of fear and suspicion for decades with its network of informants reporting on their neighbors.
- Stay in a hotel. This money goes straight to the government and/or corporations. The amenities are not worth it. See below for alternatives.
- Go to Varadero. Locals can’t afford this beach. At one point, they weren’t even allowed in. It doesn’t matter how picturesque the beaches may be, if the locals aren’t even able to go, is it really authentic? Probably not, warns Sissi Rodriguez of Discover Cuba.
- Stay at a casa particular, says Discover Cuba. These are homestays where you rent a room in someone’s house for a set period of time. You can find a room using AirBnB or Revolico (Cuban Craiglist). Most guidebooks also list casa particulares nowadays.
- Eat at locally owned paladares or pizzerias. This money goes straight to the family who made you the food. In general, support local businesses as much as possible, says Rodriguez.
- Catch an almendrón on the street to get around. They’re called almendrónes because of the rounded almond-like shape. All you have to do is stand out on the street and wave them over and they’ll ask you where you need to go, if it’s on their route, they’ll take you there. These are basically like Uber Pools you can catch like a taxi. Know where you’re going, tell the driver, and you only have to pay 10 CUP or 1 CUC (about $1). Editor’s note: This section has been edited to be accurate about the almendrón’s route.
- Get in touch with nonprofits to donate medicine and food. There is a severe lack of medicine and food in local bodegas. There are weight restrictions on just about everything else you can bring into Cuba, but it’s completely free to bring a huge gusano filled with medicine and food. Do it. They need it.
- Venture to other parts of Cuba. There are buses that take groups of people camping in Vinales and Matanzas. It’s a long drive and the buses don’t have functioning toilets or air conditioning, but you’ll get to see a completely different side of the island.
- Convert your dollars with a private money changer in the neighborhood because the government-run money changers pocket the profit for the government. Ask around, chances are there’s someone in the neighborhood who will give you a better deal to exchange your dollars for CUCs than if you do it at a government agency. Editor’s note: This section has been edited to be accurate about the name of the money changer.
- Most importantly, get to know the people. Talk to your homestay, your family, neighbors, whoever. You’ll learn more from them than going to a museum in Habana Vieja.