There is so much more to Cuba than the pastel buildings & vintage cars – there’s no denying the country is absolutely beautiful & so unique (the most unique place we have traveled so far) but we quickly learnt upon arrival, most things are not what they seem in Cuba. It’s very difficult to understand how things work on the island but it’s so important that travelers visiting make a conscious effort to, so they understand their impacts to ensure they are as positive as possible.
The recent ‘boom’ in tourism is mostly due to the country’s recent Insta-fame & the lift on travel restrictions for U.S citizens, despite the fact Cuba has been open to travel for a lot of other countries. The Revolution in 1953-1959 severely impacted Cuba’s relationship with the U.S & it is only recently that the laws around travel to the country have loosened.
With that being said, if you plan on traveling to Havana anytime soon, here are a few things to implement & be mindful of to ensure your travels are impacting the city positively and you are spreading all the happy vibes;
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Riding the Vintage Cars –
Please do not barter with your driver for a vintage car experience. Cuba is not & will not be westernised anytime soon. Although for a lot of us, the vintage cars are an incredible step back in time, they are everywhere for a reason – they are the most affordable car for the locals & for a lot of them, the only means to making an income. Being from the 1930’s-50’s the cars are really economical and generally family heirlooms passed down through the generations – two of the main reasons why they are used so much. It is incredibly unusual for a Cuban to own a modern car as for the majority of people, this is completely unattainable. Although economical, as you can imagine due to the age of the cars, they involve a great deal of expense to fix if they were to ever break down.
It will cost you approximately 30 CUC ($30 USD) for a one hour city tour and for the experience provided due to the kind and hospitable nature of the drivers – it is incredible value. We gave our driver an additional 10 CUC as a tip and he was ecstatic. The drivers work very hard in both driving and maintaining the vehicles and it’s important they feel appreciated. $10 to us will not break the bank, but making an average of 30 CUC a month – to them, it makes a substantial difference to their income.
The vintage cars are also utilized as normal taxi’s and despite the common misconception, are actually more affordable for tourists to travel in than the government taxi’s (about $1 per km) plus, your money goes directly to the driver – a win for errybody!
Buying Cigars –
Much like buying our milk and veggies etc at home, when buying products in Cuba it’s so important to be mindful of where they came from. Just because you are on holidays in the land of cigars, doesn’t mean they have all been made ethically and it’s up to us as travelers to ensure we are not adding fuel to the fire and encouraging unethical sales. To purchase consciously, stick to small farms rather than markets and government owned businesses, so the money goes directly to the Torcedor (cigar rollers/makers)
Stay in a Casa Particular –
There are always multiple options/avenues you can take when booking accommodation in a new place, and Havana is no exception to this – however, what makes the city even more special on this front is the local experience like no other. A lot of the people in Cuba open up their homes to guests (and can be booked on air bnb) and this is known as a Casa Particular. Unlike air bnb’s, where you are generally just provided a space, you are often staying with your hosts and their extended family, who all want to help you have a magnificent time. They will cook for you, provide maps and their personal recommendations and due to the mobile phone restrictions in the country; will also organise transport, restaurant bookings and activities for you. Despite language barriers (we knew little to no Spanish at the time we visited) The Cuban people honestly make you feel like one of the family. The hotels look beautiful, but for an authentic Cuban experience & to financially assist the people directly – if you can, stay in a Casa Particular.
Eat Where the Locals Eat –
Funnily enough; this will be a pretty difficult task, as most restaurants in Havana aren’t 100% locally owned. One of the really interesting things we learnt whilst traveling here was a lot of the restaurants are 50% (sometimes more) owned by foreign investors and the business is under a locals name- this is to avoid excessive tax rates. As a local business owner, Cubans are exempt from tax for the first 8 years and then pay 15% and foreign business owner’s pay 35% with no exemption period. Local people generally are unable to afford businesses so a lot of them take this route to get a foot in the door; however the foreign business owners certainly benefit a lot more. Contrariety to common belief, the food in Cuba – specifically Havana, is actually delish – if you know where to go & what to order. Opt for Comida Criolla (a typical Cuban dish made up of rice, beans & flavoured sauces that draws on Spanish culture) over pizza or spaghetti and you will not be disappointed. To give you an idea of how difficult it is to even find locally owned restaurants in Havana – the below pictures are the inside of what looks to be an an old run down & abandoned barn. Upon entry through the large doors, you are greeted by hanging washing, a few potted plants and a lot of empty space. To the left, a very questionable staircase and up the stairs, a quaint little authentic restaurant named El Realengo – with the most friendly staff in the hospitality game. There are no signs, no open doors and no indication of any life inside the building whatsoever until you climb the staircase.
Some great options for mindful & delish eating and drinking (that are actually signed) are;
A La Venduta – A local café in the city of Havana; equivalent to only 5c a cuppa, look how cute the coffee cups are! The Cubans like their coffee sweet and it is absolutely delicious here!
La Bodeguita Del Medio – Located half a block from Cathedral Square and home to the very first Mojito ever made. Although it’s become a bit of a hot spot for tourists now as well as locals, it’s popular for a reason and an exciting part of Cuban history.
Fruit/Veg Markets & Carts– Visiting a food market such as Mercado Agropecuario located on Calle 15, La Habana or one of the many local food carts lining the streets of Havana, is not only a fantastic authentic experience, but you will have access to the freshest fruits and vegetables grown on the island, mingle with the locals whilst they do their weekly shop and assist farmers directly.
La Guarida – This is arguably the most amazing Paladar (in-home restaurant) in Havana. You won’t actually find locals here, as it can be a little on the pricey side by Cuban standards, however you will definitely be able to experience delicious & authentic Cuban food here so we thought it was worth a mention.
Cafeteria El Juany – this little gem is located just below La Guarida, and a place you will definitely find locals. They are famous amongst the Cubans for their delicious Croquet (Croquettes)
Eat in your Casa Particular – it is extremely common now for your Casa hosts to actually cook you brekkie either as an inclusive when you book with them or for a very small price – (approx 4 CUC.) You are provided with coffee and/or juice, bottled water, an eggs – normally in an omelette, some fruit & toast.
Travel to Cuba Independently & Book your own activities-
Another way to travel Cuba mindfully is to go there independently and book your own tours rather than go through a travel agency or tour company. We learnt a lot of the above hidden facts and figures (among many others) by taking a tour called Havana Underground with a local business; Ferlan’s Bikes. We found them on air bnb experiences and could not recommend these guys enough. This business was built by locals and their knowledge of the ins and outs of Havana is honestly next level. Not only was doing a bike tour an extremely cool way to see the city, the extra facts we picked up along the way, we certainly wouldn’t have learnt if we were walking around on our own or being guided by someone other than a local. We were able to learn first-hand what it was like to grow up in central Havana and get beautifully lost amongst the windy & narrow paths.
Visit the Museum of Revolution –
If you really want to obtain a good understanding of the 1950’s revolution from Cuba’s perspective, there is no better place to visit than a museum dedicated to do just that. Not only is it filled to the brim with information, the building alone is worth the visit, designed by Tiffany & Co. it is absolutely beautiful.
Bring gifts for your Casa Particular Hosts-
As we have mentioned, the Cuban people are some of the most genuine and beautiful people we have met on our travels and are extremely resourceful – they are all about helping each other out & making things last as long as possible. With that in mind, it’s always a nice idea to bring host gifts to thank casa particular owners for their hospitality & assistance while visiting their country. Some nice ideas for gifts or things to leave behind are; fishing gear, packaged snacks/treats from your home country, baby and childrens clothes, bra’s, toiletries, tools, vitamins/first aid, female sanitary products, board or card games, books, DVD’s, and of course – the gift of time. We made beautiful friends with our hosts by choosing to stay in one night and hang out, sharing stories and photos sitting on their couch! It was definitely a night we will remember for a long time.
Have you been to Havana and picked up some mindful travel tips? Let us know in the comments below!
Peace, Love & Happy Travels