Conscious Consumption In Cuba: How To Have A More Authentic Trip While Supporting Private Businesses


Flower stand in Old Havana

Until very recently, nearly every entity in Cuba was owned and operated by the government.

But in the past few years, the Cuban government has tried to promote private businesses in hopes that the shift will provide a much-needed boost to the economy. In late 2010, President Raul Castro announced that the government would start making it easier for individuals to open private businesses for the first time since a limited experiment in the 1990s. By July 2012, nearly 250,000 people had opened restaurants, shops and service enterprises, contributing to a total 387,000 Cubans that have chosen to be self-employed, according to the New York Times.

It’s not a complete success story, though. According to the Times, Cuban entrepreneurs regularly run into high taxes, steep customs duties and arbitrary red tape. Cubans that rent out rooms in their homes as casas particulares, for instance, must write down their guests’ full information in log books the moment they check in, lest a surprise inspection lead to heavy fines. License fees for these types of businesses are high, and often prohibitive.

Still, the loosened regulations are a positive sign for the future of private business in Cuba, and travelers can have a positive, and powerful, impact on this growth. One big reason is that most travelers to Cuba use the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), rather than the Cuban national peso (CUP). The CUC is most often used by foreigners for tourism-related transactions, like hotels and meals, while the CUP is used by most Cubans for everyday expenses. The difference between the two currencies is vast – 1 CUC is equivalent to about 25 CUP – which means that spending CUCs at privately run businesses can have a large impact on the proprietors’ pocketbooks.

If you are visiting Cuba independently, there are a number of ways to have an authentic travel experience, while supporting private business owners and the local economy. Here are a few.


Terrace at the Bella Perla Marina casa particular in Cienfuegos

Stay in a casa particular

Cuba’s answer to Airbnb, casas particulares, are privately run bed and breakfasts, usually run out of people’s homes. Staying in casas particulares are a great way to interact with locals and get an inside look at how Cubans (or at least those with access to tourist dollars) live.

The government imposes strict regulations on casas particulares, so you can generally expect rooms to be clean and stocked with a fan, air conditioner, mini-fridge and bottled water for sale. Rates are standardized, and usually range from $20-50 per room, per night. For an additional fee, your host will also provide meals. One casa particular in the Bay of Pigs even offered musical entertainment!

Casas particulares are easily booked through international booking websites like hostelbookers.com or hostelworld.com, or through Cuban sites like cubaaccommodation.com or cubaparticular.com. Or, you can just roam the streets on the look-out for a white sign with blue writing that reads “Arrendador Divisa” – they are ubiquitous in most city centers, particularly Havana. If that host doesn’t have a room, he or she will more often than not call upon their network of friends to find you another one.

Dine at a paladar

Paladares are privately owned restaurants, often run by families out of their living rooms. They tend to have much better food and selection than the government-run restaurants, which are pretty uniformly bland.

Like privately run restaurants elsewhere, paladares run the gamut in terms of quality and atmosphere. One of the most renowned is Paladar la Guarida, an elegant spot at the top of a 20th-century tenement in Central Havana, famous as a setting for the film “Fresa y Chocolate.” The menu changes regularly but tends to feature inventive dishes with ingredients not often found in spice-strapped Cuba. My cantaloupe gazpacho with dried shrimp was superb.

Another popular spot in Havana is Paladar San Cristobal, which lives up to its five-star TripAdvisor rating. We felt instantly welcome from the moment we stepped into the colonial Spanish courtyard. Our host and waiters lavished us with free wine refills and shots of ron, then lit our first Cuban cigars to top off the meal. When they heard it was my birthday, they disappeared to the back of the restaurant and reemerged with an antique amethyst brooch, which they presented to me as a remembrance of Cuba. The thoughtful service overshadowed my slightly oversalted ropa vieja.


A private salsa class in Havana

Take a private salsa class

Nobody wants to be that awkward gringo doing the two-step on the dance floor at the salsa club. Brush up on your Latin dance skills with private lessons from one of Cuba’s informal dance schools. The best way to find a private instructor is to inquire at your casa particular, or ask around at popular salsa venues, like the bar at Hotel Florida. Rates are about CUC$10-20 per person per hour, and longer intensive courses are available.

Buy a used book in Havana’s Plaza de Armas

The charming, tree-shadowed Plaza de Armas in Old Havana is a hub for used booksellers, many of which operate independently. Most books are in Spanish, but you can usually find an odd English or French title left behind by an itinerant traveler, as well as bootlegged copies of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” set off the Cuban coast.

Hitch a ride in a classic car

Rumbling along the Malecon in a classic car is a Cuban experience that can’t be missed. Look out for classic cabs with yellow license plates, which indicate that the car is privately owned. Some of the most beautiful and well-kept cars congregate at the Parque National in Centro Habana, but their rates tend to be high. Be sure to negotiate a fare before you start your joyride.

A final note

Traveling in a country with such a complex economic structure can be eye-opening, but also frustrating. If you are a tourist using CUCs, you will often be charged more than the local CUP equivalent. An ice cream shop charging 5 CUP for a cone (US$.20) will probably charge you a full CUC (US$1) instead.

Remember that the difference might be negligible to you, but could mean a lot to the vendor. Exercise patience, and try to avoid being stingy. And when you experience great service, don’t be afraid to tip!

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Havana In Seven Mojitos

havana mojitos

“My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in La Floridita,” wrote Ernest Hemingway of his infamous drinking exploits in Havana. “Ernesto,” as the Cubans call him, was a big fan of the rum, lime and mint-based cocktail, as evidenced by the slew of drinking holes throughout Cuba where he was reported to have drunk himself silly.

Indeed, sipping mojitos is a big part of the tourist experience in Cuba. And in a country where a glass of high-quality Havana Club Reserva costs significantly less than a bottle of purified water, there’s no reason not to partake in abundance. Cuba’s capital of Havana is flush with drinking establishments to help facilitate the cultural experience. Here are seven.

La Bodeguita del Medio
For tourists following the “Hemingway” trail, La Bodeguita del Medio is the Holy Grail – an atmospheric wood-paneled watering hole lined with photos and scribbled endorsements from Hemingway, as well as famous patrons like Fidel Castro and Salvador Allende. The place is often crammed with tourists herded in by the busload, who snap photos and clap their hands to a live band. The mojitos, however, are overpriced (CUC$4) and taste watered down.

El Patio
Situated smack in the middle of Havana’s Plaza Cathedral, El Patio certainly beats the competition in terms of location. Mojitos (CUC$3.50) are lightly sweetened and stuffed full with mint leaves, and live music plays long into the night. Stake out a spot on the ground floor for priceless people watching.

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Vinales

We were welcomed to Vinales with big smiles, handshakes and enthusiastic promises of music from Buena Vista Social Club. Our guard immediately went up; it was clear we were being solicited by a jinetero, a ubiquitous breed of Cuban hustler. Despite our protests, he called over the waitress and ordered us a round of mojitos, which were sugary sweet, with too much lime and too little mint. Sure enough, the bill confirmed our suspicions. At CUC$6 each, the mojitos were the most expensive we encountered in Havana, and it was clear our new friend had pocketed a portion of the “tip.”

Café Paris
Located on a busy corner in Old Havana, Café Paris is a popular spot for tourists seeking ceiling fans and a cool drink. Mojitos (CUC$3.50) were unmemorable, but the ambience provided the perfect midday respite from the Cuban heat.

Jazz Cafe
For a taste of Cuba’s most talented musicians, head to Jazz Cafe, a sleek 1950s diner-inspired spot above the Galerias del Paseo shopping mall in the neighborhood of Vedado. The CUC$10 cover includes the equivalent in food and drink, and the mojitos are a steal at CUC$2.50. Let the mind-blowing drum and saxophone solos distract you from the less-than-mind-blowing drinks, which were heavy on the sugar syrup.

Hotel Florida
The ground floor lounge at Hotel Florida is that rare nightlife spot that’s equally popular with locals and gringos. Compared to other music venues, entrance was cheap – CUC$5, including two drinks. The mojitos weren’t stellar, but they were strong – which really, was all we needed to wash away our inhibitions and hit the dance floor.

And the winner is … The Gallery Bar at Hotel Nacional
The mojito (CUC$4) at Havana’s most famous hotel bar strikes the sweet spot without being overpowering. The secret? Angostura bitters and a splash of dark rum. It’s no wonder that the bar’s former patrons include Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando and Nat King Cole. With the bar’s stash of high-grade Cuban cigars and dominos, you can easily while away an entire afternoon here – that is until it’s time to hit up the next bar.