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 or, or through Cuban sites like or 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]

Cuba Libre: Travel observations and tips

Cuba is one of the most distinct places in the world. I can say this with complete certainty having traveled to nearly 50 countries on this globe and never encountered anything like it. During the brief two weeks I was there, I was able to enjoy the hospitality of a most vibrant people, as well as experience life with little to no American influence.

As I conclude my Cuba Libre series, there are just a few more observations and travel tips to share with you….

Food and Accommodations
If you really want to learn about the Cuban culture and interact with the locals, eat at a paladar instead of a restaurant. Most paladares are hard to find, so just ask the locals where to go and they’ll point you in the right direction. Along the same lines, stay at the casas particulares instead of the larger hotels. I learned a great deal about family life just by observing the interactions between members of my host families.

In both cases (paladares and casas particulares), the hosts are eager to please you, their customer, and they’re equally interested in understanding where you come from and what life is like off their Cuban rock. Most of these families will never see the world outside of their island, so share what you can – or better yet, leave a gift behind for them as a symbol of your appreciation.

Solo and Female Travelers
Solo travelers should be aware that, though Cuba is one of the safest countries to travel in, it can be a lonely existence while you’re on the road. I was used to meeting people in hostels, but Cuban casas have a two guest room policy, meaning you have just one other person or couple staying in the same house as you. If you guys don’t hit it off, you’re really on your own. If you hit the music venues at night, though, you are bound to meet other travelers with the same predicament.

Also, female travelers will certainly get their fair share of attention by the men (in the form of whistling, shouting, or aggressive talking). If you don’t like the attention, ignore it. If that doesn’t work, just say “no” and they will get it.

Personally, I always felt very safe traveling in Cuba. When you’re walking around in a city (like Havana or Santiago) at night, you should walk on the street rather than the sidewalk, as the streets are better lit. I always felt safe walking around at night – even along darker streets in Havana. However, don’t be bold and stupid. Use common sense.

You will likely develop a tolerance or maybe even a fascination (as I did) for the onslaught of political billboards and slogans that are plastered on city walls or strewn along the countryside. The most common slogans portray images of Cuba’s colonial independence leaders José Martí and Antonio Maceo, the Revolutionary leaders Fidel and Raul Castro, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos, or the five Cuban prisoners (often depicted in a star or with the word “Volverán” – “They will return”).

“Viva Cuba Libre” and the other popular slogan “Viva la Revolución” (which mean “Long Live Free Cuba/the Revolution” seem to me like desperate reminders for the Cuban people that Fidel’s victorious revolution that ended 50 years ago still lives on today. However, based on conversations with locals, I sense most Cubans wish it to be a distant memory and want to embrace change soon, before their already dire social, political, and economic situation worsens.

Plan ahead for long distance trips across the island. During peak travel seasons (May-July; November-January) buses fill up quickly and flights to hotspots like Baracoa, Santiago, and Trinidad are booked weeks – if not months – in advance. You can reserve a seat on long distance buses. Bring a sweater or blanket with you, as these buses are air-conditioned and can get quite cold – especially at night when there’s no sun.

Don’t expect to use the phone or the internet while you’re in Cuba. Both are expensive. Your host should be able to make calls for you within Cuba, but international calls can only be made at ETECSA offices in major cities and are ridiculously overpriced. Using the internet for an hour costs $10, and you cannot connect to it using your own laptop. It’s best to just avoid communication with the outside world altogether. Heck, that’s the Cuban reality, so you might as well experience it like a local.

For a complete listing of my Cuba Libre posts, please click HERE or skip straight to the good stuff —

  • How Cuba survives with two currencies
  • Cuba: How to get in, where to stay, where to eat
  • My first impressions of Cuba
  • How to prepare for Cuba
  • My days in Havana, Part One
  • Being sick in Cuba
  • My days in Havana, Part Two
  • The vibrant nightlife in Trinidad
  • Salsa dancing in Santiago de Cuba
  • The eco-tourism potential of Baracoa