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.
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]