For American travelers, it’s hard to imagine living in a country where you couldn’t own a personal computer until 2006; couldn’t access the internet until 2014 and the cost of cell phones and its use cost per minute were prohibitive for most people until 2016. A country where beef is reserved for tourism restaurants only. Where some foods are rationed. Here are some Cuba travel tips for making a meaningful connection with the Cuban people.
You may have heard that the average Cuban makes about $20 USD a month. This is true, but most everyone is able to survive because of a “second economy.” This means people moonlight at other jobs, grow their own food, and generally are incredibly creative. It helps that health care and education are free and that there are food and transportation subsidies. Given this economic background, it’s not hard to make a big impact in Cuba.
What Your Travel Dollars Support in Cuba
The very fact that you travel to Cuba is already a huge economic help for this poor country. A good portion of the money you pay for your trip stays in Cuba. Tourism is one of the top economic contributors for Cuba. It is important in the lives of many Cubans from taxi and bus drivers, private accommodation owners, restaurant employees, food purveyors, guides, hotel workers, and many more. Cuba needs travelers and our money!
Almost everything is expensive for Cubans. Some items simply are not available. This is even truer because of the embargo that the US has had against trade with Cuba for over 50 years. As we’ve returned to Cuba for dozens of trips we’ve gotten to know so many people. Specialized guides; bed and breakfast owners, restaurant owners, National Park guides, drivers, artists, and many others. We learn what would be helpful for them and then, try to bring it for them on a future trip.
Support Cubans in Their Everyday Life
For some, small flash memory sticks are fantastic (since the internet is expensive and slow, Cubans depend on downloading files from each other). We’ve taken guitar strings and saxophone reeds for our musician friends in addition to:
- Paint brushes for artists,
- school supplies,
- a motorcycle tire,
- special medicines,
- fish hooks,
- bicycle parts,
- automobile parts,
- children’s clothing and so much more.
Cuba Travel Tip: Giving with Sensitivity
Because we were able to give these gifts within the context of friendship and business relations, it has been very rewarding. However, travelers ask us what they can bring. Because you, as a traveler passing through, don’t have the advantage of an established relationship, this is a complex subject that needs careful consideration. We understand that some people truly enjoy sharing their bounty and we believe there is an appropriate and conscientious way of doing so that reinforces dignity and respect rather than the flawed image of a charitable savior.
We are very sensitive to the idea that we don’t want to contribute to a culture where children see tourists and immediately think “I’ll go ask for candy or a pen.” Or where adults view tourists as if they are a vending machine. Our goal is to provide meaningful interaction with people and establish genuine relations across a diverse world.
Supporting Social Empowerment & Economic Viability
If you are interested in supporting the economic empowerment of Cuba’s people, we encourage you to purchase locally made products and support small businesses along the way. There are also organizations well equipped to provide large-scale support across Cuba for health, education and more such as CARE (https://www.care.org/country/cuba) that welcome donations.
Note: We always encourage you to research any charity you consider giving a donation to ensure the money is actually used for the benefit of the people. It can be appropriate to bring some gifts to give to people along the way, in the manner in which you might give a token of appreciation to a friend. However, the giving needs to be done in a sensitive way and after some sort of relationship is established between you and the local people you are meeting.
Staying at Casa Particulares
Many of our trips stay in Casa Particulares, which are private homes set up like a Bed & Breakfast. These are great places to meet a local family and get to know more about Cuba. At the same time, these people are already more well off than most Cubans as they are renting rooms in their homes. The most appropriate gifts for your hosts might be small souvenirs from your hometown such as postcards to show them what it looks like, or some specialty product from your region.
Along the way, you’ll meet many musicians and they always have tip baskets set up. We encourage you to contribute to those, but you might also think about bringing guitar or bass strings, or saxophone reeds.
Sustainable Gift Giving
If you do decide to bring gifts, they should be things that won’t simply end up in the landfill because they are cheap and break. Things that require batteries are also not a good choice as batteries are expensive for Cubans and they have no recycling system for them. Here are a few ideas:
- Because Cubans have limited access to the internet, flash drives are common and quite expensive for the average Cuban.
- Travel umbrellas, small solar lights like “Luci Lights”, crayons, colored chalk, rubber playground balls, inflatable globes, quality bandaids, simple medicine like ibuprofen, etc. can also be meaningful gifts for families you meet along the way.
- Our guides are happy to help you with any questions you may have and coordinate your efforts.
Tipping in Cuba
Remember too that the service industry in Cuba is just like anywhere else in the world. Hotel bellhops, taxi drivers, servers in restaurants depend on tips as part of their wages. Cuba Unbound includes most all incidental tips on the trip (at group restaurant meals, hotel baggage handling, etc.) but you are always welcome to add your own tip over and above this. This money makes its way into the economy and in the end also is a big help to the locals. Again, your guides are happy to help navigate what an appropriate amount might be.
Update June 5, 2019: Unfortunately, the State Department of the U.S. announced that “going forward, the United States will prohibit US travelers from going to Cuba under the previous ‘group people-to-people educational’ travel authorization. In addition, the United States will no longer permit visits to Cuba via passenger and recreational vessels, including cruise ships and yachts, and private and corporate aircraft.”