What’s a curious but conscience-laden traveler to do when in Cuba?
For some, the idea of traveling to the island may come with baggage: mixed feelings.
They want to visit the island but worry that spending tourist dollars there helps the Communist-led government.
Raul Moas, executive director of the nonprofit Roots of Hope, said he often hears concerns from people about a perceived support of the Castro government, especially from some Cuban-Americans eager to explore their heritage but hesitant to upset relatives who may have fled the island.
“Most people who feel conflicted are of Cuban heritage,” said Moas, whose Miami Beach-based organization offers customized itineraries to Cuba, among other services.
Yet there are ways you can “maximize your experiences and the support you lend the Cuban people,” he said. “You can go in a smart and conscientious way.”
Right now, American travelers must meet certain guidelines, including having family in Cuba or participating in cultural or educational activities.
If you’re among those who can go but feel conflicted, here are some suggestions from travel agents, tour coordinators and others who have traveled to the island. Of course, you can’t totally avoid money going to the government because privately run businesses must turn over a percentage of their revenue, but you can take some comfort in trying to help everyday Cubans.
Where to stay
Instead of booking a room at a hotel, consider staying with a local family. There’s a growing market of rentable spaces in private homes, also called “casas particulares,” said Jose Pineda, founder of Anthropologie Consulting Journeys in North Miami Beach, a travel organization that helps plan educational and cultural trips abroad.
These casas are similar in concept to bed-and-breakfasts. By staying with locals, you get to see your money directly benefit these entrepreneurial families.
Your travel agent or tour group can provide a list, or check out sites such as casaparticular.com or casas-cuba.org for directories.
Airbnb, the popular online home-rental service, began booking in Cuba this year. The average rate in Cuba is $45 per night, and there are more than 2,000 listings throughout the island, according to Airbnb’s website.
Where to eat
Family-run private eateries, called “paladares,” offer alternatives to state-run restaurants. Similar in spirit to casas particulares, these paladares are legal and typically inside someone’s home, said Essdras M Suarez, a Panamanian photojournalist of Cuban heritage who leads Road Scholar photo workshops to the island several times a year.
Your casa particular host, hotel concierge or travel agent can tell you where to find the eateries.
You also may want to venture out and try the ham sandwiches, pizza and fresh fruit juices that independent street vendors peddle to visitors and locals.
State-run taxis are yellow and black, but Havana’s streets are also filled with privately run cabs (look for a “taxi” sign on top) in the form of refurbished classic 1950s American Fords and Chevys, as well as Soviet-era cars.
Some of these independently run vehicles help Cubans work as their own bosses, said Geo Darder, founder of the Copperbridge Foundation, a North Miami-based nonprofit that promotes cultural and educational exchanges through the arts. They own the cars and must have a permit to operate.
“You can feel better knowing that you are helping the regular taxis than the state-run ones,” Darder said.
Things to do
If you’re staying at a casa particular, befriend the owners because they can give you an insider’s guide to local things to do, said Suarez.
The more free activities you can find, the less money goes to the state.
Except for those abutting resorts or private property, Cuba’s beaches are public and free. In the eastern Matanzas province, there’s Playa Giron (Giron Beach), which also has a museum that tells the story of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, said Moas.
Along the historic seafront walkway called El Malecon, Cubans gather and banter about their days or simply watch the dazzling sunsets. All combine for a great people-watching spot. (Beware: Hustlers abound.) Along Calle 23 (23rd Street) and Calle G (G Street, also known as Avenida de los Presidentes), throngs of young people lounge outside, play music and dance in the parks and plazas, said Moas.
Another thing that can help assuage any misgivings: Bring items that you can leave behind for your hosts at a casa particular, for example. Many Cubans are in short supply of everyday supplies such as toothpaste or towels. Other ideas: candy and pens for children, vitamin D, clothes or any books that you may have packed for your trip.