Conscious Consumption In Cuba: How To Have A More Authentic Trip While
Supporting Private Businesses
by Jessica Marati on Dec 7th 2012 at 1:00PM
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
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.
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$10-20 per person per hour, and longer intensive courses
Buy a used book in Havana's Plaza de Armas
The charming, tree-shadowed Plaza de Armas in Old Havana is a hub for
used booksellers, many of which operate independently. Most books are in
Spanish, but you can usually find an odd English or French title left
behind by an itinerant traveler, as well as bootlegged copies of Ernest
Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," set off the Cuban coast.
Hitch a ride in a classic car
Rumbling along the Malecon in a classic car is a Cuban experience that
can't be missed. Look out for classic cabs with yellow license plates,
which indicate that the car is privately owned. Some of the most
beautiful and well-kept cars congregate at the Parque National in Centro
Habana, but their rates tend to be high. Be sure to negotiate a fare
before you start your joyride.
A final note
Traveling in a country with such a complex economic structure can be
eye-opening, but also frustrating. If you are a tourist using CUCs, you
will often be charged more than the local CUP equivalent. An ice cream
shop charging 5 CUP for a cone (US$.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!