Saturday, August 22, 2015

Ways to enjoy visiting Cuba without feeling (gulp!) guilty about it

Travel: Ways to enjoy visiting Cuba without feeling (gulp!) guilty about it
By Johnny Diaz
Sun Sentinel

Tour coordinator: There are ways to "maximize your experiences and the
support you lend the Cuban people."
Ways you can enjoy visiting Cuba without feeling (gulp!) guilty about it.
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

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 Piñeda, 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 or 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.

Getting around

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.

Connect with relatives

If you have or had relatives living in Cuba, reconstruct your family
tree and learn about their way of life, said Darder. This could mean
getting addresses and visiting the former home of a parent, a park or a
movie theater where relatives spent time.

Even though you may be hesitant to bring up the topic of a trip to your
relatives here, asking them about people and places in Cuba might help
to build a conciliatory bridge.

"You can have a one-on-one on the reality of Cuban life," said Darder.
"It's a healing gesture."

Leave gifts

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 like toothpaste or
towels. Other ideas: candy and pens for children, vitamin D, clothes, or
any books that you may have packed for your trip.

Source: Travel: A guiltless guide to visiting Cuba - Sun Sentinel -

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