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How to travel responsibly in Havana: the dos & don’ts

Classic American cars zipping along the breezy malecón are among the first images that come to mind when dreaming about a trip to Havana. But heading to Cuba also means leaving behind all the misconceptions about the tropical island and modern life.

Being consciously aware about where you go, what you buy and what you give back is only the beginning of a truly transformative trip.

As Havana’s popularity continues to grow, travelers should be mindful of their impact on the city and its people © Juilian Peters Photography / Shutterstock

Sleep in private homestays

One way to contribute directly to the local economy is to stay at private homestays (known locally as casas particulares ) while visiting Havana. Casas are scattered all over the city (and the country). Not only do they provide budget-friendly accommodation, but they’re the perfect way to interact with a community.

Hosts often go above and beyond expectations to share their insights on the city’s must-sees. Just remember you’re a guest at someone else’s home – keep the volume down.

There’s no shortage of fantastic music in Havana © Alexandros Moridis / Shutterstock

Respect local culture

Being socially isolated for decades after the triumph of the guerrilla-lead revolution in 1959 has left Cuba with a particular, authentic culture. Music and dance still rule over Internet-fed commercial hits. Restrain yourself from immediately requesting popular tunes like Guantanamera or Buena Vista Social Club’s Chan Chan. Let resident musicians indulge you with their curated repertoire instead of belittling their talents with too-touristy requests or cheesy covers. For real Cuban music venues visit Fabrica de Arte Cubano, EnGuayabera or Casas de la Música.

Be smart with the water

Cuba depends mostly on precipitation for its water supply and tank trucks are the most common form of providing potable water to local residents, especially in Old Havana. Be mindful of water usage during your stay, for both running and drinking water. Given that tapped water is not safe to drink, plastic bottles are a common accessory in tourists’ bags. A better option is to use (or bring) single refillable bottles or purchase bigger 5-liter containers, which is also cheaper.

Save energy

No one wants to feel limited during a well-deserved vacation, but saving energy as you would at your own home should be followed, especially when staying at a casa particular . Turn off the AC when you leave for day trips or long strolls to the city. Not only are you putting less strain on the electrical grid, you’re helping the environment as well.

Overtourism may not be an issue in Havana, but visitors should still travel responsibly © Alarax / Shutterstock

Watch your footprint

Overtourism is not an issue in Havana (yet), but solid waste disposal systems are a major problem – recycling policies are still in its infancy and trash bins might be hard to find outside the touristy “golden mile” in Old Havana. Bring canvas bags for shopping instead of the single-use plastic ones, avoid dropping cigarette butts, cans or bottles on the streets and refrain from using plastic utensils whatsoever. Bring your own knowledge of leaving no trace and feel free to share that with the locals.

Avoid serious haggling over prices for local goods © Diana Rita Cabrera / Lonely Planet

Shop local

Oh, souvenirs. Everybody wants a little memento to bring home, don’t we? But when purchasing goods from another country, it’s more impactful to support resident businesses and buy local – that way money goes directly to the community. However, say “No” to souvenirs that denigrate minorities or disparage the country’s history. Research and do your part in contributing while supporting the talent of crafters who sew, crochet and wood carve in truly unique ways. Refrain from buying artisanal crafts made from endangered species such as turtles and corals.

As tempting as it seems, bargaining has a reasonable limit if you care about respecting people’s dignity. Avoid excessive haggling when purchasing locally produced handicrafts at street markets like the San José artisanal fair.

A helping hand

If you’re looking to give back, don’t walk around town randomly handing out school supplies or other items to people on the street. Instead, talk to your casa host, tour operator or hotel concierge on the best ways to volunteer or assist while on your trip to Havana.

Ask before you snap. The traditionally dressed women holding big cigars charge for photos © ESB Professional / Shutterstock

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Respect people’s privacy

Habaneros (Cubans) are a friendly, extroverted bunch and you’ll find yourself with a lot of new contacts on your social media by the end of the trip. But if you respect people’s privacy like you care about your own, ask for prior permission before taking photographs of people on the streets, especially if you’re going to use them on a blog or promotional material. Even though you’ll see colorfully-dressed ladies posing with a gigantic cigar on their hand, be respectful before shooting your next perfect frame. They earn a living doing it and a small tip will be appreciated.

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