Cuba has long been a popular vacation destination for Canadians and Europeans looking for an affordable sunny island escape. However, most tourists stick to resort areas with little opportunity to interact with local Cubans beyond their hotel staff. In fact, up until 1997, it was actually illegal for locals to mingle with international tourists. Now that the five-decade embargo with the United States is starting to thaw, Americans are beginning to put Cuba on their travel radar again. Right now, they are restricted to family visits and packaged cultural tours, but it’s only a matter of time before relations normalize and a wave of curiosity tourism flocks to this unique “time warp” island. In the meantime, there is a lot of confusion and misinformation about the dos and don’ts of traveling to Cuba. The rules are in flux, and the culture remains a bit of an enigma. Cuba is generally a safe and friendly country, but to help you figure things out, here are a couple of things NOT to do in Cuba.
1. Don’t Bring Bling
Beyond the veneer of the glitzy resorts, Cuba is a relatively impoverished nation. From the small villages to the streets of Havana, you can see evidence of this economic struggle. The average Cuban salary is the equivalent of about $20 per month. However, many living expenses are subsidized, so you have to put that alarming figure into perspective. People aren’t necessarily homeless and starving in Cuba, but they’re not consumers flush with cash. Therefore, tourists walking around with dazzling jewelry, designer watches, slick smart phones and ipod buds in their ears are asking for trouble. Like anywhere, opportunistic street crime can happen when the “haves” flaunt their coveted belongings to the “have-nots”. Just don’t bring the bling and you won’t be as much of a target to pickpockets.
2. Don’t Take Pics of Police or Soldiers
It’s actually illegal to take a photograph of any military, police or airport personnel in Cuba. Enforcement of this law is erratic, but if you want to avoid speculation of spying or unpleasant interrogations from the authorities, just don’t get snap-happy in front of these officials.
3. Don’t Diss Fidel
Some of us love heated political debates. One of the interesting things about international travel is learning about other perspectives on local and global issues, and authentic communication is something to be encouraged. However, take you’re mother’s basic etiquette guideline to heart in Cuba, and don’t start controversial political banter here. Cuban’s haven’t been raised with the freedom of speech tenet, and government criticism isn’t tolerated. Of course, the locals have their political opinions and discuss things covertly among trusted confidants all the time. But as a tourist stranger, you don’t qualify, and you’ll generate palpable tension if you dare to diss the Castros, the Revolution or Communism in casual conversation.
4. Don’t Blow Your Nose in Public
One cultural quirk you should know about Cubans, they consider public nose blowing to be extremely rude. If you have a cold or allergies, it’s best to excuse yourself and take care of things in private. Ditto for spitting in the streets, something most civilized people find disdainful but you see casually tolerated in many places.
5. Don’t Drink the Water
This is not unique to Cuba. It’s good advice when traveling in many developing nations. Cholera and typhoid are a concern, but the local tap water may also contain minor microbes that can cause stomach ailments to those not accustomed to it. Some resorts around Veradero and Cayo Coco use purified filtered water, even for ice cubes, so you may be okay there. But why take the risk when you’re on holiday? Hydrate yourself with sealed bottle water, and use it to brush your teeth with, as well. That way you only have excessive mojitos to blame for your upset tummy.
6. Don’t Forget to Bring a Few Gifts
It’s a nice idea to pack some sundry items in your suitcase to share with Cubans might meet on your vacation. Hotel staff and guides, for instance, appreciate things like shampoo, diapers, fishing tackle, underwear, eye glasses, school supplies and toys along with a cash tip. Lots of tourists stock up on pharmacy or dollar store goods with the charitable intention of leaving them behind. In fact, some airlines like WestJet allow passengers to bring an extra bag for “humanitarian aid” purposes. Some people find this practice controversial, saying it encourages begging, hurts national pride and just fuels the black market economy with cheap trinkets. It’s hard to fault in generous intentions, though.
7. Don’t Forget to Count the Change
Cuba’s dual-currency system seems to cause a bit of confusion with some travelers. The official currency that locals use is the Cuban Peso (CUP), however Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is the new “tourist” currency that most foreign visitors use. The American Dollars used to be widely accepted in tourist hotels, restaurants and services, but that stopped on November 8, 2004. If you want to exchange US Dollars for CUC, there is both a tax and a commission charged, resulting in about a 20% devaluation of your greenbacks (by the way, the US is the only currency that get’s hit with an extra 10% penalty). For that reason, you’re better off bringing euros, Canadian dollars or pounds Sterling with you. Money should only be changed at a bank or official Cadeca Casa de Cambio (exchange bureau), but there are plenty of people offering to exchange with you on the streets. Be careful, as they might try to rip you off. Even shop keepers are notorious for short-changing transactions, some taking advantage of tourist confusion and switching CUP for CUC (not that you can’t use it, but it can be harder to spend). Like anywhere, be vigilant with your money and always count your change to avoid these types of scams.
8. Don’t Bring American Express
Thinking of bringing your trusty American Express credit card to Cuba? This is one place where you should leave home without it. In fact, any card issued by a US Bank is a no go here. Other countries’ Visas and MasterCards are accepted, but there will be an 11% commission added to the transaction. Note, that this US-card ban may be changing as relations improve. Apparently, as of March 1, 2015, American-issued MasterCards are now being accepted in Cuba, however it’s not yet a widespread practice. This is mostly a cash society, so have plenty of small bills on hand and a few back-up cards just in case.
9. Don’t Take Unlicensed Taxis
One of the cool things in Cuba that visitors seem to talk about is the American 1950s vintage cars still in circulation on the streets. Some of these “yank tanks” (máquinas) even operate as taxis. The government licensed taxis are metered (make sure they turn them on), but many private licensed taxis are not, so you’ll have to negotiate a fare upfront. Three-wheeled yellow coco taxis and pedal cabs are fun for short distances, but agree on a rate in advance. Watch out for unlicensed taxis, though. They might be cheaper, but it’s technically illegal to ride in them, and you may be setting yourself up for a scam or robbery. Of course, not all drivers are out to get you, but better safe than sorry.
10. Don’t Forget the Cigars
Canadians are allowed to bring back 20 duty-free Cuban cigars without documentation, and up to 50 as long as they’re in a sealed box and you have a receipt. Any more than that will be charged import duties. Other nationalities have similar allotments (check with your customs department for specifics), except America, of course. For 50 years, Americans have been unable to enjoy an authentic Cuban cigar on their home turf. John F. Kennedy famously stocked up on 1,200 of them before imposing the 1962 embargo. However, times they are a changing. Due to the recent easing of restrictions, Americans who are authorized to travel to Cuba can now legally bring back $100 worth of tobacco and alcohol, so a few hand-rolled Cohibas and a bottle of Havana Club rum is no longer contraband.
11. Don’t Fall for the Jineteros/Jineteras
One of the unfortunate realities of a Cuba’s decades of economic challenges is that many locals have resorted to street hustling to make some extra money. Some of this is just the help-the-tourist kind of services where a seemingly friendly local suddenly charges you for assistance you didn’t really ask for (guidance to a restaurant or help with directions, for example). Some besiege you with hard-luck stories to guilt you into paying more money. It can be off-putting when someone you think is being authentically friendly is really only in it for the money. This also applies to the escorts and prostitutes on the island who make a good living off of lonely middle-aged tourists.
12. Don’t Order A Papaya Daiquiri
If you’re in need of a refreshing beverage, order anything but a papaya daiquiri. Honestly, refrain from using the word papaya anywhere in Cuba, as it’s actually vulgar slang for ‘vagina.’ Many Cubans consider the word papaya to be very offensive, in fact the delicious fruit was renamed fruta bomba. So next time you’re at a fruit stand in Havana call for a fruta bomba instead.
13. Don’t Neglect the Departure Tax
Up until recently, travelers to Cuba were advised to keep 25 CUP aside to pay as an airport departure tax when leaving the country. Since March 2015, this fee is now bundled up and prepaid into the airline ticket price. Double-check with your airline to make sure they include this so you don’t get caught having to exchange more money at the airport.
What other things not to do in Cuba would you add to this list?