Havana (in Cuba) is a very popular travel destination, especially for Americans but for others around the globe as well. Unlike the US the people there have a very different way of life, and care is needed to respect and protect that. When entering any new country as a tourist it is important to give more than you take. There are many ways you can do that in Havana and the locals and government will appreciate you doing so.
Respect the Locals Way of Life
Due to being relatively isolated from the rest of the world for such a long time following the revolution of 1959, Cuba has a unique culture and way of life, the old ways have been preserved more as modern ways of thinking and even modern cars, have not really taken off there yet. It can be like stepping into past decades to visit there. They prefer local live music to recorded songs played over loudspeakers in bars and restaurants and are not at all afraid to dance in public when they like what they hear, feel free to join them, even to start the dancing yourself, someone is likely to join in with you. What they have is special, and valuable, to try and conform them to our ways of life is not respectful or helpful. Even when requesting music while you’re out, you’ll get more out of it, and they’ll appreciate it more if you ask them to play their own songs rather than well-known ones. If you have time it is also worth visiting Cuban music venues to hear and see their local talent perform.
Buy From Small Local Businesses
Where possible, try to get your travel souvenirs and food from smaller local businesses rather than in the hotels or big chain stores, supporting local business is good for the economy and the people there. You’ll also get a more authentic shopping experience in the markets and small stores, and probably better prices. When you shop local the profits benefit the community there, rather than being sent into the bank accounts of foreign investors. Also be aware that you may find crafts made from turtles and coral and other endangered species, if you do please do not buy them, the country and the international community is trying to end trades such as that, but it’s harder to monitor on a small scale like that, so please vote with your wallet and choose to support sellers who sell ethical wares. It is acceptable to barter and try to bargain with local merchants however do so within reason, they still need to make a living, don’t push it too far, they work hard for the money that they earn and it’s generally not an awful lot at the end of the day.
Give the Locals Privacy
The people of Havana (Habaneros) are a friendly group, they will often come up to you and chat, and most likely you’ll end up with a lot of new Facebook friends by the end of your trip. However, no one wants to overstep their welcome and you need to be aware that friendliness doesn’t necessarily mean you can take advantage of their generosity or time. This applies when taking photos as well, if they’re dressed in traditional costumes performing in the street, they probably expect tips, it’s fair to give them. Asking before you take a photo is always polite as well, particularly if you intend to share that photo online publically or as part of any business or promotional materials if you are making money from their image they should be compensated, and aware and accepting of where their image will be published. Do unto others as you would want done to you, always a solid principle.
Stay With Locals Rather than in Hotels
Throughout Havana, you can find local private homestays, called Casas particular. They are all over the place and will save you money and give you an opportunity to interact directly with people in the community and see their way of life, they’ll likely also share advice on what to see and how to get around. Money given to these local cases goes directly to the people hosting you and supports the local community. While staying with locals bear in mind it is a home, there may be children or elderly people there, and they probably have work the next day even if you don’t, so please try to be quiet and respectful while there. Sites like homestay.com and hostelworld will have casas particulares to book online.
Be Environmentally Friendly
Take your own cloth bags, bamboo/stainless steel straws, and coffee mug. Walk a little further to find a rubbish bin or put it in your bag if you can’t see one (you likely won’t find many unless you’re in very touristy areas). Keep the beaches and streets clean and tidy as if they were your own home. You should try not to waste power or water and use what you need, re use a towel a second or third time rather than having it washed for you, take short showers. Don’t have heaters or fans running all the time, just when you need to, always turn off the air conditioning unit when you go out. Most of Cuba is still on tank water, or water brought in by water trucks, so conserving water is important to the locals and should be to you as well. The tap water in Havana is not safe to drink so it’s best to bring your own reusable water bottle with you and fill it from any safe sources that you find (labelled agua potable). If you have to buy plastic bottles make sure you dispose of them properly and buy the largest container size rather than bottles you can drink in one go, then fill your drink bottle from the big container which you can keep in your room.
Seek Advice on How to Help
Havana is not a first world country, and a lot of tourists take school stationery and little toys and gifts with them to Havana and just hand them out randomly to locals in the streets (who may or may not actually need them), that’s not the most effective way to help. The best way to give money or help where it’s most needed is to ask locals (perhaps your tour guide) where help is needed most and what kind of help. It may not be what you expect, but if you want to make a real difference in people’s lives you have to consult with the people first.