Smile, you're in Cuba

Eliza Raymond
Jul 23, 2023

With heavy hearts, we recently had to cancel our trip to Cuba due to the new travel restrictions for Americans wishing to visit Cuba. The hardest part about cancelling this trip was having to tell our partners in Cuba, particularly Yaniel Luis from Discover Viñales.

Our co-founder Caitie met Yaniel on our scoping visit to Cuba earlier this year and they immediately clicked. 

Yaniel is an economics graduate who began his tourism company, Discover Viñales, in 2014. He started small and never imagined his company would be so successful. He explains:

I never imagined that we would be so successful. I worked very hard for more than 3 years to make my team with some other guides like me, all of us are from Viñales and none of us are professional guides but I think we don't do it that bad ;-)

The reason for the success of Discover Viñales seems to be that they really care - about travellers, but also about the community where they work. Yaniel grew up in a rural area with few tourists and understands the importance of bringing tourists off the beaten track. As stated by Yaniel:

We like to support local people, who live in not touristy places. We like to take our visitors to special places, not where everybody goes. We choose places for their authenticity and richness in their culture and traditions. And we are always trying to protect the nature - showing visitors our nature but without taking anything from it.

One of the reasons we originally carried out a scoping trip to Cuba was to determine whether it would be possible to design a trip to Cuba that aligned with our values for social, environmental and economic GOOD. We decided that it was - as long as we partnered with like-minded, locally-run tourism enterprises like Discover Viñales and casas particulares (home stays). 

However, tourism has certainly brought its fair share of problems to Cuba. We talked to Yaniel about some of the benefits and problems he sees with the tourism industry in Cuba. He explains:

Tourism has brought wealth, jobs and new perspectives, but unfortunately not for everybody. I think people in general are not better than when we had no tourists. This is not due to the tourism itself, but money can change people and make them into worse people. In Viñales specifically life is becoming hell for some families who have lived there since always - due to the super high prices of everything (housing, food, services) because of tourism.

So as GOOD travellers what are some of the things you should be aware of if you decide to visit Cuba? If you're American, you should first make sure you meet the new regulations. We won't go into this in detail here, but here is an article that helps explain the requirements you'll need to meet. 

Here are our 8 top tips for visiting Cuba that we've brainstormed together with Yaniel.

  1. Learn about Cuba: Before you travel to Cuba, take time to read about the country's history and culture. It's so important that you understand Cuba's story, so that you act appropriately while you're there. There are lots of great books out there as well as movies and TV series.
  2. Learn Spanish: Many Cubans do not speak English, so learning at least some basic Spanish is essential. Try DuoLingo for example and make sure you also learn some Cuban Spanish phrases.
  3. Do your research: If you're an American and required to travel with a tour company under U.S. jurisdiction, do your research and ask questions to make sure you're travelling with a company that shares your values. If you're not American and want to travel independently, take time to find companies like Discover Viñales that will take care of you and the people and places you visit.
  4. Come with an open-mind: Arrive in Cuba with an open-mind, ready to enjoy and learn. Remember you are on vacation and remember you are a guest in Cuba.
  5. Stay in Casas Particulares: These are homestays and therefore a great way to support local people.
  6. Connect with locals: Take time to get to know local people who will help you have a truly special and meaningful visit.
  7. Bring cash: Don't expect to be able to use credit cards - bring cash, preferably in USD as you'll lose a lot on exchange rates if you bring other foreign currencies.
  8. Bring small gifts: You might like to bring small gifts to give to your host families or the communities you visit. It is important to do this in an appropriate way, but certain gifts will be really appreciated e.g. sports equipment. We'll be sharing more on this in another post soon!

And last but not least, in the words of our friend Yaniel:

Smile, you are in Cuba, we joke and laugh from our millions of problems.
July 23, 2023
5 min read