Old car in Cuba, liscense plate

Image (c) Peter Davis Krahenbuhl

Cuba is the Caribbean’s largest island nation, and for a variety of reasons related to its natural beauty, rich culture and recent human history, it is becoming an increasingly popular destination. And with recent improvements in US – Cuba relations, now is a great time to visit and experience this rich and colorful land and its people.

Although Cuba is relatively ‘western’ and modern, as with all foreign destinations it is always important to respect local customs and etiquette when visiting. Here are a few tips that will help to ensure a more enjoyable experience while showing respect for the local people and culture when you travel to Cuba.

Boy in Cuba

Image (c) Peter Davis Krahenbuhl

1. Language

As with most places, a little effort goes a very long way in disarming indifference and creating smiles from the locals. Generally speaking, as with other Latin American countries, Cubans are use to lazy travelers who in general speak only English (both as the international travel language and because 50 percent of visitors to Cuba are Canadian). So be sure to pick up a small phrase book and practice a few lines on your local hosts, or at least consider the following tips.

While “hola” (OH-lah) for hello is fine, it is a good idea – particularly when first meeting somebody – to say “Buenos días (BWEHN-nohs DEE-ahs) for good morning, or “Buenas tardes/noches” (BWEHN-nahs TAHR-dehs / NOH-chehs) for Good afternoon/evening). To show respect it is also a good idea to add “señor” (seen-YOHR) for men or “señorita” ((seen-YOHR-ee-tah) for women.

“Por favor” (pohr fah-VOHR) means please. “Gracias” (GRAH-syahs) means thank you, or even better “Muchas gracias” (MOO-chas GRAH-syahs) means thank you very much. You’re welcome is “De nada” (deh NAH-dah).

No is the same in English: “No” (noh) and Yes “Sí” (see).

If you’re starting to feel adventurous with your linguistic adventure, try “Me llamo… (may YAH-moh…)” for My name is…:   And if you want to get the bill, for example at a restaurant, just say “La cuenta, por favor” (lah KWEN-tah pohr fah-VOHR).

And of course, if you ever get stuck, I don’t speak Spanish is “No hablo español” (noh AH-bloh ehs-pah-NYOHL), although they likely will have figured it out by then!

Streets of Havana, Cuba

Image (c) Peter Davis Krahenbuhl

2. Attire

The dress code in Cuba is relatively casual, much do to with its level of development combined with its tropical (humid) Caribbean climate. Shorts and bikinis are appropriate at the beach, particularly if in a resort or more touristy area, in general Cubans dress according to the climate though not overly provocative. Shorts or light trousers with short sleeve shirts or tank tops are generally fine.

Of course a little common courtesy goes a long way, for example removing your ball cap in a restaurant and not leaving your clothes all over the floor in your hotel room. After all, we are guests in their home country!

Beach in Cuba

Image (c) Peter Davis Krahenbuhl

3. Politics

Although there is a long-standing history and direct economic ties with European and other nations (and especially the US before 1959), including the foundation of a hybrid capitalist economy, Cuba is still a one-party state. And although the government may have been less than fully accepting of criticism for quite some time, you will find that Cubans of today are more liberated, engaged and happy to discuss this fascinating element of their society – which is a part of what makes the country such an incredible place!

School children in Cuba

Image (c) Peter Davis Krahenbuhl

4. Money Matters

Cuba operates as a dual economy with two official currencies including the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) and the Cuban peso (CUP). The Cuban convertible peso (CUC) is used by visitors. All goods and services are priced and paid for in convertible pesos. The Cuban peso (CUP), also called monedanacional, is used only by Cubans for non-luxury items and staples. It is illegal for tourists to use CUPs.

As of this printing, the CUC is valued to equal the U.S. dollar at a 1:1 ratio so $1 USD equals 1 CUC. Please nore that there is a 10 percent surcharge when exchanging U.S. dollars for CUCs so you can expect to receive approximately $0.87 CUCs for every U.S. dollar. Since U.S. dollars are difficult to use in Cuba, it’s a good idea to exchange enough money into CUCs to last throughout your trip, which is easy to do at the airport and major hotels in places like Havana and Trinidad.

5. Gratuities

Service charges are becoming increasingly common in places like Havana and other tourist dependent areas. This includes not only paladares (private restaurants) but also in state eateries, where a 10 percent service charge is common. However, separate tips for your server are always welcome at your discretion, and as always based on the level of service received. This includes hotel, bar and restaurant staff, to taxi and bus drivers and tour guides, particularly where the latter give you good advice or suggestions on things to see and do.

If you are on a People to People exchange trip to Cuba, often this will include the opportunity to provide needed gifts such as school supplies if visiting a school, for example, which is much appreciated.


Image (c) Peter Davis Krahenbuhl

6. Gay and Lesbian Travel

Cuba has a relatively anti-gay history, including a legacy of arresting and imprisoning gay people as dissidents during the hay-day of the revolution. However, gay and lesbian rights have picked up significant momentum since the early 90s and into the 2000s, in no small part due to President Raúl Castro’s daughter, Mariela, who has been very active in creating awareness and tolerance with Cenesex, the National Centre for Sex Education. Now the younger generations and those working in hospitality in particular are much more open to it and activism is on the rise. In fact, Natural Habitat Adventures’ Undiscovered Cuba trip is a great option for gay and lesbian travelers!

Now that you’re armed with these helpful etiquette tips, it’s time to start planning your trip!  Learn more about Nat Hab’s Cuba nature and cultural adventure.