If you have been preparing for your trip to Cuba and looking for information about this country, you may have heard more than once that it is advisable to bring small gifts and souvenirs to give out to the locals. Of course, no matter what country they are from, all people love to receive gifts, but in Cuba it has a special importance.
What to do in Havana?
Many basic products that are easily available in other countries are hard to find or expensive in Cuba. This was more the case during the Special period in the 1990’s, but to a certain extent is still true. Therefore, small useful items which might not mean much to travellers are as much appreciated as money donations here. So, are you expected to bring gifts? What are some of these items that are much needed in Cuba and can be brought as gifts for the locals?
Do you have to give gifts when visiting Cuba?
Bringing in small gifts from abroad had its golden days during the 1990’s, when the Cuban economy was in a terrible state. Nowadays, the economy is doing better, and small gifts are not considered as essential. You are not expected to gift the owner of a Casa Particular where you are staying. After all, these people are being paid, not unlike a landlord.
It is a bit strange to look for strangers to give out things to on the street. If a stranger came to your town and started giving away gifts, you’d probably consider it strange. Moreover, you do not want to encourage children to start skipping school in order to look for donations from tourists.
Some people argue that a good tip is the best gift for anyone, and even in Cuba tipping may be the best way of helping the people. This may be true, for it is difficult to choose the right gift for people you don’t know, but due to the lack of availability of many basic products in Cuba, it still is a good idea to bring some of these items to give them out to the locals. If you have already visited the island, or plan to do it again sometime, make sure to make some new friends and ask them what are the things they need and what gifts would they want to receive, so that you don’t have to worry about your gifts being suitable the next time you visit them.
That being said, if you make a personal connection with someone, or if someone goes out of their way to help you (for example if a stranger helps you find your way when you are lost) they might appreciate the gesture of being given a gift. Remember that it is not the value of the gift, but the fact of caring enough to give it that matters, so any Cuban will be happy to receive a gift as a symbol of your love and respect for the country and its people.
What to bring to Cuba as gifts
One of the things that are always appreciated by the Cubans is some basic medicine, like over-the-counter painkillers, vitamins, and band-aids. It is also a good idea to bring personal hygiene products, such as toothbrush and toothpaste, sunblock, shampoo and conditioner, feminine hygiene products (this is something you might want to keep in mind if you are a solo female traveller in Cuba) and even make up – all of these are hard to find and very valuable items for a Cuban.
You may also consider bringing some clothes and shoes to give out; although it may be inconvenient if you don’t know the size of the person you are giving the gifts to. Nevertheless, T-shirts and snapbacks are good gifts for most Cuban people. Also, Cubans love jewellery – both men and women would be happy to receive some.
If you are going to gift people who have children, or the kids themselves, there is a vast choice of items you can bring them: toys of any kind, school supplies (pens, pencils, scissors, paints, et cetera), candy and chocolate – any small souvenirs will be much appreciated. You may not only give these gifts out individually to certain people, but also organize donations to primary schools.
If you aim for more valuable gifts, and have some old smartphones at home, you may bring them to Cuba to give out to your new acquaintances. Not everybody in Cuba is able to own a cellular phone and sometimes the one they have are very old, so any mobile phone in good condition will be appreciated, even if it is used. Apart from that, any small electronics are a good gift for a Cuban. You can bring earphones, batteries, USB memories, portable DVD players, and anything else that you consider affordable and suitable as a gift.
You may not only give away the items that you specifically bring as gifts for the locals. Even the things that you bring for yourself may be left behind if you do not need them anymore when you leave. These include flip-flops, towels, sun screen, soap and shampoo, perfume, good clothes, and some accessories, like hats or jewelry. You can just leave these in your hotel or Casa Particular as you leave, and the owners or maids will be happy to find them after your departure.