PolicyTravel

How to travel to Cuba on a People to People exchange

People to people - Calejon de Hamel

On Thursday, the Trump administration put in place changes to the U.S.-Cuba travel policy that were announced earlier this year. These include moving people-to-people travel licenses back to group travel.

Basically, that means that if you want to plan an educational people-to-people trip to Cuba, you’ll have to do so through a U.S. based company like a travel company or cruise line.

The idea of group travel tends to conjure up images of all-inclusive resorts, crowded double-decker buses, and canned speeches delivered by a tour guide through a megaphone. People tend to think of group travel as more expensive, less authentic, and more limiting in terms of what you can do.

But that simply isn’t accurate — at least not when it comes to travel to Cuba. We talked to three experts about what group travel to Cuba is really like, and why it might be a good option for you.

“The possibilities really are endless,” says Collin Laverty of Cuba Educational Travel, on working with travelers to create their own itineraries. “Generally, people visiting [Cuba] for the first time like to include visits to art galleries and discussions with the artists themselves, a walking tour of Old Havana, exploring both restored and unrestored architecture of the city, [and] getting into the homes of individual Cubans” by staying in bed-and-breakfasts.

“I have to say I’m always impressed at how often tears are shed at the airport before departure,” says Rita McNiff, whose company Like a Cuban focuses on private group trips for a more intimate experience. “What stands out to me most is, months later, a client’s name will be mentioned by one of our Cuban hosts or guides — and you suddenly realize that that person is still talking to the client via Facebook or email, and they are still very much involved in each other’s lives.”

Laverty, McNiff, and Cherie Cancio all work with local guides that operate across the entire island, keep group sizes small, and offer customized travel packages for a truly memorable experience.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A cow lounges aside the road at Finca Vigía, the home of Ernest Hemingway in San Francisco de Paula Ward in Havana, Cuba

On being a people-to-people travel provider

Collin Laverty: One misconception about the people-to-people category is that it requires you to go in a large group, riding on a large tour bus or staying in a big hotel. However, you can travel under the people-to-people category with small groups of friends (two, three, or four people), stay in casas particulares, and use a mix of transportation, including the classic American cars.

Rita McNiff: As it stands today, being an approved people-to-people tour provider simply means that you are a U.S.-based tour company operating under a general license from the Treasury Department providing tours that are in compliance with the people-to-people guidelines, which require each traveler to be engaged in a full-time schedule of educational and culturally-based exchange activities intended to create meaningful interaction between the traveler and the people of Cuba.

Cherie Cancio: As a people-to-people travel company, we comply with all of OFAC’s Cuba travel regulations — including those instituted with President Trump’s new travel guidelines. We put our clients in direct contact with entrepreneurs, academic artists, and all kinds of exponents of the evolution that Cuban society is experiencing today. We worry about the legal documents — and crafting curated, life-changing experiences — so that you can focus on exploring Cuba.

Children playing along side El Malecon, Havana’s quintessential sea wall

On price, duration of stay, and group size

Laverty: The prices for CET range greatly, depending on the number of days on the island, the number of travelers in your party, the level of lodging you desire, and the specifics of the itinerary. Options vary from $500 per person for a budget trip for a few days to $9,000 per person for a week-long, high-end trip. Duration of stay ranges from one day to a few weeks, but most people come for four to seven days. We do groups of all sizes; we’re arranging travel for many couples (two people) or families of four and five, as well as small groups of six to 10 friends. We’ve arranged a number of corporate retreats, weddings, and other events that have hundreds of people. If you’re travelling with three friends, you can join a larger group, in which case you would join young professionals, families, and middle-aged travelers. Or, you could set up an experience for just your group of four, in which case you would not be paired with others.

Cancio: OnCuba Travel charges $899 to $2,099 per person for all-inclusive group programs, depending on time of year and group size. Individual products that we offer range from $30 to $600 for services including arranging tourist cards, tours and roundtables in Cuba, and other individual excursions on the island. We have programs that range from two days to one week. The average stay is five days, four nights. We run the spectrum on group sizes: from a private group of four to groups of 20 to 40 people. Usually, the groups that we work with are composed of people who all know each other beforehand — that is to say, they are friends who want to travel together, or relatives who want to rediscover their roots.

McNiff: Trips with Like a Cuban start as low as $1,250 per person for a weekend trip and $2,100 for a week-long trip and go up from there, depending on group size, number of days, and level of accommodation. This year, the most popular trip duration has been four days. Many people are making their first trip down to the island for a long weekend and possibly venturing out to Viñales. However, we have done trips that have last up to 14 days, and recently, we planned a trip for a family that lasted an entire month. We like to keep our groups small, and have taken groups as small as two. There is no typical size, but we find the small groups — 10 and under — to be more intimate and more memorable. With Like A Cuban, each group is custom, so if you are coming with three friends, you will be with just your three friends… and meet lots of Cubans along the way!

Note: Prices quoted above do not necessarily include airfare. Consult travel companies for specific estimates.

Workers loading meat on to a bici taxi for distribution in Havana’s Regla neighborhood

On planning the people-to-people itinerary

McNiff: All Like a Cuban trips are completely customized, with activities planned around your interests. You may spend an afternoon having lunch in an artist’s studio talking about what inspires Cuban artists, and then end up in the middle of the Topes de Collantes rainforest the following day, hiking to a farm seemingly in the middle of nowhere to have lunch with a local family. A couple of days later, you may be learning about the influence of African religions on Cuban culture in Santiago. But, regardless, every night there is music and salsa.

Laverty: Our trips are generally customized, unless you sign up for one of our open sign-up trips — in which case the itinerary is already determined. However, even in that case, we can adjust the itinerary based on your interests. The possibilities … [include a] visit to a top dance school for a private performance and discussion with the dancers; private meals with economists, diplomats, historians, doctors or other experts that can provide context about 21st century Cuba; great meals and cooking classes at paladares, visits to private businesses to discuss entrepreneurism in Cuba, and, of course, live music and dancing.

Cancio: You can sign up for one of the curated programs on our website (for example, our Cuba Pride Experience), or we can make a program tailor-made to your specific needs and interests. You’ll meet everyday Cubans, artists, playwrights, journalist, students, professors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, chefs, and other experts in a variety of fields. Beyond the range of activities, you might see a range of places — such as Viñales (where you can discover the best tobacco), Matanzas (where Danzon, a traditional Cuban dance, was born), Cienfuegos (one of the most French and philanthropic cities in Cuba), Trinidad (a city where you will learn about the colonial architecture and sugar production in colonial times), and Santiago de Cuba (a historical city where the Cuban Revolution began).

Drying clothes and people watching from a balcony along Paseo del Prado in Havana’s city center

On an example of a day in Cuba on a people-to-people trip

Laverty: Take a bicycle taxi ride through Centro Habana to visit the home of a Cuban hip-hop group for a discussion about race and gender on the island. Get picked up by pristine 1950s Chevys to visit a car restoration garage to discuss the challenges of keeping these cars on the road as well as opportunities for the private sector in Cuba. Rub elbows with a Cuban chef at a top paladar, and learn how to make the country’s most important dishes. Joining you at your meal is the director of a Cuban hospital, who can discuss the country’s healthcare system. Following lunch, stretch your legs on a walking tour of Old Havana with a top urban planner, who will provide an overview development issues at the local level. End your walk at a top Cuban dance academy, where you will receive a private performance by some of the country’s most talented dancers. After cleaning up for dinner, enjoy a cocktail along the Malecón as the sun fades away. Finally, your travel curator will provide you with options for dinner and nightlife for the evening.

McNiff: Morning may start with breakfast with your host family, followed by a walking tour to get to know the town that you are staying in. Next, you may visit a workshop or a local business to learn about emerging private industries in Cuba. In the afternoon, you may take a cooking class from a local Cuban chef or restaurateur — which turns into your lunch! After lunch, you may visit a museum with an expert historian who will show you around. And in the evening, salsa lessons with some of Cuba’s best dancers.

Private taxi’s line up on “Rainbow Row” in Habana Vieja

On arrangements and logistics

Laverty: CET is happy to assist in airfare, although travelers generally book their flights directly with commercial carriers. CET arranges lodging, ground transportation, local guides and experiences, and all of the Treasury Department paperwork. You can plan as much or as little as you like. CET can literally handle everything — allowing you to walk into an incredible experience. However, you might enjoy researching different issues on the island and communicating your interests to us so that we can incorporate them into your itinerary. To begin planning a trip with CET, contact us by email or phone (info@cubaeducationaltravel.com or 1-215-704-4637) so that a specialist can talk through your interests and craft different experiences for you and your fellow travelers.

Cancio: We do everything from getting your visas and flight tickets to arranging housing and transportation to connecting you with local guides. We also take care of all the logistics in Cuba — such as making reservations at restaurants, purchasing tickets for museums, and booking appointments at tobacco factories, among other things. To set up a trip with OnCuba Travel, you can start by visiting our website, where you will find all the information you need to book a trip to Cuba. Or you can call the agency at 1-305-602-0219 or email info@oncubatravel.com, and our manager in the office will explain everything you need to know.

McNiff: We organize all accommodations and a full itinerary of activities in compliance with people-to-people tour requirements. We can also assist with your flight arrangements as well as most of your meals. Additionally, we provide a round-the-clock concierge service on the island for your convenience. We also offer tips on what you will need while in Cuba, such as what to pack and how much money to bring. We basically do it all for you, apart from packing and getting on the plane! If you’re interested in setting up a trip with Like a Cuban, you should reach out to us by email or phone (info@likeacuban.com or 1-607-414-CUBA), and we will set up a time to speak by phone or in person. We like to have an initial conversation with all of our clients to have a better idea of who they are and what they are interested in doing so that we can pair them with the right hosts, guides, and experiences for their trip.

 

A private taxi driver and Cuban tour guide plan a group’s route in Havana

On housing, guides, and transportation in Cuba

McNiff: Your accommodations depend on your preferences. We try to encourage guests to spend at least some time in casas particulares (bed-and-breakfasts run by Cubans) because of the authentic experience. However, we offer a range of lodging options, from hotels to private villas. Every group has a host and individual, specialized guides for different experiences and cities. All transportation is arranged by Like A Cuban, dependent on your group size and budget.

Laverty: There is great variety in terms of lodging options on the island; we offer lodging in homes with families, private apartments, luxury villas, and three-, four-, and five-star hotels. Many people travel beyond Havana and do a mix of accommodations. You will be assisted by a travel curator, who will be young, smart, open-minded, easy-going, well-organized and fun. The travel curator is there to assist, but will not be overbearing and will only be around to ensure a great experience. We will also incorporate experts, such as historians and economists, artists, musicians and others into your visit. CET will arrange transportation for all included activities and assist with transportation when you are out and about on your own in the afternoons or evenings. CET uses a mix of cars, vans and buses. We also incorporate walking and bicycles into the programs.

Cancio: OnCuba Travel has a vast network of guides suitable for your needs and program. Our guides are experienced Cuban professionals with extensive knowledge of all aspects of Cuban culture. The role of the guide during your stay in Cuba will be to be in charge of everything the group needs. We also have a transportation database, ranging from taxis to vans. Our division is responsible for all transportation details in Havana and outside of Havana during your stay in Cuba. Finally, lodging can be in a private house (a casa particular) or a hotel.

Note: Some major hotels in Cuba may not be available to U.S. travelers, per the new U.S.-Cuba travel and trade regulations (see a complete list here.) However, casas particulares and other privately-owned lodgings remain available and permissible

El Malecon (known as Havana’s living room couch) at sunset

On why you should travel to Cuba, now

Laverty: It is such an interesting moment on the island. Cuba is undergoing its most important transition in 50 plus years as Raul Castro and colleagues from his generation will step aside and a new set of leaders will take place. So much happened bilaterally with the U.S. during the Obama Administration and now there is a great deal of confusion about why President Trump has moved backwards. It is a moment of great change, but also confusion and doubt. Nevertheless, the Cuban people continue to push forward and the country is home to such dynamic thinkers, rich culture & incredible sites. It is a really interesting and important moment, and your visit can play a small role in how things play out moving forward.

Cancio: Recent changes in Cuba-U.S. policy have made way for the opening of Cuba for the first time since 1959. Travelling to Cuba now means being among the first to experience Cuba as it balances the old era and new era. But the most important reason to travel to Cuba now is meeting the Cuban people; their hospitality and sense of humor are their treasures. Cuba’s greatest assets are its people and culture.

McNiff: Because you will be missing out on a wonderful thing if you don’t!

All photos by Steven Garcia, founder of the first Cuban skateboarding brand, Toda Fuerza. He traveled to Cuba for the first time last June with CubaOne.

This article is for informational purposes and should not be interpreted as legal advice. 

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