Cuba: Going with a Tour Company
Stephanie Rosenbloom, The New York Times
Just two years after the Obama administration relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba, nearly every major tour company is now jockeying for the hearts and wallets of American tourists. And why not? When the Grand Circle Foundation, part of Grand Circle Corporation, offered its first licensed educational exchange trip to Cuba (known as a people-to-people tour) in 2011, it attracted about 1,000 travelers. Last year that figure jumped to 1,900. In 2013, the company expects to take more than 2,200 American tourists to Cuba. And that’s just one agency.
People-to-people tours are education-based trips — one can’t simply show up and luxuriate at the beach — that can be offered only by travel companies that have obtained a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. This year, there is even more competition, with experienced operators — Globus, People to People Ambassador Programs, Discovery Tours by Gate 1 — introducing their first Cuba tours. At the same time, companies well practiced at taking travelers to Cuba are widening their reach to particular groups; for instance, in April Insight Cuba partnered with Coda International Tours to offer luxury gay tours of the island.
The latest tours are more frequent and far-reaching than ever. Companies like Abercrombie & Kent are taking visitors to more remote spots on the island, allowing them to explore beyond Havana. And operators like National Geographic Expeditions — among the very first to offer people-to-people tours back in 2011 — now have additional departures. (Even charter companies like Island Travel & Tours are getting in on the action, adding more flights to Cuba from Florida.)
To comply with the Treasury Department’s people-to-people educational exchange rules, all of the following tours include personal encounters with Cuban artists, farmers, fishermen, doctors, mechanics or other locals.
If you want to go, here’s what you can expect to see, do and spend (keep in mind that, in many cases, airfare is not included in the price). And be sure to check the company Web sites for 2014 updates on pricing and departures.
Abercrombie & Kent
This month the luxury travel company began offering a 10-day program for up to 24 people that includes a private salsa lesson, attending a “Buena Vista Social Club-style” concert, and meeting Salvador Gonzáles, an artist whose efforts have transformed an alley in Havana known as Callejón de Hamel into an Afro-Cuban art and music destination. Participants will also tour Havana with a local architect; eat at a paladar (a family-run restaurant) and listen to the owners discuss Cuban cuisine; go for a stroll with a painter and ceramist, José Fuster, before having dinner at his home; visit a cigar factory (and learn about life on a working tobacco farm); tour Las Terrazas, a Unesco biosphere reserve; attend a lecture on the history of United States-Cuba relations; and even play baseball with the locals. From $5,395 a person for double occupancy (the single supplement is $895). Information: Abercrombiekent.com/travel-destinations/cuba.
This company, known for its countryside walks, is now offering tours to introduce travelers to “Cuban people from all strata of society.” The itinerary includes meetings with the artists and residents of Luyanó, a community development project; an exploration of the Unesco World Heritage site Old Havana; discussions with religious leaders about Afro-Cuban culture and the Santería religion; and a look at the life of Ernest Hemingway during his time in Cuba. The countryside walk is in the Viñales Valley, west of Havana, and includes a visit to coffee and tobacco farms. From $4,895 a person for double occupancy (the single supplement is $695). Information: Classicjourneys.com/cuba.
Discovery Tours by Gate 1
For the first time, Discovery Tours is taking groups of 10 to 18 people on a nine-day tour to listen to traditional Cuban music at the Museo de Artes Decorativas; learn about Old Havana’s restoration projects from local city planners and architects; attend an Afro-Cuban religious ceremony; beef up on United States-Cuba relations during a policy talk; and chat with jazz musicians after they perform at the Instituto Cubano de la Música. Rates from $3,599 a person for double occupancy; from $3,918 for single occupancy. Information: Discovery-tours.com/small-groups-cuba-9dcuff13.aspx.
Grand Circle Foundation
This nonprofit arm of Grand Circle Corporation offers small group tours, like Cuba: A Bridge Between Cultures, and new this year is a 13-day tour called Cuba: Music, Culture & the Roots of Revolution. Stops include the island’s second-largest city, Santiago de Cuba, where visitors can learn about the area’s Afro-Cuban influences; Baracoa, near the landing place of Christopher Columbus; and, of course, Havana. Rates from $4,395 for double occupancy; no single supplements for the rest of 2013. Information: Grandcirclefoundation.org/cuba.
In response to demand for shorter getaway options, Insight Cuba, which specializes in small people-to-people trips, is offering a new six-day tour called Vintage Cuba for up to two dozen people. From the colonial town of Santa Clara (home of the Che Guevara Mausoleum) to Havana, this tour (beginning November 2013) takes travelers on a vintage steam train; introduces them to mechanics who maintain the vintage cars that have come to be associated with the island; and shows them the Cayo Santa María and the coastal town of Caibarién, known for its beaches. From $2,995 a person for double occupancy; from $3,395 for single occupancy. The company, which has 150 departures to Cuba scheduled through June 2014, offers other tours, as well, including Undiscovered Cuba (12 days), Classic Cuba (8 days), Scenic Cuba (8 days), Jazz in Havana (5 days), Cuban Music & Art (9 days) and Weekend in Havana (4 days). Information: Insightcuba.com.
This nine-day tour from Miami includes an architectural walking tour of Old Havana with stops at workshops to chat with artisans about restoring the area; a visit to the studio and home of Mr. Fuster, the artist; Ernest Hemingway’s estate, Finca Vigía, where he lived and worked for more than 20 years; the Cienfuegos Botanical Gardens and the French-influenced colonial town of Cienfuegos, a World Heritage site; the University of Havana to meet with professors and students; and the Casa de Africa to learn about Africa’s influence on Cuba. There is also a block party in Santa Marta and a visit to the old town of Matanzas (including the Pharmaceutical Museum and the independent art book publisher Ediciones Vigía). From $5,495 a person for double occupancy; from $6,045 for single occupancy. Information: Smithsonianjourneys.org/tours/cuba.
Some other groups with licenses to operate people-to-people Cuba tours include Austin-Lehman Adventures, Friendly Planet Travel and the Center for Cuban Studies.
IN ENGLISH LANGUAGE
FOR PEOPLE WHO READ IN ENGLISH: ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS IN ENGLISH OR TRANSLATED. PUBLICATION DOES NOT MEAN WE ENDORSE OR REJECT CONCLUSIONS OR STATEMENTS OF AUTHORS