Let me preface this blog by saying: do as I say, not as I do.
What did I do? Jeremy and I booked a super duper cheap-o 3 star cruise to get ourselves to Cuba over New Years in the most cost effective method possible.
What I say to do instead? Don’t reduce Cuba to a day trip. Either go and stay through a trusted company who can provide a 5 star experience or travel on one of our 5 star cruise lines on an itinerary that over nights in Havana.
While our mode of transportation was not the wisest, we made up for this travel decision in our choice of tour companies. For our 12 hours in Havana, we utilized the services of our trusted tour partner, Cultural Cuba, to show us the highlights. This was, hands down, the best decision we could have made – and the best decisions that you, as travelers, can make. Always, always, always trust us with our on-the-ground partners! They are worth every penny.
Now, I happened to have a little insight into Cultural Cuba because I know the owner, David. We met at a Wendy Perrin WOW List conference a few years ago and I watched him talk his way behind the bar of Grand Velas Riviera Maya. I have seen firsthand how this man negotiates and he’s good.
Considering the fact that Cuba changes on a near daily basis, it’s wise to travel with a company who knows how to stay on its toes. Cultural Cuba has mastered the art of navigating these changes and David is the type of leader who sees obstacles as opportunities. That’s who we love to partner with.
Not only that, because we were traveling here during the peak season and coming off of our cheapie means of transportation, I was fully expecting to get just a glimpse of Cuba. Buy some souvenir cigars, sip some coffee, I tried not to expect too much.
Cultural Cuba had other (much better) plans for us. They prepared a perfectly customized itinerary that utilized every single free moment to show us an in-depth look at the city. We started by getting picked up in a Classic Car, of course, by our guide (a Rhodes Scholar, for the record) and driver, both of which stayed with us all day. These two answered all of our questions on Cuba which, our guide had told us at the start, would only leave us with more questions on Cuba. That is correct. The layers and the depth to this country and its culture know no bounds.
We meandered to a great little lunch spot to meet David and a few other Cultural Cuba team members over fantastic cocktails and traditional Cuban food before taking to the streets on a walking tour.
At this point, a photographer arranged by Cultural Cuba joined us to capture our amazement as we walked through Havana. The city was so much more than what I expected: so much more European than Caribbean, so well preserved, so awe-inspiring. Having a photographer was an excellent touch – these memories were so fun to go through upon our return, and we felt like total celebrities.
Our walking tour ended at a salsa studio, where we spent an hour learning how to control our steps and our hips (impossible, obviously, since we have SO MUCH rhythm we just don’t know what to do with it all). Tuckered out from all of that walking and salsa-ing, we visited the next stop on our itinerary, the photography studio belonging to Ramses Batista and Alex Castro (yes, as in Castro Castro. As in Fidel’s son.). I assumed we’d just be popping in to view the art but, again, Cultural Cuba had much more up their sleeve.
For an hour, we sat down with both Ramses and Alex to hear their stories and inspiration as they presented their photography. I had to mentally step back to think to myself: am I really in Cuba, sipping coffee with Fidel Castro’s son as a translator shares his photography inspiration?
Get out of town. THAT is the power of an excellent partner – what memories we have from this experience! Not to mention some cool photography to place in a house if we ever stay in one city long enough to have a home!
The rest of our evening was just as special – we’d lost track of time in the photography studio and hadn’t bought our souvenir rum and cigars. What were we to do?! As if it was NBD, our guide placed a few calls and had a shop owner stay open for us. Happy ending: we now have Cuban rum on our bar cart.
The evening ended with an upscale restaurant + bar experience at Fabrica de Arte. On our way back to the cruise, we stopped in the main square, where an orchestra was performing into the late hours of the night. We sat on an outside patio listening to the music, sipping our very last rum and cokes in the country, and reflecting on the day behind us. It was magical.
Every single moment, every single memory from our too short of time in Cuba left us wanting more. There is no way that we would’ve had even a fraction of this experience by going on a traditional shore excursion or trying to do this on our own. The more I travel with our partners, the more convinced I am that there’s no better way to travel – so, from one traveler to another, do Cuba the right way. You won’t regret it.