Recent changes mean that it’s gotten significantly easier for Americans to visit Cuba, but they must still travel under one of 12 categories mandated by the U.S. government. A research trip or a visit to see family? No problem. A beach vacation or simple sightseeing? Those are a no-go. (For the full list of legal categories, see Can Americans Travel to Cuba? It’s Complicated.)
For those of us who aren’t journalists, professors or baseball players starring in an exhibition game, the easiest way to get to Cuba is with a company operating “people-to-people” tours, which fall under the umbrella of Educational Activities as far as the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is concerned. These trips focus on cultural exchange by putting American visitors directly in contact with the Cubans themselves — often in ways that would be difficult or even impossible to arrange on your own.
I recently traveled on such an itinerary with smarTours, which arranged numerous people-to-people activities during our four days in Havana. One highlight was a visit to El Tanque, where an abandoned water tank that used to service steam trains has been transformed into a bustling community center where neighborhood kids can learn painting, music, ceramics, dancing, theater and filmmaking. Several of the instructors gave us an impromptu musical performance before answering questions about the project, giving us insight into how economically challenged neighborhoods in Havana are supporting themselves from within.
The interactive experiences continued throughout the trip. We ate lunch one day with a local magazine writer, the next with a retired pitcher who’d played for various Cuban baseball teams. We were treated to a private concert by Ele, a dynamic singing group, as well as a performance by incredibly talented children who were studying acrobatics and other circus skills as part of an after-school program called Angels of the Future. (One child swung from the ceiling; another contorted herself into painful-looking poses; still another stood barefoot on his friend’s head!) On our last day in Cuba, we were welcomed into the home of a local artist/photographer, who generously spent an hour answering our group’s questions about his life, his work and the future of Cuba.
While I loved strolling the streets of Old Havana and watching the Buena Vista Social Club perform at our hotel — activities I could’ve done easily on an independent trip — it was the people-to-people aspects of the itinerary that proved to be the most informative and rewarding. At this pivotal point in Cuban history, it was important to hear the voices of the people themselves, expressing their hopes and fears about what’s ahead. (“After the embargo” was a phrase we heard over and over again.)
Yes, group trips have their drawbacks, especially if you love wandering and prefer your schedule to be your own. And I support the right of all American travelers to visit Cuba independently when it’s legal to do so. But I hope that even after all the restrictions are gone, there will still be companies offering people-to-people itineraries in Cuba — because there are few better ways to understand and appreciate this unique culture.