With the launch of many new direct flights from the U.S. to Cuba, it may seem like the door to the formerly forbidden country is wide open for Americans. Unfortunately, that’s still not quite the case. Right now, you’ll still need to travel under one of the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) 12 categories of travel, the easiest of which is a “people-to-people” Cuba educational tour.
Of course, many people who want to go to Cuba might not be the guided tour type of traveler. If you’re wondering whether or not to choose a people-to-people tour company when visiting Cuba, you’re not alone. Here’s why they make sense.
Which People-to-People Cuba Tour Company Should You Use?
After participating in a Cuba Culinary Tour, I will enthusiastically vouch for the people-to-people Cuba tours offered by Access Trips—and this is coming from someone who’s only ever been on one other group tour in her life. Going with a people-to-people group make sense for Cuba.
Accommodations in Cuba
Accommodations in Cuba are somewhat limited. You have your choice between state-run hotels, which can be very expensive (upwards of $600 a night) or casa particulars, which are privately rented apartments and rooms that can be hard to book online and might not be as comfortable as you’d like. Access Trips took all of the hassle and worry out of the equation on my trip by booking a spotless private apartment with en suite rooms, air conditioning, and a home-cooked breakfast every morning for my group.
Food in Cuba
Cuban cuisine is unbelievably fresh, innovative, and delicious … if you know where to eat. However, most of the worthwhile spots are paladares, or small restaurants that often have fewer than twenty tables. If you haven’t done the research and booked well in advance, you’ll likely get stuck at one of the extremely touristy government-run restaurants that aren’t nearly on the same level.
The problem: none of these paladares are online, so you’ll need to call to reserve (that’s assuming you can even find the contact information). Access Trips took my group to the best restaurants in Havana as well as to dining experiences that aren’t available through anyone else (like a private cooking class and a meal on an organic farm). They’re also helpful if you have special dietary considerations. I’m a vegetarian, and Access Trips had no problems making arrangements for me.
Transportation in Cuba
Although Havana is very walkable, you’ll need transportation if you want to see parts of the country beyond of the city. Rental cars are expensive and they add extra stress to your trip—gas stations might not always have fuel, and they’re not as frequent as you may have come to expect in other countries. Expect to find older cars and no service to help you if you happen to break down. And don’t forget—no phone data or Wi-Fi means no GPS, so you’ll have to rely on paper maps.
On my people-to-people Cuba tour with Access Trips, our friendly and fun driver took us around in his comfortable and well-maintained blue ’57 Chevy. Having him focus on the navigation and driving meant that we could relax and take in the scenery outside the windows.
Access Trips limits its Cuba tours to 10 participates, so you’ll never find yourself in a massive group or herded around on a tour bus. When there are more than five people are on a trip, they’ll use two cars and two drivers.
We only had five people total on our trip, so it really felt like I was traveling with a group of friends rather than strangers. The small group size also meant that we had the flexibility to change the schedule when we wanted (like when the group collectively decided that we couldn’t leave Cuba without going to the beach, so our very patient guide rearranged everything to accommodate our wish, even though it wasn’t in the itinerary).
It also meant that we could still go to the smaller restaurants without completely changing the atmosphere to be 100 percent tourists.
My biggest fear about a people-to-people Cuba tour was that it would be totally over scheduled from morning to night, and that I’d have no time to explore on my own. This was definitely not the case with Access Trips—I had plenty of time in the mornings to go for a run (to combine sightseeing and work off all of the rich food we were eating). Some days, we had free time in the afternoon before dinner, and every night after eating we were on our own. It was the perfect combination of guided and solo time.
The whole point of a people-to-people tour is to have meaningful interactions with Cubans, and Access Trips did not disappoint. For starters, both our guide and driver were locals. Azaris, our guide, was so open and told us that we could ask her anything. It was interesting to get some insight into a Cuban’s viewpoint on everything from the Castros to the U.S. election, or to hear stories about living through Cuba’s “special period.” Azaris and Leo, our driver, gave us plenty of great recommendations and told us about secret spots—from Azaris sharing where her son goes for nightlife to Leo buying us ice cream at the best gelato shop in town.
On the tour, we were welcomed into private homes so we could get a glimpse into what everyday life in Cuba is like. Pototo, the operator of Access Cuba’s local tours, hosts every group for a home-cooked meal at his house.
If the whole people-to-people forced tour group aspect is putting you off of traveling to Cuba, don’t let it stop you. Just choose wisely and enjoy being able to relax without worrying about logistics.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Cuba, Then and Now: Have U.S. Travelers Already Changed Cuba?
- These 6 U.S. Airlines Approved for Cuba Flights
- 8 Things You Need to Know About Traveling to Cuba in 2016