Learn more about our Cuba Culinary Tour and explore Cuban culture through its cuisine.
Access Culinary Trips CEO Tamar Lowell shares her thoughts on the continual evolution of travel to Cuba and the Cuban story.
Three years ago this month I traveled to Cuba for the first time, to meet a guide I had found online. We rode around the country together in a 1957 Chevy and talked non-stop about the possibilities for culinary travel in Cuba, and what would make a great experience for our guests. “Tamar, this is Cuba,” he would say when I had ideas that made total sense in the US and anywhere else and no sense at all in Cuba. But “this is Cuba” also worked in our favor, such as when we went to La Fontana,
one of Havana’s oldest paladars, to talk about developing the first-ever private cooking classes for visitors. Not only was the owner open to the idea, but we also happened to meet a farmer named Fernando who was there selling his organic produce. My conversation with him turned into a farm tour and farm-to-table lunch that is frequently cited as our guests’ favorite experience when they travel to Cuba.
It was early in the Cuban détente, and there was excitement and optimism everywhere, along with massive challenges. There were rules that were illogical and contradictory, on both the American and Cuban sides, and those rules changed with regularity. “The only constant is change” became our mantra at the office. We could not skype, phone, or text our new partner. Email worked, but only on a dial-up connection, and was not reliable. Air travel to Cuba was only available through charter companies who were possibly the most challenging vendors we have ever worked with. There was little understanding among US travelers of the complexity of traveling in Cuba, and we worked hard to manage expectations among our guests, who were true pioneers in American travel to Cuba.
Despite these challenges, we launched our new tour in record time and to rave reviews. Fodor’s soon named Access Culinary Trips as one of the top tour operators to Cuba and National Geographic Traveler featured our tour as one of “15 Food Tours Worth the Travel.” But most rewarding were the reviews we got from our guests, who consistently rated their experience and their guides, a 9.8 out of 10.
We changed lives, both in the US and Cuba. We once had a guest who mentioned the name of the town where his grandfather used to live. It wasn’t too far off our route, so we took the group on a side-trip. Through our contacts in that town, we were able to find the house. And typical of Cuban warmth and hospitality, the current family invited our group into their home. This was something our guest never expected when he traveled to Cuba to see his abuelo’s homeland.
We also made a profound impact on the lives of our local team. One of our drivers was able to install air conditioning and replace the tattered seats of the 1957 Chevy he has owned for decades. Every time I visit he gives me a bear hug and proudly shows me how nice his car looks. And one of our guides finally earned enough money to relieve the stress of caring for her daughter as a single mom. There are private restaurants that we helped grow by bringing groups of guests every week, and a local dance troupe who finally received steady income from our regular salsa lessons.
True to our office mantra, the situation continued to change. President Trump was elected, Fidel Castro died, and Raul Castro stepped down. Hurricane Irma flooded Havana and American diplomats reported bizarre neurological symptoms. The US Department of State issued a travel warning for Cuba that was as severe as its warnings to Iran and Syria and pulled most of its diplomats from the newly reopened American Embassy in Havana. President Trump didn’t have to do very much statutorily to make good on his campaign promise to “reverse” Obama’s deal with Cuba. The formal changes he made, especially in the area of travel, were actually very minor. But the fear and uncertainty created by months of anticipation of a major shift, coupled with allegations of sonic attacks, travel warnings, and a drawdown of the US Embassy had a more damaging effect on travel to Cuba.
So what’s next for Cuba? Miguel Diaz-Canel was named Cuba’s new president today, the first non-Castro to rule the country in 60 years. That’s a big deal, but it won’t change the relationship with the US in the near term. Just as President Trump had to please his base by “reversing” the deal, Mr. Diaz-Canel has a hard-line image he needs to project in order to consolidate his power.
American travel to Cuba will continue to evolve in ways that were unanticipated three years ago. Commercial flights from the US to Cuba resumed, displacing the charter flights, but have since reduced capacity. The influx of people-to-people visitors peaked with “individual” people-to-people travel (which was legal for less than two years) and has now ground to a near halt. And US cruise lines continue to add sailings to Cuba amid booming demand. Cruising has become the easy way to see Cuba, but sailing into port for a day or two can also turn “people-to-people” connections into a transactional relationship that begins at 9am and ends at happy hour. For those who want authenticity, who want genuine connections with real people, who want a glimpse of what life is really like in Cuba, and who want their own “this is Cuba” experience, I urge them to spend days there, not hours.
In 2015 I wrote in my Huffington Post column: “Now is the time to go to Cuba because change is exciting.” And it truly was an exciting, heady time, which may never happen again. No one really knows what the future holds, but it’s safe to say there are some things that will not change. The Cuban warmth and hospitality will not change. The iconic culture with its music, architecture and the world’s best cigars – this will not change. And the only constant being change? That will not change!