We hope this blog post finds you happy and healthy, wherever you may be in the world. Heart was spending almost all of January in Cuba and it was such a fun way to kick off the year! Between running a Heart of Travel trip and two B2B trips for other companies, we reacquainted ourselves with the island and spent time in la Habana, Viñales, Cienfuegos and Trinidad. Today, we wanted to give you a short recap of what’s going on in Cuba and what travel to the island looks like today.
Our Local Guides
While no longer having Lidyz Morales on the ground in Cuba was heartbreaking, we couldn’t be happier for her to be pursuing her dreams in Madrid. Plus, we have plans for her to make some guest appearances in Cuba once she’s finished her masters.
Lidyz’s absence, however, opened the door for us to partner with Luis Miguel’s childhood best friend, Enmanuel, and his team. Let’s just say, these guys are knocking it out of the park, ensuring that every trip runs smoothly and that you experience Cuba in an ethical and engaging way.
Cuba has faced some especially challenging years since 2020 and it was extremely important for us that our tours here really delivered an authentic experience for our travelers while generating as much positive impact as possible for our local collaborators. Honestly, we couldn’t be prouder of what we are doing in Cuba now and even if you’ve been with us to the island before, we highly encourage you to come again because the trips have only gotten better!
Enmanuel, our main local guide, is one of Luis Miguel’s best friends and just like Chelsea, he is an organized, perfectionist Virgo. He works tirelessly to ensure that our travelers not only see the beauty of the country, but experience the island in an authentic and real light. He helps to organize activities like playing dominó in his childhood friends' homes, which normally turn into an impromptu block party, street art tours with local artists, and jam sessions with young Cuban musicians. In Viñales, you’ll meet his group of friends and visit their tobacco farm, smoking hand-rolled cigars in the afternoon followed by a pig roast and mojitos as the sun sets. To know Enma is to love him, and this shines through in the relationships he’s built with Cubans throughout the country.
In addition to Enmanuel, we have Loren and Ahmed, also from Habana, who work to assist our clients in whatever they may need. Both in their early twenties, these are some of the most mature young men we’ve come across and they will always help you with a smile on their faces and get you where you need to be! Also, Ahmed is a budding photographer so you may even walk away from your travels with a professional photo or two!
In Viñales, our local crew welcomes you with open arms to experience the tranquil countryside and the real “guajiro” experience. Yeni’s warm smile and passion for her country and its people are palpable as she oversees all the details of our time in Viñales and helps to sort and distribute donations to families in the surrounding communities. Her cousin, Rene, and his partner Yovi, put together the most incredible pig roast just for us on their family farm where we enjoy live music, getting our hands dirty in the kitchen and bar, dominó, and of course some salsa dancing.
These guys are the sweetest people on the planet and once the pig roast is done they are always down to join us for more dancing in town or a relaxed nightcap in Yeni’s garden. We also can’t forget to mention Yosbel, a local veterinarian, who guides us on our horseback ride throughout the valley, and Alejandro, who teaches us all about tobacco, coffee, and honey.
Since working together in November 2022, we have quickly become really tight with our Viñales crew and there are legit tears every time we say goodbye to them. If you are looking to truly connect with people in Cuba, this is an incredible opportunity to do so!
As you may have gathered over the years of following us, Cuba is always changing. So while we make observations now, this may change in the blink of an eye. The current situation in Cuba is difficult, as thousands upon thousands of Cubans are trying to leave the island in search of something better. Between a lack of food (Cubans currently receive 5 to 6 eggs per person a month in their ration), scarce access to basic necessities like toilet paper and soap, and a government that doesn’t seem to be aiding much in the development of the country - many Cubans find themselves in a tough spot - Try to leave or watch their country slowly decline. Others stay, be it by force or by choice to try and be a part of a progress and change in their nation. Cuba is a complicated beast and no two trips are ever the same, but they are always fun and always educational.
We don’t ever want to speak for Cubans and there is no one homogenous Cuban narrative anyway - this is why on our Cuba tours we let our local guides talk freely and share the realities of their country, and their personal perspectives, with our travelers. You’ll hear their frustration and heartbreak, but you’ll also experience the beauty of the country and the pride they feel for being Cuban. As you walk through every bustling street of Habana you find people sitting and laughing over a cafecito, or participating in a spirited round of dominó as well as young Cubans pouring their heart and soul into music and art as a way to express themselves more freely. You’ll see how in Viñales los guajiros, or Cuban cowboys, love their animals, their people and the land they’ve lived on for centuries with a fierce passion.
This is why we’ve decided to continue to run tours in Cuba, because we believe that the Cuban people deserve to be heard and their culture to be applauded and appreciated. We believe it’s important for people to understand the role that the US has played in the history of Cuba, the reality of how the Cuban government and economic system function, and what the future looks like for the nation. There’s really nowhere else in the world quite like Cuba, and that’s what makes it so special. The complexities, the people, the resilience of the island - none of it can be put into words but we invite you to come feel it for yourself!
Know Before You Go
If you’re thinking about traveling to Cuba here are a few fast facts you should know.
- The two currency system is gone, and there is now only the CUP - or Cuban Peso. During the pandemic the government did away with the CUC which was a nearly 1:1 ratio with the USD. Now, the CUP sits at about 150-170: 1 USD and we can exchange money for you on day one and throughout the trip. Be sure to bring enough cash to last the entirety of your trip, as your US bank cards will NOT work in Cuba because of the embargo and you will not be able to withdraw additional cash while on the island. Also, be sure to prepay for your luggage on your airline before arriving in Cuba, because if you need to add a bag at the airport they require a credit card and a US card won’t work. Dollars and euros are readily accepted at privately owned restaurants, cafe, shops and casas particulares.
- Bring your own personal toiletries. As mentioned above, soap and toilet paper are very hard to come across. While all of the casa particulares we stay at have toilet paper available, bringing your own roll or two ensures you have TP for rest stops and when you’re out and about at restaurants. Bringing your own soap and toiletries, especially feminine products, is encouraged as sometimes there are very limited quantities or subpar quality.
- Wifi is a bit more available than it was in 2019! We were surprised to find that most of our casa particulares had wifi routers available in the lobby and or rooms! If you traveled to Cuba with us pre 2023, you may remember having to get a wifi card that you scratch off and sit in a park hunting down the faintest signal of wifi. Now the internet is more readily available, although it still isn’t the fastest or most reliable. However, checking in with your loved ones a few times from the island and posting to social media is a bit more realistic. Please note that even if your phone company says internet access travel plans are accessible, it will be expensive. As in like $100 for 20 minutes of data expensive. Therefore, when you come to Cuba plan on being fairly offline, with an occasional check in with loved ones and plan on posting most of your photos once you’re back in the US.
We’ve added in a new trip for June 2023 and you can sign up here!
We have decided to run two groups with up to 10 people max per group due to high demand during our November dates. Therefore, it says a maximum of 20 people on the registration page but there will be no more than 10 people per group and we will have separate tour leaders, guides, casas particulares and vehicles for each group. We also will re-arrange the order of activities slightly to avoid overlap. Sign up here for November!
Private Custom Trip
We will soon be running day tours and excursions in Cuba on a regular basis. Likewise, we can put together a custom private tour at any time - just email to start planning a tailor-made trip of a lifetime!
Now, rather than words, we’ll share beautiful moments from our recent trips through photos, all taken by our in-house photographer, Allie Jorde. We hope you choose to join us on a Cuba trip soon to experience this one of a kind place soon.
Abrazos desde la bella Antigua, Guatemala
Chelsea & The Heart of Travel Team