Demystifying Cuba

Discovering Cuba

“The Cubans are incredibly creative people,” says Bob Drumm, President of Alexander + Roberts, a tour company that’s been leading travelers to the world’s far-flung corners for more than 70 years. “There’s a strong and very accomplished musical and artistic tradition in Cuba. It’s one of many reasons that we’ve seen a boom in American travel to Cuba in the last five years.” 

Cuba’s complex history adds to its appeal. In Baracoa, the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción houses a 15th-century cross said to have been brought by Christopher Columbus himself. Santa Clara’s Che Guevara Mausoleum chronicles the famous revolutionary’s life. The Museum of the Revolution in central Havana tells the story of the island’s revolution and events like the Bay of Pigs incident from the Cuban perspective. 

And the island’s past feels recent, frozen in time as Cuba appears to be. Hulking Bel Airs painted in jewel tones cruise the streets just as they have since the 1950s. Ornate building façades crumble with decades of neglect. And it’s not uncommon to see mule carts transporting people and freight through the streets, from busy central Havana to the rural landscapes of Pinar del Río. 

Cuba’s food draws raves from American visitors as well. In a country too poor to buy fertilizers, dishes often rely on organic ingredients. And, naturally, the island’s rum and cigars enjoy legendary reputations.

“In many ways, Americans and Cubans are very much like one another,” says Drumm. “We like to ask questions. They like to ask questions. We love learning. They love learning. And both Americans and Cubans are extremely friendly.” In fact, many American travelers quickly discover an instant rapport with Cubans, he says, in spite of the fact that both nationalities hold a great deal of distrust for one another’s governments. 

Building Bridges 

Alexander + Roberts got its start in 1947, not long after World War II, when animosity between western and eastern governments was high. Founder Alexander Harris became the first American tour operator granted permission by the U.S. government to offer tours to what was then the Soviet Union.

In the ensuing years, Alexander + Roberts guided Americans to South America beginning in the 1950s; to East Africa in the 1970s; and to China and other Asian destinations in the 1980s, always striving to broaden understanding between citizens of the United States and other nations.

The company’s Cuban tours were launched in the early 2000s. In 2016, direct flights between the U.S. and Cuba, including airports like those in Varadero and Santiago de Cuba, eased international travel. And the unveiling of new hotels and cruise ship itineraries further boosted travel to Cuba. 

It seemed that travel to the island nation would become entirely trouble-free within a few short years. Consequently, the announcement in 2017 of new travel restrictions against Cuban government-owned businesses left many Americans feeling confused. 

“The changes in approach to travel to Cuba between the Obama and Trump administrations could not have been more dramatic,” says Drumm. “But I think people are getting the hang of it. They understand that travel to Cuba is still permissible, but with certain restrictions.”

People-to-People Travel 

Outside of the recent directive that Americans must avoid government-owned establishments, the chief American travel requirement obliges visitors to Cuba engage with locals in any tourist activities, a practice known as people-to-people travel. The concept still permits a fair degree of travel flexibility. Traveling via cruise ship, visiting for a short weekend, booking a customized trip or joining a group tour, all are legal provided that planning fits the framework of people-to-people travel.

And while some see these restrictions as, well, restrictive, Drumm disagrees. 

“I actually see this as an enriching, expansive way to travel,” he says. “I think you gain greater depth of experience anytime you engage with locals.” Watching local artists at work, discussing Cuba’s economy with governmental planners, meeting with priests to learn the island’s religious history or with distillers to discuss the unique characteristics of Cuban rum, these experiences allow travelers to return home feeling that they have encountered the real Cuba.

In fact, people-to-people can be a life-changing — and even addictive — way to travel. “Oftentimes our travelers to Cuba decide they want to replicate that experience in other places of the world,” adds Drumm, “perhaps in places like Ethiopia or Iran.” 

Travel Planning Made Easy 

If it’s true that American requirements have changed markedly over the past decade, it’s also true that traveling with a tour organizer eases the planning process. Long before customers pay their trip deposit, tour companies will have sorted out the latest State Department directives regarding visas, sanctioned travel activities and even the souvenirs Americans are permitted to take back home. 

Additionally, tour companies will have selected local guides who, while being fluent in English, are also in tune with the atmosphere in their home country. It’s a connection that further enhances the travel experience. 

“This company was born breaking barriers,” says Drumm, referring to Alexander + Roberts’ early forays into the U.S.S.R. “We’re used to going beyond borders, to building relationships with people across national lines and easing that process for Americans.” 

It’s enough to make an avid traveler get up and dance.  

Experience the culture and history of Cuba! Your AAA Travel Agent can help you choose the perfect A + R itinerary. Call 800-750-5386 for more information.