Here's What a Support for the Cuban People Trip Looks Like
CET is honored to work with Mia Taylor and other fabulous journalists from time to time to better understand the Cuba travel regulations in the US and their implications for travelers and the travel industry, on and off the island. This wonderful piece debunks many of the myths about it being difficult or illegal to travel to Cuba and shows how interactive experiences with the Cuban people make for an incredible visit.
Originally published in TravelPulse by Mia Taylor, all photos by Mia Taylor
A Journey of Support
In June, the Trump administration announced a new crackdown on travel to Cuba for Americans. As part of the latest round of changes, the administration eliminated the popular "people to people" travel category, which was the most common way Americans visited the island.
The administration also put a stop to all cruises visiting the country, which had been a boon for the small island nation, bringing in some 800,000 travelers last year who had plenty of money to spend. Even with these changes, it would be a significant mistake to think Americans can no longer visit Cuba.
It is still entirely possible to visit and furthermore it's quite easy. The remaining "support for the Cuban people" travel category, which is not all that different than a "people to people" visit, allows for exploring this vibrant island nation in rich and meaningful ways. Here's a snapshot of what I saw and did during a recent support for the Cuban people trip with Cuba Educational Travel.
A Cuban Photographer's Life
May Reguera is an example of Cuba's young, emerging and extremely talented artist class. The 29-year-old, who studied production and drama in college, is a locally respected photographer best known for her portraiture. Though, amid Cuba's always complicated bureaucracy, her career choice has been somewhat challenging. As a photographer, Reguera has been unable to register in the country's creative registry for artists, which would legitimize her work in the eyes of the government.
Reguera is prevented from becoming part of the registry because she does not have a degree in visual arts (as there is no fine arts photography school in Cuba). Without being on the registry Reguera (whose influences are famed photographers Sally Mann and Vivian Maier) is not able to exhibit her work at galleries. Instead, she sells her work from home, shows work at smaller, alternative galleries and can also be found on Instagram. The current focus of Reguera's work is equality. "We are all very different, but we should be respected equally," said Reguera.
The Dreams of a Young Cuban Fashion Designer
A young fashion designer, Laila Chaaban returned from Ecuador where she was pursuing a life after Obama announced the opening of relations with the United States. Chaaban wanted to be back in her home country where she felt more comfortable and for the first time, she also believed that pursuing a career in Cuba might actually be possible. After quite some time looking for a storefront she could afford, Chaaban finally managed to open the doors to a small shop just outside Old Havana several months ago. Chaaban says her goal is "to provide another possibility" when it comes to fashion in Havana.
Not long after opening, however, business came to a near standstill as American visitors have all but disappeared. "Some days I'm not very optimistic. Some days I am okay. But then other days I have a panic attack or I will just go to the Malecon and sit and look out at the sea thinking about my future," she said. Chaaban's work can be viewed on Instagram.
Just outside downtown Havana, visitors will find the most unexpected of attractions. A whimsical, colorful world known as Fusterlandia, sprung from the imagination of Jose Rodríguez Fuster, a Cuban artist who specializes in ceramics, painting, drawing, engraving, and graphic design. In the unassuming village of Jaimanitas, Fuster (who was inspired by Gaudi's Park Guell) has created an architectural dreamscape, covering his home and several other local buildings with his vivid and fanciful mosaic tile work.
Tobacco Farm Tourism
Yet another popular reason to visit Vinales is to spend time exploring its tobacco farms, learning about the process of growing tobacco crops and making cigars. Tobacco farmers happily invite visitors into their workshops to explain and demonstrate their work.
Life Unfolds on the Streets
Even on a support for the Cuban people tour, there is still plenty of free time to wander the streets of Havana and other parts of the country, taking in local culture and watching daily life unfold. My time wandering the streets was among the most rewarding, allowing me to interact with people in an unscripted and spontaneous manner.
Our last meal in Havana was easily among the most memorable I have had in years. Grados, another recently opened business, is run by Raulito Bazuk. The 25-seat restaurant is operated out of Bazuk's mother's home, in the front few rooms of the residence. After spending three years attending a private cooking school in Uruguay, Bazuk returned to Cuba to embark on a career as a chef.
He is another example of Cuba's young, up and coming entrepreneurial class, many of whom are dynamic, creative professionals pursuing their dreams. Bazuk shies away from offering traditional titles for the dishes he makes, describing his menu as Cuban food with global influences. During our visit, Bazuk created a variety of small, gourmet dishes, artfully plated and developed based on the food that was locally available that day.
Paladar Toca Madera
Our first evening in Cuba was spent at Paladar Toca Madera, which by many accounts was Havana's first-ever gastropub. The small, out of the way establishment is run by locally beloved and internationally renowned chef Enrique Suarez, a onetime computer engineer who at the prompting of friends enamored with his cooking, decided to switch gears and open a restaurant.
Suarez, who spent the evening regaling us with the details of his journey from engineer to chef, has traveled the world learning from culinary masters and his food reflects that education. His creations, influenced by French, Italian and Spanish cuisine, are inventive, delicious and unexpected amid typical meat and rice Cuban fare. Suarez has grown to be a leader in Havana's emerging new food movement and Toco Madera has earned the distinction of being reason number 238 in the book "300 Reasons to Love Havana."
The End of the Five Year Visa
The travel industry is not the only sector that's been impacted by the recent policy changes under the Trump administration. The administration's decision to eliminate the five-year visa for Cubans means Reguera is no longer able to travel as needed to the United States and obtain supplies for her photography. There's currently only a single entry visa available to Cubans.
"Basically, that means nothing to someone who is working. You can't depend on it and you can't plan anything," said Reguera of the single entry vias, adding "Supplies are cheaper in the United States. If I have to go to Mexico or another country, the supplies are more expensive."
A Gallery Owner's Life
Cristina Figueroa's life has been immersed in art since she was a young child. The daughter of two famed artists (her father a legendary Cuban photographer and her mother a leader in the art world who has published several books). These days, young Figueroa helps run the family's private art studio out of her family's stylish, art-filled home in Havana. Dedicated to Cuban contemporary art, the studio was one of the first in Havana and in Cuba for that matter. It dates back to the early 1990s.
Cristina, an art historian, personally leads fascinating and eye-opening tours of the studio, which include the building's ground floor public space, as well as the Figueroa family apartment on the second floor, where the walls are covered with her father's haunting images that document Cuba's history, including its special period and many upheavals as family members fled for other countries. "Over the past few years, with Obama opening relations, it has been very important for the exposure of Cuban art and culture," said Figueroa. "In the current conditions, though, we don't know what will happen."
Rooms Filled with Cuban Masters
At the Figueroa family home, rooms that used to be bedrooms are now filled with art. "Everything, including my room, became an art space," said Figueroa, recalling a childhood surrounded by masterpieces. "I have a picture of my bedroom from the 1990s with stuffed animals on my bed and hanging behind me, a painting from one of the Cuban masters."
A Kaleidoscope of Color
While the focal center of Fuster’s work is his home, Taller-Estudio Jose Fuster, the entire neighborhood has become a kaleidoscope of intricate mosaics and sculpture. Tourists regularly arrive to wander and take it all in. Fuster, who is still alive, also sells signed, original artwork from his studio.
Far Reaching Ramifications
Two and a half hours outside Havana, Vinales is a small, picturesque town where the streets are lined by colorful colonial-era wooden houses. The region, lush and green and marked by striking limestone mountains reminiscent of those in Vietnam's Halong Bay, is a popular tourist attraction, serving as a gateway to the Sierra de los Organos mountains and the Vinales Valley.
It's also an area where pastoral Cuban life is on full display, with numerous farms and tobacco plantations. Even this far outside of Havana, local business owners are feeling the impacts of the Trump administration's travel policies. Over lunch, a local restaurant owner who once regularly received busloads of cruise ship visitors now has no more bookings from such guests and is contemplating closing her business.
San Rafael Street
Around 7:30 each evening, just as the sun is setting, San Rafael Street in central Havana becomes a hive of commerce and activity, as trucks arrive from the countryside filled with produce. Local, small vendors or other business owners descend en masse to buy whatever they can.
A Market on the Streets
For an outsider, the buzz of activity on San Rafael Street if fascinating, providing a glimpse of everyday life that's not part of a typical tourist itinerary.
During the course of five days in Cuba, I spoke with people from all walks of life, learning in great detail about what it means to be a Cuban restaurant owner, fashion designer, photographer and more. I wandered the streets of Havana and had heartwarming interactions with people young and old. I also enjoyed meals and conversations I won't soon forget. Traveling on a support for the Cuban people tour was fascinating and eye-opening. In fact, it is exactly how I prefer travel to be - meaningful, engaging and educational, offering an opportunity to explore a destination deeply and truly connect with the people and the country I am visiting.