I had been to Cuba in 2002, and I was eager to see how it had changed and talk to locals about what was happening. One thing that hasn’t changed is that there still really are two Cubas: that of ordinary Cubans and that of travelers and employees of foreign companies. We visited the shops where Cubans get their monthly allowances of staples such as beans, rice, eggs, and chicken. Typical Cubans make $15 to $40 per month, quite a disparity from the wealth of visiting travelers.
In the past, tourists were steered toward government-owned restaurants and hotels. Now there is more tolerance for casas particulares, private guesthouses like Señora Xiomara’s, near Plaza Vieja, where Joe and I stayed, and paladares, private restaurants like Doña Eutimia, where we enjoyed delicious ropa vieja (meat stew).
Life for Cubans is changing in exciting ways. We met a restaurant manager who is one of the country’s new entrepreneurs. The government is loosening restrictions on private businesses, and this man and his wife had just opened a yoga studio and bought another home to rent out to travelers. “The influx of American travelers is going to provide enormous opportunities for our people,” he said. “We have some skepticism about what our government will allow, but it is hard to see how this will not lead to long-term and fundamental changes throughout our country.”
I would encourage any traveler to visit Cuba, but I don’t think you need to rush to catch it before “everything changes.” For one thing, Cuba, like any destination, is always changing. For another, practical challenges remain for travelers from the United States. I recommend booking through experienced travel advisors, such as Lauren Maggard from our Travel Advisory Council (firstname.lastname@example.org), who can help navigate the myriad issues that you wouldn’t face in most other destinations.
Change will not happen overnight. But there is a sense that a new era is beginning. I can’t wait to see what Cuba becomes.