Cuba Travel Network has been sending about 70,000 travelers to the Caribbean island annually since 2002. The employees, many of them who grew up in Cuba, know the destination inside and out—and they’ve never been busier as intrigued Americans seek to take advantage of loosened travel restrictions. We turned to founder Eddie Lubbers for his take on the why, where, and how of exploring Havana and beyond.
Tell us some backstory: What’s your connection to Cuba? When and why did you launch Cuba Travel Network?
I fell in love with Old Havana after a personal visit there in 2002. I realized that there was hardly any information about Old Havana and Cuba easily available for travelers, let alone a way to book travel arrangements online. I decided to change that.
What makes Cuba Travel Network’s approach to Cuba travel distinctive and appealing?
On an island where the all-inclusive resort is still the dominant offering, Cuba Travel Network is different. We focus on the rich cultural heritage of Cuba, on interactions with the unique Cuban people, and the island’s natural beauty. Our guests can be fully exposed to all that Cuba has to offer, with the comfort of knowing that one of our concierges is always only a phone call away, almost anywhere on the island.
How have your offerings evolved since the loosening of Cuba travel restriction for Americans?
We have created a range of unique tours specifically designed for the individual traveler who wants to explore Cuba beyond the traditional path. For example, we have solo tours with carefully curated activities ideal for those traveling alone. We also have tours that include destinations within Cuba that are less frequented by travelers, including cities like Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.
As more Americans are clamoring to visit, is it getting more difficult to experience authentic Cuba?
I don’t think so. These are still the early days. Outside of Havana and even within Havana, you will see a country that is absolutely different from anything you have experienced before in the Caribbean. In my opinion, there’s no place quite like Cuba in the world.
AFAR celebrates immersive experiences and getting off the beaten path to connect with locals and their culture. How can Cuba Travel Network make those types of experiences possible?
We actually have a tour dedicated to ‘off the beaten track’ Cuba experiences including jeep expeditions with your private driver/guide across rural roads through spectacular nature. You’ll be able to explore serene country villages at your own pace while also visiting some of the most picturesque colonial cities in Cuba. Along the way, you might stop to hike through forests or swim in rivers and natural pools. Lodging is in smaller hotels and places called casa particulares. These are very similar to homestays. You’ll stay with a Cuban family in their home—a true people-to-people experience.
What advice would you give to an American visiting Cuba for the first time?
Ideally, plan to spend a minimum of 6 days/5 nights. While we certainly recommend visiting splendid Havana, we would suggest adding on to your trip and venturing beyond the capital. Visiting the luscious green tobacco region where Cuban cigars are produced is a must. We would also recommend exploring the most beautiful colonial city on the island, Trinidad. This will definitely give the first-time visitor to Cuba a thorough Cuba experience and, in all probability, a taste for more.
How easy is it to explore beyond Havana and where specifically do you encourage travelers to go to experience another side of Cuban life?
It’s quite easy to explore the island as an individual traveler. Cuba Travel Network organizes private, customizable tours, enabling you to travel seamlessly between destinations and enjoy privately guided excursions. See also my reply above!
What are some common misconceptions that people may have about visiting Cuba?
Health and safety concerns! And there is definitely no need: Most visits to Cuba are trouble-free; crime levels are low; and any crime we do have mainly consists of opportunistic theft. When participating in organized travel (e.g. tours, transfers), the vehicles are in good condition and all the drivers and guides are officially licensed by the state. In about 95% of the hotels in Cuba, a doctor is present to provide primary care to patients if needed. Additionally, there are eight international clinics offering specialized treatments. And last but not least, there’s a low threat of terrorism.
Are there still challenges specific to travel to Cuba? And how does Cuba Travel Network assist in making its travelers feel at ease?
More than anything, it’s the unknown that’s the main obstacle. First-time visitors do not know where to start—how to travel to Cuba from the U.S. legally as an individual traveler, how to organize flights, transportation, accommodation, and so on.
We have a dedicated sales office in New York City with a team of experts to assist you with the whole planning process. They’ll work with you to craft an itinerary highly customized to your interests. Once in Cuba, you’re also in good hands. We have a team of English-speaking on-the-ground representatives to help you throughout your stay in Cuba, and we offer concierge service in Havana should you need any last-minute suggests or reservations.
Any favorite experiences or destinations in Cuba that you personally recommend?
For a stunning view of the city, visit the top of the Bacardi Building in Old Havana. The guard may let you take the elevator to the top and then you walk up a tiny staircase. The view from the top is breathtaking and iconic. Another place I’d recommend is the Santy in Jaimanitas for delicious fresh fish served in a rustic setting. I’d also suggest an early morning or late afternoon walk along the Malecon all the way to 5th Avenue in Miramar.