An Open Letter to Americans Traveling to Cuba on People-to-People tours

Graham Sowa 

Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, March 25 — My dear compatriot: Recently we have been receiving several visits a week from People-to-People exchange tours at the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana, Cuba.  As the number of these tours is likely to increase I’d like to say a few words to those of you making the trip across the Straits of Florida.

I am delighted that you have decided to visit Cuba.  I know it wasn’t easy to make the decision to come here, and some of your friends might have looked at you funny when you told them where you were going.  I also know that the trip didn’t come cheap.  But despite those obstacles you are on your way.

Because of current travel restrictions to the island you are probably coming on a specific travel license that allows People-to-People exchanges.  I also have to use a travel license to make my journey home from Cuba.

Likewise, Cubans must also get permission from their government to travel outside their country.  My point is that all of us coming and going from Cuba have restrictions imposed from one side or another.  Keep this in mind as the first of many areas of solidarity you can use to relate to your Cuban hosts.

When you arrive to Havana and board the tour bus you will be embarking on a busy and somewhat rigid schedule.  I encourage you to keep two things in mind:

The first is that the United States State Department continues to forbid “tourism” to Cuba.  Therefore your travel provider, in cooperation with a Cuban government travel company, has gone to great lengths to abide by these rules to avoid legal problems for everyone involved, especially you.  This is done by scheduling your time around cultural exchanges and informational tours while avoiding “touristy” things like mojitos on the beach.

The second thing you need to remain cognizant of is that your Cuban tour guides are paid to give you a tour of their country.  No one wants to talk badly about their home to strangers.  Would you expect to go on a group tour of Washington D.C. and the guide say something like “this is the White House, it is the home base of an evil empire perpetuating capitalist globalization”?  No, you would not hear that from your tour guide.  Similarly expect your Cuban tour guide to be respectful and proud of their country.

Photo: Caridad

Now, my dear compatriot, I fear I may have you worried.  You might be questioning whether or not you should come to Cuba if you are not going to be able to get a “down to earth” or “real life” experience of the Cuban situation.

So to lay those fears and frets at ease I will offer a few ways you can make your highly regulated trip a bit more…free.  (At least in spirit if not actually cost.)

– Get to know your guide right away by asking them about their family.  Tour guides will spend 20 hours a day, or more, working for you the entire time you are in Cuba.  That means they won’t be around their family.  Show them you recognize that.

– Ask people in the tourist industry where they work when they are not giving tours.  You are likely to meet an engineer, a linguist, or a professor.  You might find someone who has the same profession you have back home.  Don’t be afraid to “talk-shop” while on vacation.

– Buy people drinks.  Don’t be afraid of getting into a conversation with a stranger.  Remember that even if it is boring or difficult to communicate your busy travel schedule will pull you away soon enough.  Use this to your advantage and be outgoing without fear of getting bogged down for the whole day or night talking with the same person.

– Sneak away.  You need to do this without making the bus wait on you so as to be respectful to the other guests and the host.  One way around this is to excuse yourself to go to the bathroom and then show up on schedule when the bus is supposed to pull away.  This will give you a chance to get away from the group for an hour or two without having to make them look for you.  Remember forgiveness comes easier than permission.

– Tip.  Tip.  Tip.  I don’t know why we Americans assume no one needs a tip outside of our country.  Some people working in the Cuban tourist industry had to pay money to get their job.  The only way they put food on the table is with your Convertible Pesos.  Tip.

So, fellow American, I hope after reading this you have some ideas on how to get the most out of your trip to Cuba.  If you find yourself frustrated try to remember the context that you are traveling in is highly regulated, mostly from our government.   Perhaps use that frustration back home by expressing your concerns about travel regulation to Cuba with your elected officials.

I will close with an invitation.  If you find yourself at the Latin American School of Medicine ask to go to the bathroom as soon as you arrive.  If you see a tall, lanky guy with an American flag sewn onto his coat sleeve at the top of the stairs ask for a personalized tour of the campus.  I’ll make sure to get you back to the bus on time.

Happy trails!


Graham Sowa: I've been living in Cuba for three years now. I would like to blame my obvious hair loss seen in this updated photo on the rigors of life here and medical school, but it is probably just genetic. I've made some of the strongest friendships during my time in Cuba from other writers on this website. The strength of those friendships has almost restored my faith that the online world can lead to offline and real life change. On that same note I've adjusted to using internet one or two hours a month. In the meantime I have rediscovered things like flipping through the pages of books, writing stuff down by hand, and having to admit that I don't know something instead of rapidly looking up the answer on Google while the teacher isn't looking.

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10 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Americans Traveling to Cuba on People-to-People tours

  • Graham, Hi, are you still living in Cuba?

    Email me at [email protected] if you are still in Cuba, because we are planning to live in Cuba by 2016. We are just fixes somethings in Florida and saving money, but confirm we are leaving to live in Cuba.
    Always Eli.

  • why not remove the embargo in parts, say 10-15% a year, would that help not damage or destroy
    the wonderful culture of Cuba ?

    same for the visa permits, do it a bit at a time

    i fear if the doors are wide open it will all be a big Wal Mart and loose all the wonderful culture and

  • Graham – Just spent 5 days in Cuba. One facinating trip. learned that about 90% of which both countries are talking about is self serving. Cuba is better off then Mexico and they really don’t need U.S. trade to function, it might be easier, but what does convenience have to do with anything.
    More later, keep in touch

  • Graham – Stumbled on to this page,while looking for background on present day Cuba.
    We will be in Havana on a Friendly Planet P-P tour second week in June. Can’t wait, have said for years that as soon as it is legal for U.S. citizen to go there, I would be on next plane!! :-))
    Can anyone tell me if it is O.K. for American tourists to use public transit along the Malecon and get to the Ferries Landing for a short trip across the Harbor to Regla? Would like to do this in the early evening.
    Is it possible to hire a guide for certain evenings to venture out from tour Hotel, do not want to upset any protocol or restrictions from Cuba government. I’m a 76 year old retired plumber on probably my last adventure and want to see as much as possible. TIA Chuck Bailey

  • Graham, I think your article is spot-on. I spent almost five months in Cuba a few years back, and have since, been back twice… just to gozar en la habana instead of llorando here in yumaland, if you will. Cuba is an incredible place, but more than La Habana Vieja and old cars/churches/music, there exists so much more and I think you captured that in your writing. You emphasize that many Cubans (yes- especially tour guides!) have a real life and probably a very educated one at that, one that has afforded them the opportunity to work with skeptical foreigners who want to know “all the truths about Cuba and the Castro regime”– something I have been asked too many times to count.

    …On a different note, props to being a student at ELAM. I have a good friend who’s in his 3rd year and loving it. I think it’s great that American young people are being taught the value of being a good PERSON while being a good DOCTOR.

  • Perhaps the best thing to happen to Cuba as result of the blockade ,is that Cuban culture hasn’t been overwhelmed by American popular culture…imagine local businesses being swamped by the big money of a Mcdonalds or a Starbucks at every corner catering to hordes of American tourists….large numbers of American tourists now coming to Cuba have resulted in confirmed bookings for European tourists being cancelled in favour of Americans….that is a tragedy….Cubans shouldn’t forget who supported tourism and thus their economy when times were difficult…yes Cuba is still a great place to visit and partake of its culture ….but the times ,they are achanging…

  • There are already class inequalities in Cuba. I hope, however, that we Cubans find a way to protect the country from becoming the United States’ playground again. We will need some serious law enforcement to keep things under control once political change eventually takes place.

    I look forward to going back to Cuba after having lived here in the States for 12 years now. Some times I would like to go back real soon. Being away from my homeland has come at a very high personal cost and the grass was not that green on this other side of the fence…

  • I majored in Spanish in college. Upon graduation, my father’s advise to me was this: Go to Las Vegas. Become a black jack dealer. Move your way up to pit boss, etc. Then when the embargos are finally lifted on Cuba, you’ll be a fluent Spanish-speaking casino manager, and will get to move to Havana.

  • I traveled to Cuba on my honeymoon about 16 years ago. It was a beautiful, if not second or third world country with foreign-owned 4-star resorts mixed in. Since we were in resorts, and didn’t speak the language well, we were relegated to expensive, sub-par food and lousy service. Tipping didn’t seem to have any effect and I was left to assume that the service people did not actually get their tips. Is this not true?

    I would love to go back (now that my Spanish is better and I’ve become a more experienced traveller. But I want to eat locally. Hope I get to go soon.

    And for those who haven’t been there, I highly recommend going now before the US and Cuba resume normal relations and the whole island turns into America’s playground (along with crime, poverty and class inequality).

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