Earlier this summer I was enjoying an “Americano” coffee at my new favourite Havana cafe, Dandy’s, when I overheard a couple of distinctive American accents emanating from the table nearby. The two young ladies (I guessed they were New Yorkers) were discussing souvenirs to bring back home. Since I had never really heard American accents from young tourists in all of my years traveling to Cuba, I decided to ask them how they were enjoying their trip. “Fantastic” they replied. “What a great country!”
“So what have you been doing”, I asked? “Well, we have been here for ten days and we have been to Vinales, Ceinfeugos, spent a lot of time in Havana, gone to the Tropicana, seen Hemingway’s house, had mojitos on the lawns of the Hotel Nacional, went to the Gran Teatro, did a classic taxi tour,…” and on and on they went.
“Terrific. Where are you staying (thinking they would say a hotel, for some reason). “We are staying at a great casa particulare. Just down the block from here”.
“Wow!” I said. “You did a really terrific job. You hit many of the high points your first time out. How did you possibly organize all of this?”
“ Oh, she has a friend in New York who specializes in trips to Cuba. Here, we’ll give you his contact info.”
Evidently, virtually overnight, a burgeoning cottage industry of tour agencies specializing in customized trips to Cuba for Americans has sprung up throughout the U.S.
While a quick tour of the Internet reveals there are many related agencies, such as insightCuba and Kirkland Cubatours, in these young ladies’ case, it was Brooklyn-based BPH Cuba Travel Consulting.
Founded by an experienced travel expert, Brady Hiatt, shortly after U.S. President’s Barrack Obama’s historical announcement in December 2014, Hiatt has quickly built up a network of services and activities to satisfy everyone from the adventurous or carefree traveller to the most discerning art collector or gourmand. Hiatt and his team can hook you up!
But wait a minute. How does a young man based in Brooklyn who technically has not even been able to legally travel to Cuba until about eighteen months ago become such an expert on the island?
Hiatt, however, is no slouch in the travel industry. Working first from Washington, D.C. and then moving to New York City, he spent three years working for companies that handled Cuban-focused affiliate travel for museums, universities and corporations. Prior to Obama’s announcement, these types of trips for American groups required complicated paperwork and licenses to be filed in both countries for aspiring participants. Following Obama’s announcement, though, suddenly these trips became much easier to coordinate which on one hand, eliminated Hiatt’s employment role but, on the other hand, opened up a niche customized travel consulting opportunity for someone with his vast Cuban experience. With this dream in mind and an invaluable associate in Orta Cedeño, he decided to “hang up his shingle.”
Prospective clients of BPH Cuba Travel Consulting are first asked to choose what type of “travel experience” they are looking for: Custom– which includes access to a guide and driver; Premium– which enhances the custom service with “several special events (private dinner parties, meetings with Cuban artists and intellectuals”) or Concierge– “for those looking for the absolute best in the way of access, accommodations and fine dining”.
Then upcoming travellers can choose a particular theme that they
might want their trip to focus on such as contemporary art, history architecture, business, natural environment or music and dance.
Next an array of museums, special visits (I personally recommend the one to Hemingway’s house called Finca Vigia), possible day or overnight trips (Vinales is an easy day trip from Havana for example while discovering other major cities in Cuba such as Santiago de Cuba or Trinidad require more time).
Special events can also be arranged – a private dinner party or meetings with experts in the area of economics, business, agriculture, literature, etc. In addition, Hiatt’s Cuban artist roster is extensive as is his list of local restaurants and chefs.
Based on your trip’s overall goals Hiatt’s team is then able give you an estimate on what his services might cost you. All-in customized trips including airfare (from Miami) and accommodations (most likely in a licensed private home) range $2000-$6000 per person depending on your agenda while simple “pre-trip consulting” (probably money well-spent for the uninitiated Cuban traveler) can run at a flat fee of $1000-$2000 regardless of the number of travellers.
Either way, Hiatt’s team will ensure you are well taken care of once your feet hit the Cuban tarmac. And based on the experience of my two cafe companions, they really know what they are doing!
A.J. Twist is a Montreal-based travel writer and photographer who looks forward to drinking more Americanos and meeting more Americanas in Cuba!