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Cuba - Real and Raw

By Diane Meader Leibinger

green car in Havana

The Reality

Yes, you can still travel to Cuba! The Cuba travel restrictions on June 4, 2019, led many Americans to believe they are no longer able to visit Cuba. While it has become more challenging, there are still ways to visit and culturally immerse yourself in this colorful, vibrant, and friendly country.

For now, it is still a raw, and basically untouched place that will take your breath away as soon as you depart from the airport.

Why Now?

Why is it important is to see Cuba now, before it becomes further “spoiled?” Because the building of new, generic hotels, easier access to the internet, and commercialism are starting to take over and change the uniqueness of this country.

Currently, there is only one McDonalds in all of Cuba (on a U.S. military base) but it will not be long before the proliferation of hotel and fast food chains invade this place that has been frozen in time for the past fifty years. Cuba is crumbling, and captivating, and will not stay this way much longer.

There are already dilapidated, elegant buildings being torn down and replaced with modern hotels to support the influx of tourists.

How Do I Get There?

Forget the huge American cruise ships or large, impersonal People to People tourism groups—they are no longer allowed. My suggestion is to use an experienced and trusted travel agency specializing in cultural visits for small intimate groups and individuals.

They should also be qualified in organizing the entry visa and legal certification required for Cuba.

What to Expect?

It can be challenging to travel to Cuba on your own. To ensure a worry-free trip that offers a true Cuban experience, use a seasoned tour operator—one that offers options such as the opportunity to stay in private homes and visit family-owned businesses, restaurants, and charities.

Transportation for getting around is also an important consideration for your overall Cuban experience. Be sure to ask about options. Wouldn’t you rather be cruising around in a cool, pristine, 1950s air-conditioned or convertible automobile and conversing with a local Cuban driver, than bumping along in a tourist-filled tour bus?

In addition to Asheville’s local agencies, the internet offers the possibility to work with travel companies from all over the U.S., and around the world.

ballet dancers in Cuba

For my trip to Cuba, I used a travel agency based in Florida and flew from Raleigh, NC. I easily connected up in Havana with my travel group who arrived from various U.S. cities. The key is to find a travel company that offers the kind of experience you are looking for.

Photographer’s Paradise

The trip I took was a collaborative effort with Your Cuba Travel and Hunt’s Photo Education. They offer a unique photography and cultural—off the beaten path— adventure with the `Cuba Real and Raw’ trip.

It was a rare opportunity to stay in private homes, interact with locals, and learn directly from them about their history, work, and daily life—all while enhancing my photography skills.

Exploring Cuba’s Raw Beauty

The cities in Cuba are rich with history. The weathered buildings and old, classic cars make a visit to Havana feel like an experience of traveling back in time.

In the early twentieth century the Cuban capital was a spectacularly rich, elegant city filled with colonial buildings and stately homes—influenced by art nouveau, art deco, and eclectic design. Now, in varying states of decay, Havana is a city-photographer’s paradise.

Trinidad is a traveler’s delight with horse drawn carriages, cobblestone streets, and a distinct village feel.


Cubans are gregarious, happy, hospitable, outgoing, and vivacious. They like foreigners and have a great sense of humor. They are hardworking, yet love to have fun, dance, and play their music! It was a humbling experience to have these wonderful people so open and happy to spontaneously pose for their photos to be taken.

Cigar maker at work


With vehicles hard to come by and difficult to afford, horses and farm animals are the main mode of transportation. Imagine a weathered-faced farmer methodically tilling his field with a sturdy pair of oxen as the sun sets; a proud Cuban cowboy transporting local residents around in a horse-drawn, rickety wooden cart on a dirt road; a tobacco farmer proudly demonstrating the traditional method for growing tobacco, and making cigars in the same manner as his family has done for hundreds of years. These are only a few examples of the memories I have.

Follow Your Dream

It was important for me to experience true Cuba—to see and photograph the classic cars, visit little-known places, and attend events most large tour groups are unable to go.

With two professional photographers from Hunts Photo and the logistics team from Your Cuba Travel, we were able to improve our photography skills while experiencing and learning about Cuba’s history, people and culture.

There were numerous opportunities to enjoy laughter and meaningful conversations between travelers and the Cuban people. Throughout the trip, we had in-depth discussions with our hosts while staying and dining in their immaculate homes. We talked with our taxi drivers while driving around in their 1950s pristine cars, as well as many farmers, ranchers, and small business owners along the way.

A sign of the times on how Cuba is already changing is that many of us are now staying connected on Facebook and Instagram. Social media allows us the ongoing opportunity to experience and understand everyday life in each of our countries.

Lessons Learned

Do not hesitate to travel to Cuba. The people are incredibly open and welcoming to Americans. While they may lack material goods, they are abundant in the creativity of maintaining their vehicles, appliances and homes.

Cuba is a living museum of time, offering a continuous festival of color and music for the eyes and ears.

Bring a camera and smartphone for taking photos (Due to internet connectivity you will most likely have to wait until you return to post on Instagram and Facebook.) Document your trip by taking lots of photos—there is so much to see. Don’t be afraid to ask for permission to photograph people. Their faces tell such stories.

Pack items such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo/crème rinse, hand lotion, and hard candies to give away as a “Thank You” for taking their photograph. The simple household items we take for granted are practically non-existent in Cuba, and are gratefully appreciated.

Use a travel agency that is experienced with rules for traveling to Cuba and is able to organize and submit all the necessary documents for you to enter and leave the country.

Now is the time to Dream. Travel. Discover.

U.S. Department of The Treasury (Click the top link for Frequently Asked Questions on Changes to the Cuba Sanctions Program as of June 4, 2019)

Diane Meader Leibinger is a freelance travel writer and photographer located in Asheville, NC and Basel, Switzerland. Contact her at

Dream. Travel. Discover.

Instagram: dianestravelheart


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