Published on November 9th, 2015 | by Mark Chesnut
“My Cuba” — Sonia Laguna of Just 90 Miles Shares Personal Cuba Travel Tips
Cuba has been making headlines in recent months, thanks to evolving travel guidelines and thawing government relations between the U.S. and Cuban government. Among the people keeping a close watch on this is Sonia Laguna, founder and CEO of Just 90 Miles, a company that offers U.S. State Department-approved tours to Cuba. In this exclusive interview with LatinFlyer.com, she shares her personal affection for the island and insider Cuba travel tips — including how to visit, where to stay, what to be prepared for, delicious Cuban food and the best travel experiences.
What’s your personal connection with Cuba?
I left Cuba with my parents at the age of nine to the U.S., where I grew up and went to college. As an adult I have spent half of my life in the U.S. and the other half in Chile. When I visited my homeland for the first time in 2009, I fell at home and fell in love immediately with this amazing country. There are many fine companies selling travel to Cuba, now with the thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba, but few of them have the personal ties to Cuba that I bring.
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How do you keep up with increased demand for travel to Cuba?
Keeping up with the increased demand has been a challenging endeavor; especially securing superior class accommodation. The increase in demand, combined with the limited hotel inventory in Havana, have hotel capacity often sold out and a hold placed on new reservations until the end of March. Just 90 Miles has been able to cope with the challenge by offering our guests the option of accommodation at licensed high-end private homes or Bed and Breakfasts. We have been able to secure a group of homes that have been 100% remodeled and ready to receive tourists, including private bathroom, safes, TV and small refrigerators, as well as home-cooked breakfast and other meals.
Our team in Cuba is working personally with hotel managers, paladares/restaurant and house owners to guarantee availability for our groups. It is very important to have reliable people to work with during those challenging times — and we have them, thanks to my personal contacts and my talented team.
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What types of travelers are the best fit for travel to Cuba right now?
In today’s environment, the best appropriate traveler to Cuba is an adventurous, early adopter traveler. People that are interested in seeing first-hand the reality of Cuba today and want to participate in activities that are intended to enhance meaningful interaction with the Cuban people.
Many of our travelers say that Cuba was on their “bucket list” — a place they have long wanted to visit. Given the recent change in U.S./Cuba relations that allows U.S. citizens to legally travel to Cuba, they wanted to be among the first to experience the long-prohibited island before things change and modernize with the influence of the U.S.
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Visiting Cuba is still very different from visiting destinations like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico or Mexico. What are the biggest differences that travelers need to be prepared for?
Travelers going to Cuba should expect adventure, contrast, and a fascinating country like no other; that combines old and new. A country that is fixed in time with old buildings and cars from the 1950’s, yet in an avant-garde society engaged in a ferment of art, music, dance, religion and culture.
One of the differences that travelers need to be prepared to encounter when visiting is adjusting to not being connected to the Internet 100% of the time. At first it will be difficult, but as you get caught up in the magic of Cuba it becomes less and less important.
The first two days you will try to connect at a hotel that provides the service or in the streets in one of the newly created public hotspots, but as you become immersed in the Cuban experience, connectivity loses its importance and travelers happily adjust to the circumstances. Although internet access is still very limited, if you need to connect, today it is even easier and less expensive than just nine months ago. Most hotels offer wireless service and Cuba’s telecommunications company Etecsa has activated may hot spots around the island. And if you are a Verizon customer, you can activate international roaming.
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Do you think that travelers who visit Cuba now will have a very different experience than if they wait a year or two?
I believe that changes in the island started a couple of years ago, with the government creation of cuenta propistas or privately owned small businesses, private internet email accounts, and the (admittedly slow) growth of internet access.
Cuba’s newly emerging private sector is impacting the growing tourist industry, offering an array of much need services: lodging, transport, restaurants. And at the same time as tourism grows, the private sector grows and innovates, and change will occur.
I was in Cuba on December 17 when President Obama announced the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. Since then I have traveledl to Cuba every month and have seen gradual changes. The increased numbers of U.S. citizens walking in Havana have already started producing change!
That is one of the reasons so many people are rushing to travel now, to discover this mystical touristic paradise in the Caribbean, before it becomes too “American.” A tourist coming to Cuba now will witness an island that was isolated for more than 50 years, and its rapid effort to try to modernize.
What are a couple of your own favorite personal things that you like when visiting Cuba?
I offer a tour, Sonia’s Favorites Places – Food, Music, Art , Rum, Cigars and Classic Cars, which highlights my favorite places. We will eat at some of the best paladares — private home restaurants in Havana, including Santys, Vista Mar and el Mediterraneo. Enjoy guava Mojitos and watermelon Daiquiris and see the sun set in the Cuban skyline from the terrace of El Cocinero and La Guarida. Dance with Cuba’s most popular groups like Habana de Primera in La Casa de la Musica of Miramar and enjoy jazz at the Magic Flute. Finally, experience my insider’s view of tobacco growing, cigar making and rum distilling in the beautiful Vinales Valley.
As a special treat, we’ll be driven to dinner on our first evening in a fleet of fully restored classic convertibles from the 1950s, to enjoy the fragrant evening air and a touch of the golden era of the automobile and finally we will enjoy Cuban Art, visiting artist studios of emerging and well-established artists; and we’ve not forgotten the legendary Ernest Hemingway, who loved Cuba, by visiting his former home, now the Finca de la Vigia Museum, and touring the harbor in Cojimar that inspired his novel The Old Man and the Sea.
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What Cuban food is absolutely a must-try for first-time visitors?
Cuba’s emerging private restaurant sector has given birth to an innovative renewal of traditional Cuban cuisine. To start, I recommend fish ceviche, malangitas fritas with honey or octopus; for main dishes a traditional ropa vieja, lechon asado with yuca con mojo, grilled lobster or the catch of the day, accompanied by white rice and black beans or puré de camote or malanga with mojo. And leave a small space for desserts: guava cheesecake, tres leches, flan or chocolate gnash.
It is important to highlight that most of the ingredients used in Cuban cuisine are natural, organic or non-trans-fat. Produce is grown without chemical fertilizers, and animals are grass fed. You will be able to taste authentic flavors of everything you eat!