Patricia is a member of Knocking on Cuba, a group of individuals affiliated to the University of Havana who help tourists make the most of Cuba.
Tell us more about yourself and your team, who are you guys?
I am Patricia. In order of importance: I am a mom, an economist and an entrepreneur. I’ve been experiencing the unbelievable sensation of motherhood for 10 months now, so I cannot help but talk about it, because right now it’s the inspiration to everything that I do.
With my husband, we are co-founders of Knocking On Cuba. Knocking on Cuba is a group of young professionals with links to the University of Havana. We started off working on accommodation for tourists by helping our friends and family rent out their places on Airbnb. This is known as property management in the rest of the world, but it was new in Cuba when we started.
We’ve now expanded to all things tourism: helping plan itineraries, tourism experiences on Airbnb and city tours. Our tours aren’t your typical tours: we are actively trying to bring tourists closer to the Cuban reality, which is often quite far from theirs.
Knocking on Cuba has grown become a sort of hub of opportunity for young professionals from the University of Havana. It has allowed us to put into practice our knowledge, in a relatively “virgin” area (property management in Cuba). It is a way of making extra-income, but has become a personal and professional way of self-realisation, making friends and gaining financial autonomy.
But also we are contributing to make a country that is closer to our expectations. Meanwhile, we’ve stayed true to our roots as academics, teaching young professionals at the University of Havana.
Tell us about what your team does?
Understanding the uniqueness of Cuba is hard, specially if someone is visiting for only a few days. All of our experiences aim to show visitors how Cubans live in everyday life, experiences a bit hard to grasp for a tourist that arrives with the obsession of riding in an old convertible from the 50s.
How did you start the whole thing? What are the activities you run?
The tours came through Airbnb, we hosted the first Airbnb Experience in Cuba. You can still book it today, it is called: Being Cuban. Since then Our little group has since launched 10 experiences, including:
In both Havana on Foot and Havana Insight we talk about education, health, the characteristics of markets, the restricted economy, the dual currency, the rationing book, and everything our visitors want, without any restriction whatsoever. We also talk politics if the clients wants to. Why is modern Havana from the 1950s? What is the relationship with the US like? We answer questions like these and aim to provide experiences that put Cuban reality into context.
This walking conference we do it through the veins of the city, mostly though Central Havana, taking public transport, eating the “local” ice cream at the Coppelia which most tourists are unable to get.
Life in the countryside is the same goal, but showing life out of Havana. We go into a cave, full of bats with flashlights. Makes it interesting and fun. There’s a river ,animals in the farm, a family there shows us their lives, shares with us their coffee. The lunch is fish that was fished right there. Many people feel its a highlight of their trip. Plus, as it’s a nearly 2 hour drive to the village in Pinar del Rio called San Diego de los Baños, we have ample time to chat with the clients.
Being Cuban is an Airbnb Experience which is bigger, has more activities, and is longer than a day. Basically, it is almost a combination of Havana on Foot with activity in the countryside. We also do something fun at night, go to a bar or cabaret where you can drink, dance and have fun. You got to know Cuban society, meet people, now you come dance and have fun.
Havana pub crawling is an experience to get to know the nightlife of the city, you will go to at least 3 bars.
Afro-Cuban culture guide, where you get to know the AfroCaribbean culture of Cuba. The religion. The music, the food. Very relevant topic in Cuba, as afro caribbean religion plays a big part. This has a lot of American interest, mostly African Americans.
Another kitchen experience, Cuban flavours, to teach people about food with an excellent chef.
Another person who organises fishing along the Malecon, which has super interesting to add to our package of experiences.
Are there any new experiences/activities coming up?
New experiences: there always will be. We have new ideas, many things in mind. We don’t want to give everything away, as it should be a surprise.
We are now thinking about the Cuban woman, something that enhances the role of the woman in history, with a focus on gender. This is important, as there have been many women in the history of Cuba who have had an impact. The guides will be Cuban women as well, entrepreneurs and mothers who have various roles.
How have things (in Cuba/ in tourism) changed since you started?
There’s definitely been a change. Trump has been a change. Obama was also a change, towards the expansion of tourism. But also policies in Cuba since 2010 have been pushing towards more liberalised cuentapropista work (the ability to work for yourself). But Trump’s policy changes have made Americans scared of coming here, not so much because of the policy itself, but rather because of the media impact they made. That, and the hurricanes Irma and Maria have caused a decline in tourism.
Updated: June 2019 In June 2019, the Trump administration imposed the newest travel restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba. America…
What do you think is lacking in the tourism industry in Cuba?
The industry is lacking the same things and faces the same problems as Cuban society: bad transportation connections, bad internet connection (although it has improved compared to 3 years ago). Not that long ago 3G was started. But still, we are limited in connectivity. On the other hand, we are also lacking basic products in markets. Beer, bottled water. Things people are not used to going without. It might scare a few visitors away.
What are some unique challenges of doing what you do in Cuba ?
The main challenge for Cuba as a society, but specially tourism, has to do with the bloqueo. The simplest thing in the world for an entrepreneur out of Cuba, such as having an international bank account, a debit or credit card or the ability to charge credit cards, is impossible for us. In tourism this makes it harder for you to compete, as you cannot get certain channel managers or booking platform. So then you have to invent stuff, find someone who can do it outside of Cuba, who of course wants money for it, so Cuba ends up being a more expensive destination for international visitors.
Many people are passionate about travelling, but have to travel on a budget. Money doesn’t grow on trees after all!…
What places (restaurants/locations/activities) do you think are overrated by tourists?
I think many people would agree that one of the most overrated places is La Guarida restaurant. It is overrated as a restaurant, however it is lucky to represent what it does, being the location of one of the most famous Cuban films of all time, Fresa y Chocolate. It deserves a visit if you liked the film and are interested in its history, but as a restaurant it is overrated.
What places (restaurants/locations/activities) do you think are underrated by tourists?
Hard question, it’s obviously very personal and is tainted by my personal preferences. Many tourists go the cannon shots, casa de la musica, for Varadero, but some beautiful places are ignored, like Canasi (just before Matanzas), which we joke that hasn’t been discovered by foreigner.It is a mix of rivers and coasts. Other sites, which are not touristy at all, like the Coppelia ice-cream, which is an experience. A perfect way to understand the market logic of Cuba. Makes you think about economics. Getting an ice-cream in Cuba is actually a hands on lesson in economics!
Also, lets not forget the Havana malecon, which is a great spot to sit and drink. Just relax, soak in atmosphere and enjoy.
The tourist cliche is Cuba as the land of “tobacco, rum, salsa, and sun”. How is Cuba more than that?
Cuba is a lot more than that! But that’s the marketing image…
From my point of view, what’s the difference between Cuba and other Caribbean destinations or in Latin America? Costa Rica, Bahamas? Having travelled a bit, I think it’s the spirit of the people.
Maybe the historical circumstances have caused this, but there is something that you can only really pick up if you have spent significant time here (or as a Cuban, significant time abroad). You feel like the distance between neighbours, friends is a lot larger in other countries than it is in Cuba.Many tourists pick up on this, and this keeps them hooked and keeps coming back.
Every language, aside from its formal part, has a generous number of words and phrases you will not be taught…